Nihon E Yookoso!!

The title of this entry means, predictably, welcome to Japan.

I am sitting in the departures lounge of Heathrow airport with hundreds of people percolating around me and sweat soaking through my T-shirt. A turbaned man with a wonderful moustache is browsing digital cameras. Two Malaysians sitting opposite are examining their newly purchased “Xtreme Magic Sing” Karaoke set. A blonde girl with a short floral skirt and a silver nose ring sways past. Before security I said goodbye to my family for an unspecified time of at least half a year. We aren’t very good at showing emotion, especially I and my dad, but everyone was tearful. My voice was wobbling too much to thank them for all that they’ve done for me. It’s not really something you can send in an Email. A modern day explorer replete with a beige linen suit and a straw hat sits down to read an advert for unlimited broadband. In 19 hours and 35 minutes I will reach Tokyo, my new home, far from everything I leave behind.

The Biggest Passenger Plane in the World

The Airbus A380 is the largest passenger plane in the world, and most resembles an enormous flying beluga whale. Its bulbous nose has a high domed forehead, and its tailfin stretches skyward as if in preparation to dive. From the departure lounge I was slightly disappointed by its size, probably due to the lack of a reference point. This disappointment abates once I calculate that there are approximately 480 passengers on my deck. The plane has two decks, and the idea of a plane which can carry 16 busloads (and baggage) is suitably awingAircraft cabins are like limbo; a timeless placeless space that hangs between destinations. Tiny oval windows and disembodied mood lighting. I gaze upwards through the dry recycled air and watch the ceiling morph through pink, lilac, purple, green. S once told me how she thought the same of motorway service stations, as we nursed coffees at midnight just outside Manchester, which is how I came to think the same way about aircraft. All the seats have their own entertainment system. Something about flying compels me to avoid watching anything thought provoking, and a glance around at the sea of action films and romcoms suggests that most people feel the same. The oriental man beside me strikes up a conversation, and I reply slowly (for he must be Japanese) to tell him that I am heading to Japan, with a large smile (for he must be Japanese). He is, of course, American, and headed for Dubai for two weeks of business and golf in the desert. The flight to Japan is identical, with the addition of unlimited free noodles on demand.

Baggage reclaim is signposted by smiling Japanese women with signs standing behind each conveyor belt. I feel lost as I enter into arrivals with hundreds of Japanese people looking on and pulling luggage around, and after a couple of laps of the hall find my luggage delivery desk, where the man is very kind and wishes me well. Downstairs I take the Narita Express to Shinjuku. The train is spacious, empty and fast. The ticket conductor is mildly affronted that I have sat alone rather than beside a heavy set sweating man who has his bags on my seat, but tells me to stay when I start to get up. Nearing central Tokyo, I crane my neck to watch the buildings stretch ever higher into the slate grey, overcast, dusk, with trims of lurid neon and Kanji characters. It all gets cyberpunk as the alleys get darker and the streets get deeper, intermittent lone cars and grimy windows. Shinjuku station is vast, with platforms stretching out to either side as if looking into an eternity mirror. Two million people pass through here daily. After a half hour walk and a full litre of sweat, I emerge into the hot humid night, and walk to the hotel. It is a western chain, but my room has massage hotlines and erotic pamphlets nonetheless. I feel a little naughty staying there. On the plus side, there is a bum washing toilet, a free robe, and free slippers.

At 8 30 the alarm rings and I shower in a deep rectangular tub, designed to allow (cramped) baths. The hotel has a ¥100 breakfast deal, which sounds economical if not appetising. A corridor from the very conventional hotel lobby leads to a long room with tatami floors and paper walls. Tatami are floor mats, conventionally made out of a rice straw core with a softer coating of rush straw, now often made out of chippings or polystyrene. The tables are low, with a depression underneath for your legs to occupy when you sit on a floor cushion. Two Japanese women are feeding a toddler, and I scan their trays for clues on navigating breakfast.

The miso soup is decidedly fishier than any that I tried in the U.K., with side bowls of nori (seaweed) and spring onions to add as desired. The miso I tried in the UK was hearty and warming, but this is less palatable as I am a vegetarian, and because I do not like the taste of fish. The rice (kome) is sticky and rounded, like risotto rice, as it is Oryza sativa japonica. It comes with pickled gherkins and red cabbage, and okra in a sticky sauce, which I suspect is natto (fermented soybeans). The meal as a whole is mildly unpleasant, although the okra is delicious. I suspect my perception had as much to do with nerves as with the cooking. Towards the end of the meal two Japanese businessmen with very good English strike up a conversation, and ask about property prices in the UK, and my family’s line of work. Upon learning that my parents are vets, the shorter and more weathered of the two tells me that his daughter is sent the pets of Bill Gates to treat, and laughs heartily. I don’t think he was joking.

Sakura House office. I am sweating and tired, but the staff are very nice, and give me a cold tea (ocha) to sip whilst filling in my tenancy agreement. I receive my key and multiple warnings about Earthquakes, and then return to the hive of Shinjuku station.The JR railway company is running a campaign on being a considerate traveller, but sarcastically, so the one I am underneath on the slowly swaying train reads “Please do open your newspaper wide. It will expand your knowledge and reduce space for those around you”. The gentleman opposite takes the advice literally. Soon I am standing in my room for the next year. It has thin board walls, faux wood flooring, and sprinkler pipes across the ceiling. The door is the only site for a poster, as the walls are easily damaged, but I resolve to stick photos along the wooden boards that display clothes pegs.

All the Octopus You can Eat

The next adventure is shopping. Seven Eleven is across the street, and appears to only contain manga, ready meals and condoms. Although an attractive diet, it is expensive, and so I leave with a pen and some paper to look elsewhere. After trying  a similar shop (these are called konbini), I reach a supermarket, subterranean and labyrinthine. Trying to shop on a budget in Japan seems to be a form of product roulette, with some bizarrely cheap items, such as mushrooms, and some typically expensive ones, such as rice. Imported foods are understandably expensive, and I think kome is because Japan is self-sufficient on rice and does not allow cheap imports. Compared to home there is a larger frozen section, filled with fish and cephalopods, more ready meals, and less alcohol. Aubergines are smaller, mushrooms are stranger, and noodles come straight. I buy a pet chilli plant from the shop next door after paying in the supermarket.

Jetlag is a condition rendered doubly irritating by the fact it is both too pervasive too ignore and too mild to whine about. Daytime feels like a waking dream, your body hungover. The plus side of my poor night’s sleep was the knowledge that at 3 30AM the roads are still busy. Queues in the middle of the night, composed mainly of vans and taxis. The second time I wake my room is bright, and there is no alarm. This is worrying, and a glance at my watch confirms my fear: it is 9:05, and I have missed S’s call. Ignoring many lessons about food safety I reheat my kome from the previous night, set at this point to the consistency of Stretch Armstrong, and slice banana into it. Sticky Japanese rice tastes slightly like porridge, so it made a cheap and comforting breakfast.

Kanji=Impossible

Nat and I visit the immigration office together to register our addresses. Nat is tall, 23, with blonde hair and light stubble. He speaks excellent English and German, as well as reasonable Japanese (the result of teaching himself for two years). He has saved for this trip since leaving school, and has enough money to spend a year finding work. His determination and desire astounds me. We agree that kanji is borderline impossible, and that the suggestion that Japan should abolish nuclear power by Yoshihiko Noda (the PM) is ill-conceived given their lack of natural resources and energy intensive lifestyles. Having said that, if anywhere can innovate its way into a low energy, neon-lit future, it’s Japan.

Nat goes to have Ramen at a railway café, and I visit the ¥100 shop (hyaku yen shoppu). A short time in Tokyo leads a person to conclude, however grudgingly, that life is expensive, and that is that. If you are feeling the same way, then the ¥100 shop is your port in the storm. Imagine a Tokyo store in which you can afford every item. Imagine a poundshop which isn’t stocked entirely with useless shit. A mystical world in which anything could lurk in the just next aisle. I wander around, eyes scanning for the next bargain, with a strange, well, spiritual feeling borne of a capitalist life. Rainbow coloured coat-hangers, Tupperware, plant pots and stationary follow me and my broad smile home.

Yummy Egg and Less Yummy Daikon

For dinner, I cook up mini aubergine (nasu), onion, garlic, and what I thought was tofu. It turns out to be a block of what I’d call synthetic egg, and tastes worryingly good… This time, the daikon was diced at the side, but remained stubbornly unappetising. The Indians (Sandy, Reke, and another I’m yet to learn the name of) are cooking impressively elaborate curries, with chappatis cooked on an open hob. Sandy is vegetarian, speaks no Japanese, and works in I.T. He offers to teach me how to make chappatis, and I accept gladly; they look and smell delicious. I’m determined to persevere with an imitation of Japanese cooking, but I can see why the Indians are sticking to their normal cooking. The prospect of work in the morning is mildly worrying, but not extremely, as it all feels like a game rather than reality, I’m not sure why.

4AM this morning, which counts as an improvement. Then 6AM, a panic and a download of a freeware alarm clock. My second watch alarm wakes me at 7 30, and I find the freeware alarm clock was useless as failed to rouse even the computer from its sleep. Everyone at work, except service staff, apparently speak fantastic English, a somewhat unfair consequence of a Western-dominated (for most of its history) scientific literature, but one that is extremely cheering to a lonely gaijin (foreigner/alien). The labs look to be well equipped and spacious, and ordering new equipment is perfectly acceptable according to Christian. Imagine you get to design your own experiments and genetically engineer plants. And you get paid for it! The honeymoon period shall end when the first negative results arrive.

Lunch is communal, and the canteen has a better vegetarian selection than most canteens in the UK. Gyoza dumplings (filled with pork, as it turns out), rice, salad, pickles and the ever disappointing daikon fill me up. The dumplings, of course, are delicious. The water machine also serves green tea. I have the panic filled first day at school moment whilst holding my tray in front of a large packed hall, and thankfully my lab waves me over. We discuss being vegetarian and places to visit around Japan. Kamakura sounds like a nice escape from the city, with views of Fuji.

M is employed to ease the transition to Japan for foreign workers, and provided indispensable directions for me before reaching Tokyo. I finally meet her, and she takes me to get a bank account. The bank is similar to those in Britain, but has door guards, and the sensible ticketed queuing system favoured almost everywhere in Japan. There is a catch-22 that means foreign residents cannot open a bank account without providing a phone number, and cannot buy a phone without first opening a bank account. This is avoided by using someone else’s phone number. The clerk speaks spitfire Japanese at me, with occasional glances at my interpreter, which is a slightly unsettling experience. Once finished the clerk produces a large book of paint colours, with around 40 different shades, with names like charred cherry and mint breeze. I pick grasshopper, and am soon given a bright green bank card. I present my gift of marmalade to M once we are on the train home.

The Way Home from Work

My first weekend! Breakfast call with S, then back to bed with Friday Night Lights, my new TV show. It’s American and gripping, with a slight air of depression that appeals. Exercise has been absent thus far, and so I decide to jog to the local park. It’s small with nice landscaping. A lake surrounded with conifers is split by a curved concrete bridge. There is a grove with short bamboo, and a monument with unpolished granite rising jaggedly out of a square pool. The run takes me past Shinagawa aquarium and a well-attended kids baseball game. The heat is heavy but not unbearable.

On Sunday I meet E (who I have recently found out is interning in Tokyo) at 9 30, so leave my room an hour earlier, expecting a lengthy journey to central Tokyo. It takes 20 minutes. E arrives and we head to the imperial palace in the deluge. Thankfully she has brought along an umbrella from a hyaku yen shoppu (100 yen shop), but my shorts and flip flops are soon soaked. The sky is low and misty; tower blocks become indefinite shadows. Apparently some valuations in the 1980s put the worth of the palaces land above that of all the real estate in California. There is an expanse of grass with a border of Minu trees, which are irregular but have a similar feel to their shape. The walls of black stone rise up sheer from the grass or water, and are constructed of huge rocks piled carefully up. It gives the effect of a honeycomb or a pile of chocolate fingers. Huge green bronze doors keep visitors out of the inner garden, which is opened two days per year. E was here the last time this happened, and a Japanese man gave her two pine cones “for chrismaseru”. There is a running race aroung the grounds, despite the weather, and some of the less serious contestants are wearing ponchos or bobbing along with umbrellas. We chat about Oxford, our summers, and life in Japan. E has studied Japanese so is more at home than me, but my work makes life easier for me by the sound of it.

Rain

Lunch is charged by weight, and we follow the lead of C and T, having met them at 12 in Tokyo station, drenched. There seem to be a few vegetarian options, but most have small bits of meat in, and there is definitely an octopus tentacle in my seaweed. The omelette is delicious. T takes us to Tokyo University. It is the most prestigious in Japan, and one of the only two public ones. In the University A lone archer is practicing Kyudo, hitting a 36cm target from 28m. In Kyudo the target is smaller, but all hits are equal (presumably because in battle one hit is enough). The rain continues to belt down, and we chat under umbrellas, the damp hiss punctuated with dull thuds. T offers to show us the grounds of the University, and we soon stumble across a football game on astroturf marshland. The players are struggling with the sodden ground, and shortly the game finishes. A huddle of miserable players with bowed heads file on for the next match.

Product of the Week

Next we head to the Tokyo metropolitan building on the subway. It has a free observation deck, but our main concern by this point is getting dry. We ascend, as ever, awkwardly in an elevator to the 45th floor, and emerge onto the observation deck to behold…nothing. There is just white light from every window, constant and pure. It seems they’ve changed their stairway for an elevator. On closer inspection, it becomes clear (foggy) that we are up in heavy cloud, and all we can see is the ground directly below is, which is suitably distant. Shortly we decide to go to a pub, and my first week is over. Phew!

Thanks for reading this far if you got here, future posts will likely be short and snappier (hopefully).

Word of the week: Natsubate – The weariness felt in the heat of summer

Imported word of the week: Karifurawa

Kanji of the week:Cha-Tea. Looks kinda like a fence and a mountaintop and a tea plant. If you squint.

Similarity of the week: Barber shops have red and blue poles outside

Difference of the week: Coffee bags – somewhat like a teabag, split along one side and hung on the mug, to allow boiling water to drip through the ground beans and be filtered. Neat.

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