Monthly Archives: February 2011

Culling of the Fold

I’ve actually had a couple food-related blog posts in the making for quite a while now but instead today’s update will be JIT. Inspiration hit me at an opportune moment so I will be able to publish my first rant since the the VR one. My muse for this one is the availability of cycling helmets in Japan, or rather, lack thereof. I’m sure some people will jump at my throat for that notion, pointing out that I haven’t even been trying to find one. While that was true until today, I recently was able to confirm my suspicion that cycling helmets simply do not exist on this very plane of existence.

To give you some background, cycling in Tokyo is like cycling in Hell (forget Norway), only there are cars instead of demons and pavement instead of lava. Possibly. I haven’t been to Hell lately so the details aren’t that clear to me. There are absolutely no rules on the road for bikes, never mind cycling lanes. Sometimes there is enough space to ride on a narrow lane next to the cars, sometimes there is a bus lane, other times there is fuck-all. The locals park cars wherever they see fit, as putting hazard flashers on is a sign of territorial acquisition. This not only blocks the lane you’re riding on, you can also never be sure if someone is going to open the car door as you pass by, sending you flying into nevermore. Sidewalks are narrow as shit and offer zero peripheral visibility so if someone decides to take a large enough step out of the pachinko parlor you will run him over. Cyclists can ride both on the sidewalk and on the road, ignoring all road laws, including, but not limited to traffic lights. Not only can they do as they like, they fucking will. This creates a very confusing environment where one is never sure where to go and what to do, as standard rule-based anticipation changes into a game rock-paper-scissors where you wager your life. My blood pressure has already jumped twenty points and this was only supposed to be the introduction.

Helmites abound

For the aforementioned reasons among others, I got the feeling walking home that I’d rather not take the bike to work again before I can at least protect my head on a placebo level. For this noble purpose, I went helmet hunting in three bike shops, only to realize that my efforts were futile.

I entered the first bike shop asking for a 兜 (kabuto). While the clerk did understand what I was looking for and replied with a nicely japanized “ヘルメット?” (herumetto/helmet), I probably should have known better than to use Japanese vocabulary learned from playing medieval RPGs when attempting to buy a modern piece of headgear. A kabuto is a helmet all right, just slightly closer to an iron helm with horns that one might wear when saving a princess from a dragon. After confirming that his idea of a helmet was more what I was looking for, he kindly pointed out that there are some for sale behind me, but they are only for children. Ok, fine. After receiving the same answer from the other two bike shops as well, however, it was no longer fine. I was enraged. And when I’m enraged I log in and rant about it on the internet.

Funny part was, all three shops had helmets for kids. All clerks pointed at the children’s helmet rack and glanced at me like I was some kind of weirdo, which is true, but not for that particular reason. From that, I was able to deduce that at quite an early stage during the human aging process, the head loses all value. At least in Japan. Now that I think about it, it kind of does make sense. I should make a chart about it: Negative correlation of age and head value. This is true science.

It’s quite unnerving to think that there isn’t enough demand in a nation of 130 million people for fucking bike shops to bother selling helmets. My theory is that cycling accidents are the major reason behind the dwindling Japanese population. I’m not giving up yet, though. I don’t feel like dying in traffic here if I can help it, and wearing a piece of plastic on my head that doesn’t really hinder me in any way is going to help me with that goal. What’s the Tokyo equivalent for Spotaka?


It’s difficult to stand on both feet, isn’t it

The second week here didn’t go quite as smoothly as the first. In retrospect, going to the gym and to the sauna at Spa World while still kind of recovering from the flu might have been a bad idea. Eventually I spent the beginning of the week sneezing. Constantly. And it was particularly frowned upon on the train, but しょうがない。 That was a mandatory Gaijin smash. On a more positive note, Friday was an unexpected public holiday which not only allowed me to recuperate but also to go have a few (8) beers in Shibuya with a German friend of mine. The evening was both depressing and encouraging, considering Basti, whom I referred to in the previous sentence, speaks perfect Japanese and makes me look like a tool. But after hearing about his job opportunities and other perks that speaking Japanese brings, it made me even more fired up to learn the language correctly this time around. My only connection in Tokyo now being a trilingual kaisha-in and avid drinker is indeed a good towards that goal. Naturally, after the first couple of beers my Japanese picked up as well and I was able to enjoy the evening to its fullest.

For Saturday, there had been talks of going to a Valentine’s Day party full of, and I quote, “desperate chicks who want a boyfriend before Valentine’s Day”. Disregard that, a full-fledged nomihoodai would probably have been too much just after I had began to recover for the second time, so I decided that one evening of drinking during this particular week was enough and opted out. I’ll have enough time to party later if I can manage to stay alive. The weather was horrendously bad on Saturday anyway so I mostly stayed home honing my Japanese in the laziest possible way, multitasking Japanese tv-shows, anime and manga while vigorously flipping through dictionary pages. Seeing as my dictionary is, in reality, just a computer application, the previous sentence was added mostly for verbal flavor and to remind readers that I tend to lie about everything that happens here. All references to real people are purely coincidental. I’m running an infinite improbability drive in my kitchen. I don’t have a kitchen. Moving on.

My earlier decision strengthened during the weekend, and thus learning Japanese has now been set as the number one goal during my stay here, using the 決めた-rule. The only hurdle that still prevents me from committing all my spare time to said activity is my thesis who, despite all my begging, has not began writing itself yet.


Sunday was the first day in a while with sunny weather, which prompted me to attempt to finish my last important business as a settler, namely finding a bike. Once again, the mission proved to be incredibly dull and difficult to accomplish. While I had previously googled every bicycle shop in my general living area and near the office, second hand shops had been impossible to find. This was because they are part of the Japanese obsolete domestic market and are usually decrepit shacks run by old men at the end of narrow passageways. Businesses of such an anachronistic nature tend not to be on the web. Walking around didn’t help much either so it could well be that such shops are on the verge of extinction by now anyway.

My own 三日月 (obscure anime reference, don't bother)

In the bicycle shops I eventually visited, the cheapest mamachari were quoted at over 10000 yen, with the bulk of them being so far from my size requirements that no amount of tinkering from the part of the ten-in was of any real use. I was happy they tried, though. I came to notice during my previous stay that Japanese shop assistants are notorious for an action pattern dubbed: controversial attempt at understanding the gaijin followed by vague mumbling and quick evacuation of the premises. This didn’t happen in these well-equipped bike shops, possibly because I either somehow managed to tell them what I needed in Japanese or just because I won in the shop clerk lottery. Once the morning had been spent walking and talking with no results, I took a small break and decided to walk to, all puns aside, Hard-Off. Hard-Off is like Book-Off for hardware. The store sells all kinds of second hand electronics at incredibly low prices. There was supposed to be one within a walking distance (1 hour walk) of my apartment so I decided to bite the bullet and try to find it.

I didn’t. What I did find, however, was Treasure Factory, a recycling shop that sold a large variety of random previously owned items, including a couple of second hand mountain bikes. As I was getting desperate, I quickly asked the salesperson if I could try them for size and ended up buying one just so I could get the whole ordeal over with. The bike is in no way a perfect fit, but at least I can manage. It will take me 32 trips to the office and back to justify the total cost north of 20000 yen, but considering it should improve my quality of life in other ways, it was good to get that transaction out of the way. In the best-case scenario I can also sell it when I leave. Or I can just never leave. DUN DUN DUNNN!


Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kantō anymore

Friday marked the beginning of the trip down memory lane to Kansai. I did my part by walking to Shinagawa station straight after work, meeting up with Joona again and taking the first Shinkansen to Shin-Osaka. 13240 yen, 6 days worth of living expenses budget but meh, I’ll catch up once Joona leaves and I’m all by my lonesome with nobody to drink and eat Kobe Beef with. Nothing too special about the train ride, except it was so different from Finnish ones it almost made me cry. It was both fast and on time. I might never get over this. I’m still seeing a therapist for all the traumatic experiences with VR. Once at our final destination in Shin-Imamiya, Osaka, we went for some shitty ramen due to all decent food places being closed at the time, before going to the hostel to sleep. Turns out the clerk at the entrance had been a guide to Tunna and Riku during the Japan episodes of Madventures.

Saturday was a day worth remembering, accounting to three factors.

The main plan for Saturday was to go to Kobe to eat the best beef in the world in the best restaurant in the world. Hype enough? We departed from the hostel around 11 to be in Kobe at lunch time. Wakkoqu’s lunch was once again something to be feared. The young master who was responsible for the show was the same as two years ago and the food was equally excellent. I’ll add pictures if I ever get them from the master of cameras. The pinnacle of the whole experience was that they actually offered cream with coffee. Real cream, not any of that low fat milk or any other shit “health-conscious” people like to drink. Take that you non-believers. I guess I could ramble about Wakkoqu and Kobe beef institutions for long enough to fill the internet but it’s really something to experience yourself. Oh, and it did make my wallet exactly 7304 yen lighter. That’s over 3 days of food budget again. But if I starve later at least I’ll starve happy.

Part two of the Saturday Experience Extraordinnaire was to go to the electronics store Labi in Sannomiya so Joona could drool over some Apple products for a few hours. Actually the goal was very clear but if I don’t take advantage of this opportunity to mock the Apple fanboy, the repressed mock will turn into bile and I might die. Ideally, Joona was supposed to buy a MacBook air and 3 Apple TVs while taking advantage of Labi’s member card point collection system to pay for part of the set.  The plan was both retardedly ambitious and complicated, and eventually took about 2 hours to complete. It might come as a surprise, but we didn’t have member cards. Initially, Joona spent half an hour speaking with the only store clerk in the 8 story electronics supermarket with an adequate grasp of English to know if the plan was actually achievable while I wasted my life playing Angry Birds on a demonstration iPad, getting displeased looks from other customers.

Once the details were clear, something we in Finland call “säätäminen”, began. In order to get membership to collect points, the clerk said, one needs a Japanese phone number. Well it sure as hell wasn’t Joona who had one. With the help of the same enthusiastic clerk guiding me through the Japanese online registration process I was finally able to register a Labi membership, thus allowing Joona to buy the Air, collect points and use said points to buy Apple TVs for the glory of all. When everything seemed clear, the cashier had to call her superior in order to make sure that Sampo Pankki was an organization to be trusted. Unberlievably (sic) there were no last minute transaction problems and after almost suffering a heat stroke from spending the afternoon at the Labi Electronics Sauna, we finally got out with one happy Apple freak and one disgruntled Labi gold member. I’ll get back to the heat  issues in Japanese buildings in an exclusive Anttirant later on. On that note, the Kobe adventure was over, but the evening was just beginning.

I had made plans for us to go drinking with a few old friends from Kansai Gaidai at 9, Ryan-sensei and Sayumi-chan. Since there aren’t_really_enough_options in Japan when it comes to drinking, off to Toriki we went. Tanreis were flowing, the edamame was taunting Henrik from across the continent, chicken heart was delicious, nankotsu still sucked but the get-together was excellent all in all. You don’t deserve to know the details. After some yopparai philosophizing on the last train we made it back to the hotel and Joona packed his bags to get ready to leave early the next morning. Well, packed his bags, except he left me with a well designed cardboard box labeled MacBook Air but had the nerve to take the actual content back to Finland with him.

Edamame yanka!

On that day, 2 years ago

With Joona leaving early on Sunday morning I was free to enjoy the rest of the day roaming around Osaka and going through places from days gone by. There were some places that I should have written about last time I was in Japan but I was busy that spring doing something else. Also, I had an interesting epiphany while wandering around. Interesting for me, not so much for readers. The thought that struck me was that Shin-Imamiya has to the best place in Osaka, period. First of all, it has a bad reputation, so by Japanese standards that means that there are a few homeless and / or drunk people around making life more interesting. Not unrelated to that reputation, it’s the cheapest place to find a quality  business hotel for a stay in Osaka. We paid 3000 yen a night for a twin room. Not too shabby.

The next unique spot in the area is Spa World, located conveniently around 50 meters from the correct entrance of the Shin-Imamiya JR station. Spa World is essentially a hotel / spa / relaxation complex with an innumerable amount of spas, baths, saunas, pools, restaurants and whatnot. It became a fan favourite in Spring 2009 because of a campaign price that allows people to enter the place for the whole day for only 1000 yen. The spa cannot be doing very well as the campaign is still ongoing and there is no way for them to pay for all the water and electricity with that price when taking into account the amount of people that go there. Spa World is also the international benchmark for everything Engrish, as appointed by the Japan Ministry of Engrish, Jearousy and Googre Transrate (MEJGT). While I could not find such old classics as: “Woman only bath, men cannot enter from here” or “Woman only room. Stay out, man” there had still been no effort to make grammatical sense:

• “Wears inside the building”
• “It’s excite!”
• “I hope smoking in the smoking room.”
• “Let’s tanning!”
• “Doragon foot”
• “Please note so slippery”
• “Antitheft and locker key wristband are always with you please yourself”

Engrish Winner of the Week

Outside of Spa World is one of the saddest reminders of the delusions of grandeur prior to the Lost Decade and at the same time one of the coolest potential attractions anywhere, ever: A roller coaster running through a shopping mall. Both of the aforementioned have been abandoned for a long time, however, and now it appeared that the entire building complex was getting demolished. I was still able to get a glance at a place that, in the right circumstances, could have made Chuck Norris fall to his knees in awe.

In addition to Shin-Imamiya being cheap and having Spa World, it’s also the center of the world for… well… retro gaming nerds. The huge shopping center for normal people, Namba, is also just a short walk away but I tend to always be drawn towards the small game and electronics shops of Den-Den-Town, located between Nipponbashi and Ebisucho stations on the Sakaisuji line. Even now I wasn’t really able to buy game consoles and take them back to Tokyo but I was still able to gather energy just by enjoying the atmosphere and 8-bit game music at スーパーポテト and ゲーム 探偵団. If you can’t read Japanese characters that’s your loss. I had to ask the store manager for the reading of the latter kanji. I also promised myself an N64 once I manage to turn in the final version of my thesis.

I eventually bought some cheap manga for the trip back and spent the Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo wondering how I could best manage my living expenses to avoid running out of money before March.


What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

During a momentary lapse of judgment and after hearing enough requests and compliments that stroked my ego, I promised a few people to get back to blogging when I reach Japan. Considering I have work to do, hideously long and unproductive commutes as well as a fucking master’s thesis to finish, this promise is now considered a bad move. By me, mainly. And by my parents once they see the first  superfluous use of the word “fuck” in the first paragraph after them repeatedly telling me to stop the cussing because “someone might see this”. However, I like writing (and swearing), and keeping a travelogue will allow me to later reminisce what I’ve done in my youth when I’m a sad old man sitting in a rocking chair on a veranda somewhere.

I apologize for being late with starting the blog but it’s been a pretty hectic first week here and I haven’t really had time to sit down and think about what has happened. Workdays including commute time take me about 10 to 11 hours after which I’m stuck in a cold room with broken internet from too many connections and I can’t be arsed to do anything else but sleep. I also haven’t had time to sleep off the jetlag so the bags under my eyes are making me look like some weird anthropomorphic tanuki gaijin. Besides that, though, everything is fine and dandy. I’ve learned how everything critical works around here and all I need now is a bike with too specific characteristics: a) doesn’t cost a fortune and b) doesn’t lead to my demise (looking at you specifically, brakes). From here on out all that’s left are standard salaryman workdays. Also, the amount of photos in the blog may remain negligible because I managed to break my camera about a year ago in Germany during an evening of drunken stupor.

But let’s begin at the beginning. After the final days in Finland spent in bullet time I finally got on the plane and enjoyed a night flight to Tokyo. A couple of movies, Final Fantasy III and Golden Boy helped me through ten boring hours because sleeping just didn’t work out. So off to a nice start there, no sleep whatsoever and plenty of stuff to do the following day. Once at Narita, in order to start with a proper win, I bought the wrong train ticket and had to pay an extra 2000 yen for the ride downtown. After a few quick calls that were interrupted by tunnels, an ingenious plan was devised that I first go to the Finpro office and then check with Sakurahouse whether or not I can move in to my supposedly pre-reserved semi-apartment directly or if I need to find a hostel for the first night. As it turns out, there are very few things I enjoy less than riding on a crowded Yamanote line dead-tired and carrying luggage.

After some struggling, I finally got off at the Hiroo station. I was supposed to walk to the office but after having emerged from the chikatetsu I was standing at the first red lights (not the district thereof) when some interviewer approached me with a huge tv-camera, asking if I can speak Japanese and if I have time for an interview. I had to decline because I really wanted to just get to my apartment and get some sleep but man did it feel good to be charisma man again. And then people wonder why I keep coming back here. Soon after deftly dodging the interview my sense of direction kicked in and I spent the next half hour walking around wrong places trying to find my way to the office. I did finally find it though, met with some of the people and left my stuff there before going to eat and explore. Man, eat & explore should be a game. I would own at that game. At around 6 pm I was able to go pick up the keys for my apartment in Shinjuku. I picked up the keys from Shinjuku, the apartment being located somewhere slightly more affordable and far less convenient. And when I say pick up, I mean I had to sign half a dozen documents over and over with several signatures each until I had a seizure. In order to rent a house I needed to agree basically not to do anything in there. I also agreed to being fully responsible and liable for everything that happens in my room, in the house, in Nerima ward, in Tokyo, and in Japan during, after and before my stay. I think there was a fine print in the agreement that if the city was razed by Gamera or Godzilla I would reimburse 50% of the damage to public buildings. Boring story, I eventually agreed to whatever, emptied my wallet and got access to the most expensive key of my life thus far.

<interlude: 1-hour train ride from Shinjuku to Nakamurabashi>

Finding a Sakura house building, even with a map, in the dark, in an area you’ve never been to before, is a depressing experience. Comparable to Hirakata in 2008, the neighbourhood was so quiet I was worried about waking people up with the sheer sound my suitcase rolling on the ground. Eventually I did find the right building and my first day tribulations were finally coming to an end.

The apartment itself has its advantages and disadvantages. The natural characteristic of Japanese buildings is unfortunately far too apparent, meaning that it’s fucking freezing throughout. My room is nice, clean, with a nice kitchen and all the appliances I need, except a rice cooker, the only thing I would really need. The toilet is outside the room, and also shit. The shower is downstairs and very nice if you happen to enjoy temperatures around zero right after the water stops. The cold I caught before Tuesday morning will testify for me not exaggerating that part.

Sakurahouse Nakamurabashi A

The first night of sleep was good, though. I eventually fell asleep while watching a movie and ended up sleeping next to my laptop. Sakurahouse might charge extra for additional entities in my bed so I probably won’t tell them. The following morning was training and evaluation time. I needed to find my way to work quickly enough so I could start comparing different train connections and travel methods. Train rides are always mind-numbingly boring, but luckily I’ve come up with a great game to play during commutes. I call it 電車の王, which roughly translates to king of the train. The rules are simple: The tallest person in the car is the king and wins the game. So far I’ve won every game. I keep all the trophies in my head. Meanwhile in the real world, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were all spent at work. Due to the fact that blogging about work has recently become a dangerous phenomenon for employees and I have no job security whatsoever, I won’t mention anything work-related in this blog again. It shouldn’t be relevant anyway.

Wednesday evening my arch nemesis Joona finally made it to Tokyo so we had our official Akihabara memorial day, avoiding underage girls’ maid café offers and checking out stores for cheap Apple products (Joona) and 3rd to 5th generation game consoles (me). Thursday evening was the first visit to Torikizoku in one and a half years so I had to prove myself I can eat some of the dullest traditional dishes available in Japan, ochazuke. Once that feat of strength was completed we enjoyed some umeshu drinks and cheap happoshu until it was time to take trains back to our respective dwellings. Oh yeah, nobody besides me can sleep at my place without paying Sakurahouse an additional 2000 yen, and if they catch me breaking that rule “the lessee faces immediate eviction“. Due to a high risk / no profit situation, I returned to Nerima alone while Joona took the Tsukuba line to Asakusa back to his hostel.

Everything in Toriki is 280 yen, starting with the 0,75l mug of happoshu

tl;dr – I’m in Japan now.