Drinking a Strange Brew in Yamato…

Bars are one way to break the ice, but here there are often regular customers who treat it as an extension of their home. People will talk to strangers in these environments, but the enjoyment comes from the lack of desire on both parties to form deep connections. The girls drink alone but not with any desire to hook up. In a strange reversal of the common image of the bar scene, it’s seen as a safe environment from male predations for women, where they can have a chat with the bartender or some familiar faces in peace and comfort. – William Bradbury in The Japan Times 

One of the few things I miss about Britain, other than my parents and friends, is the pub, and it is a longing that often frustrates me.  In every important way, an izakaya or ‘Japanese pub’, fits the bill perfectly, there is cheap beer and if you’re with friends, good company and as the man says, two out of three ain’t bad.

You have beer and friends, so what is wrong with picture you ask?  Well, nothing really, there is nothing wrong with this picture, you have beer and friends, and that is good.  It is wrong but something not right.  What I miss is the ability to drink beer without having to eat (sensible yes, but sometimes you’ve eaten and just want a pint or two), and if need to eat, to eat familiar foods.  Why is it in Tokyo, the city of the most Michelin stars, I cannot find a single bar or restaurant that can make decent Yorkshire pudding?

When you inevitably realise that Yorkshire pudding is the most important thing in the world, you may find yourself going to the local ‘Gaijin Bar’.  If you come to Japan don’t go looking for that in the Yellow Pages, it doesn’t exist.  A ‘Gaijin Bar’ is a watering hole, using twenty minutes from the station nearest your home, which is frequented by a good mixture of both foreigners and locals.  Such places, are usually ‘Irish Pubs’ but, near Universities, it may be an izakaya that has grown wise to its cliental.  It doesn’t matter how it advertises itself, if you find a place that sells alcohol and has a good mix of both foreigner and Japanese people, that is potentially your ‘Gaijin Pub’.  I recommend checking out such places.  Usually though, it is a place advertised as an ‘Irish Pub’.

My first experience in such a place was the Irish Pub at Tachikawa, in Tokyo. I walked in saying konbanwa, bieru onegaishimasu! Good evening beer please.  Which beer, the voice from the barmaid quickly asked me.  I give her my order, which is Heineken, say arigato gozaimasu as it is presented to me and start drinking.  This in Britain is what you do in pub.  They are for drinking, just as libraries are for reading and cinemas are for watching films.

So it really scared me when a voice just to the left of me, but unmistakably female said You are English? Well, I say just to the left of me, to begin with I didn’t notice the voice to my shame.  But I noticed the second request Sumimasen [excuse me] You are English?

I did still not quite understand the question.  For one thing, people from the Britain rarely call themselves English unless they are fascists of the 1930’s.  Truly, it’s that kind of word which if you use, conveys your political position, you are, at the very least, right of centre.  I never respond it well or quickly, if for no other reason than I am half-Scottish.  But, curious, I swivel round my barstool and face the lady.  Hai, I say. 

I learnt many things about Michiko for the next hour.  She was twenty-four; her parents live in Shibuya and had friends in Tachikawa, and they work in the local English language.  It was a pleasant way to spend an hour, but after she left, I was left with one thought, and it struck me, all of a sudden, without reflection or deliberation.  That thought was this:


Maybe I am simply repressed but, that seems lazy as an excuse, but in Britain, women, despite the wisdom of Lady Gaga songs, do not simply talk to you in bars, and they certainly don’t match you drink for drink.  It may sound pathetic, but pubs, especially in northern England are a ‘man space’, places where men dwell, away from women folk.  Now I never felt comfortable in such places, as a man who limps, I don’t fit the stereotype.  Such places have few women in it, I’m sad to say, and none that initiate conversation.  For someone, whether male or female, to start a linguistic exchange in that environment, might be construed (rightly or wrongly) as beginning to ‘chat-up’ or ‘come-on-to’ in Britain. Such conversations are dangerous. But there was none of that danger in the exchange between Michiko and me.  It was an entirely safe conversation.  Yet, just how safe it felt to me, in itself felt strange, somehow uncanny – familiar but not quite right.

And because it is strange, I welcome future conversations of this type.


The Holly and the Mochi: Christmas in Japan

As I write these words it is Sunday, 15th December 2013, the third week of advent.  I usually date the beginning of Christmas in Japan by the moment you notice Colonel Sanders outside a KFC wearing a Santa hat.  So Christmas in Japan this year started around November 10th.  Shortly after the Colonel donned the Santa hat (KFC often markets itself for Christmas, Turkey being rare in Japan, and Chicken being a bit like Turkey), Christmas decorations were for sale, Christmas cakes were being advertised and finally by early December, some Christmas lights are up.

Soon the staff at shops will be adorned with Santa hats; looking mightily pissed off as they force smiles to make spirit bright, impressive seasonal illumination can be found everywhere, convenience stores will be selling seasonal alcoholic drinks (148 Yen gets you a tasty malt beer) and playing Japlish-ized Christmas music. So I guess Ludolph’s nose will be growing again this December.

If you are used to Christmas being a secular affair, and looking forward to the exchanging of gifts, and possibly some over indulgence, then Japan will not disappoint you.  For ‘tis also the season of the bonenkai, the ‘end of year party’, as someone working in Japan, you will get your fair share of invites (this particular foreigner having been invited to one on the 28th), offering plenty of time for drinking and eating – although it’s likely to be an affaire sans Turkey.  Please try not to let that bother you, maybe there will be some of Col. Sanders’ chicken, after all its finger licking good!

Christmas as a singleton is never easy, but in Japan, if you are lucky enough to be coupled; it gets a bit more complicated, for three reasons.  Let me explain:

Christmas in Japan is not about your family or friends it’s about your lover!  Do not under any circumstances go out to your nearest gaijin watering hole on the 25th December.  Try not to be continuously Skyping parents back home.  You should however, be thinking of taking your significant other to a suitably romantic restaurant, although be warned she may think that is KFC (I like to find my nearest KFC on those days just take photos of the queues) to put people off going.

You may have to work Christmas Day. I am lucky, working at a public university, and mostly teaching foreign students, my work is done until early January.  But it is still a day at the office for many academics.  Expect few to be sympathetic, forgive them, they know not what they do when the suggest ‘Can you not just had Christmas on the 23rd?’, which is the Emperor’s birthday.

So you’ve got KFC booked for the kawaii gairu in your life, maybe you might meat friends on Boxing day or early on Christmas Eve.  You’ll find time to communicate with the progenitors sometime on the 25th, you’ll squeeze it in somehow.  But this brings us to sad news item number three:

By the 26th it’s all over.  That’s right folks, no leftover Turkey (maybe that’s not bad, but there’s unlikely to be Turkey at all), no twelve days of Christmas.  Many shopping centres and precincts will cruelly get rid of decorations before the 31st, although some may keep it up until mid January. Don’t they know you’re a foreigner missing home?  Nope, like Scrooge, you didn’t miss it, but it sure didn’t last long.

There is one saving grace, after Christmas comes New Year.  And New Year in Japan is actually quite special, if you are spending it with a Japanese family. If you’re Scottish, think Hogmanay with sushi instead of Turkey.  From 31st December until about the 3rd January, there will be eating, drinking, being merry and singing, the entire family will most likely surround the TV for the ‘Kohaku’, an end of the year TV sing-a-long on NHK!

Merry Christmas from Osaka, Japan.

How did you get to Japan?

Michey, how did you get to Japan? Some of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances back in Britain have all asked me this question.  And I have always found it expressed rather oddly, not How did you come to move to Japan? Or how do you find living in Japan?, but very particularly how did you get to Japan?’ sometimes just how did you do it?, added for emphasis.  I’ve always found the question a bizarre one.  My friends certainly are aware of the existence of these machines called airplanes, with them, when can travel 5937 miles and more, all the way from Britain to Japan.  Can it be that many of my acquaintances are in fact time travellers from the 19th Century, possessing the technology of time travel but not flight?  Maybe, they are mostly academics, they generally live in pre 20th Century world, but it’s unlikely.  Thousands of miles are only an obstacle in world where you have to travel by row boat. 

I jest, but many who ask this question do seem to be truly concerned about the distance.  It’s so far’ they say.  How do you do it?

The temptation at this point is to simply say: You go to an Airport, if you’re coming from the UK, make sure it has international connecting flights. Buy a ticket for a city in Japan, so maybe Tokyo or Osaka.  Be prepared to change flights in either a European city, or city in China or Korea.  Japan is just a bit to the right of Korea.  It’s a very thin country so be careful not to miss it.  I’m sure Tokyo will have left the lights on just in case you miss it.

Of course, I don’t actually say this (although I guess now I have), it’s just my friends’ occasional incredulity quite honestly baffles me.  Planes fly here, you get on one and one day later you here.  It’s easy; we’ve been doing it for decades.  Those satisfied with that answer (although they rarely seem to be absolutely satisfied, often move on to a supplementary comment and question:

But it’s so different from here, how do you deal with that?

I am never sure how to answer that, maybe this is a British thing, almost as if xenophobia or at least a fear of the different is a national trait.  Is it just that ‘we British’ like the familiar, or at best lacking the openness or perhaps even the curiosity to experience new things?

To be honest, I don’t think the British are especially any of those things.  We like the new, odd, and possess the curiosity to experience the unfamiliar the same as any other culture. And yet many, if not most of the people who ask me this question are British, I have in fact never heard it from someone from a European country, the Americas or Asian subcontinent.  I wish I had the courage to give this response:

You were expecting life almost six thousand miles away to be the same as here?  Why would you want to travel that far, losing a day and getting jetlagged just to experience some place that’s just like home?  Just go walk down the street instead, cheaper and you’ll enjoy it more.  I know that you’ve visited a European country, were you hoping that it would be just like here.  No.

I don’t give this response, but as I try work myself up for this rant, I realise something.  For some people, there is something about the distance between Britain and Japan, the time, money and effort that takes to get here, that makes one hopes its worth it, and the promise of something familiar is comforting to some.

I just don’t share that response.  Maybe as disabled person (and now a foreigner too), I’ve always appreciated, if not purposely embraced the outsider perspective.  And I like new experiences.  I am only just realising that in Britain at least, this makes seem even weirder than I was before I came to Japan. 

And that’s an unsettling thought.


Japanese disability advocate sees U.N. exhibit as dream come true

From Kyodo News On December 5th 2013 http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2013/12/260231.html Thought it worth repeating here.


By Seana K. Magee
NEW YORK, Dec. 5, Kyodo

The founder of a Tokyo organization created to give work to the disabled for decades has seen her goal of exhibiting indigo works at the United Nations come to fruition and hopes global leaders will see is as an example of what such artists are capable of accomplishing.

“It has always been my dream to be involved with handicapped people internationally and it has always been my dream to be here at the United Nations presenting what we do,” Mutsuko Takenouchi, founder of Aikobo Group, told Kyodo News at a recent reception.

Aikobo was established in 1983 under Takenouchi’s guidance to provide the physically and mentally challenged chances to learn traditional Japanese crafts, such as indigo dyeing, quilting, weaving, silk braiding and pottery. Beyond selling their wares, the idea was to provide them opportunities to live more independently.

“I want disabled people to become leaders, whether it is through art or work so I would like the disabled to take on leadership and become leaders,” she explained of her mission.

The 71-year-old traveled from Japan to attend the opening in the United Nations headquarters visitor’s lobby where the works are on display through Saturday.

She also participated in a day long series of events to coincide with the annual observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Tuesday.

According to the United Nations about 15 percent of the world’s population — more than one billion people — live with some form of disability and must overcome an array of barriers from the physical and social to the economic and attitudinal.

Takenouchi has come a long way since first hitting upon the idea of forming the independent workshop in Tokyo. She joined forces with another physically challenged woman who was frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities.

At the time, the founder took a gamble as a mother of three who was fighting stomach cancer. But the womens’ efforts paid off as their workshop grew from one small room. The idea even expanded overseas in 1988 when Aikobo America opened in Washington, offering Japanese and Americans on the West Coast the chance to study and work side by side.

“Being independent and part of society has made them stand on their own feet and (enabled them) to be creative,” Takenouchi explained of the program.

Takenouchi has taken exhibits around the world to places such as France, England, Australia, Turkey, Russia and China. The United Nations event, she said, was a “natural” progression of past overseas projects.

Over the years her message has not faltered. “Being active to lower the barrier of discrimination is what I would like to do,” she said.

Her life’s purpose is not lost on diplomats either. Japan’s Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa sees her work as an example of how the sometimes “abstract” discussions held at the United Nations can be made tangible.

“They are participating in cultural and economic activities, they sell things, the organization runs without a subsidy and it shows that the organization is viable, it is sustainable,” he noted, adding how it provides a successful model to emulate.

Since she was 20, Mika Hirako, now 37, has worked diligently to master multiple skills. Her delicately embroidered pieces, called “Sea Breeze,” were on display. She also demonstrated the intricacies of kumihimo, a Japanese form of braiding, to an audience of diplomats, U.N. staff members and other visitors.

“I have expressed a peaceful ocean using Sweden embroidery,” she said of her handmade pieces, which she also dyed.

For Ann Marie Morelli, who works for Theater Breaking Through Barriers — the only off Broadway theater company using disabled actors and writers, viewing Mika’s pieces as well as seeing her craftsmanship proved to be inspirational.

“I just love the character of it and I love the artistry and you see their heart,” the 45-year-old who is fighting multiple sclerosis said, as she pointed to her favorite wall hanging featuring whimsical sea creatures made by five artists.

“It is showing that disabled people have talent and can produce something beautiful.”

For others, such as Daniela Bas, attending the opening proved how their creations portray a positive message on the global front.

“It is a message in the contemporary world, we may not be focusing any more on obstacles, but focusing more on how obstacles can be overcome,” the United Nations’ director for the Division for Social Policy and Development said. “Art is a way of overcoming obstacles.”


Jishin nōto

In the light of the recent earthquakes here in Japan, and more unusually some sizeable shakes here in Kansai.  I looked over my diaries for the last few months and thought I’d share them.  Curiously, its almost a month exactly since the last sizeable earthquake in the Kansai region, which was a Shindo 2 in Kyoto.

Friday 25th October 2013

Yamada, Suita

Early morning on Saturday and there was an earthquake of the coast of Japan.  6.8M – Shindo 4 – later upgraded to 7.1M.  Tsunami warning was issued for Fukushima.  Living in Japan you get used to such things, and whilst it’s never good to get too relaxed, you sometimes feel that if this is truly the end of the world, surely it should be a little more dramatic – does the world always end with a whimper?

Sunday 17th November 2013

Yamada, Suita

 Quite a few earthquakes this weekend.   On Saturday there was about 4 in Tokyo – two of them quite sizeable 4 and a bit magnitude – Shindo 2 which was felt as Shindo 4 – 5M in Chiba.  Today there was a 3.1M – Shindo 2 in Kyoto, quite close to where I live.  I felt my chair sort of move and thought, odd.  Checked the Japan Metrological Agency site and sure enough 3.1M in Kyoto.  They happen so rarely here in Kansai it’s easy to forget.  Not feeling in the best of health though, I think I’ve had some sort of stomach bug, I’m having constant constant diarrhoea.  Still some good news, was asked by the journalist Jake Adelstein, whose book ‘Tokyo Vice’ is being made into a film with Daniel Radcliffe if I wanted to write something up on recent disability abuse cases in Japan for his website ‘Japanese Subculture Research Center’.  Which is cool.

Saturday 14th December 2013

Yamada, Suita 

Today in Chiba there was a 5.5M earthquake which the news agency all talked about a fore-shake, meaning more to come.  We rarely get quakes here in Osaka but about thirteen minutes past midnight – Sunday essentially we get a 3.7M – Shindo 3.  A short but violent shake of our windows.  You wouldn’t mistake for anything else. Maybe it’s good that I never get used to it.  You would want to be too relaxed about them.  Made a YouTube video to tell parents, family and friends back in the UK – the news often reports them so quickly but also often gets information wrong and I don’t want them to worry.


Wheelchair using in Japan: A Guilty Pleasure

I ultimately don’t physically need to use a wheelchair, at least not yet.  However, since moving to Japan, I have used one, upon occasion, mostly to get round large department stores.

When I first moved here in August 2012, and was living in Ome City, Tokyo one of the first places I visited was my local ‘Seiyu’ store in Kabe.  Seiyu is a supermarket and department store chain based in Tokyo.  For those readers from the USA or Britain it looks a bit like a Wal-mart or Asda, there is Wal-mart supermarket, a usually a few floors selling ‘George’ clothes.   I noticed on my first visit a number of fold-away wheelchairs in the entrance, impressed by their availability.

On my third visit or so, and first without my wife, I stumbled in and a young female staff member motions towards the wheelchairs.  I don’t really mind this, I can look physically encumbered at the best of times, but I was only going to get something for tea, so dismissed her with a ‘no, araigato gozaimasu’ and walked on.  No sooner had I done so, but the young server was taken to one side and appeared to be given a dressing down by her line manager.  A week or so goes by and it’s back to Seiyu for a meal for tea.  Once again, I am greeted in the entrance, but the same female server, this time with what I can only describe as desperate pleading eyes, motions towards the wheelchairs stacked in the corner and sighs  ‘kurumaisu…?’ ‘wheelchair?’  She says no more, probably sensing that may Japan is really not up to the task of understanding her.  A pause.  I think, look at the wheelchair, which I really don’t need, and look back at her.  I’m about to repeat my ‘no, arigato gozaimasu’ from last week, and then I see him.  The middle manager from last week, looming in the background.  I felt sorry for her, and didn’t want her to get into trouble. I turn to the girl again. And then ‘Hai!’ ‘Yes!’ emerges from my mouth.

She assembled the device, points exclaiming ‘Hai dozo’, motioning for me to get in, and then wheeled me around the shop for the next two hours. My own PA and Valet, even helping me get together the right money when paying for goods.

I feel it worth mentioning at this point that the server was incredibly cute.  I am married, and boringly faithful, but still, I have eyes.  I also feel that you don’t really want to discourage good customer service.  It is not a service offered everywhere, so for the sake of the next foreigner with a disability who may need it, why not take it?  This is what I tell myself. That surely, is a better reason that it feeds my ego to be wheeled around by an incredibly cute young woman?