Tag Archives: Japan

Where have I been all your life?


I’m back in Finland and Joona is busy “sliding east” so if someone hasn’t noticed it yet, this blog is on hiatus until further notice. Updating will resume whenever something truly interesting happens. In the meantime, for those interested in the adventures of random Finns in Japan, I redirect you to our friend Tommi’s blog about livin’ it up in Nagoya (Also found under the “Links” section).



Entries have been a little rich in gaming and ramen stories lately, so let’s start with something else; noodles will follow soon enough. With Golden Week nearing its end, I proceeded to do something extravagant on Saturday, and went out to a Sakurahouse Fiesta in Ikebukuro in order to socialize. It was about time as well. Nothing makes you realize you’ve been deprived from civilization too long like putting cooked sausages in a coffee mug due to all other dishes being unavailable. Or biting off a chunk of butter for cooking purposes with your teeth because the knife was almost out of reach. These are fictional examples and I definitely, definitely didn’t behave that way.

The problem with going to meet lots of new people is that I tire quickly. I’m fortunate enough to have lots of good friends, and while they are not here with me at the moment, I tend to get slightly complacent. To quote the great Peter Cook, I’m very bad at being interested in people. And if the new people I meet happen to be uninteresting, I have a very hard time concealing my boredom. Booze does help though.

Despite all my fears, the evening proved quite a pleasant one. The earthquake was a major topic of discussion, as were different nationalities and awkward gaijin situations in Japan. As a bonus achievement, I was able to communicate in Japanese extremely efficiently after eight beers, much like speaking Italian only requires a moustache. I returned home before the last train and was in high enough spirits to buy a box of half-priced sushi at the station Seiyu and enjoy some midnight fishy goodness.

Ota ja Nauti

By accident, I woke up at 5 in the morning on Sunday, the only goddamn day when the Tsukiji fish market is closed. Then Murphy did something, and my internet connection went down as well. Around 9 I finally stopped caring about the router and walked to the station to enjoy the sunny weather accompanied by some curry bread and one of those awful cold canned black coffee things. There was “best” written on the can, but it must have been for irony.

The weather was perfect for cycling, and thus lunch was had at Tetsuya Ramen near Koenji station. I had been passing the shop on my way home from work for three months now, and it had lately become very difficult to refrain from stepping in, so it was ultimately a good thing to get that over with. I don’t really even know what I ordered. Somethingsomething tonkotsu was the name on the ticket dispenser, but weirdly enough the broth tasted more like fish, making me immediately think that something had gone wrong during the ordering process.

Mother's Day Lunch

Unlike Kiraboshi, though, the broth had a pleasant fishy taste. The noodles were really nice and chewy and the neatly placed chashuu slices were excellent as well. The ajitamago (egg) cost extra, rendering the meal as a whole relatively expensive at ¥1290. A serving of rice would have been available for free, but rice is not exactly a rarity in these parts of the world, so I passed. By the end of the meal, the intense saltiness of the broth had began slightly bothering me, but I was satisfied on the whole. This won’t mark my last trip to Tetsuya, as the renowned shop offers several other types of broth (miso, shoyu) that I need to get to try later.


Happiness Resule

Lesson learned: One should never buy second-hand shoes. About a month ago I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon cycling to and around Kichijoji looking to buy some sneakers. The location was originally chosen because there was an Oshman’s next to the station, which I knew carried some items of interest. Instead, I got lost on the way – what a fucking surprise – and ended up going to a nearby Mode Off. Those who have read previous entries about Book Off should be able to sense a pattern here.

I think often of these lines, both when I am glad. I think of them when I am sad, because their rhythm teaches me that the timeless.

Besides enjoying some of the best Engrish pieces in a while, I also managed to find second-hand basketball shoes that a) fit me like a… glove? and b) only cost ¥1500. In retrospect, the price alone should have risen some suspicions on my part, but I was too naive and desperate to think clearly: my sports shoe dilemma had finally been solved and for only a fraction of the expected price. Turned out later that the problem persisted, and as an additional lesson I learned that second-hand shoes vendors are about as dangerous as second-hand car salesmen, though to a lesser financial degree.

I went on a trial run the very same evening to test how the shoes felt and how my right knee responded to strain. I got as far as a kilometer from the apartment before the increasing pain in my knee forced me to withdraw. During the depressing walk home, I realized that the feeling I was experiencing did not quite adhere to the image I had about what walking should normally feel like. It literally felt like bits of me were falling off with each step, which was partly true. The shoes, while having shown no issues when tested in the store or for the first kilometer of running, had begun disintegrating rapidly. I made a damage assessment at home and could hardly contain my disappointment when the results of my small excursion clearly indicated both that running is still a no-go and that I payed ¥1500 for the privilege of throwing a pair of old Nikes in the trash, the collection times of which are abhorrent. The previous sentence makes perfect sense. Read it again.

"What you've done is a perfect example of shoe... FRAUD?"

Two weeks after the incident I returned to Kichijoji, walked straight into Oshman’s and bought the Vibram FiveFingers I had been aching to try ever since a friend at Gaidai had run the Nara Daibutsu Marathon with that specific type of shoe. I was also projecting unrealistic expectations towards the FiveFingers putting less stress on my knee since they require a different, more natural (?) running technique.

Promotional picture. Luckily the colors are very neutral and fit_any_kind of clothing.

Until today I had only used them for walking and cycling. In these two areas, they definitely get the job done. Also people tend to stare at my feet now, which is an upgrade (or actually downgrade) from them staring at my face all day long. This morning marked the moment when I finally gathered my courage and embarked on a new test run. It ended up putting some extra effort on my leg muscles not only because I hadn’t run in four months but also because it’s not really possible to step heel first when wearing these things due to a lack of cushioning. However, I did survive the ordeal and rewarded myself with a nice bowl of tonkotsu ramen afterwards. Compared to the rubbish from Mode Off, I’ve been really satisfied with these shoes, for now. The only thing I’m concerned with is their lifespan. When used almost daily, I wonder how long these expensive footgloves can actually last.


Japan and Finland, Worlds Apart

The title is not a reference to the British boyband of the 90s, just to be clear.

I had long wanted to rant a bit about language education in Japan, and the Japan Blog Matsuri provided me with a great excuse to do that. I’m not a native English speaker myself, and although I’ve been bombarded by foreign languages from a very young age, I can still somewhat relate to the difficulties the Japanese encounter when learning English, currently their most important foreign language.

There is a pretty stark contrast to language education and learning between Japan and Finland. Although Japan employs a variety of native English speakers as teachers, some of which operate on very different bases, the system as a whole, from what I’ve seen, is still in a lamentable state. I spent one academic year at the Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka studying Japanese. That’s not the point here, though. One local I befriended at the time told me that Kansai Gaidai was a great school for foreigners, much less so for the Japanese. Judging from the results, this statement proved very true.

A large amount of the Japanese graduating from Gaidai work hard for the purpose of becoming English teachers for Japanese kids. The university also boasts the highest amount of foreign student throughout Japan, somewhere around 500 people during an academic year, whilst also encouraging intercultural and interlinguistic interaction very vividly. Most of the students keen on becoming teachers had spent at least a year abroad in an English speaking country and had been studying the language since primary school.

Open Campus Day at Gaidai, Finnish Booth

Despite all this, the Japanese students graduating from Gaidai with a level of English sufficient for speaking properly, let alone teaching it, were about as numerous as my posts which omit the word fuck. Written grammar was flawed, spoken output stuttering and lacked in confidence. I won’t even go into the puronanshieeshon part. Clearly the problem is deep, and very topical; some international firms such as Rakuten are already moving towards making English the company’s official language by the end of 2012.

In Europe, language education, at least in schools I have frequented, has been performed by extremely competent people. This not only means that they don’t make shameful grammatical mistakes, but also that they possess a natural native English accent (often Oxford or General American English). It would seem logical that hearing the right sounds would make it easier for kids to reproduce the right sounds. Furthermore, speaking up and having conversations are both encouraged in Finnish schools from a young age.

In Japan, the standard persists that homeroom teachers are responsible for teaching English at the primary school level. Arguably, this would be the most important time for Japanese children to develop an affinity for speaking a foreign language correctly. The homeroom teachers themselves have admitted to not being confident in their English teaching and feeling burdened by the task to an extent where they would rather see someone specialized take care of it.

Suddenly, Engrish! (Okinawa, March 2009)

Considering Japan has an incredible amount of private English schools and English conversation schools aimed at all ages populated by native speakers as teachers, I find it weird that standard schools are not able to recruit that kind of specific talent. There is a huge supply of inexperienced native English teachers willing to come to Japan to perform the tasks that homeroom teachers would prefer to avoid, as shown by the pool of people that get cut from the JET programme every year. Due to current teachers being incompetent, they do not have the necessary tools to engage the children in interactive learning, and the revolutionary system of “repeat after me with the same horrendous accent” is a common and favored approach.

Naturally, the completely differing writing system adds a handicap that is not possible for me to entirely fathom. Yet, I do see the need to diminish or completely remove katakana-based phonetics from the English teaching system at a relatively early phase. One highly learned Gaidai student whom I talked to a few years ago admitted to reading the katakana versions of songs when singing English karaoke. Et tu, Brute? A 20-year-old English major? I fell into a coma at that moment. How are students ever supposed to learn proper pronunciation if they keep on using a writing system that is suited for English output about as much as a gaijin is suited to become a Shinto priest.

Japan faces a great challenge in trying to upgrade the general English proficiency of the workforce at the rate that international markets and local companies require. One thing is certain, though. Adult education and English conversation cafes are not the answer in the long run. Something has to be done about the way children are educated.


P.S. Thanks for hosting the April 2011 Japan Blog Matsuri go to NihongoUp

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!


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.