Happy 2019!

As always recently, long time no write, eh? It’s looking like staying that way this year, because as well as still working full-time in a language school I’m studying for the next level of the JLPT – the N1. I want to learn to read more in Japanese generally, and N1 might be useful in getting jobs, too. There are some jobs in Japan where N2 is useful, and there might be some in Australia where it’s useful too but N1 is definitely more so.

2018 was a pretty good year for me in some ways. It was also pretty sad in some ways. Two of my grandparents died, on different sides of the family. Elsewhere in the family, cousins got engaged and/or had more children. My work environment changed from one of constant discomfiture to one where I can make jokes with other teachers and laugh when things go wrong (not if it’s serious, obviously).

In 2018 I learned the hard way not to ride on the yellow lines (for the visually impaired) when it’s been raining. At least not the new ones. After falling off my bike on them, twice, feeling annoyed at the footpath suddenly having become a minefield of pedestrian and slipping hazards, I also discovered that there ARE actually people who use them for direction. Saw two people in one week feeling their way along, having myself made it to adulthood without ever seeing anyone using them.

2018 brought ends to some friendships and beginnings of new ones, as well as the discovery and closure of a nice Cambodian restaurant. I was lucky enough to be introduced to a bar that plays the BEST music, and also a little Italian restaurant where all the staff wear denim shirts and serve some of the best pasta I’ve ever eaten.

In 2018 I went skiing once. I read 27 books, according to Goodreads, including some fantastic ones. My top 3 would be: The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss – and the next book in the series), Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman), and The Sympathiser (Viet Thanh Nguyen).

I visited 2 countries I hadn’t been to before: Hong Kong – yum cha 3 times, or was it 4? – and Korea, and really enjoyed both. I tried calligraphy, another first. I tried archery for the first time (it was great) and saw an exploding bamboo fire at the archery course. I enjoyed whisky for the first time: Teacher’s. I went to a rainbow tea party. They were just showing off all the colours of tea they could make – I don’t know if the tea makers are aware of what rainbow means in the West.

Japanese calligraphy. It was fun.

Fancy tea – more for looking at than for drinking.

The bamboo grows in sections, so when the air in each expands with the heat, the divider as it were has nowhere to go but out… pop!

There were some great films that I saw in 2018, including Bohemian Rhapsody. Japanese films I really liked were One Cut of the Dead, Cafe Funiculi Funicula, and Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura. I learned the joys of Japanese medical dramas.

Plenty of things happened for me in 2018 and it’s looking like 2019 will hold quite a few too. Already been skiing once so it’s looking good! I hope you’re well and that 2019 is shaping up well for you.

See you sometime, reader. Wish me luck with my studies. Somehow I’m determined to have some semblance of a life while I study and work. Hard to balance everything. So 応援してね!

またね :)

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9? 10?

I was just looking through old posts, thinking, man I need to write more, and I found this one that I wrote last year when I was still working in the kindergarten.

—– sometime in 2017 —–

These days, I’m surrounded by pregnancy. I’m at the age where all my school and uni peers seem to be posting pregnant-and-or-baby things on Facebook. I work in a kindergarten that also takes kids from the age of 1, and the attached childcare facility takes babies from 2 months old.

Only this weekend did I learn that in Japan, they consider a human pregnancy to be 10 months and 10 days long.

I will admit that I’ve been watching the ‘asadora’ (morning serial drama) Mare, about the life and career of an aspiring pastry chef, and enjoying it in all its soppy silliness until I got too invested in the last couple of episodes. Ok, ok, that’s not the first time I got annoyed with it. *Spoiler alert* I got annoyed when the main character turned down an apprenticeship in France – a rite of passage for any serious dessert chef in Japan – to go and support her husband because he was in over his head at work. Even though he and everyone else told her to go to France. That annoyed me, but it was fitting with the character and made for good drama so I let it pass. Thinking about it now, it still grates.

This episode, yesterday, though… a character finds out on New Year’s Day that she’s pregnant, at the hospital (what sort of Japanese hospital is open on New Year’s Day? Maybe they went to emergency?). They tell her she’s 3 months pregnant and the baby is due in August. But… if she’s 3 months pregnant, that means the baby must have been conceived in late September or early October, yes? So the pregnancy is expected to be over 10 months long!?

I asked this of my Japanese companion, who responded, yep, 10 months and 10 days, everyone knows that.

Naturally I Googled it. Wiki and the rest of the internet when you Google it in English on Australian Google (look, it knows I’m Australian, I don’t deliberately go to Google Australia) claims that it’s 40 weeks on average, but anywhere from 37 to 42 weeks is not unusual. 42 weeks is 9.66 months.

Where did you pull ’10 months, 10 days’ from, Japan?

Well. A couple of blogs, Japan Explained and this English forum, say that it’s probably for a couple of reasons, being 1. counting on a lunar calendar for this instead of a usual Western calendar and 2. counting the pregnancy from the first day of the last period, as in, the period that last happens before the pregnancy has occurred. I guess it’s like how Koreans say they’re already 1 when they’re born.

I haven’t had any pregnancies/children of my own at this point, so I can’t discuss this with any first-hand knowledge, but from what I’ve heard, Japan is a bit old-fashioned with some strange beliefs when it comes to the having of and caring for children and the way women should do it – and yes, specifically women.

Common beliefs include that pregnant mothers should keep their feet warm at all times. This means they have to wear socks at all times, including in the height of summer. Expectant mothers seem to be often encouraged to rest rather than exercising, even if the pregnancy is going fine. One mother I know was told by her doctor to stop cycling. She did stop cycling to her doctor’s appointments.

I’ve heard stories about a women having to give birth with their feet up in stirrups, which is pretty outdated. I know a woman who had twins and was only allowed to see them for 2 hours a day for the first few days. I’ve heard of a Japanese woman who was shocked to hear of epidurals when an American explained it to her. However, I can also vouch for some of the high-tech equipment that’s used in some clinics. There’s a gynaecologist’s chair that’s like a dentist’s chair: it moves and puts you in the easiest position for the doctor to do what they need to do.

———-

Doing some research for this post, I found an interesting not-quite-horror story – thanks to a lot of work on the part of the parents – of an American-Japanese couple going through pregnancy and childbirth in Japan. It’s well written and worth checking out.

And I enjoyed this Japan Times article that’s a what-to-expect guide for pregnancy and birth in Japan. It came out a couple of years ago now but it’s a great read. I think it’s the reason I didn’t publish this post when I wrote most of it a year or so ago.

Catch up

Oh dear, it sounds like something I’m putting into a lesson plan. Finish all the stuff everyone couldn’t finish because they were absent or slower than the time we had.

I’m feeling at a bit of a stalemate with Bijinjapan at the moment. There are things I think about writing, but lots of them don’t feel worth a whole post or relevant to what the blog is supposed to be about (Japan and/or Australia, remark or compare and contrast):…

Like, wow, we’re having some weather events and natural disasters this year. Floods, landslides, earthquakes and typhoons in Japan, and yet more drought in Australia.

Like, I read a great piece about acceptance and the lack thereof as a foreigner in Japan (please read it, it’s excellent, and thanks to the Canadian friend who shared it!).

Like, I don’t know how music fits into my life now that I’ve discovered audiobooks, internet radio and podcasts. This can’t be only me feeling this way. And how paper books fit into the world. I definitely still like them, and music, and do I want to make music? What kind? By myself? Should I wait for a chance to make music with others?

Like, the number of parking attendants in Japan is still funny to me. Sometimes I find them very helpful, sometimes the opposite.

And here, have a couple of summer photos now that summer’s over, the 金木犀 is out in full force and the Halloween goods are on display at Daiso (who am I kidding, they’ve been out for weeks).

This was the day my phone finally decided to let me know when an emergency warning is being broadcast. It let off a siren during a meeting, about ten or twenty seconds before anybody else’s phone did anything. This was the day we were allowed to go home early, except for those of us who weren’t allowed to or couldn’t go home because they lived on a hill or in a valley, so they had to hang out in a car or a school hall for the weekend. It was the 6th of July 2018.

This was a Vietnamese iced coffee I had in Osaka the day I lost one of my favourite earrings – it fell out while I was walking around. It was good, and with the condensed milk it tasted amazing, but I wasn’t game to go for all the lactose in the whole serving. Wish I could have (without issue).

New Obscura in Hiroshima.

Hokkaido white corn, eaten raw. One of the many delicious consumables to be found in Hokkaido.

 

Futon 2: Don’t try this at home

Or, if you’re like me, you might as well try, because it’s not getting much less sleepable-on.

Remember how I wrecked my futon by washing it? Definitely wasn’t a good idea, though I’m still honestly not sure what else I could have done. It had suffered too many nights of 30-something degree heat and 80- or 90-something % humidity (read: sweat) and needed to be cleaned.

Well, it’s fixed! Ish.

For weeks it sat around taking up valuable space in the 42m² apartment, while 2 of us slept on a single futon. But summer was coming and the prospect of 2 bodies sharing this tiny space in the heat was not appealing, and I thought about getting rid of it and sleeping on 2 single futons, or replacing it… but we’d gone to all the trouble (and expense) of lugging it down to the coin laundry, washing and drying it… so to be honest, we slept on that lumpy thing for a while. There was this one big lump, though, that just wouldn’t be flattened out. So we decided there wasn’t much to lose, and there wasn’t much for it but to operate.

Sigh.

There was a lot going on inside the futon. I discovered that it had a kind of thick, comparatively rigid blanket-type base made out of what felt like coarse wool, as well as a thicker layer of stuffing like what you get inside cushions. This was sealed with a filmy gauze layer we also had to cut through to be able to manipulate the layers.

The unflattenable lump we’d been sleeping on top of, in the dense, coarse, woolly layer, compounded by having the soft stuffing on top.

It was hot in there.

Flat! Ish.

With a bit of work and a bit of getting covered in polyester stuffing, we got it flattened out and  slept on it like that for a few weeks. But it kept losing bits of its stuffing and was pretty hard to air out, so I got some white thread and a needle and set to work again.

Franken-futon

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All better!

The moral of the story is, if there’s any chance you’ll want to use a futon for more than a year, GET A WASHABLE ONE. They exist. Don’t be like me and get the cheap unwashable one at Nitori.

This person was smart and bought a washable futon, and wrote a huge blog post waxing lyrical about it

In fact, if I’m giving advice here based on my mistakes, why not give a bit more: Even if you’re buying a futon for 2 people, consider buying 2 single ones. They’re much easier to manipulate to hang out in the sun etc., and I think that’s what most couples have, if they use futons as opposed to beds. Double futons used not to exist for a long time – everybody just had their own single. Double futons are a nuisance. Now I know.

Wherever you’re sleeping tonight, I hope it’s in a nice clean, comfortable sleeping vessel.

Not lost, just wandering in translation

I read a great Japan Times article today about how translation is not always given the care and attention it deserves. The article refers in particular to English signage in Japan but also mentions that often, for longer pieces of text too, people are often not asking the best person for the job. For signs, a native check will generally take care of most glaring errors, and for longer pieces of text you want someone who writes well in the target language (i.e. English) as well as understanding Japanese and being able to check the original text for its meaning. The lack of native checking seems to suggest that it’s not considered that important? And maybe shows a disregard for languages other than Japanese.

The part of me that gets Japanese as my ‘secret’ identity on Facebook quizzes thinks, ‘Well, maybe they’re too scared to talk to a native speaker or don’t know where to find one or how to get them to check their signs,’ and the rest of me thinks, ‘And this is the result.’

While reading this article made me consider the serious issue that it is, it also reminded me of some of the signs I saw on my recent travels around Hokkaido. They were mostly harmless, I thought, and got a chuckle or two.

This is the most potentially harmful one, where katakana strikes again. This time the loan word is from Dutch. It means something like ‘evacuation ramp’ or ladder. I think it’s an emergency exit, though whether there’s an actual ramp or what, I don’t know. Seen in a hotel in Tomakomai.

The only actual error here is ‘the spirit of toilet’ – should be ‘toilet spirit’ or ‘the spirit of the toilet.’ I just liked it.

Seen in a market in Otaru

‘Please note that your feet is slippery enough’ – seen at Nikka Whisky Distillery, Yoichi.

‘Dangeraus! Don’t walk on the Blue Pond’ …Even if you can. It’s dangeraus.

DSC_0112

Also at the Blue Pond

This last one is from a service area a few years ago, but it’s too relevant not to share here now. An example of why semantics and pragmatics is important and is a fun thing to study.

Seen in Osaka

I’m still here. This blog is still here. Watch this space, more posts coming again soon!

In the meantime, have a picture I liked.

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Anyone want to try a more natural translation? I mean, this one’s cute though.

Dassai (not dasai) ダサイじゃなくて獺祭

As someone evidently from Gaikoku, it’s easy to impress some Japanese people with your sugoiness by professing an appreciation of sake, or 日本酒。’Can you drink Japanese sake!?’ It’s somehow always unexpected. Apparently though, it’s not unexpected to like shochu, which I don’t. I don’t know many Gaikokuers that don’t like日本酒… Those that do dislike it often turn out to have overdone it at some point.

There is some delicious stuff around and it’s much cheaper here than in Australia (like many things). A while ago at a friend’s birthday I tried some Dassai. I didn’t know the name, but it turned out to be famous and made not far away. It’s so famous and renowned that Abe gave some as a present to Obama when he came to Japan a couple of years ago. When I tried some of Dassai’s sake at this birthday, I liked it so much that I made a note of it, and then later telling another friend about it, they recalled my trying a sake by the same maker on a day trip in Yamaguchi nearly a year ago – that time, too, I’d enjoyed it so much that I’d taken a photo of the menu item and been excited that it was being made so close to Hiroshima. So when I found out that they did tours of the brewery, it was just a question of when. There are only two tours a day, for a maximum of 5 people per tour, and it’s booked out quite a while ahead (even more than the 2 weeks for high tea at the Mandarin Oriental in Honkers). We booked our tour a month in advance. There are English interpreter options but we thought we’d be OK in Japanese, which turned out to be more or less true.

View from the train in the area.

Getting there was a process. There were 5 of us going and we all wanted to do a tasting, which meant none of us would drive (have I written before? The blood alcohol limit in Japan is 0.03%, but Japanese attitudes are 0.00, as in, not so much as a sip. In contrast in Australia, the limit is 0.05 and if you are driving around wineries doing tastings, the driver can legally taste the wine, at more than one place if they spit it out).

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The Gantoku line train. Image: Yamaguchi tourism site

We got the train from Hiroshima to Iwakuni in Yamaguchi, then the single-carriage train on the Gantoku Line to the closest station, Suō-Takamori, from whence it was another 8 km, or 15-minute drive to the place. Having left at 10:15 am, we arrived at 11:56 am for the 2 pm tour – the next train would have arrived at 1:46pm, cutting it a bit fine. So we had lunch at one of the two restaurants in the town that were open on Sunday and then piled into 2 taxis out to the sakagura.

It was pretty cool.

The brewery shop, across the road from the brewery building

It was also, like my outfit (apparently), uncool in some ways. I had decided to wear a comfortable light skirt with a longish, sleeveless shirt, but my friend said it was dasai ( ださい), a.k.a. daggy/unfashionable. Maybe just the shirt was, I’m not sure, but I wore it. Herein lies one of the important differences between English and Japanese: geminates that distinguish between phonemes, i.e. Dassai だっさい、獺祭 the renowned sake brand, and dasai ださい (dowdy/uncool).  The long consonant sound is the difference between saying ‘unity’ (or also ‘at all’) ittai いったい and ‘painful’ itai いたい . I’ve written a bit about this concept before.

English does make sounds like this, consonant sounds with kind of delayed onsets, like the /th/ sound in ‘get the bus’ or the /n/ in ‘in national politics.’ But generally it’s only for ease of pronunciation if you’re talking quickly – if you’re talking slowly in English and separating words to be clearer, there won’t be any long consonant sounds. Double letters don’t make long sounds in English either, as in ‘happy,’ ‘silly,’ ‘running’ or ‘nugget,’ which is why Italians think native English speakers sound silly at best when we say ‘spaghetti’ in English, and why ‘cannon’ and ‘canon’ sound the same. One of the difficulties that the nonstandardised nature of Japanese spelling in romaji leads to is that if the foreign word has a double letter, Japanese assumes it’s supposed to be a long consonant, like in mamma mia. This means ‘hammock’ in Japanese is pronounced like ‘han-mock’ and ‘shopping bag’ is ‘shop[glottal stop]-pingu bagu.’ So as a non-native speaker of Japanese, which if you’ve got this far in this English I assume you are, do not ignore double letters in Romanised Japanese words. It really is kon-nichiwa, not k’nichiwa.

(If you’re interested in getting a bit more used to this in Japanese, Dad, coz I don’t know how much it’s come up in your study yet, this page or this page are good.)

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Arguably cool? Once suited up, hands washed and disinfected, we also had to be sanitised or at least blown around by a clean wind in this little compartment.

Uncool things at Dassai included: the appearance of the guests on the tour once we were all wearing our coats and hair nets; and arguably, the extent to which most of the production process is mechanised. The mechanisation leads to a consistently, objectively high quality product that can be made all year round, but for some consumers it takes out the more personal charm of more human traditional methods. I’ve only seen a few sake breweries in Hiroshima, Kyoto, Akita and Gifu, but they were all basically wooden, including much of the equipment. Dassai had quite a different atmosphere, with very little wood in the brewery itself.

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…Machinery. This room had a wonderful smell of steaming rice.

Our guide was cool. Though he was working at a prestigious and fancy kind of place, he was down-to-earth and happily answered all our questions honestly and clearly. I later learned that this honesty might be an important part of Dassai’s attitude, despite their high-tech methods. It seems that some merchants and restaurateurs want Dassai, high-quality maker that it is, to make still fancier and more expensive sakes – but the maker believes the main ones they’re making already are already pretty refined, isn’t especially interested in making special exclusive ones for profit and at one point actually went so far as to publish an ad telling consumers not to pay exorbitant prices for sake. Dassai wants people to enjoy the flavour – on their English page they write that they brew sake for ‘sipping and enjoying,’ juxtaposing this to the idea of brewing for drinking or just for sales. There you have it.

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Our guide talked us through the process, explaining the various stages and showing us videos for a few of them. I won’t explain them all here, but if you’re interested there’s an explanation with videos on the Japanese Sake page.

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The rice used for brewing Dassai’s biggest 3 sakes, all daiginjo, is polished to from 50% to 23% of the original size of the grain.

The rice used for brewing Dassai’s biggest 3 sakes, all daiginjo, is polished to from 50% to 23% of the original size of the grain, as you can see in the photo above. To classify as daiginjo, the grains must legally be polished down to 50% of what they were when they were brown rice.

We read that the when the maker decided to make the 23% one, on the right, it was for the purpose of having the most highly refined grain of any Japanese sake, and while this did make Dassai famous and unique, it didn’t automatically result in a great-tasting sake. So they worked on that and now it’s very polished and also tastes excellent… but some of our group agreed it seems a shame about the other 67% of the grain.

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The brewing room is kept between 5-8 degrees Celcius all year round.

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Moromi もろみ・醪

 

 

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This dasai tour guest was watching the sake bubbling in front of us. Our guide told us that the temperature of each vat is controlled by cold water running through a double wall in the outside of the lower section of the vat. You can see the temperature gauge sitting over the sake; apparently it’s measured twice a day.

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The tasting set, from left: a sparkling, Dassai 50, 39, and 23. All great, and the numbered ones were all subtly different. A few of us blind-taste-tested each other and we could more or less tell them apart. Some of us thought the 50 and 39 were similar to each other, whereas one of us thought the 39 and 23 were similar to each other and easy to distinguish from the 50.

It was a good, and interesting, day. If you go, I recommend having a designated driver rather than getting the train, unless you like trains a lot.

The factory tour and tasting cost us a total of 500 yen each, which is about $5 US or $6 in AUD. The shop is open every day and you can just waltz in and do tastings, which a few groups did while we were there. Asahishuzo’s English website is here.

Our taxi driver on the way back to Suōmori Station told us that none of the locals actually drink Dassai but generally choose something called Gangi. Guess that’s where we’re going next.

Honkers – travelogue

A while ago, about a month ago now, it was Golden Week. Golden Week is one of three holiday periods in Japan, when it’s common for people to go away. The other ones are Obon which is for honouring your ancestors and going to the cemetery, and New Year where you make your resolutions and go to a shrine. Golden Week doesn’t have any spiritual significance: it’s just where a few national holidays happen to fall on the same week. Somehow, it’s rare for them all to fall on consecutive days – more often, there’ll be a gap, e.g. Monday off,  Tuesday and Wednesday working days, and then Thursday and Friday will be holidays. In some workplaces you’re lucky enough to be able to take the full week off anyway. Most schools don’t.

The fact that there are more than 2 consecutive days off and it’s no longer cold means that most of Japan is travelling around doing whatever touristy, holiday-y things they can, so hotels and flights are at peak prices and full, and you probably won’t get a seat on the Shinkansen unless you reserve one*.

This all means it’s a bit hectic travelling during Golden Week and I wouldn’t recommend coming to Japan during that time unless there’s something on specifically at that time that you’re coming for, like Takayama Spring festival or something.

I was lucky enough to get out of Japan, escaping the Japanese crowds to have a holiday instead in the crowds of Honkers, a.k.a. Hong Kong.

Street in Mong Kok, Kowloon

I found the scaffolding amazing. All bamboo, and they just put it up and take it down whenever they need.

Want a fish? Mong Kok, Kowloon

We were told HK has the most skyscrapers of any city in the world.

To be honest, I don’t usually go for crowds and I’d rather have a holiday out in the sticks than in a big city, so I’d never really considered going to HK until I had a stopover there on the way back from Australia earlier this year. From the airport I could see mountains and wanted to go and have a closer look. They looked a beautiful hiking spot.

The Dragon’s Back walking track, Hong Kong Island

Then a friend asked what my plans were for Golden Week and if I wanted to get out of the country. Hong Kong, Vietnam and a couple more Asian countries were on the list of potentials, and one way or another we ended up going with Honkers. For me, hiking and food were the main attractions. We all also wanted simply to go to more places that we hadn’t been to before. The others had other reasons, too, like learning more about the Umbrella Revolution or other political/historical things – which I was also interested in but not to the point that it was a major attraction.

We did a walking tour where we learned a bit about the history of Hong Kong, and about feng shui. The angular building on the left, the Bank of China, was ruining things for HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation), whose building is on the right in this photo. So HSBC consulted their feng shui master who told them that making a water catcher/drainpipe in the shape of a cannon pointing directly towards the sharp angles of the Bank of China building would fix the problem. Apparently it worked. Read more here.

China vs Hong Kong: The 100-dollar note on the left is issued by the Bank of China and shows their angular building, while the one on the right is issued by HSBC and shows their more harmonious building, as well as one of their guard lions, Stitt (the other one’s called Stephen).

When we arrived, the transport was impressive. Getting to our accommodation was confusing because the recommended station exit was under construction, and being underslept at the time, I found the area a bit overwhelming. Tsim Sha Tsui, the area we were staying in Kowloon, was hot, busy, and dirty, and it took us longer than it probably should have to find the place. I blame our reliance on the Internet for the decline in – is it navigational skills, or organisational? Either way, in familiar territory, I’m used to being able to just aim for the area and when I seem to be getting close, look up the details on Google Maps. In unfamiliar territory I rely too much on GMaps and don’t get so much of a sense of orientation as with a paper map.

So I was hot and bothered, and my first thought upon getting to the air-conditioned hostel room and looking out the window onto the concrete jungle was ‘why did we come to this s###hole?’ I managed to refrain from mentioning this to my travel companion for about half an hour, by which time I was in a better mood and able to realise that by the time we’d had a few fun adventures it might not seem such an awful place. This was right, by the way. After a day in the city I was pretty much tearing my hair out, but after the next day hiking I was feeling much more positively disposed, and by the time we’d been there four days I had decided it was a great place.

Heading up to the Dragon’s Back walking track on Hong Kong Island

This flower smelled great. Dunno what it was.

Bus to the Dragon’s Back

Eating and drinking

Hong Kong was more hipster than I’d anticipated. As well as having lots of more stereotypically Asian-seeming poorer Chinese areas with cheap eateries, there were quite a few coffee shops with soy milk and flat whites** and the like.

Urban Coffee Roaster, near our hostel in TST (Tsim Sha Tsui). Food looked great. Soy cappuccino was curdled.

On the recommendation of Lisa at Caffeine 86, we went to the Cupping Room, later remembered by my friends as the ‘Sipping Cup.’ At the Cupping Room I had some really good pasta and they served Australian-style all-day breakfast, you know, like smoked salmon and avocado with poached eggs for AUD22. There, too, though, the soy cappuccino was pretty average – maybe they’d had it curdle in the past so they were trying to fix the problem by putting very little coffee in it.

Back in TST, I’d decided to stop taking the risk of paying through the nose for mediocre soy cappuccinos and had an Americano with breakfast at N1 Coffee & Co. It was strong and tasted quite acidic – maybe I’d have been  better with an espresso. Nice bagels.

So, many of the places made disappointing attempts at soy cappuccinos. But there was one place called the Coffee Academics, inside a shiny shopping centre full of ridiculously posh shops, that had the most delicious almond milk cappuccino I’ve ever had. It also had the first rose petal and strawberry jam that I’ve ever tasted, which I think I’ll never forget. It was served with what must have been clotted cream, which made me finally understand why some people think you should put cream on the scone before the jam.

This rose petal jam is one of the things Hong Kong is famous for, for which I assumed we could thank the English. But it turns out it’s actually originally a family heirloom of the pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental, who is originally from Switzerland. It was his mum’s recipe and he was on his way to Australia when he started working in Hong Kong more than 30 years ago, and is still there. The rose petal jam is famous as a souvenir and pretty expensive, and it seems only to be available to buy at the Mandarin Oriental cake shop. The Mandarin Oriental is a very expensive, fancy and popular place for high tea. We tried to go but it turns out they’re booked out a couple of weeks in advance. High tea, though, we did do at some other fancy place called AMMO.

High tea!

We had bubble tea (or boba, if you like) a couple of times, which was pretty good, if about 3 times the size I wanted. You could choose the sweetness and amount of ice.

We also went to an upmarket rooftop bar with delicious and interesting cocktails, though the experience was marred for me by the pungent cigar smoke of the only white man in the place at the time, sitting behind me. Some other young white men in suits turned up after a while, one of whom had a southern English accent so posh I wanted to laugh. They didn’t do anything stinky, so I liked them.

View from rooftop bar

I had yum cha, or dim sum if you prefer (though we were served tea every time) 3 times, the most disappointing of which was at the famous Michelin-starred chain restaurant Tim Ho Wan. The other two times were excellent, even though one of them was at Victoria Peak where if it was Australia you’d pay a huge amount for the view and the food would almost definitely be pretty mediocre.

This was actually quite good for a restaurant with a view.

I had congee only once, unfortunately – didn’t get around to it until the day before we left. It’s not much to look at but it tasted fantastic. My friend and I were also pretty excited to be eating at this place because were surrounded by Japanese people who had no idea that we knew they were Japanese or could understand any of what they said. The place must have been written up in a Japanese travel guide, and I think they must often have a lot of Japanese customers because the wait staff explained to the couple next to us in Japanese that the chopsticks were in a drawer under the table.

Congee. Better than it looks, I swear. It had ginger and had been cooked with some kind of stock. Delicious.

One night we had Lebanese food which was fantastic, though the service was pretty wanky. I think maybe travellers often go to that place looking for cheap kebabs not realising that if you sit down it’s a proper meal with proper prices. They were all right once they believed we knew what we were getting in for. The food was great.

Another night, when I was in a bad mood, we went to a kebab place. The other two really liked their kebabs. I was muttering darkly to myself inside my head about the likelihood of getting food poisoning from this place and didn’t enjoy the food. We also had some pretty ordinary noodles the first night, although they were cheap, and another night we had Peking duck, which though the duck itself was good, the pancake that came along with the duck, cucumber, spring onion and sauce was doughy and not enjoyable.

Duck, complimentary peanuts, a plate of vegetables we ordered, and the offending pancake-things.

The last night we went to a place called Little Bao, which serves ‘bao burgers.’ You know the bready part of a steamed pork bun? If you’ve ever had yum cha in Australia, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a sweet, steamed bread. Well, they’d made a bread roll/burger bun of that, and then it had kind of Chinese fusion fillings. Mine was pork belly with something. It was sensational. We also had smoky eggplant salad and something else. The drinks we got were a bit too out there – I think a beer would have gone better with the burger. Anyway it was great.

Pork belly bao burger

The appeal of the food in Honkers seems to be due to its cultural diversity. Certainly most of what we ate in Hong Kong would be difficult, if not impossible to find in Hiroshima. Hiroshima has one Turkish restaurant which is nice, but just nowhere near the level of what we had at the Lebanese place in Honkers, which was across the road from another place that had more delicious Middle Eastern food. And egg tarts do not seem to exist in Western Japan, i.e. west of Osaka, let alone BBQ pork buns. Maybe in Osaka.

Attitude

We kept finding all these women sitting on the stairs outside the station. Lots of them were giving each other pedicures. I couldn’t really understand why they would want to sit there. It was hard for people to get past.

After hearing about an ex-housemate’s experience, I was prepared for people to be rude in Hong Kong, but actually, with the exception of the white man and his stinky cigar, it was completely fine. People were more direct than they are in Japan, and it’s definitely a different style of hospitality to what you get in Japan, but I guess not really different to Australia. I found it honest and refreshing, and I found that I felt more able to express myself than in Japan where I’m always worried about being watched, overheard and judged. My friend commented that I was making a lot more remarks about people’s appearance than I ever do in Japan. I guess Hong Kong just seemed a lot freer and accepting in many ways, and everyone was talking loudly, so I just didn’t care as much. In Japan I feel the pressure of being an ambassador for Gaikoku, as usually the only white person in the vicinity. In Hong Kong I didn’t care because not only were there more white people, there were people from all over Asia and Europe too, and half of them had tattoos or were showing midriff or bra straps, and there were quite a few people wearing hijab or other cultural garb.

It was good experiencing a few firsts.

Shop assistants spoke competent English without a hint of panic, routinely switching back to (what I assume was) Cantonese when the next local-looking customer came in. At all the touristy places I went to, I heard several different languages spoken, and nobody looked twice at me or my friends. At the end of a week of this, and let’s be honest, a week away from work, I felt a changed woman.

One of the group having a break on Lantau Island

After the trip with its adventures and unavoidable ups and downs, coming back to work was pretty hard. I was mired in gloom for a week or two, which I think has more or less retreated for the moment – helped by friends and things to do on the weekends and occasional weeknights.

Speaking of mental health, actually, on the radio the other day I heard that Justin Heazlewood (the Bedroom Philosopher) has written a book about growing up with a mum who had schizophrenia. It’s called Get Up Mum. It sounded interesting and got me wondering if anyone would write and publish such a memoir in Japan, or if mental health is still too taboo. What do you think?

*The Shinkansen is always expensive. Most Shinkansens have non-reserved carriages, usually carriages 1-3, whose tickets are cheaper than for the rest of the train where you have allocated seating.

** Wiki reckons a flat white has a double espresso in it. Does it? It was news to me.

The futon: a word of warning

I believe in some parts of the world (America?), a futon is a kind of couch that you can fold out flat and sleep on, more comfortably and easily than a sofa bed.

I think this is what some English speakers mean when they say ‘futon.’ This one’s available now (Sunday the 22nd April, 2018) at American Furniture Warehouse

In Japan, the word futon  布団 is used for coil-less bedding on the floor. It refers to both the mattress part and the doona/comforter part of the bedding. The bottom futon, which goes between you and the floor, is called a shikibuton 敷布団 and the one you put on top is a kakebuton布団.  This post is mostly about the shikibuton 敷布団, which bears the weight of the sleeper and generally causes the most grief in its maintenance or lack thereof.

How a folded shikibuton looks. This one’s for sale at Nitori

The shikibuton is basically a firm, overgrown rectangular cushion, so you can fold it into thirds and put it away somewhere during the day and use your floor space for something else. Because it lies directly on the floor, it doesn’t get air circulation, so as well as folding it away every day, you’re supposed to air it out regularly, preferably in the sun. If not, it will get mouldy sooner or later. This is also true for the kakebuton to an extent, but it’s much rarer.

This housewife is so with it, she’s bought herself a plastic sheet to hang over the side of the balcony to prevent the futon from getting dirty. Image from jimoti

You can expect to sleep on a futon if you stay in a ‘Japanese-style room’ in a ryokan or hotel in Japan: this means a tatami room. You can also expect to find a futon in some state of mouldiness in the house apartment of any ALT (assistant language teacher) in Japan, especially if they’re in their first couple of years, because it’s the cheapest form of bedding and your company will arrange for you to get one. I think the growth of bacteria/mould/gross stuff happens more slowly on tatami than on hard surfaces like floorboards.

Futon laid out ready to sleep in a ryokan room

Last year I moved from a place with a tatami room to one without. My futon wasn’t getting quite enough sun in the winter, because I was working long days and it wasn’t sunny enough on the weekends – and what sun there was wasn’t strong enough. The futon wasn’t getting mouldy, but it was getting sweaty and a bit smelly so I decided to try washing it, despite the ‘do not wash’ advice on the tag. Apparently some kinds of futons can safely be washed – well, not that this was unsafe exactly – so we lugged it to the boot of the car and then heaved it out and over to the washing machine at the coin laundry. 

It took a while to wash and dry.

Now it looks like this. Smells great. Not much good for sleeping on anymore.

Cycling

Cycling rules and customs in Japan seem pretty well-documented already, but here’s my take, comparing them to Australia as always. My family has all degrees of enthusiasm when it comes to cycling, from one of us who refuses to ride a bike (except when she went to South America and allegedly nearly died and/or caused someone else to die) to one who has about 6 bikes including one for road racing and one for velodrome racing. Which I’m sure has a proper name. Not as in a Proper Name in the grammatical sense, but an actual term that should be used to refer to it.

In some ways, cycling in Japan is more like driving than it is in Australia – and in some ways, much less.

Who rides

In both Australia and Japan, a lot of people cycle. In Australia there are commuting-to-work cyclists, sports cyclists, who may just cycle as a hobby or may do amateur racing or work towards cycling professionally, and family cyclists. These aren’t official groups, I just made them up, but that’s who you see on bicycles. Family and sports cyclists ride for pleasure. Sports and commuter cyclists ride to get to places. Commuters might ride in their work clothes, but sports cyclists are too serious about their cycling and will be too sweaty and dirty, so they’ll bring a change of clothes if they ride to work, unless they live really close. Sports cyclists ride up hills for fun on the weekend and wear lycra, you know, the swimwear-material riding costumes like they use in the Tour de France. And they often have special cycling shoes that are fitted to special pedals. The little divots that the shoes have to fit to the bits on the pedals are called cleats. I think. The shoes might also be called cleats. Or the pedals might. I dunno.

Cyclists who are solely commuters wouldn’t ride up mountains for fun. Australian commuters use backpacks, side bags or panniers to carry their stuff to work.

Cyclists on their way to work in Melbourne. 

Sports (and sometimes commuter and family too) cyclists have nice bikes, by which I mean, often, mountain bikes or road bikes. Mountain bikes and road bikes generally have the handlebars quite low and forward relative to the seat, so you’re in a somewhat streamlined position to ride. Some commuters have hybrids, which sit you in a more upright position – less aerodynamic but more comfortable, which is especially valuable if you’re not too into cycling as a sport. Do hybrids have baskets? Not that many Australian cyclists have baskets on their bikes, but some do. Some commuters also get motors to assist them on their bikes. A sports cyclist wouldn’t do that, not in Japan or Australia.

In Japan, almost everyone rides, from little kids to really quite elderly people. Depending on where you live, it’s faster than driving. In Hiroshima city it’s the fastest way to get around. Most people ride to get to places, like, the cinema, supermarket, work, school, the station. So most people ride what is known as a ‘mamachari,’ a ‘mama chariot’ or ‘mum bike’ with a basket on the front or back. They’re similar to hybrids in their upright stance. They have low seats relative to the handlebars, which took me a while to get used to. The way I learned to ride, your leg gets nearly straight when the pedal is at the bottom of its rotation. But the way people ride in Japan, it’s really bent all the time because of the low seat (I found mine too low after I’d extended it all the way up). I think people in Japan like to be able to put at least one foot, preferably two, flat on the ground at any time when they’re cycling. I mentioned this one time to a Japanese friend, that I found it strange, and she said something like ‘Do you mean you would ride so high that you can’t properly put your feet on the ground? Isn’t that scary?’

‘What IS this bike?’ – Australians renting mama-charis in Kyoto

Japanese bikes also usually have a stand, and a lock that’s part of the bike, and they’re really leg-powered utility vehicles that can go anywhere (except on stairs). If you have a young kid, you can get a kid’s seat on the front or back, or both, probably hence the name ‘mama-chari.’ Motor-assisted bicycles are also not that uncommon in Japan.

Road riders, sports cyclists, seem to be on the rise in Japan. You can see them with their lycra, road bikes and helmets, riding on the roads. Not every day, but sometimes.

 

Sports cyclists in Kagawa, Japan

Registration

In Japan when you buy a bike you have to register it and yourself as its owner. Bike shops do it, though according to Surviving in Japan, it’s supposed to be the prefectural police office. I’m not aware of such a practice existing in Australia.

I bought a new bike once in Japan, and registered it at the shop where I bought it. Wasn’t too hard. But then I was going to move halfway across the country and it was too much bother to try to take the bike with me, so I decided to sell it to a friend. We tried to do the proper thing and transfer the registration, which turned out to be nearly impossible. It seemed so time-consuming and frustrating that we just didn’t bother. But if you’re prepared and have enough time, it can be done. My friend who’s just sold me a bike said he de-registered it at the big police station in town, so I guess I have to re-register it there.

Helmets.

In Australia, you legally must wear a helmet when cycling, no matter who or how old you are. Not sure what the law is on private property. Custom is also that everyone has a helmet, and most people wear them properly. There are people who hang their helmets from the handlebars, or just put them on their heads and don’t do them up, but they are not the norm. The majority of cyclists of any kind in Australia wear helmets and are in favour of everyone doing so, and in such a way that they’ll be effective.

In Japan, generally only children wear helmets, up until the age of 15. Sports cyclists have them too, as they ride on the road with their cleats and stuff. Most commuter cyclists don’t have helmets. The attitude is something like, ‘Why would you?’

Where you ride

In Australia, you can ride on designated bike paths, and in other places you have to ride on the road. Children under the age of 12 can ride on the footpath (sidewalk, if you insist, Americans) and so can adults riding with them. Otherwise, if it’s not a shared path, you don’t ride on the footpath. On many roads there are bike lanes, which are fantastic except that they’re often next to lanes that cars use for parking, which puts cyclists at risk of being doored by inattentive getters-out-of-cars. Where there’s no bike lane, bicycles ride on the left of cars (as you know, in Australia cars drive on the left of the road, with the driver in the right-hand side of the car). Cars overtaking bikes are supposed to allow a berth of at least a metre, which means sometimes they have to wait a while for space to open up in the right lane. This frustrates some drivers, who like to cut cyclists off or abuse them at traffic lights and say things like ‘get off our roads.’ Driver-cyclist politics have been an issue for quite a while in Australia.

There are a number of shared paths for bikes and pedestrians, which are marked as such and which have their own usage rules. I’m not talking about footpath next to the road here, but walking/cycling paths through parks, next to rivers etc. In Melbourne there are a number of well-used and quite well-known bike paths, such as the Main Yarra Trail, where you can ride for 20-ish kilometres without having to ride on a road apart from the occasional crossing.

The Main Yarra Trail, in Melbourne. Image: Acta

In Japan, the law says something similar to Australia in that you’re actually not allowed to ride on footpaths except where there is signage that you can. Such signage is so often there that it’s usually assumed that it’s OK, and almost everyone rides on the footpath unless there is a very good reason not to (e.g. no footpath, or too many people on it). There aren’t many paths intended just for cycling (and/or walking) in Japan. Maybe Australia’s got the luxury of having plenty of space for them.

Parking

In Australia, the main place where bike parking is an issue is at stations where there needs to be an assigned secure spot for people to leave their bikes all day. In other places, in the city there are bike racks on the footpath (free) or you can lock your bike to signposts or wherever.

Free street parking for bikes – and cars, at that – in Melbourne

In Japan, bike parking can be quite an issue. Workplaces, apartments and shops have designated parking areas that you can use if you’re a customer/client, or if you’ve got a permit. But for areas with no real space available, like in shopping areas where shops front onto the street itself, you have to make a choice. There are bike parking garage areas in stations and central city areas. Legal bicycle parking is usually paid. There’s no legal free parking (much like car parking). Unlike car parking, though, usually it’s only 100 or 200 yen ($1-2) a day.

Lots of people don’t want to go to the trouble of either finding a legitimate parking spot or paying the fee, so they park in other convenient places. In popular illegal parking places, the city council or someone comes and impounds it. They leave little stickers on the ground on the place where the offending bike was taken from. It costs money (something around 2000 yen) and often a fairly long trip to get it out.

‘Naughty bike woz here’

I believe they have to put warning papers on the bikes first, as in, ‘This bicycle is illegally parked and if you don’t move it we’re taking it.’ I’ve received such notices on my bike once or twice, but I’ve heard tell of people parking, going shopping, and when they come out their bike is gone. A friend who sold me his bike recently said he’d only had it taken twice, and the second time he got there as they were loading it onto the truck. I’m not sure how hard he begged them, but they did the equivalent of ‘Sorry, mate’ and carried it off all the same.

Parking for the brave/stupid. Around the corner there is paid parking – maybe it was full when some of these were parked? and underground there’s an entire garage, also paid. To be honest, I was one of the ones who’d parked here, because I was only popping into a shop for 5 minutes. I took this photo after picking up my bike.

Bells

One of the rules of using cycling trails and shared walking/cycling paths in Australia is that you have to ring your bell to let people know you’re there (and going to pass them). It lets them know so they can make sure there’s space for you to pass, and also so they won’t either suddenly move and you crash into them, or get a huge fright if a cyclist whooshes past them. The custom I was familiar with when I used to do a bit of cycling in Australia was that you’d ring when you were close enough for most people to be able to hear it, and then when you got closer, you’d call out ‘Passing on your right’ or ‘2 bikes passing’ or something so they’d know what’s going on.

In Japan, the law says you must have a bell on your bike *if riding at night* (as well as a light). Custom says not to use your bell, because it’s rude and seen as aggressive, as in, ‘Get out of my way.’ For your average cyclist, your bike may be getting a bit old and somehow making enough noise that sooner or later most pedestrians will hear it rattling away behind them and make space for you to pass. But if it doesn’t make any noise, or if pedestrians ignore it, then you either ride slowly and wait until there’s a place where you can overtake, or you ride off onto the road to overtake. At least that’s what I do. Sometimes cyclists say ‘excuse me’ in such a situation to let people know they’re there and want to get past.

According to Koichi of Tofugu, some people are less concerned with social niceties and just ring their bell apparently, but in my experience it’s rare. A user on a Tokyo Cycle forum says you’re only really supposed to use them in an emergency and makes the good point that cars are also not supposed to honk their horns at pedestrians – but cars do honk at bikes. I’ve had that a couple of times and nearly fallen off my bike in surprise.

Other oddities

It’s illegal to do lots of things on bikes in Japan, and most of the things that don’t directly and immediately harm other people are very common in Japan, such as:

  • Riding while holding an umbrella (or putting an umbrella on a stand on your bike). When I first heard this rule, I thought, what? Who uses umbrellas while cycling? The answer is, most people living in Japan. I never saw it in Australia. People either wear raincoats or just get wet.
  • Dinking people (letting them ride on the front or back of your bike, excepting the use of child seats for children) – high school kids are the usual culprits. This is also illegal in (parts of?) Australia.
  • Using a phone while riding your bike – also illegal in Melbourne, not sure about other parts of Australia.
  • Using headphones/earphones while riding
  • Drinking and riding – you can go to prison for this, as well as being fined. This is illegal in parts of Australia too, as is drinking alcohol while riding.
  • In both Australia and Japan you have to have a light to ride at night. In Australia you have to have a bell all the time. In Japan you only have to have a bell to ride at night? This is unconfirmed, but I’ve got one. In case of emergency.

Insurance

You can get liability insurance as a cyclist in Japan, which can cover you in the event of your colliding with a pedestrian and injuring them, and paying their medical bills. Insurance is less than 10,000 yen a year (less than $100) but I don’t know many people who bother. A 2015 Japan Times article wrote about liability insurance becoming compulsory in Hyogo after a couple of cyclists had to pay huge amounts of money after cycling/pedestrian collisions where they the pedestrian was killed or made bedridden.

*Foreigner paranoia alert*

A company I used to work for strongly recommended this and they also said that if we hit a kid, we had to call the police and report the incident. This was because even if the kid seemed fine, said ‘I’m fine’ and went home, if they later turned out to have a bruise somewhere or some minor injury and their parents noticed and said ‘What happened’ they would explain, ‘Oh, this foreigner ran into me the other day’ and the parent might investigate, and people would ask around and figure out that it was the foreigner working over at Eastern Elementary School, and then the police would turn up at school to ask you about it and tell you that you should have told the police. The school would be embarrassed, all the kids and teachers would gossip about it (kids with kids, teachers with teachers), it would make you and the company look bad, and you might lose your job or at least get very uncomfortable. Everyone would be better off if you’d just reported it in the first place.

If you’re interested, here are some cycling rules and fines across Australia.