Punch buggy

"This isn't a normal amount for you to deposit, is it?"

I looked down at the bank teller's desk where the cheque for several thousand dollars was sitting. "Sadly," I replied. "No."

The teller grinned and went to find her supervisor to countersign the cheque. The second lady came over and recognised me from a previous visit where I'd moved US dollars from my Canadian bank account to my Japanese one, much to the anguish of the bank's computer system[*].

"How's the move to Japan going?" she asked.

"It's progressing," I nodded towards the cheque. "That is for the sale of my car."

In the comment part of the cheque was scrawled the note 'For sale of 2002 VW Beetle'.

"Oh we both drive bugs!" The supervising teller indicated herself and the lady serving me. "It's so funny when you see the kids punch each other when you drive past!"

.... What?

"You didn't realise? It's punch buggy! If you see a beetle, you have to punch the person next to you on the arm and call out 'punch buggy! No punch back!'."

"It's important to remember the 'no punch back' part," the other teller added. "Otherwise you just get hit back."

I opened my mouth but all I could produce was a slightly bewildered "....Oh."

Both the tellers laughed. "You've just been thinking Canadians are all extremely violent? But no, it was because of your car!"

[*] For some reason, it had thought that CAD or at least Yen should have been involved somewhere along the line.

Stick short

By my quick assessment of the sea of red jerseys the other side of the score keeper's box, I would estimate our opposing team had at least three lines of players.

We had two.

Players, not lines.

To be totally fair, our first line was on the ice, so we had one complete set of players and two substitutes. For those not glued to the NHL, in ice hockey a line consists of five players; two defence, two wings and a centre who both attacks and defends. For novice hockey, an ideal team would have at least two sets of defence players and three sets for the wings and centre; so a total of 13 players plus the goalie.

Seven players was therefore slightly short-handed.

Apparently, people went away in the summer; a shocking lack of commitment to this predominately winter sport! In the end, we managed to capture three extra players from teams that had played earlier that evening, making our bench a cheerful rainbow of coloured jerseys. Just don't pass the puck to anything in red.

One of the fun things about playing slightly short-handed is everyone tends to play their absolute best. After all, there is no point in leaving the leg work to someone better than you if your only substitute has collapsed from exhaustion a mere 30 seconds previously. This works until the third period where no one can move any more.

In the end, we lost but narrowly by a goal scored quite late in the game. I ate nachos with my team. Then found I couldn't stand up. It rocked.

One last love song

"Try and take a seat over there."

For the first time in over a year, I was driving to the USA after more than three months since my last airflight in. This had the unfortunate side affect that I needed to stop and get a new green tourist I-94 visa waiver. My flight from Buffalo airport was at 1:10 pm and --knowing as I did the affection US border control has for human kind-- I had left just before 9 am for what would be a 90 minute drive if I was in an armoured Bat mobile with a disregard for international laws.

I arrived at the Niagara bridge around 10 am and shuffled my way for half an hour through the giant car tetris game to the border crossing. There, my passport was sent up a pipe leaving me to follow through the more traditional entrance of the office's main door. That was the point where I was told to try and take a seat.

... the operative word here was 'try'.

As far as I could see, everyone in Ontario required a US tourist visa right now and they'd each brought seven possibly-illegally-immigrated friends along for the ride. I stood for the first fifteen minutes before managing to squeeze into a seat beside a family with two children. The mother was exclaiming at the men in uniform while her ten year old son wanted to use up all her US change in the drink vending machine. She refused him. I obnoxiously decided to buy a soda, just so I could suffer slightly less than at least one other person.

Really, it was worth getting an iPhone just for situations like these. I worked my way through two games of 'plants versus zombies' and multiple chapters of my ebook before I was called to the counter. The border guard in charge of my passport was evidently a new recruit; he smiled at me and was fascinated by the computer system. A detailed conversation with a colleague ensued while he inquired why the system required both my sets of finger prints but no thumbs; apparently variations on this biometric theme are demanded depending on what the database finds when the passport is scanned.

Enchanting though this was, time was running out before my flight. I tried to keep smiling pleasantly and resisted the urge to tell him it was a magic 8 ball and just live with that.

Eventually, cash was handed over and my passport was stamped. The guard asked me the time of my flight (I had the impression that many he'd asked that day had replied with an hour in the past) and how many times I had visited my friend in Missouri before.

"Oh ... uh .... none."

I tried to make it sound damn casual in a manner that didn't suggest this was someone I had met on the internet. Fortunately, he seemed to consider this normal. Maybe the computer was just more interesting or perhaps no-one ever visited the mid-west more than once.

I took my passport, smiled at everybody, nodded to the guards on the way out... then I slammed on the gas. It was lucky that I'd checked in for my flight online. I was the last person to board the aircraft but then, I was totally worth the wait.

It occurred to me as we headed down the runway that this might be the last time I would face the US border for quite a while. Will you miss me, guys?

Cat tales

"Look, it's your mommy!"

My cat was milling around the door to the apartment when I arrived to pick her up after my month in Japan. I held a hand down to her as I slid out of my shoes. She sniffed it, let me rub her ears and tickle her chin.

Then, she fled.

It took me fifteen minutes to locate her under one of the beds. I had to move several boxes and other items out of the way before I spotted the pair of yellow-green eyes staring back at me. Evidently, her time at the home of her feline foster family had been a success.

Saddened by the loss of a cat of their own, this family had decided not have another pet. Instead, they enthusiastically cared for other people's animals while their owners were away. I had been put in contact with the family's daughter through a friend and had explained that I was moving to Japan, but would ideally leave my cat in Canada for the first six months while I found an apartment, my possessions were shipped and things generally became sorted enough that we would have a place to recover from what would undoubtedly be a traumatic journey for the pair of us. It seemed like a rather high demand, but the response I received was extremely enthusiastic. So, we set up July as a trial run for both the family and Tallis.

Apparently, it had worked out well.

I sincerely hoped (as I pounced on my cat and carried her back downstairs) that Tallis' reluctance to stick around was due to her knowing that the next step involved the hated cat carrier and a car ride, rather than a declaration of her home of preference from this day forth. Since, upon arriving at home, she reverted to a furry ball of purriness, I've convinced myself this is true.

If it's not, well tough. I missed her even if the feeling of loss wasn't reciprocated.

This week I sold my bed. This move was apparently also not appreciated since Tallis refused to sleep on the sofa bed with me at all and spent all night on her seat by the window. There are times when I feel my home lacks support.

The soul of Seoul

Window shopping in Seoul was proving to be somewhat challenging since the shops didn't have windows. Well, strictly speaking they did; the mall consisted of the usual array of glass-fronted stores on multiple levels connected by a central escalator. The difference was that the shops seemed unable to be contained behind their façades. Like an outdoor market, rails of goods spilled onto the aisles making it impossible to tell where the actual front of the store began. It also bustled with people and it was past 10 pm.

When booking flights between Sapporo and Toronto, I discovered I would have to stop in Seoul for an eight hour layover. Feeling this was a stupidly annoying length of time to be stuck in an airport, I'd added an extra 24 hours to the stop and booked a couple of nights in a hotel. The plan was to see the entire South Korean capital in exactly a day and a half. Much more sensible.

I'd already fluffed part of my plan by falling asleep when I reached my hotel (it had an air-conditioner) so I emerged rather sheepishly in the evening to see if I could still get something to eat.

Since the hotel was in the Dongdaemun Market commercial district where the shops are open for 18 1/2 hours a day until 5 am, this turned out not to be a challenge.

Outside the mall, I browsed through the stalls of street venders trying to choose between meat skewers, sushi-like rolls or an orange pasta-looking dish. In the end I selected the possible-pasta, accepting a bowl of hot somethings with a cocktail stick to eat it with. The orange sauce turned out to be pretty spicy and the pasta consisted of a glutinous rice dumpling. I took a photo with my phone and posted it on facebook. This action had two results: the first was the discovery that the dish was called 'Ddukppoki' (떡볶이) and is apparently a very popular snack in Korea. The second was facebook asking me whether I had a Korean name that I'd like to add to my profile...

It was just dinner, I tell you! It didn't mean anything.

Prices in Seoul varied a great deal. My hotel was good value for its location, but not cheap at $100 a night. Food prices ranged a fair bit and transport was very cheap. It costs only $1 to ride the (extremely nice) subway and the shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel cost only $14 for roughly an 1.5 hour journey. Also, I did not invent the cheesy title to this post; every English language guide book I saw was entitled something similar. By contrast, the French version had the boring translation of "A guide book to Seoul". But, eh, they deserve it.

The following day I set out for some serious site-seeing. I started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace (top left photo); a royal palace that dates from the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. This period of Korean history lasted five centuries and ended --ultimately-- with the annexation of Korea by Japan at the start of the 1900s. This had the unfortunate consequence of most buildings being reconstructions of the original (although some are still quite old) which met their untiming decimation at the hands of Japanese forces. Each of the small information plaques beside the buildings states their use, their original date and the date they were destroyed by the Japanese.

... I was starting to see the historical problem between these two countries.

Traditionally, the Japanese and Koreans hate each other. Their history is bloody, destructive and recent, with the annexation of Korea only ending in World War II. The present conflict has a different feel to it than the one between the English and the French. Don't get me wrong, of course I can't stand the French! But that's because it's just such fun to beat them at football[*]. One of my Japanese friends (while somewhat inebriated) once told me; "Older people are very prejudice against Koreans. I don't feel that way and yet ... I understand why they do." Some wounds are still too raw to be confined to sporting events.

My guide books' pictures of Gyenogbokgong palace did not do it justice. They shows the outer wall; a military-looking affair at one end of a large concrete square. Behind this, however, the palace buildings extend back into large gardens around a central lake. There is not one huge building like the large houses and palaces in the UK but rather a multitude of smaller establishments designed for different purposes. Each of these was compact enough that you could see its extent by looking through the wide doors and windows. Despite their open frontage, the breeze passing through high-ceilinged rooms felt cool, smelling of wood and incense. If it hadn't been completely inappropriate, I would have jumped the rope barrier and laid out on the tatami mats; Seoul in July is not comfortable.

After the palace, I took a cable car ride up to the communication tower overlooking the city. It was slightly cooler here and there was a demonstration of ancient battle techniques which was pretty awesome. Many a straw dummy did not live to provide opposition for another day. I later walked back down to street-level where I saw a mother luring her small children up a steep set of stairs with a game of 'rock, scissor, paper'. The person who won each round was allowed to climb five steps. Cunning, very cunning.

Finally, I browsed in Namdaemun Market (right-hand photo); the largest traditional market in Korea. It was remarkably similar to the malls.

I left my hotel early Sunday morning to head out to the airport. The traffic in Seoul is notoriously bad but at 6:30 am it was still relatively quiet. The main people about were the street cleaners ... all of whom had "The Seoul of Asia" embroidered on his breast pocket. The old jokes are apparently the best ones.

[*] When, you know, England knew how to play

Humongous wasps of hell

I had been to bed late the night before but despite this I was wide awake at 5:30 am.

This was because there was a two inch wasp in my room.

The size of my thumb and then some, the creature's loud buzz alerted me to its arrival, causing me to spring from my sheets before it landed on them and squashed me flat. Its body was covered with dark fur but beneath the hairs I could see the yellow and black stripes.

Those stripes did not say harmless cutie pie.

They said you are going to die.

... right after I've mated with your coat.

Not wishing my bedroom to be the breeding ground for humongous wasp / Gore-Tex hybrids I picked up my umbrella... which promptly broke. I gulped and prodded my coat with the broken end of the brolly, getting ready to run. Fortunately, even Satan's own insects succumb to the common male problem that size isn't everything and --done with my coat-- it left out the window. I swiftly barricaded all the entrances.

Later that day I was describing this horrifying, death defying experience to a friend at work.

"Ah," she said nodding. "If those wasps sting you more than once, you can die."

We're all doomed. Someone bury me under an apple tree.

(Note: for the record, I'm pretty sure what we're talking about it one of these, even though the body seemed less brightly coloured.)

Dark dealings

The fact that public restrooms do not usually have western style toilets is not normally a problem. After all, even the best facility in a park has people traipsing wet and muddy feet throughout its tiled interior, while its open door policy and au naturale location means the majority of its guests have six legs and do not use toilet paper. As a result, I'm usually less than enthused to place my shiny-clean bare backside down on any surface.

The traditional squat toilet takes away that problem by being specifically designed for non skin to porcelain contact. In fact, one might even describe it as ideal... if I could see.

It was 5:30pm when I wandered into Nakajima park and the daylight was just starting to drop. The restroom actually did have lights --short fluorescent strips above the two wash basins-- there was just no way of turning these on. There were only two buttons in this side of the building and both controlled the water for the taps. Either this was an automatic detection systems that failed to note my stealthy restroom usage or someone had forgotten a key design feature.

Once I had closed the door of a cubicle, I couldn't see much. With no substantial ceramic object to grip, it was a question of crouch ... and hope. Fortunately the lack of light also prevented from knowing whether I was successful.

Bright orange lunches

Sapporo fish market is small. Well, let me clarify the scale: Sapporo fish market is tiny compared to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market but since that is the largest in the world, perhaps that is setting the bar rather high. Compared to the fresh fish counter at Sainsbury's, Sapporo's market is humongous. It is also largely filled with crabs. A Hokkaido speciality, there were huge crabs swimming around in glass tanks, crabs sitting on ice with their legs neatly tucked under them in a crab package and crabs being served up in the restaurants nestled between the stores. It was into one of these that I stopped for lunch.

My guide book particularly recommended not the crab, but the fresh sea urchin and salmon roe. I picked one of the restaurants in the centre of the fish market that had a steady stream of visitors. By trying my usual trick of looking hungry yet solvent, I was guided to a seat and handed a menu with a lot of pictures. After I'd pointed out my selection (a rice bowl with salmon, roe and sea urchin), I sipped my iced tea and looked around. My choice of establishment was one of the larger options with maybe three large tables that could sit about six, another three smaller tables for two and the counter area where I was seated. Many traditional Japanese restaurants are very small, with sometimes just half-a-dozen tall stools pulled up the counter. Somewhat incongruously, this restaurant had Indian music playing continuously through the speakers above my head.

My meal arrived in a spread of florescent orange goodness. Sea urchin in particular looks the opposite of what it is; appearing to be highly processed and faintly radioactive rather than freshly caught that day. It was all excellent. The salmon roe popped in your mouth and the sea urchin had a salty tang.

I left and accidentally walked straight into one of the crab stores opposite. A particularly large specimen snapped a claw at me. I narrowed my eyes; next time buddy, you're mine.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit.... and his wife

Today, I was accosted by a crazy Christian group. This was surprising for three reason:

(1) Firstly, the majority of Japan is not Christian but Buddhist with a Shinto flavouring.

(2) Secondly they kept asking me about Passover which, being a Jewish festival that occurred in April, didn't seem to have an obvious connection to the topic in hand. I tried to explain this, they looked astonished and it was only with the later help of wikipedia that any of this started to make sense[*].

(3) Thirdly, they asked if I knew Obama... I admitted I might have heard of him.

Nevertheless, it was an unmistakably Japanese experience as proved when one girl went looking in her bag for a Bible and produced her iPhone with the appropriate religious text App. Two of the others were also carrying open netbooks. The group consisted of four women; one older lady and three girls who looked to be students. Despite their enthusiasm for evangelising to random foreigners walking across Hokkaido University's campus, the small group's English was only slightly better than my Japanese. This meant than indepth philosophical discussions were even less likely to be successful than with your average megaphone wielding street preacher. To their credit though, they tried hard.

While they spoke Japanese and their iPhone Bible App appeared to be in Korean, the literature they had about their church was in English. Various parts of this were thrust under my nose from which I learnt that this was a Korean-based denomination and one of their main concepts was "God the Mother" as opposed to the more usual, "God the Father". They also held their religious day on Saturdays and were somehow involved with the United Nations and had donated to Haiti. Then I was shown a picture of millions of people all holding up their right hand.

... After which I concluded this was a Feminist cult with plans to take over the world who was not above political bribes and possibly had enough people to be successful.

Later investigations on wikipedia didn't immediately suggest world domination plans but explained that this church believes that there is both a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother which exist as two facets of the same God. Their current leader is a woman who is considered to be the one promised in the Bible. They also believe that the second coming of Christ has occurred but before you get too excited, you've missed it; he died in 1985. Additionally, they keep Passover which their interpretation of the Bible states is essential for salvation.

After many minutes of strained conversation, the group attempted to lead me to their church. I declined, explaining that I had to teach. The fact they believed me on a Saturday afternoon says much for the Japanese work ethic. They did try and persuade me to come back and then asked about what I was doing tomorrow... or next week ... or ... I evasively suggested I taught continuously; morning, noon and night. My commitment to education knew no bounds! In the end, I touched my eyes and told them I would look out for them in the future.

"毎日! We here everyday!" They assured me.

I must find an alternative way to work.

[*] This term is used lightly.
[Author note: I should add that I have a huge amount of respect for all religions and the denominations within them and have a strong set of personal believes, but I'm slightly perturbed by street recruitment.]

Knowing where one's towel is

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is completely clear on the subject of towels:

"...Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it,
slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows
where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

As opposed to a random western foreigner with sticky, butter covered fingers who just looks plain incompetent. In truth, I did know exactly where my small towel was... it just wasn't in my pocket. Currently, that was particularly unfortunate.

Walking through Sapporo's Odori Park on a Sunday afternoon, I had stopped at a stall to buy a corn on the cob. I sat eating it while I watched a group of teenagers rock out to a jpop dance routine they seem to have prepared especially for the group of girls perched watching them on the lip of a fountain. As I finished and dropped my devoured cob into a trash can, I looked down at my hands. No napkin had been provided with my purchase because Japanese people tend to carry small square flannels (wash cloths) with them for just such occasions. These towel-like accessories were thicker than a normal handkerchief and normally brightly decorated. I had two .... but one was in my desk at work and the other was floating around my bedroom. Sighing, I rubbed my fingers together and turned away.

"Ah...?" The inquiry came from a Japanese lady who had been sitting close by and had bought her own corn shortly after me. She was now holding out a disposable wet wipe.

I stammered out my thanks in Japanese as I accepted it, ducking in the customary bow. "Arigatou gozaimasu!"

She smiled and stood up, "Bye," she said as she walked away.

".... Bye."

Perhaps if I bought another 20 cloths and shoved them into all my pockets, I'd be good for the streets.

Flower power

"You can eat that flower."

I examined the serving dish in the centre of our table. It contained the sashimi starter for the night, including tuna, shrimp and scallops laid out on a bed of leaves and flowers.

As far as I could see, the yellow flower was quite blatantly a marigold.

"In Japan, it is normal to be able to eat everything on the plate," another person at our table explained. "Although, it is worth taking care. Sometimes, the flowers are plastic."

Potentially crunchy. Got it.

I picked up the flower with my chopsticks and examined it closer. Still a marigold.

"The taste is very bitter." The first person who told me that the flower was edible was our head of group. "I don't really recommend you try it."

You just told me it was edible. It's totally getting eaten.

I nibbled off a handful of leaves. The taste was slightly tangy but not particularly strong. Clearly these people just had weak taste buds! I popped the whole thing in my mouth.

Hell, the centre was bitter!

Wincing, I swallowed and took a swig of coke. It didn't help, so I followed it with a scallop. It marginally softened the taste.

Our head of group touched his chopsticks at a large green leave with a sharp point. "These are less strong," he assured me.

.... For the record, that proved to be only marginally true.

More than words

The problem with language --apart from it not always being English-- is that it is more than just words. This means that even the best non-native speaker can sometimes convey a meaning quite contradictory to the one meant.

One such example occurred in my first research meeting with my new group at Hokkaido University. We were discussing a project to model a small spiral galaxy with the astrophysics simulation code I had been using in my work and had now brought to Hokkaido.

"We would like to use a rotating reference frame," our head of group told me.

Yeah? Well, I'd like a pony.

The desired numerical jiggery-pokery which would allow the galaxy to remain stationary during the simulation while retaining the same properties as if it were rotating, was no minor task. It was especially difficult for this particular type of code. To implement it would take months of coding, testings, more coding and frankly, I'd probably screw it up.

However, what was really being asked of me was:

"Is it possible to use a rotating reference frame?"

Which has quite a different tone to it. In the first case, it sounded like a politely phrased demand for the project; the equivalent of telling an architect you wanted a revolving restaurant on the 43rd floor of your new building when he had been drawing up plans for a log cabin. By contrast, the second option is simply a request for information, with no implication that a negative answer will result in the project being unsatisfactory.

So far, I have been able to remember this likely translation error in time to stall voicing my equine desires. Answering the inquiry as if it had been phrased in the second way produced an entirely satisfactory response.

Hopefully, time will allow this to be the automatic understanding so that I don't have to mentally go through selecting breed, coat colour and wing span for my new steed. Not least because Japan might just produce such a mount and then I'd have an awful lot of computer coding to do.

Conforming to type

"In Japan, we think no one in the UK uses an umbrella. Is this true?"

It had been a gorgeous weekend, but on Monday morning I had awoken to heavy rain that continued into the afternoon. It was now lunchtime and the theoretical galaxy research group were gathered in the hallway, waiting for the lift.

I looked around our group.

Every single person was carrying an umbrella. Apart from me. I was in a rain coat.

It was hard to deny with any sense of conviction.

No clothes beyond this point

It's surprising how quickly you can get used to being naked in public. I plopped my small towel on my head as I entered the 40 C outdoor pool at one of Sapporo's city onsen. Around me, other women similarly attired as the day they were born, chatted quietly as they soaked in the hot water.

The traditionally Japanese onsen always feels to me like an cultural oxymoron. Here, where people are reserved enough to bow rather than make contact when greeting one another, everyone is perfectly happy to strip down to their birthday suit and climb into the same bath. The genders are usually separated but my new country has still seen more of me than all of my old ones combined[*].

Onsen are geothermally heated by the hot springs that are prevalent throughout Japan. In previous onsen I had visited, everything you required was provided on entry. There was usually a large pile of bath towels, a smaller one to take into the onsen with you and soap and shampoo at each of the wash stands you use before entering the pools. Perhaps because it was a city onsen, as opposed to a larger resort-type establishment, this facility worked differently. At the entrance was a machine covered with buttons where you could select the options you wanted. This then dispensed tickets that you took to a counter. I pressed the button for an adult admission to the onsen, looked at the others in blank confusion and went into the changing room, showing my ticket as I entered.

Then I came back out again.

Whatever the other options were, one of them involved being able to rent a towel. I approached the woman at the desk and gestured my confusion. She spoke a little English, I a little Japanese and more helpfully, her spiral binder of options and prices for the bath house spoke both. I pointed to the choices for two towels, a shampoo and a bar of soap. She walked over to the machine and showed me which buttons they corresponded to. I tried to remember the combination, realised I was likely to fail, and made a mental note to bring my own toiletry bag next time.

Back in the changing room, I pushed my clothes into a locker, picked a location to conceal with my tiny towel and stepped through into the bathing area. There were a series of pools to choose from; two indoor and one outdoor. There was also a jacuzzi and deckchairs half emerged in water to relax in.  Before entering any of the communal pools, you have to wash at one of the multitude of little stands around the outside of the room. Each place has a small seat, shower and bowl associated with it. I washed thoroughly. Then I did it again because I didn't want to be thought an incompetently unhygienic foreigner. I was half-way through my third rinse when I realised this was ridiculous. I cleaned my area and walked to the outside pool. Later, I tried the chairs, the jacuzzi, the outdoor pool again, the .... You get the idea. I bathed. It was good.

Not all Asian women have model-thin bodies and gleaming hair, but enough do to be slightly disconcerting. However, any feelings of inferiority are masked by the realisation that you are COMPLETELY NAKED in public. Fortunately, you are also quite obviously the only person who considers this remotely out of the ordinary so the feeling of awkwardness doesn't last.

Since my accommodation only has showers, being able to easily drop by a natural hot spring is all kinds of amazing. The only problem was I was so tired afterwards, I only made garbled sense to my parents when I called them. It is feasible they didn't notice anything strange.

[*] OK, so possibly this isn't true of the UK, but if I don't remember those early years, they didn't happen.

A call for change

"When the trouble with the Fukushima reactor started, young people in Japan felt that they wanted better information from the Government."

It was evening at DK House and I was sitting on the porch step. Most people came out to this area to smoke. I was there to eat an egg. The speaker was one of my new Japanese friends who was in Hokkaido to take advantage of the cooler weather before returning to Tokyo in the Autumn for law school. He had previously told me that the power saving measures in Tokyo in the wake of Fukushima shutting down meant that the city was uncomfortably hot. Prior to taking up law, he had worked for one of Tokyo's TV companies and had a strong interest in journalism.

"You mean they want the government to be more honest about the situation?" I asked, opening the small container that held three eggs.

My friend nodded. "The problem is that newspapers will not speak ill of their sponsors," he explained. "But the electrical company is one of their major financial backers."

"So the newspapers won't report that Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Company, owners of the Fukushima plant] has done anything wrong because money from them supports the paper?"

It was a natural reaction; no organisation would want to jeopardise their main source of funding. What it produced was a financially imposed restriction on freedom of speech in the press. Probably in the past, this limitation had not been an issue or it had gone unnoticed. As problems with Fukushima escalated, however, people wanted to know why Tepco weren't being hounded for answers.

In Japan, very few companies are allowed to produce power, giving those that do a monopoly in their region. This means the reach of electrical companies is long and the power they wield (social as well as literal) is substantial.

"They are also one of the biggest donaters to Tokyo University," added my friend dryly.

Oh. OH. So academics were also subject to these bonds.

My friend rose and returned with today's copy of a Hokkaido newspaper. He opened it and leafed through the sheets, looking for a particular section. "This page is very important," he said, gesturing to three or four articles. "It is the newspaper's opinion page." He pointed to a picture of a middle-aged Japanese man in the right-hand article. "Remember this man. He is the president of SoftBank."

Softbank is one of the largest telecommunications companies in Japan. Its president and founder is a man named Masayoshi Son who has the dubious honour of being both the richest men in Japan and the person who has lost the most money in history. He has been previously described as a philanthropist.

"He supports many new ideas, including renewable sources of energy." My friend's hand moved over the article in disgust. "This piece claims he is only interested in doing so for money."

I frowned. "The newspaper thinks he wants to make money for himself by promoting alternative energy sources?"

"The newspaper is largely funded by the electrical company in Hokkaido."


"Hokkaido University may also receive money from the electrical company," my friend said. "You should ask. I would be interested to know." He folded up the newspaper again. "Change isn't easy. But many young people in Japan want to see these things done differently." He pointed to the egg still in my hand. "That will be soft inside. You will need a bowl."

Think I'm gonna eat worms

"Here, have one of these."

A small tin and a pair of chop sticks was passed my way. I had just got back from my first day in the office and was now sitting at a table in the communal area of DK House; student dorm-like accommodation specialising in international visitors to Japan. Peering into the tin's contents I saw a series of small curly brown nut-sized objects suspended in water.

"What are they?"

"Silk worms," the girl next to me declared cheerfully. "They're from Korea."

I instinctively dropped the chop sticks. "What do they taste like?"

"You know those things you can sometimes eat ... and afterwards, it feels like your mouth is full of rotting garbage..."

"You're not selling this to me."

Obviously I ate one. Well, how often in your life are you casually passed a tin of silk worms to nibble on? It tasted .... exactly as you might imagine. Even if you didn't look at the curled up little striped bodies, there was really no way from the texture you could pretend you were chewing on a nut. Or rotten garbage. Nope, it was a worm.

I took a large swig of beer and downed a carton of strawberry milk. Amidst the laughter, one of the other girls leaned across the table:

"Welcome to Japan."

Rice pudding

"Omelette or rice pudding?"

By my watch, it was 1 am in the morning and we were about an hour from touching down in Tokyo. While I am normally cheerfully adventurous with my food, breakfast was a meal for which I found hard to stomach anything out of the ordinary. Admittedly at 1 am EST and 2 pm JST, this wasn't really a morning meal, but I had just woken up so my body seemed to think it might be.

"Rice pudding," I requested.

That sounded like a good plan; gentle on the stomach with perhaps some sugar or fruit...

..... or carrots, chicken and mushrooms.

This was one of the rare occasions I was completely caught unaware at the differences between Western and Asian style cooking. While the 'norm' for meals in the different areas of the globe is substantial, the food usually has a different name. Plus I was on an Air Canada flight so wasn't really expecting any surprises. The stewardess should have knocked me on the head with the food tray and given me an omelette.

In the end, I managed a few mouthfuls and then switched to the more comprehensible melon side dish. I'm pretty sure the two Japanese passengers either side of me were amused. They also both ordered an omelette.

Open wide

"Open really wide."

There are occasions for which such request would lead to great, likely unbloggable, things. This, however, was not one of them. I inhaled and squinted as light bounced from the mirror being inserted into my mouth. It was the day before I was due to leave for a month in Japan and I was having my first tooth filling. 

This rather ill timed event had been instigated by a conversation with my advisors the previous Friday. They had pointed out that since I would no longer be their postdoc once I officially took up my position in Japan, all my employee benefits would cease. The most important of these, my health coverage, was exempt since Canada's socialized medicine meant that it was tied to my residency and not my employment. This would end with my visa in October. I therefore waved the information away... until it occurred to me I hadn't seen a dentist in about three years. 


The reason I hadn't been to a dentist was because I hated them. All of them. They had drills and needles and scalpels and you couldn't even pretend it wasn't happening because they were RIGHT THERE in your face. Literally. What was more, I hadn't really needed much in the way of said drills, needles and scalpels and therefore I was irrationally scared. And there was really no point in trying to talk me out of that.

Prior to this particular Tuesday, the only time I had needed more than a clean at the dentist was when my top two wisdom teeth were removed. That procedure had been triggered by an infection in one of the teeth and --after a transatlantic flight where I failed to perform the extraction myself with Virgin Atlantic's plastic cutlery-- neutralized all concern regarding drills and needles and scalpels. Plus, each tooth only took two minutes to remove. 

I actually needed two fillings. One was so small that no anesthetic was needed. The other was going to require more work. I shuffled along the corridor at work, expressing my highly legitimate concern to those I met.

"It's not really a drill, it's like a sand paperer." One of my friends assured me.

Clearly this was lies. It was going to be a HUGE PNEUMONIC DRILL probably supported by two other dentists as it was lowered into my mouth. 

.... I'd had all weekend to think about this, can you tell?

It was probably a good thing the dental surgery was only across campus. If it had been further I'd probably have run for the hills and even now be living a life as a toothless hermit in the foothills of the Rockies. They were also extremely kind to me. The dental nurse held my hand while they gave me the injection (I might be 30, but at that moment I felt about three) and after that I couldn't feel anything so it really didn't matter what they were doing. In fact, the hardest thing was to hold my mouth open for half an hour, but the dentist gave me a block to bite down on so I could rest my muscles. 

The anesthetic wore off after a couple of hours and the following day I wasn't able to see or feel where the work had been done. Pretty amazing really. 

Oh and the drill? Totally a sandpaperer. Didn't actually require multiple people to lift it. I knew you were wondering too.

This is a Buffalo bound local aeroplane

Our plane touched down in Charlotte twenty minutes late. Fearing another missed connection, I sprinted across the airport and made it to my gate just as the last few passengers were boarding. Taking my seat, I waited .... and waited... and ...

"We apologise for the delay. We're standing by for passengers from a Rochester flight that was cancelled."

That made sense. Buffalo is about an hours drive from Rochester so while undoubtedly irritating, it provided an easy alternative for stranded travellers. After a few minutes, a small gaggle of vexed Rochester-bound people boarded. From their conversation, it appeared that the flight had been too under-subscribed to fly. Still, at only 60 minutes away, there were trains, buses ...

"This flight will now be making a stop in Rochester before Buffalo."

... and apparently planes. Since when did flights make local stops like a weekend NYC subway? There was so much fury at this that one passenger had to be calmed down by the pilot. A young man in front of me was especially put out since he would actually have preferred to go to Rochester, but his bags had been checked through to Buffalo and couldn't be retrieved.

During this furore there was more waiting while we took on the extra fuel needed to make our spontaneous touch down. We were assured that the time on the ground in Rochester would be no more than 30 minutes and our flight time to Buffalo would be a staggering 15 minutes. This just left one very obvious question:


The total delay on the Buffalo flight was two hours. The driving time to Rochester would have been one hour and the fuel costs to bring a plane down and back up can't be low. Perhaps there was no way of getting a bus in Buffalo after midnight. Maybe all the car rental places were closed or only rented out two-seater sports cars. It could be that US Airways only ever thought about planes.

Or maybe the world has just gone completely mad.

Computer says no

I dropped the rental car keys on the counter of the AVIS desk at Gainesville airport. "The gas tank is 3/4 full," I said. "But I'm on the state rate."

Since I no longer worked at the University of Florida, I shouldn't be using the special state rate for car rentals; a discount that gave you a preferable daily rate, removed the hefty excess charge for dropping the car at a different Florida location from where you collected it and gave you a reasonable price for fuel usage, making it less important to refill the tank. However, since I still knew the magic phone number and no one ever asked me directly whether I should be doing this, I remained numb on the subject.

The assistant behind the counter punched in the details of my rental agreement to his computer and handed me the bill. I had been charged $25 for a quarter of a tank of gas. In the UK, this might be quite reasonable, but the gas stations in town were displaying around $3.61 / gallon. I shot the man a peeved look.

"I'm on the state rate," I pointed out. "It's only a quarter of a tank of gas."

He looked at the bill and shrugged. "It's what the computer gave me."

I was reminded unavoidably of Carol from the TV show Little Britain who works as a bank clerk and has the catchphrase "computer says no" which she utters in deadpan tones in response to customers' ever more desperate pleas.

"That doesn't mean it's right." I tried to smile pleasantly.

My unhelpful friend shrugged again and tapped away at the keyboard. This did not look good. But then:

"I could just remove the cost of the fuel from your bill."

"..... Yes, I would find that acceptable."

Hard not to, really.