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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Hats off to the kiddies, fatties, and oldies

Everyone in Japan has climbed Mt. Fuji, except me. School groups, unfit tourists, and baby boomers in colour co-ordinated hiking outfits – they’ve all done it. During climbing season, Mt. Fuji is so crowded the path becomes one long pedestrian traffic jam. So I figured, if everyone’s doing it, surely it can’t be that hard. This year I’m going to conquer Mt. Fuji too.

As a token amount of preparation, I decided to practice on Mt. Mitake last weekend. And by token, I really mean token: Mt. Mitake’s altitude is 929m, and the hike takes five hours, compared to Mt. Fuji’s 3700m altitude, twelve hour course. My cousin Mark (who has a hilarious blog about his student life in Spain) was stopping over in Japan that weekend and joined me.

The hike started with a series of staircases that went vertically up the mountain… and it didn’t ease off from there. Hours of relentless staircases and torturous slopes later, we finished and I was exhausted. My legs were shaking, I could hardly breathe, and I didn’t think I could even step on the train to get home. Meanwhile Mark looked like he’d been for a casual stroll around the park. I started to have serious doubts about my plans.

The next day, I limped in to my Japanese lesson, and told my teacher about my Mt. Fuji goal. She almost hit the roof. ‘Mt. Fuji isn’t easy! It’s incredibly dangerous and difficult, especially outside of climbing season!’ she said. (I’d purposefully planned my trip to be a few days after the official hiking season ended so the crowds wouldn’t slow me down.) She explained that outside of hiking season, the mountain huts shut, the rescue services stop, and the weather on Mt. Fuji becomes dangerous and unpredictable. Since it was outside of the season and I was clearly not fit enough to complete the course, she strongly advised me to cancel my plans.

After two years with my Japanese teacher, I’ve come realise she is usually right about all things Japan-related. So I cancelled my trip to Mt. Fuji. I’d like to blame the off-season timing, but the truth is, it’s a serious hike and I need more training. To the kiddies, fatties, and oldies who have conquered Mt. Fuji, you have my total respect. If I can ever walk again, one day I’d like to join your ranks. But not this year.
My new walking sticks won’t have the honour of poking Mt. Fuji this year

Friday, 9 August 2013

The phones must be crazy

Yesterday the silence of my office was shattered when a hundred smart phone alarms went wild. The early earthquake warning system had triggered. My Japanese colleagues called out “Shindo nana!” in shock, meaning an earthquake of the most catastrophic level was about to hit.

The early warning system is supposed to give us a few seconds notice to get to safety. But instead of diving under our desks like we’d been trained to do, we all just stood there giggling and waiting for our doom. Secretly, I wanted to get under my desk but I didn’t want to look like a coward. I felt like it was 2011 again, in the seconds after the earthquake alarms had gone off, and just before the big earthquake hit. Back then I hadn’t learnt about the dangers of losing face, and had immediately dived under my desk.

While we waited to die, we teased the people whose phone alarms had triggered later than everyone else’s. For once I wasn’t the one with the most outdated technology. After a while the giggling died down, and it seemed like nothing was going to happen and we’d have to get back to work. I mostly felt relieved but a small part of me felt disappointed there was nothing more to break up a dull Thursday afternoon.

Later I found out on the news that the alarm had been triggered by a loud noise near one of the earthquake sensors. Maybe some deviant popped a bag behind the head of the Japanese meteorological agency and gave him a shock!

My earthquake emergency kit was lonely when I didn't join it under the desk.

There's no escaping Tokyo

 Sometimes I really feel the need to get away from the crowds of Tokyo and escape to the peaceful Japanese countryside. Last weekend I went to the rural apple-growing prefecture of Aomori (715km north of Tokyo) to watch the Nebuta festival with some friends.

Aomori is on the coast, so the first thing we did when we arrived was to look for local sushi. We wanted to eat the best, freshest fish - straight from the sea, and into our mouths. We found a great sushi bar where the fish were as delicious and fresh as anything we’d eaten in Tokyo, and a bargain at country prices!

Surprise! A crab was hiding in the miso soup. 

When we arrived at the festival that evening, there were hundreds of performers dressed in traditional costumes getting ready for the Nebuta parade. We were excited to see them and stopped a few Aomori locals to get a picture with them before the show. But as it turned out they weren’t from Aomori at all. Like us they’d travelled from far away to spend the weekend in the country.

Aomori imposters with other Aomori imposters

Finally we went to get a seat at the parade. I thought we wouldn’t have too much trouble with crowds because it was a small town but it was packed out like Shinjuku station at peak hour. Tokyo had found me after all. The event had drawn the masses from the capital. Luckily I’ve learnt a few things about walking through crowds, so I had no problem and the crowds added to the excitement.

Tokyo relocates to Aomori

The parade was amazing - huge floats made of Japanese paper and carried by man-power, surrounded by dancers and musicians in traditional costumes. We discovered that if we cheered loud enough the floats would walk over to us and bow.

Even the floats bow in Japan

I highly recommend the festival in Aomori as a great thing to see. But book early because the rest of Tokyo will be there with you!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

What happens when you get cocky

You would think after my disastrous Japanese interview in April I should have no doubts about my terrible Japanese skills. But recently I still made the mistake of thinking I could communicate like a normal person.

I wanted a new contact lens prescription but instead of trying to find an English speaking optometrist, I decided to go to a local and wing it. On the surface, that doesn’t sound difficult. But don’t forget I have the reading skills of a five year old, and the speaking skills of a baby. I had to decipher websites and maps, make an appointment, and then once I’d finally arrived, fill out the pre-appointment health sheet – all in Japanese.

Somehow I managed it. (I won’t mention how long it took and how many mistakes I made.) As I sat in the waiting room for my appointment I felt so pleased with myself. I fantasised about how I was going to email everyone I knew and boast about my cleverness.

Then the eye exam began... The optometrist made me put my head in a contraption and stare at a computer screen. She said, “Blah blah blah blah?”

At least that’s what it sounded like. I could see a white C shape but it wasn’t perfectly clear around the edges so I replied, “Can’t see.” The optometrist nodded and made the C shape bigger, then said, “Blah blah blah blah?”

I repeated “Can’t see.”

The C got bigger and bigger and bigger. She repeated her question again and again and again. I answered “Can’t see,” “Can’t see,” “Can’t see.”

Finally the C was so big that it didn’t fit on the computer screen anymore. There was no way anyone could miss it. The optometrist seemed frustrated by now. She opened a cupboard and pulled out a giant poster of a C. She held the poster close to my face and said “Blah blah blah blah?” I replied, “Can’t see.” The optometrist’s nostrils flared. I started to suspect that I’d misunderstood the question.

We moved on to other tests. I tried on glasses, put my head in different machines, and looked at charts on the wall. This time she changed her question. She kept saying “Blah blah blah… Is that okay?” I didn’t want to cause any more trouble so I answered “Is okay, is okay, is okay,” and she kept looking more and more angry.

By the end of the appointment, my spirits had plummeted. I’d wasted everyone’s time and my money. I couldn’t believe I’d gotten so cocky as to think I could take an eye exam in Japanese. Then I got my prescription… it was exactly the same as my old one!

My new contact lenses - not even the optometrist knows if they're right for me.

I don’t know if my eyesight really hasn’t changed, or if the optometrist just gave up on me and copied out my old prescription. But I have new contact lenses now and they seem to be okay. So I’m choosing to believe that I got what I wanted. I’m back to being cocky.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Making an ebook cover is like a reality TV show

My first novel, The Ghostly Grammar Boy, will be published in September so recently I've been working on getting an ebook cover made. I used the graphic design website 99 Designs and the process felt like a reality TV show. This is how I did it.

 

1. Make the design brief a competition


The Ghostly Grammar Boy is a teen thriller about Fiona, a fifteen year old Canberra school girl who can see and talk to ghosts, including her dead twin sister. Fiona just wants to survive year ten without revealing herself to be a ghost-whispering, boyfriend-less weirdo. Her plans are ruined when she meets the ghost of a handsome boy from the Grammar School who claims he was murdered.

My design brief was to create a cover that had a teenage girl with dark brown hair in the forefront, the title in large font, and my name in capital letters. In the background I wanted a ghost version of the girl (the twin), and the ghost of a handsome teenage boy. I asked for some sparkles or swirls to indicate supernatural themes, for the main colour scheme to be dark purple and black, and for the design to be attractive to teenage girls.

I advertised the brief on 99 Designs and turned it into a competition. Graphic designers were able to compete to win a cash prize.

 

2. The contestants fight amongst themselves


Within hours of my design brief going up on the website, I already had several great entries... and the fighting had begun. One contestant put up a cover with a picture of a teenage girl taken from a stock photo website. Another contestant entered a similar design using exactly the same picture. The original contestant then complained "There are plenty of pictures on stock sites and you choose to use the same I did!"

 

3. The contestants fight with the judge


Within a few days I had more than 60 great covers from different designers. I'd originally envisioned a cartoonish cover but most of the designers chose to go with photographs. It was great to be able to see all the different possibilities and interpretations of my brief.

Using the website I could rate each of the covers and give feedback. The designers were responsive to my comments and within a short time submitted new designs including my suggestions. I gave the designers a link to the first three chapters of the book so they could get a sense of the tone of the novel.

One of the designers didn't take my feedback very well and wrote critical comments about how I was confused about the concept of manga, and how I shouldn't have released information late in the competition (for example, during the finals I told the designers "the book is humorous and the girl is spunky - think Buffy not Twilight"). I felt like the mean judge in a reality TV show. The competition was getting fierce.

 

4. The general public votes


Four days after advertising my design brief I had to narrow down the 23 contestants to six finalists. Using the website I made a poll of my favourite covers and advertised the poll on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. I received many votes from friends, family, and the general public. Thank you to everyone who voted! The comments were very interesting, from "stalkerish," "the girl is too cool," to "looks like a movie starring Sandra Thompson, [2 stars]."

From the polls, a clear favourite emerged, confirming my own feelings about the designs.

 

5. Pick a winner


Seven days later my competition closed and I had to pick a winner who would claim the prize money. I chose the cover below by Kassandra_P because not only was it the most popular in the polls, but it reflected the tone of the book so well.

The winning designer and I signed a copyright agreement, giving me rights to use the design. The designer was also kind enough to provide me with several different file sizes suitable for thumbnails, printed, and ebook versions.

The winning design


I'm so excited to see my cover come to life and really enjoyed the process. Thank you very much to all the designers who entered my competition, and to the people who kindly voted and gave me feedback on the covers.


Monday, 10 June 2013

The Ghostly Grammar Boy has a cover!

I'm excited to annonuce that The Ghostly Grammar Boy now has a cover! Thank you everyone who voted on their favourite cover and gave me suggestions. The book is now one step closer to publication in September 2013. Keep checking back here for more details!

The Ghostly Grammar Boy - to be published September 2013

Monday, 20 May 2013

Politeness manuals

When I was in high school, I worked as a checkout assistant at the local supermarket. During the induction program, the trainers spent most of the time trying to convince us we shouldn’t steal. When I finally started working at the checkout, I didn’t have a clue what to say to customers. My greetings would vary wildly between a sullen glare and a bright “Thank you, have a nice day”, depending on how I was feeling. All I knew was I shouldn’t steal anything.

Supermarkets in Japan take a more thorough approach to customer service. The checkout assistants receive a politeness manual telling them exactly what they should say to customers. And it’s not just the checkout chicks who follow them. The professional pushers at train stations follow politeness manuals too. I didn’t know there could be a polite way to push someone’s body parts into a crowded train, but it seems that there is.

Last week I think I discovered a sort of politeness manual for the general public. I was at the movies and before the movie started they played an ad telling us a list of rules. It was the usual things like “Turn off your mobile phone” and “Don’t talk during the movie”, but then they added “No kicking.” I started laughing but stopped when I realised no one else thought it was funny. It seems that the people in the movie theatre that day took obvious etiquette advice better than Aussies generally do. An example of this was last year when Queensland Rail tried to run an etiquette campaign - their posters became internet memes and were mocked all over the world.

The original Queensland Rail ettiquette poster

One of the many subsequent memes.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that my supermarket didn’t have a politeness manual.

My short story The Busybody of Lindfield was inspired by my time working at the supermarket.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Help me choose a cover for The Ghostly Grammar Boy

The Ghostly Grammar Boy is in the final stages of preparation for it's release in August! Help me choose a cover design from the finalists by voting here.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Top three places you don't expect to see Japanese

Even though I’m in Japan, there are some places I never expected to hear or see Japanese. These are my top three most surprising places.

(1) Graffiti
Trying to memorise the 2000 kanji characters required to read basic Japanese is a major headache for me. So when I see kanji casually scrawled as graffiti I am always surprised. I'm also a little jealous.


Beautiful kanji strokes - get this graffiti artist to a calligraphy competition!

(2) Dogs

So apparently, unlike me, dogs in Japan can understand Japanese. I even met a dog last week who was trilingual. He could understand Japanese, English, and Afrikaans… although the word for “sit” in Afrikaans is “sit”.

Tank the dog should sit my Japanese exams for me.

(3) Winnie the Pooh (aka Poo-san)

I expected at least the names of cartoon characters would remain the same. But in Japan even cartoon characters need to be shown an appropriate amount of respect when using their names. For example, Winnie the Pooh is known by his honourable title “Poo-san” i.e. Mr. Poo.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Camping in the tsunami zone

Last week I went camping on Niijima Island for Golden Week. I felt a bit nervous when I saw signs like this all around the island. These are the first emergency signs I've ever seen which actually tell you to RUN, rather than proceed calmly to safely.

Sign on Niijima Island.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The laziest machine in Japan

Japan is famous for its futuristic technology. The bath tubs sing as they fill up, meals at restaurants can be ordered by digital menus, and robotic vacuum cleaners whizz around apartments during the day.

But with all the hard work being done by robots in Japan, there is one type of machine that isn’t pulling its weight: the ATMs. While most of the people in Japan bust their guts working overtime, many of the ATMs* close down at 6pm. They refuse to work on public holidays and weekends, and if they do choose to operate at these times, they often charge extra fees for the privilege.


Lazy ATM: Closed Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays

At first, I couldn’t understand this. There should be no reason why an ATM can’t work weekends or at night. It’s a machine. It doesn’t need the time to go home and make shabu-shabu for its family or to trim its miniature bonsai garden. Why do they only work during business hours?

Well I think one of my friends has discovered the reason. She was visiting Japan from overseas and tried to use an ATM to withdraw money but unfortunately it ate her card. She started to panic, assuming that she’d been caught in some sort of scam. Then suddenly a phone which was hidden next to the ATM began to ring.

Friend: Hello? Is someone there? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Rapid Japanese.
Friend: I can’t understand you. Do you speak English? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Long silence. Your card… no good. Cannot use. Card return now. Please wait.

Sure enough, next thing, her card popped out of the machine and the phone line went dead. Someone behind the scenes had been supervising the ATM, seen that her card had been eaten, investigated the situation, and decided to return her card. 

So I guess that’s how you keep everyone employed in a high tech society where robots can do any job - employ someone to secretly watch the robots. Behind every robot in Japan, there could be a human watching. I just hope there’s no one supervising my singing bath tub.

*ATMs at 7-Eleven are usually open 24 hours a day and charge no fees for most Japanese bank cards.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Time to harden up

After two years of receiving unfailing politeness in Japan, I’ve dropped my guard. I no longer steel myself against attitude before approaching shop assistants, or apologetically catch the eye of waiters when I want to make an order. I’ve come to expect the highest level of respect from the service industry, and this has made me weak. 

For example, the other day I went to a restaurant in Tokyo. When I arrived the waiter pointed to our table without saying a word. No ‘Welcome honourable customer’, ‘my sincerest humble apologies for keeping you waiting’, or ‘wow honourable customer, you are so tall and your Japanese is so skillful’. Just silence. I was floored. I convinced myself that the waiter must have assumed that I couldn’t understand Japanese and that’s why he didn’t speak to me. The alternative - that he was giving me attitude - was too shocking to consider. 

When I got to the table I ordered a glass of hot water from another waitress. However it didn’t arrive within three minutes, so I asked about it. Instead of apologising profusely, bowing and rushing off to get it, the waitress dismissively told me to wait longer. I felt glad that it was an open kitchen so that she couldn’t spit in my food. She obviously wanted to.


I'm used to being the whale at restaurants.
Note: Image by gwaar. Some license restrictions apply for reuse. Please see Creative Commons License for details.

My sister was visiting me at the time and she was surprised that I was frustrated by the incidents. No one had actually said anything rude to me. These events would never have enraged me in Australia. In fact, if I’d had to order hot water in Australia, I'd have been the one grovelling because hot water wasn’t even on the menu.  

I’m planning to visit home at Christmas time so I need to harden up. What if I need to call my telecoms company or get my driver’s license renewed? I’ll never survive if I can’t put my shields back up.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The art of conversation

I used to always assume that people were in control of what they said. Even if someone was obviously telling a lie or saying something weird, I assumed it was because they wanted to. However, since I started learning Japanese, I’ve discovered that what comes out of my mouth often has no relation to what I actually want to say. I only know a limited number of words and sentences, so my conversation is a random selection of the nearest match to what I actually want to say. Whatever I’ve written in my homework that week is the most likely answer to any given question.

For example, last week, I was interviewed to assess my Japanese speaking ability. This is how our conversation went:

Interviewer: Where do you come from?
Me: Sydney, Australia.
Interviewer: Have you lived in Sydney your whole life?
Me: Different. When I was two to four, because of Dad’s job, I lived in Yokohama.
Interviewer: Really? Where in Yokohama?
Me: In the ocean.
Interviewer: Really? And where did you live after that?
Me: In the desert.
Interviewer: Really? What sort of place was that?
Me: Hot, quiet.
Interviewer: Where was it near?
Me: Near Perth.
Interviewer: Where’s that? Is that near Brisbane?
Me: Yes.
Interviewer: And what do you think of Japan?
Me: I am excited.
Interviewer: Excited? Isn’t Sydney exciting too?
Me: Sydney is countryside. No restaurants or shops.
Interviewer: And what are some other differences between Sydney and Tokyo?
Me: In Tokyo, many funny things.
Interviewer: Really? Such as?
Me: Last week I catch ladies-only carriage but I discover man enter. That man told no good by station people.
Interviewer: Is that so? That’s funny, isn’t it.
Me: Yes.
Interviewer: And what are your hobbies?
Me: I study Japanese.
Interviewer: Really??? And what other hobbies do you have?
Me: I climb mountain.
Interviewer: Is that so? Which mountains have you climbed?
Me: Last year I walk from Tateyama (a mountain in the Japanese Alps) to Kamiyacho (a train station in Tokyo, 425 km from Tateyama).
Interviewer: Really? And how many kilometres was that? How long did it take you?
Me: By walk, it take four days, 12 km.
Interviewer: OK, thank you, I think I have enough to assess your level now.


In Japanese, I would say this is a dog. (I don't know the word for panda yet.)


Faced with the choice of silence, or making something up, I’ve found myself always choosing to make something up. I get to practice more words that way. But as a result I’ve become extremely suspicious of what people say, especially if they seem to be struggling to find the right words. After learning Japanese, I don’t think I’ll ever look at conversation the same way again.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Intruders on the ladies carriage


My train line (Tokyu-Toyoko) is a medium-risk groper line. It’s so crowded that commuters are pressed hard into each other, allowing easy access for wandering hands. However, it’s not one of the notorious groper lines (*cough cough* *Saikyo line*). To help women have a grope-free journey, there is a special ladies-only carriage during peak hour. While the rest of the train is so crowded that station staff in white gloves have to push commuters inside, the ladies-only carriage is a haven of tranquility. It smells like flowers and sometimes there’s even enough room that you don’t have to body slam anyone when you enter.

Apart from the smell and space, the best thing about the ladies-only carriage is the entertainment of watching when men come on board. It happens at least once every trip. The man will be on auto-pilot and as soon as he steps on, he will shut his eyes, and try to get some sleep. After a minute or so, however, he will frown…

(thinking) That’s strange, no one is pushing me. How am I supposed to sleep without other bodies to prop me up? Come to think of it, the people I’m leaning against feel strangely short and soft. And they smell so good… Oh no, I’m on the ladies carriage! I have shamed myself and my family.

The man’s eyes will shoot open. He will then immediately start shuffling towards the train doors with his head bowed, muttering apologies, and swiftly alight at the next stop. The women will smother their smirks.

Occasionally when a man enters the carriage, it’s obvious that he’s done it on purpose. He will have a really stubborn look on his face and refuse to make eye contact. All the women in the carriage will glare self-righteously at him. His trip doesn’t last for long though. If the man doesn’t get off at the next stop, then at the following stop, a train guard will enter the carriage and march the man out, shaming him in front of all the women.

It’s so much fun that I wish I could catch the ladies-only carriage every day. Unfortunately the platform is usually so crowded that I can’t get to it. But when the crowd parts in a fortuitous way, I know I have a great journey of people watching ahead.


The Tokyu-Toyoko platform at Shibuya Station.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Avoiding the obvious

A few months ago at a party, I met a lady who was a vegetarian. Even though I knew it was probably an annoying question, I couldn’t help but ask her why she didn’t eat meat. I then followed up by giving her a detailed list of all the vegetarians that I know, their reasons for being vegetarian, and what they can and can’t eat. The lady’s eyes glazed over with boredom. As soon as I’d finished my long-winded story, she made an excuse to leave and talk to someone else.

I didn’t mean to be such a boring conversationalist. The problem was that as soon as I heard the lady was vegetarian, I became fixated on avoiding a conversation that she’d had thousands of times before. It became all that I could think about, so in the end, I couldn’t talk about anything else.

It’s the same when I meet a vet for the first time. I can’t help but ask them if they like animals; when I meet a plastic surgeon, I can’t help but ask them who they think needs work; and when I meet other foreigners in Japan I can’t help but ask them where they are from.

If George Vanilla-Gorilla could talk, I'd ask him why he sleeps so much

Until I came to Japan, I’d never had the problem of being on the receiving end of these sorts of obvious questions. I work as a statistician, so this information is usually greeted by a swift change of topic. No one wants to encourage me to talk any further about statistics.

These days I get asked on a daily basis where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Japan. However, I’ve discovered that I actually like these questions. Having something so obvious to discuss means that it’s really easy to talk to new people. These questions also give me an excuse to shamelessly talk about myself.

The problem with these questions is that my poor friends and colleagues have heard me answer them thousands of times. While I get the chance to blab on about myself, my friends and colleagues have to wait in bored silence.

Since I’ve discovered I enjoy receiving obvious questions, I no longer feel ashamed to ask them. However, in order to be fair to everyone, I try to distribute my obvious questions equally. That way everyone gets a fair chance to repeat themselves. So watch out vegetarians, vets, plastic surgeons, and foreigners… Captain Obvious is coming!

Monday, 18 March 2013

My lost calling

If I were a secret spy, Japan would be my location of choice. Unfortunately, foreigners in Japan tend to stick out like a hamburger on a platter of sushi. In a crowd of faceless pedestrians, they can be spotted from a mile away. However it is this very distinctness which would allow me to blend in unnoticed.

A few weeks ago I was waiting for a friend outside Shibuya station at a well-known meeting spot. It’s extremely crowded there, almost like being on the train. Another foreigner also happened to be waiting nearby. As time passed, the foreigner was joined by more and more foreign friends. The group began to grow, and noticing that I was a foreigner in a sea of Japanese people, they assumed that I was one of them.

I tried to edge away but it was difficult as the area was so crowded. To demonstrate that I wasn’t part of their group, I began to read my kindle. However, indifferent to my coldness, the group members kept shuffling aside so that I could join the conversation. Eventually the group engulfed me.

Finally the foreigners left. As they walked away, a few of them glanced back at me in concern, thinking that I had been left behind. I look so different in Japan that it seemed like I belonged.

Shibuya crossing - a haven for blending by looking different

Having experienced this, I should have been on my guard for other foreigners trying to falsely blend in. However last weekend I was fooled. I was at a private party with some other foreigners and started talking to an American guy. After a while, I began to realise that a lot of things he said didn’t make sense. I kept quizzing him for details until finally he confessed: he was a tourist on holidays in Japan and had seen a private party full of foreigners and walked right in. Even though we’d had someone at the door, he’d managed to slip in unnoticed. He looked as different as the rest of us, so no one had suspected that he was a gatecrasher.

Now I’m wondering if the same trick will work when movie stars come to Japan. Maybe I could drop into one of their parties unobserved?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chapter three of the Deadly School Camp is out now

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Chapter Three of the Deadly School Camp is out now on The Deadly School Camp page. Get a sneak peak of the first three chapters of the book before its publication next year!

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.