Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Art of Thanking

It’s always a difficult process to go into, but especially get out of stores in Japan, due to one particular, culture-linked reason. There exists a wide array of stark contrasts in Japan, some of which I have covered before in my tales. The one I’m going to introduce now concerns verbal communication in service situations. While there is very limited small talk occurring elsewhere, shopkeepers and other service personnel tend to talk constantly for no apparent reason, spouting polite slogans all the time, forever.

This communication is culturally inclined to only happen one way. They are supposed to make me feel welcome and satisfied, but I am not really supposed to answer or even acknowledge them. The aforementioned lack of action is extremely difficult for me. If a person thanks me or welcomes me, I get an irrepressible urge to retort. Judging from how natives handle these situations, the correct behavior appears to be limited to ignoring and, on a good day, dismissive grunts. I am miserably bad at doing that. Granted, I have the ability to fully ignore certain people I know. My friends are similarly adept at ignoring me; it’s the only thing that keeps us from killing each other. But I am horrendously ineffective at ignoring polite strangers. These boring paragraphs work as a premise to the following, equally irrelevant problem.

The oft-repeated irasshaimase notwithstanding, I still attempt to answer most “thank yous” and “goodbye, come agains” that are sent my way. The issue here is that Japanese people are required by law to have the final say in all things courteous. They need to be the last ones to bow or say thank you. To make matters more interesting, so do I. Many a time have I ended a restaurant or konbini trip in some kind of never-ending thanking duel, as if time had suddenly stopped in much the same way old VHS tapes behaved when put on pause: repetitive discrete motion and a hiss. The ultimate conclusion to these visits used to be that I was already well out of the shop before finally shutting up with the “azassss”, an infinitely shortened version of the standard arigatou gozaimasu.

I was also reminded of a story I read a long time ago about a foreigner wishing to leave a store without allowing the clerk to answer his final bow. After bowing what he had decided would be his winning performance, he dashed to his car and tried leaving the premises. To his surprise, the Japanese shopkeeper was waiting for him at the exit of the parking lot, and got his revenge.

My ingenious way to prevent this from happening nowadays is timing. I have been following a harsh regimen of arigatou training in order to place my thanks correctly in a real life situation. If I begin thanking at just the right moment, I will end the verbal portion of the exchange at the exact same instant as the adversary, thus relieving us both from answering duty and leading the non-argument to an end.

All of this came to mind because I made two trips to Saint Marc Café today. Two trips were necessary because I wanted to take photos of the pastries and forgot on the first try. Naturally I had to go there for a second time, only for the sake of the blog, and not at all because I wanted to eat more chocolate croissants. Weirdly enough, I forgot to take photos before going on a binge on the second visit as well. Instead, here is a picture of some stuff I ate at a café in Kobe roughly a week ago.

Train station lunch. The manly drink is strawberry milk, with ice. A straw was added later.

IT’S NOT FUNNY! DON’T TALK! THE HOT TUB’S TOO HOT!

In other news, for the second time this season, the sento of Hotel Chuo was too hot for a westerner to enter. I’m pretty sure the old Japanese men frequenting it have boiled themselves so badly they cant even feel anything anymore.

-Antti

End of Procrastination

In psychology, procrastination refers to the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of low-priority, and thus putting off important tasks to a later time. – Wikipedia

True enough, that is exactly what I have been doing at least for the past month and a half, or the time I have been back home from my odd travels in Japan. However, lately I have felt this urge to try out new things. Or maybe this is another, more sophisticated, form of procrastination. For my own sake, in the end, I hope that is not the case.

Alright, writing in English is not exactly a new thing. Nonetheless, actually doing it with no ulterior motive and no exact, tangible motive, is just something I do not normally do. I do read blogs though, especially technology-oriented ones. All those well-written pieces of first-hand experiences of some new gadgets or programming techniques: I could spend all day just hopping from blog to blog. The sheer amount of people writing about their daily lives, projects and opinions is in the hundreds of millions. Then again, that is the point. Most people would not care, but the ones who do will care a lot.

First Steps to Writing

This is my homage to my arch nemesis Antti. I dare not compare my endeavours to the difficulties he may have encountered during the past few weeks of his stay in Japan. Yet, he has been able to produce legible, understandable and well-written English. I thought maybe I could try that as well. Nothing big and fancy at first. I want to improve as a writer and the only way I know to do that is… Writing.

Upon finally deciding to begin my work on my master’s thesis, I have been attending this course, in Finnish, on different techniques and tools to creating a successful oeuvre d’art. The lecturer made a fair point: creating is important and should be practiced by producing text, photos – whatever it is you need to ultimately create. In the end, the thesis is not my raison d’être and definitely not the reason I have spent the better part of my adulthood skipping classes and earning ECTS. I prefer not to slowly and aimlessly wander in the state of laissez-faire. It certainly is easier to not make an effort, or divert one’s concentration and efforts to something easily achievable, like playing and watching TV series.

The difference between talking about (and thinking of) doing something and then actually doing it is simply breathtaking. I realized that lately there has been too much of thinking and not enough of doing. I want to get to the source of this problem, ridding myself of my comfort zone.

Welcome to the Creator

There has been (or rather, there is and there always will be) a gap between where I am and where I would like to be. I would like to have a blog with cohesive posts, rants and whatnot. Overcoming the first step is to start writing. I do not think it even matters what you write about as long as you are being sincere. Perhaps later, looking back at my old washed-out thoughts and banal vanities, I might be taken aback on how naive I was. I believe in all honesty that I will be delighted to read those again some day.

Half a year ago I could not see myself writing. Yet even back then I had ideas on what to write about. I will aim to polish my rusty English and writing skills. Maybe, from this moment on, little by little, tout va s’arranger.

- Joona

Delusions of Grandeur

It has proved quite interesting to follow the amount of traffic generation to the site before, during, and in the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake. While most of the hits are generated by my mom and the innumerable people she has forwarded my blog to, it’s still encouraging to see that I’m not paying for hosting only for the sake of draining my bank account.

Spikes

Not surprisingly, public interest in my life multiplied by 40 on the very day the earthquake hit. Then it dwindled for a couple of days until the nuclear scare got out of hand and traffic reached a record number that most likely won’t be surpassed until the first shots of World War III occur in my back yard. Potentially.

The World at Large

After seeing the huge influx in readership numbers during the earthquake crisis I’ve began to follow traffic charts slightly too much, forcing myself to write posts even when I haven’t really felt like it, just to see if I could artificially keep the numbers up. That strategy will now be revised as no matter how much I write, the stories are still aimed at people who at least know me, or are otherwise interested in stalking my life. This severely limits the amount of general traffic to the site, and I don’t really see any reason to change that. Writing about tourism tips is hardly appealing, and writing without inspiration is both taxing and results in lower quality output.

Although I would like to embrace Frank Herbert’s comment on inspiration and looking at my older texts I can agree with most of his views, I have a very difficult time putting words in the right order when I’m in lazy mode. I also recently realized that I usually only get an urge to write when I am bereft of outside distractions or otherwise deep in thought. Most frequently this inspirational time lapse occurs when wandering around aimlessly, getting incredibly frustrated with something or just before falling asleep. Rarely in these situations am I able to write things down on the spot. This dilemma often leads to the dismissal of a topic altogether or the creation of a watered down version later when I eventually reach the needed tools.

One of the things I really enjoy with writing, and life in general, are quotes. I tend to include them everywhere, much to the chagrin of people around me. Their amount varies strongly by post, but I am quasi-unable to publish any text within which I would not be able to accredit several words or expressions to specific people or situations. Some references are very direct and apparent, while others are taken out of context and surreptitiously hidden from those not concerned. In theory, at the very least. This is also something that I will not give up on, no matter how taxing it is for the reader.

Both my current and former blog contain a wide array of personal, historical, linguistic and pop culture references, which leads to a situation where the full extent and depth of posts can sometimes only be understood by people who enjoy similar hobbies as I do, are very close to me, or at worst (or best), only me. Different people can decipher different things within a post and may feel like missing some others. In the ideal circumstances, readers should be oblivious to not comprehending an obscure reference as they are not meant to notice it in the first place. Maybe some day I’ll be able to write about things that the public at large could care about, but now is not the time.

Enough of this pseudo-artistic nonsense.

I recently had a phone conversation with my boss. Due to random rolling blackouts and confusion in Tokyo, the office will remain closed until further notice. The main implication here is that I’m still stranded in Osaka until at least early next week. Today, I went to retrieve some KI pills from the honorary consulate general in Shinsaibashi and explained that they weren’t really for me to use, but rather work as a placebo to lower my dad’s blood pressure some 8000 kilometers to the West. He agreed that it was an acceptable reason and gave me a 5-day supply of emergency iodine to fill my thyroid with just for kicks.

Days in Osaka keep following the same general pattern, except I managed to catch a cold now, which makes everything so fucking much more enjoyable.

-Antti

P.S. Nyt on hyvä aika alkaa seurata kaikkien aikojen oudointa Jukola-suunnistusporukkaa johon itsekin kuulun (ainakin nimellisesti). Fanittamaan pääsee osoitteessa http://www.facebook.com/teamheiaheia ja blogia voi seurata osoitteessa http://heiaheia.larksnest.org. Samalla asiaan vihkiytymättömien kannattaa liittyä heiaheia.comiin ja alkaa pitää kirjaa liikuntasuorituksistaan sekä kannustaa muita tuttujaan verkossa. Lisään edellämainitut linkit myös sivupalkkiin kaikkien iloksi.

Quarter of a Century

As Monday was one of Ryan’s few days off, I had decided to tag along and join his merry group of friends in Kobe instead of spending one more repetitive day in Osaka. After meeting Ryan at the Sannomiya station around noon, several NPCs joined our party. In order of appearance:

Nick – Kiwi English teacher

Kaya – Japanese travel agent

Atsushi – Japanese post office worker

Keiko – Japanese nurse

Later on, Ryan’s fiancée Sayumi also teamed up with us us for what ended up being a day worth remembering. In the early afternoon Atsushi and Keiko took us to the café of hotel Piena, which was renowned for its homemade jam, a specialty used in outrageously innovative ways: adding jam in coffee to create… *drumroll* jam coffee. The place was viciously overpriced, with jam coffee costing ¥680 and the pastries hovering around ¥500. Coffee and apricot jam did not mix particularly well, either. However, the cozy café proved to be a very efficient chatting venue for the couple of hours we spent there.

No jam!

Meeting Japanese people without Basti also resulted in a cleansing and confidence-building experience. Suddenly, I was no longer the retard that could not speak Japanese properly but instead became a respected part of the community. In fact, the Japanese might have gotten slightly too excited at my projected level of Japanese considering 75% of it is bluff and the rest is made of anime quotes. Atsushi in particular provided me with a couple of generous references I’m eager to include in my future résumés:

-Your humor… very high level.

-I respect

-Smart cool guy.

I was also suggested a career as a manzai comedian.

Yopparai

Although Atsushi doesn’t drink and Ryan had warned me that he will most likely not be joining us later for the izakaya, we eventually managed to persuade him anyway. The local Torikizoku had been located earlier just in case the situation later needed it, which it did. Thus, the evening soon carried on with the standard prescription of tanrei, edamame, cabbage, chicken heart, nankotsu, kara-age, pickled eggplant, toriheiyaki, torikamameshi, chikin nanban and camembert korokke. I am not going to explain any of those terms, except cabbage. It’s cabbage.

Atsushi and I talked lengthily about topics like Finnish summer, midnight sun, auroras, Fukushima, Japanese politics as well as English and Japanese studies. The discussion was executed with a peculiar combination of English and Japanese, with each of us speaking the language we were able to least communicate with. 勉強になるな.

We left Toriki around 8, earlier than ever before. On the way to the station we passed through a narrow street with an uncanny resemblance to Sector 7 slums. I failed to take any pictures worth publishing, though. With the exception of Sayumi, the Japanese coalition headed home at this point while the rest of us resumed drinking at Ryan’s place, emptying bottles of shochu that his radiophobic ex-colleague had left behind before escaping the country a week prior. Eventually, we accompanied Nick and Sayumi to the station so they could catch the last train back to Osaka before attempting to watch an episode of Dennou Coil and passing out on the floor.

-Antti

8-bit Trip

I can no longer deny that my lengthened tenure in Osaka is becoming slightly boring. I have a very limited amount of acquaintances in the area, no money to spend on extravangances and a constant doubt concerning my future in the country. Nevertheless, today was a day well spent reminiscing and visiting places of old.

Maantie on kiva kävellä

The day began as usual, going to the front desk before check out time to inquire about the possibility of keeping the same room for one additional day. I wonder if they are getting tired of my living strategy. They first moved me from the second and fifth floor to the eighth, and the amount of money I have to pay daily seems completely arbitrary. The first two days were ¥2300 each, the third and fourth were ¥2200, the fifth was ¥2400 because it was “high season” and the sixth was ¥2250. I am eager to find out what it will cost tomorrow. I eventually managed to keep the same room, grabbed a free coffee and went back to the eighth to plan my Hirakata itinerary properly. With no bike available and a couple of legendary spots deserving a visit, the trip would end up totaling about 10kms on foot.

Just getting to Kyobashi and jumping on the Keihan line after two years sent a tingling feeling to my nostalgia sensors. In Hirakata, seemingly nothing had changed. Toriki and Ring were at their respective spots, and so was the Gaidai itself. In retrospect, trying to visit the university on a Sunday may have been a bad idea. What made it worse is that the goddamn graduation ceremony and huge event with free food had been the day before but I hadn’t done my research beforehand and instead had to leave the premises baffled by my own stupidity.

What do your elf-eyes see?

White Horse

The first location having ended as a major failure, I needed something to lift my spirits. In addition, I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and it was past noon. If any members of the honorable Stamina Ramen Alliance are reading this, they should know where I was heading by now. It had to be the longest walk I’ve ever done for a bowl of noodles but there was no way I was passing on the opportunity. Due to the uniqueness of the event and the fact that I was starved by the point I arrived, I had to go all in. Watch and weep.

Unfortunately I couldn't bring myself to order both the Shiawase and the Stamina

Main course with extra toppings

Saido menyuu

Proof of Deed

懐かしい

The moseying from Hakuba Douji Ramen to the Kansai Gaidai International Seminar Houses was, although inevitable, also a very needed half-hour to descend back to earth. I was relatively confident that the Seminar Houses would be “open” even on a Sunday, and if the Otoo-san or Okaa-san at number 3 remembered be, I would have a slight (1% at most) chance to actually get in. I stopped on the way at Sanko supermarket because it was within the scope of the day’s mission and also to get a drink after finishing a notorious bowl of spices, salt and fat. Surprisingly, all previously mentioned variables were in my favor. SH 3 was open, Otoo-san was at the counter, remembered my face and agreed to let me see our good old lounge again. As per the Sacred Seminar House Rules of Inconvenience the whole first floor, the place with the best access, had been emptied of tenants. We also briefly discussed the exodus of foreign students caused by the general media panic as well as the ambient barometric pressure.

Penitentiary entrance

I later bumped into Prof. Tracy in the park but he was busy chatting about shaving cream on the phone and rushing to the bus so I eventually gave up talking to him and resumed my walk back towards the station. Few things are more depressing than walking past all the entertainment venues you frequented for a whole year and having nobody left to enjoy them with; karaoke is of limited fun alone no matter how many times you play Moskau.

-Antti

Shangri La

The situation seems to have calmed down a bit, which is a very welcome change considering I’m exiled in a city that hardly even acknowledges that there is something abnormal happening elsewhere in Japan.

It is quite difficult to write about a general area of Osaka as well as a hotel that I have covered at least twice before during my adventures in the Far East. Besides, the past few days have been incredibly calm and dull, and I have lately come to realize by following different media that readers actually crave for catastrophes and tragedy, which unfortunately I am currently not able to provide from my safe haven.

One of the first things to came to mind after arriving in Osaka was that it beats Tokyo on many levels. The objective reasons I was able to identify were that Osaka is far less westernized, less crowded and just more likable in general. Having spent one of the best years of my life in the area can also affect the sentiment. Particularly the Shin-Imamiya-Namba-Nipponbashi area is a place that is more reminiscent of Finland than anything I’ve found in Tokyo so far: a relatively quiet downtown area mainly constituted of alcoholics.

On Wednesday I attempted to apply for a re-entry permit, the receipt of which would have made my life a hell of a lot easier if I had had to leave the country in haste. Unfortunately, to get a re-entry permit one needs to know the exact departure date, rendering it impossible to really get one just in case. In addition, I would need an alien permit first, something I need to apply for in my area of residence, i.e. at the Nerima Ward Office in Tokyo. Bref, le plan est  à l’eau.

I extended my stay here for two more days on Thursday morning, but had to initially check out and check in to a different type of room on that very day because the original one was not available anymore. Considering I had been skyping home to soothe my parents until 5:30 in the morning, the checking out at 10 was not my favorite moment of the week. Not as bad as some other checkouts, though. I then proceeded to wander outside for several hours enjoying the marvelous supplies of Den Den Town before returning to the hotel, this time to a Japanese type room instead of the previous Western type.

Attempting to adhere to several requests to retrieve some potassium iodide pills, also just in case, I studied the indispensable Japanese nomenclature and gathered enough courage to go inquire about said preventive medicine in a nearby drusgstore. Pros: they understood what I was looking for on the first try. Cons: They laughed at me. It turns out that the government possesses the whole supply of said pills, and the drugstore obaa-san emphasized that I should definitely be okay if I stay around these parts.

As this post is incredibly mundane already, let’s cover some other boring topics. I’ve been enjoying the furo at the hotel daily and also come to realize that this place, at a price equivalent to about 20 euros a night, provides me with a level of comfort that is perfectly acceptable. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone on their honeymoon, but for the sake of sleeping and using a computer it’s more than fine. The beer vending machine downstairs might add to this warm and fuzzy feeling as well. Let me put it this way; if Hotel Chuo feels inadequate, then you’re spending too much time in your room instead of experiencing Japan.

Extended weekend coming up because my birthday on Monday is a public holiday in Japan. This traces back to the late 70′s when I saved Emperor Showa from crocodiles during a rafting trip in northeastern Australia. True story.

-Antti

Anxious Heart

At the end of another hectic day I find myself at the very place where my first Japanese adventure began in 2008, Hotel Chuo in Shin-Imamiya, Osaka. I have to emphasize how much I appreciate being in a place completely devoid of panic, and as a physical manifestation of that appreciation I just marched to the nearby combini to buy a real beer and some snacks. Although a celebrating would be inconceivable due to the general situation in the country, I truly believe I’ve earned some safety and comfort. My next move is to hit the public bath as soon as it opens.

Last night marked the first time I’ve ever been woken up by an earthquake. It very much resembled waking up from a nightmare. During the 15 seconds that I was sentient, I had the time to consider running out and also measure my heart rate, which was substantial. As soon as it was over, I fell asleep faster than an Engrish-speaking guard in the original Metal Gear.

Late in the morning my boss called me and suggested taking refuge in the West, as apparently I had no family or friends tying me to Tokyo to suffer with the rest. That rhymed. It didn’t rhyme on the phone, though. I’m awesome. Looking at the situation back in Tokyo with people getting increasingly anxious I finally decided to take a shinkansen towards Osaka on the very same day. Clear movement out of Tokyo was perceived all along the way with large numbers of people moving towards the Shinagawa and Tokyo stations with a reasonable amount of luggage that should not be present on any normal day.

The shinkansen ticket buying system was retarded, but I won’t go into details as it did already waste half an hour of my life. I also made the mistake of entering the first shinkansen I saw, which was already full. Considering I had a non-reserved seat (cheaper), I ended up having no seat at all until Nagoya. Despite all this, the journey was relatively painless. Tomorrow I’ll be applying for the alien registration card and re-entry permit, just in case. Update: this is not possible, as I do not really live in Osaka.

-Antti

Go West, Life is Peaceful There

Change of plans, I’m relocating to the Kansai area to monitor the situation. Updates to come once I know where I’ll be staying.

Pimeä tie, mukavaa matkaa

When I went to sleep last night everything seemed to be increasingly under control. I called my boss around 8 and confirmed that I should go to the office tomorrow, provided it’s physically possible. Well I have an awesome bike so not even canceled trains are able to thwart that. In addition, the rolling blackouts were supposed to occur in Nerima at 6:20-10:00 and 16:50 to 20:30 which basically meant that going to work would allow me to follow the news and keep in touch with people instead of lying in bed reading manga. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, I’m just quite interested in knowing when some inconceivably destructive incident occurs again. There’s a history of those during the past couple of days. The office is situated in downtown Tokyo, in an area exempt of blackouts due to a large concentration of political institutions, including most of the embassies.

Of course, the rolling blackouts did not actually begin today either because TEPCO cannot get their shit together. In unrelated news, going to the office had also been canceled but I had been out of reach so I ended up cycling there anyway before learning of the change of plans. After hearing some other negative news about the Fukushima plant, I went to Shibuya to have a Japanese pizza buffet for lunch and witness the relatively quiet streets again. I guess I’ll ramble about the unique attributes of Japanese pizza some other time.

What do you mean Jim rubs birds

I recently stated that life in Tokyo is proceeding as normal. This is only partially true, although far closer to the truth than the widespread panic in western media. A couple of peculiarities can be observed. People are still emptying stores of all fresh food. Not food that actually doesn’t spoil and could save you if you were isolated from all services for months though, only the good stuff. I don’t know if the locals will combat the growing fear by stuffing themselves full of sushi and steaks but it sure appears like that. Another specific phenomenon is the rush to gas stations. Throughout Monday there were lines of dozens of cars attempting furiously to secure something they widely believe to be the last tankful of gas in the city.

Because I’m personally affected by the situation in Japan as well as have the unpleasant task of calming people back in Finland and elsewhere who believe I will be dead within a week, I tend to place emphasis on conveying news reports that do not concentrate on scaring people with vague comparisons to historical events and repeating the term “radiation” like a fucking buzzword. Some misinformation can be attributed to the intermedia degrading grapevine effect. I totally made that term up.

According to the information collected, Tokyo should be fine. I have yet to hear about a nuclear plant accident that would have been inherently lethal 240kms away from the main location. Even if and when the current hazard escalates further, the damage will most likely only concern Fukushima and it’s surroundings, i.e. the danger will remain relatively local. I am currently scouting the possibility to go to west Japan for some contemplating but just to be clear: leaving Japan is my last goddamn resort. If I leave, I can’t come back. Therefore, I’m very reluctant to fly back home due to rumors and misinformed opinions. I hope that those who care about me understand this and can trust me in making the right choice while taking all variables into consideration. In all honesty, I have enough to cope with here as is.

-Antti

When it rains, it pours

As if the earthquake and tsunami alone had not been enough, Saturday offered new ways to terrorize the general public. The situation at the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, to which I made a quick allusion in the last post, deteriorated. The cooling systems had failed due to main power supply lines in the region being destroyed as well as backup power generators for reactors 1 to 3 being damaged by the Quake-Tsunami combination. At 15:36, there was a hydrogen explosion at reactor 1, causing the building housing to collapse and allowing international media to go properly mental with their reporting.

Qui ne sait rien, de rien ne doute.

In Tokyo, life went on as usual. The neighborhood was calm and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I went grocery shopping in the afternoon and eventually visited the sentô next to my apartment later due to hot water being cut at home. Besides the TV in the sentô sauna running the same rolling news about the nuclear scare, people in Nukui behaved relatively indifferently towards the situation. I had the television on non-stop at home for the 18 hours I was awake as well as all internet news outlets I could get my hands on.

Meanwhile, reports in international and Finnish media became exaggerated to the point where it was impossible to say whether they were trying to cover the actual events at Fukushima or just hoping for the entire country to go up in flames. I have to admit that the government and so-called official reports were slow to come in the first few hours following the hydrogen explosion, but that does not exactly mean you can just make shit up. I was pretty close to writing a couple of politically incorrect e-mails to editors of Finnish newspapers but in the end I realized it wouldn’t amount to anything. They’re shit, and shit rarely listens. Although comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl can increase traffic, the basis for the comparison lies solely on the fact that both entities include the mysteriously menacing word “nuclear”.

As though the actual events were not frightening enough.

It was also the first time I personally experienced the difficulty of finding realistic reports of recent events that actually had happened in the pile of smut sometimes called online news. By the time I went to sleep, it seemed matters had become stable at the first reactor and the general situation was under control. We’ll see what the morrow brings.

-Antti