Saturday, March 27, 2010
1) The teeny tiny, extremely old lady (I think she was visiting from a Lilliputian elderly care home) who was waiting at the traffic lights next to me. She reached over, touched my hair and asked if it was a perm. Huh?
2) The hugely unwelcome return of winter. I live in a warm place and I'm wearing a winter coat in almost-April. Huh?
3) The calorie free but high alcohol beer. Huh? Surely the whole point of beer is that you're ignoring the need to diet.
4) I've lived here for four years and I still can't write my address without assistance. Huh?
5) I arrived here with a suitcase and a box. I'm moving with the same suitcase and about 20 boxes. I still never have anything to wear. Huh?
* Moving day has arrived and as a result the internet is being cut off. I feel a bit like my right arm is facing it's execution. That means I may not be able to update as much as I'd like. I'll still be online from time to time, but will be relying on internet cafes etc so I will endeavour to keep you all posted on developments as we settle into the new place. Once the internet is back up, watch out- I'll be back with a vengeance!
In the meantime, please comment and share your moving dramas with me. I'm sure I'll have a few of my own and I need the feeling of solidarity. ;P
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
my new apartment will be an homage to good housekeeping. The washing up will get done with hours of eating and not, possibly, the next day. The floor will be swiffered every day and the ironing will never pile up to Everest proportions.
I will refrain from late night snacking on crisps and other such foods-of-the-devil in front of the computer. In fact, my entire body will become a temple to healthy eating. I may even start eating tofu as a snack, rather than as a punishment for poor diet. What the heck, I may even go so far as to indulge in 5 almonds as a snack/ reward for good diet.
I will use the computer in a wise and sensible way. I will not spend hours at a time checking out ridiculous You Tube videos like Vanilla Ice. I will use the time I have saved doing something edumacational and, possibly intellectual.
I will leave for work/ my Japanese class/ any other appointment with ample time, hence reducing the chance of mowing down old people as I fly through town at high speed on my rusty green bicycle.
I will always leave the house dressed in a carefully considered outfit, and not one based on what was clean and ironed at the time.
I'll always remember to take things out of my bag at night so I don't end up carrying up half a rain forest in my over sized (but hugely fashionable, naturally) handbag.
I will stop getting a bad neck from carrying a ridiculously heavy bag full of stuff I don't need to and from work every day.
I will be a calm, well-organised and helpful roommate, always on hand to be of assistance, and never cranky in any way shape or form.
Yeah right! I'll stay exactly as I am. A bit cranky, disorganised and untidy at times. I'll just live in better surroundings. Can't wait!
Monday, March 22, 2010
Whatever the reason for hanging out under the trees, it is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, or evening, or, indeed, both. This weekend, we had glorious weather and my local park was full of people like me, taking the chance to take as many pictures as possible, trying in vain to capture how beautiful the flowers are, and we're not in peak season yet.Talking with friends about the cherry blossoms recently was really interesting. Most of my Japanese friends can't get their heads around the idea that English people don't celebrate the arrival of spring with a merry old picnic and a few cheeky drinks. It's well known that the Japanese like to mark seasonal changes with a festival, any excuse for a drink and some barbecued meat, but speing is really the big one as it coincides with a million other events. It all conspires together to make it impossible for even the most anti-social among us to avoid a party. To be honest, the more I think of it, the more I wonder why we don't have the same approach in the UK. I mean, we have cherry trees in England, we certainly enjoy a party, but the cherry blossoms are largely ignored. I may have to remedy that at some stage in the future.
In my case, I am trying to indulge in "high speed hanami (cherry blossom viewing)", in between packing up my apartment as part of my contribution to new life season. I'm actually getting quite annoyed with living among boxes and can't wait for everything to be unpacked in the new place. The moving company is coming next week so it all has to be done by then, so at least the end is in sight. Hopefully, I'll be all done by the time the peak cherry blossom season hits and I'll be able to kick back, have a beer and, who knows, I might even be inspired to compose some haiku... OK maybe not the last one.
Monday, March 15, 2010
The park's been, rather inconveniently, closed since the end of last year for reconstruction, so I haven't been anywhere near it, but as it's between my new place and my old one, I ventured down there to see what was occuring. I was thrilled to find swings had been installed. I considered kicking the kids off the swings to try them out, but realised that we frown on that in civilised society, so didn't do it. I think I can congratulate myself for developing as a human being. It truly is "new life season".
As I mentioned in a previous post, everything changes in spring for Japanese people, even the park.
Graduations were held last week at the two universities in town. Yup, I live in a very edumacated kind of a place, there are two universities. I'm hoping some of the edumacation will rub off on me, but let's not hold our communal breath. For one acquaintance of mine, well, OK, I admit, he's the part timer at the sushi shop where, you may have begun to realise, I conduct most of my cultural observation activities, it's been an eventful few weeks. He passed the entrance test for graduate school and completed his undergraduate degree in the past month or so. I'm always struck by how close together these things are in Japan. This guy literally found out he would be able to continue at university weeks before graduation. If he hadn't been able to get into graduate school, he would have missed the graduate employment train by a year or more. Graduate job hunting seems to begin two years in advance, making me wonder if graduate school is seen as the place where the students who weren't able to get jobs years before graduation decide to go to improve their chances, rather than being a cherished opportunity to engage in further study and research. It seems deciding to go to graduate school can be decided at the last minute but jobs need forward planning. Confusing.
The undergraduate students did their entrance tests at the end of February and so have had a little more time to prepare to move to other cities. As I live on the small island, most kids from here head off to the bigger cities on Honshu. In some cases, it's because that's where the famous universities are, but, in most cases, it's because that's where the crazy nightlife is, or so they think. The ones headed off to the bright lights are currently involved in hunting for apartments, as most universities have little, if any, dorm accommodation. Again, this all happens in record time. Seriously, Japanese people don't hang about when it comes to education.
Entrance tests for high schools were also held last week. All over the city, third grade high school students were let loose for two days to populate the arcades, karaoke boxes and pizza restaurants in town while the final grade junior high school students used their classrooms to be tested. In the case of one of my students, she had the day off while her younger sister took the test. Considering that school will start at the beginning of April for these students, there's not much room for manoeuvre. Those who are unsuccessful in the test for their first choice of school have to scramble around to find a place at the next best high school. It seems that, generally, most students can go to the school of their choice, but, much like the British system, there are the unlucky ones, and, for them, it's a stressful time.
Once these students enter high school, they won't have time to smell the cherry blossom as it will be full steam ahead for university entrance in three year's time. Japanese high school students have the most intense schedules I have ever encountered. In many cases, they attend regular school hours, take part in club activities at school seven days a week, as well as attending cram schools until late into the evening. It's usual to see 15 year olds still in school uniform cycling home at 10 or even 11pm, and, unlike in the UK, they're not about to get an ASBO, they've simply been at cram school studying ancient Japanese (I wonder if we could fix "Broken Britain with a few, well-placed ancient English lessons?). The high school near my current apartment is famous for its baseball team. These kids are out practising before school starts at 8.30am and are usually still out there when I come home around 10.30 or 11pm. This is on top of a regular school schedule. I guess the stress of waiting to see which school you can attend is good preparation for the lifestyle you'll encounter once you're in.
In the next few weeks, the department store will be awash with Mothers buying school uniform, telling little Taro that he'll "grow into it" and debating how much of the uniform he will actually end up wearing. Home ware stores will have special offers for new futons and parents will be found wandering around said stores wondering what happened to the child they used to drag around Toys R Us (Yup, we have that in Japan, it's a world wide magnet for kids).
For kids and parents alike, spring is a time of change and adjustment. It's a time to accept that we are not who we used to be and to embrace that change. Unless you're a university freshman, in which case, it's a chance to get horribly drunk and vomit in the local shopping arcade. But that can wait until April.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
To occupy my mind while procrastinating, I've been pondering what inventions would make my life just that bit easier.
1) Obviously, some kind of packing fairy. I'm imagining a mechanical and well-programmed gadget that would allow me to sit back and drink the tea which I have temporarily buried in a pile of stuff from the kitchen, while supervising the heavy lifting. Presumably, the packing fairy would locate the tea and possibly boil the kettle for me. In other words, the packing fairy would be the ultimate packing assistant, without the high cost.
2) A weather delayer. It's criminal that, when it's finally stopped raining, I'm stuck in the house avoiding packing. I could go outside but then I'd be racked with guilt for not getting on with the task in hand. If I could somehow record today's weather and save it for a day when I have the free time to go outside and enjoy myself. Like SkyPlus, or Tivo or whatever system you use on your TV. It would also allow me to pause rain showers while I'm cycling to work. It can rain as much as it likes once I'm there as long as it stops when I want to go back home. Genius, even if I do say so myself.
3) Some kind of gadget to warn me when the doorbell is going to be rung. I'm perfectly happy to get leaflets, parcels or discuss the latest in some kind of technology that I don't understand. I just wish I wasn't always in pajamas with Einstein hair when they called. If I had a warning system, I could at least put some jeans on. Not spending the conversation wishing I didn't look like I was in the middle of some kind of breakdown would help me focus on what they were saying, if nothing else.
4) A mute button for any kind of annoying sound. Not just kids, but dripping taps, noisy fridges, over-enthusiastic washing machines. Anything. I'd love that.
Well, I'm off to sort out my clothes. I'm going to be ruthless. Only the good stuff is going to the new place. I just have to work out what the good stuff is. Until the packing fairy arrives, I'll be busy busy busy. Focusing on the good times in my new place, once I'm done with this packing nonsense.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
But the best part? Truly the part that I will never again take for granted? I will have a selection of rooms to choose from should I wish to move out of my sleeping area. Finally, all of those feng shui articles telling me to keep my working/TV area away from my sleeping area, will not result in me growling at magazines. That's a good thing, it doesn't half raise eyebrows when I start growling in the bookshop where I cheekily read the over-priced, imported magazines. The new place has 7 rooms, and while we will each have a room to call our own, the rest will be shared. I can cook in the kitchen and then stroll through to the lounge to listen to music or watch TV, or whatever the shared space will end up being used for. Heck, I might even break into a dance on one of the balconies (yup, there's more than one, on account of there being more than one window, good times!) At the moment, Starbucks is my living room. No longer, my friends. No longer. It's a joyful time! Or at least it will be once I've managed to get all my stuff into boxes. But now is not a time for reflecting on how much I hate packing. It's a time of great joy and happiness, and not just for me.
Spring is the big "new life" season in Japan. High schools and universities hold graduation ceremonies, and then entrance ceremonies for new students. Companies transfer hundreds of workers all over the country. Almost all advertising is based on the idea of people starting again. It's a time of closing and opening doors, saying goodbye to old friends and welcoming new ones. Throw some cherry blossoms into the background, and you have the stuff movies are made of, at least Japanese ones. The importance of this season in Japanese culture cannot be underestimated. There is so much to be said that it's impossible to cover it in one post, so keep checking in to learn more about the best time of year to be here.
Friday, March 5, 2010
If it was just a simple case of taking shoes off, it wouldn't be blog worthy, so you have probably guessed that there's more to it. And how.
Firstly, it's not taking them off that causes the main problem, it's getting the flipping things back on again. In many Japanese houses, there is a high step up into the house. It separates the "genkan" from the actual house. Stepping off the step, into your shoes, without putting your feet on the dirty floor, while maintaining any semblance of elegance, is a talent that I don't possess. I have noticed many Japanese people have a habit of not tying shoe laces tightly, which makes this process easier. Long boots with a zip are just terrible. My little apartment doesn't have a genkan so I don't even practice in the privacy of my own home. It only becomes an issue when I'm in Japanese style restaurants or visiting some one's home. Neither of which are great places to wobble precariously on one leg while trying to fit the other one into a shoe without touching it.
A side point- if you are ever visiting Japan, for the love of chocolate, bring decent socks. The need to take your shoes off can pop up in the course of any day, any time, anywhere. Leave the dodgy socks at home. And, please remember, even if you're wearing long boots, your bed socks should also stay home (not that I speak from experience or anything...).
The place that seems to be a den of shoe related trauma is the gym. My gym opened a new building a few weeks ago. Another side point- I haven't been inappropriately touched by an old woman in the new building, the excitement of the new facilities is distracting them. Happy times.
Anyway, I have found a new source of confusion and embarrassment. My shoes. So, I enter the gym building. Hand in my card and get my locker pass. Then I have to take my outdoor shoes off, carry them to my locker, and place them on a special tray in my locker. If I don't want to place my outdoor shoes in the same locker as my clothes, there are alternative shoe lockers available. Now, when I have donned my gym bunny outfit (otherwise known as shorts and the latest race T-shirt to show off to everyone that I did, indeed, finish a half marathon. Yup, I'm a bit smug), I can't put my shoes on right away. I can't wear my indoor, gym shoes, in the changing room. I can only wear them in the studio and gym area. I have to walk into the hallway and then put my shoes on. Then, if I need the bathroom mid way through a work out, I have to take my shoes off and put on special "toilet slippers" while in the toilet. Actually, even in people's houses, it's common to have toilet slippers for hygiene reasons. Then, when I leave the bathroom, I have to put my workout shoes back on and continue my workout. Seriously, taking my shoes on and off tires me almost as much as the workout.
These shoe shenanigans are all in the name of hygiene, and it has to be said that it is probably healthier and cleaner. I'm getting used to the idea, I just need to do a bit of work on how to do it elegantly. It's also lovely when the very hospitable people I visit in their homes have special, guest slippers so that my feet don't get cold. It just makes me feel so at home and I love that. Good times all round.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Sometimes, people simply run out of things to ask me. You know how that happens sometimes? You are trying to make small talk with someone and just simply run out of topics? It's a socialite's nightmare. To be fair, usually, I'm having trouble giving correct answers. Like I say, I have basic Japanese knowledge, but my brain operates slowly in Japanese which often gives the impression that I don't understand anything, when, in fact, if my conversation partner waits a while, I'll get there. Of course, they don't know that because I'm not very good at telling them. I find myself going totally blank under pressure, and the whole conversation becomes a bit awkward for all concerned.
I often worry that people misunderstand me and assume I'm not interested in their conversation. It pains me to think I'm being considered rude, when, really, most of the time, I'm just a bit confused by the conversation and my brain is exhausted from trying to work out what I'm being asked and finding an appropriate answer. As strange as it sounds, this causes me quite a lot of stress. I want to make friends here but struggle with simple conversations. Many other foreigners I have met complain that Japanese people aren't friendly. "Japanese people don't like foreigners" they proclaim. It's interesting to note that the most fervent Japan-bashers have often made no attempt to learn the language but make no allowances for the person struggling to communicate in a language that is not their own. As much as I worry that many people around me think me rude because my Japanese is altogether too direct and their questions are often met with a puzzled silence, generally people are very kind to me when I manage to get the words out, at least to my face. It could just be that they wait for me to leave until they criticize my bad manners, but why not give them the benefit of the cultural doubt?
The upshot is that I end up leaving a great deal unsaid. It's the unsaid that I always think is so dangerous in any relationship, whether it's with your hairdresser, bank clerk, colleague, friend or partner. Recently, a good friend of mine has been having a few marriage woes. I can't help but wonder if things wouldn't improve, at least to some degree, if she put as much energy into communicating how she feels to her husband as she does into complaining to me about him. Giving him the silent treatment and then being angry when he doesn't seem to know what he has done just doesn't seem like a particularly good way to proceed.
Of course, my lack of Japanese skill can create comedy misunderstandings. Last time I went for a haircut much confusion arose when the stylist asked me if I knew what "hakusai" is. Or so I thought. "Hakusai" is Chinese leaf cabbage. Hokusai is a very famous Japanese artist from the Edo era. Turns out the stylist is an art buff and not so interested in cabbage. I didn't realise my mistake completely until I got home and checked in the dictionary. And then I googled Hokusai just to confirm I'm a total Muppet. It seems I have a lot to learn. In general.