It is perhaps representative of the house’s culinary faculties that the closest thing to a rocky road-bearing baking tray I could find or fashion was the inverted and befoiled lid of a fish-cooker propped up with a lime segment.
You ask me to explain why I am afraid of a draught of cool air; why I shiver more than others upon entering a cold room, and seem nauseated and repelled when the chill of evening creeps through the heat of a mild autumn day. There are those who say I respond to cold as others do to a bad odour, and I am the last to deny the impression. What I will do is to relate the most horrible circumstance I ever encountered, and leave it to you to judge whether or not this forms a suitable explanation of my peculiarity.
…or so I might say, if my experience had been so horrible. Alas, the explanation of my peculiarity lies neither in Tokyo Snowstorm Parts I & II nor the crazed experiments of a Lovecraftian practitioner. If I may issue a caveat, my experience has been mostly of the suburbs, my time being as it is spent safely inside and working. Indeed, I read my first article on the subject not two minutes ago and was, even now, somewhat incredulous.
Thus I ask you to stem your tears of worry and woe at the news that I am living and well, and only slightly troubled by the snow. I had intended to wait until it had fully dissipated (currently the view is one of early Alpine spring), but with the news that Friday and Saturday may bring the dreaded Snowstorm III, I feel it would be best to throw caution to the (light) winds and assume that nothing too snow-related will occur from this point on.
In writing this I have possibly stumbled upon the single greatest disadvantage of being only slightly inconvenienced, namely that I have little to write beyond what I’ve told my well-wishers personally — from what I’ve experienced, the snow situation seemed a little overblown. Not one to doubt the journalistic merit of the BBC et al, I will concede that this does seem to have been the biggest snowstorm in decades. Perhaps my experience of an entire country grinding to a halt when threatened with little more than icing sugar has caused me to shrug off such unthinkabilities as train delays and road closures. No ganbattling against the wrath of Mother Nature for me, but rather quiet wonder, photography and much shivering.
In Other News
Perhaps the presence of a single staff member and slow deliberation with which he performed his duties was a deliberate move to maintain some semblance of a queue of outrageously edgy patrons so far away from the high street.
Glossary of (coined) terms
Sa•mu•i•cious |sæ’mu:i:ʃʊs| adj. pertaining to cold, the gravity of which demands endurance. ORIGIN From Japanese samui, ‘cold’
Gan•bat•tle |gæn’bæt(ə)l| verb to participate in a fight or struggle that necessitates one’s full strength and resolve. ORIGIN From Japanese ganbaru, ‘to try one’s best’ via ganbatte, ‘try your best’
Living as I do out in the suburbs, beyond even the reach of the blessed Chūō Rapid Line, the opportunity of joining an Bradley at the end of his stay in Japan and, as he so poetically put it, have “the tourist guide the literate” was one that, to my as-yet not completely thawed mind (more on that later), was to be seized with both slightly frost-bitten hands.
Such enthusiasm was not abundantly evident in our first meeting. I personally blame my housemates for apparently deciding that sleep is the crutch of the weak at heart. Nevertheless, it was two hours late that I arrived, sheepishly, in Akihabara. This district is home to the enormous monolith that is Yodobashi Camera, of Harrods size but full of electronics. The clientele in certain smaller shops can get more classically otaku, to the point where one feels they might need a shower after viewing some of the items on sale. Culutral differences, we explain to ourselves.
Paul, a friend of Bradley’s, joined us in Ueno for the classic ‘let’s feed cake to the sparrows‘ tour which has become a mainstay of my wanders. It seems that they have come to associate humanity’s presence with the promise of sacchariferous sustenance, even in such foul weather. This has already been the subject of a post, but allow me once again iterate the entertainment that can be gleaned from buying a slightly expensive piece of cake and having half the avian class fight in mid-air for the honour of taking it from you. Even Paul was impressed.
So it was that, after much meandering and a worryingly long time spent in a department store in Tokyo Station and an ‘English pub’ in Ueno, we found ourselves battling with mother nature to reach the equally legendary Kura Sushi. In addition to the usual carousel of delicacies, there is an iPad ordering system, which operates on a separate belt above. Those who survive the experience are known to suddenly twitch and salivate at the sound of the doorbell which is herald to such orders. We left pleasantly
full, and my personal collection of mini sushi phone charms grew by a respectable one at the hands of a game of chance which runs after every fifth plate.
We ended Valentines’ Day gasping for breath at the entrance to Shibuya Station, part way through the process of very effectively camouflaging ourselves with snow. In Japan this is marked by women giving chocolate to men, who have a whole month to steel themselves before they reciprocate on White Day. I can only assume mine are in the post.
This time the delay came from the snow, which seems determined to match the severity which is (apparently) expressed in the British media. Now that we’re on Snowstorm II, Nature seems to have adjusted her tactics in order to cause maximum inconvenience. Gone is the chilled marshmallow of a few days ago, and replaced with puddles and grey sludge. One must be exceedingly careful and cannot afford to rush anywhere. The latter was expressed wholeheartedly by the trains (even the venerated JR Line), as evidenced by their great reluctance to take me back to Kōenji at the end of the day.
Despite the weather, our choice of breakfast was all but decided for us as we happened to walk past a café. While Paul remained sensible, it quickly became apparent that, between myself and Bradley at least, brunch (as it turned out to be) was a test of moral fibre and honour. Behold my entry.
This monolith of sugared delights (at first) surpassed Bradley’s in bulk, even if his did reach such as height as to remove the necessity of cutlery or even leaning down to take the first bite. The challenge was great, but in the end both of us succeeded.
When we are younger, we believe that one of the greatest advantages of adulthood lies in the ability to make our own decisions. It is only later that we realise that decisions are comprised predominantly of mistakes. I can confidently say that, as adults, we made tho particular decision and paid the price in stomachache.
We were nearing the end of our meeting, and headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building for a view of the city, Mt. Fuji and (principally) because it required no walking whilst exposed to the elements. One of the underpass is a favourite spot for the homeless, who seem untroubled by the authorities as long as they are quiet and tidy. I have resolved to return when I look less like a tourist and more like a serious (and more low-profile) photographer.
Thus my first meeting with extra-Japanese agents was concluded, and I left with nothing but a half bottle of vodka and memories of a not-so-distant chill to work my way round the Journey of a Thousand Detours back home.
- Write letter, seal envelope
- Trot down to local 7/11
- Ask if they have kitte (stamps)
- Wait for attendant to act after her reply of “of course!”
- Allow the person behind to go in front to put an end to the sudden outburst of awkwardness
- Consider cutting losses and going home
- Steel reserve
- Repeat steps 3-5
- Show letters, explaining in slow, clear English
- Try to ignore stares
- Hand over letters
- Realise that this is probably how they do it in Japan
- Receive letters back with appropriate stamps
- Try to pay and leave, thank assistant for her help
- Heed her cry to remain in place
- Watch as she separates stamps and places them, dry, on the letters in the appropriate place
- Stare blankly at the proffered slightly damp cloth
- Chuckle awkwardly, gesticulate in time with assistant
- Offer to lick the stamps
- Heed refusal and continued presence of damp cloth
- Wet stamps (takes at least 10 seconds of rubbing) on cloth
- Just about manage to stick stamps on letters
- Chuckle awkwardly, thank assistant
Everyone knows that lists are the most lazy form of blogging, so I’ll try to keep these down to a minimum. However, I think the format is amply suited to this particular subject. Just over 10 days in, let’s go through what I’ve learned.
You actually do need katakana
For those of you who don’t know (and I know there are many), Japanese has three scripts. Kanji are the Chinese characters, like 食 or 飲, used liberally for almost all nouns, names, verbs and adjectives. They are non-phonetic, so you need to know it before you can read a word containing it. Hiragana (ひらがな) are phonetic, and are used for particles, conjugations and sometimes words with particularly complicated or esoteric kanji. Katakana (カタカナ) are also phonetic, but are used for loanwords. This is where you’ll get your ビッグマック (Biggu Makku – Big Mac) and your チキンカツ (chikin katsu – chicken katsu), as the script often adorns menus.
I hold my hands up, here. I didn’t quite anticipate just how often this last script is used, nor just how slow I was at reading it. On more than one occasion I’ve had to either order in English or basically pick something at random because I’ve spent so long staring at a menu and painfully reading out the characters that the waiter/barista/chef has gotten slightly restless and resorted to my mother tongue. The pain is only intensified by the fact that 90% of the menu items are either direct English transliterations (chicken katsu is actually called 鳥かつ, ‘torikatsu’ in Japanese) or easily work out-able words like ハツ (hatsu, or ‘heart’) which are really rather useful to know before you put into your mouth parts of an animal that arguably should never be eaten.
Make a battle plan, but be flexible
Despite looking very obviously out of place, I have a distinct streak of wanting to appear totally confident in everything I try here. The restauranteurs see a pale, emaciated gaijin who’s been mouthing out the entire menu for the last ten minutes, but in my mind, as soon as I walk in that door, I’m Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, with such expert language skills and social graces that all who witness my suave handling of the situation will wonder whether I’ve even lived outside Japan.
Of course, the key to this is to know what to do before you do it. One thing I didn’t bank on as I planned my final assault was these ordering machines. Some are more helpful than others, with pictures and touch screens and such, but some merely confront you with words to put your linguistic prowess to the test. It took ten minutes of trying to give my order to the chef (who was having none of it), then finally being led to the machine (which I had assumed was for drinks), paying, and then being told that the ticket I had been fed was meant to be given to the chef, rather than kept by my while I tried to avoid eye contact with any potentially humoured onlookers.
When your チキンカツ (I hope you’ve been paying attention!) arrives with about six eggs cracked over the top and a side order of bizarre pickle-water, you’ve got to go for it. Your companion may not want to tell you exactly which part of a pig that is, but without trying it you’ll just never know. This mindset is only 50% adventurousness. Western food is surprisingly hard to come by, at least in Koenji. If I can’t stomach what I’ve ordered and/or bought, I don’t eat, and I certainly can’t live on food parcels from home. Planning in advance makes sense, but in the event of total bewilderment, close your eyes, grab your chopsticks and dive in regardless.
It probably isn’t
Now, this isn’t limited to food but rather all forms of purchase. As a tourist, supermarket shopping is generally kept to a minimum or non-existent depending on one’s plans, but it dawned on me very quickly that, as I was in this for the long haul, I wouldn’t be able to survive very long on tiffin and biscuits. It was a little like planning for the nuclear apocalypse, only with a slightly less immediate threat of radiation poisoning.
Dear Lord. It was perhaps one of the greatest culture shocks I experienced when I realised that, not only could I hardly read any packets in the supermarket (particularly dangerous in a country where our British concepts of what parts are acceptable to eat are cheerfully thrown out of the figurative window), but that even if I could I had no idea how to prepare something based on packet instructions, and my knowledge would surely fail when it came to buying various condiments. It was a good few days before I managed to get a genuine Japanese guide to help with such things.
As one might reasonably expect, I did the logical thing and used the pictures on the front as my guide. Herein lies the most bewildering problem. Some things don’t have pictures, and thus I end up buying a strange bastard child of barbecue sauce and vinegar rather than the soy sauce I so needed. A colleague of mine told me that she only realised she had bought bathroom disinfectant when she covered herself with it, thinking up until that point that she was using shower gel. This rite of passage is fraught with danger. You have been warned.
Even if it is, it still probably isn’t
Let’s say you’ve managed to get through the minefield of katakana that constitutes a menu, and, with much gesticulating and slow clear speaking, have successfully ordered your choice of dish. A rice-y soup-y meal with sour apricot. ‘What an exciting combination of tastes this will surely be’, your eager imagination tells you. I mean, if one were to take a sweet fruit and make it sour, surely one would keep aspects of both tastes in order to preserve the spirit of the original medium, with a twist, right? Right?
No, not right. What you see above makes lemon juice and vinegar seem to taste like sugar-coated dolly mixture ice cream. This was so tongue-shrivellingly sour that it makes David Miliband after the 2010 Labour Party leadership election look like a quadruple gold-medallist. If there was some remnant of sweet, juicy apricot left in this orange sphere of acidity, it died along with most of my tastebuds.
The moral of this tale? If even a Japanese person warns you about it, look at the other side of the menu and order from there. Unless it’s ハツ. I’m not that hungry. Yet.
Perhaps it’s just my country upbringing, but I’ve found myself drawn to Tokyo’s parks more than anything else. Like London, these are dotted about all over the place, and most contain temples or other such extravagance.
The first park I visited was technically a (rock) garden, at Kiyosume. This had rather specific attraction for me personally, as it contains a monument to the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō. Not to be put off my a spot of rain (I certainly haven’t left my roots behind just yet) I began the perilous journey halfway across town. Naturally I didn’t bank on the presence or necessity of Shinjuku Station, where those who get separated from the group often starve to death whilst wandering its labyrinthine passages. Some say that at night, when the moon is full, one can still hear the footsteps of lost souls in the tunnels below, ever searching for the light of day in a world of electric lighting and train noises. But I digress…
Back in the world of the living, it was still raining. Far from being a disadvantage, I felt that it actually made the garden even more tranquil. The gentle splashes on the lake and dampening of the air was just enough to drown out the sound of the surrounding city. The memorial itself, bearing the immortal Old Pond… haiku, is pleasantly tucked away in a separate area, with conveniently placed (not to mention covered) benches upon which one can channel literary inspiration in glorious peace.
Ueno Park I actually visited twice, the first time on a Friday afternoon and with the frankly ridiculous idea that I would leave the camera and the notebook at home and soak up the sights on a more personal level. What a mistake that was. After the sights I saw, I immediately regretted the decision, but leaped into the Tokyo National Museum (Japanese design but British architect) in order to distract myself. The next day I used a ukiyo-e exhibition in nearby Ryogoku to bring myself back into the vicinity. Indeed, I probably would have visited anyway, as the medium has long held my interest. I also nearly had the most Japanese experience yet when I almost ate lunch sitting next to some off-duty sumo wrestlers. As it happened, I accidentally ordered my food to take away, and was naturally too polite to say anything when a (admittedly delicious) hot bento box was thrust gently into my hands. Perhaps next time.
What I saw at Ueno the first time was actually multiplied when I returned today. In a word; sparrows. A lot of sparrows. Perhaps more importantly, in this quiet alcove next to the main temple, overlooking the reeds, these birds were perfectly happy to eat out of any proffered hand, so long as it contained some cake (and not bread, as I found out to my grave disappointment at having effectively wasted a precious slice of cheese on toast). The photo below records the hand of your intrepid correspondent with some donations from a kindly if rather gruff old man who appears to have started the whole tradition. It’s one of the few times when I’ve felt genuinely spoilt for choice in photographic terms. If anyone ever turns up in Tokyo and has a warm sunny Saturday to spend, this, as far as my experience alone can advise, is the way to spend it.