Most schools in Japan have a small radio studio, the main purpose of which is to facilitate the lunchtime broadcast. For this, two or three students talk about the day's menu - for example, at one point last week we were treated to an explanation of both the history and nutritional value of the cocoa bean - and pass on information about school activities. At my elementary school, the results of a daily competition are announced, based on the number of students from each class who have forgotten to bring their water flask, their handkerchief or their toothbrush, or whose toothbrush bristles are overly worn. Just like a proper radio station, the students are sometimes given the opportunity to make music requests, although at junior high school, we are treated to the same selection of rather mournful chamber pieces - chosen, I suspect, by the soon-to-retire music teacher - every day.Normally everyone stops chatting and at least pretends to pay attention to the lunchtime broadcast, but as I was sitting down to eat with 2:1 class
the other day, one of the students turned down the volume on the PA system and put on a CD instead. Th
e song - Ikimonogakari's Arigato (ありがとう / Thank You) is probably my favourite J-pop tune, and I was soon humming away to myself, much to the amusement of the students at my table.'Who chose this?' I asked one of them.'Er, I don't know,' he said.'Was there a class vote?''
I can't remember. Hey,' he said to the girl sitting opposite, '
why are we playing this CD?''Dunno,' she replied.So much for the change of routine, but anyway
, what better (and more flimsy) excuse to pull a few pop facts from Ikimonogakari's Wikipedia page, and to share the video with you:http://vimeo.com/14257739
(When I say 'the video', what I really mean is 'the video uploaded to Vimeo without permission and augmented with Spanish subtitles', and there is a very real possibility that by the time you read this it will have been taken down for legal reasons, thus defeating the object of this blog post altogether. If so, you should be able to find a similarly illicit version with a quick Google search).Ikimonogakari
means 'person in charge of living things', and was coined because rather than presenting the lunchtime broadcast, the two original band members - Yoshiki Mizuno and Hotaka Yamashita - were responsible for feeding the goldfish at their elementary school. Along the way, Mizuno and Yamashita acquired a lead singer - Kiyoé Yoshioka - and began to hone their skills at small scale live venues and as buskers in the western suburbs of Tokyo. Their independently released debut CD had the charmingly self-effacing title of While It's Sincerely Presumptuous Of Us To Say So, We Have Made Our First Album (Makoto Ni Sen-etsu Nagara Faasuto Arubamu Wo Koshiraemashita... / 誠に僭越ながらファーストアルバムを拵えました…
), and they soon gained a reputation as specialists in the art of commercial, TV and movie tie-ins. Since the early noughties, their songs have been used by Coca Cola, Nintendo, Asahi, several mobile phone companies, and in a score of TV dramas, animé and feature films (their latest release - Itsudatte Bokura Wa / いつだって僕らは - is in this TV ad
for correspondence courses).
While Ikimonogakari were respectably successful by 2010, Arigato was the song that turned them into one of the most popular bands in the country - so popular, in fact, that their songs Sakura
and Yell are now used as jingles to announce approaching trains at Ebina and Hon-Atsugi Stations (outside which they often used to busk) on the Odawara Line. Arigato was the opening theme for a soap opera called Gé-Gé-Gé No Nyoboh / ゲゲゲの女房 (part of an ongoing NHK series I have mentioned here before - Renzoku Terebi Shosetsu / 連続テレビ小説 - whose location and story changes twice a year), but while the commercial exploits of the band have no doubt made all three of its members very wealthy indeed, don't let that put you off their music, as they have a knack for coming up with emotionally stirring chord changes, and some of their best songs are structurally original too - for example, like The Beatles' She Loves You, Arigato starts with the chorus instead of the verse.
In case you don't understand Spanish, there follows my somewhat inexpert translation of the lyrics, which was hampered by the fact that in Japanese, it is the exception rather than the norm for a sentence to have a subject, and exactly who is doing or saying what with or to whom is very much open to interpretation.
I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But you held my hand more kindly than anyone else
Listen, listen to this voice
On a bright morning I give a wry smile as you open the window
And tell me that the future has just begun
Let's go out on the town again, like we always do
As always, the ups and downs of life accumulate
The two of us, our days together are fleeting
Carefully gather the escaping light, it's precious
And it's shining now
When did your dream
Become the dream of both of us
But today, one day, a cherished memory
Will clear the skies, whether they are blue or whether they are crying
I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But the hand that you held prompted a clear thought
That I am clumsily telling you
Forever, only forever
Because I want to laugh with you
To make sure of this road that I believed in
Now let's walk on, slowly
Days when we argued, days when we embraced
Let me search for every colour
A pure heart on which the future is written
Is still being added to
Who you live for
Whose love you receive
More than sharing happiness or sadness
Little by little, gather up the moments
If I find happiness with you
The thoughts we share
Even the little things
Let's embrace the light
Listen, nestle close to that voice
I want to tell you that I love you
I want to tell you because
That irreplaceable hand
Being together with you from now on
I believe in these things
I'm saying the words 'thank you' now
Holding my hand, more kindly than anyone else
So listen, listen to this voice
Incidentally, when Ikimonogakari were on TV over the Christmas holidays, onii-san described the lead singer as looking kibishii / 厳しい. The literal translation of kibishii is 'strict', although he was basically implying that she would be lucky to find a boyfriend. Onii-san is notoriously fussy when it comes to women, and I'm not sure that he was being entirely fair, but what do you think? Kiyoé Yoshioka: hottie or nottie?
As Mrs M and I were returning from a visit to the in-laws the other day, we noticed something rather strange happening on the forecourt of an Eneos petrol station. For a split second, Mrs M thought we had stumbled upon a murder scene, but a closer look revealed something far less sinister, namely our second encounter with an inoshishi
(猪 / wild boar) in the past year (the first one
gave rise to a disappointingly blurry photograph).
As anyone who's seen the film Deliverance will tell you, it's usually best to avoid groups of country folk who own guns, drive pick-up trucks and wear fishing vests and baseball caps, but while their replies to my questions were very much on the monosyllabic side ('Is that a wild boar?' 'Yes.' 'Did you kill it yourselves?' 'Yes.' 'With a gun?' 'Yes.' 'Will you keep the hide?' 'No.'), that was due more to Japanese reserve than redneck menace.
You need to apply to the town hall for a special licence to hunt wild boar, and the official season runs from 15th November until 15th March. According to our community newsletter, during the 2010 / 2011 season the wild boar population was reduced by a grand total of 62: 53 of them trapped and 9 of them shot. An interesting way to spend a Wednesday evening, I reckon, and enough meat at the end of it to feed a small army - or at least a medium sized hunting party.
'This morning,' K-sensei told me the other day, 'when I looked at the thermometer it was minus eight degrees.'
'At 4.30, you mean?' (K-sensei's sleep patterns make Margaret Thatcher look like a lazy teenager, and 4.30am is when he usually gets up.)
'No, at 4,' he said.
'You woke up at 4am?'
'No, no. I woke up at 3.30. I got up at 4, and by 4.30, the temperature was minus ten. It is the first time in my life this has happened.'
Statistically speaking, this winter has in fact been marginally warmer than average, but around here at least, the reality doesn't quite tally with the statistics. For example, the other week we went on a day trip to the Fukuroda Waterfall (Fukuroda-no-taki / 袋田の滝), which had frozen up several weeks earlier than usual - it won't be long before the more adventurous sightseers are strapping on the crampons and climbing their way up.
In actual fact, winter temperatures in Ibaraki tend to be similar to those in the UK, but it's the quality of the cold here that's different. In the summer, warm, humid air arrives in Japan from the tropics - often in the form of typhoons - but in the winter, cold, dry air sweeps in from the continent. Until about a fortnight ago, more than a month had passed without a single drop of rain, and most people's front lawns now look like old-style brown bristle doormats. The school playground turned into a dustbowl, and when the first year boys sat down for their English class after a lunchtime kickabout, they looked as if they'd just walked off the set of The Hurt Locker. (Parenthetically, one of my Japanese teachers holidayed to the US last year, and said that Salt Lake City is even drier - her rheumatism, she said, almost completely cleared up.)
While the brief interlude of grey skies and drizzle may have given me a pang of nostalgia, for the most part, the almost constant sunshine makes a pleasant change from those damp, grey days of a British winter. Apart from giving your skin the approximate texture and appearance of a fine-grade sandpaper, the main problem with the lack of moisture is that you are more likely to fall ill. Almost half the school came down with a cold last October, one of the first years caught whooping cough, and according to the latest circular to land on my desk, a student at the elementary school now has type-B influenza (when the humidity level is at 50% the flu virus perishes almost immediately, but at 35% it can survive for up to 24 hours - or so one of the experts on Honma Dekka?! said last week). While some people gargle with salt water, the primary method for flu prevention is still the surgical mask (which I still can't quite bring myself to wear, no matter how much I would like to fit in with the locals), although my immune system would function a lot more efficiently if only I could keep warm at home.
There are three very important features that almost every building in Japan lacks, and those are double glazing (ni-juu-mado / 二重窓), insulation (dan-netsu-zai / 断熱材) and central heating (er, sentoraru hiitingu). During a trip to Tokyo before Christmas, friends of mine were kind enough to let me spend the night in their spare room, and even though the building itself was less than ten years old, with underfloor heating in the living rooms and earthquake-proof foundations, the windows were only single-glazed, and misted with condensation by morning. There are several hundred apartments in the block, so despite the lack of heating in the spare bedroom, being surrounded on all sides kept it tolerably warm. There are, however, just four apartments in the block where Mrs M and I live, which makes them oven-like when the temperature outside is in the thirties, and freezer-like even before it dips below zero.
In the bathroom you can defrost beneath a hot shower, and after a summer of saving electricity, I did eventually relent and let Mrs M switch on our heated toilet seat. With the help of an electric blanket and some extremely fluffy duvets, keeping cosy while we're in bed (or in futon, so to speak) isn't much of a problem, although one's pocket of warmth only extends so far, and many is the time I have rolled over in bed, only to roll straight back when my head hits the exposed, ice-rink-like edge of the pillow. For the past couple of months the condensation has been freezing to the inside of our bedroom and living room windows, and unless you light one of the gas rings and leave it running, there's no way of thawing out the kitchen at all. A fluffy cloud of breath hovers in front of my face as I potter about making breakfast - at which point our fridge magnet thermometer is normally at about the five degree mark - there is a pause of several seconds before half-frozen water splutters out of the tap, and it isn't until long after I have left for work that the kitchen becomes fit for human habitation.
While the air conditioner in the living room doubles up as a heater, our secret weapon against the cold is a kotatsu. In the old days, most homes had an irori, an open hearth in the middle of the living room that acted as both cooker and heater. The kotatsu was presumably invented as a replacement for the irori, and consists of a floating tabletop, a frame with four short legs and a downward-pointing heating element at its centre, and two fireproof quilts (well, I assume they're fireproof...), one of which is laid on the floor beneath the kotatsu, and one of which is sandwiched between the frame and the tabletop. Kotatsu would be a big hit abroad if it wasn't for the fact they force you to sit on the floor the whole time. For example, it's very difficult to wedge your feet beneath a coffee table when you're on a sofa or in an armchair, and customising the average dining table wouldn't work either, as most of the heat would escape between the legs of the average dining chair.
Mrs M suffers from poor circulation, and the kotatsu was probably the home comfort that she missed the most when we were in the UK. While our living room in London was warmed by a radiator, the floor remained resolutely cold, and just draping a blanket over her legs didn't seem to help matters, so that we developed a rather eccentric routine whereby I would roll up my shirt and she would warm her feet on my stomach as we settled down to watch TV on winter evenings.
Still, however tough things get in Ibaraki, I should be thankful that I'm not living in Hokkaido, on the Japan Sea coast, or in the mountains, where most houses have rows of planks nailed to the windows to keep them from caving in beneath the weight of huge snow drifts. To give you an example, back in 2008 I went for a weekend of snowboarding in Nagano - where that particular year they had more than ten metres of snowfall - and spent two nights in what I can say without hesitation is the coldest place I have ever stayed. The owners were living elsewhere at the time and renting it to a friend of mine for next to nothing. It was a decent sized, two-storey detached house, and in order to save money my friend restricted himself to using just one room. Once we had turned off the heater and turned out the lights, the temperature plummeted, and by the early hours I was fully clothed beneath my sleeping bag, duvet and blankets: as well as a woolly hat and gloves, if my memory serves me correctly I think I even put my shoes on. An already fitful night's sleep was interrupted at about 4am when an elderly neighbour began screaming for help after falling on the icy pavement outside (I can only assume that, like K-sensei, he had popped out to check the thermometer), and when I ventured into the bathroom in the morning, a large icicle was protruding from the bath tap. It took several minutes of massaging the shower hose before any hot water emerged, and to be honest, snowboarding through a blizzard for the rest of the day came as a blessed relief. The following night I insisted that we leave the heater on, but by then I was already in the early stages of a cold, and my resistance to winter weather has never been quite the same since.
Anyway, I'll leave you with another photo - taken on Mount Takao near Tokyo - of what are known as shimo-bashira (霜柱 / literally 'frost columns'). Shimo-bashira are formed when the temperature below ground level is above freezing and the temperature at ground level is below freezing, which draws moisture from the ground and sculpts it into these attractively regular geometrical shapes.