The roads to Sado – Day 4

I awoke at ten past six to the sound of muzak drifting in from the hotel corridor, and while the weather outside had improved since the previous evening, it was still very much on the moody side.

Pretty soon I had left the mountains behind me, and riding through the suburbs of Niigata City was relatively straightforward, as they were full of rice fields and flat as a pancake. The only problem was that after just three days on the road, I had begun to develop saddle sore. Saddle sore is a funny thing (funny peculiar, that is): on my first tour I went for six weeks without the slightest hint of it, but on my second I had to buy an extra-soft, gel-filled seat cover to stave off the symptoms. With less money to spare this time round, I ventured into a chemist’s and asked if they had any cream for…well, you know, for…

‘Do you mean…?’ said the assistant.
‘No, it’s more a kind of…’
‘And does it…?’
‘A little bit, yes. But it’s also…’
‘How about this one. It’s good for…’
‘What if you…?’
‘That too. Although you might want to try this instead. If it’s…’
‘I don’t think it’s going to be…’
‘Well, so long as you’re not…’
‘No, I should think that’ll be fine for…’

I ended up buying the smallest tube of the cheapest cream they had, and the fact that it contained steroids may have helped me through the rest of the trip in more ways than one.

Passing this sign along the way (I don’t know about you, but I quite like the idea of living in a town whose name – Sakaya / 酒屋 – means ‘off-licence’), I reached the ferry terminal just in time to buy a ticket for the 12.40 departure to Sado Island.

‘Your bicycle goes free,’ said the cashier, ‘so that’ll be 2320 yen, please.’
This was a pleasant surprise, as the ferry company’s website had listed the fare for one-adult-plus-two-wheeled-non-motorised-vehicle as more like 3400. I handed the cashier a 5000-yen note, and in return got my ticket, a receipt and the change: a 1000-yen note and some coins. With just a few minutes before the ferry was due to leave, I rushed outside, unlocked my bicycle and wheeled it on board, and it wasn’t until I was up on deck that I realised I had been short changed.

Part of the problem with learning a foreign language is that you can never be one hundred per cent sure of what the person you’re talking to has said, and partly because of this, partly because of my congenital mathematical ineptitude, partly because I was in a hurry and partly because the price was cheaper than I had been expecting, I didn’t notice the discrepancy straight away. (Having said that, would I have noticed if I was in the UK and we had both been speaking English? Possibly not.)

I went up to the information desk to explain what had happened, and about twenty minutes later my name was called out over the PA system.
‘We’ve checked with the ticket office,’ said the man behind the desk, who a few minutes earlier had been banging a kind of dinner gong to signal the ferry’s departure, ‘and it would appear that you were correct. One of the tills had a surplus of 1400 yen. Please accept our apologies, and here is your money.’

While I was almost certain the cashier had short-changed me by 1000-yen, I was almost equally certain that it hadn’t been by any more than that. But seeing those four extra 100-yen coins in my hand, I decided to keep quiet: after all, I was poor, I was hungry and I had just noticed from the menu in the cafeteria that a bowl of soba cost exactly 400 yen, so that was what I had for lunch, with a comparatively clear conscience.

Apart from this unexpected cash bonus, easily the most diverting aspect of the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Sado was the large flock of seagulls that followed us out of the harbour. No doubt through years of experience, what these canny – and hungry – birds have realised is that if they fly alongside the ferry, excited tourists will feed them with as many reconstituted potato flour snack products as they can eat. Some people hold their crisps aloft and wait for a seagull to swoop in and grab them, but most simply throw them overboard, where they will be expertly intercepted and gulped down in mid-air.

As I was brushing my teeth in the gents after lunch, a bespectacled man in a check shirt came up to me and said, ‘Strasvutchié.’
‘Mmgmhm?’ I replied with a mouthful of toothpaste.
I assumed he was saying hello in an impenetrably broad Niigata accent, and said hello back as best I could without dribbling onto my t-shirt. After a couple more attempts at communicating, he bowed apologetically and left, but I caught up with him in the lobby a couple of minutes later.
‘Sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I was trying to say hello but you probably couldn’t understand me.’
‘That’s OK. Where are you from? America?’
‘Ah. There are quite a few Russians in Niigata, so I was saying hello in Russian: strasvutchié.’ I learnt the merest smattering of Russian when I was at school, but not enough to recall it in such an unexpected context. As it turned out, though, N-san’s English was even better than his Russian.
‘I studied it in New Zealand,’ he said.
‘Is that where you live now?’
‘No, I live in Tokyo. How about you?’
‘I went to university in Chiba.’ Part-suburban and part-countryside, Chiba is sandwiched between Ibaraki and Tokyo. ‘Ibaraki is a bit like Chiba, isn’t it?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Ha ha! Yes, “quiet” is a pretty good way of describing it.’ I couldn’t help thinking of Ford Prefect’s entry for the planet Earth in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: ‘mostly harmless’.
‘Do you know Constable?’ continued N-san.
‘The painter, you mean?’
‘Yes. I really like Constable.’
‘Me too. His paintings are very English.’
‘I went to the National Gallery once. I also went to Newton’s birthplace – I studied physics, you see, so I had always wanted to go there.’
‘Ah, the apple!’
‘Yes, the apple. Do you know anything about Sado?’
‘Not much.’
‘Have you heard of Charles Jenkins?’
‘It’s ironic, because he’s probably the most famous person on the island, and he’s American.’
Jenkins (thank you, Wikipedia!) defected to North Korea during the Korean war, and ended up staying there – not necessarily of his own volition – for the best part of forty years. Over the past few decades, the North Korean government has intermittently kidnapped Japanese citizens, supposedly for intelligence purposes, and Jenkin’s wife Hitomi was one of these unfortunate few. The two met and married in North Korea, and during a period in which relations between the countries had cooled off ever so slightly, were allowed to visit Japan with their children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they never went back.
‘How about the toki?’ N-san pointed to a photograph of a toki on the lobby wall. ‘It’s called the crested ibis, although the Latin name is Nippon Nipponia. “Japan Japan” – you can’t get much more Japanese than that! They disappeared from Japan, though, so now they’re having to re-import them from China. What are you going to do on Sado, anyway?’
‘Well, I wanted to cycle all the way around the coast, but now I’ve seen a proper map, it looks bigger than I thought.’
‘Yes, it’s probably 2 or 300 kilometres.’
‘Really? I’d rather have some time off from riding the bike, I think. How about you?’
‘My sister lives here with her son, so I’m staying with them for a couple of days. They live in Sawata, which is not very beautiful. In fact, it’s probably the least interesting town on the island.’

Naturally, Sawata is exactly where I headed once the ferry had arrived at Ryotsu port, as it was less than an hour’s ride away and had a campsite, whose caretaker really did have an impenetrably broad Niigata accent.
‘Did you slvg oind qpidknc odiioa?’ he said when I poked my head around the door of his office.
‘Excuse me?’
‘Did you come for the xlirnhce?’
‘What was that?’
‘Did you come for the festival?’
‘What festival is that?’
‘The Zoqedk Festival.’
‘The what?’
‘The Earth Festival.’
‘I didn’t realise there was one.’
‘Well, you’re too late anyway. You’ve missed it.’
‘How pqigld oidowg lneq?’
‘How long are you oshgecm?’
‘How long are you staying?’
‘One night. Maybe two. I haven’t decided yet.’
‘You have to decide now.’
‘Do I?’
‘Yes. I won’t be here tomorrow. It’ll be a different person, so you have to decide now.’
‘Right. OK. Er, one night then.’
‘That’ll be qpondg hdii dnclk.’
‘Excuse me?’
And so on and so forth.

Despite the rather terse service, the site was in a lovely spot – in a grove of pine trees and just across the road from a sandy beach – and after visiting the local onsen for a bath and and the local convenience store for dinner, I was lulled to sleep by the sound of chirping crickets.

Muzuhashi Junior

Mrs M called me at 5.30 on Monday morning to say that she was at the maternity clinic with okah-san. An ultrasound scan the previous Tuesday had shown that M Jr was swimming in a slightly smaller amount of amniotic fluid than she ought to be, and after another scan on Saturday, Mrs M was told that if it reduced any further, she may have to be induced later in the week. In the event, she woke up on Sunday morning to the oshirushi (literally ‘honourable sign’, although in English we use the rather more literal – and frankly scary – ‘bloody show’), which meant that all things being well, she would go into labour naturally within the next few days.

I took Mrs M to stay with the in-laws on Sunday evening, and we had been advised that unless your waters break, there is no need to panic until the jin-tsuu (陣痛 / contractions) are ten minutes apart. So despite hers starting at 2am the following morning, she managed to have a last-minute shower before leaving the house, and – bless her – waited until a more civilised hour before waking me up.

After stopping off at a convenience store to buy breakfast for okah-san (Mrs M had already been given her first dose of hospital food), I arrived at the clinic at 7.15, where a friend of Mrs M’s was about to check out after giving birth to her second child. She told us that while this one had taken just two hours, her first took thirty-six, so I braced myself for going at least the following night without sleep.

I also called the board of education to tell them that I wouldn’t be going in to work that day, and after being put through by what appeared to be the town hall caretaker (‘There probably won’t be anyone there,’ he said, ‘Nobody turns up until 8.30’), it took a couple of minutes before my colleague S-san realised who I was, and why on earth I was rattling on about babies and contractions.

By mid-morning Mrs M’s were about four or five minutes apart, and for the next few hours, okah-san and I took it in turns massaging her back and making a note of how much time it took before the next one. We had heard that moving around is supposed to help things progress, so I followed Mrs M up and down the corridor, pen and notebook in hand, and stopped every few minutes as she doubled up against the wall in agony (incidentally, if you happen to pass a woman in a maternity clinic corridor, the chances are she will be walking like John Wayne after a particularly long day rustling cattle).

‘Is there any way to stop the pain?’ Mrs M asked a passing nurse.
‘If you stop the pain then the baby won’t know it’s supposed to come out!’ came the reply.

The clinic we had chosen practices what is known as shizen-bunben (自然分娩 / natural childbirth), although don’t be fooled by the name, as instead of a birthing pool in a candlelit room, natural childbirth in Japan means not being able to receive any form of painkilling treatment (before we emigrated, there was an excellent fly-on-the-wall documentary on British TV called One Born Every Minute, and as well as the occasional epidural, almost all of the mums who appeared in the programme were puffing on gas and air like stoners on a bong).
‘From what I can tell,’ continued the nurse, ‘you’re on course to have the baby today. But you shouldn’t walk around too much. Get some rest in case nothing happens until halfway through the night.’

At one point Mrs M’s bump was hooked up to a heart monitor, and we listened as M Jr’s heart rate climbed to around 150 beats per minute mid-contraction, and slowed to around 130 the rest of the time. Towards the end of the test, W-sensei – who I had met on several previous occasions – turned up on his morning rounds.
‘The baby’s fine,’ he said after looking at the readout. ‘Have you mastered Japanese yet?’
‘Not quite yet, I’m afraid,’ I said.

While Mrs M was busy dealing with her contractions (she described them as feeling like really severe period pains), to be honest, I was getting thoroughly bored. When I wasn’t on massage duty, I watched the queue of newborns waiting to be bathed in a big butler’s sink, and wasted time testing exactly how sensitive the motion-sensitive lighting was in the gents’ toilet, re-coiling the cable for the emergency call button, and watching the Olympic highlights on TV (the previous night, Bolt had won the 100m, Murray had won the tennis and Uchimura had won Japan’s second gold medal in the gymnastics). Mainly to get some fresh air, at about three in the afternoon I went on a snack run to the 7-11 – you wouldn’t have known it in the clinic, where most of the blinds were drawn and the air conditioning was running, but it was the first rainy day after weeks of blazing sunshine.

While the interval between Mrs M’s contractions had finally come down from four or five minutes to more like two or three, she was still six centimetres dilated, and more out of hope than expectation, asked one of the nurses to examine her. When Mrs M stood up, I noticed bloodstains on her gown and on the bed, and after a minute or two in the examination room, the nurse re-emerged with slightly more urgency than before.
‘How dilated is she?’ asked her colleague as they jogged back to the examination room for a second look.
‘Eight centimetres. Well, maybe a bit less.’
‘Are you the father? Put this on,’ said the nurse, and held an open-backed white gown in front of me, as Mrs M was led into what looked for all the world like a store room.

Yet more nurses appeared – one of them looked so young that I could have sworn she was one of my junior high school students on work experience – and a woman I assumed to be the midwife put Mrs M’s feet in stirrups and told her to grab hold of the metal bar above her head. A drip was fitted to her right arm and another heart monitor to her bump, and when the next contraction came (by this point M Jr’s heartbeat had begun to slow down rather than speeding up during the contractions), the nurse told her to push.
‘Good, good. You’re doing really well. I can see the top of the baby’s head.’

After nine hours in which practically nothing had happened at all, everything was kicking off, and for probably the first time in my life, I found myself speechless. I wanted to give Mrs M some words of encouragement, but apart from a whimpered ‘Ganbaré!’ (‘Good luck!’), couldn’t think of anything to say in either Japanese or English, and held onto the metal bar almost as tightly as Mrs M.

‘Take off my glasses,’ she said, and one of the nurses was ordered to take them away for safe keeping. ‘No!’ said Mrs M. ‘Don’t do that! I won’t be able to see the baby!’

After ten or fifteen minutes and six or seven pushes a different woman took charge, and this time it was the real midwife.
‘It’s too narrow,’ she said. ‘I’m going to have to give you an éin-sekkai (会陰切開 / episiotomy).’ Which she promptly did, and a couple of pushes later looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to see the baby coming out?’
‘Er, sorry. I’d rather not if that’s OK.’ (I’ve never been one for blood and guts, and in any case, I probably would have keeled over altogether if I let go of the metal bar).
‘Get your hand out of the way!’ said Mrs M, whose hair I had been stroking in a vain attempt at being supportive, and with one more push, M Jr was out.

‘My word, your baby’s got a big bottom!’ said the midwife.
M Jr was as purple as a London 2012 advertising hoarding and covered in blood, and once her throat had been cleared, she let out her first, tentative cry.

Ironically enough, now that the ‘natural childbirth’ was over, it was finally OK for Mrs M to get some pain relief, and she was given a local anaesthetic before the midwife stitched her up. As we had been led to believe, this was possibly even more painful than the birth itself, so that when Mrs M held M Jr for the first time, her expression alternated between a euphoric smile and a gritted-teeth grimace.

After posing for a commemorative photo, I took M Jr outside to meet okah-san, who appeared to be completely unruffled by the whole experience, whereas I was dizzy, red-eyed from crying and had a line of snot dribbling onto my top lip.
‘This is your granny,’ I told M Jr.
‘I’m not a granny,’ said okah-san. ‘I’m the mother’s mother!’

Back in the delivery room, M Jr had a quick first go at breast-feeding before being placed in this elaborate looking cot. Among other features, a heating element kept M Jr at just below thirty-seven degrees centigrade: body temperature, obviously, but also the kind of conditions she will soon have the pleasure of experiencing on a summer’s day in Japan.

The delivery room would soon be needed for another birth, so once a half-litre bag of glucose had emptied into Mrs M’s arm, she was very carefully transferred to a wheelchair and taken back to meet otoh-san and onii-san, who had driven straight to the clinic after finishing work.

Not long after she became pregnant, Mrs M got rather angry when I told her that to be completely honest, I don’t think babies are particularly cute – as everyone knows, they tend to look like a cross between Winston Churchill and Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings.

OK, so perhaps I’m being a little unfair, but M Jr did look as if she’d gone the proverbial ten rounds with Mike Tyson: her eyes were swollen half-shut and filled with sticky, milky tears, her face was puffy, her hair was matted and her mouth was stuck in a kind of exhausted pout.

An hour or two later she was a little more normal – cute, even – although as I stood in the corridor looking at the most recent additions to the population of Ibaraki, I realised that whether they’re Asian, European or a mixture of the two, new-born babies are almost impossible to tell apart. Presumably for this reason, I had been asked to write M Jr’s name on her legs in black marker pen – first name on one leg, surname on the other – and to further aid with identification, the boys were given blue woolly hats and the girls pink ones.

Still, whether or not she looked like a bloke after a boxing match, M Jr had arrived. 50cm tall and weighing 3.26kg (that’s almost 7lbs 10oz in old money), she was born at 4.21pm Japan time on August 6th 2012. Mrs M had been in labour for just over fourteen hours, and we were all safely tucked up in bed again by about ten o’clock on Monday evening.

Poo! うんち!

When you have a baby, all of a sudden poo takes on a much bigger role in your life than it used to. In the days following M Jr’s birth, her nappy filled with a black, tar-like substance, the technical term for which is meconium, and which contains a mixture of (and I quote) ‘intestinal epithelial cells, lanugo, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile and water’. This eventually settled down into something less sticky and with more of a green tinge to it, and while Mrs M and I both wondered aloud how M Jr’s digestive system contrived to turn milk green, according to a kind of colour swatch given to us at the hospital, white poo is actually a bad thing, and a sign that your baby could be suffering from a medical condition called tan-doh-heisa-shoh (胆道閉鎖症 / biliary atresia).

After this initial period of plentiful poo-ing, however, M Jr was soon exhibiting signs of the dreaded benpi (便秘 / constipation). Many more Japanese are cursed with this condition than the rest of us, and as a consequence, the relative ease and frequency of one’s bowel movements is considered a perfectly respectable topic for dinner party conversation. Some say the epidemic came about after meat and / or dairy products were introduced into the Asian diet, and others that after centuries of eating rice, the Japanese intestine has evolved to be slightly longer than average, and thus more easily blocked. When Mrs M – who is, as the saying goes, benpi-kei (便秘系 / a member of the constipation club) – first moved to London, like most of her fellow countrymen and women, she still ate sticky, white, low-in-fibre rice with every meal including breakfast. But despite experimenting with supposedly bowel-friendly brown rice, wholemeal bread, dried fruit, orange-flavoured fibre drinks and even linseed, it soon became clear that what we were dealing with was a full-blown genetic predisposition.

At just over a week old, and while she and Mrs M were still staying with the in-laws, M Jr went poo-free for over forty-eight hours. I had read online that breast milk contains an ingredient that naturally guards against constipation, and at the time, M Jr was drinking a mixture of breast milk and formula, so we immediately cut out the latter. With the temperature in the thirties, dehydration was another possible factor, and at least once a day we gave her a baby bottle of warm water. In accordance with an NHS Direct-style website I had found, we also massaged her stomach and moved her legs around as if she was jogging or riding a bicycle, but to no avail.

Then one evening I sat in front of the TV with M Jr on my lap, and in her usual fashion, she wriggled about and pulled an array of funny faces. She also farted a couple of times, and I soon became aware of an odd – although not necessarily offensive – smell. Upon investigating further, I was confronted with a veritable number twos tsunami, and before long, the entire family had gathered round to congratulate M Jr on her achievement. More to the point, from that day onwards, sitting on my lap had a kind of laxative effect on M Jr, so that every time I put her there, she would screw up her face until it turned red, wave her arms and legs like a beetle on its back, and endeavour to grant me the gift of poo.

It wasn’t long before she had clammed up again, and this time we were in for the long haul. After three defecation-free days, Mrs M took her to the maternity clinic, where I-sensei said that M Jr was too young to take any medicine or have an enema (rather than a rubber hose and warm water, My First Enema involves sticking a glycerine capsule up your baby’s backside, upon which the capsule dissolves and magically opens the floodgates). The only thing he could suggest instead was the Cotton Bud Method, which I can’t imagine anyone resorts to in the UK, but which is tried and tested over here. For this you dip a cotton bud in baby oil or vaseline, insert it to a depth of about a centimetre (and when I say insert it, I don’t mean into your baby’s ear), and gently move it around in a circular motion, supposedly to stimulate the evacuation response. Even this didn’t work, though, and on Day Six, Mrs M called A-san, who as well as being the mother of one of my students, does home visits as a qualified midwife.

By the time A-san turned up, it had been a full week since M Jr last needed her bottom wiped, and while we weren’t exactly panicking – I had read that a week between poos is nothing out of the ordinary for a newborn – it was disheartening to watch her gurning away of an evening, only to find that no solids were being emitted, just gases.

This time, on the second or third attempt, the Cotton Bud Method worked, and again, the result bore an uncanny resemblance to the contents of a jar of Patak’s. If someone is benpi-kei, one always assumes that their poo has congealed to a diamond-like hardness and would therefore be painful to pass, but this carrot-and-coriander-soup-like mixture looked as if it ought to come out of its own accord, or at least without the sufferer having to pull any funny faces.

And perhaps that was M Jr’s problem all along, in that she hadn’t yet worked out how to push, as it were, in the correct fashion. A few nights ago I was awoken by the sound of another Niagara Falls of faeces, which had burst forth at the exact moment Mrs M was changing M Jr’s nappy. Like me, Mrs M had assumed that it would be a couple more days before the next installment in this scatological saga, but after a few seconds of grunting like a pensioner with a prostate problem, M Jr let rip, and Mrs M almost ran out of baby wipes trying to stem the tide.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess, although I suspect that no matter how much fibre we force her to eat when she moves on to solid food, M Jr’s digestive fate is already sealed, and she is doomed to spend the rest of her life worrying about where the next poo is coming from. Still, at least she’ll have a hundred million fellow Japanese with whom to talk about it over dinner.

(If you fancy reading another poo-related blog post, please make your way to this page at More Things Japanese.)

Espresso Tea

The first thing many Japanese holidaymakers do upon arriving in London is to take afternoon tea – preferably at somewhere posh and expensive like The Ritz – and even in Tokyo there are several places where you can experience this great British break time, including a chain of cafés called, appropriately enough, Afternoon Tea.

Even in Ibaraki we are blessed with Kohcha-kan (located on the main shopping street between the north exit of Mito Station and the Keisei department store), which even holds tea- and cake-making classes, and La Table de Izumi (just round the corner from the Joyful Honda shopping centre in Hitachi-naka), which has an all-you-can-eat-and-drink deal for its teas, freshly baked scones and homemade jam.

For those of us wishing to recreate this afternoon tea ambience on a budget there is Royal Milk Tea, a sweet and ever-so-slightly spiced beverage that has never been anywhere near a member of the Royal Family, but whose taste lies somewhere between British Earl Grey and Indian Chai.

Aside from this, and as is the case in continental Europe, the Japanese tend to drink both green and black tea without milk, which means that no matter how long you leave it to stew, tea made from a locally bought bag tends to be weaker than an anorexic in an arm-wrestling contest.

So for those expats whose idea of a quality cuppa is a mug of ‘pyramid’ PG Tips brewed to the point that it makes you screw up your face as if you’ve just bitten into a raw onion, help could be at hand in the form of this new product from Kirin.

The Kirin website describes Espresso Tea as follows:

Experience ‘Afternoon Tea – Espresso Tea’ for yourself.

For this luxurious taste we have drawn out only the most delicious aspects of black tea leaves for a refreshing sweetness and a superior quality bitterness.

This concentrated richness has been created using our special high-temperature, high-pressure ‘espresso extraction’ method.

I’m not sure exactly how close this method is to that of making espresso (let’s face it, probably not very close at all), but to this teatime traditionalist at least, it tastes commendably close to the kind of cuppa you might get at a truckers’ caff – ie. one where the same tea leaves are brewed all day long in the same urn, a process that normally generates enough tannin to incapacitate an adult rhinocerous.

To add to that Union-Jack-bunting air of authenticity, Espresso Tea even has an English catchphrase – one that practically no one purchasing it will be able to understand – which reads, ‘The English custom of taking afternoon tea was invented by the Duchess of Bedford’, and as is the case with most of the research for this blog, was probably lifted straight from Wikipedia.

Baseball club 野球部

Just because the summer holidays have already started doesn’t mean the students stop coming to school, so for the couple of weeks’ work I am obliged to do between now and the end of August, I have decided to join in with the various club activities that will be occupying them during their supposed time off.

First up was baseball, which is renowned for attracting pushy parents who complain if they don’t think their child is being coached to the best of his ability, and with that in mind, K-sensei has been swotting up. もし高校野球のマネージャーがドラッカーの「マネジメント」を読んだら (If A High School Baseball Manager Read Drucker’s ‘Management’) is a recent best-selling book by Natsumi Iwasaki that describes – as you might expect from its rather dry title – what happens when a high school baseball coach decides to base her training regime on the management theories of Peter Drucker. The book has subsequently been made into a film, while Drucker’s original books – which not entirely coincidentally are published by the same company – have been selling pretty healthily too, and as well as If A High School etc., K-sensei has also read a kind of Drucker-For-Dummies-With-Manga tie-in.

K-sensei’s co-coach is N-sensei, although neither of them was anywhere to be seen when I arrived at 7.15 on Friday morning. They had been drinking until the early hours at a staff party the previous night (Mrs M wouldn’t loosen the purse strings enough to allow me to go), and K-sensei arrived at 7.30, although while he had remembered to bring a digital breathalyser with him, he had forgotten to bring the door keys to the main building. So we sat around and waited for N-sensei, who finally turned up with his own set of keys about fifteen minutes later.

By now the club members had already jogged a couple of laps of the school grounds, and while K-sensei typed up a training schedule in the staff room, I put on my PE kit and went outside to join them for some stretching. For this the team stood in a circle around their captain, who shouted, ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi!’ to their ‘Go, roku, shichi, hachi!’ as we did each exercise.

Already dressed in white uniforms and blue baseball caps, the students then changed into their spikes, which looked like old-fashioned, ankle-high, black leather football boots, with some kind of additional toe guard attached to the left shoe of each pair. As with old-style football boots, the spikes themselves were metallic, and looked as if they could cause some pretty serious damage if the wearer were to mis-time a slide into home base (surely professionals have progressed to something a little more hi-tech, I thought, possibly in moulded plastic?).

Our first practice drill involved stealing bases, with three players at a time either backtracking if the pitcher spotted their run, or carrying on to the next base if he threw a pitch as normal. After a couple of laps of the diamond taking one base at a time, everyone gathered around N-sensei, removed their caps and bowed with an ‘onégaishimass!’ (The literal meaning of お願いします is ‘I politely ask a favour’, but it can be used to mean ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘nice to meet you’ or any number of other things, and when uttered by baseball players, karate students and the like, comes out as more of a grunted ‘oss!’)

‘Why are your uniforms still clean?’ demanded N-sensei (with the ground still damp after last week’s typhoon, I had deliberately avoided sliding for fear of messing up my new tracksuit bottoms). ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to get their uniform dirty can quit now. You can wash it in the washing machine, can’t you? Look, this is what you should be doing.’ He dived to the ground face first and stood up with mud marks on his t-shirt and trousers.

‘Were you in the correct position?’ N-sensei continued, with no response from the students. ‘No. Should you be resting your hands on your knees like this?’
This time, one or two of them muttered a reluctant ‘no’.
‘No. If you do you can’t react quickly enough. You crouch down and use your hands to balance. Keep your weight on your right foot so you’re ready to start running, and go up on the balls of your feet like this. Two more laps, and do it properly this time.’

The very first student to step up to first base immediately rested his hands on his knees, and this wasn’t the only time during the morning that I thought to myself, Drucker or no Drucker, K-sensei will have his work cut out knocking this lot into shape. The team was eliminated from a recent inter-school tournament in the first round, and while most of the first-choice players have now quit the club to concentrate on studying for their high school entrance exams, it’s not a result that reflects particularly well on the first and second years they have left behind.

The student with his hands on his knees, incidentally, is quite an interesting character. Outwardly, he looks and acts like the school bully and / or the one most likely to end up in some kind of juvenile correctional facility, but despite apparently not paying any attention at all in class – at least when I’m teaching him, that is – his English is better than almost anyone else in the year. The macho posturing is, so I’m told, the result of living in a mother-less household – I assume his parents divorced and she moved out – where he isn’t given breakfast and makes do with cup ramen for dinner, but for the recent second year work experience week, he was allotted two days at the local police station, so there is some hope that he’ll stay on the right side of the law when he gets older.

One of the more studious second years is K-kun (kun / 君 is a suffix for addressing boys or male inferiors at work), who helped me with the next couple of drills, one of which was a gambit whereby the batsman takes the pace off the ball with the bat so that it drops at his feet. In doing this he will almost certainly sacrifice his chances of making it to first base, but since the opposition will be pre-occupied with a ball that has landed just too far from the catcher to enable a quick pick-up-and-throw, one of his team-mates should get the chance to steal a base at the same time.

‘If you block it this way,’ said K-kun, gesturing towards first base, ‘the guy coming in from third can make it home, but if you block it the other way, he’s going to get run out. Hold the bat like this. Keep your right hand soft and don’t twist it around – lift it up and down by bending your knees instead.’

The soccer club members were practicing at the other end of the playing field, and as we rotated positions in our group of three, Y-sensei – who vies with the table tennis teacher M-sensei for being the most intimidating in the school – started yelling at them.
‘Our last baseball coach,’ said K-kun, ‘was really scary. You see the kindergarten behind the school?’
‘Yes’ – it was probably 150 metres from where we were standing.
‘Once, when he was angry, he threw a ball all the way into the playground.’

Somehow I couldn’t imagine K-sensei or N-sensei getting angry, but then again, perhaps they were toning things down a little today because I was there. When I looked over a couple of minutes later, the entire soccer club was down on its knees doing ten minutes of kusa-tori (草取り/ weeding – turf is very hard to maintain in the heat of a Japanese summer, so most school playing fields have a surface of compacted, dusty soil).

Away from the twenty-five or so students with whom I was practicing, one kid was on his own at the side of the field, apparently repairing the large net that stops balls from hitting passing cars or from flying into nearby fields, which may or may not have been a similar punishment to the soccer players’ kusa-tori. At the opposite end of the playing field, two more students were pushing car tyres back and forth along the ground.
‘Have they done something wrong?’ I asked K-sensei.
‘No,’ he said. ‘They’re pitchers. Pitchers are special. They use different parts of their bodies when they play, so we give them special exercises.’
Nearby, another two students were throwing a ball back and forth at impressively high speed.
‘Are they pitchers too?’
‘They must be second years, right?’
‘No, no,’ said K-sensei. ‘They’re first years.’
A group of professional baseball players came to Mrs M’s hometown for a training camp a few months ago, and seeing them pitch at close quarters was quite something. You could hear the ball make a kind of fizzing sound as it flew through the air, and even though they were standing just a foot or two away from the spectators, their pitches never strayed from a narrow area around the catcher’s gloves. K-sensei told me that professional pitchers can move the ball at 150kmh or more, and while these twelve year olds weren’t quite at that level yet, the ball still made a satisfyingly loud slap as it hit the gloves of whichever one was acting as catcher.

There is a solitary girl in the baseball club, who seemed to be holding her own pretty well. In fact, she was probably the most foul-mouthed person there, and spent a fair proportion of the practice session telling her team-mates they were idiots, or to stop taking the piss.
‘She’s a pitcher as well, isn’t she?’ I seemed to recall her telling me this during an English lesson recently.
‘She was a pitcher,’ said K-sensei.
‘But not any more?’
‘No, not any more.’
‘Oh, right.’

Each practice routine had a name, and while many of these were clearly derived from English, I couldn’t work out what most of them meant, and when things began to get more complicated – one of the drills involved the batsman appearing to fake one of the drop shots we were practicing earlier, only to adjust his grip and give the ball a proper hit – I stayed on the periphery and fed stray balls back to the pitcher. (One of the most interesting things about the session as a whole was that there was no match at the end of it: a major reason why the standard of football in Britain has dropped so low is because there is too much emphasis on playing matches at too young an age, and not enough on perfecting basic skills.)

A third teacher – H-sensei – joined us for a final half-hour of long-range catching practice, preceded by his paunch and shuffling over from the staff room with a too-small baseball cap balanced precariously on his head. ‘Did you learn baseball when you were younger?’ I asked him later. ‘No, I was in the judo club!’ he said, and while H-sensei didn’t look entirely at home, he did prove the point that, à la Babe Ruth, you don’t necessarily have to be slim or quick on your feet to be good at baseball, as he could thwack the ball high and long. Standing at the far end of the playing field, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t completely hopeless myself, although if your previous experience of catching practice happened on a cricket pitch, suddenly finding yourself wearing a huge baseball glove gives you a distinct mental advantage.

I caught probably five or six balls at various different angles and heights, and was just beginning to enjoy myself when K-sensei called an end to proceedings. There followed ten minutes of kusa-tori – teachers and students together, in this case – and raking the ruts out of the pitch, before we were called in for one final conflab. K-sensei told everyone they would be coming to school at 6.30am on Monday (they would also be coming in for practice on Saturday and Sunday), to catch a bus to the third stage of the tournament from which they had been eliminated a few weeks before.

‘Watch the teams practice,’ he said. ‘You’ll see that they look relaxed. They’re not killing themselves before a game because they already know what they can do. Look at them play. Today you guys were…well, you were hopeless. What do they do differently? What should you be doing better?’

I said a brief thank you to everyone for allowing me to take part, and returned to the staff room to eat my packed lunch, more than five hours after the practice session had begun. No wonder children in Japan are so well behaved, I thought, and no wonder there’s so little crime here. With pretty much everyone under the age of twenty spending this much time playing sport every week, all of that bottled-up teenage testosterone just vanishes. Five days later my body still hasn’t quite recovered from the exertion, but if only I had been given the chance to spend this much time playing football when I was younger, I might have become a half-decent player instead of an occasional five-a-sider, and I might not have spent the best part of my teenage years watching TV or staring out of the window waiting for something to happen.

The Goddess of the Toilet / トイレの神様

Every New Year’s Eve there is a programme on TV called Kohaku-Utagassen (紅白歌合戦 / The Red and White Song Contest). It’s like a longer version of Christmas Top of the Pops, in that it showcases the best and / or most popular songs of the past year, and the big talking point on 31st December 2010 was the song Toiré No Kami-Sama (トイレの神様 / The Goddess of the Toilet) by Kana Uemura (Tokidoki Tokyo has also written about the song here).

The unedited version of Toiré No Kami-Sama is nearly ten minutes long, and Uemura was asked to cut this down for Kohaku-Utagassen. On another programme broadcast more recently, she performed it with a full country and western band, and this worked rather well, as it is reminiscent of those oddball country ballads with resolutely down-to-earth lyrics (eg. ‘The fan belt on my truck done gone and broke on me / So I cain’t drive to the liquor store and buy me no beer’ or similar).

Toiré No Kami-Sama tells the story of a Uemura’s relationship with her grandmother, and has spawned several spin-offs, including a non-fiction book, a TV drama and a commercial for toilet cleaner. The moral of the story turns on the word kirei (奇麗), which means both ‘beautiful’ and ‘clean’, so the line, 「トイレには それはそれはキレイな女神様がいるんやで」 can be translated as either, ‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet,’ or ‘There’s a beautiful goddess in the toilet,’ and the aspirations of Uemura’s younger self can be interpreted as both the desire to become a beautiful woman, and the desire to become the kind of wife who, whether she’s beautiful or not, will keep the family home spick-and-span.

When the title トイレの神様 came up on screen during Kohhaku-Utagassen, I burst out laughing, and told otoh-san that you could never get away with releasing a song about cleaning the toilet in the UK. Nobody would take it seriously, I said, at which he was rather offended, and explained that in Japan, keeping your house clean is considered to be very important – a tradition, even.

Indeed, as I watched Uemura’s performance of the song, my cynicism began to waver, because as well as being a tuneful little ditty, it’s actually rather moving. Uehara seemed to be on the verge of tears by the time she got to the last couple of verses, although I’m not sure if my translation of the lyrics will have quite the same effect – I haven’t, for example, tried to make them sound poetic – so you may want to check out the original to get the full emotional impact:

The Goddess of the Toilet

Lyrics: Kana Uemura / Hiroshi Yamada
Music: Kana Uemura

When I was only three, for some reason,
I lived with my grandma.
It was next door to my parents’ house,
But I lived with my grandma.

I helped her very day,
Played Othello with her,
But the only thing I was no good at was cleaning the toilet,
So my grandma said to me:

‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know.
So if you clean the toilet every day, like the goddess, you can become a beautiful woman.’

From that day, I cleaned the toilet till it was sparkling.
I scrubbed it every day because I really wanted to become a beautiful woman.

When we went out shopping,
The two of us would eat duck soup with noodles,
And when grandma forgot to record my favourite programme from the TV,
I cried and blamed her.

‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know.
So if you clean the toilet every day, like the goddess, you can become a beautiful woman.’

When I had grown up,
I argued with grandma,
And I didn’t get on with my family.
There was nowhere for me to go.

In the holidays I would go out with my boyfriend and not come home.
I wouldn’t play Othello and I wouldn’t eat duck soup with noodles –
Those things had disappeared from between us.

Why is it, I wonder, that people hurt each other?
Forget important things.
I went away and left my grandma – who had always been my friend –
On her own.

It was two years since I had moved to Tokyo.
My grandma went into hospital.
She had grown thin.
I went to meet her.

‘Hello grandma, I’m back!’ I said.
I tried to say it just like in the old days,
But even though we had only talked for a little while,
She said, ‘You can go home now,’ and sent me away.

The next morning
Grandma quietly went to sleep.
It was as if she had been waiting for me to come.
She had brought me up as best she could,
And even though I had never returned the favour,
Even though I had not been a good grandchild,
She waited for me.

‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know.’
The words grandma said to me,
I wonder if they are making me a beautiful woman today?

‘There’s a goddess of cleanliness in the toilet, you know,
So if you clean the toilet every day, like the goddess, you’ll become a beautiful woman.’
Because I always dreamed of becoming a good-natured wife,
Even today I clean the toilet deftly, until it shines.

Thank you
Thank you.





トイレには それはそれはキレイな
だから毎日 キレイにしたら 女神様みたいに



トイレには それはそれはキレイな
だから毎日 キレイにしたら 女神様みたいに



どうしてだろう 人は人を傷付け
いつも味方をしてくれてた おばあちゃん残して
ひとりきり 家離れた


「もう帰りー。」って 病室を出された

次の日の朝 おばあちゃんは
まるで まるで 私が来るのを

トイレには それはそれはキレイな
おばあちゃんがくれた言葉は 今日の私を

トイレには それはそれはキレイな
だから毎日 キレイにしたら 女神様みたいに



Landslide! 地滑り!

A small corner of the countryside in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture recently made the national headlines, when half a field full of green tea bushes and a large chunk of the hill on which it was perched plunged into the river eighty metres below. As I was watching the news, though, I couldn’t help thinking of that scene in Crocodile Dundee, the punchline for which is ‘That’s a knife’. In other words, forget green tea bushes in Hamamatsu, this is what you call a proper landslide: