In Japan...

"Hey, is that a ninja up there?"
(Japan, Aug 20 - Sep 19, 2011)

November 30, 2010


So over the past week all the glands around my neck decided to swell up like marbles. It is difficult and painful to swallow and sleep, and feels like a permanent headache all around my neck. I joked about how this could be due to the lack of certain things in my diet since being over here (pizza, Snickers, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, beer etc.), but I think it is the ghost of my previously-infected but now extracted tooth coming back to haunt me again. It already caused me great pain in Germany a few months ago, and now it is back for more. Thankfully this time I do not look like a hamster.

I went to the doctor on Monday morning (and if Max goes to the doctor, you know it's serious). A women from the accomodation office where I am staying (who spoke good English and literally had just got into work) accompanied me to the university health service to be my interpreter.

After filling in a small form (not a 10-page life history like in America) and having my temperature taken to ensure I wasn't an infectious fever monster, I sat in what would be called a waiting room, but it was more of a very long bench against the wall. I soon understood why they did not need such a large waiting space though, as I was seen within 5 minutes of my arrival - score.

The doctor could speak good English too, and was very thorough. Ended up giving me 6 days of a penicillin-type antibiotics and told me to come back if anything got worse. I went to reception but was politely told to leave after I looked confused at not having to pay a fee. I think the uni health service is free but I am not officially a visiting student or staff member...

Here's to hoping the drugs will work. Since it is St. Andrews day, I am going to celebrate the great Alexander Fleming! Tomorrow: more toilets!

November 29, 2010

Food, Part 2: the store (again) and other observations

So last time I told you a little about what I have been using to sustain myself. Here are some things that you might find surprising. Going back to the store...
Bread is pricey and with little variety: just like middle America, it is all white. The only choice you have is thick or thin, and made from wheat or rice flour.

Aside from the obvious green tea which gets its own shrine-like section, there is a depressing lack of other tea: usually one or two brands of nasty black tea, and then some flavoured black tea. What the heck?! Thousands of years of tea ceremonies and this is what we get?!

What is the staple Japanese food? Rice, and it comes by the kilo. However one kilogram of rice is at least £8. OK, so it is very nice rice, but to justify that price it should give you magical powers.

(Edit: turns out this is a big political topic, because other countries want to sell much cheaper rice to Japan, but Japan is holding out because it is worried that everyone will stop buying their rice).

Out and about:
There are vending machines for drinks literally everywhere, containing everything from soft drinks, hot coffee and tea, energy drinks and beer!

I like green tea, and I like ice cream, but green tea ice cream is disgusting. Save your Yen and just trust me.

Japanese cooking is actually pretty nice and seems pretty healthy, but does noticeably lack substantial vegetables. Maybe that is why they drink so many vitamin-infused beverages. However they do know how to keep a trim figure.

Differences between Japan and the West: No. 6)
Only 1% of the population appears to be something resembling overweight.

Restaurants often have a outside display of what food is on offer, and what it will look like when it arrives on your table

/seefood restaurant
A Japanese seafood restaurant...or should I say, "see"-food?.
There is a strange enjoyment of all things raw: from fish, to horse meat to the many dishes that are finished off with a raw egg on top. I think they get away with this because everything is very fresh. Despite their weak immune system they must have some pretty good digestive enzymes!

November 25, 2010

Food, Part 1: shopping, cooking, Thanksgiving

So it is Thanksgiving Day in America, so first and foremost a big shout out to all the fam: I miss you all and look forward to seeing you soon. Normally on Thanksgiving you partake in a feast the likes of which are not seen during any other time during the year. The most important thing however is that you are with family or friends. I have neither of those things at the moment, so here is a little look at what I have been eating.

I have been trying to cook for myself often; normally the cheaper option but Japan is expensive. Turns out fruit and vegetables are just as expensive as meat, and the meat is pretty good over here (as is the seafood, but apart from the odd fish I'm not going down that road).
*One large apple - £1.50
*Small package of a dozen green beans - £2.50
*Pack of half a dozen small onions - £3.50
The only thing that I have found cheaper over here is tofu. Thankfully I like tofu. My dinners for 3 weeks have consisted of some type of noodle with minimal stir-fried vegetables and meat or tofu. Apart from the price and my poorly-stocked apartment, it has been enjoyable actually. I have slowly been accumulating cooking supplies but at this rate I will have all the basics just in time for my departure. One thing is for certain, I have levelled-up my chopstick skill beyond belief!

Now most of you know that I'm a trim gentleman with a fast metabolism. Therefore this noodles-with-minimal-sauce-and-meat diet equals one rather peckish boy. This leads us to sweets. Traditional candy bars and anything resembling gummy sweets are extortionately priced (and if you know my addiction to Snickers Duo you could understand how troubled I have been). This leaves only the unsatisfyingly hard Japanese sweets and curious baked goods. Solution? See below.

/milk chocolate GhanaBaumkuchen

First, Milk chocolate Ghana, a very oddly-named but tasty chocolate made by a Korean company, for less than £1! Secondly, what has been getting me through most nights (and for 3 days, breakfast)...the effortlessly soft loveliness of Baumkuchen. Literally meaning "tree cake", this strangely popular dessert in Japan has a very high ratio of butter and eggs contained within, so it is a deceptively filling treat. The "gentle sweetness" does not begin to describe this golden ring of concentric rings of cakey bliss.

So, as I have once again contracted severely swollen glands and a poor appetite, my Thanksgiving dinner tonight shall be fried yams and miso soup. Thanks Japan!

November 23, 2010

Customs, Crime and...Clouds?

I mentioned the weather before, but now it has been over two weeks of sunshine every day and refreshingly-cool evenings. One thing I haven't mentioned is that over 75% of the people ride bicycles around town, and 99% of those bikes are quaint, single-geared, basket-fronted numbers. If you want to go up a hill, you simply get off and walk saving the embarrassment of looking like you're about to get a hernia from attempting such a feat. They are not concerned with security either, everyone just leaves their bike with only a tiny back-wheel lock on that is attached to the bike itself. If there were unsecured bicycles outside a shop in Edinburgh they would be gone before you could say "haggis and chips, please."
Differences between Japan and the West: No. 5)
Crime seems to be non-existant (at least the non-organised kind).
Nagoya is a city about 4 times the size of Glasgow, yet it is incredibly clean, has about 0.005% of the crime and I have yet to see a homeless person. No crime, no's like living in the freaking Truman Show! Maybe it is a Buddhist thing...

In keeping with the courtesy to their fellow man, but the constant sunshine, is the remarkable abundance of umbrellas that are left outside every office and building around the city in large, umbrella-specific stands. Just have a look at along my cooridor (and I promise you there are less than 48 people in my corridor):

Today however, I experienced the Japanese downpour. For the 17 hours I was awake it was raining. A Pacific rain, straight down, no nonsense. So I am in the real world after all. It turns out that you can get decent umbrellas from the 100 Yen shop (dollar store). As there is no wind the umbrellas don't invert and break every week as in Scotland, and as there is no crime everyone has like 3 somewhere around the city.

All this leads me to one of the funniest things I have seen in a while: Japanese people cycling down the road whilst carrying a large, opened umbrellas. I wish I had a picture.

November 21, 2010

Language and culture

So before coming to Japan I was rather anxious about a number of things, but one thing I could console myself with was the fact that because I do not look Japanese, and Japanese is a very difficult language to pick up, the locals would not expect me to converse in Japanese. I was incorrect. In situations where it is clear that I have no idea what they are saying to me, they continue, trying to say phrases in a slightly different way and by gesturing or pointing at things. In fact, the last thing they try to do is use a semblance of English, despite the fact that they learn it from a relatively early age now.

Nevertheless, they are still very polite, even in the face of extreme confusion/misunderstanding, and will keep trying until the situation is sorted out. This is a major difference to other foreign lands, where the people either happily try to speak to you in English (e.g. Sweden) or are so fed up that you can't speak their language that they stop talking to you all together (e.g. France). You go Japan.

Differences between Japan and the West: No. 4)
Japanese people actually value their jobs. Whether a doctor or a convenience store worker, the Japanese are proud of the work they do. I have yet to see someone slacking off and I have yet to be served by anyone with an attitude.

Another thing that has shocked me, is that I have been here for over 2 weeks and no one has so much as batted an eyelid at me and my hair! I thought I would stick out like a sore thumb and be made to feel as such, considering my rather unique look with big curly hair and being that I'm taller than 90% of the population (and I'm what, like 5'10"?!), but it's totally not the case. In Japan they are so reserved in public; the most you interact with a stranger is a polite nod of the head.

I was disappointed to be honest. It was only today that I finally received some attention: as I squeezed past three girls in the entrance of a store they giggled. I turned around and one of them was about to pat me on the back of the head, but got my face instead due to the turning. Highly embarrassing for her, highly amusing for Max.

November 18, 2010

Bog Blog 2: A modern classic

In one of the subway stations in Nagoya I finally came across a different toilet, a modern take on an old classic. This is the traditional style of Japanese toilet, that which you will most likely come across in the less-developed parts of the country.

Modern classic Japanese toilet

Essentially it is a flushable version of a hole in the ground. How you position yourself as to not soil your trousers I am not sure. I imagine it takes some getting used, but I have no intention of finding out... Nevertheless, we have progress, and there is hope for more!

November 16, 2010

Second Sunday

Professor Kunio Awaga, group leader, extended his Japanese hospitality and offered to take me on a trip within a few hours of the city by car. I finally decided on the small town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley. It is a classic Japanese village, full of trees with autumn leaves (a big deal over here, and unlike the UK it actually feels like autumn over here) and surrounded by mountains (I like mountains). Simon and Louisa came along as well, which made the trip more relaxing.

The town is of the Edo period and has been restored to this effect. Down the main street there are many souvenir shops and small eateries that are run by the ex-farmer residents, as the town is now more successful for tourism.


I also got my first experience of a proper Japanese restuarant, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I avoided the raw horse meat and instead got some soba noodles and a bloody marvellous glutinous rice cake on a stick flavoured with sweet soy sauce; I could seriously eat 10 of them. We then travelled a bit further to the town of Agematsu, and walked to the Nezame-no-toko gorge along the Kiso River.

Nezamenotoko gorgeNezamenotoko gorge

Pretty rockin' formations, no? Looks like fun to be had in summer time, as you can clamber all over the marble rocks and the water is as clear as an emerald. Many Japanese travel around the country in Autumn to see the leaves change, and it's not hard to understand why...

Autumn leavesAutumn temple

Once we got back to Nagoya, Kunio took us for another meal at another Japanese restaurant. I ended up ordering a meal that was big enough for two, but I finished it all because it was so damn good. Two scenic destinations and two free meals? What a lovely day!

November 15, 2010

Second Saturday

So I thought I'd use this weekend to explore the city in which I am living, and buy some Christmas presents while I'm at it. Therefore I went back to the district of Sakae in the heart of Nagoya, which is one of the main commercial districts. By the time I figured out where I wanted to go, it was late afternoon and the city was already bustling with shoppers, diners and party goers (Sakae also being the place to go for most things). The skyline is dominated by multi-storing department stores and bright lights down most streets. There are also extremely extensive shopping malls underground near the central subways stations. I was rather dumb-founded by the extent of it all, with the confusion of the Japanese language rounding things off nicely.

I did not get to half the places on my list, but did enjoy wandering the streets on an incredibly mild night in my t-shirt and jeans. I did see a bunch of youths practicing with samurai swords under a bridge, but they were wooden swords and no one else seemed to mind; they were just enjoying their evening amonst some bmxers with not a bottle of booze in sight. There was one thing that frightened me though... first, a KFC restaurant, and then a life-size Colonel Sanders wearing a Santa outfit in front of it.

It turns out that Christmas is very popular in Japan now: the cities are decorated with Christmas lights, department stores have whole Christmas sections, there is even Christmas music playing in some stores! I thought that I had escaped the madness for a while (and bloody Cliff Richard)! I even saw a Japanese women on TV singing "Silent Night" to celebrate the erection of a large tree. This is Japan, and moreover it is the middle of November. Of course this is not for any religious regions, but it is not too ridiculous when you realise how much the Japanese love giving presents; it is engrained into their culture.

Anyway, I wandered south (apparently) and stumbled on something I did want to find: The district of Osu, which is much more how Nagoya used to be before modernisation. In the area surrounding a historic Buudhist temple there is a sprawling covered shopping arcade that feels like a mix between a flea market and county fair.

There are many a bargin to be had, and cuisine to be sampled. I'll definitely be going back when it is earlier in the day to experience its full glory. Also, I found this guy:

November 14, 2010

Bog Blog: No. 1

I do have a lot on my mind, but I need to get this out of the way first, so here is a quick little update...on my toilet.

So as you can see, it is pretty 'bog' standard. However it does have two different strengths of flush, and it has helped me learn two new Japanese characters: small () and large (). On another note, here is my washing machine.

Answers on a postcard please. Actually it wasn't too hard to figure out how to do a basic wash, and it works amazingly efficiently (only took 30 minutes, and it calculates how much water to use by weighing your clothes!). Don't know how to get it to use/make hot water though...

Tomorrow: start of my weekend musings, featuring a Santa Colonel Sanders.

November 12, 2010

Week 1 summary

So I have been in this strange land for one week, so here is a little summary.

The weather is actually very nice: sunny and warm during the day; cool and still in the evening. Today was literally the only day where it has been overcast. The locals question how I can walk around in just a t-shirt during the day, then I tell them what Scotland is like. There is no heating in my flat however, so the evenings alone can be rather bitter. I need to get myself a pair of snazzy Japanese room slippers...or a fat Japanese cat.

It can be rather lonely in the flat; no internet, no mobile, only Japanese TV (a whole other post)... The common room near the accommodation office does has internet access, but is only open until 10pm and is full of other internationals talking on Skype. It is odd walking into a large room full of people, dressed down and in socks, all on their laptops and not talking to each other. It's like an incredibly nerdy slumber party. However, thanks to a very beautiful friend of mine, I was made aware that I can access the BBC iplayer using my Edinburgh Uni VPN to trick it into thinking I'm in the UK! Now I can download stuff at work and watch at my leisure over some freshly-cooked noodles :).

I was going to make another blog solely about toilets, but given that I've only seen one interesting one in my whole time here it will have to be merged into this blog. Tomorrow: my toilet.

November 10, 2010

Days 3-4: The Weekend

On Saturday it was a glorious sunny day, high of maybe 24 C, so thought I'd use the opportunity to take a walk around. The zoo is actually not too far from where I am staying, and it also contains some botanical gardens; a perfect day for such ventures. The zoo/gardens ticket was less than £5 - bargain! When I went inside I saw why. It was pretty horrible, the enclosures most of the animals were being kept in were tiny and often made of rusting metal. In a cages half the size of my current accomodation (see the first post) were large cats such as the jaguar. I started taking pictures of how shocking it actually was rather than the excitement of exotic animals. I guess it should be expected given the age of the place, as many zoos in the west that were built in the 50s and 60s were just as bad if not worse.

Oddly enough, one of the smaller creatures in the entire zoo and definitely the laziest got one of the largest and nicest enclosures of all: the koala bears. Inside a climate controlled room behind a huge wall of plexiglass sat about 10 koalas, each with about 3 trees of their own and the same space as one of the big cats. A koala, who sleeps 22 hours a day and barely moves. Why? Because they're one of the main attractions. Here is a picture of the lone hyenia for comparison (click to enlarge).

Putting my disgust to one side, I headed to the botanical gardens. It is a real shame that I only had an hour left before closing to walk through it, as it was pretty extensive with many places to explore, significantly less people and some great views. I would be tempted to come back again and just visit the gardens for some tranquility! Here are some arty farty pictures I took from the flower garden.

On Sunday, Simon and Louisa took me to explore the main areas of the city, Sakae and Nagoya City station. They are two large shopping and entertainment districts. First we visited Nagoya castle and its gardens. Not much of a castle (rebuilt from cement after WWII), but the settings were very nice and it had some sweet stone walls that entrenched a very large moat (moats rule). No longer full of water, it plays host to some lovely deer. There was also a bonzai tree exhibition; not to be missed. On the grounds outside the castle walls must have been some school festival, as there was lots of food stands and high school bands playing pop punk, which was enjoyed tremendously by the locals. I wish I had brought my camera.
Differences between Japan and the West: No. 3)
Everyone, and I mean everyone, has some sort of dongle accessory on their mobile phone. I find this hilarious.

November 08, 2010

Days 1-2: First days of work

On Thursday (Nov 4) Simon took me for breakfast, showed me the office, took me for lunch and then to the 100 Yen shop for some essentials for the apartment. Therefore not a busy first day at work, but I met with the group professor, Kunio Awaga, and got sorted out with my desk. Everyone new person I met from the group reacted the same way; very gratious and happy to meet me, but no chat afterwards. I think it will take time, as English is not very strong with many of the students in the group.

There are a lot of old customs in Japan that the people abide by, such as taking your shoes off before entering a room, bowing instead of shaking hands, and refering to people by their last name to be polite. However they are not as strict as they used to be, and in the more international environment of a university there can often be confusion as to whose customs are used. Most of the people I met introducted themselves with their first name, and stuck out their hand for me to shake. However they all refer to each other by their last name and bow to each other. Remembering all the first and last names of a group of 30 Japanese people might be difficult...suggestions on a postcard. Also, I have been ill ever since the weekend in London, and now have a nose that is running like a faucet, which is not the best in a society where blowing your nose and sneezing in public is rather frowned upon. I would like to show restraint Japan, I really would.

For lunch you can either go to the canteen where it has been mostly a point and take affair but rather good, or go to a nearby shop and get a ready meal. There is usually some sort of unknown meat and unknown sauce on a bed of rice with some goodies like pickled ginger on the side. So far everything has been relatively tasty, or at least edible. I feel my luck will run out eventually though. My accomodation is only just over 5 minutes walk however, so there are safe routes.

November 07, 2010

Day 0: Arrival

Arrived in Nagoya after flights of 10 hours and 2 hours and travelling 8 hours ahead in time (or 9 due to daylight savings). Sampled first proper Asian cuisine on the London-Seoul flight, with a traditional Korean dish that came with its own instruction manual. I was one of 2 western people on the flight from Seoul to Nagoya, which was a 747 (capacity over 400).
Differences between Japan and the West: No. 1)
The customs man who looked through my bag carefully refolded every article of clothing he took out and placed them back exactly as they were.
Two friends, Simon and Louisa, greeted me at the airport, who had only just moved out to Japan a month ago to start work as post-docs in their respective fields of research. Simon is also working in the same research group as I will be here in Japan. They showed me how to navigate the subway and took me to my accomodation, which was very appreciated after a long day of traveling. They had also kitted out my room with some bananas and bottled water - win! I am staying at an international student residence owned by Nagoya University. Apparently I have a 'couple' room, as it is sizeable and equipt with a small kitchen, large living space with a couch, desks and 5 chairs, endless cabinets, a double bed and balcony.

Differences between Japan and the West: No. 2)
Japanese use bean bags for pillows. At first I thought this was odd, but they are actually very comfortable, and I awoke without any soreness!