Back to the archives, and an arrival in Japan in 2003...
GINGER HEALTH WARNING – this report might be a little cruder than some of its predecessors, a necessary evil if we are to get to the bottom of Japan, I am afraid. This a country which someone summed up yesterday in three words: Toyland with sex. I will try and cover food, the false notion that Japanese people are shy, sexuality, alcohol and diminutive ironing boards, not forgetting, of course, my new found status as a sex symbol. Please do not read before the 9pm watershed…
I should have smelled a rat when every person in the restaurant turned to me and laughed, especially as they were all Japanese, so shy and reserved or so the stereotype had me believe. In fact, I did smell a rat. And a dog. And probably a couple of camels as well. Just what the hell were all those things on the counter, masquerading as fresh food?
"So what are you having to eat?" asked David, once the necessary beer transaction had been completed. David is an old Japanese hand with some ten years of rat-eating experience under his belt. Give the man a beard and he is also the closest thing I have ever seen to Osama (and if you don’t believe me, check out my colleagues at www.langeducationcenter.com and judge for yourself –and yes, I do have to dress the same way). He is also an accomplished drunk and, as such, the perfect man to show me the ropes.
"Well, the menu is all in Japanese, old fruit, so choose something for me. Anything but goat testicles."
"I know just the thing." I should have picked up on the smirk, as he rattled off our order in flawless Japanese. The waitress laughed and looked at me. "Do you really want natto?" This was the first time I came across the name of the dish that was to become my undoing later that night, as I christened my small Western loo with dribbles of regurgitated raw egg.
The English equivalent to natto would be something akin to a deep-fried Mars Bar and black pudding mixed with a healthy dollop of Marmite, ie something that some people eat but most avoid. Natto is undeniably healthy, but most of my students later that week doubled up with laughter when I told them I had tried it. Ingredients are as follows: fermented beans, chopped spring onion, soya sauce and the mandatory raw egg. Mix it all up with chopsticks and you are away. Have you ever tried eating a raw egg with chopsticks with a dozen mocking Japs egging you on (if you’ll pardon the pun)?
I finished the lot like a good sport and cursed David as I made my fourth nocturnal visit to the loo, but was forced to concede that I would have been lost without him. Like the time I walked into a restaurant which boasted "We speak English" and then found out they had lied. A beer was easy enough to negotiate, but I struggled with the menu in Japanese. The waitress spoke not a word of English (why should she, I was in her country?) and so I sauntered into the kitchen, in search of something I could point at and later eat. I came across a few bowls of steaming… let’s call it stuff, and settled on that with an index finger and a smile, but was refused it as, inexplicably, she produced the only two words in her linguistic arsenal – Staff meal! I ended us with some very odd mushrooms in a plate of spaghetti, something else that I defy you to eat with chopsticks. Which was not as bad as the posh pizza place, where I was given a choice for my ten-inch pizza – chopsticks or a fork. I have a feeling that the Japanese are just taking the piss.
I am losing weight.
I was fortunate to be on the same flight as the parents of my man in Tokyo, as I would have been in serious trouble without their help and guidance. I had been through a few times zones, overnight flights, emotional traumas and lots of beer in the previous days, so I wasn’t quite at my best as I checked in at Heathrow, but Mr. and Mrs. Bids, friends for a number of years, ushered me in the right direction. They, too, were on their first visit to Japan, and I am very glad I was with them, for the first thing I learned about Japan on arrival (after seeing the first advertising hoarding, one David Beckham – impossible to escape here) was that Somalia and Japan have one annoying thing in common: it is almost impossible to get cash.
There I was, seasoned world traveller and all that, sixteen Lufthansa gins to the good and with thirty quid in my wallet, and there are no bloody cash machines! Any that there are take Japanese cards only. Thirty quid goes a long way in Somalia, but if you break wind here, it is gone. There are a few cash machines in Tokyo that take international cards and one in Hiroshima, but even these are only open certain hours of the day. I had never heard of a cash machine (sorry, ATM for you heathens across the water) that closes for the night.
Immigration was friendly enough, although I was bemused by the number of people wearing white surgical masks as they queued, not specifically against SARS, this is how they go about their business. I was thinking of purchasing one myself for teaching. As we pottered around Narita Airport, in search of liquid refreshment (9am on a Sunday was deemed a little early for a beer injection), I left the procurement of fruit juice in the capable hands of Mrs. Bids. She returned with a couple of bottles of healthy-looking liquid and I attacked it with gusto. Never has horse piss been so appealing. Our refreshing fruit juice was actually iced green tea, not quite what we had been expecting.
Bids Junior had instructed us to take the bus into town and as my fifteen quid ticket was bought by his parents, I suddenly began to panic that my salary, so attractive from England, was not going to go very far. This feeling was not assuaged by Bids’ cheery assertion that the monthly rent of his pleasant two-bedroom flat in a trendy part of Tokyo (not quite sure if trendy is the word, for I awoke each morning and waved at the Libyan Ambassador in his office) was twice my monthly salary. The most interesting thing about the bus ride into town was the passenger announcement, requesting everyone to turn off their mobile phones, because "they annoy the neighbour."
At last I have found my country! A land where you can sit on a bus or a train and not be subjected to the personal details of the girl sitting next to you as she drones on into the phone parked next to her left ear. On the trains, you are requested to turn the ringing tone off and use specially designated areas to call. No wonder the Japanese find us so rude in comparison. Other things I like are the fact that you are not supposed to eat or drink in public places, so munching that kebab on the way home after the pubs shut is not an option here. One can only imagine what the Japs make of the Brits and Yanks, as we eat, drink, burp, fart our way down the street. The taxis are also interesting, in that the back doors open automatically, so you never need to open or shut. Which probably explains why the Japanese just sit there in taxis in London, waiting for the doors to open. And then never close them when they do get out. There is apparently an etiquette book on how to deal with situations in foreign countries, such as New York cabbies. It sounds like a gem and I shall try and track down a copy and get some snippets translated.
Okay, how expensive is this place? Well, it depends. Certain things, like travel, are very expensive. My one-way train fare to Hiroshima was $160. I wanted to see Bids next week as we have a holiday, but it is cheaper for me to fly to Korea and meet him there than take the train to Tokyo (4.5 hours, 300km/h – very fast, and where the ticket collector bows to the passengers before inspecting tickets). Internet in Tokyo was $15 for ninety minutes. Ouch, lesson learned. A beer in the wrong bar (of which more later) can set you back the wrong side of fifteen bucks. Expensive then, except that it isn’t. There are some pleasant surprises, such as the bin-end section at my local supermarket (almost said local store there – must get these Americanisms out of my system), where I have made very good friends with a passable Californian red at $3 a bottle. Food can be expensive or cheap, and cheap food does not necessarily entail raw eggs, although it can do. I am spending a lot of time in the ‘100 yen shop’ where everything costs less than a dollar.
Bids took me out to see the bright lights of Tokyo with his lovely girlfriend, Chieko, the only Japanese I have ever met who has been to Albania. We started in a Belgian bar, then went to another, and another, then another. Days have merged into other days recently and they all seem to end in the morning when other people are going to work. That is the most dangerous thing about Japan, the bars never close and it is so easy to be persuaded to come for just one more. This is not just me, it is common among the foreign (or gaijin as we are known here) community and it is common among the locals, who have to take the crown of the most spectacular drunks I have ever encountered, I who lived and died in a vodka bottle in Russia. These guys take dipsomania to a higher level.
As I bade Chieko goodnight before continuing with Tom, I made my first faux pas. I went to give here a hug and a kiss, too drunk to notice that she was waving. She wasn’t ready to hug me or kiss me yet. But I soon forgot her as Bids and I became reacquainted. We were at school together but really got to know each other at university in Manchester, as we wasted days in the pubs of Rusholme, The Denmark being one of our favourite haunts. I can’t recall ever spending time with him and not waking up with a hangover and Tokyo was to be no different. He taught me my first Japanese word – futskayoi, meaning hangover. What is interesting about the word is that it literally means something like ‘two-day hurting’, so I guess a ‘mikayoi’ (three-day hurting) could be translated as the ‘mother of all hangovers.’
I had a double mikayoi that first Tokyo morning (I can’t yet count to six). But it was well worth it. Bids wanted to give me an introduction to the weird and the wonderful and we ended up in a hostess bar, don’t ask me where. I had heard of these places, where stressed businessmen came to unwind after another punishingly long day at the office, to tell awaiting Japanese ladies their woes in expensive bars, where the beer starts at fifteen bucks a pop. That’s before you buy the lady a drink. Still Bids was rich and paying, so in we traipsed, into a small neon-lit room, with four attractive Japanese ladies sitting in idle conversation with ‘clients.’ The four then took to the stage and performed a flawless dance routine, after which one of them, Aku, came over to join us.
"Aku mean devil." She winked at me. "You buy me drink?" Bids did the honours and she necked it in style. Taking advantage of his Japanese, we learned that she had been working for sixteen months at the bar, where she just talked to customers and danced. She enjoyed it. "You buy me tomato juice?" We carried on in English and it was a good opportunity for me to learn to grade my speech. After a while, it became clear that I was going to have to grade it considerably.
"How many day you work here week?"
"Eto. Eto. Two. Monday, Tuesday."
"Thursday, Friday – bondage."
"Bondage?" The wink of the eye again.
"Yes. Bondage. And hot wax." Bondage and hot wax, I shudder to think. The conversation turned to food and when she learned I had worked in Africa, she asked (in Japanese) what was the most interesting thing I had eaten.
"Camel? Rearry? And what call, eto, what call, eto…" and she motioned the humps (eto is the Japanese for er and most sentences in class start with it).
"Humps. Camel has one hump, camel has two humps."
"Hump. Sank you." And then I couldn’t resist explaining the other meaning of hump.
"Hump also boy sex girl. Boy humps girl." Bids had been thinking along the same lines but had decided that her English was not yet sufficiently advanced for this slang. I disagreed. Bondage, hot wax, hump – seems to fit in well. We bade our goodbyes with a handshake and that was it. A weird world and not one I want to move in, although it was interesting to look into it. There is the offer of visiting a bar where paying clients dress in nappies and getting spanked, although I am not sure my Catholic upbringing has prepared me for such an eventuality (and no, Miss Greer, I am not going to visit just for you).
The drinking culture here is maniacal, desperate, determined. There seems to be no middle road, no possibility of enjoying a social drink. People work hard, they drink hard and they pass out hard. It really is quite awesome to watch. I have not yet discovered why there is hardly any drink-related violence though. Bids was telling me of a time he went to the Gents, only to find a man slouched up against the wall. Asleep. There was a woman outside, who turned out to be his wife. Just a minute, dear, I just need a quick slash and I will be right with you. Twenty minutes later, he was having a good upright snooze. Bids saw her drag him out a little later.
But nothing compares to the chap at the tequila bar in Hiroshima. His body language was showing all the classic symptoms – forehead glued to the bar, arms dangling, snoring peacefully. As the bar closed, we tried to rouse him, but it was useless. The barmaid shook him more violently and that had its effect – he fell off his stool and landed face down on the floor, where he continued in his comatose state. The barmaid wanted to lock up and go to bed, so we offered to carry him. And here was the most humanitarian thing I have ever seen; she asked us to put him on the sofa for the night and then left the bar unlocked.
Drunken conversations are similar the world over but there was one exchange that, even now, I cannot believe took place. This next bit is a little disgusting, so skip a couple of paragraphs if you are squeamish… Japanese people seem to have no qualms about discussing bodily functions openly. I have no idea how it started but one of the teachers told me that putting one’s finger up another’s bum in Japan is more acceptable than in England, for example. Kids try and do it to teachers during class, apparently (so it’s backs to the wall from now on). As I was expressing doubt with knitted eyebrows, he insisted that there was even a Japanese term for it. Turning to the Japanese guy next to him, he put both hands together, the two forefingers outstretched, started a prodding action, then asked the guy the Japanese equivalent of:
"Scuse me, mate, but if someone sticks a couple of fingers up your arse, what do you call it in Japanese?" The question evoked not a single reaction, save a gasp from me.
"Kancho. Thanks. So Paul, it is called Kancho." An Oriental version of You’ve Been Tangoed.
Hiroshima is lovely. You will be pleased to know that my supposed war zone fetish has been sated in that I live some 400m from where the atom bomb went off. My apartment is small but perfectly adequate. I have two rooms and a small balcony, a Western loo (big sigh of relief when I saw that). The tradition is for the new teacher to buy stuff off the departing one and so I had already bought the phone line and the washing machine from Croatia. Some of you know that I suffer from WMODS – Washing Machine Operating Deficiency Syndrome. That was then. At least then the buttons were all in English and there were numbers to choose from. As I put my precious white shirts in for their first wash, I pressed some random buttons with Japanese characters and stood there and hoped. So far, so good, although I cannot remember which ones I pressed for next time. There is a sofa and most kitchen utensils, some chairs and a coffee table. There is no bed, just a very thin futon, which I roll out onto the tatami matting. And then I met Vanessa.
Vanessa is my big little sister, a Ginger Aussie who lives in the flat below. I found a note on my door one evening welcoming me to Hiroshima and offering whatever assistance she could. I knocked on her door and, as she stood there in her pale blue pyjamas, I sensed that I was the luckiest gaijin in town – here was the perfect neighbour in a hostile world. Soon I had an extra futon, an alarm clock, a bike and all the information I ever needed about shopping, cheap telephone calls and the best places to eat. And she plays Scrabble. Badly. It is so nice to be able to pop down and watch a video, play Scrabble, just drink tea and chat. I even get fed sometimes – pumpkin soup last time - although she has not yet offered to iron my shirts, which is a pity as Japanese ironing boards are less than two foot long and are about six inches from the ground. Although I like spending time in her company, I hope that ridiculous accent of hers does not rub off on me, otherwise I will start saying that I live in Jipaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan. Good on you mate, and can I borrow some dunny paper?
One function that Vanessa has agreed to take on is to monitor any signs I might show of succumbing to the Great Japanese Illness (GJI), by which I mean falling in love with the local girls. Most of the male gaijin here rave about the beauty of the local girls, but I just do not see it. Everyone tells me I will be married soon and in love with a Japanese lady, but I deem it severely unlikely. Aaah, they say wistfully, a new gaijin. Give it time, give it time. Yes, they agree, one day it will hit you and you will never be able to look at a Western girl again – too fat, too hairy. No, I protest, I will never lose my attraction to the Caucasian type. Aaaah, they whisper, he says that now. Give it time – a week, a month, but he will succumb.
Vanessa is going to interview me every week and see if I am showing signs of developing GJI and she has promised to slap me very hard if I become ill. So far, so good, although it has only been 18 days. Aaaah, they whisper, he is so new. Give it time, give it time. I am a little scared because I remember going to Rwanda ten years ago, feeling no attraction for black girls whatsoever. I gave it time and Rwandese, Somalis and Kikuyus are among the most attractive girls in the world. But not Japanese.
I have heard some interesting stories. Gaijin takes girl home for a one-night stand and wakes to find her ironing his shirts (hang on, I could do with that); gaijin takes girl home three or four times and finds her rice cooker in his cupboard, as potent a symbol of permanency as any I know in Japan. Relationships by stealth – Ginger be careful. I am still not sure what the attraction is, for it seems that, no sooner is the marriage consummated, than a child is born and a sexless marriage ensues, in which the wife obsesses about the child and the husband about his work and all the other beautiful Japanese girls. I shall keep you updated on Vanessa’s slapping tally.
My endeavours to avoid contracting GJI are not helped by the fact that I work in a linguistic brothel. Any pretence that I am here to teach English has long since disappeared, as I seem to be teaching a long line of single women on a one-to-one basis. Of course, there are those who are here to learn English, but there are many more who are looking for a foreign husband. My school seems to be a good place to look as I know of at least seven teachers, past and present, who are married to or in serious relationships with former students. There are a few female teachers and they are offered up to company language classes. One girl I met in Hiroshima told me of how there was a competition, whose prize was a date with her, in which she would pay! I find the whole thing enormously entertaining, especially as it seems to be so blatant. It is only a matter of time before I dash all hopes by proclaiming my love of goats. Twenty-five seems to be the cut-off age for eligibility and there is an endearing term in which girls who are ‘past it’ are referred to as Christmas cake.
So the Japanese are shy, are they? Here is a selection of comments and questions I have had in my first couple of weeks:
Teacher is a monkey.
Do you have any experience of divorce?
Are you looking for a beautiful Japanese wife?
(Looking at a photograph of me in Rwanda) Oh, you were cute then, but now you are fat.
But why are you divorced? It is a long story. I want to know. I don’t want to tell you. Did she find another boy? Tell me, I want to know. If you don’t stop, I will kancho you (I made the last sentence up).
What are you looking for in a woman? A girl who is breathing helps. Do you find Japanese girls beautiful? Do you want to marry a student from the school?
You have a great humour. You have good personality. You are good looking. And I suppose I have a great body too. Yes, of course. You are mentally handicapped (we had just covered this vocab).
All of these pale into insignificance of course, when pitched against the experiences of Andy, my friend of fifteen years, former chambermaiding colleague in Munich, and now semi-respectable lecturer at Hiroshima University. On the first day of a new term, he was mingling with the eighteen year-old students, getting to know them, when he was handed a piece of paper. What kind of tits do you like? Quite.
Being reacquainted with Andy has been interesting, in that I have seen him three times since 1990 and so he is a representative of my life during the pre-Christine years. I am heartened to learn that he thinks I have not changed since we spent many a maudlin evening together in Munich in 1988; I was an objectionable arse then and I am an objectionable arse now. One thing we have discussed as a Hiroshima project is forming a Half Man Half Biscuit tribute band. Most of you won’t have heard of this little-known English quartet, responsible for some of the finest lyrics ever penned, my favourite of which is the social comment on those triangular processed cheese packets, made by Dairylea.
If you ever wondered how you get triangles from a cow
You need butter, milk and cheese and an equilateral chainsaw.
The scariest thing about this tribute band is that I will be doing the vocals…
The school is great and there are thirteen expat teachers, from Britain, America, Ireland and Oz, all of whom have a range of experience (thereby making up for my lack thereof). I have been out with most socially and they are all welcoming and helpful, so life is good at the moment. Most of my classes are at the language school, where I teach a range, from six year-old kids (who terrify me) to advanced students. I get to set the topics of discussion, which is nice, but there is also a textbook to fall back on. Class sizes tend to be one to five students and the emphasis is on conversation and correction, so I just chat really and write a couple of things on the board. I have been approached about teaching French and German and am confident I could do both now. I am tentatively giving a lecture in Russian at Hiroshima University next month.
And then there is my weekly trip to boarding school. My teacher training in Budapest prepared me for teaching intermediate level students, keen to learn. My Thursday mornings at Koryo School, national baseball champions, could not be further removed from that cosy classroom in Budapest. Of course, I too went to boarding school and so it has been an interesting opportunity to compare notes. There are some very real differences.
The first weird thing is that I was told to take my shoes off and exchange them for a pair of slippers. Nothing wrong with that in principle, as everyone else was wearing slippers. My feet are bigger than Japanese feet and I must have cut an amusing figure as I trundled along in a pair of pink size sevens. I met the headmaster, shook hands with lots of bowing teachers and was ushered towards my first class. What level are they, I enquired? Well not so bad, came the evasive reply. And that was it and I was directed into my first class, to be gawped at by twenty-two spotty Japanese teenage boys, none of whom wanted to be there.
"Good morning. My name is Paul. Ask me some questions about myself."
Silence. In fact, worse than silence, total incomprehension. I changed tack.
"What is your name?"
"Eto, I is sixteen old." Houston, we have a problem.
Anyway, life here is great. You are more than welcome to visit, if you would like to try something new. For mine own part, I am off to Korea on Sunday, for a week of boozing with Bids. Original plans to hit North Korea have had to be postponed due to visa technicalities, but I am hoping Pyongyang will host a Ginger Report in August. In the meantime, we shall head up to the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) on the official tour, careful to follow the guide every inch of the way; someone strayed recently and lost his leg on a land-mine. Never have I been so keen to play Follow My Leader according to the rules.