Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: February 2011

Monday, 28 February 2011

Mountain weather

Jy is veranderlik soos bergweer, sê hy vir my. You are as fickle as mountain weather, he tells me.

It is based on the Japanese saying 山の天気と女の心 yama no tenki to onna no kokoro (literal translation: mountain weather and a woman's heart, i.e. a woman's heart changes as often as mountain weather). A more common saying is 秋の天気と女の心 aki no tenki to onna no kokoro (autumn weather and a woman's heart), but his heartland is Niigata, and I am compared to its mountains.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

A little known good place

穴場 (anaba) means "a little known good place", i.e. an undiscovered gem. 穴 ana is cave or hole, 場 ba is place. There are so many anaba in my beloved shitamachi.

Friday, 25 February 2011

A springy day

There comes a day in each season when you realize the reigning champion may not be defeated yet, but he is tiring, perhaps even teetering. Sometimes he crawls into a corner to recover for his next bout, sometimes he flounces off dramatically, but he is on his way out. That day was Wednesday 23 February.
The winter's snarl has turned into a half-hearted growl. Tulips and other bulb plants are flowering in Taitō's alleys. It is getting too warm for a combination of thick winter coat + scarf + gloves. Spring is approaching quietly but steadily. Her grand ball will be towards the end of March, with the arrival of the cherry blossoms, but the preparations have started.

I am not naïve enough to think that winter will relinquish power gracefully. He has enough strength left to resist – I remember that last year's hanami was cold enough to freeze bone-marrow – but I think winter will do a Mubarak soon.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A conversation with a right-winger

The spark that started it all opines that my blog has a fatal error.

"Your personality doesn't come through," he says.
"I want to be anonymous!" I respond huffily.
"Then nobody will read it."
"I don't want to be read by everybody!"
"Then why do you write it?"
"I dunno. Friends. Family."
"That's wrong. Be yourself. Write about Japan. Be sarcastic."
"I'm not sarcastic."
"You are."
"I only get sarcastic when others say stupid things about Japan."
"So write about that."
"But … but … but they say stupid things about Japan all the time!"
"See? You're sarcastic all the time."

The man should have been a lawyer.

"If I allow my personality to come through, I'll have to write about you," I say.
"Why?" he asks.
"You Are The Reason For It All!" I announce in capitals, like Winnie-the-Pooh.
"Don't be stupid."
"You're the First Cause."
"Cosmology. You started the universe."
"I'm your god?"
"Yes. So what do I call you on my blog?"
"Call me Uyoku."
"Yes. Tell them we met when I yelled at you because you're a foreigner in my country."
"Oh. Where did you yell at me?"
"Right-wingers travel in big black vans, not trains."
"Tell them I assaulted you in a train."
"Indecent assault?"
"Yes. All Japanese men are creepy perverts, so I assaulted you in a train."

He entertains this fantasy for a while. Then he continues.

"There's another problem."
"Hoekom skryf jy nie in Afrikaans nie?"
"Want dan verstaan almal nie."
"Afrikaans is jou taal. Jy moet in jou taal skryf."

The spark that started it all, a.k.a the First Cause, also known as Uyoku, speaks four languages fluently, including Afrikaans. I met him a year before I came to Japan, but that is another story for another day.

PS: Translation of last part of dialogue: There's another problem. What? Why don't you write in Afrikaans? Too many readers won't understand. Afrikaans is your language; you should write in your own language. OK.

It's a woman driver!

The other day I took the Yamanote Line. I got into the front carriage, as is my habit, because the first and last carriages are often the emptiest.

I have to interrupt my story to explain why.

The front carriage is emptier because it is regarded by many commuters as unsafe, since it is supposed to be the "crumple zone" during a head-on collision. There has never been such an accident in the entire history of JR East, the railway company that controls Tokyo's rail transport, but that is obviously beside the point. Since I am from Africa, and per definition have a blasé attitude towards death and destruction, I exploit this paranoia to the full and enjoy the extra breathing space.

The last carriage is emptier because it is often furthest from the stairs to the platform. I have observed my fellow commuters for several years, and I still cannot explain the following Rules of Train Commuting: 

  • When you are in a train station, run-walk as fast as possible and shove lesser life forms like pregnant women and decrepit centenarians out of your way, until you get to the escalator. Then you get on and stand absolutely still.
  • When a train pulls into the station, you run up the stairs, doing that shoving thing again, and push your way into the nearest carriage. The fact that another train will arrive in two minutes is immaterial.
  • When you arrive on a platform and there is no train in sight, you stand in the middle of the platform, as close to the stairs/escalator/elevator as possible. Never, under any circumstances, walk to the ends of the platform. This is wasting unnecessary energy. The fact that the middle carriages in any train are crowded to bursting point while the end carriages are virtually empty is irrelevant.

We return to my story.

I walked to the end of the platform so that I could get into the first carriage. As the train pulled in, I noticed that the driver was a girl. I should say woman, but really, she was a tiny, petite, fragile, pony-tailed, apparently 16-year-old girl; and she was in control of that huge iron monster. May I add that it was the smoothest journey ever? The train rolled forward on buttered wheels, it whispered along the tracks, it came to a gentle stop with not even the softest jerk. Since I was seated right behind the driver's compartment, I could observe her through the glass window. That slip of a girl had tamed the beast into total submission. It was her slave.

It got even better at the next station when a very nice, picture-perfect Japanese family got into that carriage: mom, dad and three sons, maybe 10, 8 and preschool. The two older boys initially sat with their parents, but they soon got up to watch the train's progress through the front window.

When the younger boy looked through the glass window into the driver's compartment, you could see the double-take. It was that obvious.

"Eh!" he exclaimed and plucked at his brother's sleeve. "Josei desu!"

Translated: "Look! It's a girl!"

Yup, young man, the train driver is a girl. Even in Japan. Get used to it.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


I have finally closed my Standard Bank account as well as my credit card account in South Africa. Thus I find myself in Japan as follows:

I don't own a house.
I don't have a car.
I don't have a credit card.
I don't have a television set.

I have none of the basic pillars of capitalism and consumerism, and all I can think is: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last." With apologies to Martin Luther King.

It is of course easy to sing such a liberation song if you have a job, an apartment, food, books, a computer. Four computers, to be exact. You will probably not believe me if I tell you how many books I have, but as I keep explaining: I do not find books, books find me.

We not only survive, but thrive with surprisingly little stuff.

It is, however, utterly impossible to have too many books. If I may repeat the words of Desiderius Erasmus: "When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes."

Monday, 21 February 2011

The shinkansen from Shin-Yokohama to Tokyo

One of my favourite experiences in Japan is a very simple one: the shinkansen trip from Shin-Yokohama to Tokyo at night. Small things and small minds? I used to travel along this route regularly when I lived in central Tokyo and worked in Shin-Yokohama; these days I occasionally do it for fun.

OK, I confess: I love trains.

A shinkansen bound for Tokyo arrives roughly every five to ten minutes at Shin-Yokohama Station. If you take into account that these trains travel at speeds of 270 km/h, you will realize that a space/distance of five minutes between two trains is not a lot. If something were to go wrong, all the drivers on the line would have to stop their trains immediately or you would have one giant chain accident.

The shinkansen has different designs. When I worked in Shin-Yokohama, I usually took a train called the 300 Series. It is not particularly beautiful – it has a brutal, blunt, wedge-shaped nose – but it suggests pure power. It glides into the station accompanied by a sizzle of electricity, and stops in exactly the right place so that each door opens exactly next to the demarcated spot on the platform, where passengers wait until everybody has exited before they enter. Since the shinkansen stops for only one minute, it requires discipline from all concerned. It amuses me vastly to imagine this scene with a crowd of my compatriots from Africa.
The train departs as smoothly as it arrives: one minute you are suspended in silence, the next minute you are slicing the night to shreds.

The shinkansen runs on elevated tracks to Tokyo. "Elevated" does not refer to a few meters: the tracks are high enough to pass over 10-story buildings. That means you float above an urban landscape that disappears over the horizon in four directions, in an endless expanse of sparkling lights. Buildings flash by and offer glimpses into windows and lives: sararimen in their offices at 10 pm, a futon in front of a flickering TV set, washing left in the rain on a balcony. You peer into narrow alleys where even the neon cannot penetrate; look down, godlike, onto gravestones huddling in tiny cemeteries under curving temple roofs; cross wide black rivers and wider black highways; sweep like a phantom through people, thoughts, dreams and disappointments.

When you reach Shinagawa, the first station in Tokyo itself, the wall starts: a solid glass-and-steel wall that surges thirty, forty, fifty stories high. Now you are not floating above – these behemoths overpower even the mighty shinkansen – but streaking past a non-stop blur of energy, activity, reflections, neon, glitter, advertising, activity, buy! sell! do! live! love! work! go! go! go! Stations flash past, a solitary man smoking at the edge of a platform, slower trains packed to capacity, neon flashing in pools of water, raindrops falling into a river of headlights, the pachinko parlours of Shinbashi, the glitter of Ginza's shopping district. When you reach Marunouchi, you are surrounded by towers of light that reach so high you cannot glimpse their summits through the shinkansen's windows. Then, in the middle of this glittering future world, there she is. The young upstarts step back in their slinky silver gowns and stilettos to make room for the Dowager Duchess. That is what I secretly call the Tokyo Station building, which opened in 1914 and stands to this day. She is an anachronism: a battered, slightly worn-down but still gracious old lady holding her own amidst a crowd of slim, sequined, dressed-to-kill young vamps. She looks a bit awkward, as though she does not belong, but she keeps her poise. She is made of warm red brick, not cold steel, and she provides unexpected warmth in the cold heart of Tokyo. 

(Tokyo Station is currently being renovated. From Wikipedia: "The Marunouchi side will be restored to pre-war condition and the surrounding area converted into a broad plaza extending into a walkway toward the Imperial Palace, with space for bus and taxi ranks: this construction is scheduled for completion in fiscal 2011. On the Yaesu side, the current multi-story exterior will be replaced by a much lower structure with a large canopy covering outdoor waiting and loading areas, and twin high-rise towers at each end. This project is due for completion in 2013.")

This, Tokyo Station, is where all shinkansen hiss to a stop. As I walk through the shinkansen ticket gates, two guards call out arigato gozaimashita, "thank you for travelling with us". If it is really late at night and the station is quieter with less traffic, they bow. I slip through the crowds and catch the Yamanote Line on Platform 4. Mamonaku, yonban sen ni densha ga mairimasu. Abunai desu kara, kiiroi sen no uchigawa e, o-sagari kudasai. "Next, a train will arrive on Platform 4. Please be aware of the danger and stand behind the yellow line." The Yamanote Line, crowded beyond capacity, runs in a loop around central Tokyo. It is a human conveyor belt that runs every two minutes (every two minutes!) to feed the rapacious appetite of an economic powerhouse.

It is a small thing, this 20-minute trip from Shin-Yokohama to central Tokyo, but to me – raised on the vast, empty plains of Africa – it remains a breathtaking experience. It does not matter how many times I do it, I will never lose my sense of awe as I travel through this living, breathing, impossibly complex creature called Tokyo.

Red tape on two continents

I have read countless complaints from foreigners about bad service at various bureaucratic institutions in Japan. I don't geddit. Am I just lucky that I have always been treated efficiently and with unfailing courtesy, or am I simply careful enough to follow the rules, prepare the necessary paperwork and arrive armed with a book in case I have to wait? Actually this has been a major disappointment. I always take a brand-new whodunit with me, but the accursed Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Shinagawa always processes my requests so quickly that I can finish nary a page. Drat. You would hope that they would be decent enough to have at least one SNAFU so that you could sort out the red herrings from the bloodhounds, but no, you have barely sat down or your number is called. Terribly inconsiderate.

To the perpetually disgruntled individuals who complain about Japan's bureaucracy, I offer an invitation: come to South Africa and try to cope with the African version of officialdom.

Japanese red tape

Last December a notice, in both Japanese and English, arrived from the Taitō City Ward Office. My alien registration card (外国人登録, gaikokujin tōroku) was about to expire. "You are requested to appear in person at this ward office and make Application for Confirmation of Facts in Registration during the period between 29/1/2011 and 27/2/2011." I had to bring along the notice, my card, my passport and two new photos.

So I did. Ten minutes later I was on my way home again, with a notification that I had to return to the ward office to collect my new card between 3/3/2011 and 9/3/2011. I was hoping that I would have to wait long enough to identify at least two potential killers in my current whodunit, but no, I was greeted with a smile, helped immediately and shooed away with brisk efficiency.

South African red tape

  • When I applied for a new passport, it took 9 months – a rather appropriate gestation period – to get it.
  • When I applied for a new ID, a version with fingerprints and a barcode, I had to wait more than one year before I received it. (Here’s another note to foreigners who had a hernia when Narita Airport instituted fingerprinting: South Africans have had to provide fingerprints for IDs, passports and driver's licenses for yonks. Guess what? We survive.)
  • Last year I applied for a copy of my birth certificate and my siblings' certificates at the Paarl branch of Home Affairs. I need these documents if I want to apply for naturalization in Japan. One month later I received a copy of my own certificate. My father's name was spelt incorrectly, and my sisters' certificates were not included despite the fact that I had paid for three applications. It has now turned into a farce of missing applications, denials, contradictions, unanswered queries and total indifference. I know I will never get those documents. 

The foreign bellyachers in Japan will undoubtedly continue their complaints. Me? I will persevere and take a book along when I visit the bureaucrats, in the vain hope that one day I will be able to read a few pages in peace.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

My biggest Japan fantasy

I am watching yet another food programme on Japanese television. Yet another arbitrary Japanese celebrity puts yet another arbitrary piece of food in his mouth, but instead of promptly having an orgasm of shindo 7, he spits out the offending morsel with an expression of utter disgust and pronounces it inedible.

That is my fantasy.

Japan may be one of the skinniest nations on earth – I seem to recall it is the skinniest, along with Korea – especially the women –

Where wos I?

Japan may be one of the skinniest nations on earth, but it is obsessed with food. 

  • Every Japanese person firmly believes Japan has the best food in the world.
  • So many Japanese people have told me what they miss the most when living overseas is "real Japanese food".
  • A question a foreigner often gets asked while in Japan: "Can you eat Japanese food?"  

I find this odd.

Does my country of birth have the best food in the world? No, I would not say that. I happen to like some of its food because I grew up with it, but that does not objectively make it the best in the world. I do miss its fresh fruit (so cheap compared to Japan!) and its confectionary (there is more to life than red bean paste*), but I am not about to succumb to depression because I have to live without decent whole-wheat bread.

* Let me state for the record that I love anko (red bean paste). I adore daifuku and dango, and shiruko sends me into raptures the likes of which have never been seen on Japanese television. It's just that … well … what about dark, moist chocolate cake; or carrot cake with a wickedly thick layer of icing; of melktert en koeksisters en Hertzoggies? I repeat: there is more to life than red bean paste. There is, come to think of it, more to life than shōyu and dashi.

I like some French food. I like some Italian food. I like some Thai food. Not everything. I also like some Japanese food. Not everything.

I should add that I have always been a picky eater. My mother says when I was a baby, I refused to eat. The only way she could get food into me was to let a wind-up toy run around on the floor. That would make me laugh, and then she would stuff a spoonful of baby food into my mouth. When I was a toddler, I went through phases when I would eat nothing but watermelon, or grapes, or oats porridge.

I am still pernickety about food. I cannot call myself a vegetarian because I love all milk products, I eat eggs and I munch away happily on yakitori (skewered chicken), gyūdon (beef bowl) and katsu karē (pork cutlet curry), but generally speaking I do not eat much meat and I hardly eat any seafood … and therein lies the problem. Japan loves seafood. I emphatically do not. I detest seaweed and the very thought of eel and/or octopus makes me queasy.

That makes life in Japan tricky at times.

To finally answer that question: No, I have to admit, I cannot eat all Japanese food. I cannot eat sushi. I know that will forever condemn me in the eyes of my adopted country, but …

Shōganai, ne?

Monday, 14 February 2011

Cosmic thingummys

"Very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do." -- Noel Coward, Private Lives 

One might even move to Japan.

If I may continue the cosmic theme, it sometimes feels as if I fell through a wormhole into a parallel universe, but it's been, and still is, great fun and endlessly enriching. To the spark that started it all: thank you. Ek is bly dat ek my matjieshuis in jou land kom opslaan het. (I'm glad that I've pitched my tent in your yard.)


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