Fridge 冷蔵庫

When our family of two became a family of three, Mrs M persuaded me that a fridge-freezer upgrade was essential if we were to cope with the enormous quantity of baby food M Jr would soon be consuming. A quick visit to the local second-hand shop and 45,000 yen later (52,000 if you include the price of delivery and of having the old one taken away for recycling), we were in possession a Sharp fridge-freezer so enormous that it made it through the hallway of our apartment with just millimetres to spare.
You can of course cram enough food in it to feed all forty-eight members of AKB48, and as well as the fridge part and the freezer part, there is a large bottom drawer for keeping your fruit and veg cool (known as a yasai-shitsu – 野菜室 / vegetable room – and a standard feature on many Japanese fridges).
The really clever thing about it, though, is the door. As you can see, there are handles on both sides, meaning you can open it like this:
And like that:
Normally, the only way of choosing how your fridge door opens is by ordering a bespoke one, but this design enables easy access whichever direction you approach it from, and even in the most cramped of kitchens (that is assuming you can fit it into a cramped kitchen in the first place), you’ll never find yourself squeezed between the wall and the door, or trying not to elbow your sous chef in the face as you extract a shallot from between the gnocchi and the truffle oil. Dare I say it, it’s a fridge that swings both ways.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, it isn’t possible to pull on both handles at the same time and remove the door completely – I know this because I’ve tried.)


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’.

Naoki Matsuda 松田直樹

My passion for football has been on the wane in recent years, something that may or may not be due to the fact that in my humble opinion, most players in the UK are overpaid, overprotected, ignorant, racist, womanising, alcoholic thugs with barely enough social skills to buy a pint of milk and barely enough footballing skills to play their way out of a paper bag. Taking this into consideration, and seeing as England are currently battling it out in Euro 2012 (no doubt doomed to be knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals), I thought that now might be a good time to tell you the story of Naoki Matsuda.
At fifteen years old, Matsuda was playing as a striker for the junior high school team in his home town of Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture, when his coach had a request from Ikuéi High School in nearby Maébashi, asking if they had any decent defenders. The coach suggested that Matsuda try a change of position, and it soon became clear that this was where he had been destined to play all along. Having progressed to the Ikuéi High School team, he became the subject of a bidding war between no less than ten professional clubs, and was eventually signed by Yokohama F Marinos. (For no discernable reason whatsoever, the ‘F’ of Yokohama F Marinos is short for flügel, which among other things means ‘wing’ in German, and marinos is Spanish for ‘mariner’.) Matsuda was named in the J-League team of the season in 2000 and 2002, and won the title with Yokohama in 2003 and 2004. He represented his country at every level from under-15 onwards, and boasted the rare accolade of having played at two Olympic Games, including a match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that became known as the ‘miracle of Miami’, when the under-23 side beat Brazil one-nil. He was in the Japan team that made it through the group stages of the 2002 World Cup, and ended up with a total of 40 caps, scoring a goal in his final match in 2005.

It is with Yokohama, though, that Matsuda will forever be associated, and where he made 385 appearances, scoring 27 goals and earning the nickname ‘Mr Marinos’. He is also third on the J-League all-time list for red cards, and was by all accounts quite a prickly character, not to say downright scary (his autobiography, published in 2009, is called Toh-soh-nin (闘争人 / Conflict Man). In order to induce the proper fighting spirit before matches, Matsuda would often ask his teammates to slap him, a habit that once backfired when he was diagnosed with concussion. During a Nabisco Cup match in 2003, he became incensed by what he saw as foul play by a member of the opposition, and was heard to shout ‘Yaru yo! Yacchau yo!’ at the referee. Roughly translated, this means ‘I’ll do you! I’ll fucking do you!’ and was subsequently adopted by the Yokohama supporters as a terrace chant. Matsuda didn’t always get on with his superiors, either, and during another Nabisco Cup match, this time in 2007, he apparently ‘glared’ at the manager as he was giving orders from the sidelines, and then refused to shake his hand after being substituted.

But such incidents merely served to endear Matsuda to his fans, and to demonstrate how passionate he was about the game. In a match in 2000 when Avispa Fukuoka opted to sit back and defend the lead they held over Yokohama, he stopped in the middle of the pitch, sat down on the ball and started hurling abuse at the opposition players. At a tearful post-match press conference, he said, ‘Those guys aren’t professionals. They don’t seem to understand how their supporters feel, how desperately they’re fighting for them.’

With ten minutes still to play in a match in the 2007 season, Matsuda volunteered to play in goal when Yokohama’s keeper was sent off and their quota of substitutions had already been used up. Perhaps most incredibly of all (money-grabbing Premiership players, take note), he accepted a 40% pay cut when the club were encountering financial difficulties in 2007.

Yokohama finally decided to let Matsuda go in 2010, and after sixteen years of loyal service, he signed for Matsumoto Yamaga, who at the time were a semi-professional team in the third tier of the Japanese league. During a training session for Matsumoto on 2nd August 2011, Matsuda collapsed with heatstroke and was rushed to hospital. He had suffered a heart attack, and while for a time doctors managed to restore a faint heartbeat, Matsuda never regained consciousness, and passed away two days later, on 4th August 2011. He was just thirty-four years old.

As well as his wife and three children, Matsuda’s funeral was attended by numerous members of the Japanese footballing fraternity, including the entire playing staff of Yokohama F Marinos, and among others, FIFA president Sepp Blatter sent a personal message of condolence. More importantly, Matsuda’s death highlighted the importance of AEDs – automated external defibrillators – which are designed to be used in just such an emergency, when someone suffers a heart attack and professional medical help has yet to arrive. It is believed that Matsuda’s life might have been saved had there been an AED on hand at the training ground where he fell ill, and there has since been a concerted effort to raise awareness of AEDs, and to equip a greater number of sports facilities, workplaces and public buildings with them.

Both literally and figuratively, Matsuda gave his life to football, and nowhere was this exhibited more clearly than in a speech he made on 4th December 2010, after his final game for Yokohama at the Nissan Stadium.

Speeches by the manager and club president were all but drowned out by chants of ‘NA-O-KI! NA-O-KI! NA-O-KI!’ and even after the players had performed a lap of honour and left the field, the chants continued. Eventually, Matsuda re-emerged from the changing room and took up the microphone, and this is what he said:

‘Thank you very much for supporting me over the past sixteen years, even though I’m so selfish and impertinent. I’ve always been a bit crazy, but everyone has cheered me on, so…

I like to think that I’ve fought hard and put my heart into every match for the Marinos. Of course I’ve pissed a few people off as well, but your support has given me strength.

‘The Marinos’ supporters are fantastic. At a time like this I can’t quite put across how I feel about you, but anyway, all I can say is that you’re the best. And I just feel thankful.

‘I don’t really know what I’m saying any more but… It’s just that, I fucking love football, and I really want to carry on playing.

‘Football really is the greatest. I suppose there are still some people out there who don’t know anything about it, but I just want to appeal to them through who I am

‘I really want to show everyone what’s great about football, so please let me carry on doing what I’m doing.’

I can’t imagine Wayne Rooney ever making a speech like that (actually, I can’t imagine Wayne Rooney ever making a speech), let alone one as heartfelt or as eloquent, and apart from the poignancy Matsuda’s words have acquired in retrospect, they resonate because they express what so many football fans feel – what I felt when I was a boy, and what I still feel occasionally when I watch a football match – and embody the kind of qualities that are so often lacking from the modern game.

(In case you’re interested, here’s a transcription of Matsuda’s speech in Japanese, as borrowed from this website:

「16年間、本当に生意気で、わがままな自分を応援してくれて、本当にありがとうございました。バカでずっと生きてきましたけど、みんなが応援してくれた から…

自分のマリノスの1試合1試合は気持ちを込めて戦ったと思うし、もちろん俺にキレた人もいると思うし、でも、みんなの声援が自分の力になりまし た。


ただ、もう何言ってるかわかんないけど… ただ、オレ、マジでサッカー好きなんすよ。 マジで、もっとサッカーやりたいっす。



Driving in Japan

Mrs M and I live in the countryside, where it is pretty much impossible to lead a normal life unless you have a car, and while I do manage to cycle to work most days, when we go out shopping, sightseeing or to visit friends and family, it is almost always in our still prized and resolutely unglamorous Toyota Platz.

The most convenient thing about driving here – if you’re British, at least – is that they do so on the left-hand side of the road. This means that to obtain a Japanese driving licence, all I had to do was take an eye test and fill out some forms (similarly, Mrs M got her British driving licence in double-quick time), whereas if you hail from a country that drives on the right, you’ll need to pass a practical driving test first.

The vast majority of cars are automatics, which often leads to the kind of accidents where confused OAPs mistake the accelerator for the brake pedal, and for someone who was born and raised on the manual gearbox, makes for a rather dull driving experience. For variety’s sake I keep my left hand busy by shifting into neutral and ‘coasting’ to a halt at the traffic lights, but even allowing for such eco-friendly driving techniques, you can still get more miles to the gallon – or rather, kilometres to the litre – out of a manual. Speaking of which, at the time of writing a litre of unleaded costs 145 yen (about £1), and a litre of diesel (aka kei-yu / 経由) 125 yen. Hybrids, incidentally – the Toyota Prius is still the second-best-selling car in Japan, and recently passed worldwide sales of five million – aren’t necessarily any more economical, and if you buy an all-electric car – like, say, the Nissan Leaf – there are still precious few places to plug it in.

As for road safety, Japan is statistically similar to the UK, with 4,663 road deaths in 2011 compared to 1,901 in the UK: in other words, nearly 4 deaths per 100,000 people, or 7 deaths per 100,000 cars owned. This compares favourably with many developed countries, including the US, where you are approximately twice as likely to kick the bucket in a car crash. Within Japan itself, while Ibaraki accounted for the eleventh highest number of road deaths by prefecture in 2012 (142), relatively speaking, and as of 2010, it was only the 27th most dangerous prefecture in which to drive, with around 50 accidents per 10,000 people. Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku was ranked as the most dangerous in both 2010 and 2011, with 112 accidents per 10,000 people, and Shimané Prefecture in western Honshu as the safest.

While seatbelts and child seats are compulsory, the latter are a recent development, and many people still neglect to strap their children in, or only resort to doing so to avoid being stopped, rather than with the more noble intention of protecting their child in the event of an accident. When M Jr was born, Mrs M’s mother wondered why we didn’t just hold her in our arms for the drive home, and the two-year-old daughter of a friend of Mrs M’s is regularly taken to the family rice field by her grandmother: the grandmother rides a scooter, the granddaughter sits between her legs in the footwell, and neither of them wears a helmet.

The speed limit on most roads is a conservative 60kph (around 40mph) and even on expressways rises to just 100kph (around 65mph), although as in the UK, the majority of road users routinely exceed the limit by 10 or 20kph. You are, therefore, unlikely to be pulled over by the rozzers unless you’re really putting your foot down.

Drink driving, on the other hand, is very much frowned upon, and while the limit in the UK is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, in Japan it is just 0.15mg. Not only that, but depending on the circumstances, the owner of the car, the passengers and whoever supplied the alcohol in the first place can all potentially be found liable should a drunk driver get into a prang. Civil servants caught drink driving automatically lose their jobs – I know of several teachers who have been sacked in and around Mito, and who will never be able to work in the school system again – and as a consequence are no longer permitted to hold staff parties on the evening before a work day. (My one brush with the Japanese police came way back in 2005, when I was stopped for failing to obey a stop sign. It was the middle of the night on a deserted side street – or at least that was what I pleaded as an excuse – and having had a beer earlier in the evening, I could have received a lot more than just a ticking off had they decided to breathalise me.)

Similar to the UK, accumulating a certain number of points on your driving licence can cause it to be suspended or revoked, and the licences themselves come in three different flavours. New drivers get a green licence, which is replaced after two or three years with a blue one – at this point you are required to sit through a two-hour lecture on road safety, during which the boredom is only partially relieved by a video of real-life fender-benders and near-misses. Provided you don’t get into trouble within the following three years, you are then rewarded with a gold licence, which only has to be renewed once every five years, although the renewal time starts to come down again once you reach seventy years old.

Perhaps more important than this in practical terms is the MOT – aka sha-ken / 車検 – which is both stricter and more expensive than in many other countries. Putting my clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra through its UK MOT often cost no more than the basic cost of the test – currently £54.85 – whereas the two-yearly sha-ken on our Platz recently set us back 100,000 yen (about £750), despite the fact that it was in perfect working order. For this reason, you will hardly ever see a clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra in Japan, and if their car needs some work, people tend to get it done properly (Mrs M couldn’t believe it when I replaced a broken wing mirror on the Astra with a new one in a different colour, simply because a matching one would have been more expensive).

So Japan is, by and large, a relatively safe and relatively peaceful place to drive, although there are some habits, customs, rules and regulations that are worth bearing in mind for the foreign first-timer:

– Most drivers on a dual carriageway will opt for the right-hand lane, meaning that a lot of overtaking is done on the inside lane. The Japanese equivalent of the Highway Code says that you should keep to the left and overtake on the right, so like the speed limit, this is another case where theory and practice differ.

– When approaching an open level crossing, one is expected to stop one’s car and check for trains before proceeding, and as is the case with stop signs (see above), a police car will often be lurking to catch anyone who fails to do so. For someone who has absolute faith in the reliability of Japanese technology, up to and including the automatic barriers at level crossings, this seems unnecessary, but the law was brought in to prevent accidents like the one that occurred in 2000 in Saitama Prefecture, when a car was hit by a train after a lightning strike cut the electrical supply to the barriers.

– If they overtake at all, motorcyclists and scooter-ists tend to do so on the inside, and you will often see bikers patiently waiting in line in traffic jams, which as far as I’m concerned defeats the whole object of riding a bike in the first place. But anyway, while helmets are compulsory (unless you happen to be a great-grandmother giving a lift to her great-granddaughter, that is), one or two youngsters will deliberately flout the rules for the purposes of ‘looking’ ‘cool’. Just the other week we saw one such rebel-without-a-skid-lid being chased by a police motorcycle, and Ibaraki, it should be noted, is a magnet for boh-sohzoku (暴走族 / motorcycle gangs), who ride their souped-up machines (actually, perhaps souped-down would be a better phrase) at maximum revs for maximum disturbance, but are almost certainly polite young lads with proper jobs who still live with their mums.

Many minor and indeed major roads have no pavements (that’s sidewalks if you’re of the North American persuasion), which can render pedestrians unnecessarily vulnerable: in April 2012, a teenage driver fell asleep at the wheel and ploughed into a line of parents and children on their way to school. Two people were killed, including a pregnant mother, and their lives might have been saved had there been either a pavement or the concrete dividers – known as enseki / 縁石 – that are often used in place of one.

– You are expected to give way to pedestrians when turning either left or right into a side road, so if you try to nip through a gap in the oncoming traffic while turning right, you may find yourself confronted with a walking stick-wielding grandad and no choice but to wait until he finishes crossing. Conversely, Japanese motorists are addicted to what bikers refer to as the ‘crafty right’ – ie. turning right the very millisecond the lights change, and before anyone coming from the opposite direction has had time to react.

– A much more risky addiction than the crafty right is what is known in Japanese as shingoh-mushi (信号無視 / ignoring a red light). It is not unusual for as many as three or four cars to carry on through a junction after the lights have changed, and the practice is so prevalent that I can only assume the traffic lights here are timed to take it into account.

One final piece of good news: despite being included in the driving test, parallel parking (juu-retsu chuu-sha / 縦列駐車) is practically unheard of, and you will never encounter the kind of street one so often sees in the UK, with a line of parked cars on either side and barely enough room down the middle to ride a Fiat 500. Instead, the typical Japanese driver will take great pains to use an ordinary car parking space correctly: for example, I have never seen Mrs M’s father park his car without going in and out of the space at least three times, until the wheels are perfectly aligned and precisely equidistant between the markings on either side.