Thursday, 31 May 2012

Samurai Two-step

Years ago, at the training for an English teaching job, the company trainer taught me a lesson I still think about just about daily.

The trainer started us off with an icebreaker "quiz" that she assured us had no right or wrong answers, it was just to get us talking. It was your average list of questions for newcomers to Japan, about odd foods or customs. The only trouble was that neither myself nor the other girl training with me were newcomers to Japan. The other soon-to-be teacher had been in Japan, teaching with various other companies for over five years, and had put her undergrad degree in Japanese studies to good use, her language skills were quite good. The trainer (perhaps because company policy was to deny that any of the English teachers had any Japanese ability at all and to insist they all pretend this was the case)didn't seem to speak much Japanese, although she was Canadian of Japanese descent and made comments that suggested she felt her Japanese heritage gave her insight into the country.

But, annnnyways, the “quiz”… We marked down our true/false “answers” and then started discussing them. Despite the trainers assertion that there were no right or wrong answers I had read one of the questions and answered it, laughing to myself as I remembered a discussion I had had with a Japanese friend a few days beforehand.

“Japanese people always walk on the lefthand side. True or False”

I circled false and thought about the numerous times I’d had to do a quick two-step, a back and forth dance so as not to walk straight into somebody walking towards me. It wasn’t just that I came from a country that drove on the right side of the road and so was going opposite directions to everybody in this left-side driving country. The people I was facing had no default direction. It was like a game of rock-paper-scissors – they might go left, or right, or just stand and wait for me to make a move. And it seemed that whatever I chose my scissors got smashed by their rock, as I narrowly avoided my my nose smashing their forehead.

Worried I was a lumbering foreigner I asked one of my Japanese friends. She laughed. Apparently she experiences the same thing. Sure people in Tokyo stand on the left side of escalators and walk on the right, but go to Osaka and the sides are switched (freaks me out, every, single, time!) Sure there are arrows on the stairs and hallways of busy train stations to direct the hordes of commuters into something resembling order, but few people pay attention to them out side of peak commuting hours. My friend said she thought it had to do with the relative lack of wide sidewalks in Japanese cities and how most of the time you had to walk on the side of the road and there really wasn’t any room to pass at all. Or maybe how historically rank trumped all, with the lower classes of society having to leave the road and grovel in the dust if somebody important came along the road. Or maybe it was a faint glimmer of Japanese individualism refusing to be squashed completely. My friend laughed and shook her head, who knew?

Back in teacher training, we were comparing “answers.” I had chosen true for the statement “Japan is a safe country” while the other trainee had chosen false, citing the number of times she had been felt up on busy trains. The trainer made some comment about both being true, and how we should stay alert at all times and be aware of our safety. If we should ever need it, however, the company was there to help us!

The next question was the one about the sides of the road. The other trainee and I had both chosen false, and we were equally certain this was one question that did have a right answer. The trainer, however, corrected us. Yes, the question did have a correct answer. But we were mistaken. Japanese people DID always pass each other on the left side. The other trainee and I shook our heads and jumped into tales of sidewalk two-steps to prove our point. The trainer, however, a faint smile on her face, shook her head and launched into a tale about “the samurai” and how the would only pass to the right of somebody so they could pull their swords faster and cut their opponent down in an instant. Besides, passing to the left might cause sword to hit sword.

Why do I think about this incident every morning? Well the road between the station and the museum has unusually wide sidewalks with a row of raised yellow bumps (for visually impaired people) cutting it nearly in two. Most pedestrians walk to one side or the other and there are normally a fair number of people about both morning and evening. No matter which side of the yellow line I choose there will always be one or two people coming towards me walking on the same side, and then it is a game of chicken to see who moves over first. And every time I have to move to the right-hand side of the sidewalk, and somebody passes me on the left I always grumble and remember the trainer who insisted it wasn’t so.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Aisu Wain

Reason # 1739 why I love my job despite the never-ending horrendous English translation edit I am currently mired in (It must be a black hole, how else can I have put THIS much time and overtime hours into it and yet still be stuck and just over half-way through?!)



The reason was what a coworker said to me today, after I spent the morning translating (and rewriting) her abstract for a conference presentation proposal: "A good translation is like ice wine – it takes the essence, the flavour and sweetness of the grapes, and rids itself of the excess water, leaving behind a better, more nuanced, and easier to understand text… Now I have to go and rewrite the Japanese original!"

Monday, 28 May 2012


When I get into a real cleaning mood I will often crank the Full Monty soundtrack. When I am feeling upbeat I will listen to my favourite Canadian group Great Big Sea (my blog name comes from one of their songs...) or Bollywood tunes. When I am upset the Beatles "Let it Be" gets put on loop. And when I'm feeling tired and overwhelmed I listen to a classical mix with Pachelbel and Vivaldi and others, a CD I bought in London at a magical concert in a candlelit church in London. if the music doesn't calm me then closing my eyes and taking a deep breath as I remember the concert never fails to bring a smile to my lips.

Unfortunately between overtime (and a horrendous project that just keeps growing) at work, preparing for a Girl Scout event this weekend (baking four different types of Indian sweets times fifty people... Seriously, how do I get myself into stuff like this?!), and generally feeling under the weather, I've been listening to a lot of Pachelbel and co recently.

Do you have certain songs you listen to to recharge or unwind? Or block out the guttural snores of the salaryman asleep on your shoulder on the packed train home?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Powers of Perception

I stepped out of the shower this morning and immediately noticed a strong smell of burning... something. I wrapped my towel around me and followed my nose to the main room.

U was spread out on the couch, half asleep and half watching TV. I asked him if he couldn't smell something burning and he jumped up and dashed to the oven.

The last slice of breakfast bread (chocolate walnut!) was charred half through.

U tried to justify his lack of olfactory sense by saying that as a scientist he has to limit the things he focuses on or else he'd never finish his experiments. I laughed and picked up some breakfast at the station before getting on my train.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


In fairness I should have posted the originals, or at least admitted to having instagrammed the photos...

Wordless Wednesday - Rose in Bloom

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Lunch-time wildlife

There is a park near the museum and while I love the idea of having my lunch there I rarely actually do. Obviously summer is too hot, winter too cold, and the rainy season too wet, but there are some days that are juuuuust right. If the mosquitoes didn't scare me away, however, the other wildlife would.

Last fall I gave up on picnic lunches and escaped to the museum's lunchroom after being chatted up by an older (and rather smelly) man who had absolutely no regard for the personal space of others and kept stepping closer and closer to me until I slipped under a stairwell bent double and made an escape.

Then there was the park drunk who had a different life story every day that he'd pour out to anybody who got anywhere near him... Interesting to listen to but very intent on obtaining cigarettes, or the money to buy them.

But it is a new year and the weather was too enticing, so I headed out yesterday and ate my lunch on a bench in the shade of a large tree. I was just about to head back to work when a group of high school age kids walked by. One of the boys came back, and hunkered down on his haunches. Oblivious to the fact that I was eating, the boy gave me a huge goofy smile (sort of the one you might give to somebody who you think is rather slow) and yelled "HARRO!" I gave him a half smile and kept chewing. His grin turned into a leer, and he shuffled closer. I swallowed and replied in Japanese. He launched into a nearly completely incomprehensible stream of English. Although I was impressed by his spirit and apparent love for English, I had only a few minutes before I had to get back to work and half of my lunch left to be eaten. I interrupted him (again in Japanese) and apologized , saying I had to get back to work. He looked stunned and ran off without saying a word, but a moment later I heard him repeating my comment to his friends - amid great laughter.

All I did today was walk through the park. As I did a young man turned and asked me if I knew where to find the museum. I gave him directions and, since we were walking in the same direction, started chatting. I pointed out a few sights in the park and he asked if I lived in the area. He was from a rural area in southern Japan and was overwhelmed by all the people. Since I'd be going in the back door I pointed him on his way and bowed with a smile... Then he asked out! So much for the overwhelmed country bumpkin! I pleaded an over-busy work schedule and fled, I'm pretty sure U wouldn't be too keen on me meeting up with cute young guys after work!

Be careful - its a jungle out there and there are all types of wildlife waiting to pounce!

Just say... NO!

Last week I was feeling rather overwhelmed - there were just too many things on my plate, I didn't feel like I was doing any of them better than half-assed, and the things most important to me weren't getting done at all.

But didn't I just get back from a few wonderful days in Nagano? Yes, yes, I did! But maybe that is the problem! (go-gatsu byo, or "May sickness," it isn't just me!)

Then on Saturday, when I was tying up one of the things on my plate, and beginning to look forward to a free Saturday next week to (gasp!) actually go and visit a museum (it has been way too long) instead of having another Girl Scout meeting to go to, just as I was beginning to feel like I had a handle on things, I was thrown a curve ball.

A sudden cancellation meant GSJ was looking for somebody to go to an important traning event in the UK - next week!  It is an amazing training program and I was really excited about the opportunity.  But then reality came crashing in - the amount of work that I would be expected to do upon returning to Japan, having to take a week off work at such short notice when I'm in the middle of a couple of big projects... My gut was yelling NO! but everybody around me was telling me to jump at the amazing opportunity and I was being pressured by GSJ people.

After doing an extra half-day of overtime last night in an impossible attempt to finish a big project I'm working on, I got home last night exhausted, my mind in turmoil.  I called a good Japanese scouting friend and had a long long chat.  In the end she told me to be true to myself and what I wanted to do, reassured me that I was not giving up if I chose not to go, and that there was nothing wrong in turning it down.  Then I got a lovely message of support from a friend on Facebook and I did something I'm not normally good at in these situations, I said no.

I woke up this morning to a stomach that was a lead weight and shoulders that were starting to unknot. Who knew it could feel so good to say no?!

Friday, 11 May 2012


The shock to my system of having to get up early every morning and commute to work combined with the tail end of my cold, U working late every night this week, and just far too many things on my plate has me rather grumpy. But there are plenty of things to smile about too, when I make myself remember them!

Things I'm loving this Thursday:
- laughing with coworkers
- May flowers!
- the fact that just about any verb in Japanese can be turned from something you do to something done to you (see below!)
- one of the school boys we pass every morning on the way to the station randomly saying good morning to us (in Japanese!!)
- friends' new baby pics on Facebook

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Wordless Wednesday - flowers

Takahara/Kogen jinja

Just your average narrow road in small-town Japan...

But, beyond the garden and in front of the old storehouse, between the family car and the kei-truck, is a shrine!

Just as written on our map from the local public library...

The wooden building apparently fell apart "a long time ago" when the neighbourhood oyaji (in his eighties) was a boy.  Despite having lost the building, it avoided being amalgamated with a number of other local shrines and is apparently well-cared for (when the locals are not either out or in the bath...)

Because if you peak into the inside a fresh coat of red paint lists the gods enshrined - and look! Toshogu!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Koi nobori

The road from Nagano station to Zenkoji temple was half closed off and the closed lanes were decorated with flower pictures. Some were pots of different coloured flowers and others were piles of brightly coloured flower petals, stones, and evergreen branches. All of the families stopped by the cutesy bear to pose their kids for photos, but I got excited over a different one...

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Stop Seven

Our lodging the second night was at a business hotel in Nagano city so we stopped for dinner at a soba restaurant on our way into the city. U wasn't so sure about the restaurant we chose, there were only two other cars in the giant parking lot. But we headed in anyways. We were shown to our table and asked if we wanted hot tea r cold water. U answered tea, I answered water. A minute later two glasses of water were placed in front of us.

We opened the menu as the waiter apologized and said they only had the 100% soba noodles left, having sold out of the 80% noodles. I wasn't bothered either way, and quickly decided on soba to be dipped in a warm soup with duck, onions, and mountain greens. U decided to order the same and I flipped through the menu as we waited for the waiter. As he approached the table he nervously said they weren't offering the dishes I was looking at. I assured him this didn't matter and U ordered our noodles. The waiter bowed repeatedly and asked us to wait as he checked on whether or not they had two servings of the duck left. Minutes later he reappeared, a grin on his face, as luck would have it there were two servings left.

Shortly after we got our noodles a fily of four arrived and started going through the menu. First they were told about the noodle availability, then that only sets were being served. When the young boy tried to order a pork cutlet rice bowl a hunched over elderly lady came out of the kitchen and chastised the waiter (her son?) as the pork would take way too long to cook. The waiter apologized and the old lady badgered him a bit, telling him to have the family order a tempura rice bowl or tempura shrimp rice bowl. She then stood at the entry to the kitchen, watching the ordering process.

The noodles were good but not particularly amazing and as we finished up U asked for tea. The waiter bustled off and returned immediately with one cup half-full of lukewarm tea. He apologized to me and said they had "finished" serving tea and there was only one glass left.

I barely managed to keep a straight face at this information but couldn't help myself when a woman from the only other group in the restaurant got up to go to the bathroom and the waiter pointed out the way, calling after her that she would have to turn on the lights as they had been turned off...

As we drove off U told me that he hadn't been able to flush when he went tithe bathroom as it appeared the water had been turned off too!

En route to Togakushi

The road we took from Hakuba to Togakushi wound through forested hills shrouded in mist and dotted with tiny villages. One village in particular had long streams of koi nobori flying above the river. Luckily there weren't many other cars on the road so U could stop and let me run across the "highway" for a photo...

Friday, 4 May 2012

Stops Five and Six

(pictures to follow when we get home and I can upload them from the camera, but I wanted to get this story down while it was fresh in my mind)

It really shouldn't be any surprise that our next two stops were Toshogu shrines!

Our book listed two in a town just outside Nagano city. One was listed as within the grounds of a large and well-known shrine, Takemizuwake jinja. The Toshogu was a small, nondescript and unmarked stone monument behind the main shrine. If it hadn't been for the metal sign in front there would have been no way to tell it apart from the stone monument to a different god next to it.

The second Toshogu was more problematic. It was listed as having been combined into a different shrine, Takahara jinja (or Kogen jinja, we aren't sure how to read the characters). But we couldn't find said shrine on the car navi or Google maps. A quick google search found a 2011 Nagano shrine and temple association list (a PDF of well over 100 pages) gave us an address for Takahara/Kogen jinja - an address that we couldn't find on the maps but appeared to be close to the town's library.

We decided to check out the library, hoping they would have a better local map. They did but the address wasn't on it, nor was there a Takahara/Kogen jinja. We were, however, able to narrow down the area, and the librarians ran about consulting volumes of town histories to discover that the shrine had existed, and hadn't been combined into the larger local shrine when a number of other small shrines had been. But that was all we could find. One of the librarians called the director of the library who came out and poured over the map with us. With the library five minutes from closing and us still without an answer the director picked up the phone and called an older man who lived near the area we thought the shrine might be. After a lengthy explanation (repeated multiple times) he finally got an answer - yes, the shrine existed, between Mr. So-and-so's house and the storehouse next door. The detailed local map was photocopied, the route highlighted in bright pink, and we were on our way just as the last strains of "Auld Lange Syne" sounded through the library.

Following our map it was no problem - turn at the JA, walk along the stream, turn at the fish feed company (lost U for a few minutes there), turn at Mr Such-and-such, and there it was, just as the man on the phone had said.

There was no torii gate, no wooden shrine building, just a small stone shrine beside a very dilapidated mini wooden shrine that was half collapsed into the flower garden on the other side. The sign that would have once hung from the torii was propped up against the stone shrine but still read "Takahara/Kogen jinja." And the lettering inside the stone shrine had what looked like a fresh coat of red paint, clearly showing the gods enshrined... including Tosho-daigongen, of course!!

We had just finished taking pictures when an old man appeared - our friend from the phone. He brandished a book on the shrines of Nagano but wasn't able to tell us anything about the shrine beyond the fact that although there had been a larger wooden building, it had disappeared (burnt down?) "a long time ago." But the family of Mr S down the road had nominally been in charge of caring for the shrine, so Mr S might be able to answer our questions. Down the road we all went, to Mr S's house. The neighbour's dog, barked at us enthusiastically and unendingly, but Mr S was less responsive - there was no answer when our friend opened the front door and called in. No answer until I noticed a movement and what appeared to be a bare arm closing a door on what I had taken to be the storehouse in the garden. Not a storehouse! Mr S was in the bath! And despite our friend's repeated questions through the closed door, was silent.

We repeated our thanks to our friend, who was very disappointed to hear we would not be returning the following day, and headed back to the library parking lot to the car. As we entered the parking lot and walked by the now dark parking lot, U slipped his hand into mine and said "libraries really are important to small communities!" Or at least to two travellers with very particular interests!

Stop Four

Stop four was because I am my paternal grandmother's granddaughter. Nagano is famous for its soba noodles but it also, among other things, produces rhubarb. A quick google search led me to the Nagano JA (Japan Agriculture) website's rhubarb page where I discovered a likely source in the Shinano-machi Michi-no-eki (literally "street station," a rest stop like area that showcases local produce and other items).

Did we find rhubarb? None fresh/raw, it is too early for that, but I bought three kinds of jam, cakes (for U's parents), chips, juice, and gelato! Yummmmmm! I'm one super happy camper!

Stop Three

I'm on a Girl Scout committee to promote use of the various facilities GSJ owns - namely the HQ in Tokyo and camp center in Togakushi, Nagano. The whole reason behind our trip to Nagano over Golden Week was so that I could finally visit the camp (the irony of being on a committee to promote the use of a facility I had never actually used myself was not lost on me!). Since I'll be helping to run a camp for over seventy Girl Scouts this summer I really needed to see the site. So, stop three was Togakushi Girl Scout Camp.

Unfortunately we're both battling colds and didn't feel up to battling the HORDES of people at Togakushi shine, but it is a beautiful place and we will be back again!

To get to the GS camp you have to pass through a municipal campground, but the GS site is so much nicer. Among the birches and other trees were fuki-no-to just beginning to flower, little white and purple flowers poking up, and skunk cabbage just about to unfurl. We tramped about in borrowed galoshes and watched as a low mist came in to cover everything.

Stop Two

By the time we stopped for the night we were in a different prefecture, where the sakura were just beginning to fall but there were still patches of snow on the ground.

We also found koi nobori hanging by a quaint little ski lodge and across a big river with misty snow capped mountains in the background.

So where were we?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Rest stop flowers


We've set off on a Golden Week car trip, first stop was for lunch at a highway service area in Yamanashi prefecture.

The pic is U enjoying hoto noodles with kabocha, because that is what you eat when you go visit Yamanashi, and koi nobori, because apparently I'm supposed to post a picture of them...