Friday, 1 May 2015

Taxi Omotenashi

A short vignette to begin.

I was out for a walk a few nights back. I'd spent the entire day procrastinating at home and was suffering from cabin fever, so I decided to take a stroll. It's already quite warm here in Tokyo, even in the evening, and there's a pleasant calm to the city at night that's a far cry from the often manic bustle of midday.

I was close to the boundary of Shibuya and Shinjuku wards, not too far from Nishi-Shinjuku-5-chome, when I saw a taxi pull up just before the lights on a small two-lane road that intersects Yamate-dori, one of the main North-South roads on the west side of the city. There were three guys in the taxi; all young, all dressed in business attire - two in the back and one in the front. One of the guys in the back got out and came round to the front passenger-side window. At first I thought he was getting off there and was giving money to his friend in front. Not so. It became evident that the guy in the front seat was rather the worse for wear. I wondered if maybe he was a new staff member at his company (April is hiring season) and he'd gone out for welcome drinks with coworkers and had more than his fill. Whoever he was, his friend/coworker helped him out and transferred him to the back seat, perhaps so that someone could keep an eye on him and prevent him from vomiting on the dashboard.

This story doesn't really go anywhere (bear with me), except that something struck me as odd in a nice sort of way at around the moment I realised the guy in front was wasted. The taxi driver was rubbing his arm in a manner that I can only describe as affectionate. It seemed to go against my conception of taxi driver's in Japan formed over two and a half years of them cutting in front of me, or pulling in halfway towards the kerb to let a passenger in or out without drawing close enough to get out of the way. I suppose it's natural in a service nation like Japan for taxi drivers to treat their customers well, but I was surprised to see this simple act of physical contact, which seemed to go over and above what I would expect, especially towards someone who at any moment threatens to turn the inside of your taxi a dirty cream colour.

Anyway, with the passenger switcheroo completed, they passed the taxi passed the lights and headed off south, the other rear-seat passenger holding up a plastic bag in front of his sloshed friend's face.

We've missed you

It's been four years since my last post, and a lot has happened in that time. Global air travel started to look a lot less safe, Scotland opted to stay part of the UK after a hard-fought independence campaign, and virtually everyone I grew up watching on TV has turned out to be a paedophile.

And I moved back to Japan.

I've thought about getting back into blogging pretty much since I decided to come back three years ago. When I finished the JET Programme I'd been hoping to stay on in some position where I could use Japanese and hopefully avoid the cliched pitfall of becoming an eikaiwa English teacher. After failing to get a job at CLAIR (the organisation that runs the JET Programme) I felt kind of let down by the country and broke off our romance. But we've put that behind us now, changed our Facebook relationship status to "It's complicated" and I've moved back in.

So I've been living in Tokyo for the last three years. I went the working holiday route, which is a convenient option open to most Europeans, in addition to Australians and a few other countries. The British one is for one year, after which you need to either find a company to sponsor you, marry a Japanese national, or else get someone to adopt you. The first option worked for me, and I got a three year working visa through the company that hired me after my arrival.

I quit that job over a month ago. Ostensibly, it was because I wanted to go back to Scotland for my brother's wedding - I was already back for a month at Christmas and didn't have the vacation time. But really I decided that I was getting too close to the dreaded three-oh to be doing a job that, while in no way terrible, was in no way related to anything I have ever wanted to be doing. Except that I got to use Japanese quite a lot.

I'm in Tokyo, then, and the future is uncertain. But as long as I'm here I wanted to share some of my experiences from this, the biggest city in the world. It's funny old place out here, and after six years in Japan I only just feel like I'm beginning to figure it out.

These streets have stories, and I'm putting my ear to the ground to listen to them.

Won't you join me, please?

Friday, 12 August 2011

All quiet on the Western Front

I've been totally lax and absent for the last month or so, and in the meantime the world has gone to hell. Phone hacking scandals, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, famine, polar bears and now riots on the streets of England. I'm glad things are relatively normal here in Scotland.

I haven't been entirely idle, however. Just mostly idle.

Last week I popped down to Southampton on the south coast of England for my friend Ken's wedding. I've known Ken since first year of uni, when he lived in the room next door, and we subsequently lived together for the following three years as well. He's half Japanese, and he visited me three times over the course of my stay in Japan.

The wedding was all lovely except for a minor(?) faux-pas on my part. I, along with some other of Ken's friends, was designated an usher - an honour which came with a buttonhole rose and special handkerchiefs and ties. We were stood at the entrance to the church, asking people if they were bride or groom, and checking their names off the list of special types who got their own seats. At one point a grinning man and his wife came over, I asked, "Bride or groom?" and he responded by saying he wasn't a guest, he was just there for the service. He had a big smile on his face as he said this, and I sort of assumed he was having a laugh with me, so I told him he could probably, "stand at the back somewhere", in a manner I thought to be fittingly ironic. I was slightly alarmed when he gave me a confused look and walked on. I'd assumed he would have admitted to being a guest really, and given me his name. A sense of horror started to wind its way around my chest as I realised I'd accidentally been rude to a wedding guest, after receiving explicit instructions from Ken to be good. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe people just show up to other people's weddings. This was, after all, a church, and therefore a place meant to be open to the whole community. My upbringing in a fairly religiously-apathetic environment led me to forget that there are actually still a fair few religious folk about. It hadn't occurred to me that people would choose to go to church on a Saturday. Major fail.

I heard the guy bitching about me to the frumpy woman who worked in the church later on. Suffice to say I steered as clear of him as I could for the duration.

In other news, I continue to write, despair about being awful, get over it, write, despair a bit more, and basically continue ad infinitum. But yesterday, after meeting a friend who abandoned our fair land for the ravaged London to be a part of that acting 'biz', I'm feeling a bit better about things. He's up for the Edinburgh Fringe - his theatre company, Made from Scratch - formed by him and his university peers as a way to create their own opportunities, are putting on a play called Body of Water, which you should totally see if you're in the area. Anyway, my friend read my first chapter, gave me some pointers, and is going to badger me to get things done. Cos that's what friends are for!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Charity Avoidance Tactics

Whether I'm listening to something on my mp3 player or just thinking my mind-thoughts, sometimes I find it good to stretch my legs along Princes Street, the main high street in Edinburgh. Sometimes I'm able to resolve some problems with my story ideas as I go, the meagre exercise no doubt sending much-needed blood to the brain of my otherwise poorly-circulated mortal shell. I like to be able to just lose myself in my ponderings and not have to think about anything else, but more often than not, that's impossible.

The reason? Charity workers.

Whenever I see one of those red or green waterproof jackets I panic despite myself, and all other thought is abandoned as I consider how best to avoid engaging with them.

Now, I'm not a completely uncharitable person. I've been known to make the odd donation to places in the past. Right now I don't have a regular income so I can't commit to paying a monthly direct debit like these guys inevitably want you to. But that's not the only reason I don't like these guys. They're always chirpy to the point of obnoxiousness, and they're always English.

Not that I have the problem with people from England. Some of my best friends are from Merrye Olde Englande. But these street folks are always posh hipster nobs. And they don't do it out of the kindness of their hearts. A lot of them are probably students at Edinburgh Uni and they're all paid by the charities to collect sponsorships. If you give them an inch of your time, they'll take a mile, along with your credit card details, or failing that guilt trip you into oblivion. But how to deal with this urban menace?

Let me show you.
So here I am just walking along the street, minding my own business when I espy a charity worker up ahead. What do I do?
1. The road-cross fake-out
As I see that the charity worker has caught me in its sniper-like sights, I make a beeline for the kerb and make out as if I mean to cross, and that I have no idea that the charity worker has seen me. Or is even there. Or that charity even exists as a concept. Then when the gull turns its waterproof back, I slip past unnoticed.

2. The shop-dive
 This one is simple enough. I dive into a nearby shop until the threat has passed. It's a little less silly than option 1. but carries a downside. If the nearest shop is Anne Summers, ain't no way I'm rushing in there.

3. The human shield
By far the best tactic. I follow closely behind other pedestrians, putting them between myself and the dreaded charity worker. The latter takes the bait, and I pass on unassailed. If the streets are quite bare up ahead when I notice a charity worker, I might tarry a while until suitable human shields come along.

Try them out!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

My Anpan Masterplan

I've spoken before about missing aspects of my life in Japan. I can't remember why, but a month or so ago I suddenly got a craving for anpan. Anpan (from 'an' - bean jam, and 'pan' - bread) is a favourite snack of Japanese children. They're basically a slightly sweetened bread with red bean (azuki) paste inside. I first became aware of them through hearing about a popular cartoon for younger children called Anpanman, which stars a group of superhero characters made of bread. Anpanman's head is an anpan, and when he is injured, Uncle Jam the baker makes him a new head. It's the kind of subtly creepy cutesiness that pervades most Japanese entertainment.

One of my fellow JETs introduced me to real anpan for the first time in my second year, while we wear working on our annual musical. I never expected to like them - the thought of jam made from beans put me off - but I quickly developed a taste for the things and for the rest of my time in Japan my apartment was rarely without anpan. I used to get these small 'usukawa' (thin-skinned) ones, which had only a teeny layer of bread around a great wad of anko (red bean paste).

Anyway, when I got the craving, it occurred to me that I might be able to make them myself, assuming I could get the ingredients. I looked up Chinese supermarkets online and found one not too far from where I usually go to write in the city centre. It was quite a small place, with a tiny old Chinese lady behind the counter, and I felt a little on-edge while I stared at the beans and tried to work out if they were the kind I wanted. They were red, sure, but smaller than ones I'd seen in Japan. But since there was nothing else, I figured 'What the hey' and went for them.

I found a recipe for anko and last night I finally got round to making it. I decided it would be best to make the anko in advance since it was quite a time-consuming affair. It was maybe a little foolish to continue with the recipe without being sure I even had the right kind of beans, but I didn't think I would be able to find azuki beans anywhere else (I have since found out my mother has bought them in the past, so it's highly likely I could have bought them from a regular supermarket). The process involves a lot of boiling, simmering, draining and repeating. The only part of the recipe I had trouble with was pushing foil down onto the beans as they boiled, since it threatened to burn my fingers. I used a smaller pot lid that fit inside the pot instead. I was really doubtful that I was going to end up with the right thing - the consistency seemed odd as several stages, but at the very end everything came together, quite literally. This was the result:
It may not look like much, but the taste and consistency were there. Part one of the masterplan was a success.

Today was a different challenge. I realised the recipe I had intended to follow called for a breadmaker. Cheating, if you ask me. We don't have a breadmaker. Every other anpan recipe I found online also wanted a breadmaker. After looking over different recipes for a while, I decided to amalgamate the breadmaker one with another one for a milk loaf and basically make my own instructions. For the interested:

Bread flour - 450g (this is an estimate - I started with 380g as per the recipe but my dough was very sticky)
Salt - 1tsp
Sugar - 3tbsp
Dried yeast - 1 1/2tsp
Fat/butter - 3tbsp
2 medium eggs
Warm milk - 200ml

1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a bowl.
2. Add the fat/butter and rub it through with your hands until there are no lumps left.
3. Make a well in the centre of the bowl, add 1 egg, then lightly beat the second egg and add half (save the rest).
4. Pour in the warm milk a little at a time, mixing as you do with a knife until it comes together as a dough. If the dough is too sticky, use extra flour.

5. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, then split into 14-18 balls.
6. Cover the balls with a damp towel so they don't dry out and leave them to expand a little for 15 minutes.
7. Flatten each ball out, then spoon in your anko paste. The amount is up to you, but you can afford to be liberal. A heaped tablespoon's worth is about right.
8. Close the dough up over the paste and pinch it shut. Place the pinched side down on a greased baking tray, then depress the centre a little to stop an air pocket from forming between the bread and the anko.
9. Leave the buns to rise for 50 minutes in a warm place. Preheat the oven to Gas 4/350°F/180°C).
10. Brush the surface of each bun lightly with the remaining egg and bake for 15 minutes.

I'm really happy with how they turned out. Even though I bought the wrong kind of flour. It was supposed to be white, but I bought a kind that was brown and full of seeds. I sifted out the seeds but wasn't sure if the recipe would still work. As it turns out, the savouriness of the bread works well to offset the sweetness of the anko. Result!:

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


From my seat at my bedroom window, I see a lot of creatures. Wildlife seems to be fighting back against the destroyers of its environment and coming into our gardens. See how YOU like it, wildlife says.

Last night, I saw a bird of prey sitting on the wall. My camera's not good enough to get a nice close-up shot, but I did take a picture. I'm not sure what it was, but it may have been a sparrow hawk.

In Japan, there was a breed of kite that was really common on the coast, but seeing birds of prey in the wild here is still pretty cool.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Every journey begins...

...with a first step. And every great novel begins with a first chapter. I wanted to be able to write this post months ago. I wanted to say I had finally made a first chapter to the novel I've been trying to start that I was happy with.

I still can't.

However, I do have a beginning of sorts. I wrote a prologue kind of thing. It has a form. It's not without it's problems, but it's there. It exists as a thing in the real world, not just in my head. It's a start.

So I've decided, a journey need not begin with a first step. It can begin with a second step. Then when I know where I'm going, I can work out the best way to start off. Because so far, the beginning has been dragging me down and holding me back. No more, I say!

I don't know if what I've written will come to be a part of the story I'm working on. But it's there, it's written down, it's on paper. It's a material thing. It's a reference point I can look back on to remind myself of things.

But I'm moving on, I hope to better things. Better writing, certainly.
The only question is, am I capable?