During this week, the school’s dedicated English teacher and I decided to pose this question to the students; If you had one billion US dollars, what would you do? It’s a question that I sometimes ask my friends while drinking. “A new house”, “private jet”, “2 girls at the same time”, are some of the answers that frequently come up. Heck, when I posted the same question on Reddit, the answers were “burn it”, “buy everyone a donut”, and “2 girls at the same time”, which Continue reading “If you had $1 billion dollars,….”
The Christmas banners are already up in shop windows and in department stores, much to my frustration. Meanwhile the smell of artificial pumpkin spice and over-sweetened cream hangs in the air of shopping arcades and offices. I have to say, Japan really goes full-on with the decorations for every festival and season. Pumpkins in October, Cherry Blossom in Spring and Santa in December. Yet many don’t understand or know the “Nativity Story” behind it all. And if they do, they ask me how Santa Claus fits into the birth of Jesus. Anyway I digress, back home in England the smell of brandy, dry fruits and baked pasty is a delightful one that conjures up one image; the humble mince pie.
Mince Pies are a staple of Christmas in Great Britain, and have been since its origins in the European Crusades during the thirteenth century. The trading/ pillaging of exotic spices, fruits and foreign cooking were brought back home. To which, in true British culinary style, we baked them into pies. Originally, mince pies actually had meat in them. Whether it was a leg of lamb, or a cow tongue, the combinations of spices and fruit have remained the same. Interestingly, during the English Civil War and the rise of the Puritans, they were banned along with the celebration of Christmas for being too Catholic and fun.
Nowadays the meat has been dropped and mince pies have firmly become sweet, baked goods. The filling of “mincemeat” is a combination of dry fruits, brandy, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg). During my second year of secondary school (junior high), we made our own in Design Technology/ Home Economics class. Unfortunately some students hadn’t understood the difference between minced meat (ground beef) and mincemeat, which caused some problems during the lesson. Meanwhile the pastry is a basic shortcrust variety using flour, plenty of butter, sugar and eggs. It’s all rather simple, which perfectly highlights British baking in general. Brandy Cream (brandy, cream and sugar) is the traditional condiment to a mince pie, but I’ve never been a big fan of the combination. Instead a cup of hot tea will suffice.
Finding mince pies in Japan has been an impossible feat. I’ve checked import stores, foreign-run bakeries, and “English cafes” with little success. It seems that Japan has adopted Christmas Stollen (from Germany) as the foreign, seasonal sweet of choice during Christmas. Therefore, I’ve been reduced to asking my mum to send a box of them from home. They’ll usually tide me over for a week. Then the cravings kick in. However my girlfriend and I are going to attempt to make them this Christmas. It’ll be interesting to see how they turn out. Fingers crossed.
Halloween has only recently become a cultural phenomenal in Japan. Masses of young adults have started to dress in costume and party the night away, to the confusion of many onlookers. On Saturday night in Hiroshima there were numerous “cosplay” competitions, culminating in a parade through Hondori shopping arcade. Meanwhile at school, I’ve been informing the students on Halloween as a part of “English culture” though no-one seems particularly interested, me included. Like the many people I’ve overheard discussing the meaning behind the festival, I can’t help but feel that it’s completely meaningless and just for corporations’ pockets.
My Halloween memories aren’t of real note. To be brutally honest, my family and I never really celebrated it. As a child, I never went trick or treating because I didn’t see the point. If I wanted sweets I would ask Mum, whose answer would always be “No!”. Anyway, we’d carve a pumpkin, give chocolates to the few children that came knocking on the door and maybe watch a “scary” film on TV. But we never went anywhere near the extent that some Brits and Americans go to. When I went to university we’d hit the bars and clubs in stupid outfits, but that was about it. The common image of Halloween was never of its historical/ religious origins, but of children, sweets, pumpkins and company profit margins.
Here in Japan, it’s suddenly become a recognised event that has prompted stores to put up Halloween decorations amongst the early Christmas ones. Company brands like Pocky, Kit Kat and Starbucks offer “limited edition” goods based on the festival, usually pumpkin related. However the concept of trick or treating has and will likely never catch on, unless it’s in predetermined and organised events. The thought of children knocking on strangers’ doors in a country known for its conservative values and sometimes disturbing attitude towards children, isn’t a reassuring one. Instead, young adults have started to indulge in the enjoyable side of Halloween.
I spoke with one of my teachers about it all. Last year, her family were invited to the Iwakuni US Marine Corps Air Station’s festivities. Her children liked it so much that she’s been drafted into organising a small-scale version for her street. She’s been emailing neighbours, sending letters and instructions to friends in order to coax them into participating. My mother would never do anything like that! When asking other teachers, they seemed to be under the impression that Halloween was just an opportunity for companies to make more money from selling costumes and goods.
Speaking of costumes, Don Quixote, a store in Japan that practically sells everything, is the go-to place to buy Halloween stuff. Walking through their temporary “Halloween Section”, you’ll find the usual fake blood, prop and decorations. But one thing you’ll notice is that most of it is aimed towards an adult audience. The usual outfits are there; Where’s Wally?, Mario and Cinderella. But then you entire racks dedicated to the raunchy, “sexy” versions of innocent Disney characters, nurses, dominatrixes and school girls. It’s all rather uncomfortable and very off-putting.
It’s clear that Japan’s youth uses Halloween as an opportunity to dress up in something fun, and party. But I still don’t get Halloween’s purpose. I understand the historical nature of it all, but it’s current cultural form is one that is bewildering and utterly pointless. If it’s to scare people, then the barrage of news story and stuff online that we watch is far more scarier than the £10 costume someone made. If it’s for the sole purpose of acquiring chocolate, isn’t that the point every holiday (Easter/ Christmas). I guess it’s more for the kids. It’s a time when children can pretend to be their favourite monster and roam the streets causing mischief without feeling out of place. Yet here in Japan, it’s just an excuse to dress like a zombie and drink too much. So for now, I’ll watch John Carpenter’s The Thing or Halloween, gorge on my girlfriend’s homemade pumpkin pie and lay on the couch. Happy Halloween?
Last Friday afternoon, the western part of Japan experienced an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 6.6 on the Richter Scale. The quake didn’t cause much damage and there wasn’t any loss of life, but it certainly made for an exciting couple of minutes. Since moving to Hatsukaichi this year, I’ve had been fortunate to have endured two of them. The other was the one in Kumamoto Prefecture earlier this year, that made global news. Maybe it’s a warning sign from the gods. Anyway, I’m not one that falls into a frantic state of panic, so while the teachers and students quickly hid under their desks, I remained in my chair and amazed at what was going on. It never occurred to me that there was a possibility of the school being swallowed into the pits of hell. It was an entertaining interlude to an pretty ordinary afternoon.
Of course being British, the concept of an earthquake is one that I’ve only studied. My geography lessons in secondary school followed case studies of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and San Francisco’s in 1989 to explain the impact of natural disasters. That’s not to suggest that England doesn’t suffer the odd shake, but nothing of the magnitude felt in Japan or in California. I recall once getting ready for school in the morning, when my mother asked if I had felt the earthquake the previous evening. I blankly stared, trying to determine if it was a genuine question. When I did get to school it was the only thing anyone was talking about. So it’s fair to say that I’m still a newbie when it comes to earthquakes, aside from what I’ve read in book.
Unbeknownst to me, Japan rarely acknowledges the magnitude scale. Instead it uses the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale (similar to the Meracalli scale), which designates a ranking based on intensity rather than size. The highest rank is a 7 which involves the ground cracking, the countries infrastructure grinding to a halt and the arrival of Godzilla. Last week’s earthquake measured around 3 or 4 here in the Hiroshima area, whilst it was 6 nearer the epicentre. My experience was limited to shaking clocks and the odd files or books falling from shelves, the work of a poltergeist.
With the precarious geographical and meteorological nature of Japan, the country is well-prepared for most disasters. It’s a nation that has been learning from its past tragedies and developing new technologies and methodology towards them. For example; earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides will immediately activate an alarm system that is sounded through everyone’s mobile phones. It’s a nifty system, though it’s all in Japanese which was slightly worrying the first time. Gas is mostly supplied to housing via stand-alone tanks instead of dedicated gas pipes. Skyscrapers and other buildings, like my schools, have structural reinforcements and measures that mitigate the likelihood of collapse after a sudden jolt.However the abundance of overhead power lines doesn’t strike a sense of safety if a serious earthquake was to occur. It’s all very efficient, co-ordinated and reassuring (except for the power lines).
The day after the quake, Japan continued as though nothing had happened. Earthquakes occur on a regular basis, so you just get used to them. Mind you, the screaming/ panic never really wanes. In fact, if you check the “Earthquake Information” tab of the Japanese Meteorological Office, there’s bound to have been one just a couple of minutes ago. Exciting stuff.
This past weekend I volunteered to participate in the local akimatsuri (Autumn festival) at a nearby temple. Alongside some other fellow foreigners (mainly from Thailand, China and Vietnam), we carried and shuffled around with a mikoshi on our shoulders. Meanwhile elderly people “sang” the latest pop tunes to give thanks to the gods and usher in the new season. Autumn, or Fall, has finally arrived here in Japan to my delight. It’s my favourite time of the year, not simply because the temperature is manageable, but because another beautiful side of Japan is revealed. The Japanese maple (momiji) leaves change from the greens of Spring and Summer, to the browns, reds and oranges of the new season. At the same time, the rice fields turn vibrant shades of yellow right before the harvest starts. Closeup camera-shots of hands brushing against rice and wheat in fields of gold come heavily to mind. Even the unfortunate haze that plagues the scenic landscapes dissipates due to the cold breeze and fresher conditions. Now when I travel to work, I can clearly see across the bay and see Miyajima from the train.
That being said, the temperature has turned perfect. While Japanese people start to complain about “being too cold” and “missing summer”, I saunter along comfortably with a smug look on my face. The temperature is a manageable 20°C, which is still pretty mild by British standards. Of course with any sudden drop, Japan determines that the heating systems in public transport and retail establishments needs to be set on high power. Sogo Department Store in Hiroshima is by far the worst culprit. Therefore choosing clothing becomes a challenge of foresight and awareness. You don’t want too many layers, so I usually stick to three (jacket, hoodie and t-shirt) until the winter months. My unfortunate, but occasionally useful, thick layer of body hair offers sufficient insulation to constitute another layer just in case.
Of course, Autumn and Winter are the seasons associated with “comfort eating”. The ice-cream and cold soba season is over, and in comes sukiyaki and warm soba. I tend to indulge in my sweet tooth during this time with Japanese sweet potatoes and zenzei (sweet bean soup). In conbinis (convenience stores), warm cans/ plastic bottles of coffee and tea can be bought alongside oden, and hand warmers. The selection at vending machines starts to include warm coffee, tea and even soup. Meanwhile restaurants start to serve tea instead of iced water, alongside toasty hand towels.
The season also sees many Japanese people taking advantage of three-day weekends to visit the likes of Nara and Kyoto. My girlfriend and I are travelling to Kyoto during the month of November. We’ll be in the middle of an annual migration as people flock there every year to see the famed autumnal colours and traditional aesthetics. While Tokyo is the hectic, metropolitan heart of Japan, Kyoto is the other, symbolised by tradition and serenity. The combination of historical temples and shrines with the maple trees and fallen leaves, is quintessentially Japanese. Kiyomizu-dera is lit up by night illuminations, while Kinkaku-ji and Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji are surrounded by the autumn foliage making it a photographer’s dream. Yes, it’s fair to say that Autumn in Kyoto is a special sight to see. But for now, it’s time to dust off the kettle and break out the Yorkshire Tea I’ve been saving from my last trip home. Put the shorts and summer clothes into their storage space, and put on the hoodie. I will enjoy it while it lasts.