Google+ Sandra's Stories: Japan

Monday, 11 March 2013

A guaranteed way to choke on your sushi

My ideal lunch break is to get out of the office and enjoy some fresh air and exercise. It sounds simple enough, until you consider the social rules involved…

The first problem I encountered in chasing my dream was when to eat. I wanted to stroll outside during my lunch break, then eat at my desk afterwards whilst working. Unfortunately eating at the desks is not allowed during working hours. Even though these days I’m a rule breaking deviant, I didn't want to advertise this fact to my colleagues. So I decided that I’d better eat during my lunch break, or starve.

This meant that if I wanted to fit in both walking and eating then I would have to do them at the same time. I've never actually been very good at this – it takes me hours to chew my food and I tend to choke unless I’m sitting down. However I was determined that with practice I could learn. Walking whilst eating is considered to be very bad manners in Japan, however I decided it was a lesser crime than eating at my desk, so I would do it anyway.

My lunch hour is strictly from 12pm to 1pm, and unfortunately this is also the lunch hour assigned to every other office worker in Tokyo. Some companies even ring a bell. Between those times the footpaths explode with salarymen and there is no privacy for someone trying to take a sneaky bite of sushi. The first time I tried to eat and walk during my lunch hour, I felt too embarrassed to do it in front of such a big crowd so I tried to get away into a quieter street before I started eating.

In tall office towers it can take up to 15 minutes to get outside because the lifts are so crowded at 12pm.

After walking for a while, finally I stopped at a pedestrian crossing on a quiet street. While I waited for the lights to change, I began to eat. There were no pedestrians around but I could see the people in the cars closest to me were staring and looking shocked at my terrible manners. I turned away so that I wouldn't have to look at the cars and tried not to feel embarrassed.

Then suddenly I heard a lot of beeping. I turned back to see what was happening. The traffic lights had changed but the cars at the front of the queue weren't moving. My eating whilst standing had enthralled the nearby cars so much that they hadn't noticed the change of lights and were blocking up the traffic. As the cars in the line finally moved forward into the intersection, the driver of each car turned their head to see what the hold up was – and saw me choking on my sushi. That was the last time I ate whilst walking in Japan.

What do you think about eating whilst walking? Have you ever stopped traffic? Do you do something special during lunch time? Feel free to leave your comments!

Monday, 4 March 2013

When the signs point your way

No matter where you are in Japan, there are signs everywhere. They are plastered all over train stations, behind toilet doors, on the streets, and in the shops. Coming from Australia, I found the volume of signs a bit overwhelming at first, especially when I went into electronics stores.

An electronics store in Australia compared to...

An electronics store in Japan. Signs everywhere!

Since I couldn’t actually read the volumes of signs, I felt like I was missing out on important information, and quite often I was. I would often find out the meaning of the sign after it was already too late. For example, the sign below which was in the bicycle garage of my apartment block. It turns out it says ‘Please register your bicycle with building management or it will be removed.’ I found this out after my bicycle disappeared.

'Please register your bicycle with building management or it will be removed.' It would have been good to have known this information before my bicycle went missing.

However, I’ve recently realised that it’s actually a good thing if I can’t read the signs. It’s when the signs are in English that I should be worried. One of my friends works in a building where he is the only foreigner. He works in a normal workplace, which means that there are signs in Japanese everywhere, which naturally, he ignores. One day, after he had been working there for two years without seeing any signs in English, a sign appeared outside the ladies toilet. It said (in English) 'I warn a suspicious person' - suggesting, I think, that men shouldn't go into the ladies toilets and do suspicious things.

My friend could only assume that since this sign was in English, and he was the only foreigner in the building, that it was written especially for him. My friend tried to squash his suspicion that someone thought he was a peeping Tom, however, a few weeks later the following sign appeared in the men’s toilets:

My friend realised that he was wrong. Someone didn’t think he was a peeper, they thought he was a peeper who liked to block up toilets. To make matters worse, all of his colleagues who saw the sign in English would also realise that it was directed at him, and start to suspect that he was a degenerate who liked to block up toilets.

After hearing this story I realised that I shouldn’t be upset when I can’t read the signs. Now whenever I see signs in Japanese I feel grateful. It’s a compliment because it means I’m flying under the radar and no one suspects me of being a rule-breaking deviant.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Trigger happy weather forecasters

Last week I wore hiking boots, a ski jacket, and heavy duty gloves to work because the weather report said that it would snow. It didn’t snow, and I was hot. It was the final betrayal in a series of weather-related treacheries…

When I was growing up my mum was a big fan of giving weather related advice. Every day she would predict the weather and give me suggestions about what I should wear. Mum was always right and I spent many days feeling smugly comfortable in my weather-appropriate clothes. I didn’t know how she did it but her weather predicting abilities were incredible.

Then I moved out of home. Without my mum’s help, I found myself to be a daily victim of the weather. I was always too cold, too hot, or rain drenched. One day I complained to my mum about how I was suffering. She was flabbergasted. She said ‘Sandra, the only reason I know about the weather is because I check the forecast!’

I was shocked. All those years I’d thought that Mum was an amazing oracle, only to discover that her powers were freely available to everyone. Since then I’ve been a convert to the forecast and follow it carefully. However, a few weeks ago, without any forewarning, it snowed heavily in Tokyo and the whole city shut down in panic. Train services were cut, the highways closed, and the footpaths became dangerous piles of icy slush. It was chaos. The trains are packed out at the best of times; this is what happens when services are reduced…
Kawasaki station  when services are cut: That's a lot of salary men!
Photo courtesy of poor Nana who had to commute in this.
That day I got stuck for five hours on a bus crawling along a highway outside of Tokyo before I managed to catch a train home. Everyone had a horror story that day. People were enraged that the weather forecast had failed to warn us. Like me, they felt betrayed and there was a lot criticism directed at the weather forecasters.

Well, the forecasters were obviously ashamed about what they’d done because ever since they’ve become extremely trigger-happy. At the slightest drop in temperature they predict snow but so far hardly a flake has fallen. I find myself frequently dressing in heavy duty snow gear, only to be disappointed (and hot) when the snow doesn’t come. I don’t know who I can turn to if my mum isn’t an oracle, and the weather report can no longer be trusted.

Note: The day after I wrote this blog post, it snowed so my faith in the forecast has returned.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Footpath fury

One thing that I was looking forward to when I moved to Japan was a life free from road rage. Since I never have to drive here, I’m pleased to report that my dream has come true. Instead, I expected to be traumatised by the crowded commuter trains, however catching the train has actually turned out to be a pleasant experience. The other passengers are polite and considerate so there is no reason to get angry. What I didn’t count on was a different type of rage… footpath fury.

I live in Central Tokyo in the business district so to get to my local train station in the mornings I am joined by a swarm of salary men walking to work. After finally emerging from the jam-packed trains onto street level, people are quite keen to get on their way. The footpath becomes a passive-aggressive battlefield. Each person has their own strategy for getting ahead, whilst at the same time, everyone politely feigns innocence and pretends that they aren’t doing anything.

Footpath crowds near my local train station

For example, my tactic is to take extremely small, fast steps to fill in any tiny space that is in front of me. This way I can continually move forwards, even if there isn’t enough room for me to take an adult sized step. It also prevents other people from darting into the tiny spaces in front of me.

‘I’m-the-fastest-walker’ arm pumping is another strategy. This is when someone pretends that they are an Olympic walking champion. They run a few steps to overtake you and then pump their arms quickly to demonstrate that they are faster than you, and thus had a right to jump in your path. The trick is that their leg speed doesn’t match their arm speed so they gain your front position in the footpath crowd but still get to walk at a leisurely pace.

However, the most effective tactic that I’ve seen so far is footpath chicken. This is where someone walks headlong into oncoming pedestrians (pretending not to see them) so that the other pedestrians have to jump out of the way. It is a high-risk, high-return strategy. The other day I saw two salary men playing footpath chicken with each other. As the pair approached each other they built up speed to scare the other person off. Unfortunately neither of them pulled out at the last minute. They slammed into each other head-on at full speed. It was pretty funny to watch, especially because afterwards they both looked really angry but were too polite to say anything. They just stood there flaring their nostrils at each other for a few seconds before walking off.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Rule breaking deviants

Living in Japan has been an incredible experience. Every day is an exciting adventure and I’m constantly being challenged to discover new things. However Japan wasn't the easiest place to get used to. The language barrier is difficult, of course. But it was actually the small, unimportant things that were the hardest… like the fact that I can’t eat at my desk at work. Or on the streets, on trains, or in department store food courts.

At first I really wanted to fit in so I tried my best to follow all the subtle social rules. I didn’t jay walk; I avoided speaking loudly; I always apologized to others when I entered a lift; I thanked people numerous times after they did something nice for me; I gave up blowing my nose in favour of sniffing; and most difficult of all, I began eating only at approved venues and times.

A hot food stand at Ebisu station...  But you're not supposed to eat at the station?

It seemed like there were rules for every moment and every situation. Trying to follow all of them, I started feeling really repressed. Holding back all my natural instincts stressed me out and I felt like a lifeless robot. I could feel my hair turning grey with all the self-restraint.

Finally after a visit from my sister and a few well placed “you’re turning into a weirdo” comments, I realised that I was losing my mind and that I couldn’t do everything right all the time. Other foreigners told me that I needed to loosen up and that I shouldn’t try to be perfect. My Japanese friends agreed. They told me to stop worrying because no one expects me to act like I’m Japanese anyway.

So I gave myself a break about following the rules. I decided that I would continue trying to follow them, but not to the point where I felt like I was losing a piece of myself. Giving up was a great decision. It has made a big difference to how comfortable I feel in Japan.

Now after almost two years in Japan, I find the rules humorous, instead of feeling crushed by them. When I’m out and about, I enjoy spotting other deviants. It’s a rare occurrence, but if I keep my eyes peeled it’s possible to catch locals breaking the rules. It gives me a thrill when I see a local doing something which is completely normal overseas but considered to be bad manners in Japan. The other day I saw a lady on the train sneakily eating bread out of her handbag. When she realised that I’d spotted her eating in public she looked guilty and embarrassed. We both knew that I’d identified her for what she was: a deviant.


Monday, 21 January 2013

Big foot attacks mens changerooms

My gym in Tokyo takes convenience to a whole new level. Every time I show up I get freshly washed gym wear, shoes, and socks. It really beats lugging a heavy gym bag on the crowded trains every day. There’s just one problem… my average sized Aussie feet are considered to be ridiculously large in Japan. With size 26.5 cm feet, I can’t fit into ladies shoes. What’s a Big Foot to do?

The answer is simple: wear mens shoes. But in reality, nothing is simple when you’re a totally conspicuous and communication-challenged foreigner like me.

At my gym the mens shoes are kept in an alcove outside the mens changeroom. The men can help themselves. It’s an honesty system and it actually works. Amazingly, no one steals the unsupervised brand-name shoes.

So, all I had to do was sneak into the mens alcove and grab the shoes…

The first time there was no problem. It was early in the morning and there weren’t many members around. I just walked straight in and took the shoes. When I finished my workout I put them back into the men’s return slot. No one saw anything. I survived a day in Japan without getting busted breaking any rules.

Unfortunately, the next time I went to the gym, there were more people hanging around. I managed to grab the shoes from the men’s alcove without getting caught, but when I went to put the shoes back, things got complicated. Just as I entered the men’s alcove, the changeroom door sprung open and a man came out. He looked very unimpressed when he saw me trespassing. He told me (in Japanese) that this was the men’s area, and that the ladies changeroom was on the other side.

Monday, 24 December 2012

My oblivion reaches new heights: How did I not notice the tsunami and nuclear power disaster?

On March 11 2011 at 2.46pm a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan resulting in a huge tsunami, a terrible nuclear disaster, and large-scale loss of life. I was in Tokyo at the time. Yet somehow I didn’t realize that an epic disaster had occurred…

The earthquake interrupts quiet time

I was on the 17th floor of my office building in Central Tokyo. Even though there were about 200 people crammed into one open-plan room, the office was silent as usual. Suddenly an alarm triggered. An announcement came over the loudspeaker warning us that an earthquake was coming in five seconds. I followed the lead of my Japanese colleagues and dived under my desk.

The building rocked like a ship in rough seas and the sliding doors of the filing cabinets slammed noisily into each other. My colleagues giggled nervously. I honestly believed that I was about to die, but I’m pleased to say that I didn’t cry.

A burning building seen from my office.

Silence resumes

A few minutes later, everyone got back to work, interrupted by the occasional loudspeaker announcement telling us that we weren’t allowed to leave the building. The massive aftershocks became almost endless and I guess there wasn’t much point in exclaiming over each one when the building was constantly shaking. I tried to check the internet for information about what had happened but all I could find out was that Cath was having drinks at Manly Wharf Bar and it was awesome! I emailed my family in Australia to tell them that I was OK but they hadn’t heard about the earthquake.

Some lucky scheduling

Coincidentally, I’d been planning to fly home to Australia that afternoon for a friend’s wedding and had flights booked. I managed to phone QANTAS and found out that my flight had been delayed by 24 hours.

I get hungry and the TV news is confusing

Finally I was allowed to leave the building and I walked home as usual. There were a lot of people on the streets as the trains weren’t running, but everyone was eerily quiet and calm. It was only my second week in Japan so I had no internet connection at home. I didn’t know how to play English on my TV, and it seemed like the mobile phone network was down, so I became completely out of touch with the world.

I was bored and so… I ate. I ate through all the food in my house. So much for emergency earthquake supplies, but back then I didn’t know we were supposed to be hoarding food for disaster.

I watched the Japanese news but I couldn’t understand anything. I saw images of a big wave and people standing on higher ground, but they never showed any bodies. Everyone seemed so calm on the TV that I honestly believed that no one had died and the situation was under control.

The news kept showing images of a grey building near a coastline. I didn’t understand why they kept flashing back to that same building. It didn’t look damaged or particularly important.

My microwave had moved when I got home

Surprise! in Australia

The next day I headed off to the airport. It took a few hours to get there as many of the train lines weren’t running. The airport was crowded with people when I arrived but everyone exchanged earthquake stories while we waited in line. When my plane took off we all cheered.

I landed back in Australia the next day and my parents picked me up. They were so relieved to see me as I’d been out of touch since I’d left my office two days before. Apparently that grey building I’d seen on TV was the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant – there had been explosions and there was an unstable nuclear disaster unfolding. I had no idea. When my parents told me the numbers of people who had perished in the tsunami I was shocked and saddened. I felt guilty that I hadn’t shown more concern for my colleagues who were left behind and that I’d been so oblivious to Japan’s suffering. I also felt surprised at how calm everyone had appeared, considering what had been happening.

My colleagues are OK

I was eventually able to get in contact with my colleagues and check that they were all OK. I spent the next week answering phone calls and emails from people who contacted my family to check that I was alive. It seemed that I was the only one in the world who had been oblivious to the dire situation…