Monday, March 28, 2011

Brimful of gas-a

Or, 'She uses ga-a-a-soline'.

I know the blog has gone a bit quiet. The thing is, nothing has been happening. I don't even mean that things have got back to normal, but rather that the situation has just remained remarkably static. Seventeen days since the quake, fuel is still in short supply, and many foods are unavailable, but life goes on. Similarly, the Fukushima Daiichi situation doesn't appear to be getting any worse, but neither is it giving any strong indications of getting better. What has improved, however, is the transparency of the radiation monitoring. The Yamagata prefectural government is now giving us hourly readings of atmospheric radiation in Yamagata and Yonezawa (the closest city in the prefecture to ground zero), plus daily updates on the levels of radiactive iodine and caesium both in the water and in the environment, as well as information about local produce that's been found to be contaminated. You may want to lay off the spinach and milk from my 'hood.

I suppose I'll give you a quick run-down of what little I have been up to since my last post.

Friday 18th: I went round to Marie's for a temaki (hand-rolled) sushi night. Some of her possessions were broken in the quake, including most notably a plasma screen that had been toppled from its stand. Her shop had also lost a few bottles. I suppose there is something to be said for living a bungalow and not owning much stuff.

The atmosphere was a little odd. As we usually do, we had the TV (a different one) on in the background. So, one minute we would be laughing and joking as usual, and the next minute we would see something so heartbreaking that we would just fall silent. I actually wrote a post about the terrible things that we saw on the news, but I decided not to publish it because it was just too much of a downer.

Saturday 19th: This was the day of my school's rescheduled graduation ceremony. Graduation is always an emotional time, but there was an added poignancy to this one, for obvious reasons. When I got home afterwards, it all got the better of me: the tragic images on the news, the tension and uncertainty of the preceeding week, saying goodbye to my third-graders for the last time, the empty shelves in the supermarket on the way home. Before I knew it, I was sobbing uncontrollably. This is not normal behaviour for me. I was a bit tired and hungover too, which probably didn't help.

Sunday 20th: On friday I gave Marie the carrot cake I made, but we didn't get round to eating it on the night. So she invited me (and some other friends) around for afternoon tea and cake. I was really starting to worry that my cake had been built up too much, especially since it was quite an experimental recipe, using olive oil rather than the more conventional butter to provide the lipid content. But I'm pleased to say it turned out well; it was delicious and moist. In fact, one of Marie's friends requested the recipe, so I have since translated it into Japanese (badly) for her benefit.

Monday 21st: The community centre is closed because of earthquake damage - just a few broken windows, I think. So for the first time I had a Japanese lesson at my sensei's house, which just happened to also be a sake shop.

Friday 25th: I realised I hadn't left Nanyo in 13 days, and decided it was time to get out. The local trains are now operating again on the main line that runs north-south through the prefecture, so I hopped on a train to Yamagata City and met a bunch of ALTs for curry. Talking to them, it became clear that those of us who had stuck around were in the minority. I'm just stunned at the irrationality of this. We really aren't in any serious danger here, which people would understand if they just spent a few hours on Google and Wikipedia thinking clearly and critically. And how long are they going to stay away? It may well be months rather than weeks until Fukushima Daiichi is brought completely under control.

Saturday 26th: I met up with many of the same people for another meal, this time pizza in Kaminoyama. Generally, pizza standards in Japan are pretty woeful, but the ALT of this town had been raving about this place for months. It lived up to his hype. It was hands-down the best pizza I've eaten in Japan, and at a very reasonable price. The place is run by an old guy who apparently retired from his proper job, and then set up this place almost as a hobby. In the quintessentially Japanese manner, he is obsessive about his product. He once told my friend who's a regular there (in Japanese) "If I wasn't constantly improving my pizzas, I'd have no soul."

This morning I got two reminders in quick succession that we're not quite out of the woods yet. As I was having breakfast, I experienced the biggest aftershock we've had in several days, which made my flimsy little house creak worryingly. I dread to think what it must have sounded like during the big one. Minutes later, the green status LED on my heater turned to an angry blinking, beeping red. By turning the heater right down and wearing lots of clothes indoors, I had managed to stretch out my half-cannister of kerosene for an amazing length of time. But now the jig was up.

Just like this time last year, I'm currently 'working' at city hall, meaning that I have a lot of time on my hands. I've started taking every minute of my lunch hour and going cycling around town. This serves two purposes:
  • It's a good way to kill an hour, especially on a beautiful day like today.

  • It allows me to tour the petrol stations, keeping an eye out for precious fuel.
All last week, this petrol patrol (if only I had a pet seabird of the order Procellariiformes) was fruitless. But today, my wishes were granted. At my local Esso I was able to fill up on both petrol and kerosene, without even having to wait in a massive queue. The prices were a good 15% higher than they had been before the disaster, but as an ardent fan of capitalism, I can't complain. It's supply and demand, innit. To be honest, I think this modest hike actually represents impressive restraint on their part; I think they could probably double the price and people would still be falling over themselves to buy the stuff.

Friday, March 18, 2011

No alarms and no surprises, please

Thanks for the continued messages of support.

Maybe this is a little premature, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the worst is over, here in Nanyo. The situation at Fukushima Daiichi seems to at least not be getting any worse, my radiation graphs are decaying back to normal, and although power outages were planned for the last three days, none of them have come to pass. On top of that, it's a beautiful sunny winter day - I just wish there was any chance of going boarding in the foreseeable future. Of course, the situation is still bleak elsewhere in Tohoku.

There's still no fuel for civilians here, but the food situation really isn't that bad. The shortages are more of an inconvenience than a problem; you just have to be a bit more opportunistic about eating whatever happens to be available each day. It's similar to what I imagine rationing in wartime Britain must have been like, although - as has been extensively documented already - we have bananas.

To illustrate my point, I've decided that I'm going to bake a cake today for Marie. White Day (March 14th) has come and gone, but I think I have a pretty good excuse for my tardiness. I managed to pick up almost all the ingredients at my local supermarket, but it I had to visit four shops (sliding around on the slush on my bike) before I could find any eggs. However, the fourth shop had loads of the things, and were looking pretty pleased with themselves. In an example of the Japanese stoicism that media hacks have been banging on about all week, they were engaging in some impressive anti-profiteering by selling them at a sharply discounted price.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Should I stay or should I go?

Firstly, thanks to everyone who has emailed or posted comments wishing me well. I'm touched to know that so many people are concerned about my welfare.

Today was supposed to be graduation, but it has been cancelled. So I am currently at City Hall, having cycled here through the snow wearing both a mask and a wet bandana over my face, just to be on the safe side. We were scheduled to have our first power outage right now, but that hasn't happened. Despite Yamagata's closer proximity to the carnage, our electricity supply is actually in better shape than Tokyo's - we weren't supplied by Fukushima Daiichi, apparently.

Yesterday school was operating normally. I didn't have any lessons, as we are now into that end-of-term slack period when all the time is devoted to preparations for the graduation ceremony: putting up decorations, rehearsing the songs, etc. Usually I would have made some effort to get involved with this, but yesterday I was more intent on spending as much time on the one 'internet computer' in the staffroom as I could get away with, keeping tabs on the situation.

The news was not good. Every time I managed to find some data on the radiation levels at the plant, they were getting higher. To make matters worse, the wind was south-easterly, blowing the plume directly towards me. 103km really didn't seem very far, and I was considering renewing my subscriptions to Scarpering monthly and Leg it news. It wasn't just me; the Google group the Yamagata ALTs use to keep in touch was buzzing with updates, questions, and rumours, though I have to say people have on the whole have been keeping calm quite impressively. In fact, people are so eager not to be seen to be scaremongering that I'm starting to worry we're going too far the other way; some of the advice and information my peers are giving is so positive and cheery that it almost sounds like propaganda.

Anyway, the weird thing was, none of the other teachers seemed to give a hoot about the possibility of an impending meltdown. Perhaps they were just putting on a brave face for the sake of the kids, in which case I commend them. I too was making an effort to be especially upbeat and genki around students. But I think Japanese people just trust the system more than we do: the official advice was that there was no danger outside a 30km radius, so that was good enough for them.

By the time I got home from school, news came that the radiation levels were falling, and while an increase had been detected as far away as Tokyo, it was well within the no-conceivable-threat-to-anyone limits. I downgraded my personal alert level (to "What? (Easy, mon.)"), and tried to relax by closing the BBC News window, opening a beer (alcohol is still in plentiful supply), and playing a spot of Rock Band. Just as I was about to head to bed there was a sizeable aftershock, the first of the day. Then a friend (who had also been boozing the stress away) called and told me that a whole bunch of the JETs from this region are planning to get out of the country imminently.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. It's their lives, and they gotta do what they gotta do. I think many people's families or significant others are putting a lot of pressure on them to come home, and I would like to thank my parents for remaining calm and not doing so. But really, I think they are overreacting given the situation at present, though of course things could change at any moment. Besides, it would be a nightmare trying to get to an international airport right now, with all the fuel shortages and disruption, and I imagine buying a plane ticket at this kind of notice would not be cheap. I suspect some people might feel a bit foolish in about a week. In any case, I hope they at least make their houses and whatever resources they have available for anyone that might need them. I think it's worth remembering that while we are thinking about getting out of here, people are being evacuated to Yamagata.

A common complaint is that there is not enough information being made available. While I think there is some truth to that, there's probably a bit more out there is you're willing/able to read it in Japanese. Someone sent me a link to official hourly radiation data recorded in Yamagata prefecture (easy on that link, the site seems to be overloaded). Overnight it peaked at around three times normal, which is nothing. If it goes up by two or three orders of magnitude, then I might start to worry. I'm really glad I found this information; radiation is scary because you have no way of sensing it. Never have I wanted a Geiger counter so badly. Some of my friends have been looking to me for information on the science side of things, which I must admit I'm kind of loving. Just now I gave my City Hall colleagues a quick lesson on the meanings of milli-, micro-, nano-, etc.

Finally, there is a lot of chat about donating to the relief effort. Someone has come up with the clever slogan of 'Man up for Japan', meaning donating 10,000yen (or ichi man en, you see). As many of you will know, the whole concept of charity kind of scrambles my brain. Though there are terrible things happening on the east coast, I wondered how much throwing money at the problem could really help, given that Japan is a wealthy country with advanced search and rescue facilities, and the international community is offering all the help it can. This got me thinking about the whole idea of the most rational way to give to charity, and I discovered that some people have put considerable effort into researching that question. Consequently, last night I manned up to provide medical supplies for people living in rural areas of Africa.

Oh, and shower news: It turns out that after the quake there was some crap in the water pipes which clogged up my shower. My landlord fixed it yesterday morning.

Update: Sorry to leave this on a cliff-hanger, but as I was writing this, the news from Fukushima Daiichi has once again taken a turn for the worse. I'll keep you posted.

Update, 15:30 local
I was put 'on standby' for the afternoon, i.e. allowed to go home. On the supplies front, there were encouraging scenes at the supermarket: they had restocked milk, eggs, cheese; I even managed to pick up a freshly baked apple pie. We are still in a no-bread situation though, and I ate the last of the strawberry milkshake loaf this morning.

Regarding the whole nuclear threat, although radiation at the plant briefly reached frighteningly high levels this morning, the measurements are actually falling steadily in Yamagata. There's a nice strong westerly wind today too, which is ideal. The French are doing what the French do best - making a big fuss out of nothing - by instructing their citizens to leave Tokyo. Meanwhile, the British are doing what they do best and keeping a stiff upper lip during times of adversity. I urge anyone worried about the radiation to read this.

Update: In an effort to defeat panic using science, I made a graphical, English language version of the data I was talking about above. It seems to be a hit with the ALTs of Yamagata, so I thought I'd share it with you too.

Update (19:30 local)
My supervisor is amazing. On monday he came to my door with a little goody bag containing a bunch of bananas, a packet of crackers, a chocolate bar and a can of beer. Just now he showed up with a bag of bread and rolls that looks a lot like what we get for school lunch, claiming he'd got them from "the city's supply". It's like he heard my bread prayers. I can confirm that none of it is strawberry milkshake flavoured.

Update, Thu 09:30:
The weather is a bit of a double edged sword right now. The wind continues to come from the NW, which is blowing the radiation out to sea nicely, but is also bringing wintry conditions that can't be helping the relief effort. It was very cold last night, with ice starting to form in my kitchen sink, and there's been a substantial dump of snow. I've got my heater on the lowest possible setting (12°C, small room mode) and my kerosene is holding out pretty well.

The media hype is one thing, but everyone knows that the media have a vested interest in sensationalising things. What's really starting to get my goat is the governments advising their citizens to leave, based on not very much. I spent about half an hour this morning writing emails trying to calm people who had been spooked by the US deciding that everyone within 80km of the plant should get out. I know you can say it's a precaution, better safe than sorry, etc., but some people are unable to leave, and this kind of thing is scaring them unnecessarily. Furthermore, with the damaged transport infrastructure already struggling to cope, it seems borderline irresponsible to encourage people to flee from what remains at this stage a remote chance of danger.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I'm a survivor

I'm currently at school, but it has been closed to students, so there's nothing for me to do. For the first time, I'm starting to feel frustrated at my impotence to do anything. There's a disaster unfolding a couple of hours down the road, and I feel that as a Japanese public servant with no dependents to take care of, I could be doing more to help than sitting in the staffroom of a closed school. But of course, I understand that rescue efforts must be left to the professionals, and that well-meaning random punters getting involved would likely be more of a hindrance than a help. However, there is news coming through of ALTs in Fukushima and Miyagi who need places to stay. Though petrol is now very hard to come by, I have two-thirds of a tank and a large and well-situated house, so I'm on standby to offer my assistance.

Anyway, this seems like a good time to recount my personal experiences of the disaster. This might sound a bit weird, but I actually wrote a blog post immediately following the initial quake. You see, all the teachers were busy following their well-rehearsed emergency protocols - getting students to safety, checking the building, and so on. I had no role in this, so I thought it was best just to stay at my desk (or under it during the bigger aftershocks) and not get in anyone's way. So, the following was written on Friday afternoon. Bear in mind that at this point I had no idea of the enormity of the crisis.

I just experienced my first properly scary earthquake. In fact, as I write this, the aftershocks are still coming, the power remains out, and a calm but urgent female voice continues to repeat something from the emergency warning system. My adrenaline remains pretty elevated too. We had a decent-sized quake two days ago, but evidently that was just a foreshock.

The first we knew of today's tremor was a strange alarm sounding from someone's mobile phone on their desk. Clearly, this was an early warning telling us a big one was coming, and we would do well to seek refuge as a matter of some urgency. But I didn't realise that, and just thought it was a particularly annoying ringtone. Then the lights flickered, and moments later the room started shaking, gently at first. The intensity of the heaving steadily picked up, and people started scrambling to secure the plasma screen and the photocopier. I'm no earthquake expert, but I've had drills for this kind of situation, and I'm pretty sure that hiding under something should be one's first concern, not propping up consumer electronics. But I didn't want to be the first to cower under a desk. Then the lights went out, the school's warning system kicked in to tell us something was going down (no shit, Sherlock) and some panicked looks flashed across the faces of my fellow teachers, many of whom started semi-squatting beside desks, ready to dash under at the first sign of trouble. Glancing out the window, I saw trees thrashing around as if there was a gale, but it was the ground rather than the air than was perturbing them. Just as I was starting to seriously wonder about how much shaking a building could take before it collapsed, the quaking started to subside. The room still moving sickeningly, the teachers took this moment to mobilise to protect their students, leaving just me, the head and vice-head in the staffroom, alarms blaring. The duration of the quake was the really impressive/scary thing. Usually they are over in about 10 seconds, but this one kept up for well over a minute. [More like 2.5 min, in fact.]

Thankfully, it appears that the building and all its inhabitants are ok, although there was a kind of minor outbreak of mass hysteria as all the girls started crying. Someone has found a radio, and from what I can gather the epicentre was the same as two days ago - in the Pacific to the east of Miyagi Prefecture, i.e. the one to the east of Yamagata. Apparently there have been some sizeable tsunamis hitting the east coast.

I'm back in the present now; the rest, as they say, is history. I was stuck at school for a while - although I had no responsibilities, I guess they just wanted me to stay somewhere safe until the dust had settled. The teachers dispersed all over town to escort the kids home, and I sat tight until they came back, listening to the radio. It was mostly about the tsunamis - they kept repeating "Please move to higher ground as quickly as possible", and they were reporting that waves up to 10m high had been hitting the shore. I don't think any of us could really comprehend what a 10m wave meant, but we have all seen the pictures now.

By the time everyone got back it was getting dark, so we had a debriefing by torchlight, and drew up a rota to man the school over the weekend. I was impressed with how well organised the whole thing was; it was like a military operation or something. Around six I was able to go home, which meant driving through the snow with all the traffic lights out. Getting home, I busted out some candles, and took stock of the situation. It was a cold night, and my kerosene heater needs electricity to operate. Marie's husband came round and offered to let me stay with them, but I had heard that power was still on in Yonezawa, so I decided to head out that way.

Most of the ALT population of south Yamagata (i.e. a good fifteen of us) ended up converging on a family restauant, where we hung out for about four hours drinking unlimited refills, exchanging stories, and huddling around iPhones watching footage of the tsunami. At this stage, we still didn't really grasp the seriousness of the situation. There was a big party planned for saturday night at the other end of the prefecture, so we were sorting out carpooling arrangements to get there, not appreciating that petrol was soon to become a scarce commodity.

Myself and one other guy went to Alda's to stay over. We found that we couldn't sleep - we were all on edge, with the aftershocks still coming. We kept imagining that the room was shaking, and the sound of snow falling off the roof had us panicking. We took to some moderate boozing to calm our nerves, eventually getting to sleep around three, only to be woken by Alda's phone's warning when a big aftershock hit just after four. Someone realised the internet was back up around seven, so that was us awake, first Skyping family and then reading the news, for the first time understanding just how big a deal this was.

Having nothing better to do, Alda and I decided to go and stock up on food, just in case. Swinging by a konbini, we found that some things like bread and riceballs were all gone, but other foods were in plentiful supply. We then went to a supermarket half an hour before it was to open (weirdly, Japanese supermarkets are closed until 10am), where people were already starting to queue up. They ended up opening the doors about 10 minutes early, and I got to be part of some very polite yet urgent panic-buying. Alda and I split up and did quite well for ourselves, with me bagging the last loaf of bread in the place (which turned out to be pink, and strawberry milkshake flavoured). We slipped up on bottled water though - rookie error. After that we went to my favourite shop Yamaya, which was a masterstroke as they have lots of non-perishable stuff like pasta, beef jerky, and boil-in-the-bag vegan curries.

We got back, set up a full cooker of rice, and spent the day lazily watching movies with one eye on the news websites. A couple of other ALTs joined us in the afternoon, and as news of the Fukushima plant started to emerge, we got sufficiently worried to suspend our viewing of 10 things I hate about you and start stockpiling non-radioactive water. I got news that power had come back on in Nanyo around 4pm, so after the excellent dinner of spaghetti and meatballs that my Italian-American hostess had stereotypically cooked, I decided to head home, thus putting an extra 3km between me and the troubled reactor. Could make all the difference, I thought.

I spent all of yesterday being simultaneously bored and anxious; it was like my PhD all over again. I went out for a wander around town just to take stock of the situation, as I reported in the previous post.

As the news comes in, it seems that it's going to take quite a while for things to get fully back to normal, what with the electricity rationing and the like. I hope that my parents will be able to go ahead with their scheduled trip here in a month.

Update, monday evening:
Just after I posted the above, there was a scary moment as there was an explosion at reactor number 3 and a warning of a 5m tsunami heading for the east coast within minutes of each other. But it turned out that the core had not been breached and that the tsunami was composed entirely of bullshit, so we could all breathe again.

I'm starting to get the feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better. There's definitely no petrol to be had in Nanyo tonight, and I couldn't see much in the way of kerosene either. Some eateries remain open, but Sukiya and Kappa Sushi have both closed their doors, which is of course a crushing blow for me. The supermarkets are looking shorter stocked today than they were yesterday.

But it's nothing I can't handle. I dug out my bike and fixed the puncture it had developed over the winter, so I can get around town without burning any precious petrol. Thankfully it's been very mild the last couple of days so the roads are largely free of snow - I never though I'd be happy about snow melting. And on the food front, if things really get desperate I have a big enough bag of rice to keep me alive for weeks.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Just a quick note to let everyone know that I am indeed safe. The quake took out the power in Nanyo, so I went to Yonezawa where utilities were unaffected, and stayed with a friend. I'm still there now. Phonecalls are mostly not getting through, and phone email is getting held up really badly. So I don't know what the situation is in Nanyo now, but I'm in no particular hurry to get back. My house appeared to be undamaged.

Update, 11:30 GMT / 20:30 local:
Power was restored to Nanyo this afternoon, and I am now back home. I'm watching the situation at Fukushima Daiichi quite nervously, as I am only 103km away from the plant.

Update, 23:30 GMT / 08:30 (sunday) local:
Aftershocks keep coming; having quietened down yesterday they seem to be picking up ominously. I was woken by a 6.0 about an hour ago, and as I was writing this, a 6.2 hit. I had the TV on, and the early warning system worked, meaning I was under the desk before the shaking even started.

Some people from home are asking me whether I have any plans to flee the country. I don't. I've seen the terrible scenes from the east coast, but here in Yamagata it's more-or-less business as usual. There's negligible damage to buildings, the utilities are back up, and while there are some problems with keeping shops supplied, I have enough food to last me days. I'm in no immediate danger, so I'm staying put. Having said that, I am ready to jump in my car and drive in the opposite direction from Fukushima at short notice.

Update, 07:30 (sun) GMT, 16:30 local:
After some frantic panic buying, my local petrol station is now out of gasoline. There are some shortages in the supermarket (bottled water, bread, instant noodles, etc), and of course all the refrigerated or frozen stuff had to be discarded because of the power cut, but I wouldn't say it's too much of a problem at this stage.

In more trivial news, I can't get a decent shower at home - I guess pipes must be leaking and the pressure isn't 100%. But it's ok, because my local onsen has reopened. The positive side of living on the Ring of Fire is that 45°C water comes out of the ground.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Get ready for the lunch

There's nothing exceptional going on here, though I am pleased to say that after a dry and somewhat mild February, the snow is back in effect for March. It seems that snow in Yamagata in the months of 2011 is following the inverse pattern to good Star Trek movies.

So, let's talk school lunches. People often don't bother giving me memos, newsletters, and the like because of the whole language issue, which is fair enough. But I got my hands on a copy of the lunch menus for the month, which means that I could a) sharpen up my food vocabulary and b) actually know what I was eating for once.

When I was at the receiving end of the education biz, I never had school dinners. Thus I am ill-equipped to comment on British lunches, though of course I know that if lazy, hackneyed comedy routines are to be believed, they (along with British Rail sandwiches) were pretty dodgy.

So, although I have no real frame of reference, I have been very impressed with the fair on offer at Japanese public middle schools. I pay 290yen (£2.18) a day - I guess that must be subsidised - for which I get a tasty, healthy, filling meal. I want to be clear that I have no complaints whatsoever about Nanyo's school lunch services. Got that? Ok. Nevertheless, I thought that it might be interesting and/or amusing to give a detailed analysis and critique of a week's worth of lunches. Here we go:

Note: All lunches come with a 200ml carton of milk.

Main: Chicken and vegetable stew
Soup: Miso
Carbs: Rice (with furikake)
Bonus item: Quarter-orange

Before coming to Japan, I occasionally worried that I didn't actually like sushi, but rather I just liked the idea of it because it's so exotic and sexy (though it has become markedly less so over the course of the 00s, as every British supermarket started selling it beside the hummus wraps and Innocent Smoothies in the 'cosmopolitan ponce' section). I am pleasantly surprised to find that after over a year and a half, far from the novelty wearing off, my love for seafood on vinegared rice has only deepened. Miso soup, however, is another story. I used to love a bit of miso, but you encounter it so often here that it is difficult to muster any excitement at all for the cloudy yellow broth. I don't dislike it, it's just become about as remarkable to me as air or water.

I always appreciate when something is added to the rice to give it a bit more pizazz - to my Western palate, a bowl of plain white rice still seems a little austere. A 2.5g sachet of furikake - finely chopped dried vegetables - goes a surprisingly long way to liven things up.

Verdict: A workaday number to start the week. Nothing objectionable here, but its not going to make anyone stand up and take notice. B-

Main: Yakinikudon - grilled pork and vegetables
Soup: Kimchi (Korean spicy cabbage) and daikon (Japanese radish)
Carbs: Rice
Bonus item: A frozen fruit jelly dessert of some kind.

So this was basically gyuudon, your standard beef-and-rice combo as served by the likes of Sukiya and Yoshinoya, but with the cheaper alternative of pork. Fairly tasty, but it did pose the conundrum of whether to attempt to combine the meat and rice in one bowl, where there wasn't really enough room. The soup was the biggest talking point of this meal though - while daikon is a profoundly boring and inoffensive vegetable, kimchi packs quite a punch. I was surprised that they were serving it to 12-year-olds, some of whom seemed to struggle with it. It probably would have put Danny into a coma. Personally, I enjoyed the soup, though it was a little on the watery side.

Verdict: While there were no true standout items, a strong showing nonetheless. A-

Main: Pork with fine rice noodles
Soup: 'Chinese style' - Egg, bacon, and various vegetables
Carbs: Croissants!

Here's how it usually works: Mon, Tue, Thu is rice, Wed and Fri is bread. Occasionally you might get a mini-baguette instead of the standard sliced white, but in my 19 months of service this is the first croissant I've encountered. And we got not one but two each!

The soup was also excellent; nice and salty, and much heartier than yesterday's offering. I've come to believe that egg, beaten and thrown into the broth, enhances virtually any soup. My very favourite school lunch soup is chicken-and-egg, and not just because of the paradoxical name. This combo is called oyako in Japanese, literally 'parent and child', which is a little off-putting.

Verdict: The main was perhaps the weak link here, but even that was an enjoyable dish. And there were croissants! A

Thursday (Hinamatsuri, "Doll festival" / "Girls' Day")
Main: Chicken karaage with boiled vegetables
Soup: Tofu and mushroom
Carbs: Rice with salmon and seaweed
Bonus item: Strawberry mousse

Let's start with the positives. A light but tasty soup, making heavy use of the long, stringy mushrooms I have never seen outside of Japan. They look almost like noodles, but with little hemispherical boutons on one end. Just like noodles, Japanese has a lot more vocabulary for edible fungi than English, where everything is just some kind of 'mushroom'. It makes me feel like some kind of uncultured boor at times.

On monday I sang the praises of rice sprinkles, but today they blew that out of the water by having flakes of salmon and bits of seaweed through the rice, rather like someone had fed a salmon riceball into a shredder. Very good, and the dessert was an added festive treat.

But there's no getting away from the main. Karaage, or battered fried chicken, is a ubiquitous snack food here, and it ranges in quality from delicious to disgustingly greasy and gristly, so it's always a bit of a gamble. Today's offering came out right in the middle of that quality distribution - so, not great. And the vegetable accompaniment did nothing to help: a soggy plateful of limp boiled greens.

Verdict: If Japanese school lunches were movies, today's would be Avatar. By that I mean that it was, at it's core (the plot / main course in this tortured metaphor), uninspired and disappointing, but it had enough enjoyable ancillary stuff going on to keep the punters happy. B

Main: Seafood spaghetti
Side: 'French salad'
Carbs: Brioche (2)
Bonus item: Strawberries (3)

Watch out, it's European day! As a consequence, my main/soup system has broken down, with the spaghetti being served in the soup bowl.

The seafood spaghetti was very good, with prawns and what my dictionary tells me are 'Manila clams' in a creamy white sauce. This kind of thing is often confusingly referred to as shichuu, from the English 'stew'. It usually comes with some sort of roll to dip into it, and I could scarcely believe my eyes when the second novelty bread in the space of three days was brought out. Historic scenes, people.

The salad was pretty average, notable only for the difficulty of eating its sweetcorn and grated carrot constituents using chopsticks. Sweetcorn is probably number two on my list of annoying things to eat with chopsticks, the top spot taken by the little 3mm cubes of cheese that often show up in school salads. Why would you cut them so small?

Verdict: The tastiest main of the week; a bread item which, though unable to match Wednesday's croissant, was still a crowd-pleaser; and a premium fruit to round things out. A high note on which to end the week. A

Closing remarks: All in all, a strong week for school lunches, with no unwelcome natto appearances. The unusual frequency and high standard of bonus items warrants a mention - perhaps we are seeing some end-of-year budget surplus blowing?