Catching up at Christmas

Do not fear. The cultural impoverishment of our age is drawing to a close. I’m back to the blog. In the past month I’ve been spending most of my time fretting over what to do with my life, writing PhD applications, and feverishly checking them for a spelling mistake Word has not deigned to pick up. Then there were some interviews to prepare for. What I didn’t prepare for was my internet failing 3 minutes into my first interview, resulting in the rest of the interview being a 40 minute international phone call. Explaining the diagrams on the example paper was tricky (no, they changed the interview structure rather than made me suffer that).

The experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past month or so will be sprinkled lightly over future posts to avoid me having to write a novella this week. I recently finished Moby Dick (then the Hunger Games for something lighter, shoot me), which is very enjoyable tale of adventure and obsession (after a slow start). It is fascinating for both answering many questions you never knew you had about 19th century whaling, and for its ubiquitous and potent homo-eroticism, which seems to be present for no other reason than to give you small bouts of giggles whilst reading on buses. Apologies to my snoozing fellow commuters. I also visited the world’s busiest fish market, Tsukiji, and so will describe it in my attempt at an imitation of Herman Melville.

My first new lens

My first new lens

Turret Car

Call me Ishmael. There comes a time in the hearts of most men, upon reaching a certain age, when they suffer a heartfelt yearning for the unknown. To extirpate this ailment, I left without notice at daybreak with a heavy heart and a light pack, and get on a train. The pink flesh of dawn rattles before me as I stare outwards with eyes glazed and bleary. Soon I am perambulating wearily towards Tsukiji. A woman picks up a half-smoked cigarette from the street with chopsticks and lights it. I walk on in broken step, dodging the swarm of turret cars, manned by savages in bandanas, which buzz around the market site. Holding my breath and a nosegay, avoiding a trolley of heads, which substitute for Cerberus, I step hesitantly into the floor.

Poor Eels

Poor Eels

Woodblock Tuna

Woodblock Tuna

Everywhere is noise, blood, and the senseless twitches of dying things. Octopus tentacles clutch upwards, like a final salute to the kraken, before freezing at the – crunch – of a heavy cleaver, and then writhe anew in death. Eels gasp for breath in the blood of their broodmates. Tuna, with sheen of frost and hollow eyes, are sliced like so many logs at the band saw. Oh! For the gentle sights of a charnel house, for the purity of Gomorrah. Never before have the eyes of man been besmirched as within this temple of gore. The labourers, nay, evince pity rather than disgust, for such torturous work can only torture the souls of those who perform it. Sisyphus, in his daily toil, never had to push so vile a load as this. The arcane tongues of the east battle the omnipresent flopping, chopping, sawing until all that remains is the cacophony of hell itself. I long for Queequeg’s manly embrace, for his stolid arms to cover my ears, his musk to fill my nostrils. When it occurs to me that I could be capturing sweet, pearlescent sperm on the nearest whaler, I turn tail. Polystyrene chasms, dripping ice and scales, wend and warp before me, labyrinthine and endless. Handsome smoking sailors moodily puff as I stagger on towards redemption. As Jesus emerged from the desert, so did I from Tsukiji; sweating, tired, and with few designs on returning.

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

Now that I’ve eliminated most of my readership, I can get on with writing normally about recent happenings (difficult beginning, like Moby Dick). Thankfully, my family decided to come out to Japan for Christmas, so I was very happy to see them and avoid a possibly quite lonely Christmas day (just me and Lune). Their plane arrived at 5am, and to welcome/punish them I took them straight to the aforementioned Tsukiji (after meeting them late by accidentally sleeping in, possibly due to an end of the world party at Pele’s the night before). It was dismal weather and we were happy to get into a sushi bar and out of the rain. The menu choice for veggies (me, Lune and my sister) was limited but present, and I think the carnivores enjoyed the freshest fish in Tokyo. Sushi bars feel a little austere, mainly because the chef stands above you, silently, watching you eat. Especially as a westerner new to the etiquette of sushi (not to mention my family’s colossal ineptitude with chopsticks) this can be a little off-putting. He was very kind, and even lifted out one of his live shrimps when he saw us gawping at it). After a quick soak in the blood of the market, it was time to move on.

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

We changed plans due to weather and headed to the National museum at Ueno, which is filled with a huge variety of Japanese antiques, highlights were the samurai armour and the zen paintings. This all passed the family by as jet-lag was beginning to take hold; me and Lune found various members of the family slumbering on different horizontal surfaces throughout the museum. They needed pepping up, so for lunch I took them to my favourite okonomiyaki (thick unhealthy cabbage omelettes with various fillings that you cook at your table by hot plate) place in Harujuku. Having found this place by chance while lost, I had thought it was my secret gem of Harujuku, but sadly everyone very soon found it recommended in their guidebooks (it’s Sakuratei in case anyone’s in Tokyo). This place also warmed us up with gas fire under the table. My little brother created the okonomiyaki equivalent of the Sistine chapel, and we moved on. Finally to the Tokyo metropolitan building, with free views of Tokyo at sunset (Fuji was resplendent but my camera died), where my sister broke and began sleeping on the floor. People shot her concerned glances as they passed.


The emperor’s birthday is the 23rd of December, and is one of only two days per year when you can enter the inner grounds of the imperial palace. The outer grounds are lovely gardens, so I thought this would be a good and fairly unique experience for them. After a reasonable queue and two security checks, we shuffled past plain clothes agents with earpieces into the grounds. First we squeezed up to a long line of desks to sign the emperor’s birthday card, and then strolled on to enjoy the…exit? Immediately we found we were back out of the inner grounds, and seemingly the only views permitted are a small avenue of trees, then the large square of tarmac for signing the card. A bit of an anti-climax, but we went to the main grounds afterwards to give them their Japanese garden/castle wall fix.

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Guiding your family around a foreign country is sort of like having kids, except they aren’t cute and you can’t solve every problem by producing a drumstick lolly. It was good for mine and Lune’s Japanese to act as their interpreters throughout, but at times their expectations were a little above what we Japanese noobs could handle. The highlights were comments from my dad to the tune of

“so we’re not going to try and translate this kanji then?”

No, we are not. There are thousands of kanji. We (especially me) know very few of them. You cannot translate them by looking harder like Simba at a storm cloud. NOTE: I am very glad that my family came.



We headed to Yudanaka, an onsen (hot spring) town North-West of Tokyo via shinkansen, the speed of which wowed my family. Not quite as much as the rotating train seats, but nearly. The second train was a private rail company who had had the excellent idea (although it is in the Hunger Games as well) of putting a panoramic wraparound window at the front of the train with the drivers sitting up top. We wound our way slowly into the hills, through suburbs, orchards, and increasingly white rice fields. The Japanese hotel (a ryokan) which we stayed at was lovely. Rooms contained rice mats, sliding paper doors, and yukatas (light Japanese kimonos). I was proud that we were the only family sporting them at breakfast. Upon arrival the proprietor suggested we drop everything and head to the onsen for sunset. We (just) got over our English prudishness, piled into a car, and whizzed at breakneck speed across the valley.

Soon we were naked, gently broiling in the manner of lobsters, and looking out at the twinkling electric lights below. We had missed the sunset but the view was good enough. The nakedness wasn’t really apparent due to the billowing clouds of water vapour rolling up off the hot water. The men’s half made me think of gorillas in the mist. Sitting in a volcanic spring as your hair freezes and snow wafts down from above is a pleasure similar to the feeling you get when listening to rain hiss on a tent roof from the safety of your sleeping bag. A Japanese man was obviously sick of his tent, so jumped out the pool and rolled in the snow, shouting and laughing. He returned quickly. Me and my brother had a cold shower afterwards, because I thought it was a custom. It’s not.

Pick me! Pick me!

Pick me! Pick me!

The main attraction of Yudanaka is its Japanese macaques, the northernmost primates in the world (excluding us of course).They scamper about the snow, looking exceedingly cute, as monkeys tend to when they’re not snatching your lunch. Thankfully these ones had the charming habit of ignoring humans completely, letting you get close without worrying for your safety. I felt sorry for a monkey who was being repeatedly flashed (camera) by a Japanese man with and exceedingly long (camera) lens. The adorable epicentre of this park is the onsen where the monkeys go to warm up. David Attenborough did a feature on the pools once, and if I remember correctly the position one holds in a pool is decided by the highness of your birth (just like the UK then). However, the pool tourists are allowed to visit is artificially maintained, so that may not apply. There was one very large and angry male who went ballistic at a baby monkey who presumably, in the parlance of Carlisle, ‘looked at him funny’. It made a wonderful Christmas morning. On the snowy walk back through the conifers me and my brother tried to use snowballs to dislodge snow from the trees onto our parents.


Christmas dinner was a Chinese, where the staff were very nice, but didn’t quite understand vegetarians. We assured them that tomato ketchup was fine. In the next few days me and Lune went back to the monkeys (I wanted to take more photos), we caught up with the family at a Hokusai museum (who created that Japanese print with the waves, and perhaps more importantly the pokemon Ho-oh) to find my brother sleeping again, and drunk lots at a sake brewery. Next was a quick stop in Matsumoto to admire the castle, then onwards to Kyoto, except for my sister who left to go to a new year’s party at this point. I hope it was good. I’ll talk about my autumn trip to Kyoto more in a future post. This time we saw Kinkakuji, which has a pavilion covered in gold, and Sajusangendo, which has 1000 life-size Buddha statues from the 12th century, again painted in gold. Kyoto has a wide variety of unbelievably good things to see, but we were pressed for time. Izakaya (sort of like an Asian tapas bar) are quintessentially Japanese, so we had dinner at one. The waiter said “chotto sumimasen, gaijin desu” as we entered to the only other customer, who was steaming like an onsen. This translates as “sorry, it’s foreigners”.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

I have more from this trip, but will leave it for next week as the post is LOOOOONG enough already. I recently bought Shogun 2: Total War so currently enjoy sipping sake whilst conquering Japan in the evenings.



Earthquakes and Turbulence

Earthquakes are Difficult to Photograph. Here’s a Hibiscus.

This week, after a whirlwind relationship and a few beers, Japan took my earthquake virginity. I was peacefully lying in the hazy limbo between wakefulness and sleep when suddenly it became apparent that my bed was shaking. In the gentle insanity of such tiredness my first instinct was to look over to my bedside and tell whoever happened to be shaking my bed to stop it. Seeing no-one, my brain finally twigged that this was an earthquake. The shaking was slow, soft (but forceful), and metronomic, and wrapped up warm under the covers it seemed a rather pleasant disaster. The sensation was similar to being in hammock, swinging back and forth from a fixed point in the heavens, and almost as comforting. Then I remembered that air conditioning units can fall off walls, and drew my legs up tight to my chest, out of harm’s way, and waited for it to get worse or stop. The wait is filled with the uncomfortable sensation of true powerlessness. No one can make it stop. After an uneasy sleep, I was sitting in a lunchtime seminar about ChIP-chip (and seq) on the seventh floor of RIKEN, when the shaking resumed. There was nervous silence sprinkled with nervous laughter, and Tetsuo opened the door (if frames shift in a quake doors can be jammed shut). Height amplifies the movement through resonance. We sat with wide eyes, seeing no evidence of movement, but feeling it in our guts. Seven floors suddenly seemed a lot higher, and I was contemplating getting under my table, when the quake began to fade, and the seminar resumed as normal. A friendly plump Canadian woman at my company orientation had said with a black smile:

“They’re terrible, but you’ll get used to them”

Earthquakes (jishin) are a fact of life in Japan.  Around 40 of magnitude seven have struck in the last century, most killing a surprisingly small number of people, one killing 140,000. Many businesses express their condolences for those lost in the big one last year, and those who were here talk about it with reverence. My little brother told me a story about our old geography teacher before I left home. Our teacher is tall, a keen fellrunner, and wears very short shorts. He pointed out that if you were to plan large settlements you would avoid faultiness, floodplains, and volcanoes, then grinned and pulled down a map of Tokyo.

Sleeping Beauties

Public transport in Japan is a singularly somnambulant affair. I am typing on board an AirAsia flight to Fukouka, where I will see Lune for the first time in a month. The windows show glimpses of a cobalt blue sky striated with wisps of cirrus. These clouds are so fine that you’re obliged by literary tradition to liken them to gossamer. There are dark conifer forests on the mountains and beige settlements crowded along the arching coast. Everyone is asleep. The moment the flight began, every person on board closed their eyes and bowed their heads and have moved very little since. A few were roused by takeoff. Perhaps more (initially) unnerving is the morning commute, which is filled with sharply dressed urbanites dozing like babies, heads rolling in unison with the sway of the train. It feels almost perverse to see so many strangers so vulnerable.

Go Ahead Madeline, Drop Your Hat, You’re in Tokyo

In my first week, Bundesliga told me over lunch that train enthusiasts in Japan are even more extreme than those in Europe. Not content with merely spotting trains, many can be seen with expensive directional microphones, recording the tone, timbre, and cadence of approaching locomotives. In addition, they record the station jingles, which are played every time a train arrives or leaves at a station. You can buy compilations of jingles for different regions in CD shops. Each station on the major lines has its own unique jingle, and after hearing this I begin paying attention to those on my commute. Oomori (my home station) has a short light hearted tune, which already feels comforting and homely. Kamata has an eerie refrain in a minor key which reminds me of abandoned fairgrounds and horror films. Commuters tune in to the jingles relevant to them, so when we stop in Kawasaki, by the jingle’s third note half of the carriage has roused, blinked heavily, and started for the door. The stations too are infused with a relaxed sleepiness; huge queues build up, but only for the stationary side of the escalator. Almost no-one takes the stairs. It feels as if everyone is trying desperately to recharge their batteries just a little more before the long day at work. It also imparts a strange feeling of community, especially when you follow suit, through the sharing with everyone what we normally reserve for friends and lovers. I can see the dark mountain ridges of Shikoku to my right, slicing up through the soft white of mist and the harsh black of my neighbours hanging fringe.

Pokemon Trainers

The Japanese work ethic is that of the paddy field (to paraphrase Lune). Many do not take their allocated paid holidays, and there are announcements to encourage employees to leave work on time. Despite, or maybe because of this, there is a panoply of national holidays in aid of a diversity of causes. On Monday it was sports day, designed to promote exercise and well-being, through the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of closing most clubs and gyms. There are however large organised events, often put on by schools, which you can watch and sometimes take part in. Lune’s school practiced for weeks, with a dress rehearsal before the big day. The kids wore cute boxy white hats and jogged on the spot in blue polo tops, while Lune and co kept an eye out for dropped caps. Sports day was created after the Tokyo Olympics, so I’m hopeful that London 2012 may have the same effect. Not knowing the events in my area, I go for a run around the Kawsai Steel Circuit in my local park, consisting of a number of exercise stations dotted around a short run. A gang of kids playing Pokemon cards at a picnic table talk excitedly about their little war. As ever, there is a baseball game, and in honour of sports day I stop to watch and take photos. The kids are as thin and fast as whippets, or stocky power hitters.

I run onward, past a car park with lifts to save space, similar to those that can be seen beside many private residences. Multistorey car parks near stations are human free: you leave your car on a circular pad, take a ticket, and leave. The car is then mechanically filed into a  tall compact tower, only to be retreived when you return your ticket. Welcome to the future. There is a flea market under the second level of another carpark; the harsh midday light is cut into grids by the metal above. Everything from pokemon cards to ‘antique’ pottery is on sale, but lacking a wallet I jog on. The next park was built to serve the community by the neighbouring racecourse, as gambling establishments must give something back to the community. When I heard this from May a few weeks ago I asked what all the Pachinko places did. These are slot and games arcades which invariably have very loud flashing lights and music. She said with a little laugh

Pachinko isn’t gambling”

Then smiled and added

“well, not really…”

No, Really

The park borders a river, and many people are perching on the boulders along the shore, fishing under an odd golden sculpture of a woman riding a goose through a hoop. I get a strange fear whenever walking near fishermen that a hook will catch my cheek when they cast. There are sonorous plops every second or so, and assume that it is the floats of lines hitting the water. Actually, the carp in the river are jumping gracefully out of the water like dolphins,promptly remembering that they are carp, and re-entering like bricks. I fail to think of a reason why the whole river is filled with jumping fish,  shake my head, and move on. There is a nature trail in the park, and a bird hide beside a kidney shaped lagoon lined with tall reeds, where egrets, bitterns, and a heron are fishing. It is an oasis filled with birdsong and the low-frequency hum of heavy traffic.

Gone Fishin’

The plane is now in a steep descent and banking left, which is very unsettling. People are even waking up. The wings tug at the fuselage as they flex up and down in the strain. It is the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. The plane finally levels out, and the clouds below are ruffled and lit so brightly that their edges look dark. Their outlines look like the cover of Unknown Pleasures. We slip below the clouds and there is the grey sea, and a curtain of lancing sunlight between us and more sharp mountains in the distance. We are soon in a clear patch, and there is the unusual sensation of seeing a cloud layer at eye level and the earth far below. An airport in a perfect rectangle of reclaimed land is linked by bridge to terra firma.

Fukuoka airport is a naked rectangle shaved into the city’s tower blocks, and bordered with a three-storey turquoise highway. It reminds me of the partially shorn heads of teenagers at house parties. In arrivals Lune is bent over her homework, and I almost feel guilty for disturbing her. There is an enormous feeling of relief when reuniting with someone you have missed so sorely. We chat and giggle and take trains back to her suburb. One of the trains has switchable backrests so you can arrange seats to face forwards or backwards. The most striking thing about Fukuoka is how spacious it feels. The sky is clear with a scraping of high cloud that makes it look far higher than when clear. Pavements are noticeable emptier. Stations aren’t fused into department stores. We take the strangely upright bikes from Lune’s scholarship (she’s learning Japanese) along a narrow meandering road through a series of small paddy fields. People beneath traditional conical straw hats chug along on top of strange modern cubic harvesters.

Rice and Lune

The scholars hail from Oxbridge, and are housed in Cambridge House (a minor PR coup, I’m sure). It looks like a typical university accommodation building. Atypically it has an airy atrium and a central court where a large number of European style statues stand in a dull brown pond. There is a Yakult factory over the road. Cambridge House’s corridors are three metres  wide, and the scholar’s floor is enormous (by Japanese and university standards), but half empty. In fact, the whole building feels eerie and deserted. Around half of it is uninhabited. We eat in the canteen, which is decorated like a diner and packed with empty tables. The food is passable, and there is always a vegetarian option. The scholars seem friendly, and later we head to their local Izakaya. It has low tables, cushions to kneel briefly and then sit on, and your first drink for 100¥. We pass around our Japanese drinks, and I sample both the earthy shochu and the deliciously sickly umeshu (plum liquor). My Highball (whiskey and soda), the self-proclaimed drink of the moment in Tokyo, is an abject disappointment. Me and Lune decline an invitation to an all you can drink event in favour of a bad action film and too many snacks.

The return flight was much gloomier than the flight out, and I sat reading the sordid USADA report on LA, surrounded by the sleeping masses, wishing that I didn’t have to leave.

A View from Cambridge House

Imported word of the week: mineraru wohtah

Word of the week: Wakarimasen (I don’t understand)

Kanji of the week: A double, because together they’re neat and poetic

Tsuji, meaning moon, or gatsu, meaning month

Taiyou, for sun, or nichi, for day

Product of the week: ANTI CAT MATS

Don’t Cat, Just Don’t

Amazing Views, Asakusa, and Raw Eggs for Breakfast

The weather after a typhoon is usually very clear, and the sky is blue this morning. I realize I have left my electric toothbrush charger in the UK. At work I immediately head up to the ninth floor to see Fuji-san. He is, of course, splendid, and his peak rises above the distant clouds. Work is empty as most people got a day off for helping at the open day. I leave early: the sky is so clear that it would be madness of near-Spartan proportions not to go to Landmark tower, the tallest building in Yokohama. It’s soon clear that even with Japan’s public transport I won’t make it in time for sunset, but I comfort myself with the thought of the city lights by night. It has the fastest lift in Japan up to the top floor, with a top speed of 750m/minute. The guide recites a perfectly timed talk about the tower as my ears pop uncomfortably, and in 40 seconds we reach the observation deck. As we emerge I gasp.

Wheel Nice

There’s something profound about seeing a landscape completely subverted by man. The Tokyo conurbation is the largest metropolis on earth. Cities stretch out towards the horizon in every direction. Even the ocean is fractured by huge suspension bridges spanning the bay. It is difficult to accept that this huge, impossibly complex, mesmerically complex, concrete land was built by man. Angles and lines and planes and polyhedra weave in and out of each other, frozen in frenzy, refracting and colliding and collapsing while stilled. Buildings are softly lit pale green and deep amber by fluorescent lights in that diffuse way that makes air look empty. Think the LA sky shots in Collateral. The ember of the city light makes the sea appear black by contrast, except where the full moon throws a silver-orange streak towards us. The landscape coruscates incessantly. Cars blinking into view, beacons throbbing on skyscapers, the tail lights of planes, all pulsing endlessly. A million beating hearts. It is achingly beautiful and mind-boggling and depressing all at once.


The observation deck is lit, which is frustrating for photos. The music perfectly complements the view: relaxed, melancholic trip-hop, reminiscent of Portishead, fills the air with whines and empty echoes. My portable tripod (courtesy of Lune) comes in handy, but I have to zoom in on the landscape to avoid reflections. I’m wondering what gear you’d need for really great photos from here, whereupon three locals produce heavy tripods and large canvas lens guards to block the reflections. At least I know for next time. There is an expensive bar up here, and I’m almost tempted by a coffee looking out on the glow. Back on the ground I take a photo of a ferris wheel and an old boat in a drydock, together with the moon. It’s a wonderful place for pictures; (almost) all you have to do is turn up.

MM21 Drydock

Cueball is Polish, very cheerful,  and moved to our floor yesterday. He is a bioinformatician working at RIKEN like me, so I offer to show him the way to work (feeling like quite an old hand). He calls bioinformatics black biology, lab work white biology, and the rest green. One of his friends dyed his labcoat black as a graduation present. We get the train and chat about Japan, Denmark, and New York, where he graduated and worked respectively. Like me, he finds the banking system in Japan is remarkably backwards considering how advanced the rest of the country is. Of course, this may just be because they’ve decided not to let banks run amok.

This week I received a letter written entirely in kanji. New scripts are daunting, even when phonetic – like the hiragana or katakana, but symbolic scripts are whole different kettle of undiscovered fish. I feel like a young boy looking up at a huge unconquerable mountain, still trying to figure out how to go about climbing. It’s actually quite illogical to be so disquieted (in my case at least) by not being able to read something. With my Japanese at a very low level, it’s certain I would be able to understand almost none of it. But somehow it’s comforting to be able to read a text, even if it’s as sensical to you as Finnegan’s Wake. I think maybe it’s something to do with how we view reading. Reading is a very human skill, and the keystone of humanity’s collective knowledge, which is what makes us so powerful. I feel embarrassed, neutered, and less human without it. Though learning symbols is good fun. All I can make out on the letter is 49, 000¥. All in all (probably) not good news.


Miruku Kuremas

In the hyaku yen shoppu I found my new snack, Miruku Kuremus (milk creams). They are discs of a substance that tastes of cinnamon grahams, flecked with a white icing which is presumably meant to resemble cream. It doesn’t. The next morning I have run out of bananas, so try a traditional Japanese breakfast, called tamago kake gohan (egg sauce over rice), or tamago bukkake gohan (egg sauce splashed over rice). I prefer the first name. To make it you will need 1 steaming hot portion of rice, a teaspoon of soy sauce, and 2 raw eggs. Take your ingredients, mix them all together vigourously with chopsticks, and dig in. My first impression was mainly of disgust at the slick sliminess of the raw egg, but after a few mouthfuls it began to taste OK. Possibly not worth a bout of salmonella. However, talking about my tamago kake gohan (or TKG, to young people ) over lunch, I find out that salmonella is essentially absent in Japan, and consequently have TKG much more for breakfast. I tried onigiri (rice balls) for the first time, but found that the nori it was wrapped in tasted a little fishy for my liking. Soon I will make some myself, perhaps without the seaweed (don’t tell anyone or I may get deported).


After last week’s scheduling debacle (I turned up for a festival a week late), I made sure that I was hyperpunctual on Saturday. Sakura House were holding a free tour of Asakusa, followed by a sushi party. A quick jog and some quicker trains got me to the meeting point early. Regrettably, it was a week early, and I wandered away dazed, scratching my head, and wondering if a 21 year old can suffer from Alzheimers. The tour was meant to be of Senso-Ji, one of Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temples, so I head there anyway. A daylight zombie stumbles past, jabbering frantically, with black lines of dried blood or noodle juice around his contorting mouth. The road leading to the temple is long, thin, and sticky with sugar and sweat. More like tourist flypaper than trap. Fake autumnal Acer leaves glint in the bright sunlight, and I watch a man making temple-shaped cakes by piping two different dough mixes into a mould, then places the mould into a coal fire. It seems very rustic, and the next stall responds with a steam-powered cake making machine, churning out similar treats in plastic packaging, which looks stolen from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Thundergate (not a scandal involving Thor)

A huge blood red gate, the Kaminarimon, guards the entrance to the temple plaza, and a huge paper lantern painted black and red, hangs from the transom. The lantern represents Fujin and Raijin, the Shinto gods of thunder and lightning. Two straw sandals weighing 2.5 tons each hang either side of the arch. The temple grounds are a sort of religious amusement park, just as busy, and filled with small Buddhist and Shinto shrines and relics that are dotted around petite gardens. The Japanese typically follow a syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto, illustrating a tolerance most Western religions lack. The whole area is soundtracked with the clinking of coins. Every shrine has a collection box, and people pay before bowing their heads. The main temple, Senso Ji, was built to the Edo style, with the archetypical red paint and curving roofs that make them look like capsized boats to me. Inside there are goddesses and dragons on the ceiling, a huge golden structure which holds an image too sacred to be seen, and ranks of bowing people. Coins arc over their heads to fall loudly into a 3 metre square collecting table. A jogger comes up the steps and bows whilst bouncing. Some twanging Americans walk past a no entry sign. In front of the temple there is a fountain with dragon heads spouting water topped with a bronze samurai. People use tin cups on sticks to take water, wash their hand, then use this hand to transfer water to their mouth. The drinkers just outnumber the photographers.

Senso Ji

Poor Minnie

A large cauldron filled with ash holds incense bundles and consequently belches out fragrant blue smoke into the bright midday sun. The ash is from thousands of previous sticks. Foundations of past fires. Worshippers come near to waft and rub the smoke over their bodies. Little kids get excited, peek over the cauldron edge, and are sent spluttering and blinking by a wave of smoke. Asakusa seems to be a well-preserved little corner of Tokyo, with traditional wood fronted low buildings which house people, dusty grocery stores, and smokey izakaya with all manner of charred fish on show. The strange thing is that almost nothing in this district is more than 50 years old. The main shrines all date from the 50s and 60s, reconstructed above the ashes. This entire section of the city burned in what was probably the largest civilian slaughter in human history, Operation Meetinghouse. A general trying to get results and retain control of a long range B29 bomber squadron switched from precision strikes on manufacturing centres to the incineration of the residential areas surrounding them. The traditional paper and wood homes caught well, and the shrieking firestorm burnt through 16 square miles of city with a population density of 103,000 people per square mile. The Tokyo police official casualty report of 125,000 was probably far too low. I didn’t know about this until three days ago, and felt guilty. The other huge bombings (Dresden, Hiroshima, Coventry, Hamburg, etc. etc. etc.) are infamous, but I had never heard about Tokyo. Destroyed not by cutting edge technology and relativity, but fire. Mindless primeval fire. The incense seems more poignant now.

My first attempt to join a Judo club was thwarted because they didn’t accept foreigners, but a Brazilian workmate, Pele, told me that he trains at a Budokan (martial arts centre) in northern Yokohama. On the way I finish The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is well written and warming, with some social commentary to boot. Reassuringly, it seems kids haven’t changed much in the past 150 years. The Budokan is evocative. It has a pebble garden outside: small stones raked into concentric circles and multi-layered waves, passing and surrounding large rocks. After bowing on entry, you change your shoes for sandals, and walk pass multiple large halls filled with mats and often small armies practising in unison. I take a wrong turn and stumble across Kyudo (Japanese archery), where about 15 people in traditional dress with enormous bows are firing across a dark garden courtyard into illuminated targets on the far side. The Judo dojo is a shade smaller than a football pitch, and peopled by about 50 black belts. It’s going to be a long night. Thankfully, the senseis are very friendly, and most speak a little English. To cut a long story short, over the next two hours I gained a lot of knowledge, lost a lot of skin, and hit the deck repeatedly. They are invariably impressively skilful, and twice I have the surreal experience of hitting the floor before realizing that my opponent has made an attack. Character-forming stuff.

Fried Chickenisha

Eureka texts to invite me to Octoberfest in Yokohama on Sunday afternoon, and after assessing my depressing financial situation I decide to go. She is with a group of other Oxford students on the Japanese course (they live in Japan for a year), and a couple of Japanese students who were learning English in Oxford last year. Most seem to have jobs to do with translation (or international communications, to use the proper title), and are a friendly bunch. Yokohama Octoberfest takes place on a pier between two European style redbrick buildings, which are now used as exhibition spaces, in a large marque filled with drunks, novelty hats, and currywurst.

Punk beats down on bollard

A squatting man in a fishing hat munches on a whole chicken, and a baby cries from its father’s arm, who is more concerned about downing his pint. Japanese girls are dressed as whatever the politically correct term for German wenches is, and some of the men have Lederhosen. Long tables are stuffed, and singing breaks out regularly. A bandstand in the middle hosts dancers and bands periodically. The beer is imported from Germany, and the MOST EXPENSIVE BEER OF MY LIFE (a steal at £13). It’s remarkably easy to limit myself to one. We sit on the pavement by the sea, and comment on the refreshing space and air. There is a harp-albatross statue and bollards to vault nearby.

Everyone needs an Albatross Harp

Import of the Week: hedo raito (headlight)   Similarity of the Week: KFC and McDonalds are still everywhere   Difference of the Week: EVERYONE GETS CHRISTMAS DINNER FROM KFC!! In literally one of the greatest things ever to happen (in the pantheon alongside the making of The Core and Foreigner) KFC ran an ad campaign in the 70s to promote KFC for christmas. Now 24th of December is by far KFC’s busiest day in Japan, with people queuing outside and making reservations! 

Product of the Week: When a boy at church, I used to try and make my communion grape last as long as possible, by skinning it then eating the flesh. I didn’t dare to dream someone would sell these ready-made. Bird of the Week: Eurasian Bittern, not a bad spot in central Tokyo

Bihru o onegai shimasu


(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 Mascots

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.


Hatagaya Football

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….

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.


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.


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.