Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'm bringing sexist back

Roll on the new term. It's pretty dull filling eight-hour days when you have absolutely nothing to do, which is why I've been blogging so prolifically of late.

Today is the last day of the fiscal and academic year. The Japanese public sector seems to love a reshuffle, so as of tomorrow quite a few of the staff here will switch. A similar thing happens at the schools; with only a couple of week's notice teachers are told where they will be working for the next two-plus years (you seem to enjoy reshuffle immunity for a year following a transfer), which could theoretically be a three-hour commute away at the other end of the prefecture. As I have opined before, Japanese teachers have to put up with a lot of shit. I have already learned of the departure of a couple of teachers that I had built up good relationships with, which got me down a little.

These line-up changes are of course accompanied by welcome parties, so I will soon experience another round of 'nomunication' (nomu means 'to drink'; this is a very old joke but it always gets a good reaction when it comes out of my mouth). Also, while JET works according to the Western academic year, the other agencies are turning over their employees now, so there will be fresh gaijin to welcome too.

After that, hanami (flower viewing) will soon be upon us. I continue to be surprised at how crazy Japanese people are about sakura (cherry blossom). To most people, the flowers seem to symbolise Japan even more than rising sun flag or Mt Fuji. All the Japanese beers have decorated their cans with pink flowers, which perhaps hints at the real reason for the excitement around hanami: by all accounts, it's a huge piss-up. As I understand it, it is one of the few occasions where it is perfectly acceptable to sit in a park boozing and eating from morning until sunset. There is even a Japanese saying capturing this sentiment: hana yori dango, meaning "dumplings rather than flowers". There is an official list of the 100 most beautiful spots in Japan at which to enjoy hanami, and wouldn't you know it, one of them is in Akayu, within staggering distance of my house. So, all in all, April is shaping up to be quite a boozy month.

Anyway, Adrianna asked about sexism in Japan, so I intend to kill some time today by offering my thoughts on that issue.

Is Japan sexist? On the face of it, no. Women are allowed to do everything that men are, with a few exceptions regarding ancient rituals; they cannot, for example, step inside a sumo ring, or participate in the 'Naked Man Festival'. Yes, some capsule hotels are men-only, but I would say this is for practical reasons. Capsule hotels are primarily aimed at drunk salarymen, the overwhelming majority of these are men, it wouldn't be considered proper (probably even in the West) to have men and women sleeping in the same room, so if space is limited you're just going to make your hotel men-only. There doesn't seem to be so much in the way of discrimination law for businesses here; onsens and gyms will routinely deny entrance to anyone with tattoos, since Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) members typically have ink. I've heard of places (usually in the sex industry) that refuse to serve foreigners. As a libertarian, I of course support their right to do this.

As an aside, the Japanese language is quite gender neutral. While the English honorific prefixes for names denote not just sex but also marital status in the case of women, -san and -sensei can be equally applied to men and women. The more informal terms are somewhat gender-coloured, with -kun usually used for men and -chan for women, but even these are somewhat flexible, so a female colleague or drinking buddy could be called kun, and a male to whom you feel particular affection could be chan. However, the language used by men and women differs to an unusual degree in Japanese, with women typically being more polite. So, the general polite word for 'me', 'myself' or 'I' is watashi, but a man will use boku in a more informal setting, or possibly go as far as the somewhat salty ore. Women will stick with watashi, or atashi if they want to be cute. Women use the honorific prefix o- more frequently, so while I can get away with talking about sake (confusingly, sake is the Japanese word for all alcoholic drinks; nihonshuu is Japanese for sake), a woman would probably soften it to osake.

In more subtle ways, though, I'd say Japan is more sexist than the West. I'm not well-placed to notice these things because a) I can't speak Japanese very well, b) I'm a man, c) I'm pretty dense at picking up subtle undertones in any language and d) I'm a schoolteacher, which is a profession with an unusual level of equality between the sexes.

For a start, in all of my schools, and at city hall, the principal/president and second-in-command are invariably male, and the admin staff are all female. Still, correlation does not imply causation, and this categorically does not prove that discrimination is afoot, as I am always at pains to point out to feminists. However, I have noticed that if work colleagues go to an izakaya (bar), it will always be a woman who fetches the drinks and handles ordering the food, regardless of how many male employees of equal status are present. In a similar vein, an ALT friend of mine told me about a time when some visitor came to her school and the secretary was away, so she was instructed by the principal to make tea for the guest, much to her chagrin.

So, there seems to be a general expectation that women should handle hostess-style tasks. That brings me to hostess bars, which I suppose are evidence of a striking gender asymmetry at the very least. While nothing untoward happens at them, I do find it a little strange that it is completely acceptable for respectable family men to go drinking of an evening with flirty and often provocatively dressed waitresses. I should say that there seems to be a spectrum of snack bars, with the classier ones (usually emplying older hostesses) being more focussed on conversation, while the more downmarket ones have more flesh on display and more wandering hands. I can only understand about 10% of what is said in punter-hostess conversations, but I was recently shocked to hear a man telling his hostess that she was flat-chested. She just shrugged this off with a cutesy pout, suggesting that that kind of banter was normal. Host bars for women do exist, but they are very much the exception that proves the rule - I've never seen one, whereas Akayu's small entertainment district must have at least thirty snack bars.

I'd say there is pressure on women here to be good wives and mothers (and daughters, since caring for your ageing parents is a big deal in the land with the world's longest life expectancies). It seems it is seen as a woman's job to make her husband an elaborate bento (packed lunch) each morning, even if she works too. It's a little difficult to put this in the proper context though, since this is a traditionally-minded region and I think men face a lot of similar pressures to support a family and live the standard Japanese dream. However, I suspect that women get the slightly sharper end of the stick. My favourite example of Japanese sexism is the brutal saying that women are like Christmas cake: very much in demand up to the 24th of December (i.e. 24 years of age), but no-one wants them if they are still on the shelf after the 25th. Single women in their late twenties or beyond do indeed seem to be gossiped about, and my female gaijin friends have told me that they are questioned by colleagues as to the nature of their relationships with any men they are seen with.

So in conclusion, I reckon Japan is maybe two or three decades behind the UK in terms of sexual equality, but it's not like it's Iran or anything. If anyone else has requests for blog topics, bring them on.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

These boots are maid for walking

On monday morning our party disbanded. Two of our number pushed still further west to Hiroshima while myself and my sleeping partner got an early-ish shink to Tokyo. He continued straight back to Yamagata, as he had work the next day. I, on the other had, had taken tuesday and (somewhat unnecessarily) wednesday off, so I intended to spend some time in the capital.

My plan was to get an overnight bus back that night, so my first task was to sort that out. Finding the bus stop wasn't easy (it was about 100m down the street from the vast, many-exited Tokyo Station), and once I located that it wasn't immediately apparent where to buy tickets. I eventually ascertained that this could be done at a nearby 7-11. Japanese combinis (convenience stores) offer a remarkable range of services: you can pay your utility bills there; you can buy tickets to concerts or sporting events; you can even have parcels sent there for you to pick up at your, well, convenience.

Unfortunately the tickets were sold out. It was a holiday monday, and evidently lots of people had the same idea as me. I wasn't unduly concerned, as I had a backup for this contingency: a different, albeit slightly less convenient night bus. This bus left from Shinjuku, on the other side of central Tokyo, so I hopped on a train.

I eventually found the bus ticket office in the world's busiest station, and negotiated the kanji-heavy touchscreen terminal to discover that this bus was also fully booked. Now I had a problem. I grabbed a Coke (in Tokyo, you are never more than five metres from a vending machine) and sat down to consider my options. Of course, I could just get a shink, but after the previous night's fleecing I was feeling even stingier than usual. Besides, that would mean making my already brief time in Tokyo even shorter. No, I thought, while it's not strictly true that 'crisis' and 'opportunity' are the same word in Chinese, I'm going to make the most of this crisitunity. For the same price as a shink, I could stay in a capsule hotel and take a slower form of transport back the next day. I found a capsule hotel that was recommended by both my Tokyo Rough Guide and my Lonely Planet, and reasoned that it must be reasonably good, or at least the best of a bad bunch. However, it was back on the side of Tokyo that I had just come from, and check-in wouldn't be open yet. So, I headed out on foot to nearby Harajuku.

Harajuku, as popularised by Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls, is Japan's capital of youth fashion. There is a railway bridge where cosplayers congregate, and that what I wanted to see. If you don't know, cosplay is a contraction of 'costume play', and is the curiously Japanese pastime of dressing up in a very elaborate outfits and posing. Usually these outfits will be attempts to emulate the outlandish get-ups of anime or game characters, although in Harajuku many people are simply making bold fashion statements. The slightly troubling rorigosu (Lolita Goth) look has been popular in recent years.

I knew that the cosplayers hung out there on sunday, but since this was a holiday monday I was confident that there would still be some luminous hair or ludicrously oversized swords on display. Imagine my disappointment where there wasn't a single cosplayer on the bridge. There were some kids whose garb could be described as impractical, but it was nothing sillier than you would see on a saturday on Cockburn Street.

As I had now killed enough time, and my bag was weighing heavy on my shoulder, I traversed Tokyo once again to check into my capsule hotel in Asakusa. I paid my 3000yen (which was fast becoming the standard price for things on this holiday) and got the key to my capsule. Actually, that's not true. I got the key to a small locker, the capsules being secured by nothing more substantial than a roller blind. The capsule itself was more spacious than I had imagined; at roughly 2x1x1 metres I could comfortably sit up inside it. As there wasn't a whole lot to do inside my windowless chamber, I checked out the facilities of the hotel.

Each floor was single sex; some capsule hotels are completely men-only, but in this one floors seven and eight were devoted to women. Each floor had communal toilet facilities, and on the top floor were showers and a large onsen-style baths. Thoughtfully, a towel and slightly surgical-looking yukata were supplied in the capsule. On the second floor was a single computer for guests' use, and various machines vending food, drink, and mobile phone charging opportunities. The whole place felt a bit like an easyJet flight, in that they were looking to squeeze more money out of you in any way they could. For instance, there was a TV in every capsule, but if you wanted to watch it you had to feed coins into a box. If your tiny locker was not big enough to store your stuff, you could either pay for supplemental secure storage, or leave it in a room that was covered in so many multilingual warnings about this being at your own risk, that it made the activity seem about as safe as tucking into a bacon-and-ale pie in Tehran. However, they did have free Wi-Fi, further demonstrating that every upmarket hotel that charges for this service should feel deeply ashamed of itself.

I made use of the internet access to catch up on my email, and figure out how one gets from Tokyo to Akayu using conventional trains. I also devised the fun game of stealing electricity to charge my Archos, since my capsule did not feature a power socket. I was the techno-ninja, my USB hub was my throwing star, and any unguarded socket was my unsuspecting victim. Top tip: Western-style toilets usually have sockets beside them to accommodate the high-tech heated seat / bidet accessories.

As the sun started to set, I went for a stroll along the banks of the Sumida-gawa, checking out the under-construction Sky Tree and the impressive Asahi building, though this has been slightly ruined for me since someone pointed out that the golden flame sculpture atop it looks a bit like a giant dog turd. Then I got on the subway to head for Akihabara. However, due to a cock-up with a ticket gate while attempting to change lines, and my unwillingness to buy another 160yen (£1.16) ticket on principle, I ended up walking the last couple of kilometres.

While there hadn't been any full-on drunkenness during our time in Osaka or Kyoto, there had been a great deal of casual drinking. Our sole female member set the tone on day one, when she bought a bottle of black coffee (that's a normal thing to do in Japan) and miniature bottles of Kahlua and vodka, drank half of the coffee, and then poured in the liquor. Since then, we had been pretty much unable to walk past a convenience store after lunchtime without popping in to grab some kind of booze. The low point came in Kyoto when I bought a cardboard carton of truly rough sake for 100yen (72p). This might sound like the behaviour of a vagrant, but in our defence I'd say that we all rely on our cars to get around in Yamagata, so we are usually denied the joy of a cheeky lunchtime pint. Thus, on holiday and sans vehicles, the temptation of afternoon boozing is too much to resist.

Yet another facility that Japanese combinis invariably offer is a lavatory. It seems rude to use the toilet without buying anything (there are signs in Japanese that very probably tell you not to do that), so it's very easy to get into a self-perpetuating boozing cycle. I was in just such a loop as I walked towards my destination.

Now, Akihabara gets barely a paragraph in my guidebooks, but as far as I'm concerned you can forget the Imperial Palace; this is Tokyo's number one attraction. Akiba, as the cool kids call it, is also known as 'Electric Town', and is the world capital of otaku culture. If you want anything related to computers, games, electronics, anime or manga, this is the place to get it.

I felt a surge of excitement as the garish neon came into view. I spent about an hour wandering around, with a childlike grin on my face and a can of whisky highball in my hand, just soaking up the atmosphere. I popped into Namco's flagship arcade and after playing some Japanese Guitar Hero knockoff for a while, found the retro section and nostalgically played all the classics of my childhood: Bomberman, Puyo Puyo (aka Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine), Street Fighter 2... good times.

The other conspicuous feature of Akiba is all the girls standing in the street dressed as French maids and handing out flyers. They are promoting maid cafes, a relatively recent innovation in Japan's proud tradition of slightly creepy oddness. These are much more innocent than they sound - the maids generally just serve food and drink in a super cutesy, super subservient way ("Yes, master. Anything for you, master", etc). Some more inventive places have expanded their repertoire to include massage (which is not a euphemism, as it occurs fully clothed) or playing games with the customers, but there really isn't anything more salacious than that going on. (I seem to be defending the honour of Japanese women a lot lately.) This makes marginally more sense when you consider that this country spawned geisha and hostess bars - the notion of paying money just for some charming company is not questioned here. I suppose maid cafes exist to cater for the needs of shy nerds who want female affection but are intimidated by the idea of actual physical intimacy. Sound like anyone you know?

I went to a maid cafe with Danny back in '07, but I chickened out on this occasion. I thought that going alone, and for the second time, would be crossing some kind of line; I would be rapidly slipping down the slope to becoming the kind of guy who goes to maid cafes. So, I contented myself by merely collecting as many flyers as I could, each one being invariably accompanied by a cute "Thank you" in heavily-accented English. My favourite flyer augmented its cuteness with Dali-esque surrealism, featuring photos of a man with a horse's head enjoying the maids' services.

I treated myself to some more sorely-missed international cuisine at a Turkish kebab van that a found. I opted for the 'biggu boi' (big boy), but I'm sorry to say it was about half the size of a small doner from Tony's Fish Bar. This is a problem I've had in other countries; it seems no-one makes kebabs as big as the Brits do.

My feet were really starting to ache from all the walking, so I decided to call it a night. Back in Asakusa, I supplemented my meagre kebab with the worst curry rice I've ever experienced, but on the plus side I did find an alcohol vending machine - a dying breed these days due to the obvious scope for abuse by underagers. After a soak in the bath (which offered the rare exhibitionistic opportunity to stand stark naked on a ninth-floor balcony in a heavily urban area), and another round of Electricity Ninja, I turned in. Capsules have no real soundproofing (I suppose suffocation might be a problem if they did), and I have heard tales of people being kept awake by drunken salarymen rolling in at all hours of the night. This was part of the reason why I'd been so intent on drinking all evening. However, my floor-mates all seemed to behave very considerately, or maybe I was just sleeping like a log after five days of strenuous sightseeing. Either way, I got a decent night's sleep.

First on the agenda for tuesday was the task of securing my train ticket home. I hit my second travel-related brick wall in 24 hours when the guy at the ticket counter informed me that the first train on my planned itinerary didn't exist. A normal person would just have asked how him how to make the trip without using the shinkansen (he could speak decent English), but I just ran off to try to find an internet connection and figure out what was going on. My attempts to steal free Wi-fi failed (the ever-flaky Archos seems to have a whole colony of bugs related to connecting to unsecured wireless networks) so I ended up buying an expensive coffee in an internet cafe (no maids). It turned out the usually excellent had given me a bum steer, recommending I use the super-luxury Tokyo to Sapporo Cassiopeia liner, without flagging up the extorbitant cost involved. It turned out that the actual cheapskate route, at five trains and seven-and-a-half hours, was even more of a round-the-houses rural crawl than I had thought.

My plan for the day had been to take in the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba, the super-modern man-made islands in Tokyo Bay. As I had wasted an hour on this train debacle, and now had to leave an hour earlier than I had planned, I decided it wasn't really on. I reeled in my ambitions considerably, and settled for a trip to Maguro Bito (literally, 'tuna person', not to be confused with maguro onna ('tuna woman') which is an insulting term for a lady who is too passive in the bedroom). It was voted Japan's best kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant. The sushi was delicious and of a very high quality, but I would have to take issue with Rough Guide's description of it as 'inexpensive'. Sure, dishes started at 140yen, but if you wanted any actual fish you would be looking at 280yen at least, and several dishes broke the 500yen barrier. I quickly racked up 2200yen (£16), and could probably have doubled that if I'd eaten my fill, since I'd skipped breakfast.

After that I strolled around Ueno Park, which appeared to be home to a lot of otherwise homeless people. Judging by the elaborate nature of some of their improvised dwellings, it would seem that the authorities are fairly relaxed about their presence. After satisfying my unfulfilled hunger for revolving sushi at a rather more downmarket kaitenzushi joint, I started my epic rail marathon.

Sitting on the first train, I did wonder whether I'd taken frugality too far, tripling the duration of my journey for the sake of saving about 5000yen (£36). However, it wasn't so bad. After six days of excitement, I was in the mood for just sitting around for hours. Thanks to my stealthily-charged Archos I could listen to some tunes (specifically, Super Furry Animals' excellent greatest hits album, full of forgotten gems of 90s alt-rock) and watch some anime (Paranoia Agent, which is challengingly weird even by anime's generally hallucinogenic standards). And, of course, I could also pass the time by blogging in my jotter, which brings us, Fight Club-style, to where we came in.

Friday, March 26, 2010

I wanna take you to a geisha, geisha, gei-sha!

On saturday morning we took a shink from Osaka to Kyoto. This was perhaps unnecessarily flashy of us, since the two cities are not far apart, being parts of the same sprawling urban conurbation (which also includes Kobe, but is still dwarfed by the monstrous Tokyo-Yokohama megacity). Before leaving I made sure to grab some takoyaki (octopus dumplings) for breakfast, as these are to Osaka roughly as Yorkshire puddings are to Yorkshire. This meant that I had succeeded in eating all four Osaka specialties as recommended by Wikitravel. Gotta catch 'em all.

Our hotel in Kyoto was in a prime location, literally across the street from the main station. This convenience didn't come cheap, though, as we were each paying 7500yen (£54) per night. Because the rooms had been booked for a party of two couples, I had to share a double bed with one of my (male) travelling companions, which was less than ideal.

Kyoto, being the former capital of Japan and having escaped the devastating firebombing (not to mention atom-bombing) of World War 2, has an astonishing number of historically significant sites. There are so many breathtaking temples, shrines, castles and gardens that we experienced a kind of sightseeing paralysis at first; we didn't know where to start. Eventually we settled on Fushimi Inari-taisha.

Japan tip: It can be difficult to distinguish between temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto) but there is a simple system (gotta have a system). If it has one or more torii (gateways, often painted red) leading up to it, it's a shrine. If not, it's probably a temple. Following this method, one would be in no doubt at all as to the nature of Fushimi Inari-taisha. It's USP is that it has more torii than any other shrine, literally thousands of the things, forming long corridors of archways. More toriis than a Conservative Party conference. You see, Inari is the god of wealth, so each torii is donated by a Japanese business, which inscribes its name in a commendably tasteful manner on the reverse side of its gate. It is difficult to convey in words just how many vermilion archways there were. Like most major shrines or temples, Fushimi Inari-taisha is not a single building, but a large complex of sub-shrines covering a considerable area, all linked by torii-lined pathways.

Next up was Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple (no torii) covered in actual gold. It was an unseasonably summery day, and it certainly looked majestic gleaming the sunshine. Religion is (correctly) regarded as nothing more than superstition by most Japanese people, which allows for some shameless cashing in. At Kinkaku-ji were numerous stalls selling amusingly specific good luck charms. As hardened capitalists, we were dubious about the merit of buying the 'traffic safety' charm for 400yen (£2.90) when a 'dreams come true' charm was only 500yen. Maybe it makes your dreams come true in an ironic, careful-what-you-wish-for way or something. However, I enjoyed the place where you were encouraged to toss coins into a bowl from four or five feet away, in what is presumably the ancient precursor of Wii Sports. Those aluminium one-yen coins are light; you really have to factor in the wind.

I bagged some yatsuhashi (a tasty rice-based confectionery for which Kyoto is famed) as my all-important omiyage (souvenirs) to give to my friends and colleagues back in Akayu. I also sampled some matcha ice-cream, another Kyoto specialty. Matcha is powdered green tea, as used in tea ceremony. I would recommend the matcha and vanilla combo; the sweetness of the vanilla offsets the bitterness of the tea nicely. Refreshed, we got on a long, slow, crowded bus ride back to the vicinity of our hotel. In a city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site it is perhaps churlish to complain about the mass transit system, but that's what I'm going to do. The subway network of Osaka was a dream, but trying to get from one temple to another in Kyoto was an exercise in tedium and frustration.

I will say this however: Kyoto's main station is an architectural marvel, resembling a grounded mothership from the 22nd century. The trains seem almost incidental alongside all the open-air plazas, avant-garde sculptures, and extensive arcades of eateries. I attracted the derision of my companions by saying that I found it more impressive than the temple we had just come from, but I stand by that. Temples don't do anything, they're just sterile relics of the past. This place was a work of art and a functioning railway station, which counts for a lot in my book. One of its functional elements was an Irish pub running a Belgian beer promotion, so that was the evening's sustenance and entertainment sorted out.

First on the agenda for sunday was Kiyomizu-dera, another impressive temple (no torii) featuring a supposedly sacred spring (the water type). The spring water pours down from three channels, which according to some sources respectively confer wisdom, health, and longevity on the drinker. The catch is that greedily drinking from all three will curse you, so you must be selective in your blessings. If you ask me, longevity is clearly the dud in that line-up. In a surprising display of restraint, the temple was trying to distance itself from this Blind Date-esque nonsense. However, they weren't above a bit of gimmickery, as they also had two 'love stones'. These were positioned around 10 metres apart, and if one could walk from one to the other with one's eyes closed, one would find true love. This doesn't sound too hard on the face of it, but when we were there the place was so rammed with tourists that you couldn't see the other stone even with your eyes open. I decided not to try.

We then went on a somewhat aimless wander, where we happened across a five-storey pagoda which, as far as I could tell, wasn't even mentioned in my literature, which goes to show just what an abundance of historical buildings the city has. In the vicinity of this structure were several women dressed as geisha, or more accurately maiko (apprentice geisha) as every Japanese person I've shown the photos to has instantly corrected me. Other members of my party (which had now swelled to five, having attracted another ALT from Yamagata) were blown away, but as ever, it fell to me to be the sober voice of skepticism. I had done my homework, and knew that Lonely Planet estimated that the geisha and maiko in Kyoto numbered less than 200 these days, and it was extremely rare to see one without paying an exorbitant sum for the priviledge. I also knew that dressing up as a maiko and strolling around the geisha district was a popular activity with tourists, and surmised that this is what we were seeing. Two strangers on Flickr have been strangely quick to confirm this hypothesis for me.

I had been taking more of a back seat on holiday planning in Kyoto, and with the addition of our new member, I more-or-less retired as leader. From this point on, some decisions were made that, let's say, wouldn't have been made on my watch. Despite my protestations based on time equaling distance over speed, we set out on foot to the silver counterpart of the previous day's golden temple. When it became clear that we would never make it before it closed, we recovered the situation rather well by going to the nearly Heian Jingu shrine (one very large torii) and its beautiful gardens, though I couldn't help but think how much more beautiful the gardens would be when the blossom kicked in properly in about a fortnight.

Our party was snowballing by the minute (we reached a peak of eight people, then stabilised at six) and the resultant inertia made it difficult to organise anything. After much dithering we decided to go to a 'geisha show'. (I should point out that it is a common Western misconception that geisha are prostitutes; they are highly trained artisans/entertainers who are held in the highest regard in Japanese society. Incidentally, the first syllable is pronounced 'gay', so my title pun is legit.) The show featured brief snippets of various Japanese art forms, including a segment with two women dressed as geisha performing a traditional dance. Again, I very much doubt they were the real thing. The show was alright - I'd never seen bunraku (Japanese puppetry) before, so that was interesting - but at 3150yen (£23) for an hour, I felt that it was a bit of a fleecing. Also, it was aimed squarely at tourists. Maybe this is just snobbery on my part, but I don't like being made to feel like a tourist; it's patronising. I would rather sit though an incomprehensible and somewhat tedious three-hour koto-fest where I'm the only Caucasian in the room than have some prepackaged Japanese culture selection box served up for me.

The patronising and fleecing continued at 'Ninja' restaurant (sorry, 'restaurant and labyrinth'), which I had picked up a flyer for out of amusement, but which Team Yamagata somehow decided to actually eat at. Credit where it's due, they had put a lot of work into presentation. A black-clad waitress animatedly yet stealthily led us though fibreglass caverns to our booth, encouraging us to shout "Nin-nin!" to open a secret door. The menu was full of what I suspect were Banzai-style willfully dodgy translations like "metamorphosis of chicken" or "tofu enigma". The food was shockingly overpriced for what it was, but it was very interestingly presented - the appetizer for instance was shiruken- (throwing star) shaped black crackers with pate. At the end of the meal, the 'master ninja' entertained us with magic tricks. Then as we left, our ninja waitress shouted "Wait!" and ran up to us, dramatically crouched, and as if drawing a weapon, unfurled a scroll that said (in English) "Have a nice day".

I guess some people love these kind of theatrics, but it really isn't my scene. I always imagine that the staff of a place like that must resent having to do these cheesy routines, and must view their customers as the very worst kind of morons. Also, all the fourth-wall-breaking details really bother me. Why would a ninja have Western playing cards? Isn't that a glaring anachronism? Am I to believe that ancient Japanese spies really unwound with passion fruit cocktails after a tough day of feudal espionage? This is why I can never partake in sexy roleplay: "This conduct is totally unprofessional for a secretary! Don't you realise you're perpetuating some very negative stereotypes of your occupation? Can you even touch type?" etc.

Ok, that's Kyoto covered. Next, I go it alone in Tokyo, and the wheels fall off my travel plans.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Da ya shink I'm sexy?

Or, 'You Kansai what you want but it won't change my mind'.

I'm writing this on paper - remember writing on paper? - on the third of five non-bullet trains making its ponderous way from Tokyo to Akayu. My spring break is almost over.

The trip began at the ungodly hour of 06:50 on thursday, as myself and two fellow ALTs caught the first southbound shinkansen, or 'shink' as us gaijin abbreviate it, with casual disregard for Japanese syllabary. That's a bullet train to you. It was my first time on a shink, and while they are undoubtedly fast, the ride is so smooth that you don't really feel like you're hurtling along at almost 200mph. I think I was hoping for blueshift or something.

After a quick change at Tokyo, we were headed west to our first destination: Japan's second city, Osaka. We arrived at lunchtime, and wasted no time in hitting an Indian restaurant right outside the station; my excitement towards international cuisine is shared by most of us foreigners in not-so-cosmopolitan Yamagata. In the curry house, the people at the next table over were talking in English. This really weirded me out; I've not been able to eavesdrop in eight months, since usually anyone in my vicinity speaking my language would be known to me. Generally, I was amazed at how many white faces I saw in the big city. In fact, if I'm honest I slightly resented it - I've grown accustomed to being unique.

Bellies agreeably full of naan, we headed for our hotel. We really hit the jackpot in that regard - we had essentially a basic suite for the four of us (one member of our party would rendezvous with us later) for 3000yen (£22) per person per night. I would heartily recommend the 'Weekly Mansion' chain to anyone travelling in Japan.

The hotel was not far from Osaka Castle, so we went there first. After strolling around the surrounding park for a while - where a few precocious cherry trees were just beginning to show their eagerly-awaited pink flowers - we had only about half an hour to see the castle itself. This was fine, as we headed straight to the top for the view, and then just gave the exhibits within a cursory glance. This trip has really proved to me that I have negligible interest in history.

Although I was brought into this holiday at the last minute due to someone's parents being unable to fly to Japan, I ended up being the leader, at least for the Osaka leg. This is because I possessed: GPS; the relevant pages from the excellent Wikitravel saved on my Archos; a Lonely Planet guidebook I grabbed from my bookshelf as an afterthought; and an anal, uptight disposition. Essentially, I was Jamie from EuroTrip.

So, I led my party to Dotombori for dinner. Both of my information sources said that it was the best district in Osaka to eat, but what really swung it for me was that LP said it brought to mind Blade Runner. Fortunately they meant it was bustling and neon-filled rather than turgid and overrated. I loved it there; it had an exciting, edgy atmosphere but managed not to feel seedy or threatening.

Thanks to LP, I knew that there was a reasonably-priced fugu restaurant there. Fugu is pufferfish, the Japanese delicacy that notoriously contains a deadly neurotoxin (TTX, neuroscience fans). For this reason, it is illegal to sell it anywhere in the EU. Undeterred, we made a beeline for the huge illuminated pufferfish overhanging the street. Once inside, we each ordered the most fugu-heavy set meal we could find on the menu, featuring fugu sashimi, fugu sushi, grilled fugu, battered fugu, and fugu soup.

If one eats very high-grade fugu prepared by a master chef, a small amount of poison is deliberately left in, such that one's mouth begins to feel numb. I am sorry to report that we experienced no such loss of oral sensation. In terms of taste, I'd say fugu is a decidedly average fish - I'd take some succulent blood-red tuna any day of the week. However, I was very pleased to have another iconic Japanese experience under my belt, and at only 3000yen (still £22), I think we got a bargain.

We then met up with our fourth member, who - like the aquatic vertebrate in question - was gutted to have missed out on the fugu. As no trip to a big city is complete without some observation deck action, we went to the Umeda Sky Building, a bizarrely shaped futuristic tower. The views from the top were impressive, but evidently the people in charge thought that wasn't enough to justify the admission fee, and that the attraction needed a 'concept'. They went for 'love', so there were lots of artsy heart motifs and spurious touchy-feely exhibits scattered around the place. They didn't add a whole lot to the experience for me.

Thanks to the considerable generosity of the aforementioned absent parents, we had tickets to see the sumo on friday. Pretty good tickets at that - when I saw sumo in Tokyo three years ago we were in the seats right at the back, but this time we had a box much closer to the dohyo (ring). This isn't quite as good as it sounds, though; it's not like at football, where a box is a place for corporate types to enjoy prawn sandwiches and champagne in a private glass-fronted room. No, we had an area about a metre square delineated with metal poles, containing four cushions.

Quick sumo lesson: There are six sumo tournaments a year, each lasting 15 days. This happened to be day 6. The bouts go on all day from around 08:30 to 18:00. In the morning the rookies fight, and as the day progresses they move up through the ranks, finishing with the elite yokozuna class.

So, here's my top tip for enjoying sumo. Go along before lunch to watch the n00bs. Very few people bother turning up at this stage, so you can sit right beside the ring and no-one will hassle you. We did this, and we were close enough to reach out and grab a flabby buttock as the wrestlers entered and exited (though such behaviour would of course be ill-advised to say the least). Also, the elaborate ceremony is striped down to a minimum for the lower ranks, meaning that you see more actual action. Once you've had your fill, go away for lunch and maybe some sightseeing. Try to get back by about 3pm - that's when the televised coverage starts. The atmosphere is now very different, with a packed house and lots of flashing cameras and cheering.

In common with other sports that feature brief moments of excitement separated by protracted periods of dicking around (I'm looking at you, cricket) people view it as a kind of picnic opportunity, with a heavy emphasis on boozing. Fortuitously, no-one claimed the box adjacent to ours, so we could spread out, stretch our legs, and decadently quaff back warm sake. It was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

During our lunchtime break we went in search of kushikatsu, kebabs fried in a doughy batter that are an Osaka specialty, according to Wikitravel. After accosting a random old man for directions (where my anal planning stops, my companions' chutzpah begins), we found a kushikatsu joint that was queued out the door. It took an age for us to get seated, since everyone sits linearly along a bar, and it took a long time for a block of four consecutive vacant seats to open up. I really wished they would just defrag the restaurant. Anyway, once seated, you order a bunch of kebabs for 105 yen (76p) a piece, containing anything from meat to seafood to vegetables to cheese. You dip these in what can only be described as small buckets of tangy dark sauce (being careful to observe the strict rules prohibiting double-dipping) before eating, and you can munch on cabbage leaves while you wait for you next consignment of doughy lollies. It's a fun way to dine, and the deep-fried kebabs were greasy but delicious. I particularly recommend the sweet potato. Keep it quiet though; the concept of battering chips could push Scotland's health service over the edge.

That concludes the Osaka leg of our adventures, so it seems like a good place to leave it. Stay tuned for fake geishas, fake ninjas, fake maids, and an unplanned capsule stop.

Update: I'm now on train 4 of 5, i.e. comfortably back in the inaka (countryside) and a drunk man getting off the train asked me (in English) where I'm from (I went with 'Scotland', not 'Akayu') and gave me a can of Asahi. I'm special again!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quake me up before I drop out on you

Or, "Boom! Shake-shake-shake the room"

Happy White Day! Don't worry, I'm not celebrating Aryan supremacy. As well as being Pi Day, today is exactly one month after Valentine's Day (or VD, as I like to abbreviate it). In Japan, VD is a strictly one-way affair, where women are expected to give gifts to men. The gifts invariably feature chocolate. However, gift-giving is not limited to those with whom one has romantic ambitions; tradition dictates that any male friends or colleagues should get some chocolate. Thus, upon receiving a gift, a gentleman must assess whether it is honmei choco ("true feeling chocolate") or merely giri choco ("obligation chocolate" - mmm, obligation).

My sole VD gift was a tasty chocolate cake from Marie. Since she is a married woman of slightly more advanced years than myself, it's fairly clear which category this belonged to. So, flash forward a month, and it is my turn to reciprocate. The return present should be white, and can be a non-edible item such as jewellery or lingerie. As evolutionary psychology predicts, it should be more valuable than the initial gift - three times more so, in fact. I went to my local cake shop, which was doing a brisk trade, and got an 'angel white cube cake'. I was particularly pleased that I managed to read the kanji for 'angel' ('heaven' + 'use' = 'angel'). Although I suspect I didn't uphold the threefold rule, my gift seemed to go down well.

I was invited in for coffee and angel cake, and the main topic of conversation was the previous night's earthquake. On saturday evening I was chatting to my brother on Skype, and strangely enough he was asking me about my experience of earthquakes in Japan, which thus far had extended to three minor tremors that had failed to even rattle teacups. The conversation moved on, but about 20 minutes later I felt my house start to shake. After a few seconds of run-of-the-mill quaking, a sudden jolt shook my window panes, set my lights swinging, and dislodged a couple of precariously placed items from the top of my bookshelf. Over the webcam, Blair could see me swaying like I was on a bus that had just hit a pothole. For the first time, I was actually scared by the quake, and as my fight-or-flight reflex kicked in I seriously thought about darting under my desk.

The Japan Meteorological Agency puts earthquake data online within minutes, allowing you to play the fun game of guess the epicentre. Was it a minor tremor a few tens of kilometers away, or is Osaka now a smoldering pile of rubble? It turns out this was a 5.7 just off the east coast of Japan, about 130km from me. 5.7 is nothing to be sneezed at; on the map all of the monitoring stations in northern Honshu were lit up like a Christmas tree. Within minutes, texts were coming in asking if I was ok.

So, having exchanged earthquake stories with Marie this afternoon, I returned home, and was in the midst of shaving when I felt the now familiar sensation of my house moving. Being a little more cocky this time, I rushed to the window (probably just about the worst thing to do), reasoning that if cracks were about to start opening up in the street, that was definitely something I wanted to see. That didn't happen, but I was pleased to note my car rocking noticeably on its suspension. The shaking hadn't quite stopped when I felt a more localised tremor in my pocket. It was Marie on the phone, breathlessly exclaiming "Wow, another one" (in Japanese). No shit, Sherlock-san.

Though I don't think it felt as strong as yesterday's one, this turned out to be a 6.6 originating from roughly the same place, thus retroactively demoting that quake to a foreshock. Maybe I'm just getting desensitized to seismic events. This one was felt in Tokyo, so it was the lead story on the evening news here. They have a early-warning system here, but it can only predict quakes seconds before they hit. Thus, NHK apparently interrupted live sumo coverage to warn people to take cover, which I really wish I'd seen.

Catch you later, assuming this isn't the start of some 2012-style apocalypse.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hey mikkayoi so fine

I'm bored out of my gourd here. I'm at one of my bigger schools, and at the start of the week I had unprecedented levels of classroom time, with four back-to-back lessons on monday and tuesday. But next tuesday is the graduation ceremony that marks the end of the school year, and a lot of time is being devoted to preparing for it. Today, for instance, only period one had actual classes, with second period being special extra cleaning and rehearsals happening from period three to the end of the day. There have been lunar missions with less preparation.

From what I have seen, the graduation ceremony looks a bit like my high school prize-giving, but with markedly more singing and bowing. I think the teachers - including me - are expected to sing a song too, but since I a) can't sing, b) can't speak Japanese, and c) can't read the sheet of music that I've been given, I think I'll just pull a Cheryl Cole.

All the proper teachers have to attend these rehearsals, where they patrol like drill sergeants spotting kids who aren't standing sufficiently straight or singing sufficiently genkily. Thankfully I am excused from this duty, so I can just hang out in the staffroom with my Japanese textbooks. But that does get a bit dull after a while, so I've started really relishing cleaning time.

Today when I was sweeping the stairs, a teacher asked me if we had brooms where I come from. My heart sank as I thought she was about to tell me I'd been doing it all wrong for the last seven months. But no, she complimented my sweeping style! Out of boredom, I had been really going for it; using my left hand for a while and then switching to my right hand and sweeping even faster, to the amazement of my imaginary audience. I do a similar thing with snowboarding switch-stance.

To anyone who finds themselves having to clean a Japanese school, I would recommend the stairs. They are often overlooked by the students for some reason, and clever use of the steps allows you to stoop less - Japanese brooms are not designed for people my height. And there is something inherently satisfying about having your cleaning goal broken literally into steps. You don't see any recovering alcoholics doing the one-corridor programme.

Cleaning time is a good opportunity for informal interaction with the students. The kids certainly aren't afraid of me; the following is a list of things that happened today alone:
  • A girl addressed me as "Fifi-chan", a nickname that I have done nothing to promote.
  • The same girl pointed at my belly and said "Metabo?". This is short for 'metabolic syndrome', which is the medical euphemism of choice to describe being overweight.
  • A bunch of students mocked my effeminate sitting style while scrubbing the floor, saying "Ooooh, pretty!". I was in a kind of sideways recline, a bit like the Little Mermaid ("Mer-man! Mer-MAN!"), but in my defence it's much more comfortable than kneeling for a gaijin like me.
  • A boy asked me "Do you have a pocket monster?". He does this everytime he sees me, apparently lacking any concept of jokes getting old. Like all good Wikipedians I assume good faith, so when a kid says something that could be construed as rude I give them the benefit of the doubt. (Who could forget the time a girl said "I am glad to bone my mother", which turned out to be an honest but impressively disastrous mangling of "I am grateful to my mother for giving birth to me"?) So, the first couple of times he said it I was willing to believe he was just trying to strike up a conversation about Pokemon, which I'd be more than happy to participate in. But it's become pretty clear he's talking about penises. At least he formed a proper sentence this time; usually it's just "Finlay! Pocket monster?" Now I just respond in kind, asking how big his pocket monster is until he walks away giggling. I can always start inquiring about Pokeballs if he gets tired of that.
If think if I were a real teacher this lack of respect would be a cause for concern, but since I'm not, it doesn't really bother me. I'm just glad the kids feel that they can approach me.

After the much-hyped graduation the kids are on spring holiday for a couple of weeks, representing an ideal time for me to take some leave. I kind of dropped the ball regarding organising any kind of holiday, so a couple of days ago I panicked and hatched a ridiculous plan to go to Sapporo on the cheap using only local trains. I invited pretty much every foreigner I know on the trip but no-one fancied it. It's almost like they thought spending 40 hours on a train in five days was a bad idea, the fools.

Fortunately, some nearby ALTs took pity on me and invited me on their trip to Kansai. I managed to clear the time off with my supervisor at cheekily short notice, so I'm going to Osaka on thursday, where apparently they have a box at the sumo tournament. After that it's Kyoto, and then they are planning to push on to the far-flung Hiroshima, but I think I might opt out of that leg of the journey - bullet trains are not cheap.

Tonight I'm off to my favourite izakaya, where they offer hot cheese wrapped in bacon on sticks, a rare treat in the land of rice and soybeans. I shall however be careful not to overindulge on the biiru (beer), since last weekend I was shooting absinthe and, long story short, I broke my no vomiting in Asia record and ended up with a two-day hangover, or mikkayoi (literally, "third day intoxication") as it is pleasingly called in Japanese.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Archos, in the middle of our street

Today is a good day. Not only did I discover my current school's staff toilets, featuring a Western-style toilet complete with heated seat, but it was curry rice for school lunch. If natto is school lunch hell, curry rice is surely school lunch heaven. For reasons I am at a loss to explain, it always seems to be served with fruit cocktail, which is an added bonus.

It's time for yet another minor festival! Or rather, yesterday was. March 3rd is hinamatsuri, which is a day devoted to girls. Cue much pinkness and flowers. May 5th is apparently when boys get their moment in the spotlight. Thus, people joke that April 4th is the day for transvestites, transsexuals and all other kinds of gender benders, which is a little unfortunate for people like my brother, who have that as their birthday but are not in fact members of the LGBT community. Unlucky, Blair!

So what do you do on girls' day? Play with dolls, of course (hinamatsuri means 'doll festival'). The custom is to create elaborate tiered arrangements of dolls representing the imperial household, with the emperor and empress at the top, and various hand-maidens, advisers, priests, entertainers and warriors below them. I suppose it's a little bit like a nativity scene. Indeed, historically at least, Japan has had a slightly troubling tendency to deify the emperor. Maybe that's what happens when you have non-monotheistic religions, resulting in a god-vacuum.

Of course, no Japanese festival is complete without a special food to eat on the day. With school lunch we got a packet of hina arare, which are sugary rice puffs. The kids seemed intent on throwing them into each others' mouths, but I think that was just lunchtime hi-jinks rather than part of the custom.

In the evening one eats chirashizushi (lit., "scattered sushi"), which is a bowl of rice with a selection of (mostly raw) seafood artfully arranged on top of it. This technically qualifies as sushi since it consists of vinegared rice with various toppings, but it's not what one pictures when someone says 'sushi'. I splashed out on a deluxe octagonal box from the supermarket. I think my palette is slowly adjusting to the odder tastes of Japan. I used to give ikura (big orange salmon eggs) a pretty wide berth, but I found it a welcome addition to the chirashizushi. Also, at the supermarket I bought a bag of dried squid, not for novelty value or as a joke gift, but because I actually fancied eating some. It's a good beer snack once you get used to the chewiness.

Ok, if you're not interested in technology news you can probably stop reading now, as I'm essentially going to review a gadget. Alternatively, if you are a fellow geek who has found this blog through Google, you could start reading now, if that weren't a paradox.

I received my Archos 5 Internet Tablet on monday, and I've spent just about every spare moment since playing with it. This is a pocket-sized touchscreen device which, depending on your perspective, you can see as a) a ludicrously overpowered mp3 player, b) a high-end smartphone minus the phone or c) a small, underpowered computer. It runs Android, Google's operating system for mobile devices, meaning that you can install whatever applications you like from an ever-growing library. Or, if you're feeling particularly hardcore, you can write your own using the freely available Java API.

As I said before, I bought it because I wanted a good kanji dictionary, and an in-car GPS and music system. But I'm hoping it'll prove handy for various other things, like watching TV in bed or listening to podcasts in the bath (as it can stream media over my home wireless network).

My initial impressions are fairly positive. The screen looks good and the device is small and light. I bought the cheapest (~£200) 8GB solid-state memory model; hard-drive models with up to 500GB are available, but they are chunky and expensive and, I would imagine, more likely to break. I figure that since it can stream there isn't so much need for huge storage, and as it has a microSD slot, I can easily triple its storage at a later date. The battery life seems quite impressive, although it does take an age to charge over USB, which is your only option unless you want to shell out for a charging dock. Archos' marketing strategy seems to be to entice you to buy as many hardware add-ons as possible, which I won't be doing, since it was enough hassle importing the thing in the first place.

Some things worked like a dream straight out of the box. It found my network, connected, and updated its firmware without a hitch. Other things have been more troublesome. Just getting it to talk to my computer on USB was a nightmare, but I'm willing to accept that might have had more to do with my ageing WinXP laptop. The biggest disappointment is the supposed FM transmitter. The unit contains a transmitter but no antenna. Previously, it was possible to use the headphones as an antenna, but apparently the performance was so poor that they recently disabled the option in the firmware to stop people complaining about it, meaning that you are forced to buy the car mount accessory if you want a usable antenna. Sod that for a game of soldiers. Instead, I bought a third-party in-car transmitter (with a USB port to power the Archos) from my local electrical shop for less than a tenner, and that works fine. So it's not a big problem really, but I object on principle to the borderline false advertising of saying it has an FM transmitter.

Using the Archos is not always a super-smooth experience. The device has frozen up on me a few times, but it's been nothing a quick power cycle didn't fix. Some people say that Android isn't yet a mature OS, and there may be some truth to that. But I really admire what it's trying to do: provide a common, open software environment for all mobile apps. This is in stark contrast to current market leaders Apple, who seek to lock down every aspect of the hardware and software that they can, using wilful incompatibility and threats of litigation to defend their dominant position. Their machines work very nicely as long as you use them in the exact way that Apple want you to, but I don't like the idea of, for instance, some prudes controlling what I can and can't run on my own hardware.

For their part, Archos seem willing to fight the good fight. From what I can gather, they appear fairly proactive about fixing bugs and offering firmware upgrades. Perhaps realising that their user base contains quite a lot of serious nerds, they actively promote the fact that you can run a stripped-down version of Linux on the internet tablet if you so wish. There are people out there who will attempt to modify just about any electrical device to run Linux, but it's not often you see the manufacturer encouraging them.

While I'm here with my geek hat on, I'd just like to give some mad props to a couple of free applications. It always amazes me that people go to all the effort of writing quality software for nothing, then release it on the net and sort out all the bugs that people report. These people make the world a better place, and all they ask is a voluntary donation, a request which I have honoured in both of the following cases.

The Archos comes with navigation software installed, but you have to buy a subscription. Even if I were not a miser, I don't think they have coverage for Asia. So, I use Trekbuddy. I had this on my old Sony Ericsson, but there's also a version for Android. The main limitation is that it doesn't actually tell you what route to take to get to your destination, merely showing your position on a map. You must also produce these maps yourself, but thankfully auxiliary programs (like Mobile Atlas Creator) have sprung up to automate the slightly cheeky process of ripping maps from sources like Google Maps. So, it's not exactly the most user-friendly application to get set up, but once you do it offers free, off-line GPS mapping for ever more. It's mad configurable and the writer is heroic when it comes to bug fixing. Hats off.

Unsurprisingly considering it isn't on sale in Japan, the Archos does not come with a kanji dictionary. For that I'm using Aedict, a basic but functional and well-presented free Japanese dictionary. It's young software and thus a little glitchy, but I imagine this will improve with time. As far as I'm concerned, the killer app within this app is the 'kanji pad', which allows you to draw whatever symbol it is that's puzzling you in the manner of a finger-painting toddler. The Archos's big screen is really handy here.

At first I was disappointed with the kanji pad's performance. You see, there's a very specific way to write each kanji character, and the program is quite sensitive to this. Doing the strokes in the wrong order confuses it a little, and if you get the number of strokes wrong it flat-out won't work. To a kanji beginner, this would be maddening – for instance, the character that is just a square (which means 'mouth', incidentally) confusingly has three strokes, since the top and right sides are done without lifting your pen. But there is actually a more-or-less logical system to work out the stroke order for any given kanji, which this is forcing me to learn. In just three days my kanji pad hit rate has improved considerably, and it does have the fringe benefit that my calligraphy will be better, and Japanese people will stop laughing at me when they see me writing. Whenever I whip it (the Archos) out at school to look something up, the kids are fascinated, and seeing whether they can get it to recognise the kanji of their names is always a fun game.