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)

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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.

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.

 

April

Apr. 4th, 2012 10:06 am
pergamond: ([Utena] Nanami // pout)

In case you were wondering whether anything had changed since April began...

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…. it hasn't.

pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)

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Today, I bought something awesome. Strips… of plastic. Thick clear wedges with a similar consistency to a child's chew toy. I did not gnaw on them.

But I did think about it.

As you can tell from the photograph, these wonders of engineering are not teething toys shaped for animal-fearing fruitarian children. Rather, they provide the equivalent force of FOUR baby elephants in an acrobatic combination to hold your furniture fast against the force of an earthquake.

My first quake since returning to Sapporo happened only a couple of days after my arrival. I was seated fetal-style in front of my gas heater, with my eyeballs pressed into my kneecaps. The aim of the game was not to fall into a deep jetlagged-induged slumber at 6pm and --as you can undoubtedly tell-- I was totally winning.

Being in an earthquake is like being on a boat or suffering from a sudden dizzy spell. I looked up groggily and tried to determine if my brain was making it all up.

Bowls rattled. I saw the cat turn tail and try to flee before realising the danger seemed to be EVERYWHERE. She froze and mewed.

This quake was not in any way serious, but it was prolonged, shaking the apartment for several minutes. It was even long enough for me to produce some kind of reassuring response to my petrified feline. I held out my arms.

"Yo. I can hold you but it won't help. We'll just sway together."

This transpired to be completely satisfactory. Possibly Tallis' longstanding enforced role as my dance partner as I bounced around the apartment was paying off.

No earthquake can beat Katy Perry.

I meanwhile, was watching my crockery. It sat on an open bookcase with stylishly misaligned shelves. While fairly secure during normal operations, being shaken about always came with the slight risk of COMPLETE AND UTTER DESTRUCTION. I yawned and tried to get my fogged-up brain to think. It produced the single thought:

Which garbage day would be for broken crockery?

You can see why I thought I might be imaging an earthquake. Fortunately, nothing broke.

Now however, we have SUPER ELEPHANT POWER CHEW TOYS to fix all the problems! Shaped as long wedges, they slide under the front of furniture to tilt them backwards very slightly. This means that if they are rocked, they are more likely to tip back against the wall than throw your plates at your cat. The bookcase feels considerably more stable, so much so that I moved the complete "Lord of the Rings" hardback volume I had been using for stability from its bottom shelf. It's now across the room holding the cat tree in place.

For some reason, I never finished reading that book.

pergamond: ([PoT] Karupin // Christmas)

Japan is celebrating the arrival of spring. Last week contained a public holiday to mark the Spring Equinox. Pink plum flowers are appearing throughout Tokyo and the city is preparing for next week's hanami celebrations where hoards of people will descend on the parks to gape up at the famous cherry blossoms. As I walked to work this week, I wondered if I too should be celebrating the arrival of the warmer weather...

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… and decided, on reflection, no.

To be fair, the weather is showing signs of changing. It no longer snows all day, every day. It now snows all day some days and some snow all days. The periods of heavy fat flakes are shorter and a bold attempt at rain in the form of sleet has started to appear.

With only the smallest of considerations to confirm that 'The Day after Tomorrow' was indeed a movie, I can honestly say this is more snow than I have ever seen before in my life. I mean, the last time I saw a whole pavement must have been the best part of five months ago. If I had started building snowmen in November, by now I could have created an UNDEFEATABLE ARMY with which to rule the WHOLE WORLD.

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Except the sticky heat of Florida. But that's going under water soon enough.

Then I googled images of Sapporo (to try and determine if we ever even had pavements) and discovered that the annual snow festival had already had the same terrible idea.

So enjoy your spring, Tokyo, but be warned: we're coming.

P.S.  Please send sweatshirts.

pergamond: ([Tamora Pierce] Circle // Tris)

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In my teens, my favorite author was Tamora Pierce. Pierce writes historical fantasy books about --and I quote the author-- "girls who kick ass". In one of the later books, her heroine Keladry is forced to confront her fear of heights by climbing down a rusty iron staircase that winds around an observation tower named 'Balor's Needle'.

I couldn't honestly say that the outside staircase to my apartment bore a strong resemblance to the decrepit death trap in the novel, but it was close enough to make me cling to the hand rail. While the concrete steps and their high outer wall did not suffer from rust, I was fighting large patches of ice and snow that always seemed to appear at the critical point where the stairs narrowed to turn the corner.

The reason I was taking the stairs was because the elevator was down for maintenance between 11 am and 12 that day. Why I was home at all during that one key hour when I am never usually near the building, was because I had forgotten my access number for the super computing system in Tokyo. It was the only time since I started my position in Japan that I had ever returned home for something. It was also the only time the elevator had been out of use. Since I had started that morning with my trousers on back-to-front, I couldn't honestly say the day was going all that well.

There is no inside stair to my apartment, just the elevator and the outside steps I was now slowly plodding up. Such a design is popular in Japanese apartment buildings, possibly because the probability of such an exit becoming unusable because of fire is low. That said, with Sapporo's snow fall, it seems likely the stairwell would become blocked by snow for half the year and dangerously icy for panicked getaways. I made a mental note to either wait for such a fire to take hold sufficiently to melt the outside snow or for the bodies of my broken neighbours to pile up in the stairwell to break my own fall. I am all about practical planning.

As I reached the 9th floor, I looked across at the opposite apartment building to where the giant Sapporo crows appeared to be attempting a break-in through the top story door. You had to wonder how those birds got so large. Was it from feasting on people escaping down outside staircases?

The problem with climbing stairs is you have far too much time to think about ice, rust and … death by crow.

I arrived at my apartment to find an immensely guilty-looking cat. The source of her crime never became clear however, so possibly it was reflected remorse at my wasting time to return home at such an hour. If so, her emotional pain continued since I decided my mental health couldn't take the walk down the stairs, and I lurked until the lift came back into action.  I replied to a few emails to make it look like I was really in my office … with the door locked just … hating the world… I'm sure that will give the best impression at work.

When I returned I discovered acquiring my access number was only half the battle to gaining entrance to the desired computer. After a frustrating afternoon installing a variety of programs and burying at least three toads in wiccan sacrifice, I discovered I wasn't allowed to begin using the system until next week.

Mondays. They're just there to annoy you.

pergamond: ([PoT] Niou // failure)

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Today, I covered my iron with glue. Twice.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give this idea no more than a 3. It misses the bottom score purely because it did come off and the first coating peeled away in a single layer, which was satisfying in a similar manner to popping bubble wrap.

This whole sticky scheme started with curtains. I feel I could be forgiven for not correctly predicting the outcome.

The main room in my apartment has a set of patio doors which lead onto a small balcony. In Japan, it is normal for every apartment to have a washing machine, but rather less common for them to have a tumble drier. People therefore hang their clothes out on their balconies which have built-in racks for exactly that purpose. If it ever stops snowing, I'll be able to give that a go.

Since I like looking at the city lights, acquiring curtains for these glass expanses has been low on my job list. The neighboring apartments near me are also not as tall, so I've been blithely waving away the possibility that my indecent state in the mornings can be seen by half of Sapporo. If anyone sees that the site 'www.nakedhokkaidogaijin.co.jp' has been registered, let me know. Nevertheless, the windows do look rather bare without curtains at least framing their perimeter and their absence is often commented on by visitors.

This weekend was not the first weekend I set out to correct this negligence. What had thrown my previous attempts asunder was the difficulty in acquiring the appropriate length of material. My measurements indicated I needed a 188 cm curtain, but the curtains on offer were either 178 or 200 cm. This was particularly perplexing because almost everything else in Japan is a neat standard size, so why on Earth couldn't I find the perfect fit in window outfitting? The architect for my building was clearly a rebel.

Anyone about to suggest I make my own curtains should finish reading this post first. You will then abandon such a notion.

After confirming that a 178 cm curtain would make my home look like a gangly teenager after an unfortunate growth spurt, I reluctantly purchased the 200 cm curtains. My bold plan was to hem these up to the appropriate length. Judging from the time it had taken me to raise the back of my trousers so they didn't trail in the mud, it seemed likely this project would be finished around Christmas.

2013.

Then I would do the second curtain.

On the look out for pet food, I found myself in a haberdashery. This happens when you can't easily ask for directions. Taking advantage of this discovery (since I had no idea what 'haberdashery' would be in Japanese), I hunted down some matching thread for said shortening project and then spotted a truly awesome solution: the no-sew tape for hemming. While I had never used this before, I understood the idea. You only needed an iron. I had an iron. It would shortly be covered in glue.

At home, I hung one of the curtains and pinned it to the length I wanted. I then examined the instructions with the no-sew tape. They were brief… and in Japanese. Still, it wasn't like I really ever read instructions even when in English. I looked at the picture. It appeared to show a strip of no-sew tape being placed just inside your desired hem and then this tape sandwich being ironed. Between curtain and iron there was a second wad of cloth, which I assumed was to protect the curtain from the iron's scalding surface. I shook out the pack and found the roll of no-sew tape and a separate bundle of cloth. This cloth was CLEARLY the curtain protector.

… or more no-sew tape in a sheet rather than tape form.

Sadly, the second option did not occur to me until I had pressed the hot iron down directly onto this second cloth. All layers of it.

For those not familiar with this product, it transpires it works by the finely spun tape or cloth becoming a glue when heat is applied. If it is correctly placed between two layers of material that need to be joined, it fixes them together. If it is in direct contact with an iron, it covers the iron in glue.

This was unfortunate. I unplugged the iron, ran it under the cold tap and began to scrub once it got cool enough not to melt my sponge. This had no effect whatsoever but the glue had been sufficiently thickly applied to form a pealable layer once cool. Pulling it off was a bit like removing dead skin after sunburn. Thought you'd enjoy that analogy.

Once the iron was clean, I went back to the task in hand. Since my curtains were made of machine-washable cotton, there wasn't really a problem with ironing them directly.

… Except for the fact that one end of them was also covered with glue from where the other side of the no-sew cloth had been resting.

Disappointingly, I forgot this until I pressed the iron to that area. We were back to square one, except this time there was much less glue so removal had to be achieved via elbow grease. This was annoying.

Fortunately, this second glue-your-iron experiment had burnt off the last of the outside glue. By the time I had reached the end of the first curtain (I had re-started on a clean patch after scrubbing my heart out), the remaining dregs were sufficiently dry to allow me to re-iron the failed beginning and seal the hem. The second curtain went much more smoothly. Ah, the great gift of experience

The end product is at the top of the page. Please feel free to add copious amounts of admiration below. And yes, that is a giant crayon in the right-hand corner. Why do you ask?

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

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Trouble with getting out of bed in the mornings is hardly an unusual complaint. The difference is that while most people don't want to leave the warmth of their covers, I physically couldn't. Carefully, I attempted to extract the leg that was bunched up by my chest. The knee emerged, but the shin was still trapped under my second leg. This limb was stretched out, but prevented from moving away from the wall by the stone-like object positioned perfectly centrally on the blankets.

My cat had found her revenge.

In the end, I tipped forward and fell ungraciously onto the floor. Tallis deigned to open one large yellow-green eye and yawned.

"Do you know how uncomfortable I am?" I demanded. "All my muscles are scrunched up!"

This didn't receive any form of verbal reply but somehow the image of the cat carrier was projected into my brain.

You would think one half-decent kick would shift Tallis along to a more acceptable position but somehow her body mass seems to increase by a factor of 100 when she goes into ball-mode. Remember the Pixar movie, 'The Incredibles' where their youngest son, Jack-Jack turns himself into a canon ball so the villain can't fly away with him? Yeah. Tallis recalls that too.

Perhaps to fully appreciate this problem, I should explain about my bed. When we lived in Canada, I had a Queen sized frame and mattress. To be honest, this was too large (or so I thought at the time) for what was normally just me and a cat. I had opted for that size to match the bedding I had bought while living in a furnished rental in New York. That apartment had a Queen bed, so when I came to buy my own furnishings, I matched the dimensions and reused the sheets. Despite the fact I loved the mattress, I knew a Queen bed was never going to fit in a Japanese apartment. I'm pretty sure that if you put such a mattress in my bedroom, you wouldn't be able to open the door. Actually, you would not be able to have a door at all, since my bedroom door opens inwards. It would have to be unhinged and propped up against the bathroom preventing me from ever using the toilet.

So, it was sell the bed or lose the kidneys. I went with the former.

Since my furniture took three months to ship from Canada, buying a new bed was actually a pretty good move. After some research, I discovered I had three main choices for bed design:

(1) The normal western-style bed with a frame and mattress. This is very common in Japan and almost all of my friends sleep on such a bed.

(2) The traditional Japanese-style futon, which consists of a thick foam pad on a tatami mat floor.

(3) A hybrid option, whereby you have a bed frame with a solid tatami mat top surface on which you then lay down a futon.

My apartment does not have any tatami mats, being pseudo-wood flooring throughout. However, I was reluctant to buy a normal western bed. For a start, I might not find a mattress I liked as much as my old one, which would cause me to SULK each time I went to bed. Secondly, I was IN JAPAN! It was exciting, new and I wanted to integrate by sleeping on a futon!

… Even if no one else was.

I therefore went for option (3) and, after some careful measuring, purchased a 'semi-double' tatami mat bed. A semi-double is in-between a single and double bed in size, with a width of 124 cm (49 inches). It is often the size newly wed Japanese couples buy, before they can afford a double bed. This brings me to one obvious conclusion:

Cats take up more space than husbands.

Or maybe they are just harder to kick.

A Japanese futon is somewhat different from the Western product of the same name. For a start, the term 'futon' refers to both to the foam pad underneath you (the 'shiki futon') and the blanket on top (the 'kakebuton'). The Brits would call a kakebuton a 'duvet' and the Americans… well, I'm going to go with 'comforter' and you'll have to live with the fact it just isn't the same kakebuton fluffy cloud of awesome. The shiki futon is thinner than a Western futon and can be easily folded into three sections for storage. Futons are often sold as a set containing both parts.

An advantage of opting for the tatami mat bed over a straight futon, was that I could have drawers underneath the bed for extra storage. When my bed was delivered, the men assembled the frame but not the drawer set. When I asked why, I received a monologue in Japanese until I decided I would just go and buy a screwdriver. As any Ikea fan will not be surprised to learn, I had to assemble the drawers twice; the first attempt having a key early panel placed backwards.

As a final touch, I purchased a Japanese style pillow which is filled with beans rather than feathers. It's a slightly odd sensation to lie on but it's not uncomfortable. I quite like rolling around on it as a DIY scalp massage. I confess though, that when my feathery pillows arrived from Canada, I did switch them over and leave beany pillow as the optional extra.

So there we had it; one perfectly Japanese bed. Tallis tells me it is exceedingly comfortable. Perhaps I should take the hint and move to the couch.

pergamond: ([Toy Story] Buzz // wibble)

The tags for cows are changing. No more will our Canadian bovine friends accessorize with a triangular green ear ornament detailing their identification number, but instead will model a yellow round disc. However, cows already adorned with last year's fashion piece must not have it removed --since that is illegal-- but rather must have the latest earring added to their attire.

These cows are clearly going to be punk cows.

How did I know this detail about livestock imports? Because I was in the office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ...

... waiting for them to approve the export papers for my cat.

May I just say that going to this particular organization for my little furry non-consumable pet kitty was highly disturbing? I distracted myself by reading a leaflet on compensation for Government destroyed animals. Wonderful.

Mercifully, the not-for-consumption cat was not present; all that was required was me and the paperwork for her import into Japan. This was particularly good since I wasn't sure I could carry both. The folder containing the relevant documents was bulging at the seams. I glanced down at the top-most sheet of paper. In English and Japanese, the heading read:

"Application for import: dogs, cat, foxes, raccoons and skunks."

Now, it might be just me, but it seems a little surprising that the import of foxes, raccoons and skunks is sufficiently common to warrant inclusion on a standard form. I made a mental note to keep this sheet handy when I was on the plane. If my neighbor objected to being seated beside a cat, I could point out that should he complain and move, he might be located by a skunk.

At length, I was called through to the main office to meet with the Government vet. He stamped my paperwork and told me that he had wanted to be an astronomer when he was small. I told him I had wanted to be a vet for years of my childhood. We both eyed each other, trying to access who had made the right choice.

Then the stamping was done, the papers returned to me with three additional copies. I tied an elastic band around my folder and stuffed it in my backpack. One shiny bright kitty, ready for consumption. I mean, export. 
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)

It doesn't matter how much often you fly, to see a passenger near you repeatedly cross himself during the safety video is never reassuring. That said, I felt I already owed God one for making this flight at all.

For my trip back to Canada, I was connecting through Tokyo with a one hour change-over time. That was slightly on the tight side, but it was Japan so I had faith I would make it.

As we reached the northern half of the main island, our plane met a strong head wind. Towns below us had suffered a dramatic snowfall only a day before, with 3m of the white stuff dumped overnight. The resulting air currents made our plane bounce like a coffee bean in a grinder. It also made us 20 minutes late.

Our chosen landing spot appeared to be only vaguely connected to the airport. I mean, it was probably in the same prefecture. Just. We piled onto a bus for a ten minute ride across to the terminal. From there, I had to pass back through security and through the official country border to the international departures area. Then I had to get to the other side of the terminal, passing 30 gates to get to my own.

Any other country and I would have been asking about vacancies in the airport hotels and buying a toothbrush from the nearest shop. But... it was Japan... this might yet be possible.

I did all of the above in 15 minutes. The flight attendant didn't even look phased as she scanned my boarding pass and waved me through for an on-time departure.

The passenger crossing himself was also reading the safety leaflet, as per the instructions on the video. If anything, that was even more bizarre than the apparent desire for divine intervention. Upon take off, he ordered two (admittedly small, but still a containing a couple of glasses) bottles of wine. After that, negotiating the arm rest on his seat proved to be a more pressing problem than the need to pray.

Once in Toronto, I dubiously walked over to the baggage reclaim... to see my suitcase happily travelling round (at least, I would have enjoyed riding that belt). I'm not sure if there is any other airport in the world I could have connected through where that would have been possible.

This only left one final hurdle.

Canadian border guard: Wait, you were here two weeks ago?!
pergamond: ([Pot] Atobe & Yukimura)

"My supervisor thought it was too early for me to marry."

I was having dinner with a new friend; a PhD student at Hokkaido University who not only was from the UK, but had also grown up in my own home town of Oxford. Out here in Japan's snow laden northern island, it was a bit like finding a long lost twin. We had compared schools, discussed local shops and now had finally pushed the time line up to our current affairs.

While working at a summer camp for kids in Sapporo, my British twin had met her husband-to-be; a Japanese web designer who was starting his own company. Since it was still the early years for his business, his salary was not very large and it was this that was the source of concern for my friend's supervisor.

His advice to her was that she shouldn't consider marriage until her partner was making at least 5 million yen a year (about $65.5K or £41.5K, although it should be born in mind that the yen is a strong currency, so the equivalent spending power is probably less).

Growing up in a country where money was not seen as an object to marriage, I found this very surprising. Yet, apparently this view was fairly universal.

"Even my mother-in-law asked if I wouldn't rather wait until his income was higher," explained my friend.

Curious, I asked one of my Japanese friends at work whether money was always consideration in matrimony.

"It is probably one of the main concerns," she told me.

However, I was assured that women were not expected to give up their jobs when they married and when children came along, it seemed to be a matter of choice.

My British friend had obviously not stopped working after her wedding and once she graduates, she plans to join her husband in his business and provide English translations.

"What is your visa status now?" I asked curiously. "Do you have permanent residency through your husband?"

"Actually, a spouse visa is only for one year."

... Well, that was a whole new level of cynicism for you right there!

It turns out that it is very easy to get divorced in Japan. If both parties are in agreement, the whole procedure can be done in a day or less. This, combined with possible concerns over immigration, is probably one of the reasons for initially short-term spouse visas. After renewing your documents a few times you are deemed serious enough to get a longer term visa and after five years, permanent residency. Until then, you're considered about as married as Britney Spears.

[Note to self: Find smoking hot Japanese pop star fast. This visa business is going to take a while.]
[Note to self II: Make sure he earns over 5 million.]
pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // all or nothing)

On a scale of 1 to 10, it seems to me the formality of a document stating your resignation from a job --even if a near identical position is taken up with immediate effect-- should rate at least a 9. Maybe even an 11. To be handed a plain sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen to do the deed was therefore something of a surprise.

The instructions I received were quite specific: my resignation letter must be written by hand and copied word-for-word from a sample template. The latter was presumably so that it could be easily followed regardless of whether the author chose to express themselves in English or Japanese. I took both the blank sheet of paper and the template letter and arranged them on a nearby desk, lifting up my pen.

This staggering act resulted in a swift flurry of movement in which all the tools I had laid down on the table were rearranged. My paper was straightened and the template moved to the other side of the desk. I stared at this reorganisation, nonplussed.

"Ah, she is left-handed!" I heard one of the administrative assistants tell her colleague in Japanese.

"Ah!" The other man stepped forward and moved the template letter from the left side of the desk to the right.

I paused.

"Please write the letter exactly as it is here," the female assistant explained to me in English. "The same page orientation."

Light dawned.

"I will do!" I promised. "But because I am left-handed, I must tilt the paper." I rotated the writing paper 45 degrees clockwise and wrote the title. Behind me, there was a panicked intake of breath, followed by a sigh of relaxation as everyone moved away.

Since Japanese writing traditionally starts in the top right corner and moves down, I realised it was possible they had never seen a left-hander tilt the page to write neatly. Yet, if I didn't make such a move, my hand would press over the freshly inked letters and smudge. Before you ask, you would be quite amazed how much a dry ballpoint pen can smear. This sad sad fact confined me to pencil for years. Possibly, I wrote the world's greatest novel at the age of 8, but the non-permanency of my writing implement means no one will ever know.

As I finished, I dug in my pocket and produced my hanko; a personalised seal used in Japan instead of signatures. "Should I use my stamp?" I asked.

This produced a pleased babble of excitement around those seated nearest me in the office, possibly steaming from relief that they wouldn't have to deal with some freakish western signature. Carefully, I pressed down by my name on the paper. The woman next to me clapped.

I tried not to think exactly how low the general opinion of me must be to denote such an act an applause-worthy achievement.

"Can you come in again on February 2nd?" I was asked as I stood to leave. "To finish the paper work."

"Actually, I leave for Canada on the 2nd," I explained.

"Oh. How about the 3rd?"

...... OK, my travel schedule is crazy, but it's not THAT crazy.

"I.....," I began, hoping they would realise their error. They didn't. Or they thought it a completely reasonable turnaround.

"I'm sorry but I'll be in Canada," I said the last word carefully. "until March."

This achieved the desired communication and we agreed to complete all the paperwork on the 1st. I tried not to look too relieved.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)

After one week in Canada I returned to Japan. For two weeks. Then on Thursday, I go back to Canada.

Confused? Let me explain:

This brief interlude from my collaborative work trip in North America was to allow me to interview for a job identical to the one I already had, be offered the position, formally start and then order a computer before this was prevented by floods in Thailand.

There. Isn't that clearer? No? Well, I will elaborate but I warn you now, it's not going to help.

Our story (although I defy Disney to create something more fantastical) opens with our young heroine (totally me. It is my blog, after all) assuming the role of "specially appointed assistant professor". The "special" part here means that my salary came from the Japanese Government, not Hokkaido University, who have a scheme to support women in senior roles for three years. After that time, it was understood that I would be moved onto the university's normal tenure track (leading to a permanent position) for faculty members.

This transition was not contracted, but I was told it was a question of honour for the university to uphold the verbal agreement. Since the breaking of Japanese honour traditionally results in disembowelment, I felt there was some incentive for the people who mattered to follow this through.

A few months ago, however, in response to increased pressure from the government to increase the fraction of female employees, Hokkaido University opened a call for two tenure track positions for female scientists. It was suggested that I apply for one of these positions, since it would end any uncertainty regarding my job status in three years time and everyone could retain their digestive tracks.

[As a side note, I don't really approve of any form of sex discrimination in jobs. My concern in this case is it could devalue female researchers' achievements if it is felt they only gained their current position through having a decreased pool of applicants. Despite this, I discovered when put to the test, my morals were surprisingly easy to sweep under the nearest carpet. No one put me in a court of law.]

Even though I had been hired for my current position just months before, I still had to complete the full application procedure, including the in-person interview.

I pointed out that I would be in Canada at that time.

Everyone agreed that it was incredibly daft just to come back so that I could be re-interviewed for a near identical position.

..... but that was just the way it was.

Since a foreigner was preferred for the job and since the Japanese have an innate suspicion of foreigners they have never met, my chances at getting this position were high. This led to a problem concerning money.

New faculty members are typically awarded a large one-off sum known as a 'start-up grant'. This is for single large expenses that are needed to equip a new researcher with the tools they need to do their work, for example outfitting a new laboratory. As a theorist, my wish-list was simple: I wanted computer power. Lots of it. Think 'the ultimate question' solving stuff. The problem was that all this money needed to be spent by the end of the fiscal year which was ... March.

Everyone agreed that it was incredibly daft to spend such a large sum in a month and it would only lead to wasting funds.

..... but that was just the way it was.

Now it transpires that machines more awesome than Steve Jobs builds are manufactured in Thailand. The way it was explained to me is that the ENTIRE COUNTRY disappears under water due to floods each year around this time. Since constructing electronic equipment in such a condition presents some difficulties, an ordered machine will take more than a month to arrive. Since the earliest I could begin the new position was February 1st and the money most be spent by March 31st this left less breathing space than for a snorkelling computer engineer.

The upshot was that I had to still be in Japan on February 1st, so I could officially begin this position as soon as humanely possible and order a computer from waterworld. I booked my flights back to Canada on the 2nd.

I think maybe I should have asked for two passports while in the UK.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)

I have discovered the all-time greatest invention in the world.

... if you live in a snow filled city with an ethos that suggests snowploughs are for the weak.

It is true that the heaps of powdery white flakes in Sapporo interspersed with trees covered in Christmas lights have a story book beauty. But no Disney princess ever stepped outside to slide across the street on her backside and break every bone in her skinny body. After a month of snow, I concluded that this was the most unrealistic part of fairy tales; Cinderella should have attended the ball on crutches and the Sleeping Beauty laid in traction on her bed.

The main roads through Sapporo are scrapped by snowploughs yet, compared to Canada, still seem buried for a large part of the day. I'm unsure whether this is a reflection of the relative quantities of snow in Sapporo versus Toronto or a nature-produced traffic calming measure encouraged by the Hokkaido government.

Pavements, by contrast, are not cleared at all. There is no obligation by home owners to clear the walkway in front of their house and --with the exception of the fronts of some businesses or apartment complexes-- the snow mounts up to form a bumpy slick causeway.

There isn't an easy solution to this. While I lived in Canada, I was legally obliged to clear the pavement around my apartment. This was a good (if tedious) idea in principal, but I often found that the thin layer of ice that would appear a minute after clearing was more deadly to traverse than the snow. Indeed, the hardest area on which to walk in Sapporo are the clearer roads which often are covered in black ice. Typically, within this category, the most treacherous surface are the white lines of the pedestrian crossing; a fact that makes me convinced all the city officials go to the southern island of Kyushu over the winter.

Work has become a dangerous expedition. Lunch, doubly so.

Then I saw the solution. Hanging up in the University's bookstore were a pair of crampon-esque attachments. Consisting of studs affixed to a rubber strap, these snap over the soles of your shoes to provide a better grip on snow covered surfaces. Amazingly, not only do they fit my shoes easily, they also make a significant difference, halving the time it now takes me to get anywhere in the city.

Admittedly, there is not much that can help you with ice on roadways, but for the slippery snow piles on the pavements they are unbeatable.

I was so much in love with this clothing addition, I've brought them to India. You can NEVER TELL when you might need such items. Armageddon? Bring it on.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
In preparation for my trip next week, I needed to buy travel insurance. Since I would be away from Japan for almost three months in total, health coverage was my primary concern along with an extra boost in case one of my 101 connecting flights left me checking airport vending machines for a turkey Christmas dinner.

Hokkaido University sold such insurance packages and so on Thursday afternoon, I skidded across to the appropriate building. With me, I towed one of my friends to act as a translator, all the while assuring her that buying travel insurance was first class practice for writing her thesis, the draft of which was due the following week.

At the appropriate desk, we examined the brochure of options. My type of trip had a choice of three different packages for coverage. Each of these included an set amount for health costs, lost luggage, missed flight and --on a cheerful note-- compensation for death by illness and death by wounding.

The first three of these categories had different maximum amounts, depending on the option you selected. This was all good and understandable; depending on the number of flight connections you would make, the value of your luggage and your propensity for tightrope walking without a safety harness, you might want more or less coverage in these areas. What was rather more perplexing was that while 'death by illness' had the same fixed amount in all cases, you could select different sums for 'death by wounding'.

Now, let us think about the thought process that must go into such a decision. Presumably, it starts as follows:

"Hmm. Yes, it is rather likely I will be stabbed to death in a dark alleyway on this visit."

OK, there are probably circumstances in which such a conclusion is inevitable. However, SURELY most people would CANCEL THEIR TRIP as opposed to thinking:

"I better take out the extended coverage for death by knifing in dark alleyways."

But no! Apparently, there are a whole class of people who, faced with probable death by violent homicide, consider the prudent course of action to take out more insurance.

GUYS! YOU DON'T GET TO SPEND IT!

I kept to the basic level of insurance for this nicety and pocketed the extra cash. Then I spent it. That's how to live, people.
pergamond: ([Random] kitten // rar)
One morning I looked in the mirror and realised something profound:

I looked like a hedgehog.

For me, the state of my hair is a step function; everything is just fine until EXPLODING SPINY HEDGEPIGS! It's really not. This is probably more a reflection of my tolerance level than the actual process of hairstyle degradation but then, I only got furniture a couple of weeks ago so I think I can be forgiven for having my mind on other matters.

There was also the fact that I could see a trip to the salon going horribly and awfully wrong. For a start, I wasn't yet at the stage where I could have a remotely useful conversation about such a topic in Japanese. I knew the word for 'cut' and for 'hair' but that much was probably deducible from my presence in the shop. I suspected that, even with a photo, any hairdresser would feel anxious about wielding items with (quickly) irreversible effects without more than optimistic finger snipping motions from their client. 

Then there was the fact that my hair wasn't typical of the local population. Quite how different Asian and Western hair was for a stylist was a mystery. I wouldn't have thought my hair was particularly tricky; it has a slight wave and a cowslick but it's not a pile of tight ringlets. Still, since I had yet to meet the Japanese pop star of my dreams, I hadn't had the opportunity to run my fingers through other locks to find out.

Being as it was the beginning of December, I could have gritted my teeth for another few weeks and just had it cut in the UK. However, this did not really seem like a long-term solution. Instead, I sent a message to a fellow Sapporo blogger who was originally from South Africa. She had an inviting button on her website labelled 'Ask' which was probably designed to instigate insightful questions such as 'What are your views on the Japanese economy?' or 'Is teaching abroad challenging?' or maybe 'Do you miss zebras?'. What she got from me was 'Do you know of an English speaking hairdresser in Sapporo?' Mundane but oh, what an amazingly affirmative answer! I made an appointment the following weekend and a mental note to ask about zebras later.

Rie from 'Earth' salon trained in London and had lived there for ten years. She was therefore fluent in English, used to Western hair and knew some aspects of the Japanese hairdressing experience would take me by surprise. Like the fact they cover your face with a towel while they wash your hair. Had she not warned me, I might have taken that rather personally.

After the shampoo came a massage. This wasn't just a scalp rub during the wash, but a head, neck and shoulder kneading that lasted about ten minutes. To be honest, I wasn't wearing the best sweater for this; it was a thick white fleece that the girl performing the massage declared was 'fuwa-fuwa', a Japanese onomatopoeia (read: peculiar sound) used for all things furry.

"Have you heard of Reiki?" Rie asked me when she returned. "People say it's Japanese, but we've never heard of it! Reiki?" she asked the girl massaging my shoulders. She got a completely blank look in return. "See?"

Rie took over and began to cut my hair. "When I first moved to London," she told me. "I was too scared to go to a salon because I didn't speak English at the time. Did you feel the same?"

... was there something about my current hair style that suggested the answer to this might be yes?

Rie told me that not only is Asian hair a very different texture from my own Caucasian strands but also the head shape is distinct, being typically flatter at the back. This makes the cut a significantly tailored process. She took a brief note of my photo but then went her own direction, sweeping my hair towards the front. I went slightly cross-eyed as a lock fell between by eyes. She gave it a trim.

"Your hair doesn't want to fall in a parting, it wants to go in a swirl."

I hoped this wasn't a new bodily commentary about the state of my life.

At the end of the cut, I was offered another rinse, but since everything had been beautifully styled I declined. Peaking in the mirror on the way out, I thought the result was slightly Asian.... you know, in a blond haired, blue eyed, pointy nosed sort of way. Maybe it will help with my language skills. Beats talking to a hedgehog in any case.


PS -- taking photos of yourself is all kinds of impossible. But you were all going to complain if I didn't, so there you go. I would like to apologise to Rie for squishing my head under a hat before taking this picture too.

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