(A beer please)
The mornings are getting harder once more. Kome to banana (to means and) for breakfast, and S. I try to deposit money into my bank account using the family mart ATM, but cannot read Japanese. I need money in my account to buy a plane ticket to see S, and I’d like to do it today. At lunch there is tofu burger with sesame ketchup, which is absolutely delicious. Natto is a Japanese dish made using fermented soybeans, and is an acquired taste. The table is delighted that I’m trying it, and A takes a photo of my first bite to send around the office. It is almost like marmite but with a bitter, almost chemical aftertaste. It’s not awful, but not delicious either. The most unpleasant thing about eating natto are the mucosal strands that stretch out like lines of noxious mozzarella with every movement. As I eat, these are blown across me towards M, and I worry that I am causing serious offence. Eventually I work out that sucking the ohashi during a mouthful stops the strands. The use of ohashi is governed by an enormous number of rules, and I worry that I am breaking several… After research I can’t find a rule against sucking sticks, but I found that it is a serious offence to pour soy onto rice, a common habit of mine thus far.
Room with a View
The view from our building in RIKEN is fantastic. A road leads the eye between industrial buildings overrun with vegetation to the docklands, which are covered in enormous red cranes, gargantuous and alien. Amongst them thin grey chimneys pump fumes, and the grey of mountains is visible on the horizon. Today the light is perfect, and golden, so I pull out my camera and rue leaving my memory card at home. The bus home is cramped, but silent except for the sounds of the engine and the squeaking of handstraps. It is dark by six here. We stop at lights, and a boy outside seems to be practicing his golf swing in a parking space, with one space between him and the wall. I look for a ball, but it seems to be absent, and the bus pulls away on his backswing.
The seven eleven ATM is navigable without knowledge of Japanese (though it is in Japanese mostly), and my yen are safe. The next 3 hours are spent filled with frustration and worry, as I try to book flights with my Japanese card, fail, and in desperation further deepen my overdraft in England. Cooking with Indian S we talk about many things. He asks about the physique of British people (many are fat S), and I ask about arranged marriage. His son is 9 months old, and I make him laugh by saying he’s missing the tricky part. He tells me that the baby comes onto Skype and mashes the keyboard, smiling deeply. We share tea and chocolate biscuits, and the chirpy B joins in.
The phone alarm only wakes me on snooze today; I foolishly left it in the ‘manner’ mode intended for work and public transport-it is rude to talk on the phone on trains or buses. It is considered perfectly acceptable to sleep or watch TV or text. Japanese phones typically have a camera and a TV function, and I couldn’t find one for less than £70. They use phone E-mail instead of text, for a flat rate of £3 per month. The shower is engaged, and luckily I have only done 30 press-ups (an inauspicious start to my new exercise regime) by the time I realise this. Water slicks the fluffy hairs down.
Dinner was interesting. Not the food (reheated beansprouts and peppers, seeing as you asked), but the conversation. S was arguing that a marriage cannot be truly happy unless both participants are from the some culture, or at least the same continent. My liberal sensibilities are rankled slightly but N disagrees very strongly and says so. My opinion is asked and I say that I think that it depends on the culture, with some being neophilic or neophobic, and some being particularly compatible (or not). I think that there is not an absolute barrier, but S correctly makes the point that there may be misunderstandings, and perhaps social stigma (as in India, which I verify with S), which would make a successful marriage less likely. We all agree to disagree (S thinking that love can’t find a way, N thinking that it always can, and me saying myeeehh from the fence). The best thing about living in this shared accommodation is the variety of people you meet, and consequently the variety of opinions you encounter in conversation. You cannot test your beliefs unless they are challenged.
The afternoon is spent reading an extended document is gibberish legalese, with gems such as: If the prohibited article falls under the proviso set forward in paragraph seven subparagraph four, then the form AP3 (appendix 3.2) should be completed and sent to the relevant minister. I nearly finish it, but at 5:10 the PA comes on to announce: “The management reminds employees that they should leave work on time, unless participating in a critical project”, at which point most people leave the building. Busy bees. The sunset is reasonable, so I head down to the Tsurumi river to take some photos. On the way, a security guard (with the white gloves of all security staff in Japan) smiles, and proceeds in front of me. At intervals he points at doors, and initially I think he is try to direct me to me destination (I must look lost). Soon I realise that he is also pointing at windows too, and continues once I branch off from him. Possibly checking exit points? The bus back is as packed as a bento lunch box, and I resolve to wait for the next one, but the driver beckons me on and I half-sit in the lap of an elderly Japanese gentleman, trying hard not to bump him too hard.
Tsurumi at Sunset
Lunch is very tasty, with sushi rice wrapped in tofu and deep fried, which has the consistency of a chocolate éclair but tastes sweet and wholesome. B was holidaying in Belgium and Italy, where he visited a wedding. My mind is filled with memories of the godfather as he describes the banquet (shortened to 6 courses instead of the traditional 16) and dancing. Someone played a joke on the Belgium entourage by telling them it was Italian tradition to take something from the wedding when you leave, whether it is a chair, tablecloth, or bottle of wine. Once drunk, the Belgiums realised that they were not taking part in the local customs, so promptly stripped ten tablecloths and walked out of the venue. The security guard was a little bemused, and soon had his hands full of apologies and crumpled tablecloth. S, a colleague, is getting married in November, so will be making important decisions at the weekend. Japanese weddings can be traditional or Western. Some people even have both on the same day, with a costume change between ceremonies. S is having a Western wedding (sadly, I missed most of the details of a traditional one), and it sounds as if K (the boss) will be giving a speech. She also gave a speech at A’s wedding (6 months after they met), which makes me think that perhaps this is a Japanese custom, to be praised by your boss at your wedding. It would fit the psyche I think. We tease S about honeymoon options then get back to work.
At the end of the day I notice that the light is golden. The West end of the ninth floor has an excellent view. The rippled grey, now fringed in gold, of the Tsurumi river runs perpendicular to the viewer, and on the other side is Yokohama. Dark docks and red cranes give way to tower blocks, a wind turbine, and MM21, Yokohama’s response to the spires of Tokyo. Behind is a short plain which leads to a mountain range. Today there is huge shadow visible, pale with sunlight and distance, behind this range. Its left hand side curves lazily up into the clouds. It is as if a god has placed his own mountain to compete with the human ones surrounding it. Fuji-san. The preceding peaks are not just dwarfed, but obliterated, mentally dismissed as mere foothills. Fuji-san simply looks too huge to be real, like a template cut out and pasted onto the horizon. I can only see the lower left corner. I will climb it.
Fuji’s Flank (In the Distance)
At the bus stop a man who had joined our conversation at lunch asks if I want to go to a Brazilian bar. F is a Mexican who works in NMR and has been here just under three years. At the other end we meet J, a Brazilian-born Japanese man who moved here two years ago, who has very impressive ginger sideburns. The bar is small but homely and J evidently knows the landlady very well, chatting away in a bizarre mixture of Spanish and Japanese. Me and J drink beer, which has ice in the bottom of the glass. It is a large piece of ice, and small shards elevate intermittently, spiralling upwards through the bubbles. The food is delicious, and I feel guilty because they order a number of vegetarian dishes (there aren’t many Brazilian meat free dishes). Palmito (palm hearts soaked in vinegar) is particularly tasty, and J offers to show me where to buy it. I feel embarrassed when we leave as there are no ATMs nearby and F tells me that it’s his treat. On the way back to the bus stop, J points out my palmito shop. It has a bright yellow sign and the most repulsive tagline on earth. Tucano: Discount World Meat.
After work me and T (from the lab next door) return to language class. It’s similar to last week, but S (Filipino) brings some oreos for everyone, which is kind of him. There are far too many, so during our individual discussions each pair has a pack to chew through. My partner is a woman of about 50, and is delighted by the cookies. Every time she eats one she says “oishi!” (delicious), then opens her mouth a small amount and touches the cookie to her tongue. Then she turns around, puts the entire thing in her mouth, and turns back, grinning and chewing. Maybe it’s a custom.
At the base of the escalator awaits C, B, T (German from a PHB lab) and an African guy with a Japanese wife who lives in Fukuoka. I’ve forgotten his name. We head to my first Izakaya. Izakaya are Japanese bars which serve cheap beer and small food dishes, and are popular with pretty much everyone from what I can gather. Typically, they are traditionally decorated, a bit dingy, and have lots of hollows and rooms to hide away in. We are going to a chain Izakaya, which on the downside is starkly lit, airy, and about as traditional as Tesco’s sushi. On the upside, it is very cheap. Some drunk girls head in before us and one of them hurts her foot by opening the door into it, hard. On the tables there are stands for ipad like devices, with which you can order beer, spirits, and food. Very convenient and not handing over money at the bar probably makes you drink more. The food is unhealthy but good, deep fried mochi sprinkled with cheese being my favourite
RIKEN’s open day is much like that of a university: busy, and covered with helpful signs and flashy demonstrations which convey little about daily life at the institute. It is a lot of fun however, and I do lots of activities aimed below my age group, including decorating a bag with leaves. There are thousands of people here, and I’m amazed at how engaged the public are, little kids wander around with helium (tut tut) balloons with ATGC printed on them. Some people from the office are in, and I snap Tetsuya whilst he helps a young girl. He snaps me in response while I’m plating out Antirrhinum seeds on agar for fun. The NMR ring was interesting, and I wished that I could have read the signs. Being Japan, there are two mascots outside, one a crocodile (later I find that this is a symbol of Tsurumi), and one a man with a large wedge of cheese for a head (?).
The sight of cheese (albeit on a sweating man’s head) sets off heavy dairy cravings. I haven’t had any for two weeks. Now however, my body is demanding cheese, so I take the bus to Tsurumi station and buy a cheese bun. Then go to a bakery. The items look similar to western bakery items, except burgers are sold there, as well as baguettes filled with noodles. You pick up a tray and tongs, then bring your selection to the till. My selection is another large bun filled with cheese. It’s good.
Later I’m invited to Yokohama to watch Arsenal Vs Chelsea in Yokohama, so meet T and B at Yokohama station, which is another sprawling station that feels like a department store. We head to the Hub, a pub, and on the way I see what I think is my first Yakuza. He’s snappily dressed with his hair gelled back (as is their style), and walking down the middle of the road as if he owns the town, which he may well do. The hub is wood panelled and busy, with smoke thick in the air. It is filled with Gaijin and a few Japanese people. I am reminded of a dockside inn from the middle ages, stuffed with grizzled sea dogs far from home. Although in place of sea dogs there are English teachers, businessmen, and muscular tattooed black men form the nearby US naval base. We drink and chat through the football, and afterwards C arrives, leading to more drinking. We talk to a Japanese singer songwriter who has been sitting alone and demolishing spirits for the past hour. She lived in America for five year and apparently feels more comfortable speaking English, but has a paper crane tattooed on her arm. She lives with her parents and writes music for corporations, but is adamant that they are not jingles. I suppose if I supported my artistic endeavours by writing pieces I didn’t believe in I wouldn’t want them called jingles either.
The last train home is at 00:40, and we pile on cheerfully, along with the drunks and dishevelled businessmen (often one and the same). It turns out the last train home terminates before my stop, so I have a 3km run or expensive taxi home. At 1am I study the street map outside Kamata station and set off. It’s a simple route down a main road, but the road is long. Time seems to be slowing and speeding as I sweat through my clothes. The roads are almost empty, as are the 24 hour Konbinis, and the streetlamps seem to stretch on forever. Streets either side are straight and stretch out into inky darkness. Eventually I reach Omori, from an unexpected direction, and jump thankfully into bed.
I sleep through my alarm, probably due to my late night exertions, and call S. Sakura House (the company I rent from) has invited its residents to carry a float in a Mikoshi Matsuri, a festival which transports a Shinto god. Japan has myriad matsuris, although I’m yet to see one. The penis based fertility of Kawasaki is firmly in my diary. It’s too late for the morning session, so I make a large brunch and set off. The Yamonote line is the most important in Tokyo, and encircles the centre of the metropolis. It is packed tightly enough for me to write letters whilst standing up, as the swaying of the train is buffered by about a hundred people. It dawns on me that I don’t know exactly how to get to Hatagaya, as the stop isn’t on the JR map (Tokyo has two public train systems, each more complex than the tube, the JR and the subway), just that it is near Shinjuku. I disembark at Shibuya on a whim to look for information. The connection is at Shinjuku, and soon I am entering the Keio line, a normal train line which has five grades of train (special express, express, limited, etc) stopping at different combinations of stations. There is a local train heading in the right direction, and the schematic shows that local trains both do and do not go to Hatagaya. I have five minutes to get there, and the train’s stops are only displayed in kanji, so I panic and get on. The doors shut and the train whizzes past Hatagaya without stopping. I’m now 15 minutes late and waiting for a train back to Hatagaya, having learnt the kanji for it. Once at Hatagaya, my directions are hastily written and unhelpful. After a long walk and 30 minutes I arrive at the Sakura Hotel reception, apologize for my tardiness and ask where the matsuri is. One week ago, as it happens.
Hatagaya is not featured in my guidebook, but in the name of exploration and stress relief I wander around aimlessly, getting a feel for the place. The main street is perpetually gloomy as train lines above occlude the sky, despite all the bright signs and flashing lights jostling the eye. It seems to me that in Tokyo the area around stations is invariably bustling, bright, with perpetual traffic. A few hundred yards away from these nexuses however, and you could be in some small provincial town. A tree lined avenue leads me to a backstreet, made up of rickety houses with traditional decorations. I take a photo of a wooden blind and a red token, then move on quickly as the wizened man behind me walks past and unlocks the door. In the distance I can see a tall green net, and can think of nothing to explain it but the tropical bird enclosures of zoos. The street along one side of it contains houses, and garden shrines, including the beautiful Buddhist one pictured. There is a strange percussive sound in the air. I round the corner expecting hornbills, and am surprised by an urban driving range and business men smashing balls into the air only to have them stopped by a net. This walk is now enjoyable; the air is filled with possibilities. It seems that anything could lie behind every corner, and little gems wink out at me. A sausage dog lying exhausted in the sun. Children finger painting under a tarpaulin. Vegetables growing out the dark earth of an unused plot. Another shrine, with red curving gates rubs shoulders with a multi-storey car park. I return to the station rested, and buy cheese and egg on toast from a bakery.
Next are Shinjuku Goen (gardens), the largest in Tokyo. It has a European and a Japanese area, and I head for the latter, passing redwoods and a couple being photographed in the dappled afternoon light. The municipal tower is ever present amongst and above the trees. I see a Japanese giant hornet for the first time: it looks like a cherry chapstick with wings and a large sting. It is refreshing to see something constructed to an aesthetic ideal to which you are not accustomed. I feel the same looking across this garden as I did within the Arabic architecture of the Alhambra. The garden seems to flow, with curved lake edges, gently undulating grass, and no flat land. Large Koi gasp around the lake, dorsal fins leaving trails in the water, and bridges ferry couples over water and under willow. The number of Acers suggests it will be even more beautiful when autumn shows. Walking alongside the lake leads to a teahouse in the centre of it, accessible by bridges and nestled in trees. Looks expensive. I sit and read briefly, then feel the wind rising. A typhoon is coming tonight, and I need to get home before the trains are stopped by it, so I get going. The rain seems to be following me, arriving at stations momentarily after the train, and soon I’m back in my room with barely a wet hair to show for it, as the wind begins to howl.
Kanji of the Week: Mori, meaning and looking like a forest.
Similarity of the Week: Everyone still stands still on the left of escalators.
Difference of the Week: Many escalators are activated by pressure pads to save power
Bird of the Week: The charming varied tit
p.s. Apologies for the length, next week WILL be shorter….