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    Thursday, November 30, 2006

    Roast Horse for Breakfast

    As we all know, the Japanese eat sushi morning, noon and night, every day, 365 days a year, except lunchtime on the 25th of December when they go to KFC for a traditional festive feast of Chicken Nuggets.

    So what does one do as a foreigner faced with having to eat sushi (literally 'vinegared rice') for the duration of one's stay in Japan, when one can't stomach the idea of eating raw fish?

    Well, fear not, for there are non-sea food varieties available too. Such as this delicacy, which I came across this morning whilst browsing the breakfast menu.

    If Roast(s) Horse is not up your street, why not cast aside your fear of raw fish, and go for the Bastard Halibut?

    What I'm wondering though, is how on Earth they manage to establish whether or not a fish's parents were married when they spent that romantic night shagging away under the corals?

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    Bananas' silence says it all

    Thursday 30th November, 8.30am, Between Ikebukuro and Oyama on the Tobu Tojo Line. I asked them where they were going. They didn't answer.

    This leads me to believe that bananas can't talk.

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    Monday, November 27, 2006


    It's only tonight, watching a video tour of the Oval Office guided by the President that I truly appreciate what an idiot the man is. I mean, I know he's an atrocious leader who loves nothing better than to inflict suffering on anyone who his military mates tell him they have a disliking of, but until now, having never seen any footage of him other than in news reports - excerpts of speeches etc - I had no image of him on a sort of personal level. However, watching that video (see the link on the right hand side of this page) I really do wonder how the hell such an inept ninkumpoop managed to get voted in. Surely the majority of American's can't be that stupid?

    [nb: my best friend is American, as is my mother, my father, and my brother]

    Of course what's worse is that Blair has spent the last few years licking his arse. Where's Hugh Grant when you need him most?

    Bush Senior: "Son, you're making the same mistake in Iraq that I made with your mother.

    I didn't pull out in time...

    Saturday, November 25, 2006

    I'm just taking the pylon for a walk dear

    Yesterday, I took John John's bicycle for it's first proper outing in many months. Ever since we moved in here I've been thinking of going to see the big snake of wetness that marks the border between northern Tokyo and Saitama prefecture, the River Awa. According to my map, it's not that far away. Too far to walk, but not such a trek by bike.

    Of course what I was forgetting is that maps do have a habit of shrinking reality, something to do with practicality apparently. Thus, after about 45 minutes on the road using the sun as my guide (someone must have moved it) I was still a long way from my final destination. Not that I was partciluarly concerned. As seen in my previous posts I did come across a few sights worth pausing for, and in any case, I do very much like exploring the backstreets of Japan. It may be Tokyo, but children do still play skipping games in the street, something I won't forget in a hurry having failed to jump the bike over that long, rotating skipping rope that I was confronted with, having rounded the sharp bend.

    It wasn't that hard to know when I had finally reached the river. Its vast flood plains are encased on both sides with these huge great dyke-things, one of which was sporting a rather attractive handrail, which I post here for any others out there who are seduced by long shiney things that seem to go on forever.

    Having climbed the pictured bank, I must admit I was stunned. Stunned by just how far I could see. Although I couldn't have been much more than about 15 metres above street level, the complete lack of buildings near the river meant that the view extended for miles, right out to the mountains that form a ring around the Kanto plain. Descending to the flood plain on the southern bank, I was stopped in my tracks again, this time by the sound - of silence. Here I was in Tokyo, just a few miles from my home, outside, yet unable to hear the noise of traffic. It really made me smile, and I blessed John John for his gift.

    In addition to stumbling across some real live nature shots (with naturally-occuring floaty-hearts), I also found myself transfixed by the contrast contained within this image, which I managed to capture on film just before the pylon walked out of the frame. It's rare to find an uncluttered skyline in Tokyo. It's so clean, and yet so ugly. So cold, and yet so alive.

    one man and his pylon

    As the evening closed in, so I slowly made my way back home, this time using the magnetic pull of the moon on my fillings for guidance. Only took me about thirty minutes. Incidentally, on the way I saw a machine that surely spells disastor for about 85% of the elderly male population of Japan, who, as we know are the backbone of pointless flag-waving at construction sites.

    If I'd have been clever I would have shot a video of this terribly exciting machine that displays a waving man who is frighteningly lifelike. One half-expects him to sit down now and then for a cigarette and a cup of coffee.

    I bet if they saw these pictures they'd wet their pants there and then, and curse the invention of the dynamic LED display machine, which when they were young was only capable of showing what number ticket holder should go to counter number three at the post office.

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    Friday, November 24, 2006

    How to park a bus in Japan

    It's a well-known fact that space in Tokyo is not something that is taken for granted. Houses the size of shoeboxes, ceilings only 4 foot off the ground - you name it, all manner of methods are used to make the most of every last square metre.

    And it's no different at the headquarters of Nippon Chuo Bus Company, where, faced with the seemingly impossible task of parking 12 coaches in their courtyard, they decided to take the idea behind multi-storey car parks to a whole new level.

    One just hopes that the driver of the bus at the top remembers to ask his mate in the bus at the bottom to shift his vehicle before he presses the DOWN button.

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    Doctor! Doctor!

    Yes, I'm afraid you have a nasty case of Testicular Gas my friend...

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    Thursday, November 23, 2006

    I just called, to say, I think you're due on today

    Astonishing what new technology is capable of. NTT DoCoMo's latest mobile phone, the snazzily named Foma D702iF has been carefully crafted with women in mind.

    What you do is tell it when your next period is due, and it then predicts your cycle for the next year. Best of all, it emails you 3 days before you're due to come on, and on the day itself, just to remind you you go out equipped. After all, you've only had the whole of your life since you were 12 to get into the rhythmn.

    The experts, however, are not impressed. Dr. Kunio Kitamura, head of the Japan Family Planning Association was quoted as saying:
    "If this is able to determine menstrual periods for a year in advance, it deserves to go into the Guinness Book of World Records. Women aren't cyborgs and there's no way the timing could be perfected so simply.
    Who's going to take responsibility if somebody, especially some young girl with almost no sex education, gets pregnant when she thinks that trusting her phone will make her safe from conception?"

    On a similar note, I read this week that more and more Japanese women are suffering from "iku iku byou', or Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome, a condition which sees them orgasming 24 hours a day for no apparent reason. Some women claim that the vibration of their mobile phone is enough to set them off, whilst others say a mere tap on the shoulder more than they can bear.

    Come to think of it, *Twinkle* shows signs of this condition. Mind you, that's harldly surprising now is it...


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    JJ's Bike Rides Again!

    It's no good. I NEED chocolate. It's a physical thing, my body just won't function without it. I'm going to have to go to the supermarket. Like last night, at 10pm, when we went out just to get a carton of milk. And came back with with 8 chocolate eclairs, 7 of which I ate in 10 minutes.

    I've had a wonderful Thursday today. It's a national holiday in Japan, "Worker's day" I believe. Perhaps that explains why all the shops are open as usual.

    John John's Bike Rides again! Yes, his famous yellow bicycle (as pictured here, ridden by John John) which has been standing rather forlornly in the garage since his death is back on the road! My thanks to Steve for getting it fixed up, and riding it halfway to where I live. I've discovered that it will actually probably be quicker for me to cycle to uni than take the train, due to the walk at both ends. I reckon it would take about 25 minutes if I took the direct route down the big main road. Of course I'll need to build up my energy and strength in order to ride it fast - thus there's clearly a need for chocolate.

    I other news: I'm happy. Just starting to plan Christmas - Exciting!!


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    Wednesday, November 22, 2006

    Buy a donkey this Christmas and save someone's life

    Oxfam Unwrapped
    Oxfam America Unwrapped

    Every year, millions of people in the developed world spend vast sums of money on Christmas presents. New computers, new MP3 players, new books, new socks; shops are packed with folks trying to choose something for Aunty Ann, whilst struggling to support the weight of the many carrier bags they've picked up that day in a bid to complete the Christmas Shopping.

    Their friends and relatives will of course be happy to receive whatever gift they have been bought, even if it is not something that they asked for. It's the thought that counts afterall.

    Think back to last Christmas. How many presents did you receive that you really needed? How many presents have had a huge impact upon the quality of your life this past year? The chances are, not that many. Can you even remember what you were given?

    Just imagine if every one of those presents had been a Godsend, something that actually made the difference between living and dying. The difference between having a roof over your head, and being out on the street.

    Well, this year, every one of the presents you give and receive CAN be that important. Every present CAN be the difference between having enough food to survive, and dying. In fact, every present can make a huge difference not just to the life of one person, but to the lives of a whole family.

    Oxfam Unwrapped 2006 has just been launched, and has a huge range of gifts that will make a huge difference to some of the poorest people on the planet.

    How does it work? You go to their website, you select your gift, you enter your details and yoru friend's address. They receive a card with a photo and details of your chosen gift, plus optional Fair Trade Chocolates or another small gift Fair Trade gift of your choice. The donkey / goat / essential medicine is sent to those who desperately need it to survive, really giving them something to celebrate this Christmas.

    There's something to match everyone's budget: just £6 will provide school dinners for 100 children. £18 will provide safe water for 25 people. For £24 you can buy a goat (my romantic choice for *Twinkle* last year). £50 will buy you a friend for Bob the Donkey, whom I bought for my family and friends last year. Training programs, medicines, entire classrooms; they are all desperately needed.

    Your money, which may otherwise go into the pockets of the shareholders of Woolworths, Dixons and Debenhams, can make a huge difference to the lives of many people, who otherwise may not even be able to enjoy a clean glass of water for Christmas, let alone a turkey.

    Oxfam Unwrapped
    Oxfam America Unwrapped

    We forget just how lucky we are, in our comfortable homes with running water and a Tescos just around the corner. It's quite horrendous to think what crap we spend our money on at Christmas - what is it they say? 10% of UK waste is produced in the 7 days between Christmas eve and New Year's Day...

    Help to make the world a fairer place. Don't ask your family for socks, ask them to save someone's life.

    They may be out of sight, but that's no excuse to keep them out of mind.

    Oxfam Unwrapped
    Oxfam America Unwrapped

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    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    The Matrix of Control

    I desire something sweet. Chocolate ideally. Nice bar of Crunky. I look around the house. The three bars of chocolate that I had to hide from myself in the cupboard are gone - they were bought yesterday for a cake that was made today, a cake that was then taken away to a house elsewhere in Japan. Quite a remarkable cake actually: the ingredients? Chocolate, and eggs. Nothing more. Baked in a saucepan.

    Nothing sweet in the kitchen. I finished the honey. It's served me well. I first bought it when living in Ogikubo, the only toast-topping that wouldn't go mouldy in my room. I rummage around under the sink. I've already had two bananas today, shouldn't have a third. Then I spot the tetra pack. I didn't know what it contained when I obtained it, but learnt the kanji for "Plum" last night (the tree that provides every day), thus I now understand it contains Plum Wine - Umeshu. Not my favourite at all, I prefer warm sake, but I've broken the seal now and poured myself a mini-goblet-full (bless you John John for that particular piece of house-furniture.)

    Another fascinating day at university. I have heard some horror stories of what some of my classmates at other institutes are going through and thank my lucky stars. They say that at Hiroshima uni they have only just covered the 'te' form, and that's in the second-from highest group! Keio and ICU do not appeal either - as my friend said, the International Department at Keio University is only examined once every ten years, it's no wonder they have such shoddy teaching methods. And this, one of the top two Tokyo universities!

    Take the red pill. Show them a world without rules and controls.

    It was last week that I started to cross the main road when the lights are still red. It's the control again, something which most of them are unaware. I'm not doing it to deliberately antagonize Japanese people. Nor am I doing it in order to get run over (the sequence in which the lights change on that long, straight dual-carriageway provide an ample window for crossing even when the lights are red). No, I am doing it in defiance of the system, the system of control that extends beyond the borders of Japan, the system that engulfs all civilised societies. I get positive delight in not walking in the pavement on my way to uni. The speed most of those students walk you'd think university was to be their final resting place.

    There will be no revolution however, for the simple reason that the system works. The effect is so complete that the Neo's and Truman's of this society can't even have their 'consciences' pricked.

    To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.

    The (British) Tea Ceremony talk went well, despite my bumbled attempt at giving a definition of "Jumping Ship" earlier in the class. Humour was once again my key to success, success being defined as only semi-wishing I was halfway between a broken 5th-floor window and the ground below. Had a great debate in our society and culture lecture about robotic girlfriends. Jordan, a stereotypically loud (yet very nice and friendly) American student was adamant that this computerised doll, which had a conversation memory bank covering 30,000 topics, was a truly horrendous idea, and no-one would dream of purchasing one. I played devil's advocate, arguing that such a doll differed in no way from any other girl: just like it's human counterpart it would respond appropriately to pretty much whatever you said to it, it would, no doubt, have a personality that matured through interaction with its owner, and so on. After all, isn't a human brain just a super-computer without the solder? He was having none of it though. At the end of the lesson he asked our lecturer where she had seen the article that she had cited - he said he wanted to know more.
    Ha! When you don't show up for class next week we'll all know why - too busy exploring 30,000 different topics with your bosom buddy, Mandy the Cybourg!
    We all laughed. It was a good end to a long day.

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    Monday, November 20, 2006

    Me and You and Everyone We Know


    Released over a year ago, I'd not heard of this film until today, when I spotted it in the video store (having finally dared to go back in there following Saturday's incident). I picked it because of the title, and the fact that it said Film Four on the cover. I like it a lot. It's not family viewing.

    [end of film review]

    It's wonderful to switch off from the constant "Japan" theme at times. To take a break from the constant effort required to understand what is going on around one, to not worry about homework. I've actually finally managed to catch up with that, and thus am able to do what I've wanted to do since I got here: start on my Kanji using Heisig's method again. Did I tell you I actually got an email from the man himself a couple of weeks back? I think I did. I told the sensei that runs my course that I have decided to not take any more kanji exams as the method employed at Rikkyo simply stresses me out, and is not all that practical. She said that was fine, and backed me up in my decision to return to Heisig, saying how important it is to use a method that suits me. It's two months since I last carried out a systematic review of the kanji. First time round I find myself struggling, but one refresh of the stories that make up the characters and they are straight back there on my fingertips. Astonishing.

    Yesterday I took part in Yokohama Kokusai Festa (Yokohama International Festival). In addition to being pretty profitable (10,000 yen / £45 for about 2 hours work) it was also a lot of fun. My first role was that of UK rep on a panel of foreigners, up on stage for an hour giving our opinions on Japanese food, fashion and music. I was pretty nervous to begin with, nearly wet my pants in fact, but it wasn't long before I had everyone laughing with my questionable humour, and was thus able to relax. Bodes well for my TV career. Following that I meandered around the various booths run by internatioanl charities etc. I was delighted to find OXFAM Japan (OXFAM of course being a British-born charity), established only three years ago, and still employing only 5 staff. It is my intention to do some voluntary work with them.

    I then joined a bunch of 3-8 year olds and their parents for some running around / music / counting games, before going on to head "English World" - a one hour seminar type thing. Unfortunately my co-English speaker had decided to stay in bed, but I somehow managed to struggle through, pulling in quite a crowd when impersonating a drunk British student on the streets of Sheffield. One would have thought that I'd had practice.

    Stepping into our twirly time tunnel and returning to the year Saturday, we find all three of *twinkle's* siblings in our house. By some strange twist of clothing all four ladies were wearing blue jeans and grey tops. I would share the photo with you but that would be breaking anti-ladder rules. Speaking of *Twinkle*, living together is going remarkably well, considering what a pain I can be. There was the initial power struggle, and we do occasionally scold one another for leaving the lights on, or placing wet umbrellas just inside the entrance where they flood the floor, but other than that, it's going ok. It feels very different to when we were both living in MY place.

    You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I was asked to talk to a bunch of students about Rastafarianism. Last night I received an email with details of this week's topic: "Why the English do not slurp their tea"! Erm, because it's rude? How I'm going to stretch that one out I don't know. Incidentally, the theme for this week's Japanese language essay is "You are an expert heart surgeon, and have two patients in desperate need of a transplant. A donor is found with a heart that will match either of your patients. Which patient will you give it to (the other will die)."

    We have to choose our own patients. Our teacher first suggested Joseph (a.k.a. me) vs. George Bush, and then when I pointed out that that wasn't a matter so much of a difficult choice, more a case of common sense, a small child vs. Richard Branson. Personally I'd go for Richard Branson as the small child is unlikely to own a company which will soon be making commercial flights into space (on which I'd be one of the first passengers, receiving a complimentary pair of Virgin Space Socks).

    On which note I shall leave it for today. I need chocolate.

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    Saturday, November 18, 2006

    Moving from Windows to Mac: 3 month review

    non-techno people look away

    I've had a request from one loyal Mumbler for a bit of feedback on how I've found the move from Windows to Mac, something which a year ago I never thought I'd do.

    Well, here's the verdict. We'll start with the good points.

    - Right from the word go it's a delightful experience! Open the box, turn on your Mac, and (if there's any wireless networks in range, or if plugged in via a LAN) it will instantly hook up to the net and download any updates. The setup process is painless. Even if you have never used a Mac before you will know your way around it in no time.

    - The biggest plus for me is that I finally feel like the computer that I have bought is actually mine, in that I am in control of what it does; I was running Windowx XP on my old laptop, and began to feel increasingly like I was just a host for Microsoft software, with them pushing the keys at the other end of the tube. All those security updates, patches, and of course the legendary Genuine (dis)Advantage tool. All those restarts. It sounds like things are going to get even worse with their new OS, Window's Vista.

    - I was frustrated by Windows' incredibly slow start up / shut down times - the Mac is incredible: if it's been asleep and you lift the lid, it's fully functional before you have time to make it to the vertical position.

    - Installing / uninstalling Windows software is an absolute pain in the arse. Not only that, even if you do uninstall some software, you tend to end up with odd redundant files dotted all over the place. Not so with the Mac. You literally drag and drop the program into your Applications (Programs) folder to install, and drag them into the trash to uninstall them. Job done. No more restarts.

    - The old problem connected with a lack of software for the Mac simply isn't an issue any more. For most decent Windows programs there is a Mac alterative, and if you get really stuck, you can run Windows on your Mac anyway - problem solved.

    - The whole Mac experience is really very good. When you do have a problem, it is quickly fixed following a phone call to Apple, who, thanks to the fact that they have offices in all tone zones, are open 24 hours. Alternatively, you can just go to your local Mac Store. I have had one issue with the Mac suddenly powering off, but one call to Apple and I had a link to a firmware update that has sorted the issue.

    - Damn sexy magnetic power cable.

    The bad points

    Erm. Yeah. Er. Let me think...


    - Ok, so I don't like the way that Dreamweaver and Photoshop are displayed - palletes floating around in space and all.

    - There are times when one has to look a little bit harder for software than one would for Windows. I must say though, three months down the line there is not a single peice of software that I really miss. The Mac equivilents are excellent.

    - Could do with more than two USB ports. (I use an 8-port hub to support numerous external drives / printer etc).

    - no right mouse button on trackpad, unless I'm very much mistaken. Don't really miss it though.

    - Speakers on MacBook pretty pathetic. But liveable with.

    Here's the software that I use:

    Web browsing: Firefox. Of course. Safari is great, but Im familiar with Firefox, and they have some fantastic plugins).

    eMail: Apple Mail. This is just fantastic. Streets ahead of the mail function in MS Outlook in my book. Outlook used to take up to five minutes to start up and fetch my mail. This is ultra fast and very clever, automatically grouping stuff and creating rules if you want it to. A big problem was transferring my old emails from Outlook to Apple Mail. In the end I opted for the IMAP solution, whereby I transferred all my mails directly from Outlook onto a remote IMAP server, and then downloaded them onto the Mac. It took a whole day (I had over 10,000 mails to transfer and could only do it in 30MB batches due to my mailbox limit), but the emails were transferred intact, with dates etc all coming out ok. If one has been using Thunderbird or Outlook Express I believe the transfer process is far less painful.

    Image editing: Photoshop (I must admit I prefer the Windows version of this. I don't like the fragmented workspace in OSX). Mac's come with iPhoto, which is all very well and good for organising your photos, but I don't like the way it creates a huge cache (25GB in my case). I'm familiar with Photoshop, which is why I haven't considered buying any other Mac image software.

    Website: I use the Blogger Beta (via Firefox) for The Daily Mumble and A Year in Japan; this saves me having to update the archive file, generate individual item pages, update the RSS feed etc manually. For the rest of Tame Goes Wild, and when working on the Template for The Daily Mumble, I use Dreamweaver 8. This is the second of the two programs that I prefer using in Windows, due to the scatty nature of the layout in OSX. Dreamweaver 8 is fantastic!

    In order to use the Windows verisons of Photoshop and Dreamweaver, I bought Paralells, which enables you to run Windows on you Mac, just like it's a regular program. Although this is pretty demanding upon the CPU, the Mac does cope, and there's no noticable difference in performance between doing batch operations in Windows on the Mac and doing batch ops natively.

    For the podcast I use the excellent Garageband, which came with the mac. That was actually the reason I first seriously considered buying a Mac. I also use Audio Hijack Pro (5 stars) to rip the sound off videos that I've shot (when using my camera as a dictaphone).

    To back up my DVDs I use Mac the Ripper, and Pocorn 2. Popcorn 2 will compress dual-layer films onto a single layer disk, and convert films so they're suitable for iPods and PSPs etc. Great stuff, pretty cheap too.

    Whilst talkin about backups, I use SuperDuper, which despite having rather a tragic name is a very good piece of backup software. I did prefer Nero, but this does the job. One advantage is that wheras Nero would compress files into its own format, SD just copies them as they are, meaning you don't have to faff about when recovering them. In the case of a major data loss, I use Stellar Phoenix, which is actually worth its (rather substantial) price tag.

    Newsfire is a great RSS reader - very sexy.

    I do still use MS Office (I bought the Mac version).

    The Mac desktop is just beautiful. The way you can use "hot corners" to show/hide your active programs in different ways, very handy. Then of course there's the Dashboard, which is basically a place where you can pin loads of handy widgets (e.g weather forcast, search boxes, post it notes, short cuts, controls for iTunes...). I love the way the Dock (bit at bottom with program icons on) zooms in and out as you move your mouse over it, and also displays progress indicators if you are doing batch operations in Photoshop etc. Handy 'new mail' thing pops up when you have new mail (surprisingly), likewise with Skype, RSS readers etc.

    Automator is a fantastic program. You can use it to create your own mini-programs without having any knowledge of coding. For example, I have one automator tool that, when I drop images into a certain folder, it automatically searches for *twinkle's* real name in file names, and replaces it with *Twinkle*; it then scales the images down to 320px, compresses them for the web, sends them to a folder within my website, and opens Dreamweaver and a Flickr tool ready for uploading.


    I will never go back to Windows. I recall my Windows years as being full of frustration and restarts. Macs, I feel, are so much more flexible, in a kind of creative jelly type way. You are in control. You don't have some dinosaur of a company behind them that takes years to sort out security issues (what security issues?), and the whole computer experience becomes a lot more 'fun'.

    I look forward to purchasing my next one!

    The Making Of

    Recently I've started to watch Japanese films. DVDs are dirt cheap to rent over here, we're talking £1.50 for three days for the latest releases - I'm slowly making my way through the top ten.

    Today's choice was "Haru no Yuki" (Spring Snow). I saw a trailer for it when watching yesterday's selection, 'Always', a film set in 1950s Tokyo, when the tower was being built (making it the tallest in the world at the time), and families were taking delivery of their first TVs, fridges and washing machines. A very exciting time as the Japanese began their journey down the road to recovery, following the long-awaited withdrawal of the US occupation forces.

    Anyhow, I handed over Haru no Yuki for it to be checked out, and was asked - at least I thought I was asked - if I was sure that I wanted it, there were no English subtitles. I also heard a brief mention of a bonus disk somewhere in that sentence, but decided I didn't want to watch that. I then simply told the clerk, "No, it's ok, I'll Ganbaru" (persevere), referring to the lack of subtitles.

    It seems I should have listened more carefully. What I am now watching is a rather dull one-hour 'Making Of' feature - there is no main film. It's the kind of 'Making of' feature that actually doesn't tell you anything about the making of. There's a couple of short interviews with the actors who basically say "Oh it's such an amazing film!", and the remaining 55 minutes is made up of pictures of the producer's arse which has a big "kiss me" sign pinned to it. Well, almost.

    So, I now look back on that conversation in the video shop and feel rather stupid. I realise that he didn't actually mention subtitles at all. That was me thinking in-context and thus jumping to conclusions.

    Him: "Are you sure you want this video sir? It's not the main film, it's the bonus disk"

    Me: "No, it's ok, I'll persevere"

    No wonder he went quiet after that rather odd response.

    Of course the thing is, I can't go back and get the main film now as that guy will still be on duty, and despite the fact that he'd pretend he'd never seen me before and give me the politest smile ever, secretly he'd be thinking, "Hah! It's that's stupid foreigner, the one who reckons he speaks Japanese. I bet he's come back for the main film..."

    Well, I suppose the director is wearing a rather funky hat.

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    Thursday, November 16, 2006

    The attraction of Japan

    A couple of days back I took part in a fascinating seminar on Japanese society, as a part of a module I'm taking at Rikkyo University. We'd been looking at Freud's ideas on civilised society, which demands the suppression of our innate desire for immediate gratification; we must learn to live with delayed gratification if civilisation is not to fail. (See this extract from Eros and civilization by Herbert Marcuse.

    Having not studied anything but the very basics of Freudian theory (What do you mean I can't poo right now?! Oh, look at that cucumber!) I found this all rather depressing, as it offered an explanation that fitted in only too well with what I see around me every day in Japan.

    "You know when you get on the train in the morning, it's absolutely packed, but no-one's making a sound. Everyone is silent, there's no interaction. Everyone might as well be dead". The rest of the group agreed with my classmate's comment. Indeed, it is quite remarkable what happens when someone does break the silence. Yesterday, riding home on the Tobu Tojo line, the carriage was (as usual), silent. Then suddenly, an elderly person at the other end of the carriage spoke to the stranger next to them. "Excuse me, what's the next stop?"

    The reaction was worthy of being filmed. Every head turned in unison towards the transgressor. Not out of disapproval - more shock. I must admit I was no different to anyone else. I'm so used to the Japanese way that I find it difficult to deal with such ripples (I feel especially uncomfortable when with other people who haven't been in Japan long, and are yet to plug in to the unspoken rules that are strictly abided by).

    When the silent train opens its doors, the unspoken rules that fill its carriages escape like a gas into the atmosphere. They spread, eventually covering every corner of the city. Every nook and cranny. Public places, private places, nowhere can be sealed against their influence. We breathe them in unconsciously; they make their way from our lungs into our bloodstream, and eventually into our thinking. It's only a matter of time before we are fundamentally altered. That part of us that was capable of free thought is muffled by a cloak of rules by which we are to abide if we are not to be the one who is made to feel the outcast by daring to ask if we can get off at the next stop.

    And so it is in Japan. The cloak of conformity is first introduced in Kindergarten, and as the child grows up, so it becomes denser, making expressions of free will difficult to exercise. By the time the child graduates, they no longer mourn the loss of their individuality. This is just the way things are. Were they to deviate from the norm they would be harshly chastised - it's just easier to conform.

    I see this everyday around me. Meet someone for the first time, you know exactly what they're going to say, and they know exactly what you're going to say. The language then adopted for the ensuing conversation is that of respect; using casual speech involves too may dangers, one might cause offence. Just stick to the norm. Only with time may one adopt casual speech, and only when permission is given.

    Enter a shop and you are greeted by a thousand "Irrashaimase"'s ('Welcome'). It's an automatic response on the part of the store attendants. They see a moving body, they say "Irrasahimase" (occasionally they accidentally say it to one another too, such is the unconscious nature of the action). This welcome is the opening line for the familiar scene at the supermarket. You wander the ailes being lambasted with irrashaimase's, not just by the humans that work there, but also by the numerous cheap radio-cassette players that repeat a prerecorded message telling you about the week's special offer, or singing a song about fish. There's the mini-DVD players too, positioned in the fridge (of all places) featuring an alien of questionable origin that has just discovered the latest Yakult diet drink.

    You reach the checkout, and no matter how many times in the past you have been served by that particular member of staff, they do not break the code in favour of interpersonal communication. It remains a pre-determined encounter. They read out the prices as they scan the items (to avoid the risk of the image of the perfect store clerk being shattered by any personal information that may be revealed through genuine conversation), they tell you how much it is, ask you if you have a store card, take your money and give you your change. The robotic service concludes with a thank you, and if it's in the company manual, a "Please call again".

    I sometimes wonder whether my accent is resulting in my words being twisted so they come out as "About your pet elephant, how many years have you been grooming it?

    Many supermarket checkout staff find serving me something of a shocking experience, as at the point where they reach for a carrier bag (the Japanese have a deep love of packaging) I say to them, "sono mama de ii desu" ("it's OK just like that, thanks"), pointing out that I have my trustworthy Beanies linen shopping bag with me. That always throws them, and I sometimes wonder whether my accent is resulting in my words being twisted so they come out as "about your pet elephant, how many years have you been grooming it?

    The idea that one can survive without a plastic carrier bag is, it would seem, something of a novelty. This notion that one needs constant help, like the gas that muffles our individuality, eeks into every corner of society. Look at the newspaper article I studied with my tutor last week:

    The Sunday edition of the Nikkei Shimbun (Japanese equivalent of the Financial Times) has a special lifestyle section, which includes a "reader's problems" page. Being a serious newspaper, you won't find letters from Tracy, age 15, wondering if there's a risk of her getting pregnant by kissing her boyfriend, but you will find letters from the likes of the 35-year-old salary man, Mr. Tanazawa, who is concerned about withdrawing money from the ATM in the local convenience store. In recent years there has been a gradual increase in ATM-related crime, with people being robbed just after they've withdrawn a wadge of cash.

    His short letter is answered by the 'Anzen Seikatsu Adobaiza' (literally 'Safe Living Adviser'), Dr. Nakamura. Dr. Nakamura agrees that indeed crime is on the increase, and one must indeed be careful. He goes on to offer the following advice, regarding using ATM in convenience stores (n.b. in Japan, you won't find ATMs on the street, and those in banks often close at night):

    1. Do not use ATMs after dark
    2. If one has to use an ATM at night, walk right around the shop first to make sure there are no suspicious people in cars there
    3. Go into the shop. Walk up and down all the ailes to check that there are no suspicious people in there.
    4. If the ATM is positioned by a window and therefore visible from outside, it's best not to use it.
    5. If the ATM is not by a window, wait until there is no-one else near it, and then approach it.
    6. Enter your card and pin, being careful to check that there is no-one around you, and using your right shoulder and arm to shield the buttons from anyone's view.
    7. Having taken out your money, put it in your wallet straight away.
    8. Before leaving the shop, look out of the window to check that there are no suspicious people in the car park.
    9. Avoid walking down unlit streets on your way home.

    My tutor and I agreed that if one was to follow the steps outlined above, one would probably be arrested for behaving suspiciously (casing out the joint etc).

    Of course, this kind of nanny state can be found all around the world - the UK being just one example. However, what I argue here is that Japan has taken it to extremes. The loss of individual freedom is marked. Something that simply can't be ignored.

    I was initially quite taken aback by the patronising nature of this piece. Can you imagine finding this in the FT?! It would surely be taken as a joke. The advice offered to this 35-year-old is more suited for a 7-year-old: yet here we have it in one of Japan's most 'adult' newspapers. What's even more depressing is that this article is actually a pretty good indication of just how much of a nanny state Japan is. This kind of advice is found everywhere; think of the recorded messages on all escalators telling you how to ride them (stand on the left behind the yellow line, hold onto the hand rail), the driver of a bus I took last week, who talked non-stop throughout the entire journey through his microphone.
    "We're approaching some traffic lights, so the bus is going to stop. Please take care."
    "The bus is going to start, please take care"
    "The bus is going to turn right, please take care".
    There is little room left for one to think for oneself. Everything is prescribed.

    The effect upon Japanese men has been somewhat remarkable too. They have been castrated by the nanny state. They no longer need their masculinity, it's simply redundant in such a safe world where everything is done for you. Look around you at Japanese men. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether or not they actually are men. The face, the hair, the clothes, the behaviour, nothing gives you any clues. This has the unfortunate side effect upon women too - they lose their femininity: without light, there is no dark.

    Of course, this kind of nanny state can be found all around the world - the UK being just one example. However, what I argue here is that Japan has taken it to extremes. The loss of individual freedom is marked. Something that simply can't be ignored.

    The benefits

    The Kanto plain, that area of south-eastern Japan that is home to Tokyo and its many satellite cities, houses over 25% of the Japanese population of 127 million. If one thinks about that, and then thinks about the incredibly low crime rate in Japan, one has to conclude that the Japanese have achieved something quite remarkable. Here we have a city with one of the highest population densities in the developed world, with one of the lowest crime rates of any city in the developed world! I seem to recall that the murder rate is half that of the UK's. An incredible achievement that can't be scoffed at.

    It was not that many years back that in response to a survey by the Prime Minister's Office, 90% of the population stated that they saw themselves as 'middle class'. Another benefit of silence and sterility is relative wealth. Yes, the gap between the rich and poor is starting to widen, but still, the majority of Japanese people do enjoy a relatively high standard of living. They eat well, their personal safety is ensured, they have disposable incomes that enable them to play hard at weekends.

    Is it these positive factors then that have brought me back to Japan? I am inclined to think that yes, it is. Initially, I put the appeal of living in Japan down to the 'gaijin bubble' - as a foreigner relatively unaware of what was going on around me I could pick and choose those bits of culture that I liked, and simply discard the rest as something that I couldn't understand and didn't really concern me in any case. It was a happy bubble. Not a problem in sight.

    Of course, that has changed over the past few years. My university education has sapped the Fairly Liquid from the bubble's walls. It has become extremely thin. I can hear and understand what people are saying on the other side. Indeed, there are times when it is so translucent that it may as well not be there. Yet, I am still content to live here, despite the lack of the bliss of ignorance. So what is it that keeps me here.

    Humans do not like change. They do all they can to avoid it. Thus, a society which comes with a handbook, which if followed does away with the need for change, is fundamentally attractive. Perhaps this is why I love living here.

    I am inclined to believe that it is the safety, the sterility, the silence that appeals to me. Life in Japan is fundamentally easy in that sense. Everything is a given, there are no unknowns. You learn about an element of Japanese society or culture once, and you are set up to deal with that situation whenever it arises for life. There is little variation, and what variation is only in the detail; the beginning and the end, the overall pattern, does not change. There are no daily struggles, one can go to the supermarket safe in the knowledge that the experience will be as you expect it to be.

    Humans do not like change. They do all they can to avoid it. Thus, a society which comes with a handbook, which if followed does away with the need for change, is fundamentally attractive. Perhaps this is why I love living here.

    Oh but the irony! A website with such a title as Tame Goes Wild, penned by someone who chooses to live in Japan for reasons of comfort associated with familiarity! Can this really be true?! Well, all I can do is examine my feelings towards Japan, examine the society in which I live, and see where the two interact. At this moment in time, I am inclined to believe that I have ultimately chosen to surrender my personal freedom, in favour of a 'good life'.

    I do of course find this conclusion somewhat disturbing. After all, I have surrendered to a system that 12 years ago I swore I would never capitulate to. It does of course explain however why I write the Daily Mumble. Why I wear my patchwork jeans.

    At the end of our class, we all agreed that Japan was in great need of a revolution. Thus, we marched out of uni, back to the station, and boarded the busiest (silent) train we could find. Once happily arranged in a group surrounded by the masses, our conductor counted us in, and we burst into song, with a rousing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody.

    Aside from the initial turning of heads, there was no reaction. The salary men and office ladies returned to their lands of snooze, whilst in the distance a protesting 34-year-old Mr. Tanazawa was seen being dragged away from a convenience store ATM, having been arrested for suspicious behaviour.

    Sunday, November 12, 2006

    Holiday Days 4 & 5: Kyoto

    In an attempt to bring a bit of variety to the Daily Mumble, today’s story comes to you not from a train in the Japanese outback, but rather from the front seat of the upper deck of a rather sexy JR bus that has just left Kyoto on an 8-hour trek across Japan, destination: Tokyo.

    In addition to the fantastic view of Honshu, we get a complimentary pair of slippers (good job too as I’ve run out of clean socks and the ones I wore yesterday are absolutely honking), and an at-seat telephone for making important business calls. Or for speaking to the driver in case of emergency. Bit of o a case of overkill that I feel, I mean, it may be a big bus, but the driver isn’t all that far away. Perhaps it’s the influence of youth culture, which now sees mother communicating with their children by text message when in the same house. “Supper’s ready” / “What is it?” / “Rice” / “Ok”. It’s not all that uncommon, especially what with text messaging (via email) being virtually free in Japan. One could put it down to the education system, which produces children who are unable to communicate their own thoughts and feelings effectively with others. It’s much easier to hide behind a ubiquitous mask conveniently mass-produced by a society that has taken the isolation of individuals to a new level.

    And all that from an at-seat telephone. You can imagine what I’m like in class.

    So, day 4 of our holiday was somewhat more laid back than those that had gone before. The previous evening had been spent under the kotatsu (heated table), talking about this and that with Twinkle’s mum, with whom a good relationship has now been established. In the morning we were up fairly late, slowly getting ourselves prepared for the trip to Kobe, our destination that day.

    I’ve been to Kobe several times now, although never for more than a few hours. I quite like the city; it sports some interesting architecture that sprang up following the devastating earthquake of 1995 in which 6000 people died. Thinking about that, it seems a bit unreal that in such a modern country as Japan a natural disaster could have such horrendous consequences. One tends to assume that they must have everything under control – it only goes to show who’s the boss at the end of the day – and it isn't us. I wonder when the big one will hit Tokyo? It’s long-overdue now. It doesn’t concern me all that much, although I can’t help but take it into consideration when thinking about where I, or my friends, live. I feel quite secure in our current home as it’s brand new, and not very tall. I do wonder how trains cope with earthquakes. Do they get shaken off their tracks? I don’t recall hearing any stories of mass-deaths due to such incidents in ’95.

    Anyhow, back to our holiday (I think the constantly changing scenery in front of me is making my mind wander…). Twinkle, her mother and I had been invited round for lunch at a friend’s house, that friend being the brother (and his wife and child) of my good mate Will back in Sheffield. The food was delicious; I also had quite a lot of fun playing with their 1-year-old child, making quacking noises and so on. Recently I’ve started to like little children (although I couldn’t eat another whole one!) (Boom Boom!); Twinkle was saying how she felt the same, although we’ll still hold off on that one for a few years. As the evening wore on so talk turned to Sheffield Japan Society – it was through that that Chris and Kayo (our hosts) first met.

    Yesterday morning, following a good night’s sleep in Kobe, Twinkle and I took the train to Kyoto, a city with which we are both familiar to a certain extent, Twinkle having attended uni there, and I having been there several times in the last few years as a tourist. I still can’t quite get over how monstrous Kyoto station is. Here we have Japan’s ancient capital, spared from the wartime bombing by the US, and thus host to some of Japan’s most beautiful temples and shrines, with a gateway that is, put simply, a great big jumble of steel, stone, and escalators, lacking in any form of artistic grace or balance. I can’t help but think of better uses to which that money might have been put. Why no traditional architecture to match the beauty of the temples in the north of the city?

    Such is the number of historical sights in Kyoto that it takes several days to see to them all. Thus, despite my trips there in 2000, 2002 and 2003, there were still places of great beauty that were new to me. Our first stop was Kiyomizu Temple, famous for the way it is perched upon a steep hill side, supported by huge timbers that are specially grown for that very purpose.

    What with it being a Sunday, the place was pretty crowded. Mind you, I swear that half the tourists were Chinese, a phenomena that no doubt will continue to grow in the years to come as the Chinese middle class population swells. It would be nice to go to Kiyomizu again, on a weekday morning perhaps, in a couple of weeks when the maples are exploding with colour, or in the spring, when the huge collection of cherry trees is in full bloom. Whether or not global warming is to blame I don’t know, but autumn is extremely late this year – it’s now November but the leaves are only just starting to turn!

    Leaving the shrine we wandered down an old street packed with little shops selling all kinds of traditional Japanese products. Fans, kimono, and lots of food! My favourite shop was that specialising in Yatsuhashu, Kyoto’s famous sweet made from a sort of mochi (soft, supple pastry-like substance made from rice powder, which is folded into little triangular parcels and then filled with various flavoured pastes, such as that made from sweet beans, persimmons or walnuts). We were given a free cup of green tea as we entered, and then left to ‘taste’ all the different varieties of Yatsuhashu on offer. In a bid to save money on lunch, I spent ages walking up and down the shop chomping away, trying to look like a different person each time so as not to be thought of as being a cheeky monkey.

    A little further own we came upon a beautiful Japanese garden, where, in a little hut , a tea ceremony was being performed. It was, I must say, all rather groovy.

    Reaching Yasaka Jinja, our attention was immediately caught by a wedding ceremony being held in the main temple. I’ve only ever seen photos of Japanese-style weddings before – usually those of the parents’ of friends – never the actual event itself, and never anything so grand. To get married in Kyoto’s main temple is quite something, a million miles from the (comparitively) ‘fake’ western style weddings, with the Western vicar that is actually just a foreign exchange student who’s been hired for the day, that are now so much in vogue.

    There were also a few children there who had been brought to mark their 3rd (in the case of girls) or 5th (in the case of boys) birthdays, another old Japanese tradition that to the delight of photographers continues to be observed to this day.

    Another tradition, this one particularly associated with Kyoto (in the same way that standing on the right rather than the left when on an escalator is an Osaka thing); young couples sitting almost equidistantly along the banks of the river.

    Feeling the need for a dose of modern pop culture, we turned down a shopping mall that was packed with younguns. Surely, it was time for some PuriKura action again (as described a couple of days ago).

    Ice cream anyone? It’ll only set you back £16.50.

    The shop next door would have been more at home next to a temple. It was full of traditional foods, carved bamboo antiquities – and this T-shirt.

    One really does wonder what the shop owner, a granny in her 60s, thinks it means.

    No Rickshaws.

    Feeling refreshed we turned our attention to Nijo-Jo (Nijo Castle), which I had no idea existed until my beautiful guide (that’s Twinkle by the way) took me there. Since studying a bit of Japanese history at Sheffield, my interest in castle-esque buildings has increased dramatically, mainly as the names of the fellas who lived I them actually means something to me now. This particular castle was especially significant, as it contains the very room in which it was announced, in 1868, that power would be restored to the Emperor Meiji, ending a couple of hundred years of isolation, and thus marking the entry of Japan into world affairs. The castle does not share the style of those such as Osaka-Jo, Himeji-Jo, Nagoya-Jo, which are, erm, I’m sure there’s a technical term for it, basically about 5 floors high, square-ish, tiered, painted white. Rather, Nijo-Jo is a single-storey building, with paper screens and wooden shutters making up all the walls, unpainted. It has the most fabulous Nightingale flooring I’ve ever come across – these Nightingales really sing when you walk! Until yesterday I assumed it was the way the wooden floorboards were positioned against one another that made them squeak when trodden upon (so as to warn of intruders), but not so. Rather, each plank has a number of steel latches on their undersides that are attached with nails. The squeak comes from the friction between the latch and the nail when the boards are depressed. Their use was phased out in 1765 following the famous incident involving the Ninja who came armed with a bottle of Prozac (groan….!)

    Something else I was really impressed by was the screen paintings that made up the interior walls. On the whole screens don't really do it for me; sure, they’re pretty, but a museum full of ancient wallpaper just isn’t my idea of fun, no matter how cute the courtesans. Still, there was something about those at Nijo that had me spellbound. The idea that these same pictures adorned the walls of these same rooms when those ancient warlords ruled the land, great stuff. One final feature that caught my attention was the hidden room behind the screens right next to the Shogun (feudal lord)’s cushion. In there, his elite samurai protectors would wait, ready to burst out and cut down any man who dared approach their leader in anger. I guess they had a CCTV system installed so they could keep an eye on proceedings even with the doors shut.

    It's a shame that photos weren’t allowed inside the castle, although I suppose hundreds of flash-bulbs wouldn’t do the paintwork much good. Beautiful gardens though.

    The final stop for the day was Doshisha University, where Twinkle studied for 4 years. By coincidence, it was “Homecoming Day”, a sort of reunion type thing. However, as it was now 5pm everyone had actually gone home, thus the place was deserted. Nice campus though. Sort of university-like, funnily enough.

    Our resting place last night was a superb little business hotel, the Chatelet Inn, which was only 3500yen pp. When making the reservation, Twinkle had requested a ‘room with a view’, as one of the guests was an overseas tourist (that’s me). Thus, we were delighted to find that looking out of our 9th floor window, we did indeed have a superb view …of the TOTO toilet showroom opposite.

    Turning our attention to the TV guide, we found that there wasn’t all that much on except “Blow Job Bonanza” and “Mariko gets fucked” – thus I turned my laptop on, hooked up to some random wireless network and tuned into Classic FM. Soundtrack provided, we took care of the rest ourselves…

    Dinner was a superb Sushi feast, washed down with a can of premium beer and a litre of organic carrot juice, followed by the most delicious cakes to have ever been produced by Kobe’s famous cake shop, naturally enough located in Kyoto.

    It has been, I must say, the most fantastic holiday. I can’t quite believe we’ve done so much in the past week – its been such fun!

    This bus journey is proving to be really inspirational. From Osaka to Tokyo there are two main routes – one, the Tokaido, takes you along the southern coast of the main island of Honshu. It’s relatively built up all the way along, following the flats and playing host to the Shinkansen (bullet train) line. The other route, and that that we are following today, veers off to the north, going right through the heart of the southern body of Honshu. We’ve climbed a fair bit, and the motorway, almost deserted apart from the construction workers (who seem to outnumber the white lines down the middle of the road) , is surrounded on both sides by mountains that have a beautiful coat of autumnal shades. It reminds me that it really is true, 80% of Japan IS mountainous (and therefore relatively uninhabitable).

    The urban areas are the exception, not the rule. It's only too easy to forget this when living in a city that hosts almost 25% of the population of Japan. When I say “I couldn’t live in Japan, it’s just too crowded”, I’m forgetting the beauty of the byways. The peace and quiet of the forests, the patches of persimmon trees that break up the rice paddies. It’s true, the majority of Japanese rivers have been concreted along at least some part of their course, but I’ve seen many this past week that have genuinely taken me by surprise. They wouldn’t look that out of place in a national park in England!

    It’s astonishing how travel can affect one’s thinking, one’s relationship with one’s surroundings. This trip really has shown me how a little over 2 years, the time I have spent in Japan thus far, really is nothing, and there is a lot more about the place that I am yet to learn.

    Thanks for coming on holiday with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip!


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    The Power of Positive Thinking & Beer

    I'm finding life incredibly interesting at the moment. It's been pretty fun anyhow, of it's own accord (see the helicopter story below), but what's even more exciting is all this potential I'm feeling. It's so exciting, thinking about all these things I CAN do. Like read books. Learn stuff. Feel good. Make edible meals... It's tremendously exciting to realise that one can actually make huge changes in one's life for the better.

    Of course it's also highly ironic that there are days like today, when I am relatively unproductive. I've spent the whole day indoors, much of it at my Mac, trying to sort out some technical hitches with Tame Goes Wild. I used to spend hours playing with this website; these days it doesn't need much attention, except for raw data input such as this. Despite its restrictions, Blogger really has been a blessing, doing all the complicated things behind the scenes for me. You may have noticed a few ads on the page - I'm conducting an experiment for the next couple of months to see if Google AdWords really do pay. This was prompted by my receiving an offer of what I consider to be a decent lump of cash to place a few ads on my Live and Work Abroad page. I didn't say no, and to my surprise the money was in my Paypal account within 5 minute of me having uploaded the links. It's just a shame I'm not allowed to click on the ads you see here on The Daily Mumble myself, as a few of them have been quite intruiging.

    My apologies for having sold out. These past few months I've started to feel that until I have my yurt (as pictured here in the Wye Valley, not far from my parents home, somewhat coincidentally) in the middle of nowhere and have a vegee plot that's big enough so I can live offa the fatta the land, capitalism is the only way to go. It's not that I don't have a choice, it's just that life is easier if one works with the system, within the framework that has been constructed by market forces, rather than struggling to resist the dominant pattern of thinking.

    It's not necessarily all bad. These days we're starting to see more cases in which the green movement is utilising capitalism to bring about changes for the better: think the roaring Carbon Emissions Certificates industry, or Richard Branson's huge investment in a new super-clean fuel.

    I now appreciate that there is room for manouvere within the current framework. Outright rejection of commercialism, selfish hedonism and capitalism in general is possible - just not in central Tokyo! For example, there is a WWOOF host north of Kyoto where the family (consisting of a father and 4 girls, none of whom attend school but instead run the home) are entirely self-sufficient. They've taken it to extremes: the cooker is powered by the gas that is emitted from the poo that their pigs provide!

    I had another thought as well. If I were to actually make money from my website, it might encourage me to write more, devote some time to developing it and dragging the quality out of the bottom of the cattlegrid where it lies rotting along with the hedgehog corpses.

    The power of positive thinking is quite stunning. We've all heard it a thousand times I know, but how many of us have ever really grasped a hold of the opportunity that every day brings to turn our fortunes around when things are not as we would like them to be? I know that I have a long history of practicing hypocrisy, but this time I really am determined to practice what I preach. I think I am fortunate in that I have been given a bloody hard kick up the arse - by my university. This, combined with what I choose to view as limited window of opportunity (that being from now until next September when I return to the UK), has provided me with immense motivation. I am determined to not return to the UK, and regret having not tackled my problems here in Japan at an early stage.


    I had a really great night last night. Jon the Giant (as he is known by the japanese) invited myself and Sir Nigel, another Sheffieldian, to an okonomiyaki party at a sort of gaijin house about 15 minutes from where I live (15 minutes by bus that is. 30 minutes if one runs quite fast at 2am when very drunk, and stops for a wee on the pavement, only to find oneself faced with a policeman on a bicycle...). It was great to catch up with Jon and Nigel. And drink. And drink a bit more. And a bit more. I recall telling Jon's landlord that I had yet to sleep with a man. Quite where that came from I don't know. The room went very quiet.

    I also recall nigel and Jon nuzzling one another

    and my bum getting a thrashing with a belt.

    It's on nights like last night that all classroom troubles simply dissapear - I CAN speak Japanese! Had some really nice conversations, very inspiring actually. Caw blimey, I do love to talk. There was no shutting me up.

    Anyhows boys and girls, I'll leave it there for now. Beddybyes time me thinks.


    Saturday, November 11, 2006

    Holiday Day 3: Helicopter!

    Once again the mumble comes to you live from a red-cushioned seat that is bolted to the floor of a train that happens to be making its way through the Japanese outback.

    Day three of the holiday was as memorable, if not more so, than day two. I woke at 7am from a very good night’s sleep, and decided to slowly bring myself into the waking world by having a soak in the medicinal onsen waters. Getting out of bed was pretty difficult, it was SO COLD! Still, I managed to clip-clop across the deserted street without shattering into a million fragments, and it wasn’t long before I was positioned by the steaming hot inlet valve in the bath of murky green water.

    Breakfast was delicious, and included Harry the Fish, whom I ate all of, except for his head which I pulled off first, rice, the customary raw egg (got used to eating them last summer, don’t know what the Brits have got against them. Bit of food poisoning never hurt anyone), and an assortment of other bits and bobs. After that it was off to feed the fishies in the river behind the onsen. The must fun thing to do was to throw in overly-large white bread-crusts in – these were easily distinguishable against the river bed, and thus made spotting the fishies that were being chased by their hungry friends that bit easier. It was incredible how fast they moved – and they hardly ever came up for air!

    The other side of the bridge on which we’d been playing pooh-fishies stood a wee temple, with some beautiful grounds. These contained some stunning maple trees, drenched in bright red paint that would even take people who are colour-blind by surprise.

    I couldn’t get enough of them, just beautiful, really made me smile …but was eventually pulled away by the sound of Twinkle’s cry for help. She was stuck in some ancient iron geta, and needed a helping hand.

    There’s a zig-zag path that leads from behind the temple up the walls of the valley in which the village lies, to a cave complex (entry 400yen / £2). I think the owner has been to Disneyland one time to many, judging by the safety of the place. I’m used to those Welsh caves where one has to wriggle through tiny little passages that are about 10cm in diameter, and require you to remove your bottom before entry. Wetsuits also come in handy. This morning’s expedition into the deep wasn’t quite so challenging however. Thick nets, the sort that would be more at home on a fisherman’s boat, formed walls that lined the entire course of the route through the hole in the ground. Behind the nets stood/hung row upon row of staligtites / stalimites that no doubt at one point had been very impressive – unlike now – they’ve all had their tips snapped off. Perhaps that’s why he had to resort to nets… still, at least there’s no plastic gnomes in there, or plastic dinosaurs for that matter, like the 40cm Tyranosaurus Rex that is positioned right outside the window of the men’s urinals at the Ryokan, along with a cheap china duck and a sheep made out of pipe-cleaners and cotton wool. Perhaps it’s one of those Japanese traditions that we didn’t study at uni.

    Anyhow, the caving adventure came to a abrupt end when a party of 20 or so Americans arrived: enough to make anyone afraid of confined spaces.

    We then followed a path through the woods along the side of the valley. It was just beautiful. Unfortunately, much of modern day Japan is covered in farmed sugi (cedar? The evergreen that grows straight, tall and fast), the original mix of deciduous trees having been felled in centuries gone by. This makes for very dull scenery, and of course doesn’t do much for biodiversity. However, there are pockets of ancient woodland, often under the ownership of temples and shrines, as was the area that we walked through this morning. The path was deserted – quite something for a national holiday when typically the usually quiet countryside buzzes with the sounds of city folk busy relaxing. We also crossed a rather funky swinging bridge. Here I indulge in one of my fantasies...

    Back to the ryokan to pay the bill (40% discount and no charge for the beer thanks to Twinkle’s smile), then off down the road to what is possibly the most beautiful gorge I have ever encountered in Japan.

    Fortunately we encountered it from the top, unlike most people who were struggling to cope with the demanding hike up the rocky path. At the bottom we caught the free bus provided by the local council as a part of the 3-day Momiji Matsuri (Maple Leaf Festival), this took us to the main festival ground where we ate, drank, and prepared for our next Grand Adventure.

    I’ve had a thing for helicopters since I was a child. I think I must have been about ten the first (and only) time I went in one. It was a huge monster, seating about 20 people, and thus quite un-helicopter like. Too stable for my liking. I did enjoy the flight though as we swooped quite low over a nudist beach.

    Anyhow, since then I’ve only been able to have wet dreams over radio-controlled models. The chance to fly in a real one just hasn't come about; they are notoriously expensive to run.

    Until Today.

    “Maple Tree viewing from above – only 3000 yen (£15)! Well, how could I resist? Twinkle had never been in one before, so it didn’t take us long to say “Two tickets Please”. We were then taken by minibus from the festival site to the helipad, which was situated in a disused quarry a little way up the hill. There, we sat in the sun on little fold-up chairs awaiting our turn, clinging onto our hats every time the helicopter returned to the pad.

    note here, whilst the helicopter is being refulled, the pilot is taking a piss behind it.

    Finally, we were called forward. I was itching for the chap to ask us who wanted to sit in the front (as he had asked all previous groups of 4 passengers), but no, not a word. In the end, I could contain myself no longer, and burst out with my request. “Yes, of course, no problem” he replied. Tee hee!!

    Approaching the helicopter I was told to keep my head down – couldn’t possibly think why. Up I climbed into the cockpit, next to the uniformed pilot holding his knob. I greeted him, and then had a look at the great array of dials in front of us.

    Amazing how deceptive an exterior paint job can be – this thing seemed like an antique from where I was sitting. Still, it was too late to worry about that now. I just had to be careful not to put my foot through the window below…

    It really took my breath away. The combination of actually flying, and the beauty of the landscape below, incredible. I love seeing forested hills, so to see them from an entirely new angle was a real treat – especially having actually experienced them from the ground beforehand and thus knowing how big they really were.

    I also spotted the river beside which we’d walked, which now looked like a wee trickle in the great landscape. It was well groovy, and further enforced my desire to own a helicopter. When they create a green one that is. But who’da thought it eh, having a flight in a helicopter this holiday?

    Our journey back to Twinkle’s mum’s was quite fun. Having had a free ride up the mountain, we weren’t too keen to return to the ranks of the fare-paying passengers.
    However, we thought we’d check the timetable anyway, and so made our way up the road to the stop. At the bus stop we were greeted by two uniformed men directing traffic for the Momiji Matsuri. They kindly read the timetable for us (glad to have a break from baton waving), and suggested we sit down on the bench whilst we waited. We then explained that actually the bus was just a back-up, and that we really intended to hitch. On hearing this, they became very enthusiastic,

    “Oh, let us stop a car for you!” When we protested they did relent, but as soon as a car did pull over they rushed to the driver’s door,

    “Would you give these people a lift please?” Thus it was we covered the first few kilometres of our journey for free.

    The next stage saw us faced with a bit of a problem: we wanted to hitch from the bus stop (thus giving drivers a place to pull in), but there were two men from the bus company and a rather odd granny standing there. As soon as we approached the stand she barked, “Have you got tickets? You need tickets! No tickets, I sell the tickets round here. You’d better buy a ticket. Twinkle went rather quiet and looked the other way, wondering what on Earth to say to this rather pushy obaasan. I realised that it was no-use beating around the bush and so told her bluntly that we wanted to hitch, and if that didn’t work we’d take the bus.

    “Hitch hike? Here? What, you're not paying the drivers? Oh, that won’t work, you'd better buy a ticket, here, 1200 yen. You really can’t hitch. No, not here, you shouldn’t. The bus will be here in five minutes. Now, here’s your tickets, that’s 2400 yen [£12] for two.”

    I’ve never been rude to a granny before, and I didn’t really want to start, but felt that it really was important that we didn’t give in to this bullying.

    “No, thank you, but we’re going to hitch.” And with that, we continued 50 metres up the road, where we were picked up by the 5th car that came our way. I looked back down towards the bus stop when we were getting into our private chariot, but unfortunately granny was not looking our way. If I’d had the time, I would have run back, put my thumb on my nose, waggled my fingers and said “nah nah nah nahhhh naaaaahhhh”.

    And that’s how we reached the station, where we caught the train that you now find me on.

    Well, it just so happens that the end of today’s story coincides with the end of the line. So, until tomorrow, do take care, and remember that life is all around you; all you have to do is say YES, unless the listener is a granny trying to sell you a ticket for a bus.

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    Friday, November 10, 2006

    Holiday Day 2: Up into the mountains

    What a fantastic day it’s been. Joseph is a very happy boy.

    It all started at 8am, when I was woken by Twinkle treading on my foot. Her mum’s apartment is Japanese you see, i.e., small, thus the three of us were squeezed into the single bedroom, with my feet by the cupboard with all the clothes in.

    A quick breakfast, and then we were off, off on a voyage into what really can be called “countryside”, even by Western standards. In the past, when Japanese people have said to me, “yeah, my parent’s home is in the middle of the countryside, there’s nothing around for miles”, I’ve initially believed them, and then when finally visiting said family home, find it surrounded by houses, garages, convenience stores and vending machines. The thing that makes it “countryside” apparently is the fact that between every other building is a little field of cabbages dating back to the pre-war era. The tax on agricultural land is far lower than that on land occupied by an erection, thus many families have found it more feasible to simply keep on with the fruit and veg. Anyhow, off we went, heading towards the mini-mountains that surrounded the town on three sides… and then up, and up, and up.

    This really was ‘countryside’. The well-surfaced main road became a dodgy half-tarmac half-concrete switchback track, penetrating deep into the wooded slopes. No vending machines up here. So it was, that after about half an hour, we arrived at Kinokuni, a boarding school modelled on A.S. Neill’s Summerhill in southern England.

    At Kinokuni, the children learn through carrying out practical projects. Thus, today we saw children constructing a new hut type thing,

    making recorders from plumber’s piping, cooking up some apple pies, finalising plans for a trip to Okinawa, building a mini-shrine (very impressive),

    feeding the chickens, fixing motorbikes and cars

    ...and typing up reports on their recent month-long trip to another Summerhill-type sister school in Scotland. They hold a weekly meeting in which they all decide how the school will be run …and generally create the feeling of one big family. The fact that well over half of the 200+ students live on-site adds to this communal feeling. It reminded me of the Steiner school in many ways.

    After lunch with the children, we descended the mountain and began our journey here, a traditional Japanese ryokan (the nearest English equivilant is B&B, although that term just doesn’t do it justice) located in a village that’s even more remote than Kinokuni. This little mountain village, situated at just over 800 metres above sea level, is, like yesterday’s Koyasan, a Unesco World Heritage site.

    200 or so households make up Dorogawa (‘Cave River’). The nearest railway station is over an hour away by car, which made for an interesting journey here. Thing was, when we got to the station, we discovered that the next bus for Dorogawa wasn’t due to depart for an hour-and-a-half. It wasn’t exactly warm, and I didn’t really fancy sitting by the bus stop until my nose fell off; thus, we decided to try and hitch hike. Having walked down the main road for a mile or so, we finally found a suitable hitching point on the road to Tenkawa (‘Heaven’s River’). It must have been only about ten minutes before someone pulled over, an old granny who’d just picked up her granddaughter from the school opposite us. We told her where we were going – an hour up into the mountains, to which she replied that she was only going 2km down the road, but hey, what the hell, jump in the back and I’ll take you up the mountain. 30 minutes later there we were in Tengawa, only fifteen minutes by car from our final destination (and incidentally, the place that has the priveledge of hosting the region’s only set of traffic lights). Had we had to wait long for a lift I’m sure I would no longer be able to have children; the altitude we were now at sported a fashionably low temperature – it was FREEZING! Thankfully though, within minutes we were picked up by Yamada san, a resident of this wee little mountain enclave, who knew our hosts well – thus we arrived at the ryokan 90 minutes early, and without having to pay the extortionate bus fare.

    Masugen Ryokan is a family-run affair, and has been providing travellers with a place to rest and recuperate for some 300 years. I must admit, I was pretty blown away by it upon entering.

    We were greeted by the entire family at the door, and then shown to our grand room on the 2nd floor. Well, our grand TWO rooms to be precise, each of which is bigger than our whole apartment in Tokyo. We also have a little balcony type thing, where we can sit and sip green tea, whilst admiring the maple leaves on the mountain slope opposite.

    Having put our bags down, Twinkle pointed to the wall on the opposite side of the street; there was a sign there that might interest me.

    Ha! There was my name for all to see – welcoming me to the village! (Ok, so they called me Joseph Tim instead of Joseph Tame, but that's only because one character has been written slightly smaller than it should have been. Perhaps it was so they could fit all the characters in…) It turned out that ye ancienty building opposite was actually part of the ryokan, hosting more guest rooms and the onsen (natural hot springs). What started off good just got better when dinner was served – what a feast!

    Post dinner it was time to warm up in the onsen. Off with the day clothes, on with the Yukata (light kimono) which surprisingly was almost long enough for me. On with our geta, and clip-clop-clippety clop across the road to soak. Being the only guests in the Ryokan, we decided that it would probably be ok for us to share a bath – as with most onsens these days, there are two sections divided by gender. There was the slight risk that the owner’s daughter would turn up, but what the hell… Hmm, that was a nice bath, another location to add to the list ☺

    Despite the freezing temperatures, the futons look very snug. As is the custom, they were magically laid out for us when we were eating – we smiled when we saw that they had made a special effort to accommodate me, by laying out an additional futon (complete with sheets, blankets and cover) just for the benefit of my feet, which otherwise would have poked out of the end!

    All in all, a fantastic day two of our Autumn holiday. This is what it’s all about!

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    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    A Year in Japan - Episode 03 out now!

    So boys and girls Episode 3 of the podcast is out now at

    It's a Holiday Special - a report on all the fun that we've had this past week. The advanced version contains over 30 photos too, so make sure you go for that version! At 61 minutes it's pretty long, good getting-to-sleep material perhaps?

    The stories told in the Podcast will also be told here (permenant link) in written form, complete with photos (the Day Two update follows tomorrow).

    Feedback welcome!

    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    Holiday Day 1: In memory of a termite

    Hey ho tiddly pom! This Mumble comes to you live from a train that is slowly descending from the heights of Koyasan, an amazing World Heritage site that lies deep in the heart of the Japanese outback, about two hours south of Osaka. Wow, what a beautiful place, and almost free of tourists too, it being a weekday and all.

    We arrived in Osaka at 7am after almost 9 hours on a bus (a journey that only takes 2.5 hours on the Shinkansen [Bullet Train]); thankfully it was a very comfy bus, complete with big red and green buttons by every seat that operated the hydraulic foot rests – they were so groovy. The sexiest thing about this bus though, in a completely non-environmentally friendly kind of way, was the fact that it had TWO engines. One to make the thing move forwards and backwards, and another which I eventually decided supplied all the seats with compressed air. I spent ages trying to figure out exactly what sequence of events preceded its rumph into action. It was quite a thrill when, at 2am, it suddenly struck me. I don’t think those around me appreciated my cry of “Eureka!”

    Incidentally, did you know that in Japan they even have traffic jams on motorways at 3.30am?

    Anyhow, so, arrived in Osaka, and decided to see the sights of Namba, just for old times sake. It struck me how much plastic there was around, in the form of rather bizarre bits of shop-front signage and so forth.

    One couldn't forget Osaka's landmark crab either, with it's great moving pincers.

    I was also rather surprised by the big gangs of lads patrolling the streets near America Mura holding placards which read “Kyachi se-rusu boushi” – which literally translates as “Stop catch-sales”. If you go to somewhere like Kabukicho, Tokyo, you see this method of doing business all the time. Essentially, it involves young Japanese men, usually with long, light-brown hair, and wearing black suits, literally grabbing women by the arm and saying, “hey, hey, you got a second?” They then go on to ask the victim how old they are, or if they’re a student etc, before trying to sell them something like make-up, or trying to get them involved in a porno which will then be broadcast on the love-hotel TV networks, which unfortunately wasn’t one of the channels included in our package…

    Anyhow, Osaka city council is trying to stamp out this practice of accosting women in the street, thus the patrols this morning. Funny thing was though, the young men carrying out the anti-kyachi se-rusu program looked like just the kind of guys who in the evenings would don black suits and ask random women if they’d like to be made into porn stars…

    I have quite fond feelings for that part of Osaka. It was there that I spent my first ever night on ‘mainland Japan’ (Honshu). I lived in a capsule hotel for a fortnight, the one that came complete with used condoms under the mattress, and read ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. I didn't know it was fiction, and was utterly spellbound by the story. All around was exotic and unusual. I'd stay out all night, sleep for a couple of hours in the morning, and then head off to somewhere like Kyoto or Kobe, still very drunk. It was in Kobe that I then met the monkey-loving Gerilynn, stereotypical young blonde American girl with whom I had a lot of fun going places; she remains a good friend to this day despite the years that separate us from our last meeting.

    Having admired the Christmas decorations, full size space rocket (a bit of a change on Mitsubishi’s part from their usual car and refrigeration production lines), had rather too much fun with Purikura (Print club – they’re basically photo booths that you find in amusement arcades, with which you can make some real groovy pictures, which are then printed out for in sticker form to plaster all over your mobile phone and text books, as demonstrated below),

    ...and enjoyed a really good 100% organic late breakfast at a wee little recycled café just outside the West Exit, we decided to head out to the afore-mentioned World Heritage site. The train journey, which would take almost 2 hours, was going to be a bit pricey at 1200 yen (£6), but thankfully there’s plenty of ticket shops in Osaka, much like those in London’s Leicester Square, except at these places you can buy almost any ticket under the sun, excluding those that will take you to the moon. We were fortunate in that at the particular place that we went to they had a whole stack of Norihodai (‘ride as much as you want’) tickets for the train company we’d be travelling with; they’d been sold them by a train-company shareholder. Thus, 2 hours later, we arrived at Koyasan, having paid only half the usual price.

    I must admit, Koyasan really did not disappoint. The build-up had been quite something; following the lengthy train ride (during which we were surrounded by about 30 French folks, all speaking French, oddly enough), we boarded a funicular which took us up the steepest mountain to have ever have been created by nature / God (delete as appropriate). I couldn’t help but think ‘but what if the cable snaps? Those buffers at the bottom certainly won't cushion the blow, what with them being lacking in any form of sexy hydraulic ram action. And as for the brakes – there was only one per car!

    As you’ve probably guessed, the nightmare scenario didn’t unfold, and we arrived safely at the top, ready to embark upon a bus journey that took us even deeper into the mountains, via the twistiest turniest road I’ve ever seen. It was SO windy that it almost went backwards!

    Arriving at our final destination, I was impressed before we’d even had a chance to disembark. Ye ancienty Japanese houses lined the small street, masterless Samurai cut down any peasant that carelessly forgot to move out of their way, and the phone lines were all buried underground (in Japan, that’s always a tell-tale sign that you are in some ‘special’ place.

    When Twinkle mentioned that the first sight on our tour of the area was a cemetery, I must admit I wasn’t all that enthralled. Stones with people’s names on are all very well and good if one is researching one’s family history, but for a fun day out…?

    Boy was I wrong! I tell you, if you ever feel the need to have your soul enshrined somewhere, Koyasan is the place to come. It really is beautiful; I was utterly mesmerised. The cemetery, which was first used over 1000 years ago at the time that a religious sect set up their headquarters in the area, covers many square kilometres of mountain side. It is populated by huge Japanese Cedars, many of which are over 100 years old, and famed throughout Japan for their longevity (thus the roadside stalls selling saplings in their hundreds). Between these majestic monsters stand hundreds of tombstones, many of which mark the resting places of important figures in Japanese history, such as the Shoguns (feudal lords) Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582) and Takeda Shingen (1521 – 1573), the latter having fought the former and lost, thus his enshrinement in 1573.

    Hundreds of tiny litle Buddhas

    Throwing water over the bronze Buddah

    Koyasan is not just home to the souls of individuals however. One can also find a myriad of company tombs. Panasonic, Nissan Motors, and a non-descript aeroplane manufacturer are just three of the hundreds of organisations that maintain graves dedicated to the souls of any employees that have died in the line of duty. We also spotted one that had been erected by the ‘Osaka Rojin Kurabu’ – literally translated, the ‘Osaka Elderly Club’. One can just see it on the leaflets advertising their activities to potential members, “Our gravestones got your name on it!”

    The airline's grave

    Dedicated to a much-loved dog

    Possibly the most bizarre gravestone I have ever seen!

    There was one company grave in particular that caught my eye.

    Yes, that’s right, it reads ‘Shiro ari’, or, in English, ‘Termite’. I was somewhat confused by this, until I read the explanatory note that had been added by the Buddhist sect that oversees the cemetery. “This stone was erected by Yamada and Co., a company that specialises in termite extermination. This memorial, noteable for its size and prominent position within the cemetery, is here to quell the spirits of those termites it kills in the line of duty, in order to maintain harmony with nature.”

    We continued to walk through the woods for a good hour or so, until at last we emerged into the quiet village. Feeling pretty hungry, we ducked into a lovely little café and gallery, which displayed many pieces of pottery produced by one of Japan’s most famous potters, who happened to live next door. The café was owned and run by a really nice couple; she was French, he Japanese (he spoke what seemed to me to be fluent French). The food was absolutely delicious, and as we ate, we started to chat about their daughter, who was manically running around the place generally being very funny. Talk turned to education, and it turned out that they really wanted to send their daughter to Kinokuni, the alternative (Summerhill style) school that Twinkle attended some 8 or 9 years ago. We then got on to the subject of Steiner education. I became very animated – all in all it was a delightful lunch.

    Walking on down the road, we came to what must surely be the biggest pagoda in Japan. It was stunning. At 48 metres in height, it towered above us, shining in its orange glory. It really was one of those “I can’t believe this is real” moments. Surrounding the pagoda were numerous other Buddhist buildings, from which emerged chanting, and incense. They also sported Off Shoes signs, as pictured below.

    Well, the train is now approaching our station. Tonight we’ll be staying in Twinkle’s mum’s apartment, ready for a day at the afore-mentioned Kinokuni school, tomorrow. It’ll be nice to spend some more time with Mother, get to know her better, and hopefully start to feel completely relaxed around her and able to be myself (i.e. idiotic).

    All in all, it’s been a great first day of our holiday. I’ve been doing some more reading, and thinking too, and feel very very positive about my studies and all that. Life’s great. I must stop complaining, as I really have nothing to complain about.