Day 10 – Nemuro City to Betsukai (根室市 - 別海) - 100km
One of the motorcyclists from the Okaba rider house was already at Cape Nosappu (納沙布岬) when I arrived, and Mr Pine Origin turned up not long after, raving about a sanma (秋刀魚 / saury) set breakfast he had eaten along the way. Crab, too, is a local speciality, and a flotilla of crab fishing boats sailed into the bay at about ten in the morning, attracting flocks of both seagulls and sightseers.
After Cape Erimo, Cape Nosappu - the easternmost point in the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago - was the second extremity of Hokkaido on my circumnavigation, and home to a small museum with a huge stuffed sea lion in the foyer, a restaurant selling something called teppoh-jiru (鉄砲汁 / handgun soup) and Shima-no-kakéhashi (四島のかけはし), a monument symbolising the hope that Russia will one day be nice enough to give back some of the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan.
Possibly my favourite Japanese kanji are 凸凹, which not only have a satisfyingly onomatopoeic pronunciation - deko-boko* - but also an attractively symmetrical shape that in turn suggests their meaning. Individually they mean 'convex' and 'concave', and in combination 'uneven' or 'up and down', so the road from Cape Nosappu to Betsukai was deko-boko, and the further up each deko I climbed, the more I had to pull my baseball cap over my eyes to keep out the sun's glare until the next boko.
(This was a half-boat / half-building hybrid I spotted along the way.)
'Oh look, it's a cyclist!' said the caretaker at the Betsukai campsite. 'Where have you come from today?'
'Er, Furano, I think.'
'Furano?' exclaimed the caretaker. 'That's quite a ride for one day.'
'A few hundred kilometres, I should think,' said one of his colleagues.
'At least I think it was Furano.' I still hadn't quite got the hang of the place names in Hokkaido, many of which were originally coined by the native Ainu. 'Actually, it could have been something ending in "ro".'
'Kushiro?' said the caretaker.
'No, I was there a few days ago.'
'Yes, that's the one!'
There was an onsen just up the road from the campsite, and I gave a start when I looked in the changing room mirror. The Okaba rider house had been so infested with mosquitoes that we left a katori-senkoh
(蚊取り線香 / mosquito coil) burning in the dormitory all night, and my eyes were as red as Oliver Reed's on the morning after a three-day bender. In between this, Mr Pine Origin's snoring, a cock crowing in the yard and a foghorn blowing at regular intervals nearby, I hadn't had the best night's sleep. It was also forty-eight hours since my last proper bath, so in order to make myself feel at least partially human again, this evening I spent approximately:
5 minutes in the shower
10 minutes in the rotenburo
(露天風呂 / outside bath)
3 minutes beneath a kind of waterfall massage thingy
2 minutes in the sauna followed by 2 minutes in the mizu-buro
(水風呂 / cold bath)
3 more minutes in the sauna followed by 3 more minutes in the mizu-buro
4 more minutes in the sauna followed by 4 more minutes in the mizu-buro
5 more minutes in the rotenburo
3 more minutes beneath the waterfall massage thingy and
3 more minutes in the mizu-buro
I sighed like the bloke from the Strongbow ad
for pretty much the entire 49 minutes, and just to make things that little bit more conducive, there was a view from the rotenburo of the Shirétoko Peninsula (知床半島), which was to be the next extremity on my circumnavigation of Hokkaido.
* Actually, 凸凹 are not always deko-boko. In more formal or literary contexts they go by the much less catchy pronunciation of totsu-oh.
My mum used to swear by Dr Spock - no, not that Dr Spock, silly, the one who wrote Baby And Child Care, which Wikipedia tells me was the second best-selling book behind the Bible for over fifty years. I'm not sure what Spock would have thought of this, though, which I found in a Japanese child care manual that Mrs M borrowed from a friend of hers.
You can probably guess what it's about from the illustration, but anyway, here's a translation of the text:
Learning the fundamentals for living in a community
As your child grows older and starts to build friendships, many situations will arise that require patience and self-control. At times like this, if your child cannot restrain their emotions and follow rules, they will not be able to have peace of mind while living within the community at large. At this point in our child's development, let's teach them to be aware of and to obey the rules. We teach this using the 'carrot and stick' method.
Firstly, decide what is prohibited at home (the rules), and let your child know what they 'must not do'. At times like this, let's warn them in a scary voice, 'If you don't follow the rules, I'll smack your bottom!' This is the 'stick'. So if they don't obey the rules, without going easy on them, you will smack their bottom with the palm of your hand. In your child's mind, the feeling of 'Ouch!' becomes associated with what they 'must not do', and little by little, they will come to realise that they 'can get by without doing that', and that this is what 'self-control' means. At the same time, if our child obeys the rules, let's stroke their hair, give them a hug and shower them with praise. By showing them that 'If I don't do that, I will feel good', the child independently learns to exhibit self-control. During this time, let's teach our child the importance of obeying the rules in order to build better human relations.
In the illustration, the mother is saying, 'Oy, you!' and the caption reads, Let's vary our expressions: when scolding our child, let's put on an angry face, and when praising our child, let's put on a kind face.
As far as I know, you wouldn't be able to get away with publishing something like this in the UK, although both there and in Japan, there seems to be a kind of double-standard at work, in the sense that while corporal punishment is banned within the school system, a significant minority of people still smack their children at home (and not just smacking: when her son is naughty, the friend who lent us this book raps her child on the top of his head with the extended knuckle of her middle finger - something that Mrs M's father did to her when she was a child),
There is one interesting difference between the two societies that's worth mentioning, though: the straight man (tsukkomi) in a comedy double act often smacks his fall guy (boké) in the head for saying or doing something particularly stupid, and this is echoed in the behaviour of both Japanese adults and their children, so that smacking someone in the head is seen as amusing or playful rather than violent, and therefore socially acceptable.
After much badgering by my teachers, this year I finally decided to have a shot at the prefectural speech contest for non-native speakers of Japanese. Somewhat improbably, I came in second place, although this may have been because a) one of those teachers was on the panel of judges, b) another teacher gave me a lot of help writing my speech, c) I had concocted a fiendishly cunning tactical plan after seeing a Vietnamese friend take part last year, and d) I have been living in Japan and studying the language a good deal longer than most of the other contestants: my first lesson (at South Thames College in Putney, in case you were wondering) was nearly a decade ago, and all told I have lived here for over four years, whereas the eventual winner - whose speech was so wonderful that it actually made me cry - has only been here for six months.
If nothing else, entering the contest taught me the importance of preparation, aka the six Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. When I was a teenager, I harboured ambitions of becoming an actor, but gave it all up because I couldn't handle the pressure. Terrified that I might forget my lines, I either deliberately took minor roles or volunteered for backstage work instead, although the thing is, I can't recall ever taking the time to properly memorise my lines. Determined not to make the same mistake again, I recited my speech at every available opportunity, including over breakfast, during the cycle ride to and from work, in the teachers' cloakroom, and while Mrs M and M Jr were taking a bath. I also used all three third-year classes at my junior high school as audience guinea pigs, and while I don't think I ever made it all the way through without making at least one mistake, by the time I was standing at the lectern on the big day, the words were so fixed in my mind that it would have taken an assassination attempt or a stray meteorite for me to mess them up.Several of my fellow contestants, meanwhile,
were still tweaking, memorising and generally fretting right up until the last minute. The woman sitting next to me as we waited for our names to be called didn't listen to a word that was being said, instead muttering her lines to herself the entire time, and one or two others didn't know exactly what they were going to say until they were already saying it. As the organisers explained, going over the official time limit of five minutes wouldn't necessarily be fatal to one's chances of getting a prize, but it wouldn't exactly help them either, and two or three contestants were interrupted in mid-sentence by the dreaded warning bell (the timekeepers also held up a 'thirty seconds to go' cue card to add to the tension).Five minutes, as it turns out, makes for a much shorter speech than you might expect, to the extent that once I (OK, my Japanese teacher and I) had timed it, pruned it, timed it again and pruned it some more, mine
ran to just one side of word-processed A4. This is even more surprising when you consider that Japanese is such an economical language: a much larger amount of information can be packed into a 140-character Japanese Tweet, for example, than its English equivalent.
I have made speeches in English many times, and while it's risky to just play it by ear, speaking in your native language allows you so much more leeway for ad-libbing, covering up mistakes or saying the same thing in a slightly different way. In a second language, though, you have far fewer weapons at your disposal, and are a lot more likely to talk yourself into a syntactical dead-end from which there is no elegant or economical means of escape.My chosen specialised subject, as you might expect, was M Jr, and while my teachers kept emphasising that prize-winning speeches in the past have at least ended on a serious note - they tend to have serious beginnings and middles, too -
I made a point of playing it for laughs. For those of you who don't understand Japanese, I have translated the speech into English, and while much of the humour has been lost as a result, just for the hell of it, I also fed the original into Bing Translator, with bizarre - and frankly funnier - results (see below).Becoming a father for the first time in Japan
In December 2011 my wife became pregnant. As a result, I realised that when it comes to childbirth, there are various differences between Japan and the UK.
For example, when my wife found out that she was pregnant, she said, 'Ten months is going to be tough..' 'Wow!' I thought. 'Japanese women are pregnant for ten months! And to think, British women are only pregnant for nine...' Later on I was relieved to be told that one month of pregnancy is calculated differently by Japanese and non-Japanese*.
Pregnancy in the UK is basically a licence to 'eat as much as you like', and it is not uncommon for pregnant women to gain four or five stone. In Japan, on the other hand, pregnant women are told by their doctors not to gain more than one and a half stone - sometimes even one stone - in weight. Despite her morning sickness, while she was pregnant my wife had a craving for ice cream, and in particular, green tea-flavoured Super Cup. In accordance with the doctors' guidance, I strictly limited the amount of ice cream she ate. But when I got home from work, many was the time I would find an empty Super Cup in the kitchen rubbish bin.
On 6th August last year my wife's contractions started and we went to the hospital. According to her, the labour was so painful it felt as if her back would break. If she had given birth in the UK, she would have been able to receive as much painkilling treatment as she liked. In Japan, however, most women giving birth are not allowed to take medicine of any kind. So when my wife asked a nurse, 'Excuse me, can I have some painkillers?' she was flatly refused. 'If you take medicine,' said the nurse, 'your baby won't know when it's supposed to come out.'
Eventually my wife's waters broke and she was taken into the delivery room. Seeing her on the deilvery table was so terrifying that I had absolutely no idea what to do for her. When I whispered, 'Good luck!' and tried to stroke her hair, she swatted my hand away and said, 'Get out of the way!' (This is an experience I think dads all over the world will be able to relate to.)
Before I knew it my wife had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and I was so happy that tears came to my eyes.
At present, one in four babies in the UK is born to mixed-race parents, whereas in Japan, that statistic is just one in thirty. As a result, such children are viewed as special and referred to as 'half's. 'Half' isn't necessarily a bad word, but since our daughter has both Japanese and British genes, instead of being referred to as a 'half', I hope that she will be referred to as a 'double'**.
Either way, from now on my wife and I will try our very best to bring up our baby.
Thank you very much for listening.
* The Japanese calculate the term of a pregnancy in lunar months of twenty-eight days, as opposed to calendar months of twenty-eight to thirty-one, hence the confusion.**
The 'double' idea wasn't my own, and is gaining in popularity as an - albeit slightly jokey - way of referring to mixed-race Japanese.
The top four speeches were broadcast on local radio (one of my students, whose mother had tuned into the progamme by chance, came up to me the next day to say congratulations), and listening back made me realise how many 'um's and 'er's I used to stall for time, when what I should have been using were Japanese 'eh-toh's and 'a-noh's. Not that I'm going to post it here, but Mrs M videoed the whole thing for posterity, and watching this made me even more self-conscious, largely because I have developed a Prince Charles-like habit of concluding each paragraph with a kind of half-smile / half-grimace.T
his is the radio broadcast:
And here's the bonkers Bing translation:
That would be a father for the first time in Japan,
My wife got pregnant two years ago, in December. I noticed variations in it about childbirth in the United Kingdom and Japan sparked, of.
See, for example, pregnancy, wife "10 for months, it's harder now..." and when I said, I "Wow! Japanese girls are pregnant 10 months it until delivery?! In the United Kingdom takes only 9 months! "And wondered. Being taught how to count Japanese and foreigners is different is one month pregnant, I felt.
A British woman was pregnant, basically "all-you-can-eat" in, often pregnant fat 2, 30 km away. On the other hand, doctors in Japan is pregnant woman. 10 kg so that does not increase more than the weight limit. Wife was fixated in the ice cream (especially green tea taste Super Cup) despite the morning sickness nausea during pregnancy. I have severely restricted wife eats ice cream according to the guidance of the teacher,. But I get home and kitchen trash discovered the empty Super Cup many times out of the box.
She started 8/6 last year, and went to the hospital. According to his wife is sore hip crumbling labor pains or feel. If you birth in the United Kingdom in general labor analgesia can so you can freely take medicine. However, natural childbirth from straightforward in Japan, my wife "or why the pain? "And when I asked the nurse who was refused if you drink drugs, when the baby is out, some couldn't once and for all.
Finally, my wife and her waters broke and went into the delivery room. When I saw the wife is depicted riding on a birthing bed, I too scary too, you can give and what did not know at all. In a low voice "go for it! "And said, as his wife's hair. Then, "out of the way! "And I have been rebuffed. This experience is worldwide independent dad that you can see well.
Landmarks that cute girl is born safely between, I'm glad tears..
Currently, parents is international couples is one of four children born in the United Kingdom. In Japan it to substitution, so a 30 per person, such children are seen as a "half" something special. "Half" is not a bad word that is so blood of English and Japanese in both daughters, want to seen as a "double" not "half", and I hope.
I work and I would like to hard parenting hard with my wife from this either way,.
Thank you very much for your attention.
Here's the original Japanese text:
And finally, purely out of curiosity, I fed the Bing translation back through Bing and back into Japanese, with even more surreal results:
私の妻は妊娠して 2 年前に、12 月に得た。私はそれの変化イギリスときっかけと、日本での出産に気づいたの。
、妊娠、妻を見る「10 ヶ月間は、それは難しい今...」と私が言ったとき、"うわっ ！日本の女の子妊娠 10 ヶ月はそれまで配信ですか？イギリスはわずか 9 ヶ月で ！」と疑問に思いました。日本人と外国人をカウントする方法を教えられている 1 ヶ月妊娠しているが異なる場合は、私は感じた。
イギリス人女性は妊娠中、基本的に「食べ放題」に、多くの場合妊娠脂肪 2、30 km。その一方で、日本の医師は妊娠中の女性です。10 は増加していませんので kg よりも重量制限。妻、アイスクリーム （特に緑茶味スーパー カップ） にもかかわらず、朝のつわり吐き気を妊娠中に固定されてあった。私は深刻な妻食べるアイスクリーム先生の指導によると制限が。しかし、家に帰るし、台所のごみ箱に何回もの空のスーパー カップを発見しました。
彼女は 8/6 昨年を開始し、病院に行った。彼の妻によると痛みの崩壊しつつある労働痛みヒップまたは感じです。イギリスに生まれの一般的な鎮痛労働する場合だからあなた自由に薬を取ることがでくことができます。しかし、自然分娩から日本、私の妻の簡単な"や、なぜ痛みですか？"私赤ちゃんが出ているとき薬を飲む場合は拒否された看護師を尋ねたとき、いくつか一度、すべてことができなかった。
最後に、私の妻と彼女の水を破ったし、分娩室に行った。妻は乗る、出産ベッドに、私はあまりにも怖いのも描かれている見たとき、与えることができるし、はまったく知りませんでしたか。低い声で「それのために行く ！」いう彼の妻の髪。その後、「邪魔 ！」私は拒絶されています。この経験は、あなたがよく見ることができます世界中の独立したお父さんです。
現在、親は国際カップル イギリスで生まれ、4 人の子供の一つです。それ置換するので日本では 30 人、そのような子供は、「半分」特別な何かを見られています。「半分」そう遺伝子英語と日本語の両方の娘に悪い言葉ではない、ない「半分」、「ダブル」を見たしたいし、思います。
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every J-blogger must one day post a series of photographs depicting hapless, hopeless, surreal and / or otherwise amusing uses of the English language by the Japanese. And thus, after two years as Muzuhashi, so this day has come to pass.
Some of the photos here were taken several years ago, some are of subjects that must surely have been spotted by other J-bloggers, some depict bizarre uses of the Japanese language by the Japanese, and others are merely of oddball stuff that I've seen and snapped. So sit back, enjoy the ride and if you are offended by bad grammar, bad punctuation or bad language - or at least, good language that inadvertently sounds bad - look away now.
First up is my favourite: a restaurant in Mié Prefecture that was unfortunately shut when I cycled past. I wonder what they had on the menu?
A clothes shop in Tsukuba that makes no attempt to disguise the fact that its target customers are anorexics.
Possibly the least appetising food item I've ever seen, and definitely not targeted at anorexics.
This Noh theatre performance...
...includes an appearance by the representative of a unique educational institution.
Yes, it's true, coffee really is an aphrodisiac.
This, believe it or not, is a reputable travel agent.
And this is a reputable DIY store.
Suits you, sir!
Seen on the way up Mount Fuji: that old singular / plural conundrum.
Speaking of Fuji, when you're writing a t-shirt slogan, sometimes a mere superlative isn't quite superlative enough.
Please look twice at this barbershop window before laughing.
Proof that the grocer's apostrophe is a truly worldwide phenomenon.
Whn you'r in dsprat nd of a p, always us a gnt's toilt.
In Japanese, to reverse one's car is to bakku suru (バックする / literally 'do back'), which despite being borrowed from an English word, makes absolutely no sense at all when translated, er, back into English.
The confusion between L and R is a common problem, but surely no other shop in Japan is named after a Brit gangster film?
Displayed outside a shopping mall mother-and-baby room.
Seen from afar, this looks like just another apartment building.
Take a closer look, however, and it turns out this is the official Ibaraki residence of Jools Holland. (Dr John lives in block A, apparently.)
Shampoo and conditioner for those of us who haven't quite got the hang of personal hygiene.
For some reason, most Japanese are under the misapprehension that a rubbish bin (aka trash can) is called a 'dust box', hence:
Although this one seems to be intended for either war zones or crash sites.
At last, a romantic destination for OAPs!
Just in case you weren't sure, here are the instructions for how to use a toilet.
The faces of this happy cartoon family are painted on a fence in Mrs M's home town.
Although looking at dad makes you wonder if the locals haven't been harbouring war criminals.
This is Ra-ra, a pet pig who lives at our local garden centre.
Unfortunately for Ra-ra, directly behind her little wooden piggy kennel is the 'Work experience classroom - let's have fun making handmade sausages!'
Probably the smallest car park in the world.
Probably the most cuddly toys crammed onto a single dashboard...in the world.
Yes, this really does say, 'Please refrain from gargling'.
This is exactly what happens when you touch an electric fence.
And this is exactly what happens when you drive too fast (while flying through the air quite literally upside down, the driver is saying, 'GYAA!!!').
Here's something you won't find in the UK: a billboard telling people not to steal shellfish - I particularly like the fact that the poacher is disguised in sunglasses and an Afro wig.
This is a road safety sign written in Ibaraki-ben (茨城弁 / Ibaraki dialect) and aimed at motorists and schoolchildren, so a translation would go something like this:
Ooh-aar! Stop your tractor there, boy. And don't forget to hold yer 'and out when you cross the street, my lover. Oi am a zaider drinker, oi drinks it all of the day. Ooh-aar ooh-aar-ey. Etc etc.
This last one is a beautifully hand-drawn sign from the window of a chemist's shop, telling customers about all of the different medicines they can buy and all of the ailments they can treat.
Illness doesn't wait for you!! We've got whatever you need in an emergency. Sudden fever, high temperature, convulsions, headache, stomachache, diarrhea, bruises, sprains, toothache, cuts etc.
(If you liked these, there are many more at the original and best Japlish-based website, engrish.com
Some of my colleagues ask the first and second graders to fill a page of their English notebooks every day, usually with words or phrases they have recently been studying. Since the teachers don't have enough time for marking and the students don't have enough time for additional homework, the benefits are, to say the least, questionable. Ploughing through a mountain of beginner's English every morning does occasionally throw up some oddities, though: one student filled five pages of his notebook with a single word, 'custom', and another filled eleven pages with just the days of the week. But easily my most bizarre - and let's be honest, genuinely scary - discovery was this:
Which definitely wasn't taken from the textbook.
In case, like me, you are now concerned for this student's safety and mental well-being, my fellow English teacher tells me that the school makes a point of keeping an eye on her, so with this in mind, I marked the page with a big, friendly spiral (ALTs beware: in Japan, ticks are used to denote incorrect answers) and passed no further comment on what she had written.
(Incidentally, and as you've no doubt already realised, 死 - pronounced shi - is the kanji for death. Never let it be said that this blog isn't educational.)
Niikappu Town to Erimo Town (新冠町 – えりも町) – 117km
The Airstream parked outside Mitsu-ishi roadside services was hard to ignore, not least because it was being towed by a Hummer.
‘It’s so big we couldn’t get through the gate to the campsite,’ explained the owners, who had driven all the way from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, ‘so we had to stay in the car park instead.’
The couple were taking a two-month trip around Hokkaido for the second summer in a row, and as well as a couple of generators strapped to the front of the Hummer, they had brought their dogs along for the ride.
Although less well known than nori
(海苔 / paper-thin sheets of crispy, dark-green nori are used as wrapping for the rice and fish of rolled sushi), konbu
(昆布) is probably the most palatable variety of seaweed for the uninitiated westerner, and is often served with soy sauce and sesame seeds as a rather moreish side dish called konbu-no-tsukudani
Just over a century ago, as Tokyo University professor Kikunaé Ikeda was eating dinner one evening, he wondered why it was that his mother’s homemade soup had always tasted so delicious. The next day he began a scientific analysis of the konbu it contained, and in the process discovered aji-no-moto
(味の素 / the origin of flavour), better known in the West as monosodium glutamate, or flavour enhancer, or E621. A hugely successful business
was built around Ikeda’s discovery, and by the name umami
, it has been added to the very short list of fundamental flavours recognisable to the human palate (the other four being sour, sweet, salt and bitter).
95% of Japanese konbu comes from Hokkaido, and along this stretch of coastline in particular, the harvest was in full swing.
Having picked the long, black strands of konbu from the sea – they either use small boats or wade into the shallows at low tide – the locals were laying it out to dry on specially constructed pebble beds.
Because I was making good time, rather than cut inland I carried on along the coast to Cape Erimo (襟裳岬 / literally ‘collar-skirt cape’), which is the south-easternmost point in Hokkaido. Both my Mapple
road atlas and several signs along the way had warned of high winds (on average, wind speeds at Cape Erimo exceed 10 metres per second - about 35kph - on 290 days each year) and fog, and and sure enough, when I arrived there the visibility was so poor that I might as well have been indoors.
Mr Assistant Wisteria didn't bother stopping to take photos, he just held up his camera phone and clicked the shutter in mid-stride, and had the air of someone who was there to tick Cape Erimo off his list. Skinny with quiffed hair and sunglasses, he looked like a typical travelling salesman - what my mother used to refer to as a 'spiv' - although having asked him to take my photo next to the sign for the Cape, he turned out to be polite, well-spoken and not a dodgy geezer in the slightest.
'I used to work for a printer company,' he said, 'but I packed it in to start my own business. I buy used cars and customise them for disabled people and OAPs, so I'm down here looking for bargains. There's nothing much around, though - the price of steel is so high that people are scrapping their cars instead of selling them secondhand.'
Mr Assistant Wisteria gave me his business card and offered to give the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design a service if I made it to Sapporo, which was nice to know, as making friends in a big city can be a lot more difficult than it is, for example, on a foggy clifftop in the middle of nowhere.
It was almost dark by the time I reached Hyaku-nin-hama (百人浜 / hundred-man beach), so called because back in the days when there was no coast road, and quite possibly not a single living soul within a hundred-mile radius, a ship ran aground here and every single member of its hundred-man crew either drowned or died from starvation. Nowadays Hyaku-nin-hama has electricity, running water and even a sento (銭湯 / public baths), and just as I was leaving the latter, the woman behind the reception desk called over to me.
'Older brother!' she said. 'Older brother! Mr Village Middle wants to have a word with you.' (Not that I had quite worked it out at the time, but instead of saying, 'Hey you!' or 'Oi, mate!' the Japanese will often refer to strangers as if they are family members, so women become 'Older sister!' older men 'Dad!' and older women 'Mum!')
'Can you speak Japanese?' said Mr Village Middle.
'Yes, I can.'
‘What are you doing now?’
'I'm going to the campsite.'
‘You mean you're putting up your tent in dark?’
'Well, yes. I suppose so.'
'Not any more, you're not,' said Mr Village Middle. 'You’re staying at my place.’
'He uses some appalling language,' said the woman from the sento. 'But don't worry, he's a nice bloke really.'
'I can only fit two in the front so you'll have to sit with your bike,' said Mr Village Middle, as a friend of his helped lift it onto the flatbed of their truck.
'Er, OK. You will drive lately, won't you?'
'You mean slowly?'
'Yes, I mean slowly.'
'Don't worry, you'll be fine!'
Mr Village Middle drove north for a few kilometres - not particularly slowly, or even lately, it has to be said - and I could hear their muffled chatter as I gripped the side of the truck and watched the red glow of the tail lights on the road behind us. By the time we arrived at Mr Village Middle's house I was ravenously hungry, although I didn't want to come straight out and beg for food, so patiently sipped on a watered-down glass of shochu as we watched a boxing match on TV.
'That's Daisuké Naitoh,' said Mr Village Middle. 'He's from Hokkaido, you know. He used to get bullied when he was at school, but now he's world champion.'
If Mr Village Middle was a boxer he would have been a heavyweight: he was tall and well-built with craggy features and a mop of jet-black hair, although I couldn't help noticing that part of the little finger on his left hand was missing.
Cutting one's little finger off is a common form of penance for members of the yakuza (more commonly referred to as boh-ryokudan / 暴力団 - literally 'violence group'), and during the course of the evening, Mr Village Middle mentioned that in his younger days he had travelled the world on a tuna fishing trawler. Because this a) involves being away from home for months at a time, and b) is extremely dangerous, it is often used in a 'get on the boat or else' kind of way, as punishment for members of the yakuza who disobey the rules, or for ordinary folk who fail to keep up with their loan repayments or pay their protection money. Not that I fancied asking him about it, but as far as I could tell Mr Village Middle's shady past was just that, as nowadays he farmed konbu with his family in the summer and worked as a truck driver during the winter.
Mr Village Middle's house was very much that of a single man: I spotted at least one cockroach on the floor, the living room was used as a kind of storage area for old furniture and work clothes, most of the pictures on the wall were old and faded, the TV had a permanent purple-y green blob in the corner of the screen, and everything was slightly sticky and tobacco-stained. When it finally arrived (as I suspected, we had been waiting for the rice cooker to finish its cycle), our evening meal wouldn't have looked out of place in a student halls of residence, and along with rice I was given instant ramen, fried meat (it was so tough that I couldn't tell exactly what kind of meat, and now didn't seem to be the time or the place to mention that I was a pescetarian), and pickled vegetables, which Mr Village Middle's friend had made himself.
It was pretty hard work trying to follow what the two of them were on about, as they used only the crudest form of Japanese possible, something that wasn't so much bad language as basic language. For example, if you happen to be talking to someone of a higher status than yourself, you might say something like:
Nanika o omeshi-agari-masen ka? ('May I humbly entreat you to partake of something to eat?')
Or if you wanted to be reasonably polite without going over the top, you could say:
Nanika o tabenai deska? ('Would you like something to eat?')
If you were with friends or family, you could be more familiar:
Nanika, taberu? ('Fancy a bite to eat?')
Mr Village Middle and his pal, however, talked more like this:
Meshi, kuu? ('You gonna scoff some grub?')
In fact, I didn't even catch on when Mr Village Middle's friend said that he was off home, which left me on my own, in an isolated house, in the middle of the night, with only a supposedly ex-gangster for company. And at least one cockroach.
On reflection, perhaps it would have been a better idea to put my tent up in the dark.
The other day Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music was playing in the background during a TV programme about Switzerland, and Mrs M started singing along.
'Do is the do of doughnut,' she sang. 'Re is the re of...'
'Hang on, hang on,' I interrupted. 'Did you just say "doughnut"?'
'Yes. "Do is the do of doughnut". Why?'
'Do isn't the do of doughnut! Do is a deer, a female deer!'
'What, you mean the English lyrics are different?'
Over the years, several people have translated The Sound Of Music into Japanese, but the version that stuck is by a woman called Peggy Hayama. Having seen the original stage musical in the early sixties, Hayama realised that particularly in the case of Do-Re-Mi, a literal translation wouldn't work, so not only are her mnemonics different, but because the Japanese alphabet has no 'la' or 'ti' sounds, so are her syllables for the musical notes:
'Do' is the 'do' of 'doughnut'
'Re' is the 're' of 'remon' (er, lemon)
'Mi' is the 'mi' of 'min-na' (everyone)
'Fa' is the 'fa' of 'faito' (fight)
'So' is the 'so' of 'aoi sora' (blue sky)
'Ra' is the 'ra' of 'rappa' (trumpet)
'Shi' is the 'shi' of 'shiawasé' (happy)
Right, let's sing!
Another sound you don't get in Japanese is 'lé', hence a lemon becoming a remon, and just in case you think Hayama is advocating the use of violence, in Japan, using the English word 'fight' is a way of exhorting someone to do their best.
Hayama also added a second verse, which mixes in a couple more mnemonics for good measure:
DOnna toki demo (whatever)
REtsu wo kundé (queue)
MInna tanoshiku (everyone)
FAito wo motté (fight)
SOra wo aoidé (sky)
RAn rararararara (er, la la la)
SHIawasé no uta (happy)
Translated back into English, it goes like this:
Whenever you want
Link your arms
Everybody having fun
Prepare to do your best
Look up at the sky
A happy song
Right, let's sing!
Doughnuts? Fighting? Olanges and Remons? Rodgers and Hammerstein must be turning in their graves. But anyway, just for the sake of completeness, here is Hayama's Japanese version in full:
In the summer of 2005 I went on a six-week cycle tour around the west of Japan, and when I got back to the UK the following year, wrote a book about it that remains unpublished to this day (all offers, advances and bidding wars between major publishing houses accepted – please leave a message and / or cash offer in the comments section for this post). Still, the tour was so inspiring that in the summer of 2008, when Mrs M and I were planning the Japanese leg of our wedding festivities (the UK leg had already taken place in February), I decided to extend our stay and go on another tour, this time around the north island of Hokkaido.
As regular readers of this blog will remember, I went on a third tour – to Sado Island – in the summer of 2011, and seeing as this year I was too busy watching M Jr being born to go cycling, I thought that now might be a good time to dust off my Hokkaido diary and write it up. Given that I was there for the best part of five weeks, this may end up taking quite a while, but I met so many interesting people and saw so many interesting places that it seems a shame not to record them for posterity, even if Random House or Hodder & Stoughton won't be paying me vast sums of money for the privilege.
(Incidentally, to my non-bicycle-loving readers, fear not, as I have no intention of monopolising the blog with this, and will still post about other stuff – bowel movements
, ear syringing
, penis shrines
, that sort of thing – on a regular basis.)
Day 1 – To Oh-arai Port (大洗港) – 39km
‘Hi Muzuhashi. This is Muzuhashi. Muzuhashi gave me your number.’*
I felt sure this was a statement I would never get the chance to utter again for as long as I lived, and had looked forward to doing so for several weeks. The bicycle I was to use for the tour had been left with a guy called Muzuhashi by another guy called Muzuhashi, for me – Muzuhashi – to pick up, and was far superior to the one I used on my first tour (which, coincidentally enough, I had subsequently passed on to Muzuhashi, who in turn passed it on to the Muzuhashi who was now passing on Muzuhashi’s bicycle to me, Muzuhashi, if that makes any sense). The only disappointing thing about this new, lightweight and reassuringly expensive tourer was the name: while my travelling companion in 2005 was called ‘Mariposa’, this one had the far less romantic moniker of ‘Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design’, so in order to make it seem a little more homely, onii-san gave me this mascot to fix to the handlebars.
In Japanese, both the word for frog (蛙) and the verb ‘to go home’ (帰る) are pronounced kaéru
, so this was my buji-kaéru
(無事帰る / safe return, or 無事蛙 / safe frog), a play on words and a lucky charm all rolled into one. It was also one of the few concessions I made to excess baggage, and thanks to some studious packing, my vital statistics were as follows:
Muzuhashi – 62.5kg
Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design – 13.5kg
Baggage – 10kg
2 x water bottles (when full) – 1.5kg
After a couple of practice rides around Mrs M’s home town, the first day of the tour was a leisurely 39km to Oh-arai Port, from which the Sunflower ferry
leaves twice a day for Tomakomai in Hokkaido.
On my way through Oh-arai Town I stopped a passing jogger to ask for directions to the port. Wiry, tanned and with red Alan Partridge shorts and a white vest, he said that he represented Japan as an ultra-marathon runner, entering a 40 to 50km race around once a month and a 50 to 100km race around once every two months. His girlfriend was following him on a mountain bike, partly to help with his training and partly, I supposed, because if she didn’t, they would hardly see each other.
‘The first time we went out together,’ she said, ‘I fell off the bike, but I’m getting used to it now.’
Mrs M wasn’t going to follow me around Hokkaido in her car, but she did drive to Oh-arai to see me off, and incidentally, if you’re thinking to yourself that disappearing on a five-week cycle tour just before one’s wedding is a selfish thing to do, you’d be right. What can I say? Mrs M was far too lenient with me at the time, and has since learned from experience not to be.
As well as tourists, truck drivers, hairy bikers and hairy cyclists, the Sunflower was playing host to several hundred junior high school students, who had been driven in a fleet of coaches all the way from Shizuoka on the other side of Tokyo. As the ferry pulled away from the quayside, several came up to have their photos taken and to try out a few words of, er, English: ‘Watsu yoh neimu? Naisu tsu mee chuu! San kyew berry machi!’
‘Fancy a beer?’ said a man who was sitting on one of the wooden benches up on deck. Mr Big Bridge (for the purposes of at least semi-anonymity, I shall refer to the people I met along the way by literal translations of their surnames**) was a retired bus driver from Saitama Prefecture, who spent his summers in Hokkaido and his winters in the Canadian Rockies. ‘I rent a room in a ski lodge for $225 a month. Look,’ he showed me a scar on his leg. ‘I got this when I was ski-ing in Banf. And this,’ he pulled up his t-shirt to expose another scar on his stomach, 'is from when I had cancer. That was when I was 57, and after the operation the doctors gave me the all-clear.’
Now 64, Mr Big Bridge looked and acted at least a decade younger, and he could talk the proverbial hind legs off a whole herd of elephants. We met in the onsen an hour or two later – as the waves lapped against the sides of the ferry, so too did the water against the sides of the communal bath – and again after dinner, and he didn’t stop talking the entire time.
‘My son lived in England for a while,’ he said. ‘He played professional football for a fourth division club while he was at Nottingham University. It was only for one match, though. Now the kids have moved out, we rent a couple of rooms in the house to foreigners. My wife is only little, so she was a bit taken aback when the first one turned up – he was this big Australian guy – but she's used to it now. If you’re ever in Iitabashi you should come and stay.’
For 12,000 yen (about 60 pounds), my one-way ticket bought me a berth – or rather, a mattress on the floor – in the windowless Room 358, which I shared with around ten other passengers, including a family with two small children. One of my room-mates was a machinist who had been with the same company for twenty years (‘After twenty years you get two extra weeks paid holiday,’ he boasted ), one was a trainspotter who had ridden the train from Sydney to Perth in Australia, on Amtrak in the US, and from Paddington on the Heathrow Express, and another had only just graduated from university.
‘While I was job hunting,’ he told me, ‘I had six interviews with Mitsubishi and still didn’t get hired. I was eventually taken on to work in the accounts department at a company that makes jet engines. Last year I did a one-month cycle tour, but this year it’s just a week on the motorbike.’
For those first few hours on the ferry I felt queasy – not so much sick as slightly drunk – but despite the heavy rain and flashes of thunder outside, the Pacific was in a benevolent mood. My room-mates, too, hardly made a sound, and I fell asleep as both the floor and our mattresses rocked slowly back and forth.
* Not our real names.** Much as I would like to claim this as my idea,
it's actually stolen from this translation from Tokyo Damage Report
of a fascinating book about shady employment opportunities.
A few weeks ago something strange started happening with my hearing. Particularly when I had been sleeping on my right side, when I woke up in the morning my right ear would be blocked – as if I had been swimming and it was still filled with water, or as if I was on a plane after take off and it hadn’t ‘popped’ (my ear, that is, not the plane). This normally cleared up after a couple of hours, but depending on which side of the blackboard I stood, large parts of the morning’s English lessons were passing me by.
At first I put the problem down to hay fever, which always plays havoc with my sinuses and was still going strong even at the beginning of July (I had been under the impression that grass pollen is practically non-existent in Japan, but no such luck – another foreigner working in Ibaraki recently posted on Facebook about how his grass pollen hay fever has been almost untreatably bad). It soon got to the point where the offending ear would remain blocked until after lunch, and then to the point where it was still the same when I went to bed. After two or three days of listening to the world in mono, and having to either lean in towards people to hear what they were saying or turn around so that my left ear was facing them, I realised that it was time to go to the doctor.
At the height of the cedar pollen season in the spring, Mrs M’s uncle recommended a jibika
(耳鼻科 / ear, nose and throat specialist) who had been a contemporary of his when they were at school, and whose surgery is just up the road from our new apartment. As is the case whenever one falls ill in Japan, I didn’t have to be referred to S-sensei by a GP, nor did I have to make an appointment to see him: his clinic is open until 6.30 on weekdays, and in the four or five times I have been there, it has never taken more than a twenty-minute wait before I am ushered into his office and asked to sit down.
Rather than an ordinary chair, however, as the patient, one is directed to a kind of high-backed examination seat equipped with various attachments, head- and arm-rests, and which reminds me of a Frankenstein-style electric chair whenever I sit in it. S-sensei himself is a chubby fellow in a white coat and spectacles, and while a normal doctor (well, the kind of doctor I’m used to seeing on ER
, anyway) will have a stethoscope draped around their neck, S-sensei has a CD-shaped mirror strapped to his forehead at all times. He is more nutty professor than friendly doctor, has a habit of licking his bottom lip when he speaks, and when he does speak, it is faster than possibly any other Japanese person I have ever met.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ he asked the first time I met him.
‘My hay fever is really bad and I’ve run out of medicine,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried the over-the-counter stuff but it doesn’t work, so I was wondering if you could prescribe something stronger – I was taking cetirizine hydrochloride back in the UK’
‘Actually that's quite weak. Hay fever drugs are classified in three levels, and cetirizine is a level three.’
‘Really? That’s all I’ve ever been offered. I didn’t realise there was anything stronger.’
‘Obviously the stronger medicines may make you drowsy, so we’ll monitor your condition through the season and give you a prescription based on that. If you take a look at this chart, you’ll see that the pollen in Ibaraki is particularly bad – the worst in the country, in fact – and next year it’s going to be even worse. Do you take any other kinds of medicine?’
‘I use a nasal spray sometimes.’
‘You need to be careful not to become too dependent on nasal sprays. Can you read Japanese?’
‘So long as it’s not too technical, yes.’
‘Have a look at this – or your wife can read it for you.’
He handed me a photocopy of an article from a medical journal about the perils of steroid-based nasal sprays, and carried on talking for several more minutes. The more he spoke, the faster his voice became, and rather than interrupt his flow, I asked Mrs M to go over the salient points as we drove home.
When we went to see S-sensei last week, he peered into my right ear using one of those instruments with a little conical whatsit on the end containing a magnifying glass and a light.
‘It’s just full of earwax,’ he declared. ‘Let’s check the other one. Yes, that’s almost as bad.’ He called Mrs M over to see for herself. ‘See? Completely blocked. There may be another problem, but until we get these cleaned out I won’t be able to tell.’
A couple of years ago I had an attack of tinnitus, which I eventually decided had been caused by my rather over-zealous use of cotton buds. I have been trying to wean myself off them ever since, to the point where for the past few months, I have only been cleaning my ears once a week. As a result, instead of having tinnitus I was now partially deaf, so S-sensei prescribed some ear drops and asked me to come back in three days’ time, when he would clear the blockage.
‘Do you mind me asking how you’ll do that?’ I said. ‘It’s just that a couple of friends of mine suffered hearing damage after having their ears syringed.’ I wasn’t sure how to translate this into Japanese, so described the kind of syringe you would use to receive an injection or give a blood sample.
‘Don’t worry,’ said S-sensei. ‘We don’t do any alternative therapies here. A few years ago there was a treatment going round that involved putting a lit candle in your ear. It was ridiculous, and I was the one having to clear up the mess.’
Three times a day for the next three days, Mrs M put three magic ear drops into each ear and left me lying on my side for three minutes at a time, and by the third day – as S-sensei had warned me – the gunk had softened up and then re-congealed to make me deaf in the left ear too. Monday was my first day working at the board of education since the beginning of April, but I could do little more than sit at my desk and ignore everybody. If someone spoke very clearly and I listened very carefully then I could just about hold a conversation, but it was like spending all day stuck at the bottom of a swimming pool, and I left early in order to get to the clinic before it closed.
The first time I thought the nurse had called my name it turned out to be somebody else’s, and when she did call my name I didn’t hear it at all, but before long I was back in the Frankenstein Chair and S-sensei was sticking a long, thin metal tube into my ear. This worked a little like one of those small-scale computer keyboard vacuum cleaners that you used to be able to buy from the Innovations
catalogue, and Mrs M and I also found out what that mysterious CD-like mirror was for: S-sensei positioned it over his eye so that it reflected light into my ear, and looked through the hole in the middle.
‘Try not to move,’ he said. ‘This may hurt a little.’ And indeed it did, although the pain was nowhere near as disconcerting as the noise, which was a combination of hoover-like suction and what sounded like extreme radio interference: crackling, squealing and the occasional firework-like explosion.
‘You see that?’ said S-sensei, holding up a chunk of earwax that rather than the usual orange-y colour was a kind of dark, reddish brown. ‘That’s what happens when you don’t clean your ears properly.’
Once the ordeal was over, he told me that I should use a cotton bud every day and come to the clinic once a month for the mini-vacuum cleaner treatment. Despite his assertions to the contrary, however, I realised that the procedure I had just undergone was to all intents and purposes the same as having one’s ears syringed, and not an experience I had any intention of repeating.
Still, the original problem had certainly gone away, to the extent that my hearing was now almost too good: every shuffling footstep, every humming machine, every tinkling metallic medical instrument, every chattering voice in the clinic sounded inordinately loud, as if someone had turned up the volume on my internal amplifier. The sensation reminded me of a story from Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, in which a patient’s sense of smell becomes hyper-sensitive after a drug overdose, and popping into the supermarket on the way home was like being immersed in the kind of interactive sound sculpture installation you sometimes find at the Tate Modern. It seems likely that my ears had been at least partially blocked for some time, and that instead of this over-sensitivity being due to the shock of regaining my hearing, I was simply experiencing the world as it really sounds; whether or not this will help me keep up with S-sensei’s high-speed Japanese, though, is another matter.
For the past twenty years or so, the city in which I work has been running an exchange programme with its twin town (or 'sister city', as they prefer to say here) in the States, so for much of last week I had the chance to act as interpreter, when a group of ten students and two teachers came for a whirlwind tour of Ibaraki.
Not that they were short of interpreters: at the first-night welcome party there were four of us, most of the Japanese speeches had already been translated into English, and the Americans - K-sensei and her student, er, K-san - did an admirable job of reading out the phonetic Japanese versions of theirs, leaving me with more time to relax and eat pizza (the organisers of the exchange had decided not to inflict anything too culinarily outlandish on their guests when they had only just arrived in the country).
The following day T-kun - who back home in the States is in even more sports clubs than his Japanese counterparts: basketball, athletics and American football - was guest of honour at the school where I am currently working, and we immediately put him to work in some first-grade (seventh grade if you count the American way) English classes. After a few minutes of conferring, each of the students asked him a question - Do you like Japanese food? How tall are you? Do you have a girlfriend? etc - although even with everyone speaking English, I still needed to do some interpreting, this time from beginner's English into British English, and from American English back into beginner's English.
In the afternoon the exchange students were treated to a bunka-taiken (文化体験 / cultural experience), and first up was origami, for which they didn't just learn how to make the usual birds and planes, but also a so-called kami-teppoh (紙鉄砲 / paper gun), an ingenious triangular contraption that you hold at one corner and snap open with a whipping motion to produce an impressively loud banging noise (so impressive that the boys never tired of creeping up on people and firing it off directly behind them).
Next was shodoh (書道 / calligraphy), for which they wrote the character for friend (友) over and over, until it was legible enough to be committed to posterity on a square of gold-edged card. T-kun is left-handed, and I asked the sensei if this might present him with any difficulties.
'To be honest,' she said, 'left-handed children used to be made to write with their right hand instead. These days you can use pens and pencils, so it isn't so much of a problem, but kanji were originally conceived to be written right-handed, with a brush.' (Possibly for the same reasons, Mrs M's father, who was born left-handed, taught himself to be right-handed when he was still at school.)
Last of all we donned kimono and hakama (袴 / essentially a man's kimono) for chadoh (茶道 / the tea ceremony). This was my fourth or fifth encounter with chadoh, and while I don't pretend to know anything more than the absolute basics, I did at last find out about the whole bowl-turning thing: the chawan (茶碗 / tea bowl) has a decorative front and a plainer reverse, and the server presents the more appealing decorative side to the customer (the drinker?). The customer then rotates the chawan clockwise through 180 degrees, so that the decorative side is facing away from him or her. He or she then drinks from the plain side of the chawan - thereby keeping the decorative side pristine - before rotating it anti-clockwise though 180 degrees to its original position and handing it back to the server.
'All we need now is some kertarner,' said the boys as they struck samurai-style poses for the camera after the ceremony. 'Don't they have any kertarner we can use?'
'What's a kertarner?' I asked them.
'You know, a samurai sword!'
'Oh, you mean a katana!'
'Is there anywhere we can buy one?'
It was at this point that K-sensei intervened to try and persuade them that maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to try and smuggle samurai swords onto the return flight.
After another day at school, on the Friday we took a trip to the Aquaworld aquarium in Oh-arai Town, where as the first customers of the day we were granted a glimpse behind the scenes. Our guide wore a Britney mic
and carried a portable loudspeaker, but even with the volume turned up, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the many pumps and water treatment gizmos above the fish tanks (whose perspex walls, incidentally, are a reassuringly sturdy 55cm thick), which made the experience rather less educational than it might have been.
After watching the dolphin show we headed for the food court, where I sat down to have lunch with a couple of the Japanese boys.
'So, do you want an American girlfriend?' I asked them.
'Yes!' came the enthusiastic reply, and I assume the Americans would have returned the compliment: after several days in each other's company, the students finally seemed to be getting over the double-whammy of a language barrier and teenage shyness, and had more fun skimming stones and paddling in the Pacific after lunch than the penguins did at feeding time.
In the afternoon we went to a shopping cen...sorry, I mean 'outlet mall', which on a dull weekday was almost completely devoid of customers. Still, some of the girls managed to spot a slightly scary looking transvestite (is there any other kind of transvestite than a slightly scary looking one, I wonder?), and the boys - egged on by me, it has to be said - dared each other to go into the Triumph lingerie shop, ask one of the assistants for help, and hold up a bra-and-panties set in front of the mirror as if they wanted to try it on.
After a very long flight, several days of looking after a group of rowdy kids and several evenings spent with a teetotal host family, the other American teacher, S-sensei, was in dire need of beer, so we booked a table at a nearby izakaya for a child-free evening meal. By about 10pm, S-sensei was finishing off his sixth dai-jokki (大ジョッキ / large glass of beer), and insisted on ordering 'One more!' before calling it a night - much to the surprise of his hosts, he was still able to walk and talk as we made our way out to the car park.
The following evening, Mrs M and I were invited to a barbecue by T-kun's host family, and when we arrived, the boys were having a BB gun shooting contest. T-kun managed to knock down a row of three bottles and cans in twelve seconds (it was the kind of gun you have to reload between each 'bullet'), and just as I was remarking how only an American could handle a gun so expertly, one of the Japanese boys achieved the same feat in just seven seconds.
After dinner we grabbed some torches and headed for a nearby valley, where along a gravel track at the edge of the rice fields, a few points of greenish light were flitting back and forth in the long grass. These were hotaru (蛍 / fireflies), which for a first-timer like me were an enchanting sight, and which even Mrs M confessed to not having seen for the best part of twenty years (in a nice example of linguistic logic, the kanji for hotaru forms part of the Japanese word keikoh - 蛍光 - meaning 'fluorescence').
After a farewell party on the Sunday evening, the exchange students and their teachers began the long journey back to America, although not before expressing their continuing amazement at the fact that I don't have a middle name ('You don't have a middle name?' 'No.' 'Why not?' 'My parents didn't give me one.' 'But you have to have a middle name!' 'What's your middle name, then?' 'I'm not telling you!' etc). As well as allowing me some time away from teaching English, it had been nice to be able to see the country through the eyes of those who are experiencing it for the first time, and reminded me of how I felt on the occasion of my first visit nearly a decade ago, when - as S-sensei described it - Japan seemed like 'a magical place'.