Monday, 6 December 2010

Good Customer Service ... Japanese Style

Power, gas suppliers to cut January charges due to stronger yen
Tuesday 30th November,
Japan’s 10 electric power companies and four major gas suppliers said Monday they will cut monthly charges in January from the previous month due to lower fuel costs caused by the yen’s appreciation. Tokyo Electric Power Co announced the largest cut of 44 yen for an average household among the 10 power suppliers, followed by 39 yen by Chubu Electric Power Co and 36 yen by Chugoku Electric Power Co and Okinawa Electric Power Co.
A cut of 39 yen in gas charges is planned by Osaka Gas Co, while Tokyo Gas Co, Toho Gas Co and Saibu Gas Co announced respective reductions of 37, 35 and 22 yen.
Prices of crude oil, liquefied natural gas and coal in the August to October quarter, which are the base of charges for utility services in January, fell 1.8, 2.7 and 2.2%, respectively, from those in the July to September period, the base for charges in December.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co and Tokyo Electric will lower their charges in January for the fourth consecutive month and the eight other power suppliers for the third month in row. The four gas companies will carry out cuts for four months running.

It may only be a token amount for households but it`s nice that the companies are thinking of its customers at the coldest time of year. Makes me feel like a valued customer rather than a complete mug which is how I feel when I have to buy a train ticket in the UK.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Let`s do the Otagei!

This is for those people who wrote and asked why Japanese men never dance ...

Otagei (Ota from otaku meaning nerd and gei meaining performance) has been in the news recently. Groups of otaku gather in the nerd nerve centre of Akihabara and all over Japan to enjoy dancing while supporting their favourite female bands. In this news clip, a journalist visits a 21-member otaku group who are practising their dance at a karaoke bar. They are all fans of the dreaded Morning Musume (Morning Daughters). Otaku have gained some cool points recently because manga and anime (which they collect obsessively) are becoming more popular abroad, and last week a student showed me an i-phone video she took at a wedding with the guests doing the otagei. But just in case you think the entire Japanese nation is doing this, my own students who are too cool for school (judging by the number of absences and tardies they are racking up) fell off their chairs laughing when they saw this.

Yes, Japanese society can be juvenile but because of this it is also relatively drug and crime free. So altogether now... Pan Pa Pan Hyu!

(Thanks to my seminar 3 students who put me on to this video.)

Monday, 15 November 2010

Negotiating the road to gender equality ... with a flip-up map

With attention focused on the APEC conference in Yokohama, here are some stories from the past week you may have missed.

On Monday 9th, police arrested a panty thief who had attempted to steal three pairs of underwear from a washing line on a woman`s balcony. When police searched his home they found 3,000 other stolen pairs of panties. The 55-year-old man said, "I have always been interested in women`s underwear". So too, apparently, were the police who displayed the panties at the police station and invited journalists to photograph them.

Also on the 9th, Seibu announced the launch of Maid Trains on the Chichibu to Ikebukuro line. Maids will ride the trains, playing games with the passengers. Some station shops will have photo studios so travellers can have photos taken with the maids. (

On Thursday 11th November, Triumph displayed their `concept bra` designed to introduce foreigners to Japanese tourist spots. The bustier has three buttons which when pressed welcome tourists in English, Chinese and Korean. A short skirt `flips up` to reveal a map of Japan.

What a sad, third-rate little country ... which by the way ranks 94th out of 134 in terms of gender equality in the annual World Economic Forum ranking.

Next week, granny arrested for pinching Y fronts from launderettes and police display them for women who have `always been interested in men`s underwear`, Seibu launch the Beefcake Express and Triumph display the concept tourism boxer shorts ... with flip-up map. Never going to happen, is it?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Accio final Harry Potter movie and the end of an era!

Feeling very British today. Did two lectures on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the continuing popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Then on the way home I was greeted by this poster on platform 9 3/4 at Iidabashi subway station. (Note: magical commuter apparating in foreground.)

Monday, 8 November 2010

Aokigahara Suicide Forest on VBS

I have received some emails asking why the Japanese birth rate is so low. Today I have been correcting some essays written by students for an upcoming essay competition. They could write on any topic and several wrote about how difficult it is to live in Japan. Looking over their essays they say much the same things, that Japanese people have little spare time, are forced to overwork, take few holidays and that Japan is "not a gentle country for women because the co-existence of work, housework and childcare is difficult in our country". Another student writes, "I think many people feel a lot of stress and tiredness". Yet Japanese people seem unable to express their worries. The student states,

"When we need help, we cannot ask for help. Why? In my opinion, many Japanese have superficial relationships, so we don`t have close relations. As a result, we can`t consult about our worries ... I guess there are many people who have negative thinking. People are sometimes afraid of failure in work, and they don`t speak actively. If they fail in something, they will lose their confidence. On the other hand, I think power harrassment by their boss and bullying also causes suicide".

Of course there are many good points about Japan. The trains run on time, it is clean and safe. But this is only the case because the rules here are very strict, and happiness of the individual is forfeited for the benefit of the group.

Watch the beautiful but tragic video below to see what happens to those who cannot ask for help.

Nice lunch, shame about the students ...

In 1992 there were 2.05 million 18-year-olds in Japan. Due to the drop in the birth rate there are 1.3 million today. There is now a university place for every 18-year-old who wants one but since just over 40 percent go on to tertiary education that leaves a lot of empty chairs in a lot of expensively air-conditioned classrooms. MEXT, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, estimates that around 46 percent of Japan`s 595 private universities are missing their recruitment targets and around 40 percent are in debt. Small colleges, in particular tandai (two-year colleges), are closing or amalgamating. The word from colleagues even at higher level universities is that they are lowering entrance standards in order to attract enough students.

How is it playing out at my university? A few weeks ago, we held our first round of entrance tests and interviews. 29 lecturers were called in to work on a Saturday (tasty obento provided, see above) to test 17 high school students. In a room which seats 144, I and a colleague invigilated a 30-minute entrance examination for three students who were interested (hopefully) in attending our college`s tandai.

Last weekend, I and a colleague interviewed 9 students (6 colleagues interviewed a further 28). They had to read a paragraph in english and answer one question about it. Not a single student could answer the question correctly, nor could they adequately answer other simple questions that I put to them. What the hell are students studying for 6 years in their compulsory junior and senior high school english-language classes? The sad thing is, on their shibo douki (the part of their application on which they write their hopes for the future) most wrote that they want to work for travel companies or as english-language teachers. (Last year it was hotel staff and flight attendants but since then JAL`s gone into the red and the strong Yen has emptied the international hotels of foreign tourists). Moreover they were well prepared for the Japanese-language part of their interviews with many reciting answers that they had obviously memorised in advance. They seemed to have motivation but were let down by the poor level of education they had received.
Will they get a place at our university? What do you think? And even more importantly for us, will they accept it?

Monday, 18 October 2010


Para Para is popular outside Japan?! Thanks for this link:

But you have to get the makeup right. Here`s a tutorial, from Jonathan Ross of all people ... he speaks good Japanese.

Friday, 15 October 2010

It`s Friday ... Let`s dance!

Thanks to the 3rd year seminar students who put me on to this gem of a para para dance video. Whatever happened to the Yamamba/Ganguro girl gangs .... you never see them any more ...

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Back to the Chalkface

Hello all, I`m back from summer hols in the UK. Japan`s hottest summer on record is over (HUGE thunderstorm today) and it`s back to the morning commute. Like this one.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Tokyo Bay Summer Evening Boat

In the last week, 9.436 people have been hospitalized with heatstroke and 57 have died. Half of those who died were indoors. Outside it is burning hot, inside it is stiflingly humid. It averages 35 in the day and 26 at night. My main room is air-conditioned, and I keep it at a steady 28 with the curtains closed. But my small kitchen has become an oven. I only go in there to get drinks from the fridge. Continually moving from an air-conditioned area into the heat and humidity can bring on heat stress and exhaustion.

One of the best places to be in this weather (apart from a cooler country) is on the water. Here`s a short video from the Tokyo Bay Summer Evening boat, a two-hour booze cruise around Tokyo Bay. That is Rainbow Bridge we go under.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Heat Strokes

Is rainy season over already? It`s 35 degrees most days and very humid. Government officials are warning people to stay out of the burning sun. Apparently this weather is a ripple of the heat wave the USA is suffering at the moment. Here`s a notice that just went up in the subway. Subways generally provide free water fountains on the platforms for customers. I often used them until recently when I saw an ojisan rinse his mouth out and then spit the water back into the fountain.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Subway Train Manners

Double seat, double seat, gotta get a double seat ... (Ben Elton)

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Macho in Japan!

Loving the new Protein Water ad! It`s shown incessantly in the ad breaks of Tsuki no Koibito (Moon Lovers), the latest Kimutaku drama. I have completely lost track of what is going on in the drama. I`ve asked my students and they don`t know either. We all agree that it is all rather strange and illogical. The interesting issue is that the story is about a Japanese company setting up business in Shanghai. Shota Matsuda, the main guy in the Protein Water ad and son of Yusaku 'Black Rain" Matsuda, plays a bicultural business man who seems to have just taken over the company. It will be interesting to see how the final episode plays out but this drama seems to be a sign that Japan has realised it is part of Asia ... and that it`s about to be overtaken by China. Japanese business people had better drink A LOT more Protein Water ...

Below is the old Protein Water ad which demonstrates more clearly what they are actually selling. The slim guys on the left drink Protein Water to get "Hoso Macho", Slim Macho unlike the fatties on the right who are gori macho ... What`s gori macho, anyone?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Rainy Season 2010

So it has been raining for the last two weeks. Then a couple of days ago the Japanese Meteorological Agency woke up to this fact and announced that rainy season had officially begun. At which point the rain stopped. But I`m saying nothing this year. Usually what happens about this time of year is that I notice that it is raining heavily and ask my Japanese chums if this is the rainy season. "No" they say, "This is not rainy season rain. This is different rain". And then the JMA officially announces rainy season and then they say it IS rainy season rain. I think this is an aspect of Japan`s hierarchical society. No-one wants to call it until an official body higher up officially approves it. In a hierarchical society information is controlled and rolls from the top down. As does the rain. And something else.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Cookies & Green Tea Ice-cream

I have tried every bottle of cough syrup and sucked every mentholated jube in my local chemists. But the only thing that soothes a really sore throat is Haagen Dazs Cookies and Green Tea ice-cream. Nector of the Kami (Japanese gods)!

Saturday, 19 June 2010

I am "bad condition"

Thank you so much to those of you who have sent emails asking where I have gone. Tokyo is awash with bugs and bacteria and I have had my fair share. I started with possible Whooping Cough which has become a global epidemic amongst adults, and I have now moved on to a stinking cold. Who knew that the Whooping Cough vaccine wore off? Not me. Apparently adults need to get booster shots. Six weeks on and I still can`t speak to my students without dissolving into a coughing fit but then a lot of them are coughing and spluttering right back at me. And you want to hear the noise on the subways in the mornings. Some people really sound as if they are going to collapse right there on the train.

I am doing the right thing and wearing my mask in class despite the students` amusement. One member of staff said it must be difficult for me to wear a mask because they are designed for Japanese people. I could only think she meant that Westerners have higher noses? They are very difficult to breathe through however - the masks not Western noses. Even so last week I forgot I was wearing one and tried to drink a cup of green tea through it.

I am slowly recovering, sleeping on average 10 hours a night and craving bbq beef for some reason (well, I have lost 2 kg). The only thing that is getting me through my lessons is my Lemon plus Collagen drink. 1,000mg of each plus around 1kg of added sugar judging by the energy buzz I get from every little bottle. Soon I will be back to full health and looking 10 years younger!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Who ya gonna call?

In the USA, if you have a problem and no-one else can help you can call the A Team. In Japan, you can call the MR Ladies, the operatives of the Mission Research Detective Agency. They investigate affairs, missing persons, absences from home, moral issues, stalkers, wiretapping, electromagnetic waves, and they also carry out pre-marriage investigations. Consultations are free. They take visa.

Detective agencies advertise freely in Japan. I get similar fliers every week. Japan is a country in which much is hidden. Conversations can be vague. Confrontations and showing anger are considered bad manners. Silence is often the answer to a difficult question. In order to avoid shame and embarrassment employing a professional to ferret out the truth may be an acceptable option. And judging from this leaflet, the people most in need of such services in Japan are women.

Friday, 30 April 2010

What can I eat?

I have been asking my students who work in sushi bars if there has been any downturn in tuna consumption recently. "No", they have all replied, "Why should there be?" No-one in Japan seems in the least aware that we are facing a global tuna shortage due to overfishing. We are in Golden Week here, seven days of holidays, and the weather after a couple of weeks of constant heavy rain, is warm and sunny. Sushi is the perfect meal for this weather but it is impossible to buy a sushi obento that does not contain maguro (raw tuna) (see pics above). So I have switched to shrimp. (I have a child`s taste in sushi. Tuna and shrimp are the least sophisticated tastes.)

If the Japanese don`t care about the shortage of tuna then they might be persuaded to consider their health. A recent report by the US Environmental Agency found that all the tuna they tested (in the USA) contained higher concentrations of mercury than was considered safe to eat in one day. Their recommendation is to eat no more than 7-8 pieces of tuna per month. Japanese mercury limits are lower than the US but aren`t they both fishing the same sea? I eat A LOT of raw fish. No wonder the fridge magnets keep sticking to me.

*Child`s Taste: Last week I read an article in a British Sunday newspaper in which a restaurant critic tried to get his children to enjoy sophisticated dishes at an elegant restaurant. They would only eat pasta or pizza and he couldn`t understand why. The Japanese know why. They believe that children`s taste buds must grow and develop so they start their children off with simple tastes such as rice, tuna and shrimp and as they grow older offer sea urchin and eel. As a Brit I believe `bland` is a very palatable flavour and I`m sticking with it ...and avoiding the new season pizza, the Mini Dog.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Pet Paradise Spring 2010

Need ... help ... must ... stop ... photographing ... dog ... fashions. But look at the little necklace!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

And another one!

And another one!

Dear students, spot the mistake .... in a national newspaper no less!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Gudby korect spelng!

Dear Students

Good news for poor spellers! You know how I tell you that English is not a language but a constantly evolving animal? Well, it now seems that the email generation (that`s me) and the texting generation (that`s you) have prompted an evolutionary leap in (or the total extinction of, depending on how you choose to look at it) English spelling. On my recent trip, wherever I went in the UK, I spotted howling spelling errors and no-one seemed that bothered about them.

I can`t say I`m totally happy about it though. I LOVE good English and recently added the word gelid to my lexicon. (It was in a crime thriller.) And as I have told you before, the better your English, the more educated you sound, and the better your chances of getting that dream job and/or dream date. So keep bringing your electronic dictionaries to class. + sav the texts 4 ur fone.

And Writing 2 and 3 students, the weekly spelling test STAYS.

SPELLING QUIZ: There are 7 spelling errors in the coffee shop sign above. Can you spot them all?

Friday, 2 April 2010

Hanami - Blossom Viewing

It`s official. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency Tokyo cherry trees are in full bloom right now. And to prove it, here`s the tree outside my office.

This week companies will be sending their junior employees out mid-afternoon to spread plastic sheeting in the parks and sit on it in order to bagsy the best spots for the evening company party which will involve singing songs, drinking beer and getting completely bladdered in the name of cherry blossom viewing. Except so far this week the weather has been really strange. On Monday there was a snow storm. Today it was 20 degrees. And much of the Tokyo transport network was disrupted due to `wind`. Which may have blown most of the blossoms away already.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Bog Standard Britain

Apologies for the long silence. I was chaperoning some students to England for intensive English study. It was such an interesting experience to see my country through their eyes. I`ll write more once this terrible West-to-East jetlag has worn off. (East-to-West is no problem but West-to-East is like being drunk, drugged and then beaten with a kendo stick.) For the moment I will just post the one photo that I think sums up the England experience for them and for me: the traditional British toilet. For me, this toilet at Canterbury West station represents all that is wrong and shameful about England. It`s old, cold, dirty, poorly managed and broken. The bolts in the cistern to stop people placing drugs in there are just the final insult as far as I am concerned. However it is toilets just like this one that my students` rave about when they come back from the UK. It`s old! It`s whimsical! It`s like something out of a museum! They have the same ones in Harry Potter! You have to pull the chain many times to make it work! As far as they are concerned England is like some Victorian era theme park.

Later we visited a public restroom that was bathed in an ice-blue light. The students oohed and aahed at how the glow relaxed them and took away their stress. "It is just like the blue lights on the subway in Tokyo" they said. "The ones that are supposed to calm people down and stop them jumping in front of trains. English restrooms are very relaxing". I`m not sure if they really understood when I pointed out that the blue light was to stop druggies finding a vein.

Many things which made me very angry (high school students drinking beer on Canterbury city wall, people swearing, vandalism of public services, rudeness in shops, litter) the students didn`t seem to notice at all. They were too busy marvelling at green grass and women in burkhas and taps you work by hand, and holding 50 pound notes up to the light in public.

We see only what we want to see and interpret it according to our own culture.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Butoh - the only known antidote to Cute

In 1959, a dancer called Tatsumi Hijikata performed a strange dance based on the novel Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima. He used a live chicken which he placed between his legs and the audience, mistakenly believing that he had killed it, were outraged. And so Butoh was born, a modern dance form that is grotesque, extreme, sometimes painful and in one case, fatal. Though Butoh was first performed during a time of student riots it is also believed to be influenced by the devastation at the end of the Second World War, in particular by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Typical Butoh costume is a loin cloth covering a body painted grey and is reminiscent of the bomb survivers burned and in shredded clothes, staggering out of the cities.

I don`t claim to understand Butoh but I do like it and having lived for over a decade in Japan I can see where it is coming from. Both the local and foreign media tend to portray the Japanese as a well-meaning, law-abiding nation of placid people who do their homework on Friday night and spend the weekend shopping for cute fashions. And on the whole they are right. But Japan also has a very dark side. You only have to look at movies such as Ring and Juon to see that Japan has a colourful tradition of horror and ghost stories. It also has a high suicide rate. It has a growing problem with hikikomori, people who become recluses, some of them as a result of the bullying culture that exists in this competitive, hierarchical society. Although it has a very low crime rate, the murders that are committed here are often extremely bizarre and horrific. As a Japanese student once said to me, Japanese rules and laws are so strict that if you do step out of line you might as well go all the way to hell.

But back to Butoh. Sankai Juku is Japan`s most famous troupe and here is a short extract from a performance. This lot would eat Beckii Cruel for breakfast. Literally.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Beckii Cruel

God, I wish I was cute. I wish I had the giant doll-like eyes and stunned expression of the moe (meaning literally 'beansprout', implying not a child, not yet a woman) cosplay cutie. Then that could have been me promoting the anime movie `Pretty Cure All Stars DX2 Protect the Rainbow Light Jewel of Hope` (which is the top class in all Jewels of Hope) in Akihabara this week. And I could have won the `gold medal of cute`, just like Beckii Cruel (real name Rebecca Flint, 14) from the Isle of Man who is here doing her cute dances. Cute is big business in Japan. There is a limitless market for cartoon cosplay costumes, Hello Kitty products and amateurish singing and dancing talentos and idoru. The other morning on the train (the same morning it was announced that some supermarket in the UK had banned customers from shopping in their pyjamas)the girl strap-hanging in front of me was wearing teddy bear print pyjamas, a crocheted shawl, carpet slippers, a giant loopy bow in her hair and a pink heart-shaped badge on which was written the words, "Spank me". She was studying for a university entrance exam and carried her notes in a wicker basket. Take that Tesco! But don`t get the idea that all Japan is like this. It`s actually popular with about the same percentage of people who like to dress up little girls in boob tubes and make-up in the UK. It`s the same old story, the objectification of women.

Beckii Cruel is being soundly rubbished by the foreign community here but if she pays off her parents` mortgage and covers her future university fees then why not? And besides we`re all just jealous because we had to get PhD`s and jobs in Fortune 500 companies to come here. However her parents should be aware that the major fans of cute here in Japan are not tweens as in the UK but young and middle-aged men, as you can see from this rather creepy video below. And is Beckii herself aware that the men in the front row are trying to get up-skirt shots on their mobile phones? Not so innocently cute now, huh? On second thoughts, I think I prefer being, as I was apparently voted by a group of my students, `the teacher we were most scared of this year`. Does that award come with a Jewel of Hope?

Monday, 22 February 2010

吉田兄弟 The Yoshida Brothers

I`m not one of those foreigners who go in for immersing myself in traditional Japanese culture. Noh and Bunraku bore the arse off me, I`m too hyperactive for the Japanese tea ceremony, and I don`t like to get the soles of my feet beaten with bamboo sticks in Buddhist temples. I do however like the Yoshida Kyoudai, the Yoshida brothers, Ryoichiro and Ken`ichi. They are two brothers from Hokkaido in the north of Japan who play the tsugaru-jamisen, a northern version of the 3-stringed shamisen. I like their music because of the way they mix the traditional sound of the shamisen with rock and even J Pop. Here they are in two videos. The first is of their most famous hit to date, Rising. In the second they are playing (with kodo drummers) in a live concert of the plastic boy band, Exile.

Many aspects of traditional Japan are becoming popular with the younger generations in Japan now. To a certain extent I think it is connected with the economic rise of China, and Japan`s sudden realisation that it is part of Asia not America. However when I asked a student about this she replied, "We are becoming interested in these things because foreigners seem to like them. If foreigners like them then we think they must have value."

I`m still not interested in getting my feet beaten ...

Tesco in Kichijoji .... kind of

I have always known there was a Tesco outlet in Tokyo. My students said it was in Chiba (eastern Tokyo) but that it was rubbish. And since the only time I go west of Tokyo Station is to get to Narita airport, I had never bothered going there. But last week when a colleague said he could buy Branston Pickle from a Tesco in Ookubo I decided to look it up on the net. In fact there are 54 Tesco outlets, most of which can be found in a supermarket chain called Tsurukame Land. Since there is a Tsurukame Land store in Kichijoji I decided to walk over there and find it. Well, I wandered around near the train tracks for about half an hour before finding Tsurukame Land actually under the tracks. It`s a bottom-end supermarket although the prices are still higher than my local Co-op. Sure enough it carries Tesco items: Tesco soy sauce, Tesco seaweed, Tesco dried squid and Tesco bean snacks. But it also has Tesco milk, Tesco grated cheese, Tesco plain yoghurt, Tesco white bread, Tesco instant coffee (but no Tesco tea!), and Tesco Bourbons, Malted Milks, Custard Creams and Choc Chip biscuits. There is no Tesco beer, preserves or Branston Pickle or any other Tesco products. I`m not sure what I expected to find there, some item that could epitomise the Great British cuisine, I guess. Black Pudding? Chips? Scones? I settled for Pumpkin seeds.

Tsurukame Land seems an odd choice to carry Tesco products. It`s a supermarket of the stack`em high sell`em cheap variety. And yet Tesco milk is 157 Yen, in the Co-op it`s only 138. Also it`s trying to sell Japanese products to the Japanese. What on earth is the point of that? What can Tesco be getting out of the deal? Does Tsurukame Land have some Chinese connection, I wonder? Are the bulk of Tesco`s goods headed for a supermarket in China?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Chocolate Beer

I`m always looking for new ways to consume chocolate so Chocolate Bitter Beer seemed like a good idea. And it`s not bad at all. Like sweet Guinness.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Center Test

Huzzah! Final exams are over and grades are in. All except for one make-up examination which I have been persuaded to give to a student with too many absences because my class was thoughtlessly scheduled for mid-morning and she has problems getting up `early`. Note to the student concerned: sloth is a deadly sin not an underlying medical condition.

This year for the first time I also proctored one day of the Center Test, a two-day nationwide examination taken by motivated high school students (the ones who are able to get up before noon) looking to get into the higher-ranked universities. The students take a series of short examinations in various subjects such as national language (Japanese), maths, English, sciences etc, and universities take their results into consideration when offering places.

I noted several things:

1) My uni took the whole event very VERY seriously. At one point one of the admin staff called up the speaking clock so we could all synchronise our watches to the second. Having never been bothered with my watch`s third hand I didn`t know how to change it but then I noticed it was already correct to the second, and I recalled that I had had the battery changed a year ago at the watch stand in my local Japanese supermarket.

After the first examination, when we returned to the teachers` room to hand in the completed papers every teacher was given a small bag containining a Vitamin B drink, throat sweets, breath fresheners and chocs. Attention to detail, so Japanese. And of course at lunch-time we were given our obento with a nice piece of salmon, two meatballs (they may have been soy), rice, pickles, beans, spinach and other vegetables.

2) It is important not to disturb the students` Wa (their harmony). Many of the students spent time setting up their desks in the cutlery positions just so, with up to 5 very sharp pencils (some in metal pencil holders) all aligned in the knife position, erasers, eye drops, hand towels and tissues arranged horizontally in the spoon position and student identification (with photos often covered by an eraser due to shyness) in the place of the fork. Nudge one item out of place accidentally when handing out the examination papers and the flustered student would go red in the face and frantically realign everything. One student had THREE watches on this desk. I examined them all. One was his wristwatch, one was an alarm clock with luminous hands, the third was a countdown timer so he could know how many minutes he had left. Of the 21 students in our room who sat the first examination of the day, a one-hour social studies paper (students don`t have to take them all) 5 had to be accompanied to the toilet.

3) At least a third of the students had some grey hair. I first noticed this when I was an assistant school teacher (for those who know the Japanese education system, I was a Jet ALT) at a high level city school. Since they are sitting and I am standing hair is one of the first things I notice about students and generally the more `high tension` a student is the more grey hair they have. After changing jobs and moving to Tokyo one year ago, I noticed a large patch of grey hair on the right side of my own head which I pointed out to my colourist. "So you`re left-handed then" she said. I am. "If you are feeling some stress and you are left-handed it will show on your right side because you are right-brained". I found this to be rather far-fetched but have since discovered, on asking my over-achieving, high tension (`hai tenshon` is a common Japanese phrase) friends that it appears to be true. Students tell me that once `exam hell` is over their hair grows back its original colour.

I would have thought that due to the drop in the birth rate resulting in there now being a university or college place for every 18-year-old who wants one, that students could relax a little. But it seems that competition for top places is as fierce as ever.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Wan Wan Matsuri

My local J-Mart (a hardware and interior furnishings megastore) was having a Wan Wan Matsuri today. Wan Wan is woof woof in Japanese, so it was a woof woof festival. Puppies and kittens were on sale. The average price for the really small dogs - daschunds being the most fashionable dogs at the moment - was 130,000 Yen, that is 866 pounds.

Pets are an obvious status symbol. They require space to house and leisure time for walkies. And that`s even before you start putting clothes on them.

Since J-Mart sells pets and pet supplies, you are allowed to take your pets inside the store ... in your shopping cart. It is not uncommon to round a corner and come eyeball to eyeball with a large dog standing in a cart. Alternatively you can leave your pet in the Dog Parking.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Keitai (Mobile/Cell) Battery Charger

Picture this, non-Japanese readers. You`re a Japanese wakamono (young person) and you`re out and about making essential calls and sending thousands of vitally important text messages to all your friends about what time you got up this morning (after 11am if my students are anything to go by), and what you had for breakfast (nothing for the girls, a black coffee from a vending machine for the guys), and how totally boring Burton-sensei`s class is (you think I can`t see you trying to send messages when my back is turned whilst I`m writing on the whiteboard? I can). Suddenly ... oh no! Your keitai battery has died. You risk being out of contact with your besties for the rest of the day. Social suicide! What to do? No problem. You simply find a public mobile phone charger (see above). 100 Yen for 10 minutes` charge. So now you can watch TV on the train home.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Puppy the World

It has come to my attention that there are dogs running around in this cold winter weather ... naked! Get some clothes on them! There is a great range of padded winter coats at Puppy the World in Odaiba.

Venus Fort, Odaiba

Odaiba is a waterfront entertainment area in Tokyo Bay. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from Tokyo station changing at Shimbashi and taking a train over the Rainbow Bridge. There are several shopping malls, museums, swanky hotels, a ferris wheel and a hot spring theme park with 14 bathhouses. The photos above are of the Venus Fort shopping mall, three floors of discount outlets, shops, restaurants and a games arcade. That is not the sky you can see, that is their famous sky ceiling. At 3pm, the sky darkens, and there is a light show. Odaiba itself is beautifully lit at night, as is the Rainbow Bridge - hence the name.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Year of the Tiger

It is the Year of the Tiger. In celebration of all things feline, I went to Cats Livin in Odaiba, home of the Cat Cafe (where you can have a coffee and play with cats), cat hats and cat costumes. Weird, yes but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sometimes Japan is so far through the looking glass it blows my mind.

Friday, 1 January 2010


Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy New Year! This year is the year of the Tiger, a good year for creative projects apparently. Today Japanese people are sitting around eating special New Year`s Day meals and talking about last night`s `Red and White` Singing Competition in which various talentos sang a song, and it is generally agreed that Susan Boyle (who sang live on the show) was the best thing on it by far.

Me, I`m sitting at home in front of the heater eating dried sugared persimmons and reading my New Year cards (the post office makes a special delivery on the day).