pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)
"You may have heard that you are included as a candidate for the MEXT grant. It will be a great honor and of huge merit in research fund if you are selected. I have to discuss with you, however, about some possible demerit you would face ... "

I sat back in my office chair and pondered this email. The grant in question I had applied for at the end of July; the details had been scant but it involved a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY for five years.

… or possibly the details hadn't been all that scant but I hadn't read further than the HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY.

Either way, it was apparent to all involved that I wasn't aware of the small print.


Money for academics comes in two types: First, there is my salary which I may squirrel away to spend on a stack of Pokemon plushies if I desire. Second, there is my research grant. This grant money broadly covers items such as paper publishing expenses, conference trips, laboratory or computer equipment and sometimes students. While my salary is part of my job (and I'd have to be sacked not to collect it), research grant money needs to be applied for through different national or international bodies. MEXT is the Ministry of Education in Japan.


'Small print' in this context usually applies to what the grant money can be spent on. For instance, my last grant allowed me to buy my computer but not an office chair.

Evidently, comfort was not considered essential for work.

This particular grant, however, turned out to be different.


"MEXT would take over your salary as well as supply a grant..." It was explained to me at a subsequent meeting with our faculty office. "… the University will be very pleased and this would be a prestigious award for you...
"

So everybody wins?


"… but you'd lose your pension contributions, your annual leave would be halved and you'd get no maternity benefits."


Except my mental health.


I opened my mouth to make a response and then closed it. Well, what does one really say to that?


The message was clear: people who receive this grant are supposed to RESEARCH NON-STOP UNTIL THEY DIE!


"However, the Japanese Government has made it compulsory for pregnant women to take 5 weeks maternity leave." The plot thickened as the details were expanded on. "But, on this grant, it is not possible to pay you."


"Well … uh …" I had a sudden image of nursing a small infant surrounded by cans of pickled eggs akin to wartime rations.


In truth, I had no plans to have a baby but the whole process did feel like a Borg-esque assimilation. You are now 3 of 5: research drone. There was however, some light at the end of the tunnel.


For a start, the chances of me actually getting the grant were slim. My name had been put forward by the University but my competition was researchers in every area of science all through the country. Let the medics eat the pickled eggs.


Secondly, while the rules surrounding grant administration were strict, a few backdoors might appear. Such as 'work days' at that …. World renowned… astrophysical... institute in the small Leicestershire village my parents happen to reside in.


Of course, I could turn the grant down but it would be rather hard to refuse a HUGE SUM OF RESEARCH MONEY when there is no guarantee of getting funds through an alternative source.


FUNDING… SANITY… FUNDING… SANITY…


DAMN IT.


Feeling dazed, I returned to my office and promptly took a 90 minute lunch break in protest.


The final part in this stage of the saga came in an email yesterday evening:


"The dates of individual interview in Tokyo at set for September 21 and 22. They ask you to save the both days for the purpose intended in case you are selected."


Where am I planning to be on September 21 and 22? North Hokkaido on a holiday with my parents. I sniffed the air. I smell cubic space ships.

pergamond: ([Utena] Utena // RAWR)

Ever wonder what would happen if the Sapporo crows really did get into the garbage?

 

Imagine if 3 year olds became city workers.

And then one tried to steal your motorbike.

 

 

Welcome to the real meaning of 'Skynet'. 

pergamond: ([Utena] Nanami // pout)

May I just say, I kinda hate PayPal.

Until today, I did in fact hate them. With a fiery passionate all consuming burning-in-all-seven-circles-of-hell-simulataneously kind of hatred. So great was my rage that I was contemplating tracking down the director of PayPal Japan and walking through his house in the dead of night with filthy shoes.

It was that bad.

The bud of my irritation birthed with a tea towel. I wanted to send this particular drying item to my Dad in the UK because … well, who doesn't like tea towels? PayPal allowed me to make the purchase but insisted on the delivery address being either my home in Japan or --rather randomly-- an address I could specify in the USA. Neither choice really hit the mark; in fact they were off by thousands of miles. I contacted PayPal and confirmed this was a "feature" of their service, not an error and proceeded to resolve the matter with the online shop directly. (Who were lovely; go and buy a tea towel. Don't use PayPal). 

A few weeks later, I was in the situation of two people owing me money and being entirely ready to pay. Normally, this would be clarified as a GOOD SITUATION. Since neither of them lived in Japan, we agreed PayPal would be the easiest choice all around.

One of these people paid me successfully. Hooray! I'm off to buy a giant pikachu. 

The second person tried and was told: "This recipient is currently unable to receive money."

I can assure you, this recipient was TOTALLY ABLE to receive money. PLENTY OF SPACE in that bank account. 

It turned out I'd hit secret limit (and by 'secret' I mean probably in the terms and conditions I've never once read) that stops you using PayPal until you get 'verified'. This verification requires PayPal users to confirm their identity and home address.

It was a nuisance but according to the first PayPal representative I spoke to (are you getting a flavour of where this is going?), the process was very simple. As a foreigner living in Japan, all I had to do was scan and upload a copy of my alien registration card. 

And done.

I waited.

One week later I receive an email saying they could not complete the verification process since neither my name nor address agreed with those on my identity card. 

Not the same…. yet, all transactions with my bank account have mysteriously always gone through. 

I examined my PayPal account details and my identity card carefully. There were two differences:

(1) In the address field for PayPal, I'd included the name of my building. Since my registration card had been updated by hand, only the street name, apartment number and postal code had been included.

(2) My PayPal account did not include my middle name.

Now WHY does either of those cause ANY SENSIBLE PERSON to believe there is a REAL INCONSISTENCY? The middle name problem I had hit before; it is rare in Japan to have a middle name and there is frequently confusion surrounding how to deal with them on official paperwork. Nevertheless, PayPal is an INTERNATIONAL COMPANY. Seriously, how hard can this be?

I wrote a blunt email and then realised this was pointless. Instead, I went to the PayPal website and deleted my building name from the address field. Then I tried to update my name. To update your name with PayPal, you need to provide them with proof of identity. Naturally, there was no way of specifying you have previously provided identification, so I uploaded my registration card for the second time.

They updated my name.

And put my middle name in capitals.

Hello everyone. My name is Elizabeth JANE. 

I emailed customer support and pointed this out. Nothing changed. Nor did my verification process status get updated. A week later, I emailed yet again. This time, I got a reply saying I needed to upload my identification to get verified. 

It was an online version of Groundhog Day

I emailed them yet again, detailing the dates of all our previous communications, the steps I had taken and how I had every intention of leaving PayPal.

This was an empty threat. I'd already trawled the web for different options but for international transactions, there isn't an alternative. If I quit astrophysics, I'm setting up an alternative.

I uploaded my registration card for the third time. 

Finally, I get an email back saying my verification pin number is being mailed to me.

This would be to the address for which you didn't allow me to include my building name?! 

Miraculously, Japan Post sorted it out and the slip of paper came through. My account is now verified. The sum of money I am owed from this second friend will be spent on analgesics.

PayPal, you and me have a lot of rebuilding to do. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

A Japanese maid cafe is the closest you can come to having sex with an anime character.

Before you get too excited about this blog post, I should clarify that it's not really all that close. 

While it sounds like the most obvious front for a brothel imaginable, maid cafes feed off the anime role-playing subculture of Japan and are (reasonably) innocent. They are more accurately bars, where the premise is to pretend you are a Lord (or Lady…. but unsurprisingly, more often a Lord) having a drink on your estates, served by one of your beautiful young maids. They address you as 'master' and --despite your obvious wealth-- you seem unable to provide your staff with entirely adequate clothing. 

These cafes attract the lonely, the curious ...

… and astrophysicists taking their visiting seminar speaker out of a drink.

Don't you all want to come and give a presentation at Hokkaido now? Thought so.

Before I get called up in front of the head of faculty, I would like to say it was all the speaker's idea. He even knew where the cafes were located in Sapporo. I hadn't a clue. 

This particular cafe was small, with about 16 seats lined up along the bar. Anime posters hung on the walls and figurines above the bottles formed a ferocious line-up consisting of ninjas, giant robots, space aliens and high school girls. Two bookshelves of manga stood at cat corners and serving the drinks were three young maids. 

These girls were dressed in something approaching a traditional maid's uniform, but with an anime twist. They wore black skirts and waistcoats, with white shirts and aprons. The frilly extents of the skirts were just about decent, ending a good few inches above where the long black socks started. 

Upon sitting down, we were presented with the rules of conduct. You were not allowed to touch the maids or ask for their address or phone number. Photographs were strictly forbidden. There was an initial cover charge for the first hour and then an added amount for each extra half hour you stayed. You were also expected to buy a drink. In total, I spent 1400 yen (~ £11 or $17) for an hour and a half, which was cheap for a maid cafe and frankly totally worth it.

When I initially sat down, however, I was perplexed. Sure, the girls were attractive and looked like they stepped off the pages of a manga, but doesn't the novelty of that wear off after the first five minutes? Possibly the answer was 'no' for a particular brand of lonely salary man, but maid cafes were popular throughout Japan. What was the attraction?

What I didn't appreciate was the level of interaction you had with the maids. They chat continually to the customers, drifting up and down the bar as if it were the stage of an interactive theatre. We only bought one drink each during the 90 minutes we were there and the rest of the time chatted with the girls and each other. 

As well as bringing you a beverage, you can also ask your maid for a picture. One of the maids had a collection of photographs of herself in different anime-related costumes that you could buy for a few extra hundred yen and all of the maids would draw you a picture on a coaster. When I told my maid I like the anime show, Prince of Tennis, she drew me a picture of the progenitor. 

Of course, the main skill in being a hostess is saying what the customer wants to hear. In my case, this was clearly "Can I draw you a picture from the anime you are obsessed with?" but for others it was more about the pretence of the relationship with the maids. 

This is probably because they have never watched Prince of Tennis. 

Seated next to us at the bar were a couple of young men. As they left, one told a maid that he had no friends. She replied that she did not either and would be delighted to be his friend. He went away happy, but it was really a business transaction; he would keep paying to come to the cafe and she would make sure to be pleased to see him when he returned. 

My companions --having translated this conversation for me-- were highly dismissive.

"The ones that come with people are weak," one of them informed me bluntly. "They want to come alone but they dare not, so they bring someone."

Well then. I was just enjoying the atmosphere but apparently my friends were all about judging all the other customers.

Still, I had the temptation to return for quite a different reason; feeling obliged talk to each customer and not speaking a word of English makes the poor girls excellent subjects to practise my terrible Japanese. 

pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)

I had lost my student.

This was unfortunate, since I wanted to blame him for our group's analysis computer suddenly and mysteriously dying. 

Walking into the last office at the end of the hallway, I found my other student dutifully working. (This was quite impressive since I'm fairly sure each and every time my supervisor crept up on me, I was reading the BBC news). Stopping this productivity mid-flow, I asked if he knew the location of his counterpart.

"He saw a star last night," came the explanation.

… and so …? Left the field of astrophysics in shock? Was kidnapped by aliens? Made a wish for a real job and is even now on a flight to Tokyo? 

My present student made a whooshing motion with one arm. "He saw a…. comet?

He'd been crushed by a falling meteor. That would definitely make a fairly original excuse. 

Then a more likely explanation occurred to me. "Oh, he was watching a meteor shower; shooting stars?

"Yes," my student nodded as I filled in the correct English term. "All night."

Aha!

"So… why isn't he in?"

I'm a bad ass supervisor. 

pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)

"Look." I stood at the boundary between two areas in the Faculty of Science. In front of me was the building's foyer with rooms leading off for the office staff and mail room. Behind me was the ground floor of one of the adjoining twin towers; an 11 floored building containing physics and chemistry laboratories. My own office was on floor 9.

The foyer area was sparkling clean; gleaming floor tiles in a peachy marbled design reflected the attractive ceiling lamps and white washed walls. A central stained glass window depicting symbols of Hokkaido University splashed coloured patches of light across a collection of tables and chairs.

In the tower, a bulb in the dimly lit corridor crackled and went out.

"Why don't they clean past here?" I asked. "We get grimy grey flooring with foot deep grit embedded in each corner and there is clearly the ability to keep it nice!"

 "It's because there are experimentalists here." I was told. "It's not worth it."

Dirty experimental scientists.

I knew it.

Theory needs a new building.  


pergamond: ([PoT] Niou // failure)

"わすれてもいいですか。"

I gestured at the cluster of delicate tables over to one side of the cake shop. The woman behind the counter blinked at me, looking slightly surprised, before giving her consent. Clearly --I decided confidently-- she was amazed at hearing a complete sentence in Japanese from the mouth of a foreigner. 

That was one interpretation.

A second conclusion could be formed by noting that switching the first two characters in the verb above would result in: 

すわってもいいですか。 
May I sit down?

compared to what was actually said, which was:

わすれてもいいですか。 
May I forget?

However, I do not believe in admitting to such mistakes. Therefore, I claim "May I forget?" was EXACTLY what I meant and it was merely a polite way of ordered enough sake to knock me under the table. 

Perhaps this was why it was a surprising request in a cake shop. Still, I was not fussy:

Enough sugar to induce a coma would have been equally acceptable.

After all, it had been a tough week. If it was not a deliberate statement then it was most certainly a Freudian slip. 

BRING ON OBLIVION. 

… hello

Aug. 9th, 2012 11:41 pm
pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

It was 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon when I finished the last part of my class preparation for the following day. Looking at the clock, I felt almost irrepressibly excited; I had finished early enough to go grocery shopping AND clean the bathroom!

… it was shortly after this that I realised I was failing at life. 

Arguably, the cat-biscuits-in-the-rice-cooker incident was an earlier indication but I've never been one for dwelling on events. 

I was planning to write long, insightful posts about my experiences as a first year faculty member. They were to be filled with thought provoking statements about the balance between research projects and teaching commitments; the rewards and difficulties, the pain and the pleasure. It would undoubtedly be nominated for a Nobel Prize and become a white paper for future developments in higher educational resources. 

... if only it were possible to move a touch further away from the odor of RAW HYSTERICAL PANIC that filled my mind each time I attempted to rationalise my situation into coherent thoughts. 

Guys. It comes down to this:

Teaching.

Is.

Hard.

Who knew? Well… teachers. But who believed them? No one. 

I am now half-way through the year (Japan is a half-year out of sink with the West, so I've completed one semester and taught one course and still have a second semester and a second course to go) and have been sent a cheerful reminder that my first tenure-track assessment will be next month. 

Picture the gateway into Mordor.

ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO MORDOR.

Because one must teach a class. Then, the gateway is behind you, that small box in the top left corner of the form is ticked and the rest of the assessment will be on the WORLD CLASS RESEARCH YOU'VE SURELY DONE TO FIND THE ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL.

Frankly, I'm holding out hopes for big marks allocated for keeping on top of things to the extent of not posing a significant health risk to the rest of the department.  

The saving grace is that I WAS in fact told life was gonna be this way. I was assured that first year faculty was tough but --unless you had the grievous misfortune of teaching a different class the following year-- the second year was significantly better and you might actually get to do research. Or shower. I'm hoping this means my review committee have seriously low expectations. 

Meanwhile I have six teaching-free weeks. I'm thinking 6 research papers. Or 60. Aim for the stars! Because if you fall short… I'll be doomed because I'm an astrophysicist. Darn. 

pergamond: ([PoT] Niou // failure)

Friday night I came home about 10 pm. It was late, but I was hungry and keen to relax for a bit before going to bed. I put the rice cooker on and then stepped out to the nearby convenience store to pick up some juice, which I'd run out of the night before. Convenience stores in Japan are 24 hours which is nothing short of wonderful for late-night working researchers. 

I came back to a terrible smell.

My first thought was that I'd turned the stove on and left a tee-towel or plastic container resting on the heated ceramic surface. My second thought was that the rice cooker had exploded. The third was that the cat had exploded. 

None of the above proved to the true. The stove was turned off, the rice cooker seemed to be bubbling normally and the cat appeared fine, as did her litter box. 

I sniffed.

Everything.

I stuck my nose down the sink, in the rubbish bins, behind the sofa, in the fish tank and in the fridge.

Nothing.

Admittedly, for something of that ilk to have kicked up such a stink while I was at the shops, some crazy mutant bacteria would have had to be at work. However, after eight months living in Japan, nothing really surprised me anymore. 

The only point I could conclude was that the stench was coming from the kitchen. Perhaps my downstairs neighbours were trying to determine which of their waste was 'burnable garbage' in the most obvious fashion. I opened the balcony doors and tried to breath through my mouth until the rice cooker finished. 

It was only then that I discovered the source of the smell.

I'd put cat biscuits in the rice cooker.

I'd love to tell you there was a typo in the above sentence, but there is not. I had put cat biscuits in the rice cooker. 

For the record, Hill's pet science diet should not be cooked in a rice cooker. What is more, I'm prepared to postulate that this would apply to any heating device. I can confirm categorically that it was not a good choice to put with the sea food stir fry I was planning.

I stared at the vomit-coloured lumpy mess and realized there was only one possible conclusion.

Teaching has sent me insane.

It's sad, people. But it's true. 

Fishes

Jun. 16th, 2012 11:43 pm
pergamond: ([Shrek] Puss-in-boots // how can you res)

Meet Bonita and Manchas. 'Bonita' means 'pretty' in Spanish and 'manchas' means spots. Manchas is the fish with black… yes, you guessed it. 

How did I end up with two goldfish with Spanish names?

Well, I'd acquired them from a Chinese friend in my Japanese class. Obviously. 

Finding herself leaving Japan in the switch from postdoc to faculty, my friend had been unsure what to do with her fish. Taking a cat and dog on an aeroplane was one thing but…. had people even written import regulations for fish? Live ones?

Despite the obvious problem (pictured in the lower pane above), I had volunteered for adoption services. Regardless of my best efforts, I had failed to lure birds to my ninth floor apartment and thought that the fish might provide something in the way of feline entertainment. How long this would last depended partially on the strength of the tank lid.

My friend came over with the tank and water filter, I watched a youtube video on how to clean a fish tank and rested a book on European history on the lid. The lid promptly buckled. I swapped the book for one on American history. 

This was a few weeks ago and I still have two fish. This means that:

(a) my cat has not eaten them.

(b) I narrowly avoided killing them through the temptation to dump them in a tea pot of tap water while I cleaned the tank. It's a good job I tweet my important intentions. 

Tallis hangs out by the tank from time to time during the day. She's never attempted to remove the lid, either because the watery contents filled her with horror or because I placed a large stuffed cow on top of the history book. She does occasionally bat the tank with one paw when she feels there isn't enough action. The fish are unmoved. Often literally.

The fish themselves are surprisingly interactive. I never actually thought fish acknowledged (in a distinguishable manner) the world outside their tank. Once the glass was clean, I experimentally placed a photograph of the galaxy by one wall. It was an attempt at a Total Perspective Vortex but it apparently just confirmed was great fish they really were.

Each morning when I appear, the fish come to the front of the tank and glare at me. You wouldn't think fish were capable of demanding breakfast, but apparently there is no limit to what can bully in my household.

I am going to take my revenge by eating my seafood dinner on the sofa beside their tank. 

pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)

I stood in my new office and looked around. Everything was big. The room was big, the white board was big, the bookcases (and their number) were big, my desk was big and my desktop computer was big. 

Then there was me in the middle wearing jeans and a baggy 'grape Fanta' sweater. Ho hum.

Until last week I had been sharing an office. While slightly unusual for a faculty member, I had not minded the situation. My office mate was friendly, spoke great English and --perhaps more to the point-- was never there. He was involved in the design and construction of astronomical instruments and spent most of his time at various observing sites preparing his mechanical off-spring for their deployment. 

Unless observational astronomers are vastly different from their theoretical counterparts, I could see why getting a new instrument to the stage it could be safely left was a prolonged process. 

The previous owner of this office had retired. In academia speak, this meant he had accumulated the addition of 'emeritus' to his professor title and moved to a different building. As I examined what had been left in the drawers and cabinets, I wondered if retirement happened through choice or was something that was foisted upon you once your office contained a critical number of floppy disks. By the time it is my turn, that unit of measurement will probably be USB thumb drives. 

In addition to the large box of floppies, I discovered a collection of astrophysics books in Japanese and a variety of small magnets of the type used to pin cards and notes to metal surfaces. I picked one up and attached a card to my white board. There. Much more homely. 

Most of these magnets were a standard round shape in a solid colour such as blue or red. However, two were shaped as pink hearts and four were miniature lady birds. I raised an eyebrow. 

When a couple of students rolled into my office, I pointed out these surprisingly aesthetic additions. The ladybirds were promptly stacked on top of each other and attached, pointing outwards, to my board. It looked like an erect org--- Well, never mind. 

"In Japanese, we say 'tentoumushi'. 'Mushi' means 'bug'." I was told. "What are they in English?"

"Ladybirds," I supplied. "In UK English, 'Ladybird' and in US English 'Ladybug'."

"Bird?" came the surprised retort. "But they are not birds, they are bugs!"

I opened my mouth and then closed it. Then I scratched my head and examined the magnets. "Look, " I said at last. "It doesn't happen often, but sometimes the Americans get it right."

"And why lady? They are not ladies!"

I scowled. "Because ladies are pretty and delicate unlike boys."

Sometimes, even professors need to resort to school-yard insults. 

pergamond: ([Random] kitten // rar)

I looked down at my feet in time to see my cat's teeth almost pop out of her jaw through her impassioned screech. I knew the sources of her distress:

We were currently experiencing a magnitude 6.0 earthquake.

And she was being pursued by a robotic vacuum cleaner. 

"Have you seen that thing? Is it a robotic cat? Why does it bump into walls? LOOK! ITS BUMPING HAS MADE THE WHOLE BUILDING ROCK! HOW COULD YOU HAVE LET IT IN HERE?"

Up until that evening, I had been using a cordless stick vacuum cleaner I had bought second hand. That particular device had many good points; it was light and easy to maneuver, it didn't take up much space in my apartment and it had a built-in dust buster than was great for cleaning up cat litter. What is truly failed on was carpet.

The study area of my apartment is almost entirely covered by a thick rug I bought from Ikea in Canada. This is the location where Tallis uses her scratch pad and rolls around in a box filled with cat nip. It is also where I normally eat dinner while watching an episode of 'Naruto'. The stick vacuum can take this area from 'major biohazard' to 'probably won't kill you if you leave quickly'. I can't honestly say I've ever found this totally satisfactory, although there are some weeks where the thought I might not make it through the month acts as a ray of hope. 

Buying a new vacuum cleaner was therefore on my list. However, the choice wasn't obvious since the machine had to be able to clear a carpet but not be so bulky that storing would be a problem. After deep consideration of many models, I went for the most logical compromise:

Screw the practicalities and get something amusing. 

An amazon review then made the choice of a Roomba iRobot cleaner obvious: "Smart technology, no work for me, drives the dog nuts - what's not to like?!

It sounded perfect

I confess, I was skeptical as to its real cleaning powers. What I actually required (apart from a good laugh at my cat's expense) was a machine with better suction than my stick vacuum. It seemed to me that the amount of oomph you could get from a Roomba's spinny centripetal motion was never going to rival a large upright cylinder with room for all kinds of exciting upward air currents. 

Yet, amazingly enough, it does the job. 

OK, its cleaning random walk is sometimes a little too random. Rather like me, it needs to be boxed into an area for maximum efficiency to ensure it doesn't wander off into the kitchen and leave patches unfinished. Sometimes it loses the location of its docking station. Sometimes this is because I accidentally locked it in the bedroom. Once it found its way under a chair but then couldn't escape. It kept devotedly cleaning the same purple square of carpet until I came and rescued it. 

It is a little too loud for comfortable background noise. Ideally, I'd turn it on and then leave the apartment but I'm reluctant to do this until I'm certain it won't have a show down with the cat.  

Its instruction manual is in English which I feel disproportionately grateful for after the difficulty with buying a microwave. I have made full use of this good fortune by storing the manuals safely on my bookcase and then just hitting the vacuum's large central button labelled 'start'. Ideally, I'd move onto the more advanced options, but it's hard to summon up the necessary effort when you can get so much for so little.

Now my carpet is clean and the cat is exhausted. It's really one big win all round. 

 

In other news, please excuse my lack of updates… teaching is eating me in one mega goat gulp. 

 

pergamond: ([Utena] Utena // RAWR)

I was trudging through the rain back to my apartment when I saw it. 

A lone tree between the supermarket and the car park.

A lone tree covered with blossom.

The sakura cherry blossom had finally reached Sapporo.

Down in Tokyo (where blossom festivities had finished a month ago), the sakura is preceded by several weeks by the plum blossom. Here in Sapporo, where the snows only stop for about 20 minutes, the trees have to get a move on and both plum and cherry blossoms appear together in a riot of spring pinks and whites. Since these tender tree flowers last only a precious couple of weeks, I took off to Sapporo's main shrine in Maruyama Park as soon as the rains shows signs of abating.

As did the rest of Sapporo.

Literally Every Single Person. It was a miracle the subways were even running.

It had rained solidly from Thursday to Saturday, but on the last Sunday of Golden Week (so named for its multiple national holidays), the sun peaked out between the showers. I reached the park to find the lower ground had become the land of a million BBQs while the upper blossom grove swarmed with people and cameras. Mainly cameras.

If one were to paint the scene, a grey sandwich for the threatening sky and photographic equipment with a thick pink and white jam splurge in the middle would capture the moment. It was beautiful and the atmosphere of excitement was contagious. 

So contagious that I bought a giant squid on a stick and half a sweet potato from a nearby stand. 

The arrival of the sakura is a major event in the Japanese calendar. Weather forecasters plot the advance of the cherry blossom as it moves across the country and everyone gets ready to eat, drink and be merry. It's like Christmas, only outdoors. I strongly suspect every Japanese family photo album is 3/4 full of identical close-up pictures of the tiny pink and white flowers. 

Just as I sat down with my sea creature and spud lunch, the skies opened in a downpour. People ran for cover and started moving the picnic tables into the shelter of the food stands. Except they couldn't move the one I was sitting at since I hadn't budged. I am British after all.

One of the women working at the food stalls came up to where I was nonchalantly seated and tucked the spare chairs underneath the plastic table. "Are you OK?" she asked me.

Are you dying? Is that why you haven't moved? Don't you know if you DON'T MOVE OUT THE RAIN YOU WILL DIE?

I peeked out of her from underneath the hood of my rain jacket. "I'm good!" I told her with a squiddy grin.

She looked astounded. 

I finished my grilled squid. Typically, the rain then stopped. It really was just like being back at home.

pergamond: ([PoT] Fuji // pretty & wiped)

I approached the woman behind the counter at the 'Tokyo Hands' department store and put my purchases on the counter. I had done this exact same action the day before. Same time, same store, same goods. I hoped very much it was not the same shop assistant. Does it count as deja vu when you really have done it before? 

One of the first adjectives I learned in my Japanese class was 'benri' meaning 'convenient'. At the time, it struck me as an odd word to have come up so early (how many times do you use the word 'convenient'?) but that was before I understood more about Japanese culture. 

The ideal Japanese life is perfectly described as benri and nowhere is this more apparent than inside a Japanese apartment. While small, apartments in Japan are designed extremely efficiently with every inch constructed with a specific activity in mind. If you are able to curb your rebellious streak, it is indeed a very convenient lifestyle. The built-in cupboard by the door is for shoes (a fact that escaped me until my movers tried to put my foot wear in there when they unpacked), the one above the washing machine perfectly fits a bottle of detergent and not much else. Flushing the toilet runs water into an integrated wash basin as it fills the tank and any Japanese homeowner believes the kitchen cupboards should be filled in a very particular manner. The balcony, meanwhile, is a place to hang out clothes to dry. 

The presence of a small balcony is a common feature in Japanese apartments. While --with a bit of a squeeze-- you could put a chair and small table out there, it is obviously not what the architect had in mind. The barrier that stops you plummeting to your doom is normally a concrete wall high enough to block any view a seated martini drinker might enjoy. It also boasts two built in racks designed to support a pole on which to hang washing. 

It is normal for each apartment in Japan to have its own washing machine, but not its own tumble drier. Potentially, you could buy a two-in-one device (there is no space for a separate machine, the apartment design completely forbids you buying one) but most people hang their laundry outside during the warmer days. In Sapporo, this actually means a few scant months when the place isn't filled with snow, which explains why this was a new venture for me. 

'Tokyo Hands' offered a range of sizes for washing poles and, while I had measured the length I required, I wasn't sure which pole would be best. This goes someway to explaining why I ended up buying two poles on subsequent days; the first pole was a success so I went back to buy a second. I also hadn't bought enough pegs, which explains the second repetitive purchase. 

I attempted to break this strange real deja vu sensation by going up two floors, rather than one, to use the bathroom after I'd paid. This plan was flawed by the men's and women's restrooms alternating floors. I resigned myself to a predictable afternoon. 

It must be said that drying clothes outside basically rocks. Of course, I had done this many times at my parents' house but since then I had either not had an outdoors area, or lacked a fail-safe way of erecting a make-shift line. Now, however, I could put my wet clothing neatly out of the way on my balcony, go about my day and when I returned it would be all air dried and wonderful. 

…. I was just congratulating myself on my purchases when it started to rain. You would think my memories of the UK would remind me of this obvious drawback. Since I had hung items out on my single washing pole, I expected to return to find a soggy mess. Instead, I discovered the balcony above had protected them from the light shower and they were perfectly dry. How…. convenient.  

 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

There is only one elevator serving the eleven floors in the physics department. This makes any trip from my 9th floor office to the Great Outdoors one to be considered carefully, since the wait time on the return journey can turn even the quickest trip to buy a soda into a day's expedition. 

On Wednesday, I had gone outside for two reasons: the first was that I was hungry and my computer monitor was starting to look like a large slab of extra dark Lindt chocolate. The second was that it was a beautiful afternoon and the rest of the week was forecast for nothing but rain. 

The rest of the week was also a national holiday. That, people, is what we call UNFAIR.

On my return, I chewed on the straw of my grapefruit juice and waited for the elevator to make its round-robin way to the first floor. I was just regretting not purchasing more food (maybe dinner and tomorrow's breakfast) when the doors slid open to reveal a young man standing in the centre of the elevator. His phone was flipped open but rather than looking at the screen, he was staring at a spot on the floor just in front of my feet. 

He did not move.

I hesitated. Clearly, there were two possibilities for what was going on here:

Either the elevator had become a stasis chamber or its occupant was a cyborg.

I almost didn't step inside. Then I realised that my hesitation might mean the cyborg knew his cover had been blown. No doubt he had been programmed to open his phone while updating, thinking this the ideal cover in a country where everyone is permanently glued to their handsets. YOU GOT TO LOOK AT THE SCREEN, MORON CYBORG. Yet another classic example of why computers won't take over the world. For others, see my published research. 

However, revealing I had discovered his ploy would undoubtedly result in alien abduction and probing and memory reassembling that would wipe my preparations for my next class and the whole thing would be in Japanese, so I wouldn't understand and therefore couldn't even blog about it!

Besides, I was meeting representatives from a nearby high school at 5:30 and an abduction was bound to over-run.

I stepped into the elevator. Time appeared to run normally. I flipped open my phone and tried to blend in. This was pointless since I had no signal while we moved. SEE HOW DUMB YOUR SCHEME IS, CYBORG BOY? After three floors, the cyborg looked up, then down again. This time, his eyes found his phone screen. 

I escaped on level 9. The cyborg continued going to level 11. Particle physics is probably history. 

pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

298135_10150411873577059_789467058_10217959_593703600_n.jpg

A few doors down from my apartment complex is a small shop that sells plants. I've never been inside since --being a small place-- there would be the obligation on the shop keeper's side to make polite conversation and only appropriate word I know the Japanese for is 'tree'. The conversation would therefore progress something like this:

"Good evening. Are you looking for a particular plant?"

"Tree."

"I'm afraid we don't have anything as big as a tree. How about this small shrub?"

"Tree."

"No, I'm sorry, we really have nothing larger. What about a herb garden?"

"Tree."

"Are you on day release from a unit for the mentally disturbed?"

"Tree."

"If you say that to me again, I'm going to be forced to call the police."

"… tree?"

Clearly it was not a good idea to go inside. I therefore have always just passed by, looking at the small array of pots on the pavement. Last night when I went out to get a pint of milk, one of the pots had become the perching ground for a crow.

Sapporo crows have two main distinguishing features. Firstly, they are the same size as my cat. Secondly, they are ballsy feathered fiends who fear no man or beast, probably because there is no man or beast they wouldn't consider eating. That said, they usually at least take a hop back if you get within touching distance. Undoubtedly, this is because a head on attack requires the room to spread wings.

This crow, however, did not move. I stopped before it and wandered whether it was stuffed. Its shiny black eyes implied it was the real article but it made no move to get away. I debated touching it but thought I would probably lose my hand.

This concern transpired to be a real fear of the shop owner since, upon my return journey a few minutes later, the crow was being interrogated by not one, but FOUR police officers. Most likely they had been called out due to fears that said fowl was scaring away customers / preventing the owner leaving the premisses / a look-out for a pot plant heist. The officers had the bird surrounded but appeared unsure about the next step. How do you handcuff a crow?

While the crow was remaining mum on all subjects, I personally felt its cock-sure attitude in the face of armed forces spelt a clear message:

"You got nothing on me. I've got friends in high places. REAL high places. And your eyes? They're breakfast."

I moved along in case I was about to bear witness to a terrible crime.

The next morning, both crow and police had gone. It remains uncertain as to who got rid of who. Notably, I have not seen the store owner since.

pergamond: ([PoT] Fuji // pretty & wiped)

I woke up on Easter day and it was spring.

Despite the fact it had been snowing the day before, I was only halfway into town when I had to unzip my winter coat and stuff my hat into my bag. Then one of the snow grips on my shoes snapped off. The message was clear:

It is now spring. Residents are supposed to dress accordingly.

And that was that. It never snowed again. The next day was a monday and I walked into campus to find the piles of snow rapidly melting. In the more sheltered areas between buildings, workmen were taking pickaxes to the larger chunks of ice so they would disintegrate more quickly. By Tuesday, the snow blowers were on the sports courts clearing them ready for the spring season. I walked to class on Thursday to the rhythmic twang of tennis balls on rackets as the clubs swung back into action.

Around this time, I began to suspect Japan was actually a giant reality TV show inside a climate controlled dome. I hoped it was more in line with 'The Truman Show' and not 'The Hunger Games'.

I read the Hunger Games to prepare just in case. I find it suspicious there is no release date for the movie in Japan yet.

Within a week, the snow had all disappeared. The white and grey frozen ice mountains have been replaced by newly seeded grass. The risk of falling flat on my back each time I step outside has gone...!

…. switched for death by bicycle or by flying baseball. Both road and pavement are packed with biking students and every square of grass has at least seven others throwing baseballs in some complex catch pattern that always seems to cross the path I want to take.

In short, there is never a season for which it is inappropriate to wear a hockey helmet.

pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)

"Eleanor!"

I recognised the person who was shouting from the bike racks next to the international student centre. He was an Indonesian student in my Japanese communication class along with (among others) a woman named Eleanor. I therefore did not take much notice until he jumped in front of me.

"You are from England!"

I struggle with my surprise while trying to compose an answer that consisted of something other than 'I know'.

"Um, I …. yes."

"I know someone there. Laura. Do you know Laura?"

"……..."
In my imagination, I freeze the scene and turn to the camera that I know is making my life into a prime-time TV drama. I lift an eyebrow in disbelief.

"Ahhh." Back in reality, my accoster was nodding wisely. "There are many Lauras in England."

"It is a country of … millions ... of people," I say weakly.

"I assumed you were studying Earth Sciences! In my country, we have an exchange with England for Earth Science!"

... and therefore every British person does Earth Science? I suppose that would make them the number one country to do a study exchange with but rather harder to find anyone to feed you upon arrival.

"I'm actually faculty in Physics," I reply. "What are you working on here?"

"In my own country, I am an assistant professor!" came the declared answer. "Here I am working on my PhD!"

Did that mean he was a professor without a PhD?

Thursdays. Arthur Dent was right; you just can't get the hang of Thursdays.

I escaped to have lunch.

Bath time

Apr. 11th, 2012 08:35 am
pergamond: ([Random] Kitten rar!)

MP900405344.JPG

Baths used to be more relaxing.

I lay in the bubble laden water and watched the source of my stress step carefully along the damp edge of the tub. This had been the first time since I had brought Tallis to Japan that I had taken a bath[*], a fact I hadn't appreciated until the panic stricken cat call reached my ears.

"YOWL!"
HOLY CRAP. YOU'RE COVERED IN WATER! AND IT'S DEEP! COME OUT! COME OUUUUUUUUUT!

I had ignored the cry which had resulted in a furry form leaping precariously onto the bath's ledge. Being a cat, Tallis' balance is naturally excellent. Excellent… but not perfect. Her paws slipped dangerously as she made her way towards the taps. I sighed and reviewed my options. An additional complication in this situation was that I was holding a large book out of the water.

(Yes… the ideal relaxing evening… a soak in hot water while reading my novel. Currently, it was more stressful than the battle I was reading about.)

If Tallis would fall in the tub, I would doubtless have to sacrifice my tome to a watery grave and fish her out. While I doubt she would drown, I strongly suspected the water would run red. From my blood. This was not part of the evening I had planned. I therefore settled for holding the book (a meaty hardback) in one hand and encouraging Tallis to jump down (in the right direction) with the other. This success lasted all of two minutes before she was back up.

"Yowl?!"
You're still alive! Maybe it's not so bad and …. SO MUCH WATER! WHHHYYYY??"

She was no more impressed the second time. Or the third. In the end, she jumped onto the floor and I covered her with a gobbet of bubbles. The indignity sent her fleeing from the room. However, the peace was shattered, not least because I couldn't rule out the possibility of a flying feline leap into the tub from a spot outside my sight. NOT RELAXING.

Since attempting to do the washing up while the bath was running had resulted in somewhat luke warm water, I abandoned the venture. Next time when I want to chill out, I'll just go and stand outside in a gale. MUCH more relaxing.

--

[*] I hasten to add my apartment has a shower

pergamond: From xkcd.com ([xkcd] Carebear stare)

Today I completed a task that I've been attempting for six months.

I bought a microwave.

Now you might think --logical readers that you are-- that purchasing a basic kitchen device in the land of futuristic electronics should not have been a half-year quest. Indeed, a stroll through any electronics store would reveal a multitude of promisingly shaped food heating devices. Since a typical Japanese kitchen will boast a hob but no oven, microwaves are big business. Walking from one end of a shop's kitchen utilities floor to the other will take you from the most basic food heating box through to full portable steam ovens capable of cooking everything from bread to roast chickens.

What I was after was something in the middle of that range. I was no master chef, disappointed in my inability to produce seven tiered cakes as bribery to the snow gods (although with still no break in the weather, I was more seriously considering it). I just wanted to re-heat food and maybe cook a pizza or bake a handful of cookies from time to time. In short, what I wanted was a convection microwave.

While I wasn't able to read the majority of the descriptions beside each device, it was fairly easy to narrow down the aisles of black boxes to the ones focussed on the product I had in mind. Familiar brand names such as Sharp, Panasonic, Toshiba and Hitachi met my eyes, known world-wide for exactly these microwaves.

Whipping out my phone, I made a note of several promising serial numbers. Back at home I planned to google each one, grab their English manual and check out the reviews on UK and North American sites. Easy no?

After all, there was surely NO WAY that ALL THESE MICROWAVES, manufactured by international companies, were ones SOLELY FOR THE JAPANESE MARKET? With not a single one of them having an ENGLISH INSTRUCTION MANUAL?

… I think you can tell the way this went down.

If you feel this is truly unbelievable, try google on the 'Sharp re-s204' or 'Panasonic ne-s264'. It turns out these companies are all secretly Japanese and do not offer any of their home country selection anywhere else in the world. Who knew? You can't even write 'Sharp' in kana, the Japanese phonetic script. It would have to be 'Sharupu'. Yet, it is a closeted Japanese corporation.

So completely unlikely did I find this entire situation that I kept re-trying and searching for different brands and models. For six months. So when I tell you it can't be done, be assured that this was a thorough investigation. I even looked at pictures of the microwaves available in Europe to see if the model number just changed because the front panel was printed in Japanese. A cunning idea, but unyielding in its productivity.

The problem was that with the more complicated microwave ovens, I strongly suspected I needed an instruction manual I could read. If I was happy with something that just required a time to be set I could certainly manage, but without access to an oven, I really wanted something more advanced.

In the end --after realizing that the snow was never going to stop and hot food would be needed year round-- I searched for the simplest design and alighted upon another Panasonic model with a grill, oven and microwave function. Most notably, this microwave had an amazon.co.jp review from a foreigner who said he could manage it without being able to read the instruction manual. I clicked 'this review was helpful' and hoped I wasn't foolish to place my faith in a man named 'Raymundo Jr'. Also encouraging was a translated review on a second site which stated that it so easy to operate, it could be managed by the elderly. I remain hopeful that the quality of the translation had no baring on the un-pc nature of that remark.

That settled, I showed it to my parents who had offered to buy such a microwave as a Christmas present. Christmas… Easter … it's very easy to get these Christian holidays confused. However, when they tried to buy the microwave, their credit card was refused.

This is quite clearly because SECRET JAPANESE MICROWAVES ARE NOT FOR FOREIGNERS.

I put down my own (Japanese) credit card. They have responded by declaring the item is not yet ready to ship. If I emerge from the likely secret service investigation with a microwave, I'll let you know. Else, I'm putting a BBQ on my balcony.

 

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