Friday, September 14, 2007

April to mid-August

It has been a long time since I last wrote something here, mainly due to 'write something on your blog!' falling waaaay down my priority list, and Facebook really taking over.

From April '07 until the rains started, I rode my bicycle absolutely everywhere, fearing I wouldn't be able to the next day because the rains would start - I guess I had the same complex as those who, having a subconscious fear of running out of food tomorrow, buy and prepare as much as possible every single day: I feared running out of sunlight and lapped it up at every opportunity.

I've got to say that exploring everything within a 12-kilometre radius of the Minesawa Dormitory was fun. Finding a quick way to Gumyoji dorm was particularly good, as I always knew at least three people would be welcoming me with open arms every single time I'd arrive there, offering some fruit, a refill of my water bottle and a nice chat. Ah, those were the days...

In place of Slimeball Sasanuma, a nice first-year from Nagoya called Watanabe moved in, and if ever his music got a little too loud (only twice), I was sure to let him know, knocking and politely asking him to turn it down due to the thin nature of the walls. He obliged, and we lived peacefully until my exit in late September.

It was in July that I started resenting not having an air conditioning unit and merely a large fan - when the nighttime temperature is never less than 25 degrees and humidity is in the nineties, an air-drying aircon system always comes in handy. Seeking refuge in other Minesawans' airconditioned paradises provided respite from the heat and humidity on many occasions. For accepting me as a climate refugee, I thank them :)

There was a continuous heatwave in August all over Japan, but I had no idea until half way through that month when my tutor and I bought the Asahi Shimbun at Munich station. Eh? Munich? Yes, we went to Europe for a month. Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary (Transit only lol), Serbia, and Bulgaria (only two hours).

Arriving at Frankfurt's international airport after ten months in homogeneous Japan proved a shock - we had arrived in multicultural Europe. Seeing apples sold by the kilo, cranberries and smoked meat in abundant supply, and whole supermarket walls dedicated to yoghurt, all types of cheese and other such products made me see the major cultural difference between Europeans and Japanese (and other East Asian nations): DAIRY!

The only thing that passes for cheese in the average Japanese diet is the stuff put on hamburgers, the Kraft Parmesan cheese spinkled on pasta, and Kraft Singles-style rubbery processed "cheese". Sour cream, thickened cream, buttermilk, Balkan-Greek yoghurt, cheddar, tasty, fetta, colby, kashkaval..... all was on display in Germany, very difficult to find in Japan however.

One could say the Japanese calcium intake is substituted by fish etc, but it doesn't seem to do the job, as the grandmas spines bent 90 degrees bear testament to. A fellow student of mine from Korea, while discussing the consumption of milk, told me flatly:
'There's a famous Korean doctor who says the Korean body doesn't absorb the calcium present in dairy products, so there's no point in drinking milk or eating cheese for us. That's a white-person thing'.
Naturally, I was gobsmacked. I don't exactly remember my reply, but it went something like this:
'WHAT?! That doctor's a fucking idiot. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese etc have milk products in their diet if they live in Australia or the US, and they have strong bones, thanks to the calcium in their diets.... Tell that doctor he's an idiot, he has no idea what he's talking about! He must have been paid by the All-Korean Anti-Milk Axis (AKAMA) to say such crap.'
I delivered a similar pro-milk speech at a primary school in Gunma prefecture. The kids there told me the only dairy intake they get every day is the 200ml carton rationed to them at lunch. The same ration is given to the teachers, but they don't bother drinking it - it's a non-dairy (I am tempted to say "staunchly ANTI-dairy") culture, nothing much can be done. An appeal to the kids to have at least half a litre of milk a day so they grow up big and strong (assuming yoghurt and cheese are in limited supply in the village) received mixed responses - from "yes, we'll have more milk" to "but I don't like the taste of milk". It's the same in every country I guess.

That's enough for today. Stay tuned for part two.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I'm lazy with this blog

Okay, a short spiel on where I've been and what I've done:

I went to Kyoto during the spring holidays for about 48 hours with a Seishun Kippu - yes, local trains.... but I got annoyed at Nagoya and caught the Shinkansen to Kyoto - half an hour as opposed to two hours....

I teach English in a cafe - basically, I get paid to drink beer and coffee, sit with Japanese people and explain lightbulb jokes as well as the difference between Lice and Rice, Election and (you get the idea)...

I went with my tutor again to Kamakura on Sunday - some photos from there will find their way onto Facebook once I find my camera's USB cable.

The new semester started, all my classes are in Japanese except for some management class I'm attending in order to catch up on sleep. My translation lecturer used to be a lecturer at the ANU, and a lecturer of mine from the ANU was one of his students back in the day - it's a small world ain't it :)

I have yet to randomly bump into someone from home unexpectedly... what are you all doing? Staying in Australia, where the heavens do not send rain, and the ground does not shake violently?

Enough! Back to watching Terebi-Tokyo, it looks like some funny game show is starting soon :)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I win!

Returning from my part-time job earlier this evening and checking mail, I saw a notice (空室 - EMPTY ROOM)stuck to the mailbox for Mr Slimeball- and the sticker bearing his name (笹沼勇佐 from memory...) wasn't there...

This, combined with the fact that since yesterday his electricity meter wasn't turning (come to Minesawa and see how easy it is to monitor people's electricity consumption), made me realise something - THE BASTARD MOVED OUT!


To celebrate, some friends helped me finish a 3 litre can of Asahi Beer while watching Barcelona vs Real Madrid on TV.

It seems his banging on the wall on the weekend was a goodbye gift, as on Sunday afternoon there was the loudest bang I had ever heard on my wall (I thought a bomb exploded next door), and then silence.

I am unbelievably happy - everyone's good wishes for a speedy end to this episode paid off - HE'S GONE!!!

I shall now get to proper uni life - studying Kanji like a madman, and possibly going to Kansai for 48 hour trips.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

...and the war starts again

After the heavenly silence of Nagano, the joy of seeing fellow ANU students in Japan, and buying a Nintendo DS-lite after waiting in line last Friday night at Yodobashi-camera, you'd think all was set nicely, right? Think again.... old problems come back, like the smell of a clump of natto that fell behind your table accidentally...

This is, of course, Mr. Slimeball. He started playing ball at 8am (!), waking me up. I nicely got up, yawning rather loudly, and he banged my wall. Thinking this was a coincidence, I yawned again for good measure, and again a loud bang came in reply.

Having the confidence of some of the liquid courage of last night's Midori in my system, I took my breakfast (a banana) and walked to the guy's door. After ringing the doorbell once, he answered. We exchanged morning greetings, then I asked him, in a rather croaky voice (I had just woken up!) to be careful not to bang the wall, he slammed the door in my face. I then went back to my room, and guess what happened....

Obnoxious Short Slimeball, not having an ounce of niceness in him, took half an hour out of his morning to bang the wall loudly every twenty seconds or so. Seriously, what is the bastard's problem? Does he hate Americans (I'm an Aussie, but he may not know that)? Does he hate whites? Does he hate that I'm taller than him? WHAT IS IT?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!

If he bangs tonight, I've kind of arranged for a collection of dormitory friends of mine, a combination of Japanese, American, African, and others to accompany me to his front door. And we shall kindly offer to buy him a child-sized taiko drum that he can bang to his heart's content, so long as the thin wall separating myself from him suffers no more abuse.

You'll be updated tomorrow on progress in the Great Wall Hitting War (大壁殴り戦争). Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Problem Solved. Now to deal with spam...

In the last twenty minutes, because it was nearing midnight, I could no longer stand the banging of Mr Slimeball. I decided to knock on his door or ring his doorbell and ask him to cease and desist, but since it was late at night and he had a potential weapon (his banging ball), I asked the nicest person on my floor to come with me and talk to Slimeball. Getting to his door, we agreed he was banging a ball around the room rather loudly, as we could hear it while standing outside his door. My friend then rang the guy's doorbell.....

At first, the banging stopped, there was the characteristic squeak of a Minesawa-provided chair, and then silence. Waiting ten seconds and wondering if he heard the bell the first time, my friend rang again. Again, no response, just silence, no banging, nothing. He wanted to ring a third time, but I suggested against it - the banging stopped, it's okay.

I am eternally grateful to my good friend, who backed me up in what might have been an ugly one-on-one verbal confrontation. You are always blessed with good people who live around you - you've just got to wash your dishes in the kitchen to meet them :)

My blog gets a lot of spam posted to it, much to my annoyance. On top of having to clean my room/do my laundry, I also have to clean up my blog. What puzzles me is the same message that appears on the blog also appears as the only English-language spam email to my phone (so much Japanese spam, but I like my short email address - having it as may help, but it's too long for people at home to type into their email programs). I've got to somehow get that picture-letter recognition thingy included as part of my 'create post' dialogue, similar to what you can see if you decide to leave a comment.

I see that many people from all over the place read my blog - keep reading, I promise more pictures and tales of adventure in Nippon.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The bastard in the room next to me

I was going to write about the splendour of New Year, Christmas, the Japanese Orthodox Church, Sumo and seeing the Emperor and Empress, but this will all have to wait, as something else is on my mind at this very moment....

There is a problem in Minesawa dorm - the idiot who lives in the room next to me.

Without fail, that degenerate slimeball will bounce a ball in his room, and since the walls here are thin as in most of Japan, I am forced to hear every bang. Now, it would be nice if the guy had some some sense of rhythm, but this is asking too much from someone who appears to have the brain of a tone-deaf and chemically affected J-pop drummer (if such things exist). Though we have lived next to each other for three and a half months, I have only seen this guy two or three times - he is about 160cm and looks like he's in his mid to late twenties, or it may be that he's my age, but the amount of makeup he uses (he looks like a metrosexual of sorts, so I'm assuming he wears what so many people now euphemistically term 'male care products') must have made his face have the same consistency as my leather gloves.

Despite the fact that I've seen Degenerate Slimeball, I have not spoken a word to him, nor has he to me. The only communication we have is him banging a ball against my wall and me throwing something heavy at the wall in return. Somtimes, he'll punch the wall in reply to that, which gives me the excuse to intermittently push the wall in simulation of an earthquake, at which time the banging ceases.

I have been tempted to ring Mr. Slimeball's doorbell and ask, in a very direct way 「貴様は問題がある?」, but I really couldn't be bothered to - banging the wall is enough communication. In the meantime, buying a softball or tennis ball and doing the same thing would either make him stop, or have matters made much worse, with 24-hour bouncing marathons... I'll stick to vacuuming my room at 3am, it's relatively more productive while causing genuine annoyance :)

If the bastard moves out at the end of semester, I will breathe a sigh of relief - I will finally be able to study in my room without having to endure the endless バンバンバン I currently experience.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The last two or three weeks or so

Okay, so it's really been 久しぶり for this blog. But it's the holidays now, so I have time.

Japan is getting slowly colder, with frost appearing on the cabbage fields that I see on the way to/from Mitsuzawa-kamicho station. In Aomori, a long way away from Yokohama, it's snowing.

My tutor and I went to Kamakura about three weeks ago, exploring the shrines and temples for which that location is famous. Along with several keychains, I bought many postcards. What was interesting about Kamakura relative to Yokohama-proper is the abundance of eagles - Yokohama is full of crows, big black crows that squark constantly, while the shrines of Kamakura have eagles that fly over and glide gracefully through the sky. I made the mistake of not doin laundry the day before, so the only wearable jacket I had was my black アキバ系 one. Akiba-kei literally means Akiba-team, as in Akihabara (秋葉原), the electric shop district and unashamed nerd mecca. The only problem is that Akiba-kei has a rather negative meaning, kind of like a rude way of calling someone a nerd. Wearing a jacket that effectively says NERD on it in Japanese, coupled with visiting traditional sites, was a bit of a mismatch, so I bought a new jacket with the help of my tutor towards the end of our day.

After buying my new jacket (which is really nice by the way), we walked about a kilometre to a zen-temple to try some zen-Buddhist meditation. My back hurt quite a lot while sitting on one of the temple cushions, as I couldn't fold my legs the right way. All in all, it was far from an exercise in clearing the mind of worries, but it was good to try it at least once.

A trip to Tokyo a few days later was fruitful though; I bought a pair of leather gloves in Kanda that now keep me warm when my hands risk suffering frostbite.

That same evening was the Christmas party at Gumyoji, the other YNU dorm, about 20 minutes by train from Kamicho-eki. There, I met someone from Bosnia who invited me to a Jadranka Stojakovic concert the following Friday, which was quite nice of her. We'll jump to the concert now...

At Higashi-nakano station, waiting for me were several Zainichi Balkanites - Bosnians and a few Serbs. They all spoke Serbian, naturally, and Japanese, and English - perfect! I could communicate in all three languages!

The concert was nice, but meeting new friends in Japan who are Balkanites was even better :)

Somewhere in between that and last week came a stint at Karaoke in Gumyoji with friends who live at that dorm that was originally supposed to be an hour but later turned into three, then a slow walk to Gumyoji so I could crash there in a friend's room. I wish I could remember what day it was - I think it was Friday or Saturday, but I'm unsure. Anyone reading this and who was there, please let me know what the actual date was, so I can edit this blog accordingly :)

...Two days later was the YNU Orchestra's concert, that was phenomenally good. It was held in the Minatomirai large hall, which really is large! We got really good seats, so we got a full listening AND viewing experience.

Then came my birthday this week, which was very nice. In the evening, it was sushi-eating time with a few friends, which was excellent - after sushi came eating icecream at a shop called Milky-Soft (which is 200m from a 70s era porn cinema [take from that what you will]), and a call from relatives at home wishing me a happy birthday. Good fun, great food.

Friday, though, was the big party. Dinner at the Watami izakaya with 10 different dishes, and nomihoudai for two hours...

After the party, it was Karaoke at Gumyoji, but only orange juice for me - Watami was enough drinking hahaha. We got to Gumyoji dorm at around 2am, and I again crashed there. So, let's recap - I did not sleep on Friday night at home as I was at Gumyoji.

Then, Saturday. Getting up, going to the station and coming back home by 7.30am was okay - I could have a bit of a nap, which was good. At 2pm, I went to Sakuragicho to meet with a friend to visit, take a deep breath, the SILK MUSEUM.

Yokohama is full of all sorts of museums, from silk to ramen (noodles) to tin dolls and (probably) bottle caps. The silk museum, though, like the fibre it's based on, is fine, smooth, and very pretty.

Later on, it was catching the Seabass (ferry kind of thing) to a nice shopping centre called Bayquarter - lots of restaurants with nice views overlooking the harbour.

After that came meeting with a Russian fellow exchange student and going to Tokyo - first, Ginza, the very expensive shopping district. Prada gloves cost 50,000 yen, denim jackets 112,000 yen... it's nice to look, it's a ripoff to buy.

Following the Ginza walk, it was a quick train ride to Shibuya for dinner, then buying a pair of jeans for me. This deserves its own paragraph.

Buying clothing in Japan is interesting. Like I mentioned in a previous post about sizes, I have to visit a big/tall menswear store for stuff I can buy in a normal shop in Australia. Not to worry, my size is the second smallest at the shop in Shibuya. After choosing jeans and trying them on, I see the leg is too long - the shopkeeper offers to alter them FREE OF CHARGE, ON THE SPOT! They're altered (so professionally that they don't look like they've been altered!), I pay for them, very happy that I have a new pair of jeans with the leg the right size - hooray for nice Japanese shop employees that happen to be good tailors, with sewing machines on hand, who will alter clothing for me!

Our sojourn in Shibuya soon ended, as we went to Roppongi. The first three hours I would rather forget, as they were in a trance club full of smoke and people who looked like they were very, very high.

After club-hopping, it was a bolt to the train station, and missing the first train by ten seconds. All it meant was a 15 minute wait, which went by quickly. I noticed at the train station that black American men with the physique of Marines would approach random Japanese couples at the station and try to talk to them, the couples would try to get away, but would be followed up and down the platform. I wouldn't like to be in those couples' position, those Americans looked mighty scary (how did I know they were Americans? Simple, they had AMERICAN ACCENTS!).
Getting to Yokohama at 6.30am or something like that, I caught a train to Mitsuzawa-Kamicho, then got home at around 7.00am, and went to bed, then woke up at 3pm. That was on Sunday (Catholic Xmas Eve).

So, in short, I did not sleep at home for two nights in a row - strange, eh?

The next two weeks will be spent studying and writing research papers - Yokohama is no holiday (contrary to my original hope of it being one), they actually make us do work!

Thank you all for comments (verbal and written) - to quench your collective thirst for my blogging, I'll be more regular in my posting from now on, with more detailed accounts than the one above (I'm writing it at 3.30am on Boxing Day!!!)

Friday, December 08, 2006


Life is interesting in the Minesawa dormitory when it isn't an exercise in enduring the idiocy of your fellow university-student male.

Our rooms are 12 square metres, which is enough for one person to live in and clean without much trouble. Our rent is 8700 yen per month (A$100), which is about a fifth of what people who rent apartments near the university pay. The electricity and water ends up being 2000 yen per month, so all up it's around A$120 a month. Bear in mind that at the ANU, the room rental in the residential halls is at least $200 per week.

Back to Minesawa... First of all, we have a shared kitchen. We have a bathroom and sink with a cold water tap in our rooms, but the kitchen is shared.

The rules of the dormitory state that washing your hair or brushing your teeth in the kitchen is prohibited. You'd think that Japanese kids, obedient and bowing constantly, would give this rule notice, wouldn't you? This, frustratingly, is not the case.

Males in their late teens or early twenties will wake up, get a towel and shampoo, and proceed to the sink in the kitchen to wash their hair.

Why would they do such a thing? Simple, FREE HOT WATER.

In the Minesawa dormitory, like in most of Japan, free-of-charge running hot water is rare outside of kitchens or sushi restaurants (where it's available on tap for making tea). We do have shared shower facilities, but hot water is obtained by inserting a 100 yen coin for 10 minutes of comfortable bathing, after which the hot flow abruptly ceases. The cessation of warm water doesn't arrive without notice though: the hot water pipe clangs, and three seconds later, you're bathing in ice.

To save money, these cheap people wash their hair in the kitchen sink. Some even wet a towel with hot water and rub themselves clean with it while standing at the sink.

The ones who suffer are the normal people: on top of paying for our own proper showers, we have to pay for a fraction of the hot water used by the cheaparse pigs, not much, but we're still paying.

We also have to, while attempting to cook, have to scream at half-awake idiots who, barely able to stand, cling to the same sink you've stepped away from for a moment to grab a chopping board.

This is why I now cook in my room. I have a small oven, a gas stove, pots and pans, a fridge, and enough noodles, rice, vegemite, oil, salt/pepper etc to last at least three weeks. The only thing I do in the kitchen is wash my dishes when I feel the need to. And even for that I make sure nothing gets in contact with the surface of the kitchen - baskets from the 100 yen shop cover that.

I will soon post photos in conjunction with this text of the dorm and its quirks, so you, my dear readers, gain a better understanding of the life of a foreign student in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Monday, November 27, 2006

居酒屋など・Izakaya etc

The following blog post is not intended for people well-versed in Japanese life. Think of it like an article teaching Japanese people to eat pasta パクパク rather than ツルツル - special target audience :)

The wonder of the Japanese tavern (居酒屋) is something one must experience to appreciate. The following is a description of the Watami establishment near 横浜駅西口。

First of all, we are welcomed with such 敬語 (honourific language) that you almost feel like using the royal first person pronoun 朕. Anyway, if you're in a large group and you've booked a room (a very large private booth with one wall taken out so the waiters can place food in front of you), you'll take your shoes off and put them in a locker-type thing with a wooden key. Yes, a wooden key - I'd love to find out how to make them, they look so cool.

After getting settled, the waiters take drink orders and start bringing out food. This isn't some sort of small-portioned diet-fest, this is food followed by more food followed by, you guessed it, more food. Then you have what is known as 飲み放題. This deserves its own paragraph.

Nomi-houdai is where you are given a list of alcoholic and other beverages, and order an unlimited quantity within a limited timeframe, say, two hours. From beer to wine to sake to girls' drinks (mixed drinks in huge beer-mug type glasses), you can drink to your heart's content. Remember though that Japan has beverage etiquette - in company, you never pour your own drink. This unwritten law enhances the sense of community and social interaction, so the official line goes. I view it differently - the rule is there so that if someone becomes intoxicated, it isn't their fault: they were being polite by drinking what their peers took time and effort to pour for their benefit.

After a long and drawn out dinner for which one pays ¥3,000 (less than A$35), karaoke is next on the menu.

I like to quote an old Japanese pun for karaoke by calling it 'empty bucket', as kara means empty and oke means bucket 空桶 (the language is full of such plays on words based on homonyms, some are funnier than others, some are very strange, some even make fun of imported religion 例:この教会はあく「開く・悪」のじゅうじか「10時か・十字架」? "Does this church open at 10 o'clock? / Is this the church of the evil cross?).

Anyway, back to the singing. Depending on the location of the karaoke bar, one will pay anywhere between ¥700-¥2000 per hour. The more expensive bars have plasma or LCD screens and other'modern fittings', while the cheaper establishments have a normal TV that is still quite large and isn't as polished (i.e. the table in the karaoke booth may have a chip on the corner the size of a grain of rice). In spite of the price difference, nomi-houdai still applies, though probably with a different range of beverages.

Alcohol may flow freely in Japan, but that doesn't translate to huge amounts of (reported) violence - if a Japanese person is intoxicated, his peers will keep an eye on him lest he do something overly regretful. Walking through Yokohama on a Saturday morning, one sees Japanese people still drunk walking with friends to a taxi or similar.

As a basic consumer price list, have a look at this:

Johnnie Walker Red Label 750ml ¥1200
Malboro Red 20 pack ¥320 or ¥350 depending on where you buy it
1kg of Australian beef on Tuesdays at Tsurukame-land supermarket ¥930
1kg of Greek fetta cheese (with EU certification that it's from Greece and that it adheres to all the EU's strict fetta regulations) ¥7500
Five thick slices of bread ¥100
2kg of rice somewhere between ¥500 and ¥1000

Rice 「お米」 is expensive here. Because it's a staple food, the government wants it produced domestically, so it subsidises the living daylights out of farmers. Regardless, it's still double what you'd pay in Australia, and tariffs are so high that importing from China or Thailand isn't worth it. And I haven't found brown rice like the stuff you can buy at Woolworths or Coles - here it's all either white as snow or white like the 'white rice' in Australia (which they call brown[ish] rice - I guess it's all a question of relative shades of white).

Back to 勉強。 またね!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Weekend

I have found something new to spend my money on thanks to Saturday's field trip - Toraya sweets. Having a similar price per gram to sterling silver, Toraya sweets are worth every yen. Eating one block of Musashi-no over the space of twelve hours was the best part - the best 1700 yen I've ever spent.

Along with that, there is one thing I've discovered about Japan - natto and sake are not my cup of tea. The former, while tolerable, is far too sticky and makes me look like I'm eating freshly-spun cobwebs or silk. The latter's taste I can put down to this: water you've washed rice in with a dabbing of vodka. Despite the fact that there may be some different levels of taste involved like with grape wine, you can still summarise it how I have - sweet rice water with vodka, calrose rice water with vodka, brown rice water with vodka... we could go on all day...

There is a place in Shibuya that sells clothing for people with more than a 28 inch waist - a miracle in a country where many adult males have the physique of a Western fourteen year old. It spreads over two levels, there are shoes, socks, shirts, jumpers, jackets... and all are American size L or above. This means that all Westerners who are taller than 175cm can actually buy clothing for themselves at price that appears reasonable.

While in Shibuya I noticed that a lot of the grafitti in the back alleys is in English. Okay, maybe Japanese people write grafitti in Shibuya... but, it was actual English as opposed to wasei-eigo or the hilariously ungrammatical compositions of the average Japanese young person. Could it be that the large concentration of foreigners in Shibuya make it shoulder the burden of Western-style grafitti, something we only see in Japan next to left or right wing political posters? Notwithstanding, the presence of a clothes shop where I can buy a jacket or t-shirt (or socks etc) is lovely - going to a place where my foot size is the smallest in the store, and my size of jeans/shirts etc is mid-range rather than hearing 「大変申し訳ございませんが、一番大きいサイズは32インチ」 from store employees makes me realise that I can actually purchase clothing here rather than get it sent from Australia or North America.

What a beautiful country Japan is :)