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"Does this pasta contain meat?"
"It doesn't contain meat," the cheerful the restaurant waitress assured us. "Only bacon."
Visitors to Japan who are vegetarian face two problems: that of language and that of culture. The former consists of the usual difficulty in making yourself understood in an unfamiliar tongue. Meanwhile, the latter exacerbates the problem by not guaranteeing your culinary desires will be understood, even if your words are.
At first glance, it may seem counter intuitive that vegetarian eating would be a struggle in Japan, where so many products are soy-based. It is certainly true that items such as tofu and natto are popular, but with no purposeful intention to remove meat, both are frequently cooked with unsuitable stock. Those who cannot overlook these small additions and also remove fish from their diet face a battle to eat with confidence away from home.
I am fortunate enough to eat both meat and fish and suffer from only amusing --rather than health destroying-- allergies. As a result, my 'point n' smile' approach to food ordering stood me in good stead until I became friends with a strict vegetarian. The above conversation is not remotely atypical for a trip out of town and results in me frequently having to choose between companionship ...
… or dinner.
This is not the choice of champions.
Given this rarity of vegetarianism in Japan, it was therefore a surprise to find 'Aoi Sora'; an organic vegan restaurant in Sapporo. Offering lunch plates at around 1000 yen (about $10 or £6.50), Aoi Sora is reasonably priced as well as offering dishes devoid of all animal products.
It is also amazingly tasty. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, but Hokkaido is famous for its seafood in a country obsessed with seafood, so my standards for a tasty meal have sky rocketed since moving here. The brown rice in particular was full of flavour.
Yes. The brown rice. And before you think I'm crazy, I found this other blog where the person also waxes lyrical about them wholesome grains.
The restaurant is small, containing a large communal table, a handful of small tables and a window-side bar. The menu is presented on a chalk board and consists of one daily lunch and three smaller alternatives. It is written only in Japanese, but being organic vegan food, my usual 'point n' smile' ordering system just became a whole lot safer.
For a home-made style Japanese cuisine, I'd genially recommend this place even to the non-vegetarian. It may become a regular spot for me and if myself and my vegetarian friend go elsewhere ... well, I may buy her a bento box to fill in advance.
Aoi Sora Organic Cafe
Chuo Ward, Minami 1 Jonishi, 22-1-7
I had my brief:
"Give a 20 minute talk to the general public about your research. They probably do not know any science. Or English."
The Sapporo 'Science Cafe' is a short lecture series run every other month in a big bookstore near Sapporo Station. It is organised by the science communication department at Hokkaido University who invite researchers in different areas to talk about their work in an accessible manner.
Normally, however, they are allowed to use words.
The 'Science Cafe' session I would speak at would be the first offered in English, rather than Japanese. This made everyone very nervous.
The chief organiser of the event requested to see my slides a full month in advance. As someone who typically writes their talk the night before the presentation date, this required a sudden reshuffle of my schedule. He also wanted two practice run throughs, again several weeks before the talk.
Meanwhile, I responded by inviting all my foreign friends with the idea being this crazy scheme would only work if everyone in the audience was secretly an English speaker.
There were debates about the best way to handle the language barrier. The first idea was that I should stop after each slide and allow someone to translate. The problem with this is that I had designed my talk so that each slide presented a single idea, mainly using pictures. This meant there would be times when I would only say a single sentence, or pause on a science-y academy-award-winning cliff-hanger ready for the next slide. Stopping for a translation would therefore make the flow very unnatural.
My solution ran more along the lines of: "Trust me. I got this." My slides were 90% pictures, there were several slides per key point and of the few words I did use, I added in Japanese if the word was complicated (e.g. laboratory) or particular shiny (e.g. gravity). Plus, it included movies and a picture of a cake. What was there not to like?
Sadly, no one believed I was competent. I wondered if they'd been talking to my students. Or my mother.
The compromise reached was that I would talk, but a second projector would be used to display a rough Japanese translation of what I was saying. This translation was taken from the second practice run I did in front of a video camera.
… did I mention this was done several weeks in advance? And I didn't have a copy of the video to check what I'd said the first time?
Still, so long as everyone picked a single language and didn't try to mix n' match, we'd be good! (And if some audience members could understand both Japanese and English, I was jealous and they deserved to get a headache).
About a week after my practice run, I received an envelope containing fliers advertising the talk in Japanese. I emailed the organiser to suggest an English version also be prepared, since the talk itself would in fact be in English (and I had done my best to fill the audience with people who did not speak Japanese; I didn't mention this, his stress levels might have exploded). To my pleasure, I received a pretty good English translation and was asked to smooth it out.
That was when I realised that the flier description didn't match my talk content at all.
I was talking about star formation and the use of numerical simulations in astrophysics. The flier described a talk on cosmology and the fate of the universe. It sounded pretty cool, but it wasn't in my presentation. In fact, it wasn't even close.
I sent my polished translation back and added the postscript, "This is a little different from my talk … is that a problem?" That this flier is ALL LIES? Maybe the general public were considered commoners of the lowest order and their complaints were unimportant. As a physicist, I was rather impressed with that view, but it rather flew in the face of putting on these lectures to begin with. Shortly afterwards, I got a reply:
"In truth, I wrote the flier before I had talked to you."
In which case, I suppose I should be glad it was at least on astronomy. The saving grace in the situation was that there were to be two speakers for this event, with the second speaker also being from my department and talking about a topic much closer to the flier contents. Rather typically for my work in Japan, this was the first I had heard about there being two speakers. I had long ago stopped being surprised by such twists.
The day of the talk dawned dazzlingly sunny. Light poured through the floor to ceiling windows of the book shop's foyer...
… right onto the projector screen, rendering it near invisible.
May I just say that a physicist setting up that screen would not have made this mistake? I was up for rotating the whole set-up around, but I was told to go away and get a cup of coffee. It was a Big Bang Theory, Sheldon-esque moment.
So invisible slides and no words allowed. Interpretive dance it would be! Actually, I did speculate whether I could demonstrate my main points with audience participants. My friend was expecting a baby, so she could have been the star-forming cloud. There was a small boy in the front row who could have been a protostar, any adult would fill-in for the main star and … I sipped my coffee and wondered if I asked my boss to be a dying-star supernovae he would think I was after his job.
In the end, the talk went smoothly. The projector was inched close to the screen to provide a dim outline of each slide and I was given a pop-star hands-free microphone that allowed me to elaborately gesture every point I was making. Preparing for such an event is a fair amount of work, since the slides have to be carefully crafted and my words selected so as many people would understand as possible. However, the actual giving of the presentation is much more enjoyable. Mainly because for those 20 minutes, it's all about me.
And I love that.
The hardest part of the time was the questions after the event. Even though they were translated into English, they tended to rove all over astronomy. Crafting a suitable response for a non-scientist and then phrasing the English into a concise, simply sentence left me with at least a minute of making goldfish faces at the crowd before I could construct a mediocre response.
The crowd consisted of about 100 people. Some of them probably learnt something about galaxies. Others learnt that fliers lie. Still more took away that British people look like fish when under pressure.
My aim was to speak well enough that everyone understood the general gist of what I was saying, enjoyed the talk as an experience but COULD NOT WAIT to return to the Japanese-only version in two months time. This hope was blown out the window when a friend I'd stashed in the crowd told me that around her, people were requesting via the questionnaire for more talks in English.
I am simultaneously deeply gratified and dismayed.
When the older Japanese lady who is your language teacher turns to you in class, clutches both her breasts and announces:
私は牛ではありません (watashi wa ushi dewa arimasen)
I am not a cow
You know something has gone terribly wrong.
We were studying expressions for giving and receiving. Rather than having a single term for each event, Japanese has multiple permutations depending on whether you or the gift giver are the subject of the sentence and what social standing the gift giver or receiver is with respect to you.
For instance, if you were to give a gift to your friend, you would describe your action with あげます (agemasu). However, if you were to generously hand a present to your subordinate of a younger brother, you would use やります (yarimasu). Likewise, when boasting about how your boss gave you a box of おみやげ (omiyage: a souvenir gift) and would undoubtedly be popping the question any day now, you would choose いただきます (itadakimasu).
It was in practising the second of these that I inadvertently implied my teacher bore a confusing resemblance to a bovine.
The object of the fateful exercise was to look at a set of pictures in our textbook and describe the depicted action using the appropriate verb. My image showed a mother feeding her baby a bottle of milk. Despite the organisation of most young family households, the baby is linguistically described as being of lower social standing that its parents. The required phrase was therefore:
赤ちゃんに ミルクを やります (akachan ni miruku o yarimasu)
I give the (subordinate) baby milk
In the above, the word for milk is literally 'milk'; it is written in katakana, the phonetic Japanese script for foreign words, and pronounced in a (passingly) similar way to the English. However, there is a Japanese word for milk, ぎゅうにゅう (gyuunyuu), which until this particular day, I had believed was completely interchangeable with ミルク. My assumption was that the English word had simply come into use later as truck loads of British tourists arrived in Japan and demanded tea. As a result, the answer to the exercise I gave was:
赤ちゃんに ぎゅうにゅうを やります
See, Japanese word rather than lazy English one! Was I not a star student?
Unfortunately in Japanese, ぎゅうにゅう only applies to cow's milk, not human baby milk. Ergo, I had implied the producer of said baby's milk was in fact a large farm yard animal. Admittedly, I could have been implying that only the mother in the textbook picture looked like a cow and not in fact my Japanese teacher, but her demonstrative response did rather ensure I would not forget this important distinction.
And since I've shared this, I can justify my embarrassment in hoping that neither will you.
While my mistake could be waved away as an unavoidable error for someone who had not been around Japanese-speaking lactating mothers, the truth was that this error was avoidable if I'd looked at the Japanese more carefully.
I have written the above in hiragana, the phonetic script for words of Japanese origin, but the noun for milk is more usually transcribed with its Chinese (or kanji) characters: 牛乳. The first of these '牛' means 'cow' which is a giveaway as to its more specific meaning.
The moral of this story: it is hard to learn three writing systems, but sometimes great truths can be found that prevents you calling your teacher a cow.
My fascination with Japanese toilets originates from three sources:
(1) Firstly, I have a sincere and deep interest in plumbing that goes back to my childhood when I demanded my parents flush the toilet repeatedly so I could hear which pipe the water ran through by hanging out the upstairs window.
[Take home message: scientific pursuits always ought to involve adult supervision.]
It's also an inhereditary fascination since my brother once lost his pre-school pants-on-wheels race by stopping mid-track to look down a drain.
(2) Japanese toilets are genuinely object of wonder. These porcelain body waste cups come in the exciting duel variety of (a) super futuristic with more buttons than your average flight control deck or (b) an upgrade from a shovel only because you don't actually have to dig the hole yourself. It's a risk with every visit.
Plus, I won a travel writing competition discussing their features which just fuelled the obsession.
(3) I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome which results in me spending some serious quality time appreciating such facilities.
It was the result of (3) that found me scampering from my Japanese class into the (mercifully opposite) restroom this lunchtime. This wasn't wholly unexpected, since I had my period which tends to trigger the IBS with spasms in the smooth stomach muscles. The result is a diarrhetic mix of mucus, blood and excrement.
Hello new readers! Please, shake my hand.
As I was sitting there, fantasising about hysterectomies, my eyes fell upon the toilet control panel. In these cubicles, the options were a modest two choices for the bidet (weak or strong water jet), a music button for the fake flushing sound (with associated volume controls) and a stop button.
I hit the stop button optimistically. No change in the current situation. Well, it was worth a go.
I then eyed the bidet functions. Normally, I left those well alone since the icon was enough to cause deep concern; on the stronger water flow button, a pair of bare buttocks were being lifted physically into the air on the top of a geyser. However, at this precise moment I really wanted a full-on shower and this was probably as close as I could get without inserting myself into the toilet.
… briefly tempting, but I do know what just went in there.
I pressed the button for the weaker spray.
Then immediately realised that every single person in the restroom was going to know all about it as the sound reverberated off the walls of the cubicle.
THIS PERSON IS WASHING THEIR BOTTOM! MY, THEY MUST BE FILTHY!
I jammed my finger first on the 'stop' button and then on the 'music' button. The water jet sounds were replaced by ones of fake flushing. This sounded even worse:
NOW THEY'RE DOING SOMETHING SO DISGUSTING, THEY MUST DISGUISE THEIR ACTIONS!
In a normal Japanese restroom, this would be less of an issue since many patrons would be likewise using the music button to cover up their natural bodily functions. However, I was in the International Student Centre, where typically people don't care about such things.
Except right now, I was caring a lot.
I tried the 'stop' button again. It had no effect. I tried pressing the 'music' button a second time. Nothing. In the end, I turned down the volume to a low level tinkle.
Then I stayed stock still for 10 minutes until everyone left, before putting on a falsely calm face and exiting the cubicle. Thoughts about hysterectomies had been replaced by considerations of the minimum acceptable excuse to wear incontinence pads.