Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Smoking and Drinking and Wearing One-Shoulder Dresses

Hurrah! As of today, I am officially on holiday. None of this beating-about-in-the-bush business (which is almost a pity, since it sounds kind of fun, if somewhat pointless and also dirty), with sitting at a desk and staring at computer screen and bemoaning the fact that work-internet blocks TradeMe so I can't even look at ridiculous things I would buy if I had the money, like horses and cafes and ghosts in jars. I am in bed. I intend to stay here, mayhap until 2011. Probably may not hap, but one can dream.

Last night I celebrated in proper style. I bought a new dress. A new headband. A new necklace. All from Japan, but all from stores blatantly flaunting the fact that they are not Japanese. The headband and necklace were purchased from Claire's and the dress from Zara, a chain which I personally think rivals Top Shop in excellent dress selection. Their designers are also clearly as fully in the throws of leopard-print addiction as I, and so I wandered around in a happy wild-cat daze, looking at shoes and boots and shoots and skirts and ponchos and scarves and dresses and skirts, all goldy and spotty and begging to be worn. However, leopard-print as a addiction presents a problem, being so striking and statementy. It was OK when my addiction was the colour black, a stalwart fashion choice that has maintained me for some years, but this current obsession is reminiscent of my 3rd/4th form obsession with stars and stripes, which often led to outfits which consisted of: a bandanna fashioned from an American flag, small blue earrings shaped like stars, a sleeveless tank top emblazoned with an impressionistic flag, a denim skirt covered in white stars and striped red and white socks. Looking back I am ashamed and disgusted and slightly judgmental of the deficit in parental attentions which must have occurred to allow me to leave the house with such a tiresome political agenda literally covering me from head to toe. (Aside: is this not perhaps the longest sentence in the entire world?).

And then I look down and discover myself to be wearing boots with leopard print cuffs, a big leopard print jersey, a (admittedly beautiful, and expensive) leopard fur coat and leopard fur earmuffs. I suppose I have to then shift the blame from my parents to myself, because they can hardly be expected to exercise sartorial authority over 23-year-old offspring located halfway across the world. But someone really should try. THINK OF THE LEOPARDS.

I've totally forgotten what this paragraph began with.

Ah! Zara. I ended up purchasing a most excellent boho-print one shouldered dress, which I paired with a crystal studded headband to great effect. I have my friend Di to thank for my new penchant for dressing to mismatch - there's something very freeing about no longer having to match your belt to your boots. When you have hair as red as I do, nothing really matches anything - my mustard coloured scarf provides a particularly painfully wonderful clash.

Man I am good at digressing. And talking about my hair. Get on with it.

So attired, I proceeded to TK6 to meet with a JET friend and her JTE and tequila shots. Happy hour proved happy indeed. And sweetly flavoured with international irony. At one point I found myself seated at the bar, with three Moscow Mules arrayed before me, engaged in deep conversation with a Russian woman named Olga. She had been living in Tokyo for 16 years, but was currently in Sapporo doing job training. She missed Russia a lot, but tried to go back every year to - yes - Moscow. She complimented my hair. I complimented her on her big, green Russian eyes. A love affair was born. Upon discovering that I planned to be in Tokyo for New Years, she immediately supplied me with business card and phone number, offering to squire me and my friends around town in the Big Smoke. I think it extremely likely that I will take her up on the offer. How often do you actually meet a Russian woman named Olga (if you lived in Russia, probably all the time, it's probably about as exciting as meeting an American named Sarah or a Brit named Clare, but this was my FIRST RUSSIAN that wasn't a COCKTAIL)? I could have chatted with ol' Olga for quite some time, but the group was stirring... t'was time to relocate.

Relocation was found just around the corner in a tiny, smoky, dark bar which specialised in sheesha (for the uninitiated, a flavoured tobacco smoked through a large ornate pipe). We were directed upstairs into what can only be described as an attic - the ceilings were low enough to bump your back on when you were bent double, and there was junk lining the walls (my first attempt to sit down resulted in a painful union between my ass and a foosball table). It is entirely possible that the bar staff were just trying to hide our rowdy, red-cheeked selves, in an effort to attract more desirable custom. But there was a table, and beer, and a pipe, and once the hookah was flowing, the Japanese bartender fished out a projector, which projected (duh) on to the dusty wall scenes of a night sky, across which a meteorite would occasionally flash. It was surreal. Our small group of five quickly doubled when another JET arrived, bringing with him 5 male Japanese co-workers, all fresh from their end-of-year Xmas party. They were courteous and interested - not being English teachers, conversation with me did not flow as easily as it might, but they asked about my country, complimented my dress (yussss) and, with the aid of electronic dictionaries, described me as 'elegant' , which made me glad that I'd kept my tequila shooting to a bare minimum. It was a soothing, smoky atmosphere - the tobacco (a house speciality) was a mix of liquorice and peach and some other flavours I failed to identify. I attempted some Gandalf-style smoke rings which got me so dizzy that I sat on the foosball table again (elegant).

Outside, the snow was falling heavily, as it continues to do even now. It's gonna be a White Christmas, methinks.

At about midnight, the group began to disperse. Some proceeded on to Booty, but others, like me, soothed by smoke and snow and Sapporo, wended their way home through the falling white, just in time to catch the last subway. Getting home at 1 am, I immediately proceeded to cook a full feed of nachos, complete with spicy chicken and home-made guacamole, while "don't drink and fry, don't drink and fry' echoed around my head. Snug in bed with Mexican food and American television, I felt that my celebration of the end of the working year was complete, though sadly devoid of dancing. I'm glad that I cut it short when I did, however, though no doubt Booty would have supplied some hilarious anecdotes (particularly since it has a strippers pole in the middle of the dance floor). My wallet is heavier than it might otherwise have been, and I am ready for Christmas, for the arrival of friends, and for travel.

Come on Liz, Abby, Aravin. The harajuku girls - and Olga - are waiting for us.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Approaches

And my holiday has offically begun! OK, so far it is off to a slow start, since although my school has closed, my paid leave doesn't kick in until the 24th, so I am back at the BOE, back on the computer, eating Goldfish crackers and drinking green tea. Still, I am not at my desk, pretending to work whilst actually playing Bejeweled Blitz, and so things are clearly on the up.

This positivity is tiring. It doesn't come naturally. So just to tempter it with some more chacteristic moaning, I have GIANT blisters on my left heel from my beautiful, but ever so slightly too small, new boots. This causes me grief not only because I am forced to hobble like a drunken sailor, which has all kinds of ramifications on the icy roads of Sapporo, but also because I am one of those people who must wear anything new IMMEDIATELY. Four out of five purchases I wear out of the store, forcing the long-suffering sales assistant to wrestle the tag from the nape of my neck (or the crack of my butt, if they're really unlucky) and provide me with a carry-bag for whatever sweaty discard I need to bear away. Thus, it is causing me inordinate amounts of grief that I cannae wear my leonine lovelies. I think of them, squatting sadly (can shoes squat? More to the point, can they feel emotion? Feck it, go with it) in my cold landing, all soft and un-scuffed, wondering what they did to be so swiftly replaced with my old boots (boots which cost $400 and are beautiful, so I'm hardly suffering from bootlessness, which is lucky, because it's a terrible disease). Bemoan the plight of the demoted boot.

WARNING: This post is about to shift in tone from grumpy and relaxed to sad and metaphysical. If you're not up to the mental segue, I suggest you part ways with my words here.

By rights, I ought to be hungover today, but the universe rebelled against this prediction in an awful manner: last night was supposed to involve the Christmas leaving party thrown by my school, but was cancelled due to the sudden death of the wife of one my teachers. No better excuse to postpone a party, really. She died at 5.30am on Monday morning, suddenly, of a brain hemorrhage, leaving behind three young children and a shell-shocked husband. Japanese culture still focuses heavily on the role of the woman as child bearer and raiser, and so I do not know what will be the fate of these children, or of the husband. All I know is that there is no way to prepare for this, no way to recover, and no karmic retribution cycle that justifies decimating this family so suddenly, so awfully, so close to Christmas.

I am aware that I have belittled the state of the Japanese family in former posts, but the shocking news made me realise that family, no matter how it is structured, no matter how the various roles play out, is family. For these children, innocence and trust is gone. The husband's life has changed forever. I can't even imagine the depths of the shock and horror and pain that he must be feeling, so I'll leave the subject, and the post, here, departing with intimations of mortality.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Last Working Monday of 2010

... not to say that this Monday, 20th of December, didn't work, per say - it was, more or less, a standard representation of all my Mondays in Japan thus far. There were classes to teach and meetings to attend. There were trains to catch, and many a Japanese verb to be absorbed. What this title is meant to convey is that holidays are imminent, Santa has boarded the sleigh, and all desire on my part to function as a desirable and worthy employee have flown the whatever. I wouldn't want to give you the wrong impression though - I haven't been slaving away to any particular degree, I simply feel that I have clocked enough hours in 2010 to satisfy karma, and it's time for some R&R (Rice Wine and Restaurants). Tomorrow's post will likely be entitled similarly, with a "Tuesday" substitution. Creativity only flows so far.

This weekend was just gone was spent at the abode of my errant manfriend, who is currently earning his keep nurturing the young minds of Niseko. He is also nurturing a healthy ego, given that the question he is most commonly asked by his winsome charges is "How big is your penis?" It seems that the black man stereotype pervades all four corners, and the blurred boundaries where Sri Lankan meets African American don't seem to matter much when tens of small Asian fingers are groping for your long-john clad package.

I departed on Friday afternoon, directly from school, which involved the carting of one small but densely packed suitcase through the slushy, awful streets of Motomachi (yes, I need a suitcase for one weekend's visit, no I didn't wear all five dresses that I packed, no, no lessons have been learnt). Manfriend is lucky that I love him. The train ride was uneventful (Aside: was totally, utterly engrossed in newest over-priced book purchase, The Windup Girl by Paolo Someone (odd name, but he never gets anyone else's mail) - 'tis a Brave New World for our braver newer world, and comes highly recommended) and it didn't seem like long before I was in the arms of Manfriend in the cold streets of Kutchan (actually, we restrained ourselves 'til we were indoors, Aravin being loathe to publicly disclose both length and girth to the inquiring public). Kutchan is the main township in Niseko, though the majority of tourism occurs in nearby Hirafu ('coz they've got the slopes. Dude). It is small and perfectly formed, and the snow didn't cease during my whole visit. Aravin's apartment is much the same as the suburb in which it is located, so it is lucky that his only piece of furniture is a futon. His apartment is an accurate reflection of everything you've ever read about Japanese living - this kitchen is in the dining room is in the bedroom. Nonetheless, the smallness makes for easy heating and the lack of furniture forced us to remain in bed. Don't cry for me, so.

That night, we partook of Genghis Khan in a nearby restaurant, then of vodka in an adjacent bar. Everything about Kutchan has that kind of indie/local feel that can never be imitated. The staff were friendly and receptive to foreigners without being overwhelmed, and it was a wonderful feeling, after the lengthy commutes I face daily, to know that we were dining a stone's throw (and I really, really do throw like a girl) from bed and warmth and sleep. I am a city girl, no doubt, but my laziness likes the life lived within a kilometer diameter. It's the Wellington in me singing for its supper (Matterhorn, preferably).

Saturday, we did stuff. For reals. We walked in the snow. I bought some gloves (snow is COLD). I saw my first ski slope (still immune to the charms of slope-schussing, but am aiming to fix this. Sometime). We explored Hirafu (which is to say, we walked 100 meters down a hill, found an Italian restaurant, and ate feta for the rest of the afternoon). Hirafu is a unique area in Japan, described as being the place where the Japanese go when they want to experience a foreign country, but don't care to actually get on a plane/learn another language/experience Western racism firsthand. Hirafu is a key destination for skiers and boarders and, to my horror, Australians. All the staff at the Italian restaurant were Italian. All the walkers we passed on our brief sojourn outside were Australian. And I spent a full ten minutes in the company of a fully Australian family in a bus stop, at the conclusion of which encounter I was ready to put my face to a barbeque (my brain just made some connection with Australians and barbeques, sorry if this is too graphic, what with the mental image of my eyeballs melting through the grill and whatnot).

The night was spent in the company of Alistair (and an extensive collection of his friends), a JET local to Niseko, celebrating a birthday (you can tell we're heaps close). We ate, we drank. A nomi/tabe was provided at Wild Bill's and I got to play my first game of pool in 4 months (I lost, but I'm pretty sure that Aravin cheated, and there was an earthquake and I broke my arm). After dinner, we indulged in yet another uniquely Japanese celebration of drinking culture - a night at a club, in which one paid a $30 door charge in exchange for free drinks 'til dawn. I fail to understand how this is even legal. After the first half hour, everyone in the club was totally soaked and thoroughly inflammable, as people (Australians) embraced the concept of "free drink", and expanded it to include "free tequila power shower for all and sundry".

Sunday arvo, I trained back on in to the Big Smoke, and here I am, blogging away once more. I'm a little jaded right now, suffering from a Clothing Failure (one of the worst kinds of Failures). I wore my favourite boots to school today (ones which fulfill the dual Japanese requirements of being both waterproof and easy to remove (their penchant for the removal of footwear is wearing)), but said boots chose this Monday of Mondays ("tell me why...") to fail at the former requirement. My socks were soaked before the end of the driveway and I had been properly introduced. Thus, when I got to school, I carefully arrayed both socks and shoes (aside: the Japanese word for "socks" literally translates as "under shoes". Genius, no?) in front of the heater and left them there for some three hours. When I returned from class, my JTE met me with a concerned expression and the intriguing words "Are your boots ok? Their mouths are open?" Fearful that my boots had succumbed to temptation and eaten my socks, I investigated, only to find that the temperature and veracity of the heater, combined with the cheapness of the boots had resulted in the unfortunate parting of the upper of my boot from the sole. They looked exactly like overheated dogs, with tongues hanging loose. It would have been amusing, had it not been so heart-breaking. It is REALLY hard to get size 8 shoes in Japan.

I swore. A lot. Everyone else in the office was unsympathetically amused.

After brief contemplation and a failed experiment with staples, I took my now dry but utterly useless boots to the janitor. With some gentle mime, he managed to understand my predicament, and I am now the proud owner of two carefully superglued boots.

I'm also the new owner of a pair of $200 Timbalands with leopard-fur inners (they're a size 7.5, but toes are overrated). Today's wisdom: boots from the Number One Shoe Warehouse are not worthy adversaries of Sapporo Snow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Japanese Friends and a Foreign Weekend

Hi Friends. Just so's you know, I'm sick and crabby and I just sneezed all over my brand new MacBook, so this blog post might have five shades of bitterness that I don't usually add. I got woken up at 9am this morning (UNGODLY) by a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses (GODLY) - a group who represent the only pushy breed of Japanese people, and whom specifically target foreigners dumb enough to put their names in English rather than Japanese on their mailboxes - who SHOULD have taken one look at me and backed away slowly with their hands over their mouths (which would have resulted in their falling down eleven flights of stairs, but oh well at least they're going to heaven, right?) but instead opted to talk me, word for word, through a 5-page colour brochure luridly depicting the glory of Christ. Not until I gave them the same treatment as I did my MacBook did they allow me to close the door and crawl back under my 3 duvets.

The reason for my illness is, I think, this: a desire for change. I have been living in Japan for four months now, and there comes a moment when you are forced to realise that brevity of time in residence is no longer an excuse for having such a scarcity of Japanese friends. This realisation occurred, for me, on Thursday and Friday of last week, during which time I was occupied in attendance at the JET Mid-Year Conference. This involves the reunion of all JETs in your prefecture (in my case, the whole of Hokkaido) in one hotel, and opportunities to discuss lesson-plans, living situations and life in Japan. During the conference, I got the distinct impression that JETs fortunate enough to be situated in Sapporo existed on the outskirts of these conversations. You see, Hokkaido is large and cold and mountainous and snowy. Roads become impassable. One's closest neighbour might live in Russia. So many Hokkaido JETs face extreme loneliness and possible depression. In contrast, if a Sapporo JET should become homesick, he/she could immediately go buy some shoes at Top Shop, drink a Starbuck caramel macchiato, then visit the local English bookstore for the latest Phillipa Gregory offering. Tastes of home are easy to find, and this, it appears, strips us of any license to complain.

There were definite good sides to the conference. I enjoyed immersing myself, albeit briefly, in some Kiwiana - there is only one other Kiwi in Sapporo, but a fair few of them spread thinly across the fields of Hokkaido (I could feel my accent getting broader as the conversations progressed). It was nice to observe some European fashion doing the rounds. And I got to wake up at 9am rather than 6am. But so many gaijin in one room was, truly, overwhelming. We are so loud! So tall! I can't even imagine what it must be like for those far-flung JETs who've not seen blue eyes in four months.

It got me thinking - why don't I make more of an effort to ingratiate myself with Japanese people, when such a concentration of foreigners makes it abundantly clear to me how much I have come to enjoy Japanese company? (PS: Can you tell that I've been watching waaaay too much Sex and the City - "I couldn't help but wonder..."

With that in mind, this weekend just gone saw my most concerted effort to make Japanese friends. Was I successful? Hai.

Friday night, Fay, Pui Wing and I effectively crashed a Japanese Bon Enkaii, which is a party to celebrate the end of the year. When I say crashed I mean that we were invited, but we were invited last Saturday night at a gaijin bar (the one with the Dalmation and Stephen King, if you're a dedicated reader) by a Japanese girl under the influence of three too many tequila shots, whose recollection of the invitation must have been hazy at best. Despite this, we were welcomed warmly, and sat down at a table with some 30 other Japanese people. Their English was fantastic, and my Sex and the City reference was provoked by the women with whom I conversed most - 30-something single, gorgeous women with jobs and goals and truly fantastic legs. One in particular, whose bottom I had spent some time admiring as we climbed the stairs to the restaurant, whom I would have categorized as model/trophy wife/designer transpired to be in the ARMY, which makes me almost wish that Japan would go to war again, just to see how invading forces reacted when it was a Japanese Heidi Clume who raided and plundered (apparently in my mind, warfare involves pirates).

I consumed nabe and sashimi and lotus root...




...and basked in the company of fabulousness for nearly 7 hours. Much alcohol was imbibed and food eaten. I formed many friendships (we're now FaceBook friends, there is no greater recognition).

The men started to falter:




But the women soldiered (PUN) on:



(The one on the right is GI Jane).

This night was fabulous for many reasons, but the most important of them is this: I learnt that my impression of Japanese women is stereotypical and flawed. True, many of them are abject husband hunters. True, the moment I mentioned that I had a boyfriend of 4 years, all eyes flickered to my ring finger. But, these women were strong and sassy and educated and independent. They flirted with the myriad handsome men who were present, but didn't fall at their feet, nor desert their friends to court them. Despite all cultural memes to the contrary, they were Samantha, Carrie and Miranda - they weren't Charlotte.

This revelation was worth a Saturday spent, in pain, in bed.

Saturday night was a different experience - an attempt to break out of the JET mold by spending some time with non-JET foreigners, those who have been here some 7-30 years, those who look upon JET as the kindergarten of foreign experiences. I was invited to this party to an adorable Japanese girl called Emily (Emiri), all five feet of her (we had done some bonding last Saturday):



The party was at an apartment about two minutes walk from the centre of town. During this walk I was introduced to Colin, who I immediately identified as a Kiwi, and who, it transpired, hailed from the same tiny Auckland neighbour-hood as myself. Devonport must be diversifying. The apartment was 18 floors up, an apartment which made JET accommodation look like a bomb shelter. The view alone was worth extracting myself from my sick bed (this photo does not show it as well as it might):


Though hosted by a true-blue Ozzy, the party was filled with many Japanese women cut from the same cloth as those from the night before - young, bilingual and gorgeous. They brought blue cheese! They drank red wine! They were... me! I didn't last very long at this party (I swear I have the PLAGUE, ok), but I stayed long enough to taste true, multi-cultural Japanese life.

I know I sound wanky, but this weekend really was a revelation. I know I am the worst kind of foreigner - I can only make friends with locals who speak my language, I'm only brave enough to attempt it when vodka has been taken - but I feel like I made an effort, and that this effort was rewarded.

In other news?

You can buy strawberries at the supermarket now:


>

They're only $20 a punnet.

Odori Park is all gawdy and gorgeous for the White Illuminations:



(As you can see, the Japanese fetish for all thing kitsch has not been stymied by the use of the word 'White' in all posters advertising the event).

And... there's only one full week of work left before Christmas and New Years and Tokyo. Hurrah! Also, I'm traveling out to Niseko next weekend to indulge in a little sex... outside the city.

Ha! Bye!








Saturday, December 4, 2010

Books and Dogs and Bars

This weekend was my first since the departure of Manfriend, and so it was absolutely essential that it not be spent exclusively lurking beneath the covers with Sex and the City and chocolate. I am determined not to become one of those depressives who functions only in the vicinity of their other half, and so I turned to an old friend to help me through the hurdle: tequila.

It is because of this errant friend that I have not been outside in daylight since Friday afternoon. It hurts my eyes, ok?

Friday night kicked off with a delicious Thai dinner in Susukino. I had been craving Thai for some time, largely due to an unsatisfied addiction to corriander. I would have thought this herb sufficiently Asian to be found in these parts of the world, but it is nowhere to be found in the supermarkets of Sapporo. My Tom Yum soup was, therefore, extremely well-received, though so spicy as to remove large sections of my tongue. If my night had ended there, I probably would have gone to sleep, pleasantly fragranced with my favourite herb.. Alas. Upon the insistence of one seasoned Sapporo drinker, we ended up in the local tequila bar, somewhat ominously named "Raw Life" (which, amusingly, when spoken in Japanese-English comes out sounding like "Low Life"), where one can find 101 different types of tequila. My clearest memories of the night include: reading a book at the bar with two Japanese girls entitled "White Rabbit and Black Rabbit" (I'm pretty sure the rabbits got married at the end; I'm also pretty sure the book was in Japanese, so I have no idea how I actually managed to read the book); giving a Michigan girl advice on what medical condition to feign in order to pre-emptively terminate her contract with a Japanese Catholic school (if memory serves, we settled on endometriosis); finding a Clive Cussler novel in a corner of the bar and sitting down to read it with a Choco Pie I found in the bottom of my bag; and, finally, having to hold a fellow JET upright by means of a head lock in the taxi cab on the way home, in order to prevent him from causing a fatal accident (he had fallen fast asleep on the taxi driver's left arm, who was far too polite to tell him to feck off, and was therefore attempting to handle 3am traffic single-handedly).

Why do I always end up reading?

Anyway, Saturday night was the annual Christmas party, held by one Sagara Sensei, Japanese teacher to the majority of JETs living in Sapporo. It was held in a seedy part of Susukino, surrounded on all sides by host bars promising, among other things:



How do you turn that down?

Despite the location of the venue, the interior was far from seedy. No naked girls, no Man Baths, no dancing entertainment. I did find, however, this:



So I can't say I wasn't warned about this:



Why? Why? Why the bread? Why dogs? Why are they on the bar? Whyyyyy?

Once I managed to turn my eyes away from this confusing scene, there were good times to be had. Crab legs to be eaten. Moscow Mules to be drunken (yes). Bingo to be won. Karaoke to sing. After all, Taylor Swift wasn't going to sing herself now, was she (though that would be cool. Aside: do you think pop stars actually DO sing their own songs if they ever find themselves in karaoke booths in Japan? Because they really should. And imagine, for example, Britney Spears singing Miley Cyrus "Party in the USA"! What fantastic fusion!). Anyway, I got into the Christmas spirit:



Because it's not really Christmas unless you're wearing a battery-powered Santa hat, is it?

After the Christmas party, it should have been home time, but it wasn't. So about 15 of us set out for Pete's Bar, a gaijin bar a few blocks away. But not before really capitalizing on the location:



Good.

At Pete's Bar, I found tequila (which tasted like nail polish remover, which should have warned me AGAINST taking four shots thereof, but I never learn, do I?), but I also found this:



AND these:



WHAT is with the proliferation of books and dogs in bars in Japan??

Anyway, been distracted by the above prevented me from participating in the below:



Which can only be a good thing.

(PS: You can tell I'm blogging hungover because I'm using all my photos in order to distract you from the fact that I'm not writing much. But it might be a welcome change from my usual novel-length postings. So soak it up. Be visual. Enjoy the colours. I'm going to go read some of the books I stole now).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

So I Can Eat It, Too.

This post will have to be given a title at the end, because I have no real concept of what I am writing about. The reason for this post is: boredom. Remember how in the blog post I wrote like five minutes ago I made allusions to my predicted discontent about living solo? The discontent has ARRIVED. It is HERE. I have laid down the futons and bought it a tooth brush.

I swear I USED to be good at entertaining myself. I'm pretty sure at age 7 I could have constructed an elaborate scenario in which my parents were cunning kidnappers who had stolen away with me, and it was up to me to find some way to communicate to the outside the world that this had happened, and I had to do so through telepathy because said evil kidnappers had performed amateur surgery and removed my voice-box. With their teeth. Or something. Anyway, the sum total of this self-entertainment would have been me sitting in the middle of my bed THINKING really hard, and would have distracted me for HOURS.

Right now, not even FaceBook is cutting it. Note to my 457 friends - you are not digitally active enough. It is like being sexually active, but instead of having sex you MOAN AND BITCH ONLINE IN A MANNER THAT IS HUMOUROUS TO ME. Get on to it.

Go out, you might say. Well, I say in return (in an irritable and punchy manner) I can't. Someone delivered me something, and I wasn't home to sign for the something, so the someone who delivered the something left a note informing me that the something could not be successfully delivered by the someone, and that it would be withheld by another someone, until the one for whom it was destined (me) rang the other someone and organized another time at which the something might delivered.

So: I did. And because I live in Japan, I know they will turn up at precisely between 7-9 this evening with said something, because they said they would, and therefore I am unable even to go for healthy stroll around the block in order to work out some of this snappy energy that is causing me to rage at Facey and my absent 7 year old self.

SO.

I don't even know what's being re-delivered for me. I have swamped my family with so much unnecessary communication that I think it very unlikely that they might have sent me a package; and if they have sent me something it probably contains a note bearing the legend "GO AWAY AND ANNOY PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY LIVE IN THE SAME COUNTRY AS YOU" and a notification of adoption and five jars of Marmite (which I HATE). Probably, it is a bill. Probably, I have racked up so much Japanese debt with my scalding showers and inability to turn off the heater at night, that an ordinary envelope did not suffice for the quantity of BILLAGE and so they had to send me a parcel to fit in all the 0's.

You know what living alone also means? It means losing all enthusiasm for cooking (and I was distinctly lacking in this particular zeal right from the get go. Aside: Get go? An interesting phrase. Get going? Get gone? Right before the go was gotten? Gah). Dinner so far has consisted of a large pile of boiled green beans and most of a tube of Salt and Vinegar Pringles, and I don't envisage the situation improving any time soon, unless the anticipated package contains a CAKE or a variety of cheese and chutneys. Which would be lovely.

I wanted to make toast, but then I realised that all of my cutlery was still on loan to a friendly American couples who had absconded with it on Thanksgiving (thanks for NOTHING). Rather than walk down two floors to retrieve a knife, I spread my peanut butter with a chopstick.

I vaguely considered boiling some water (as I have discovered a taste for mugs of hot water, a drink only marginally less lazy in execution than simply going out onto the balcony and licking the snow) but ran out of energy before I turned the tap on.

I was going to put pajamas on, but when I took off my jeans and remembered that I was wearing stockings underneath, I couldn't move myself to shuck that second skin, and I so I'm still entirely dressed, just notably lacking in PANTS.

I always feared that I had tendencies towards hermitage, and this, my first night alone in A LOT OF YEARS is proving my fears to be not only rational, but possibly vastly understated. I'm going to end up like that man who has had his hand raised in the air for *insert number of years here* (too lazy to Google) so that all of his fingers have melted into his palm like wax; but, instead, my tights are going to meld with my skin, so that I resemble a closely-shorn faun; and instead of having religion or faith as a disclaimer, I can only claim lack of motivation to BEND OVER.

NB: I think Sapporo itself has a problem with my indolence - I have been disrupted from fruitful blogging no less than TWICE in the last 30 minutes by earthquakes. When tectonic plates, which are themselves less than lively, start to cajole you into movement, that is when you might reconsider your nightly routine.

YOU might.

But I won't. I'm waiting for my cake.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nudity and Cats in Equal Measures But Not At The Same Time

Hi Friends (capital F to show that you're Important)! Apologies for hiatus - but I have a better excuse than the usual combination of minor depression/hangover/abject laziness: a visitor from across the world!

Yes, this last week I played hostess with the mostest to my friend Nicole, on the second leg of a trip that includes Australia, Japan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Europe, the UK and Abu Dabi. I don't even know where most of those places are (ok, all of them). She arrived in true travelling style, clad in a blue ski jacket and wearing a backpack that was fully as big as the average Japanese man (entirely possible that that is precisely what it contained, she is vicious when provoked). I spied her through the gates of the train station (not difficult, as she was sporting a Japanese man on her back) and hollered to her in a most un-Japanese fashion. A familiar face! But she was dozy as fuck from an 11 hour train trip and simply stood there, gawking at the unfamiliarity, clearly afraid that if she moved one foot, she would fall down the rabbit hole. So I approached the woman manning the ticket box with an expression akin to that which one might wear upon dropping one's only child onto the train tracks, feigned some frantic Japanese accompanied by some manic facial expressions, and she waved me through, clearly afraid that I might spontaneously decombust in Dickensian fashion if left to brew a moment a longer. I ran up to my errant friend and grabbed her from behind, upon which she screamed and jumped, clipping me violently beneath the chin with her luggage.

Her first words to me in Japan? 'Oh! You look like Princess Leia!' (I was wearing my new favourite fashion accessory, a luciously furry pair of leopard print ear-muffs. Also probably because I'm alarmingly attractive and hold myself with royal poise). We hugged, we laughed, and then I towed her back through the gates, where the ticket-woman was still peering anxiously after us, clearly expecting that her acquiescence would be taken advantage of, and that we were primed to sprint for an un-paid-for train. She was probably subsequently soothed by the obvious fact that Nicole was so exhausted that she could barely walk.

It was so strange, and yet so wonderful, to have something so familiar in such a foreign environment. Nicole is one of those people who radiates comfort and surety and capability, as if you could lock her naked in an underground dungeon for a year, and when you finally went in to check on her decomposing corpse, she would be sitting there calmly watching Scrubs and eating Pad Thai, having fashioned clothing and shelter and a television from the very walls themselves, and created full meals from the animals and vegetation contained therein. She would then talk you calmly through your reasons for imprisoning her thusly (she is a Psychology major), before laying you flat with a single blow (she is a Combat regular and alarmingly strong).

So even though every Japanese person in the vicinity of the station was noting her for her strangeness, both in attire and in appearance, I was being transported back to New Zealand and to high school by her presence.

Nicole was my very first visitor in Japan, and as such I was eager to show her the best time possible. I was eager to show her everything. Everything. I perhaps took this too far on Tuesday, when I encouraged her to partake in public nudity, in that very Japanese manner: the Onsen, natural mineral hot springs that bubble from the volcanic mountains, and can only be properly enjoyed as God intended it: naked.

We bussed out to Jozankeii, a mountainous area about an hour out of Sapporo. The scenery was beautiful, but I was preoccupied with attempting to un-fasten my bra through nine layers of clothing, fearful as I was of unattractive red lines on my breasts. Why was I mindful of my naked appearance, given that I would be appearing only to a pool-ful of sweaty Japanese pensioners? Welcome to the depths of my psyche. Dive in. The water's very, very, very cold.

Turns out, the only really awkward moment was that first strip, where everything is revealed for the first time. Each onsen goer is provided with a 'modesty towel', a strip of white towelling approximately the size of the tea towel. So it is the choice of the wearer whether to use said tea-towel to cover either both tea cups or one's bowl. I opted for the former, though I was very aware of the latter. (NB: the pubic wax is not a phenomenon embraced by the Japanese. They don't shave, they don't wax, they don't trim. Thus, though everyone was naked, Nicole and I were the only ones who really LOOKED naked, if you get my drift, which I imagine you do). By mutual consent, Nicole and I walked side-by-side, thus avoiding the very pertinent 'who gets to study whose butt' issue. The first step in onsen-ing is the clean down, as the pools themselves are filled with natural hot water and are not improved by the addition of Western perspiration. This involved sitting on a little stool in a long line of naked Japanese woman sitting on little stools, soaping up, and rinsing down. The appropriate procedure was a little obscure, and Nicole's face must have revealed it as such, as a tiny, tanned, bird-like old woman took it upon herself to squat before her and demonstrate proper use of the shower head and soap. Nicole handled herself, and the little Japanese breasts jiggling before her nose, with aplomb. Once we were suitably sanitary, the little lady proved to be a useful guide, as she then showed us through an obscure door to the outside onsen.

I don't know why ANYONE would use the inside onsen.

The air was freezing, probably two degrees below. The pool itself was about knee deep, steaming hot and faintly sulfurous. It was designed to look natural, as if carved out of the very mountains, and so was surrounded by boulders, all of which were thickly capped in snow. As we quickly sat down, so best to hide goose-pimpled flesh and winter-white thigh, snow began to fall, melting immediately as it met the steam. It was infinitely, amazingly relaxing, and the absence of swim-wear only seemed natural in the perfect environment. Nicole and I quickly relaxed into comfort in our nakedness, and did out best to appear as the natives did. This was unsuccessful, and not only because we giggled nearly constantly. We had been told before entering the onsen that the modesty towel should be removed before entering the water, and that the best thing to do with it was to put it upon ones head. So, before entering the water, I encouraged Nicole to fold up her towel and balance it upon her head, in the manner of someone practicing deportment with something easier than a book, which we both did. Upon surveying the other occupants of the pool, however, it became apparent that 'putting the towel on your head' actually meant 'wrapping it elaborately like a turban so that your hair doesn't get wet'; and that our attempt made us look like three year-olds who had dressed themselves for the first time and ended up with pants on inside out and backwards.

It didn't detract from our pleasure any.

After the onsen we partook in curry. Whyyyy there was an Indian restaurant in the midst of such a very Japanese situation, I know not. I did not complain. Onsen and naan bread - the makings of a perfect day.

Topping this experience the next day was going to prove difficult, I knew, but I think I was successful in my quest, when I managed to locate for Nicole a uniquely Japanese experience: the Cat Cafe. These establishments are principally to be found in Tokyo, but there is one in Sapporo, called, appropriately, Love Cat. Good. We had no idea what to expect, and having an open mind proved to be the best possible approach. Upon entering, we were instructed to wash our hands thoroughly. We then entered a room, about the size of the average living room filled with: cats. About 17of them. All fully grown and large, all perfectly casual in each other's company. Sitting in the midst of these cats was a Japanese salary man, clearly on his lunch break, playing with the cats like a toddler. The room was filled with towers and couches and toys and cages and - yes - catwalks, for the entertainment of the langorous moggies. It was a truly weird experience. Nicole and I had no idea what to do. We couldn't have been more awkward if we were naked again. We perched on the couches and watched the sole other occupant of the room indulge in what was clearly a well-developed feline fetish. It was interesting, I'll give it that, but there was one cat with a diaper on, and no kittens, and it DID smell funny. The proprietor of the establishment did her best to give us our full half hour $8 worth, furnishing us with toys and catnip and attempting to teach us the names of each kitty (I should have told her not to bother, I can't even remember the names of my students) and I can say that I'm glad I went, if only so that I can say I have done so, and state definitively that I will require smothering with a pillow if I ever demonstrate ANY tendency towards becoming the fabled crazy cat-lady.

So, all in all, an interesting week in Japan, in which I was able to abandon my (flawed) attempts to assimilate with all things Japanese, and flagrantly indulge in being a tourist.

Nicole left this morning, but not before a pretty serious earthquake shook her up some. Snow, nudity, cats and an earthquake - the woman can't say she got anything other than a full, unadulterated Japanese experience.

In other news? My lovely manfriend has been snapped up by INTERAC for a full-time, four-month teaching job in Niseko, a skiing village about two hours out of Sapporo. I am pleased for him. I am. I am. But I am also deeply sorry for myself and my new single status (we are not actually separated, I just like alliteration and exaggeration in equal quantities), as living alone does not appeal much at all.

That said, his departure prompted the purchase of a lovely new MacBook, so the flashy technology and bountiful me-time will no doubt result in relentless blogging. And TV series watching. And red wine drinking. And, mayhap, my first step in the direction of Crazy-Cat-Lady-Hood. Pillows at the ready, readers.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My NEW Favourite Person in Japan

Hi. I know I'm demonstrating alarming new zeal for frequent postings, but just roll with it. I was feel pretty tired all the time earlier in the month, I wasn't gaining any new followers or many comments, and the blog became a slog rather than an outlet and a pleasure, so I begrudgingly attempted to maintain the "one post a week" status quo without attempting to find any new inspiration. But! I am out of it now. The slump is over. Enjoy.

(Embarrassingly for me, I'm pretty sure the reason I have found new legs is because of a conversation with a friend back home, who told me I was his third most viewed page, and that he checked the blog a few times every day, and this pandered so delightfully so my writer's vanity that you're lucky I'm holding back from thrice daily postings).

So! If you enjoy reading these as much as I am now enjoying writing them, you have only this friend to thank for holding up a mirror and showing me Halle Berry.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to laud both this friend and myself (deserving though we BOTH are of laud..ation), but rather to TOTALLY OVERRIDE the former post. Those people are no longer my favourite people in Japan (I play fast and loose with my Japanese affections). Because last night I met, for certain, my favourite person in Japan.

Today is a public holiday ("Labour Thanksgiving Day" thank you very much), and as such last night night became much more of a Saturday than a Monday. Aravin and I and a few friends had our usual Monday night Japanese lesson, but rather than heading home afterwards, ventured out in Susukino for the delights of Hinode and nometabehodaii (it's like she's speaking another language...).

Hinode is a cheap and cheerful restaurant, frequented mainly by university students gearing up for a night out, so the atmosphere is rowdy and smoky, and feels a bit like someone hijacked a night club, filled it with tables and made everyone sit down and have something to eat. The servers are all notably attractive Japanese males possessed of the ability to carry no less than 10 beers at any one time (a "nomehodai" is an all-you-can-drink and a "tabehodai" is all-you-can-eat, so understandably a restaurant braving the realms of the "nometabehodai" requires waitstaff with strong forearms). As usually happens, by the end of the evening, at least one male from our table had been kidnapped by a table of giggling Japanese women, and at least one member of our group was on her feet drunkenly bopping to the J-pop in the background while neighbouring tables covertly took pictures on cellphones. We ate such culinary delights as giant shrimp, mayonnaise and sweetcorn pizza (don't knock til ya try) and fried rice, and sampled alarming combinations of alcohol (I myself was quite reserved, imbibing only beer, red wine and hot sake); and then, inevitably, the kick-out came once two hours had passed.

Out on the streets, the group proposed karaoke, but Aravin and I declined. JET is a wonderful institution, but its habit of placing couples further outside the city than the singles, thus forcing them either onto the last subway or into a $60 cab, does sometimes kill the fun a little early. So we took the subway homewards at about 11, drunkenly swaying with the motion of the carriages. Once we disembarked in Sumikawa (our homely, quiet neighbourhood)(when you live there you're allowed to call it "the Wa", but not before), however, we decided that our night was not quite over. We therefore decided to try one of the few underground bars that are scattered in the vicinity of the train-station. Now, I know this doesn't sound like any particularly brave venture, but you must understand that these places are SMALL, usually with room for only ten people or so; they are frequented almost exclusively by regulars; and the chances of finding anyone therein who speaks even schoolgirl Japanese is minimal. They are also UNDERGROUND, where no one hears you scream. So it takes a particularly ballsy or drunk foreigner to attempt to assimilate (Aravin was the former, I the latter, for posterity).

So we entered. 'Tis a mark of my continuing drunkness that I do not remember the name of the bar. Will research later. Wen we arrived there was a dramatic lull in conversation, and then a chorus of Japanese welcome ("IRASHIMASEEEEEEEEE"). There was a party of seven out celebrating a birthday who left soon after we arrived (we are scary) and two men seated at a bar, where Aravin and I also sat. The bar tenders were youngish Japanese women who were quick to furnish myself with sake and manfriend with whiskey, each poured in quantities approximately quadrupling the average measure in New Zealand. Thus armed, I turned to the gentleman sitting next to me, and there I found someone purely delightful. Remarkably, his English was near fluent, despite the fact that he was remembering it only from school days (I have since decided that he was probably fudging this, and was a nightly participant in English classes, because no one is that good). He had not lived anywhere English speaking, though he had spent a year in Italy (not as uncommon as you might think). He was extremely interested in Aravin and I, and spoke so well and so nicely that it was a while before I realised how unbelievably drunk he was. The moment of clarity arrived when he asked me for the third time how Aravin and I had met in Japan, and for the fourth time how I had spent my three years in Japan. But! I was well into my sake, and not above a little repetition, and as he spoke, I was covertly observing him. He looked about 55 years old and was wearing a dark brown cord jacket WITH ELBOW PATCHES over a maroon and blue harlequin cardigan buttoned up and worn with a tie, and as I mentally noted this, I decided that if he was not either a university professor OR an author, then I had lost my touch in assigning fashion stereotypes. Drunk enough to ask him outright (can be considered a prying question in Japan), I discovered that he was, in fact, a dean at the University of Hokkaido, making him vastly my superior and well-dressed to boot.

We talked for at least an hour, about what I found difficult in Japan; what I liked about the culture; what I thought about the Westernization of the younger generation; how much I liked sake; where he should visit in NZ; why I liked Lady Gaga; why I had opted to come to Sapporo. It was easily the best conversation I have had with a Japanese person, thanks to his excellent English and obvious intelligence. Also thanks to the daunting quantities of sho-chu that he had imbibed, loosening the ordinary Japanese inhibition.

As a mark of our new friendship, he gave me his business card. Having no business card to respond with, I sang him Alejandro.

(Oh yes, most bars, no matter how small, will also be furnished with a karaoke machine. You haven't really experienced Japan until you've sung Bohemian Rapsody in an underground bar while the bartenders dance in front of you and the university professor sitting next to exclaims loudly "She is so nice! She is so nice!").

Since we remain vaguely terrified of Crazy Takashi, I think this may have become our new local haunt. Come, join us. The academia of Sapporo are there. Lady Gaga and Queen are there. Sake is there. Why aren't you?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Favourite People in Japan

It's no secret that Japan values anonymity and uniformity. It might be considered racist and culturally ignorant to state that they all the look the same - and it's totally untrue, given their penchant for unique clothes and crazy hair - but it's nothing but honest - indeed, complimentary - to say that they act the same. As I think I may have quoted before, 'the nail that sticks out, gets hammered down'. And it's a really big, government-sponsored hammer.

That said, there are those that stick out, and it those people that I notice. So this blog post will be devoted to documenting those Japanese people who, through no knowledge or deliberate action of theirs, have been mentally noted by me as being My Favourite People In Japan.

NB: Some of these are ironic. You'll probably be able to tell.

1. The Guy Who Dresses Really Well and Stands Up And Reads on The Subway

It's no secret that I'm a raging fan of the written word. The thicker the book the better. It's the basis of any dissatisfaction I experience in Japan - I simply can't READ enough, there being limited access to books written from left to right, and front to back, in an English alphabet. I can't even read the signs on the train, or the instructions on how to change the toilet roll in the public toilets. It's frustrating.

So I have an appreciation for those Japanese folks who demonstrably capitalize on the fact that they are living in the country of their mother tongue. Many people, myself included, face long commutes to work. Playing on ones iPhone can be unnsatisfactory, as tunnels and intermittent underground stops make for haphazard internet connections. So, often, commuters resort to the antiquated entertainment of the written word. This is nothing special if you have a seat. BUT it becomes considerably more hazardous if you attempt to immerse youeself in Steig Larsson whilst standing, given that spine support and page turning require both hands and all ten fingers. Lisbeth Salander wouldn't have it any other way.

My favourite Japanese commuter is therefore a man whom I witness nearly every morning, legs wide and braced, as he clutches his leather-bound book with both hands. To have the physical capability to surf the subway in combination with the mental capacity to absorb plot segues takes some superior left-brain right-brain co-ordination. And yet, there he is, at 7am, risking becoming a human domino for the sake of ten minutes uninterrupted reading time. AS IF THIS WERE NOT ENOUGH he is also always beautifully dressed. For example, this morning, he sported a heavy wool dark to royal blue trench coat, a fawn scarf draped casually across the lapels and a maroon tie, the colour combination of which might sound daring, but was pulled off with flair. His pants were pin-striped and straight-legged, and his shoes elongated in a patent brown with a square toe.

If I were a Japanese man, I would aim to be him. As a Caucaisan woman, I aim merely to touch him.

2. The Man Who Always Talks to Me on The Elevator

Actually, this is not limited to one man, but this particular man is distinguishable by his tenacity. I live in an apartment building which is largely populated by 60+, who appear only to leave their apartments to dispose of rubbish and talk to me. I am therefore often accompanied in the elevator by one or may grey-hairs, all of whom come up to my waist, and all of whom seem deeply interested in my welfare. Upon my arrival, most were content to smile at me benignly. My problems arose when I gained the ability to say in Japanese which floor I wished to go to. I say it very convincingly, like a native, with conviction (I'm very proud), so they naturally assume that I speak Japanese. However, two inquiring sentences later, they quickly realise that it is all farce, and I am just a foreign as my hair suggests, and give up.

But not my favourite! Oh no! Each time we ascend or descend together, he rattles off increasingly long and complex sentences. H even walks me to the base of my stairs up to my apartment, commentating as we go. I suppose he is anticipating the day when all the study finally clicks for me and I am suddenly fluent, and we can have green tea together and discuss the vagaries of the Japanese economy together, and I will be like a CHILD to him, but I can tell you, little old man, it is not this day!

3. The Lady Who Got Angry At My Cereal

My local supermarket is just across the road, so it has a similarly aged population to my apartment block. These lovely senior citizens block the aisles and slow the counters at their leisure, going their own gentle pace. I respect this, as every time I go to the bank or post office, I take nine times as long as everyone else, due to my dangerous approach of simply agreeing with everything anyone says, whether I understand them or not, and whether it was a question or not ('What kind of postage? Express or regular?'....'yes'.)Therefore, anyone else who holds up the speedy progression of Japanese life I view with some solidarity.

However, as well as being slow, these old people are also nosy. They peer into my cart, looking askance at the persimmons, glaring at my Choco Pies as if personally affronted by the English packaging. One lady in particular took this to whole new levels, when she took my Frosties out of the bag I had placed them in (preparing for departure, having already paid, not as a precursor to shop-lifiting, whereupon her behavious might be villified) and started YELLING, loudly, in Japanese.

She gestured, she pointed, she waved them in the air.

I had no idea what was going on.

After about thirty seconds of extreme embarrassment, I decided that a packet of Frosties was a small price to pay for making my escape, and turned to depart, whereupon she thrust the offending cereal back into my bag with some force and turned back to her husband, who was watching sedately, as if this was something that happened everyday. Perhaps it does. Perhaps she is the Japanese Ambassador for Rice For Breakfast, and I was simply her latest target.

It didn't stop the Frosties tasting goooood.

4. (general category) Japanese People who Pretend They Don't Speak English But Actually Do

This is encountered EVERYWHERE, due to the dual intelligence and reticence of the Japanese people. Even if they speak the lanaguage to a level considerably higher than the average American (not so difficult, really), they will patiently stand, and wait, while you exercise your entire Japanese vocabulary (fifteen words) upon them in a desperate attempt to convey what you want.

After ten or so minutes of mime, charades and tears, they will apparently decide that you have been reduced enough that you are no longer threateningly foreign, but merely demonstrably illiterate, and will say, in perfect American accents 'Oh, you want soup! Of course. The soup corner is on aisle three. Please follow me'.

If you have ever tried to mime a pumpkin, you will understand my resulting frustrations. Alleviated in part by pumpkin soup.

5. The Man Who Stared At Me So Hard He Walked Into a Pole

No explanation really necessary.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kaisei What?

I don't mention much of what goes on at school in this blog, primarily because I am always so exhausted by the end of the school day that everything I learnt/absorbed/experienced during the day ekes out of my ears and is replaced by Facebook status updates and La Roux lyrics; and secondarily (a word? perhaps) because at least one fluent English speaking Japanese teacher is an intermittent visitor at my humble URL, and sometimes I am subject to blog-vomit, whereby the censorship of material that could potentially get me ostracized/fired/deported is abandoned in favour of deference to my typographical gag reflex (that was a long sentence, but you made it, congratulations).

But weird things happen there. Oh yes. Many things I can't explain. Some of them aren't even interesting enough, or striking enough that my brain makes a conscious blog-memo ("Blemo"), but they are, in fact, unusual. In this blog post I will try to recall some of the more poignant instances for your reading pleasure. I mean to pleasure you as best I can. For as long as possible. Take your clothes off.

1. The Fox on the Soccer Field

Why?

I am living in the fifth biggest city in Japan. Sapporo is home to the entire population of New Zealand (not literally, obviously, otherwise it would BE New Zealand). Geographically, it is fairly small, which means that all four million residents live on top of one another, like Japanese Jenga. And they all, every single one of them, have cars and schools and houses and garages and favourite restaurants, which means that Sapporo is an extremely urban city. There are many bridges, roads and highways. The school in which I work is located in an area called Motomachi, which is no exception to this rule, surrounded on all sides by supermarkets, apartment blocks and busy streets.

So you can imagine my surprise when, upon incidentally looking out the window whilst turning on the photocopier (I work HARD), I saw a large, tawny, bushy-tailed fox frolicking in the school fields. And he really was FROLICKING. He was making a positive SPECTACLE of himself. First, he played with the crows. Then, they got their friends and ganged up on him. So then he ran away from the crows. Then he got himself tangled in the soccer net (soccer cage? soccer goal? the place where you try to kick the ball). Then, he found a baseball and began playing with it. Dribbling it around the field and whatnot (exaggerating a little - he dropped it and accidentally kicked it, but you enjoyed the mental image didn't you?).

This was my first experience with a wild fox, and I really did expect it to occur on the mountains of Hokkaido. Something picturesque and Laura Ingalls-Wilder-esque.

I also expected, given the Japanese penchant for cleanliness and order, something more of a furor when said canine was discovered. These were, after all, fenced in school grounds. Children were due their PE lessons on the very grass on which the fox was standing. But when I walked past the principal's office he was laughing at the foxes high-jinks just as I was, and displaying no obvious concern for - oh I don't know - RABIES?!?! But what do I know?

Anyhoo, this was two days ago and Fantastic Mr Fox has not been sighted since, so I can only hope that he packed up his baseball and took to the road with his crow-nies (geddit?). I remain utterly bemused as to how he came to be in the middle of such a densely populated area, but no one seemed to share my concern. I even went to lengths of pretending to BE a fox in front of my English classes, but I think this may only have produced greater fear of ME rather than regard for the welfare of the fox. I labour in vain.

2. Someone Stole the Mouse Balls

That got your attention, didn't it? But this was not some biological experiment gone horribly awry, but rather a rare student prank. One of the classrooms (called the "Call Room". Like a hospital. For no obvious reason) contains about forty computers. And during one of my lessons, one of the mice (mouses?) was discovered to have its "ball" missing, thus rendering it useless. The SHAME of the ball-less mouse! The reaction of the teacher in charge of said ball was pure anger (very quiet, restrained anger. I had to imagine it forming and raging within him, like a little wee typhoon, because the only external reaction was slight downward tilt of the head). Apparently this was the latest in a spate of recent ball thefts (it's a CRIME WAVE), and it was the last straw. So what did he do? The only thing he could do. Secretly, without informing any of the other teachers scheduled to teach in this classroom, he removed the ball from every single mouse. And put them in bags. Who's laughing now, ball thief?! Anyhoo, the "Call Room" is now no good to anyone, the computers being entirely emasculated.

Everyone complains, but the balls have not been replaced.

Possibly the best thing? The bags of balls (ball sacks) are sitting on the desk at the front of the classroom. In plain view. If one ball was so tempting, should not the bag o' balls be removed from view? Imagine the trophy value of forty balls!

One could make a necklace.

(I am getting delirious).

3. Arthur Miller in Japan

My students are smart. No two ways about it. They know their shit ("shit" in this instance being a synonym for 'English"). The English room is therefore stocked with myriad texts to keep their spry minds occupied, should they desire. Abridged versions of every classic imaginable are housed therein (I should know, I've read them all. NB: Abridged "The Secret Garden" is JUST as boring as the full length one. A ridiculous book. What is with Dickon? No one loves the outdoors that much! NO ONE. Why has no literary critic discovered that he is clearly an undiagnosed sufferer of Down's Syndrome?).

While I was hunting for an unread butchered work, I came across the collected short stories of Arthur Miller. I was delighted. But stumped. Where did he come from? How did the leather-bound beauty come to lie in Sapporo? What misguided English teacher thought it the best prose with which to titillate the novice English learner?

Whatever his/her motivations, I thank you. Arthur has been a real gentleman to me. And reads much more smoothly than the Level One "Matilda" with which I had formerly been occupied.

4. To be continued. I am tired and this blogging is preventing me from consuming my fine $8 Chilean red. Unfair.

In summary: foxes, mouse-balls, Arthur Miller.

Just another day in the life of a JET.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A little Bit Camp #2

Wells, it is nearly the middle of November, and for those readers in NZ this means the end of university for the year, and either a move back home to recommence summer employment, or new and bright things with prospective future employers, or the donning of short shorts and singlets in preparation for three months largely spent on the beach. In Sapporo, it means the nearing of exam period for my senior high students, the purchase of leg and ear warmers and the first turning of the central heating. It also means the occasional pang of homesickness, as Christmas decorations find their way into stores. The prospect of a white Christmas is enduringly odd - everywhere I go I see the kinds of things that the story books tell me I ought to associate with Christmas - mountains covered in snow, green bushes thick with red berries, bare-limbed trees, icicles on window-sills, people rugged up in boots and coats and hats and scarves. In my mind's eye, though, the trees are thick, not with berries, but with flower, the weather is hot, and Santa wears stubbies.

The weather at the moment is truly painful. I was promised drifts of snow-white.... snow, but instead I have been blessed with near constant deluges of rain for the last two weeks. It is miserable. And Sapporo has proved itself Wellington-worthy in terms of wind, and I have been the murderer of many, many 300 yen umbrellas. That said, this has introduced an exciting (kind of) morning activity. It's kind of like counting dead possums on State Highway One, but instead I count the broke-boned corpses of umbrellas, all angles and flailing silver limbs. They're so sad looking. Like gothic baby dear. Or lots of little Kate Moss' in black dresses, after falling off the cat-walk. Hmm, I think I need breakfast. And maybe some old-fashioned NZ sunshine.

But: there is no time for homesickness! As my third-years starts to visibly freak out about entrance exams, I have my hands full marking essays and helping them practice for interview tests ('What was your scariest experience ever, and how did you cope with it?'...........panicked glance..... shortness of breath......'This interview!?") I also had the pleasure, in the last two days, of participating in the Kiyota English Camp, a two-day event during which 40 strong English students join forces with 10 hungover JETs in an effort to speak only English for the entirety of the trip. As this trip revolved around the incorporation of English in all aspects, it became an endeavour on my part to eat as many gummy bears, corn chips, Kettle chips and muffins as possible. I can count my personal success as considerable.

My group consisted of three girls and one boy. The boy was at first the quietest member of the group, perhaps over-awed by the feminine dominance (not that Japanese females are, as a rule, particularly dominating), but quickly came out of his shell, to the point that at the closing song of camp ('We Are The World') he got up, with no encouragement, grabbed a microphone, and performed a shrill solo harmonic role. Very loudly. Inspiring. It's true, we'll make a better place, just you and Daichi.

It was hard yakka, to be sure (Australian, then Irish - I am so multi-cultural these days) - especially at first, when the kids are petrified at the influx of foreigners and seem to forget every English word ever memorized. But these are 15 year olds, powered by gummy bears, and pretty soon inhibition was dropped, at which point it became apparent how much English they really knew, and how dedicated they were. We had black stickers to give out when the exchange of Japanese was witnessed, and I only ended up giving them to myself (I'm so Japanese these days, really...). They even had to put on a play, fully in English, the preparation of which included fight choreography ("Maaaaaad Mariko versus... Yuko the Unyielding!!!!) and the construction of props, which they managed to write, direct and perform without one serious slip. I was barely even necessary, except perhaps as impetus, and as a provider of stickers. (Not that it's important, but my group won the performance competition. MY group. And I got to wear a shiny sequined silver bow. Shame).

Of course, camp wasn't all the dedicated consumption of American food. A significant portion was also dedicated to the consumption of Japanese beer, which we did with gusto. Yes, gusto. Although, at an interesting party, where there was all kinds of interesting types of alcohol ad interesting people, I spent the majority of my night playing coin rugby. Why? I haven't played coin rugby since I was twelve? Anyway, I WON THAT TOO. Clearly on a winning streak. Which then ended when I threw a beer-induced hissy fit when my gaming partner started insisting that it was legitimate and lawful to play English drinking games with Japanese words. Hmph. YOU CANNOT PLAY WORD ASSOCIATION WITH JAPANESE WORDS. Anyway, you can see that the hissy fit endures. Apparently I am a sticker for rules. Though probably only when the breaking of them results in my losing. That said, 'twas probably a good move that I went bedwards when I did (1.30), given that breakfast the next day was at seven, and, my friends, you do not want to miss out on tiny omelettes and tiny sausages for breakfast now, do you? No, you do not.

Far too much coffee was the drug that got me through the rest of that day, that and the high of my group winning. That, and cake.

I write this now from bed on a Saturday morning, with only vague plans to leave this comfortable position at some point. I am bruised from playing volleyball, have a seriously sore stomach (and an entertaining mental picture of myriads of multi-coloured gummy bears lined up in single file all along my large bowel) and heavy eyes. So any deficit in writing skill evident in this blog can be explained away by my many and various handicaps.

But good times are a'coming, my friends, in the form of one Nicole Paterson, less than two weeks away from being en route to my neck of the woods.

Pack some thick socks, Nicole. And perhaps a sturdy umbrella. It's definitely not summer here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Crazy Takashi Strikes Again

The Japanese have a reputation as one of the hardest working races around. They work long hours, they almost never take weekends off - and even their packed lunches often look like they took hours to create. Seriously, this it not unusual:



I imagine that this is why Japanese apartments are so small - they are simply never there. They are busy falling asleep at their desks or coaching nine hundred baseball teams. However, there is a little known fact about the Japanese calendar which explains why they manage to work thusly without simply dropping, quietly, dead upon the extremely clean footpaths. This fact is the abundance of National Holidays. In New Zealand, I feel like these come around about three times a year. Off the top of my head can think of Labour Day (where we celebrate Helen Clarke) and Anniversary Day, were you pretend to celebrate the wonderfulness of the city you live in (Kawakawa Anniversary Day anyone? Huzzah!). I do NOT count Waitangi Day because I feel like in the 22 years I have been alive, it has fallen outside a weekend maybe TWICE. Is this even possible? Feel like perhaps someone must have conspired against Pakeha's celebrating the shamelessly usurping of an entire landmass from the indigenous by sleeping all day and eating chips. How rude.

In Japan this would NEVER happen. Their National Holidays are always orchestrated to fall either on a Friday or Monday (thus giving you a long weekend, during which to prepare your lunch box for the next working day) OR on Wednesday, thus giving you a welcome break in the middle of a tiresome week. The best part about these holidays is that they do not celebrate any particular historical event, or even any suitable seasonal shift. They are TOTALLY MADE UP. That's why they can make them fall on whatever day suits best! They celebrate things like "Greenery Day" (during which day, you must spend ten minutes worshipping leaves) and "Marine Day" (during which day you must spend ten minutes worshipping dolphins) and even "Substitute Holiday" (during which you worship... substitute teachers?). While my explanations of these days may be a little suss (that is, 100% fabrication), these holidays are genuine. "Respect for the Aged Day"! "Health and Sports Day"! There is even a "Children's Day", which shows my Mother up nicely for claiming that "Every day is Children's Day". Sorry Mum, it's actually May 5th. Write it down. Why this subject matter? Because I write to you on a Wednesday, from the comfort of my own bed, enjoying, in my own unique way, "National Culture Day". One might imagine that on a holiday thusly named, I would be inclined to visit a museum, or a heritage site. Instead, so far, I have booked flights, watched The Simpsons and eaten Choco Pie's. My most impressive accomplishment to date has been showering. And I didn't even wash my hair.

But I am glad of National Culture Day, for it gives me a chance to blog to you fine people about the weekend just been.

As you may have garnered from the title of this post, Friday night was spent, once more, in the company of my favourite crazy Japanese man. That said, I feel I must warn you that this might be the last post with him as the subject, as I fear we may have killed him. The night started tamely enough, with gyoza at a local restaurant. Aravin and I rugged up and walked the three minutes to the small restaurant, where we were happily surprised to encounter two friends. We sat down, and Aravin was immediately engaged in "conversation" with a Japanese man seated to his left, which involved said Japanese man waving a newspaper depicting the Japanese baseball draft (v important here, apparently) in Aravin's face and gesticulating wildly, possibly bemoaning/celebrating the outcome of the draft, and Aravin alternately nodding and shaking his head emphatically. He makes friends very easily here. Gyoza and Asahi and miso soup were copiously consumed, and we decided to introduce our friends to Crazy Takashi, who up til now had been a discovery of ours only. When we entered his bar, it was apparent that Friday night does not necessarily mean raging custom for Takashi, we being, once more, the only customers. Nonetheless, he was pleased to see us, especially when Aravin gave him his coat. See?



Why does Crazy Takashi make Aravin behave like a teenage girl, in that, the minute they encounter one another, they start trading clothes?

I do not know.

But, it did seem to inspire the spirit of generosity in Takashi, who immediately placed a bottle of shochu and a bottle of plum wine before us, and invited us to pour our own drinks, managing to communicate that it was far too expensive for us to drink by the glass, and that we should therefore purchase the bottles in their entirety. Can you imagine this happening in a bar in NZ? "No, no, don't buy a shot of tequila for $8, that's just ridiculous! Here, take the whole bottle for $30, that's much more sensible, there's a good girl now..." Anyway, we were amenable, it being Friday and we being impressionable. As the bottles got low, conversation flowed more freely, the language barrier apparently not being immune to a tide of liquor. Takashi was enjoying himself immensely, drinking a good three glasses of spirits to every one of ours. He was having such a good time, in fact, that as soon as the bottles looked ready to be empty, he presented us with a free bottle of whiskey, so best to prolong the evening. It was now 11.30, and looked like the party might go on in to the night - but then Takashi hit the wall. He staggered to the two tables in the restaurant and lay down across the seats and appeared to pass out immediately, glasses askew. We gaijins looked at each other - this was clearly an invitation either to depart, or partake of a restaurant sleepover. We decided upon the former. After quick consultation, we left thrice the proposed bill in 1000 yen notes on the bar, $20 just not seeming to be an adequate charge for three full bottles of alcohol. Aravin roused Takashi just enough to indicate the money to him, with the intention of soothing his mind of thoughts that he might have been robbed by four tall and unruly foreigners. But when he saw the money he seemed to become insulted - I don't really know, my Japanese not being great at the best of times, and considerably impaired by plum wine. At any rate, he then began to slap Aravin across the chest and face, yelling in slurred Japanese.


Aravin mananged to extract himself, whereupon Takashi collapsed back upon the seats, and we all left together.

We have not been back since.

So you see my dilemma... We love Takashi. He is a nice man, with slightly crossed-eyes and a text-book drinking problem. He wears yellow pants, and this is endearing. But we never know what to pay him, and we never know what to expect. We also don't know how he manages to stay open, when he only has two customers, and he never properly charges them.

Oh Takashi. NB: Readers, I will let you know when I summon the courage to revisit. Am aware that chances are high that he doesn't actually remember that we were ever there.... Or that he owns a bar... Or that owes Aravin a coat...

After Friday, came Saturday (it usually does). It being October 30th, that night there were numerous Halloween parties at the numerous foreigner bars around the city. Judging by the costume stores that I visited, most Japanese women take this as an occasion to dress up variously as a french maid, a dirty nurse, a school girl or a bunny rabbit. Since these costumes would fit around maybe half of one of my thighs, and get me banned from the subway, I went like this:



Gave a few older Japanese women heart attacks. Also made these children cry:



Whimps.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sappmoresnow

Hi guys. Remember how this was supposed to be a blog about my observations, cunning and witty and wry, about Japan? Including, but not limited to, the people, the food, the culture and the WEATHER?

Turns out I should be more observant.

For whilst I was blissfully typing away about the snow, and how it was light, and how it would all melt away as it touched the ground and how we wouldn't see any more for weeks... This was happening:





NB: Look out the window.

Pajamas were immediately discarded, in favour of the aforementioned winter outfit. And we frolicked. Oh did we frolick. Aravin ran around like a border collie.

Right at this moment, I wouldn't be anywhere else on earth.






Except maybe I would go back in time to when this last was taken and arrange my face differently.

Sapporsnow

My Facebook newsfeed is very confused at the moment. More so even than usual, when feminist activism follows photos of girls dressed as bunnies for Halloween follows pictures of my father clutching fish follows news items about people unknowingly getting penises (penii?) tattooed on their backs. The changing of the seasons is occurring in both the places in the world that I have called home (Narnia does not count, unfort) - but in one, a tepid but wet winter is slowing morphing into an intermittent spring, and in the other a raging, feverous summer has backhanded the whole population with a stormy, earthquake-y winter. So while half my friends are leaving delighted exclamatory comments about their tan and bikini lines, the other half are bemoaning the fact that they have not yet purchased their "Yak Tracks" (to those not in the know, as I was not, these are weirdo rubbery spikey thingamies that you slip over your existing shoes in order to gain purchase on icy ground and avoid ass contact with the same. Much like the spikes on soccer shoes, I am told, as I would know, had I ever engaged in sport).

I'm not sure if I'm jealous of the former or simply pleased to be part of the latter. I've known many warm Octobers, where one combines woolly hats with denim shorts in order to best straddle the seasons. I've spent many days pretending to study for end-of-year exams with text-books spread over my face to avoid further reddening my prominent nose. But I've never had a winter start as violently and uncompromisingly as the one I now find myself experiencing. IT'S ONLY OCTOBER. I have not yet seen Halloween, and yet, I have seen snow.

Behold:

video

(Does the video even work? Have I attempted to blog beyond my skills?! If so, just pretend it works, for me. So you can do it convincingly, I pan around for a while, looking at snow, get briefly confused by a smudge on the window that looks like a crow, and then get startled when Aravin sneezes - loudly - beside me. I am M. Night Shamalalmalamalan. Or someone else who makes movies. Does the M stand for "Mid"? Interesting).

Do you enjoy the moment at the end where Manfriend sneezes and looks bewildered? I do. It reminds me somewhat of Winnie the Pooh. I also think it is an apt salute to winter, much more suitable than a round of applause or a stately bow.

The POINT of the video though is not to show how ridiculous Aravin looks when forced out of bed at 6am to stare at the window, but to show you want had me staring out the window, spilling my coffee (DEATH) and bellowing at my Manfriend.

SNOW.

Though it is true that I live on the eleventh floor and that the snow was largely rain by the time it hit the ground; though it is also true that "It isn't snow unless it sticks"; though it cannot be denied that by 11am the sun was shining and there was no proof that it had ever happened, winter has come to Sapporo. I knew I would be excited when the first snow fell. It meant I got to wear my boots and my favourite fur coat and my new woolly hat. It meant I got to stick out my hand and catch snow flakes (slash icy sleet). It meant I got sit on the subway and veritably stew in my ridiculous number of layers and new Icebreakers fresh from home (thanks Ma). I am told that from tomorrow the weather will warm back up to a temperate 15 degree high and we won't see proper snow again for some weeks, but I feel gratified by my first experience in true falling snow.

I had other things to talk about but I've forgotten them in the excitement of today.

I ate some of this:



I drank some of this:



I went to a cool bar that reminded me of Wellington, where the ceiling looked like this:



But by far the most educational experience was learning about this:



Who knew.