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.

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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.

The tree

As someone who grew up in Australia, there’s something special about gum trees for me. They’re just so iconically Australian and when I see them, I know I’m home… or not, as in the rare cases when I come across them in Japan. Japanese people generally think eucalyptus stinks, but I like it. Maybe the same as how lots of Westerners (including me) really dislike the smell of natto, but lots of Japanese people like it (? right?).

There’s one particular eucalypt that’s exceedingly special for a few reasons. The first time I saw it, I was kind of gobsmacked because I hadn’t expected to find a eucalyptus in Japan, in the first place, and especially not on a field trip to a castle with a kindergarten.

This tree survived the atomic bombing of 1945.

It’s very broad and sprawly, compared to most eucalypts I’ve seen.

It’s also twisty and kind of higgledy-piggledy. The limbs of eucalyptus trees don’t usually do this, they usually point more upwards and less confused looking.

No doubt it’s due to the radiation or something to do with the bomb.

My bomb-surviving-tree-expert friend reckons you can see scarring on one side, and there are many more roots and more growth on the other side. I don’t seem to have attempted to photograph the scarring.

I’m glad the tree is here and doing so well.

There’s a sign or two nearby about the tree, and my aforementioned tree expert friend wrote a piece about the survivor trees in Get Hiroshima last July. She’s also translated a book about them, which isn’t available in full yet, but there’s a section from it on this eucalyptus here, including a photo of how it looked soon after the bombing.

The accent

A Japanese friend reckons he’s going to learn an Australian accent from this video. 

While not all Australians speak (or look) like this one, he’s definitely the real deal, or should I say a dinkum Aussie? Dunno what happened to his teeth, but he reminds me of Nek Minute (who is actually from New Zealand).

Nek Minute dude is your stereotypical bogan, which apparently I haven’t mentioned before. How..? Bogan is a really Australian word. If you try to describe it in English, it’s closest to chav in Britain, or redneck or white trash in North America, so says Wiki (and I agree). Bogan is a derogatory term and a popular concept in Australian contemporary culture. If you try to go off Nek Minute, you might think you have to be missing teeth and wearing a singlet tan to be a bogan, but Kath and Kim, popular TV characters, are also pretty bogan.

Bogans Kim and Kath. Especially Kim (on the left), who has fewer endearing qualities.

By the way, the underpants man from the first video above doesn’t seem to be a bogan, in my opinion. His physical appearance might make you think he’s one but he just seems way too nice, too likeable. I especially like how the Today host says something about superheroes wearing their undies on the outside so he must be one, and he’s flat out against it because that’s ALL he had on.

As for the accent and Australian English, well, as I briefly mentioned, not all Australians sound the same. To a lesser extent, it’s similar to how not all British people or American people sound the same. Australian accents vary less by region than by other demographics… educational background, ethnic background, social groups etc. I also know that within myself and others in my family, our accent varies depending on our surroundings. To use my sociolinguistic terms, we converge our accents towards, or diverge from, those of our interlocutors depending on how we want to perform our identity. Or in more layperson’s terms, I sound more Australian (my accent gets ‘broader’) when I’m with other Australians, especially when I want to create a closeness with others I perceive as having a broader Australian accent, i.e. like Underpants Man. But my American friends in Japan will tell you I don’t sound that much like him. Right?

I’ve also noticed, being in an international kind of environment over a few years, that occasionally I do pronounce Rs where as an Australian, I shouldn’t. I’ve been trying to tell myself that it’s when I’ve been planning to say something where anyone WOULD pronounce it, and then changed the utterance halfway through, like

‘We were at the supermarket’ and changed it to

‘We were tossing up between whether to go with Italian dressing or sesame.’

In the word were, in the first sentence, anyone who speaks Australian English natively will naturally pronounce the R unless there’s a good reason not to, but in the second, nobody will (unless there’s a good reason to).

Congratulations on opening a new year!

This is the translation of 明けましておめでとうございます, which is used in place of ‘Happy New Year’ in Japanese.

This post was intended to be a few thoughts and also a checking-in to tell you, I’m still here and Bijinjapan is still here, just on the backburner (as it has been since I started working in a kindergarten last March, really!). But it’s just turned into a report of how I personally spent the Christmas-New Year period.

I had a really nice Christmas with my family in Australia. It was honestly wonderful to be together at Christmas. I know it’s not the same for everyone, and the pressure for everything to be beautiful/perfect/amazing can mean it’s extremely stressful for some, and horribly lonely for others. You can go broke at Christmas, too. It can be miserable for some. Luckily for me, especially because I escaped the pressure of the build-up by being in Japan during that time, the Christmas of 2017 was lovely.

It was also great being in Australia for Christmas. Summer in Victoria, when there are no bushfires, is gorgeous! I’d forgotten. Warm days – hot and burny in the sun – and cool nights.

However, soon after Christmas, we had a death in the family. The funeral was organised to be held before I came back to Japan, luckily. I’m glad I was able to be there.

Grandad was 96, nearly 97. He lived in the country, 3 hours out of Melbourne by car. I went up with Mum on the same day he died. Dad came too. Then Mum and her siblings, my aunties and uncles, got together and got organising. There was a lot to do. I hadn’t ever had to really think before about all the things that have to be done when someone dies. They spent the first day calling people to let them know, which was quite a process. They got a notice arranged to be put in the paper and made sure all the necessary people were notified by phone as soon as possible so that they wouldn’t hear about it via social media in some form.

There were a lot of things to be gone through and the funeral arrangements to be made, and the eulogy to be written. This was between Christmas and New Year so lots of things were closed and people away, and some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren live a couple of thousand kilometres away so they had to book flights to get there. It was extremely nice to see a lot of the people who came. Some of Mum’s high school and uni friends came. It was naturally a hugely sad and pretty tiring thing for everyone involved. The day of the funeral, everyone who’d attended was exhausted, including the girlfriends and boyfriends of Grandad’s grandchildren and most (though not all, apparently) of the great-grandchildren.

During all of these goings-on, New Year came and went. I spent New Year’s Eve with Dad at home. We got pizza and beer and put the TV on. At New Year in Australia, most people are having parties or going to Falls, and not many people are watching TV, unlike in Japan where it’s said that watching TV on New Year’s Eve has become a tradition. You either watch Kōhaku, a big singing event with lots of different artists from different genres and eras, divided into two teams (red and white, of course) or you watch Waratte wa Ikenai. What they had on in Australia on the ABC was kind of similar to Kōhaku actually, a bunch of local music acts who had been on the show ‘Countdown‘ over the years, which was pretty decent.

Raspberry picking at Kinglake Raspberries. This year’s crop was

Over this time I also read ‘La Belle Sauvage,’ the first volume of The Book of Dust trilogy that is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This isn’t on the same level for me, but I still very much enjoyed it. I played with my sister’s dog and my brother’s dog, separately and together, walking them, playing fetch, picking up poo, going to the dog park. That was a lot of fun, with the exception of the poo. A plus was that I had a cold and lost my sense of smell. I went on a bike ride or two. I drank a few soy cappuccinos. Cappuccini? For this, not having a sense of smell was not optimum, but some hardships must be borne. I also tried an almond milk cappuccino. I think I liked it, but need to try again with all senses working to be sure.

I met up with the writer of blossomkitty, who it turns out is a cook! and also, I already knew, a reader of this BijinJapan. I spent quite a bit of time with my Dad’s mum, who is known in my family as Nanna. I got to watch her 1.5-legged magpie friend, Charlie, and his butcher bird rivals. I saw the Book of Mormon and was impressed. I met up with some friends I’m very glad to have. I picked raspberries, cherries, peaches, tomatoes and lettuce. I also ate them. And Christmas ham and turkey, and Thai food, and drank a few bottles of my brother’s home-brewed beer, and a glass of allegedly very nice wine (again, wasted on me that day because I couldn’t smell).

Then it was time to come back to Japan, and were it not for a few particular people here, I’m not sure I would have come back. It was so, so nice being at home in Melbourne with family, and, well, the work situation in Hiroshima isn’t ideal for me. But! Those particular people keep me going. At work I’m doing my best and changes are being set in motion, and there are plans for things to do and projects to work on for as long as I’m here. So. Watch this space.

As always, thanks for reading.

The medias.

A while ago, when Japan hadn’t quite become a real place for me yet, I was enamoured with the way the various media seemed to interact. Every time I discovered new Japanese music groups, it seemed they would have become known through having a song in an anime, other TV show or movie. How great that Japanese TV helped its musicians in this way!

Later, I realised this is not at all unique to Japan. Australia does it too. I found a page that had a little bit about local content requirement here (if this is real), here (which is definitely real) and here (which is also real) but I couldn’t find the regulations/requirements anywhere that specifically relate to music on Australian TV shows. But they must exist. I remember discovering some great local artists through Australian TV shows and movies… and non-local artists, too.

So this post is for sharing some music that’s been featured in Australian and Japanese film and TV productions.

Song: We’ve Started a Fire, performed by Vika & Linda Bull, written by Paul Kelly. This song was in an episode of SeaChange, an Australian TV show that I used to love watching with my family on Sunday nights. SeaChange was a pretty popular show that I think a few people might feel a bit nostalgic to remember. One of my favourite moments was magistrate Laura’s frustration when the enigmatic Diver Dan refused to allow her to call him Dan. ‘No, you can’t call me Dan. You can call me Diver?’

Diver3_22

David Wenham and Sigrid Thornton as Diver Dan and Laura Gibson, in SeaChange

SeaChange had a great all-Australian soundtrack that introduced me to a lot of music I might never have otherwise heard, including the Backsliders, Kavisha Mazzella and Daddy Cool (OK, might have heard Daddy Cool).

Song: Koi 恋, performed and written by Hoshino Gen 星野源  . This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Nigehaji 逃げ恥, a.k.a. Nigeru wa Haji Da Ga Yaku Ni Tatsu 逃げるは恥だが役に立つ. In 2016 the dance from the end credits took Japan by storm. Instructional videos popped up on Youtube. School students of all ages all over Japan were doing it between classes and at lunchtime. Towards the end of my last school year as an ALT, the Year 8 boys had to learn it. The PE teacher was walking around with a music player at lunchtime, appearing suddenly in the doorways of classrooms, and the boys had to stand up and start dancing, otherwise there would be some penalty for them (push-ups or something).nigehaji-promo

Nigehaji was extremely popular and is a funny and at times, moving show. The Japanese title translates to ‘Running Away is Shameful But Useful,’ but the English title was ‘We Married as a Job!’ The storytelling is done in a predictable way, but it’s a lot of fun watching it unfold.

nina-and-billie

Aaahhhh what a great show. Two of the main characters here, played by Kat Stewart and Asher Keddie.

Song: When We Swam, by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. This is famous for being featured in the opening credits of Offspring, an Australian comedy/drama about an obstetrician/gynaecologist and her disastrous family life, set in Melbourne. Unlike SeaChange, which was made by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), Offspring is made by Channel 10. Being a commercial channel, I don’t know if Channel 10 has different requirements for local music, but there is plenty of Australian music on the show. Buuut, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down are based in San Francisco. There’s plenty of international music used in Offspring, but there’s also the likes of Sydney’s Andy Bull, Flight Facilities and Bonjah, originally from New Zealand but now apparently based in Melbourne.

One of the main characters in Offspring is also a musician, played by musician Eddie Perfect (yes, real name), and some of his songs are in the show. I’d like to share my favourite one here but it’s quite a spoiler for the first season, so I won’t. He’s excellent, though.

Song: Re: Re: by artist Asian Kung-fu Generation, a.k.a. AKG or AKFG. I’m shouting out to them here for their song on the credits of ‘Erased,’ or Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi 僕だけがいない街 not because it’s my favourite song by them – it’s not – but because the show was great and I strongly recommend it if you can get a hold of it. It’s an anime that I watched on Netflix earlier this year, despite having gone off anime years ago (for mostly feminist reasons). But Asian Kungfu Generation has had so many anime songs it’s silly. They had Rewrite (a better song, in my opinion) as the theme for Fullmetal Alchemist, and had songs on mega-anime series Naruto and Bleach, and some movie called Soranin, says the Wiki. AKG is really pretty famous, and I’m sure it must be at least partly due to getting so much media exposure through TV and film.

僕だけ

‘Boku Dake ga Inai Machi’ (A Town Where Only I am Missing)

Not to mention, Radwimps have been around for ages but completely blew up in mid-2016 when they did the songs for the huge hit animated feature film, ‘Your Name’ Kimi no Na Wa. The songs from the movie are some of a number of recent popular Japanese songs that I find somehow unnecessarily fast. I want to investigate this sometime. Just reduce the tempo a few clicks, people, and let the music speak for itself. Anyway, probably the most popular of those songs was Zenzenzense (前前前世). Myself, I quite like Nandemonaiya (何でもないや) – maybe because it’s not quite so fast.

君の名は

Your Name.

As for Kimi no Na Wa, as a film, I quite liked it, but everyone was so nuts about it that it didn’t live up to the hype. The story is about a boy and girl who wake up having somehow switched bodies. They don’t know each other and it turns out they aren’t even living at the same time. If you’ve never heard of it, I think it’s worth a watch.

 

The last film I want to mention in this post is another production featuring David Wenham, but this time he plays an addict. Thanks, Dad, for getting me to watch it. It’s called Gettin’ Square and its soundtrack is fantastic. Lots of it is Australian too, though my favourite track from the soundtrack is Madder by Groove Armada from Britain. Nick Cave’s Into My Arms also has a prominent role in the scene where it’s used. Gettin’ Square is called both a ‘crime comedy’ and a ‘caper story/drama.’ It’s funny and it’s set on the Gold Coast with its criminal underworld.

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David Wenham and Sam Worthington in Gettin’ Square.

So there are my TV shows and movies with their music that I like or is remarkable in some way for myself. Have you watched any? Got any you would like to mention?

Thanks for reading, as always 🙂

Autumn 2017

Here’s a round-up post of some of the things I’ve done this autumn.

The first was a ‘country living’ tour that I did as an experiment for the tour company, at the invitation of a friend who was helping with interpreting and translation. They called it a ‘monitoring tour’ because it was an experiment to try to figure out how to get foreign travellers to discover rural Hiroshima. This meant that it was free and we had to do a substantial-ish survey giving our opinions. There were 7 of us who went on the tour to Tsuta, an area inland from Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture.

We went to a farm house, cooked a meal using old-fashioned equipment and spent a while hanging out in the country, which I loved. Then we went back into the town to an autumn harvest festival.

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This is the farmhouse where our country living experience took place. It was hosted by a lady called Michiko, who may live there, who spelt her own name as Mitiko.

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Rice straw drying out over the harvested paddy behind the house

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The wood-fired stove, aka 竈 かまど kamado, that we used to cook rice and a soup. Might look familiar if you’ve watched Massan.

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Michiko-san showed us how to blow into the fire using this bamboo tube (just like on Massan).

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The rice, tipped out from the kamado pot into this shallower dish, had to get seasoned with salt, and cooled, so we all waved fans at it for a while.

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Michiko-san showed us how to make rice balls, which are as common in Japan as sandwiches are in the West but which aren’t widely known outside Japanese culture, as far as I know.

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These fish were caught the same morning as they were now being grilled. They took a while to cook.

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Meanwhile, we hopped across the river behind the rice paddy. Here Michiko has set up a wooden rack that’s sitting and waiting until it’s mature (read: rotting?) enough to sprinkle some spores on and grow shiitake.

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 Someone made a little friend.

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Near the shiitake rack, we picked bamboo leaves that would be used to serve our grilled fish.

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Our lunch, waiting for the fish to finish grilling. In the front you can see the completed soup that was cooked in the big pot on the kamado.

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We learned how to make a little boat out of the bamboo leaves. Mine’s the one on the right.

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Then we tried racing them.

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These kids were arriving at the shrine with the procession for the autumn festival. It was fun watching everyone arrive. Then I think there were some performances by local children, but unfortunately all I remember is a long, boring ceremony. So no photos of that.

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Some people brought baskets to catch mochi, which the people throwing were taking out of those yellow buckets. I think the mochi were all donated by local groups. If you missed the mochi you were going for, it would be grabbed up by kids underfoot in a second. Good, clean, dangerous fun for all the family.

Here endeth the Tsuta activities, and following are some more general autumn things I’ve been doing.

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At Bakusetsuno Falls in Mihara

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Leaf-viewing at Buttsuji

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Leaf-viewing at Buttsuji

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Driving around Shikoku. Just the country in autumn. Is Shikoku the Hokkaido of the south?

So there you have it for now. Upcoming intended post topics include: more on religion; various media productions (TV shows, books etc.) and maybe some strange things that working with kids has revealed to me. Some of the things they say can be like things cats say in speech bubbles on the internet, like saying ‘night lunch’ instead of ‘dinner.’

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

A case for Japanese ‘religion’

I recently participated in a Shinto festival, and also visited a couple of shrines and temples in the last couple of weeks. Autumn festivities are at their peak in Japan, with its four-seasons obsession, which to be fair is pretty well deserved. The seasons definitely are more noticeable than in Melbourne (then again, we have less contrast throughout the year there because you get so many every day). Autumn is pretty spectacular in Japan. They just need to change the wording from ‘we have four seasons in Japan’ to something more like ‘Japan’s seasons are marked, clearly defined and colourful.’

Being part of the autumn festival a few weeks back, I was really struck at how much fun it was, and how I strangely felt like a useful part of the community even though it was in a part of the prefecture I’d never seen before, almost entirely with people I’d never met. It was a small community festival, in which a mikoshi was carried on a designated route (marked out by little white flags) around the town, making stops at particular houses or empty lots to either give a blessing (is that the right word?) to the people living in the house, or to put the mikoshi down and give all the carriers a rest. Or sometimes both of these things.

At lots of the houses there was food and drink – snack foods, juice, tea and/or sake or beer. This was for the people doing the hard work of carrying the mikoshi around, and it really was hard work. But while we walked with it on our shoulders, there was singing, a kind of chant going on all the while and a flute player who walked ahead. Hard though it was, it was really quite fun. The trickiness of shaking it, or dipping it from side to side, was also exciting.

The exhilarating and difficult tilt that conveyed the blessing. Image taken by my friend Yayoi 🙂

For all the participants, the local shrine office supplied lunch – rice balls, lots of snack foods, tea and beer before setting off to pick up the mikoshi and then a hearty good-quality bento after the whole thing was finished.

I didn’t really know, when we went, what this festival was going to be. A friend had recommended it and I had friends staying, and they said they were happy to have a look. We showed up halfway through the thing and were surprised at how welcome we were. There weren’t enough big, strong people to carry the mikoshi easily so they wanted all the help they could get. It turned out there were another 3 foreigners there, all biggish American men. I wasn’t much use because compared to the men I wasn’t tall enough to effectively shoulder much of the weight, but I did my best anyway, and everyone’s efforts were appreciated – my tallest friend especially so.

As we were carrying this thing around, drinking sake at all the stops and getting gradually soaked through in the light rain that refused to let up, it occurred to me that I’d never heard of any events that were this much honest fun in Christianity or any religion I know of. I myself don’t, what’s the expression? subscribe to any organised religion, but Christianity is the one I have the most experience of, being a choir musician back in Australia. I have definitely had a lot of fun on choir camps, and enjoyed singing Bach or Faure or Mozart or whoever’s done a relevant Mass or Requiem, but through the activities I’ve sat through for those things, I felt something like a pressure or expectation of being converted sooner or later. I felt like a fraud sitting in the choir stand and standing up, sitting down at the right times and responding ‘And also with you.’ As a singer in a church choir once, I accidentally took communion without knowing that you have to have been baptised? Oops. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the embarrassment I felt when I realised.

After carrying this mikoshi around for a couple of hours though, everybody prayed (clap twice, bow twice, clap once), was blessed and received some ceremonial sake from an official man at the shrine. No induction, nor any future commitment, necessary or even considered. I actually tried to skip that bit because I wasn’t sure it was for ring-ins like me, and the other guy who prayed at the same time said ‘Hang on! You’ve got to go and have your blessing and sake.’

Have you ever seen people do this for a yearly event related to modern Christianity? Maybe in some parts of the world. Taken at Kishiwada Danjiri festival in Osaka, 2017.

The danjiri of the Kishiwada Danjiri festival I saw in September 2017.

In this Shinto business though, there’s no ‘God’ because it’s not a religion, so nobody tries to convert you (at least not in modern Shinto. It wasn’t always so, apparently! And these cultural activities are also largely historically limited to men. I’m not trying to say Japanese spirituality is without its problems). Or maybe there are lots of gods, as they see it. The Buddhism I’ve experienced in Japan is similarly welcoming and non-judgmental, with no proselytism. Again, Buddhism is not supposed to be a religion. And maybe that’s just it, that Shinto and Buddhism are not actually supposed to be religions, but some of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve seen and done in Japan have been based around shrines and temples. As far as I can tell, there’s no air of normal life and enjoyment stopping because of something being holy. Shinto and Buddhism seems more in touch with normal people. Normal people go to shrines and/or temples to pray at least once a year (at New Year) and at other times, for festivals – usually for fun, in the case of festivals, rather than any sense of obligation. On the other hand, reasons for a non-Christian to go to church in my personal experience in the West are:

  • garage sales
  • concerts/rehearsals I’m singing in
  • tourism (like going to cathedrals or Christmas plays in Europe)

And some of those are definitely fun, but not as much as heaving around a stack of bamboo and rice, singing and shouting while doing it, and drinking sake and eating fish cakes in a stranger’s backyard. Or watching almost-naked men tramp around in the snow, chanting and pouring icy water on themselves.

Sominsai, 蘇民祭 a.k.a. ‘naked festival.’ The kanji actually translates to something like ‘saving citizen festival.’ There are lots of naked festivals. This one was at Kokusekiji in Iwate, 2013. Image taken by my friend Frank.

I also want to note that Japanese temples and shrines tend to have a natural element to them, with peaceful gardens and beautiful grounds, in a way that is different to the Western churches I’ve seen. I can’t comment on other places of worship like synagogues or mosques, and I’m not trying to say other places of worship don’t have their own beauty or peace, nor that places are welcoming refuges for many, many people. I just wanted to take a minute to appreciate and share that nature is a huge part of Shinto and Japanese Buddhism, and that appeals to me.

The whirlpool

I may have mentioned this before, but it’s really noticeable for me recently. You know how posts on this blog are really rare in recent times? Well, that’s because of the whirlpool that has kind of sucked me in with the job I’m now doing.

Japanese society has particular ways that things are done. Roles are fairly set, and it’s easy to get locked into one from the outside – even if you don’t see yourself as fulfilling any particular role in society, if others see you and treat you as if you are, it can be easy to feel labelled or even caged by that. There’s a popular notion (that Youtube’s Kanadajin3 disputes) that a ‘foreigner’ can never become Japanese – you will always be seen as a foreigner. Of course that means different things for different people – for some people, foreigners are all handsome white men in their 20s who are big, loud and hilarious. (They may also be black and big, loud and hilarious. If they’re women of any Western-looking description they are either interesting, cute and/or hypersexualised.)  For some, they might be lower-class Asian migrants who do labour-type jobs like working in factories or harvesting oysters. Or maybe they are simply migrants from China or India doing engineering jobs with less prestige. For some, foreigners are Trump. For some they are amazing, magical people who can actually speak English or even another language!! as a means of communication. (For some, Trump is just that. An orange version.) And for some they’re just people.

Another role you can be is housewife. Obviously this is not limited to Japan, but a Japanese housewife generally cooks, cleans and looks after her husband and maybe his parents and/or her own, plus kids if they’ve got them. She manages the household finances, giving her husband a monthly (??) allowance he can use for going out with his mates, playing pachinko or whatever.  She can sleep and watch TV in between whatever she does for those she cares for, or she may have a part-time job.

Image: Hoshino Gen and Agaraki Yui in Nigeru wa Haji Da Ga Yaku Ni Tatsu, where her character is a professional housewife whose tasks are all specified in a contract.

Part-time workers are generally housewives and students.

There’s also an alternative world of people who change careers, like the guy who was once my hairdresser and the next time I met him was painting houses. You can go between being a housewife/part-time worker and a member of this alternative world.

Full-time workers are generally a different story. As I alluded to in the job-hunting post, being a company employee is pretty well a one-way lifetime commitment. If you never stray, you can get to the top of the ladder. In the school system, this means eventually being a school principal or maybe getting to the top of your section at the Board of Education. Ways you can stray include: Taking a break of longer than about 5 days for something that is not work-related (including illness – but maybe not including maternity leave); committing any sort of crime including taking money that’s been left in an ATM; having a tattoo/piercing that someone knows about; having lightened hair; suffering from mental illness, and other things. These are all things that make it hard to get a graduate job in the first place, and then if you do them after getting a job, you risk halting your progress up the corporate ladder.

As a full-time worker, if you leave a big company, you can’t get back in. Unless you want to be a generic ‘office worker’ – of which there are many. But if you are an engineer for Toyota and then you leave, it will be pretty difficult to get back in as an engineer, and other similar companies probably won’t hire you either in a similar role.

Another thing about full-time work in Japan is having ill-defined hours. Japan is pretty well-known for people working long hours and sleeping too little. The government knows it’s a problem that contributes to 過労死 karōshi (death from overwork) so they’ve brought in a rule that big companies adhere to of No Overtime Wednesdays. Apparently when it was brought in, lots of teachers started complaining that now they wouldn’t be able to finish all their work. Anyway karōshi is a pretty famous social issue in Japan. As well as no overtime Wednesdays, the country is at least nominally trying to do something to change Japanese working culture.

The reason I’m writing about this now is my renewed awareness of it, due to my own work situation. Until 7 months ago, working in Japan, I’d been sheltered by my alternative, foreign position of being an ALT contracted out to public schools for regulated hours. Most schools don’t expect ALTs to work the same hours as other teachers. It’s a kind of unique position in that there’s usually only one in the school and you  might not be at that school every day – so it has an element of mystery for the other full-time teachers in the schools. Most schools also have other part-time or contract workers doing various work like counselling or assisting particular students or other teachers. So, while I was living the ALT life with all its random moments and frustration, I was also protected by my unique role.

In my new job, I’m a full-time teacher in an international educational institution.  The full-time contract requires me to work ‘at least’ a certain number of hours, but there is no maximum and there’s no provision for paid overtime. There is no pay for working beyond that number of hours. The minimum number of hours equates to about 40 hours a week, but all the full-time teachers work more like 10-12 hours a day. There’s a lot to do, and being new and not knowing lots of things I’m not very efficient so things sometimes take longer than they should. After a bad couple of weeks where I was feeling really over it a few weeks back, I decided I wasn’t going to stay after 8pm more than once a week and I’ve been more or less able to stick to that. I guess it’s what you call a toxic environment where everyone’s just there all the time and it’s completely normalised. The solution in this job for me, I think, is to get more efficient and just finish things and go home earlier, so that I can have my life back and start doing stuff like taking care of my body and having hobbies again. But I’m lucky that as a non-Japanese person, if I decide I’m not up for this kind of situation, there’s another country I can go to where you can work an 8-hour day in a full time job, go home at 5pm without apologising and nobody will bat an eyelid.

This article explains the situation really well, I think, and reminds me that I know at least one person who openly admits to staying at work just cruisily doing their work because there’s nothing to do and nobody to chat with at home. Some other workers who stay late are still living with their parents, which probably means they don’t have to cook. Other workers of my workplace who are living alone often take home leftover food from school lunches.

Before I came to this job, it seemed silly that so many people in Japan worked such long hours. I could see that many of them were not working efficiently (teachers reading magazines and sleeping at their desks, for example). Now I’m stuck in a similar situation. It still seems silly, but it’s going to take decisive action to change inefficient habits for me, and I’ve only been doing this for a few months. So I get it, Japan. This whirlpool thing. But when are you going to start valuing people’s time, and teaching your people to value their own time? When are people going to be able to go on a 2-week family holiday, instead of 5-day trips to Spain? And now, good luck to me in achieving some efficiency in my life. If I manage it you’ll see at least one blog post within a month of this one. If not, well, see you when I next manage to break free! Yes, that may be a slight undertone of desperation. Cheer for me, reader. May workers in Japan increase efficiency, at least this one. Ganbarima-su!

An Idiot’s Guide to Baseball Leagues in Japan

A couple of weekends ago, a few things happened. I went to a festival in Osaka and then Hiroshima beat Osaka to win the Central League, which is a baseball league in Japan.

I don’t know much about baseball. We don’t have it much in Australia: I know more people in Australia who regularly play Ultimate Frisbee than who have ever regularly played baseball, and this is not an exaggeration. I knew one kid at school who played baseball, and his dad was American. I did play softball at school, which I gather is related. So I can kind of understand the very basics.

Something I still don’t really understand is the different leagues within Japan. In 2016, Hiroshima Toyo Carp was the champion of the Central League series for the first time in 25 years. This was a big deal in Hiroshima, which is baseball-mad as of the last few years, apparently (the ‘apparently’ is that I’m told it used to be not quite so big as it is now). So everyone was really excited about the win… and then the baseball season kept going, and everyone kept watching. Apparently if they hadn’t won the match that made them champions, they would have stopped for the season, but because of winning, they kept playing. I now realise that this is because there are two regional leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League, and the ‘best teams’ from both then play against each other in what is called the Climax Series. Also known as… the Japan Series? Wait, I need a cup of tea.

No, the Climax Series is not the Japan Series. The Climax Series decides who gets to play in the Japan Series. Important distinction.

Also, Osaka has a team in each league. The Orix Buffaloes play in the Pacific League and the Hanshin Tigers in the Central one. That’s not fair, Osaka. Except… it seems the Hanshin Tigers are actually not based in Osaka anymore, but Hyogo. Even though they used to be called the Osaka Tigers. But even at that time their home ground was always in Hyogo? My friend tells me that’s just because Hyogo is close to Osaka.

Furthermore, most of the teams are named after the companies who sponsor them. Hiroshima Toyo Carp, I have been told, is the exception – it’s supposed to be sponsored by the City of Hiroshima. But I looked this up just now and Wiki reckons Mazda is the biggest sponsor. Mazda’s name used to be Toyo Kogyo. So when Toyo Kogyo became the principal sponsor in the late ’60s, Hiroshima Carp became Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Their home ground is Mazda ‘Zoom-zoom’ Stadium, pronounced by locals as Matsuda Sutajiamu. Speaking of which, did you know the spelling of Mazda is just a stylisation? It’s said Mr. Matsuda thought it looked cooler than ‘Matsuda.’

Back to baseball basics. In the Central and Pacific Leagues both, the best teams are decided at the end of a 144-game season. The top 3 get to Stage 1 of the Climax series, in which no. 2 and no. 3 compete for the chance to play in Stage 2. In Stage 2, those winners play the no. 1 team from their leagues. The winners of Stage 2 advance to what is not Stage 3, but the Japan Series. Wiki has a handy diagram of this progression.

The Japan Series, it turns out, is a series of up to 7 matches between just the two teams who were the winners of the Climax Series. It’s a best-of-7 tournament, so whoever is the first to win 4 matches becomes the victor. That’s the end of Japanese Professional Baseball for that year.

So… in 2016 when Carp won the Central League, Hiroshima went mental.

When Carp won Central League in 2016.
Image: tabiyaka hiroshima

The streets in the city filled with people, the izakayas served free beer, there were all sorts of sales. Various shops started selling/displaying V7 (7-time Central League Victors) stuff.

 

2016 Central League champion edition phone cover. Image: this blog Munesada by some dude who was excited about it

Public places displayed stuff like this a fair bit

Then they kept playing and people kept watching. I was confused, because I didn’t know about the Climax Series and Japan Series, but when a friend invited me to go and watch a match where a bar had turned one of their TVs out to face the street, I went. It turned out to be the 6th match of the Japan Series, and at the start of the match it was 2-3 where the 2 was 2 wins for Hiroshima Toyo Carp and the 3 was for Nippon-Ham Fighters from Sapporo… and Carp lost, which made Nippon Ham the champions of Japanese baseball for the year. There was a point where the match was really close, and then one particular pitcher went on and the other team got about 3 batters home safe, and the Hiroshima fans were pretty angry with that pitcher, and with the manager or whoever was responsible for putting him on the field at that point. It was Halloween and a friend I was watching with was dressed up as a zombie or something in a Carp uniform, and standing out as she did, some TV crews kept watching us and filming us. So they got her saying, ‘I HATE that pitcher!’ in Japanese.

A few weeks after this, my parents came to visit Hiroshima and came to a couple of the schools where I was working at the time. I’d told Mum and Dad about how the championship had gone to the other team and how disappointing it was for the Hiroshima crowd. The principal of the junior high school, though, said something like, ‘Oh, do you know about our baseball team, the Carp?’ and Dad started to say something commiserative like ‘Yeah, sounds like they got so close!’ and the school principal continued, ‘We are all so happy and proud because they won this year.’

Mum, Dad and I were all a bit dumbfounded. I think we said something like ‘Yes, that’s good.’

So, Mum and Dad, now I think I understand what happened – they were simply choosing to acknowledge the results of the series they had won, as opposed to the later one they entered (and ultimately lost) as a result of that win.

Tell you what, in AFL (Australian Football League, no, not soccer and not rugby) there’s just the one season. It goes for ages, but it’s got its quarter-finals, semi-finals and the ‘grand final’ and whoever wins the Grand Final is the winner. Then it’s finished. Seems so simple. Are rugby and cricket leagues/series easy to understand?

This year, 2017, Carp won the Central League again, on Monday the 18th of September, the day of the national holiday ‘Respect for the Aged Day.’ That day, I had just come back on the train from Osaka where I’d been to a particular local festival and then had dinner in a place where the beer mugs had Hanshin Tigers on them. It felt weird and traitorous to drink from those mugs.

So now it’s V8. I think the Climax Series starts soon. So in Stage 2, Carp will play either Hanshin Tigers or Yokohama BayStars for the chance to play in the Japan series. Right?

‘Very Carp! Celebrate V8’