Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gaijin Smash

My high school is a big one, and a wealthy one, and it's in a busy area. Oftentimes, outside the school gates, there are well-dressed, good-looking young Japanese people handing out fliers to the children walking to school. I have no idea what they're advertising, obviously (I have suspicions of sex-trafficking, but I'll never rightly know), but they're usually bright yellow, usually plastic-wrapped, and they've usually got some kind of inducement accompanying them, a free eraser, or a pencil, or a clear file. The way to a student's heart is through free stationary.

Anyway, it's always the same people, though they hand out different things for different companies each time.

And when they see me coming, they withdraw their hands and turn slightly away. I am not helpful. I am not a student. I am not Japanese. I am not their target market. No free eraser for you, non-voter.

Two days ago there was a new guy doing the job, and he fucked up. I arrived with a big trainload of fifteen year olds, and he accidentally proffered a plastic-wrapped leaflet to me, together with the free eraser. Hurrah! All my dreams come true! But just before I managed to take it, he looked at me properly, and saw the thing that gives me away definitively, undeniably, unarguably as un-Japanese: my face.

He started. I can't blame him, really. What a shock. Like expecting to see a kitten and coming face-to-face with bear. Anyway, he jerked back his hand and took a step backwards. Into his parked bike. Which fell over. On to the road. Forcing the driver of a passing car to jerk the wheel to avoid collision with the fallen bike, which he fortunately managed to do, but not without squealing his tyres and blaring his horn, which is in Japan the shock-equivalent of running the length of a subway carriage naked, slathered in yoghurt.

Gaijin smash, indeed. Next time, just give me the damn flier.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Out with the old

Yesterday a rubbish truck came to Sumikawa. Now, this might seem like an insignificant event. Trifling, even. But there are additional facts to consider:

1. The garbage system in Sapporo is incredibly complex. Every different component of the leavings of your life must be separated. Plastics, bottles, cans, paper, cardboard. Items that don't fit those precise descriptions can be discarded only once a month in a ceremony which - I'm pretty sure - involves word-of-mouth (Japanese words; Japanese mouths), secret midnight meetings and ritual animal sacrifices.

2. I live in a little neighbourhood full of little women with lots of spare time on their hands, who like to go through the trash, find the contents that fail to adhere to the strict separation rules, identify the garbage by finding envelopes with names thereon, and depositing the offending item back in the wrong-doers mail box.

3. I moved into an apartment filled with decades worth of crap.

Even figuring out precisely when the truck was going to come was something of a challenge, since we were notified by email, and my supervisor types in code. For example:

"Even though you think Unnecessary, but if the things are provided by the BoE, don’t throw. But that thing is so old and already broken and sleeping so many years, BOE says OK to throw. (kind of old broke CD player in the closet, telephone set sleeping under the desk)"

"Addition to the Garbage collection guideline:
7. Expect tires.
8. If you throw stoves, release lamp oil"

"So you must call out to each other when the garbage wagon arrives and carry heavy things and so on."

Complicated, no?

"The garbage wagon is here!"

"What's a garbage wagon?"

"I don't know, I think it's like a truck?"

"Oh! Good! Will you help me carry this heavy thing?"

"I can't! I'm expecting tires!"

"Oh! Really? From where?"

"I don't know... I'm just being cautious. And stop yelling!"


"You'll wake up my telephone set!"

But, yesterday, a rubbish truck came to Sumikawa. And we were allowed to throw out anything we wanted, which necessitated my opening all the jam-packed cupboards in my little apartment. Seriously, the lengths that former residents of my abode had gone to to hide away the junk of ages past was almost admirable. There were shoe boxes, taped shut, filled with hundreds and hundreds of old pens. There was a large plastic box, secreted inside three plastic bags, filled with various medical paraphenalia. Nine pairs of slippers. Did you know I have a barbeque? Neither did I.

On Saturday morning, I got up early. I bemoaned the fact that I lived on the eleventh floor. I jammed open my door (lacking in a doorstop, I utilized a wooden spoon and a chopping board. Who says I'm not practical, hmm?). I toted down 13 large plastics bags filled with rubbish, 4 futons, 3 blankets. I emptied my shed of TWO sets of golf clubs, a complicated shelving unit and, last but not least, my rusty blue Mama Cherry.

I looked at the all the shit I'd got rid of, and I was hugely relieved. And then the little Japanese men who'd accompanied the garbage truck picked up my Mama and threw her in the back of the truck and turned it on. And a huge metal bar pressed down. She bent. She broke. Her seat popped off, and her bell rang no more. My little Mama Cherry, who had carried who knows how many foreigners, including my father, to and from the station, faithfully.

You know you're truly materialistic when your heart breaks for a bike.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Everyone who has been in Sapporo for any length of time always says that this is the best time of year. The snow has gone, the weather has warmed up, enough that you can get from bed to shower with suffering frostbite, not so much that walking outside is like plunging headlong into a spa pool. Schools have their annual festivals and sports days, so working life is even less arduous than usual. And there are all kinds of things to look forward to - summer holidays, beer festivals and YOSAKOI YOSAKOI.

Look, I'm not a dancer. Ask anyone who saw me at the latino club two weekends ago. Bobbing enthusiastically on the spot does not a tango make. But I can appreciate the asthetic and the energy, and no style of dance focuses more on both of these elements than YOSAKOI YOSAKOI.

Yosakoi is a style of dance which, as far as I can gather (on the strength of no research at all) originates in Japan from a ritual that used to be performed by fishermen to bring luck with, you know, fish. I don't know. Maybe fish like dancing? I hear they're pretty envious of the whole legs/feet thing. Ariel certainly had some kind of beef with her tail (what's that word again? Oh... street. Bloody hell, Ariel, GOOGLE it). Anyway, something. Look it up yourself. YOSAKOI YOSAKOI. All I know is, in modern day Sapporo, it translates to hundred and hundreds of Japanese people, old and young, wearing fancy shiny costumes, carrying wooden things that clack and twirling in circles in unison. YOSAKOI YOSAKOI. Wait, a koi is a fish, is it not? I wonder if they realise this. I'M A FISH I'M A FISH. What?


Hang on. Point of note: sometimes, when you've sung karaoke until four the previous morning (including a rendition of Wannabe, a couple of heartfelt duets and a really painful once-over of Linkin's Park's NUMB which only really a song in the loosest sense of the word) sometimes you go to really excellent events without your camera, and are forced to use your iPhone. And then, you leave your iPhone picture quality on High Definition, which is all well and good in theory, because, well, low definition is just so 2008, but means that the shutter speed (do iPhone's have shutters? Hearts? Souls? ULTERIOR MOTIVES?) is too slow for the manic movement that is YOSAKOI YOSAKOI (soran soran), so that the dancers appear to have two sets of legs/be birthing demons through their faces. So, sorry. Just, like, cross your eyes or something.

Seriously, aren't my photography skills the best? Isn't it unfair when one person is just too good at too many things? I can dress myself too. And tie my own shoelaces. I KNOW.

Look at this group:

Sometimes Japan is just over the top Japanese.

Look! A small one!

So, I took 300 photos. No, really. I might be most proud of this one:

It's just so elegantly composed, you know? So minimalist. And even though I took it accidentally, it does illustrate something particularly wonderful, which is that even when Japanese people are arrayed in lines on tarpaulins along a main road like this:

... everyone will STILL take their shoes off. PS: SPOT THE FOREIGNER.

Pictorially, I haven't captured this event with any finesse. But the music was amazing, the energy incredible and the atmosphere just really, really positive. All the groups were outstanding, but I did play favourites, just a little:

Here they come....

You guys, something's different.

The hair! The HAIR. Pink, red, purple, green. They caused quite a stir, lemme tell you. I nearly climbed the barrier to join them, but then I realised that my 'do was WAY TOO TAME for them. And look how liberated they feel!

"I whip my hair back an' forth, I whip my..."

"I'm freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!.... Fellow country men, this is what we've been missing! Free your follicles and the mind will follow!"

"....What? I'm jumping too high? Shit, sorry".

"Single file. Straight backs. Is this better?... Who's got some fucking hair dye?!"


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Early morning encounters

Today, I was walking along the corridors of my apartment building in the morning, on the way to the elevator, when a young Japanese girl came down the stairwell in her pajamas, carrying a big yellow plastic bag full of rubbish. When she entered the corridor and turned, and saw me approaching, she gave such a start of suprise that she dropped the bag of rubbish, and it fell, down ten or so steps, to come to rest in the landing one floor down.

I know I cut my fringe, and my eyebrows are a little haphazard, but it still seems like an overreaction.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

People and Trains and People on Trains

Night time blogging is a time for anecdotes. I don't keep a diary - I wish I was a thirteen year old girl, and could keep one without having to make sarcastic comments about myself but, alas, time marches on - so this blog suffices to keep track of the things that happen to me, and the places I go. Too often, though, I reserve my blogging for things of real note, events of substance, travel, theories that I can substantiate with photographs. This is a shame because, of course, most of the time, the things that strike you most about living in a different country are the small things, those that happen in passing, unlooked for. Today, then, I choose to record two largely insignificant events, one funny, one merely poignant.

The first was the kind of situation I find myself in all too often - where I am surrounded by people, all looking at me, all unable to communicate with me, all wondering what on earth the startled red-haired foreigner has done now. I was sitting on a bench in the Hiragishi subway station at 7 at night, having just finished my Japanese lesson. When I sat down, I was immediately very aware of the man sitting next to me, mostly because he stank of booze, but also because the toes of his shoes were pointy enough to pick locks. He was a host boy, a child of the night, a hustler of the streets of Susukino, brother to others such as these:

These pretty men stand on the street corners, lit from above by neon, haloed by hair, and solicit the attentions of likely-looking women. A single drink in the company of one of these men will set you back hundreds, so it pays to be wary of their sly glances and high hair - and they tend to run in packs. They work in shifts, bringing back women to their place of employment, lavishing them with attention, and gradually stripping them of all their worldly goods - and, likely, most of their clothes - before returning back home where they presumably shower, read manga and dream of all the new gold jewelry they'll purchase with the night's earnings.

My particular bench-mate was evidently a novice at the hosting game. His shoes were shiny as mirrors and he was slumped over, leaning his elbows into his knees, filling the air with fumes potent enough to make me giddy. Two minutes after occupying this bench, the train pulled up. And as it did so, carriage after carriage packed with bored commuters flashing past, Mr Host Boy passed out, suddenly, completely, pitching over, his head coming into direct contact with my shoulder. I got a fright; I jumped up. He toppled over onto the bench and then fell, face first, onto the tiled floor of the station at my feet. At that precise moment the train came to a stop and the doors opened wide, releasing swathes of startled passengers into what must have looked like a crime scene. "Oddly Coiffed Foreigner Slays Innocent Host Boy".

I didn't know what to do; he might well have been dead. There were hundreds of people piling off the train, but all cut careful paths around us, heads down. I made a move towards the train, as I did so, I saw him move and start to push himself up with his hands, thank god. Conscience clean, I got on the subway, away from my inebriated Host Boy. I hope he got home safe; I hope a Host Man takes him under his wing - he needs it.

My other encounter was less tactile and infinitely gentler. It was, also, more or less - nothing. I was riding the subway back home on a Tuesday afternoon. Across from me was sat a tall, handsome Japanese man in a very expensive looking suit. Immediately to his right was a little girl, maybe 5 years old, nodding asleep with the motion of the carriages. He noticed that she was about to tilt over sideways onto the seat, and he tucked one long arm around her, leaning her up against his torso. She was wearing a little straw hat with cherries printed on it; as she fell asleep her head fell forward, so all I could see of her was a little straw circle and two short legs in pink socks.

And that was all. He sat still and stared straight ahead, while his daughter fell asleep against his side. And, yup, it helped that he was handsome in a Ralph Laurent advertisement kind of a way, and that she was adorable in a Hello Kitty kind of a manner, but what made the scene so striking was its rarity. You never see Japanese men with their children, and if you do, the father exists on the periphery of a very clear bond between mother and offspring, bobbing along in their wake, palpably uncertain of his role. Japanese men are known for distance and dedication, providing for families that they know very little about. But this man routed the stereotype, and made me feel that perhaps Japanese fathers are given the short end of the cultural stick. They fit together perfectly, these two, father and daughter, and though I don't know where they were going, and though eventually the father took to glaring at me (I had been shamelessly staring for about 5 minutes by this stage, 'twas not unreasonable of him), I like to think that that subway ride was representative of a real relationship, proper familial ties, and that there are more of them in Japan than I tend to think.

And that's all. My two stories, two little intersections. Apparently themed, now I think about it - trains and falling asleep (though I don't think the five year old girl was under the influence of anything stronger than a hard day spent knocking things over and picking them up again; nor do I think that the host boy would have responded well to my giving him a hat with cherries on it and letting him sleep on my shoulder).

I myself have now mastered the art of falling asleep on the train. It's nice. I avoid the accusatory glances of those who have identified me as the murderous, perverted station-stalking host boy-slayer.