Monthly Archives: December 2014

Drinking in the New Year and Ringing

One of the things that surprises the Japanese is that New Year’s isn’t that big a deal in the West. It’s mostly a chance for parents to drink away the stress from Christmas and post-Christmas present replacement and for young people to have an excuse to drink heavily. (Not that much of an excuse is needed four young people to drink.)

In Japan, though, New Year’s is a much bigger celebration. It’s one of the two celebrations where family return home and the only celebration when television shuts down its regular programming and has nothing but endless New Year’s specials. (This includes reruns of last year’s specials as a way to setup this year’s specials.)

Because the television is mostly crap, people end up doing unusual things like “talking with their families” and “eating” and “drinking heavily.”

In fact, for the last few hours I’ve done nothing but eat and drink and, believe it or not, talk in Japanese. (It’s 9:20 p.m. on the 31st as I write.) I’ve now got a glass of Booker’s 125.9 proof bourbon at my side which means it’s the perfect time to write this post. (Since my brother-in-law brought the bourbon, it also means my in-laws are totally international.)

It also means my Japanese is at awesome level, or at least I believe it is.

The biggest television event of the season is playing on television as I write. It’s the annual Red and White Music Contest where the most popular singers and groups of the year perform for four hours in a “men” (white team) versus “women” (red team) contest. Also included are several Enka singers, who are not popular at all, but are necessary to give retired people a reason to watch. Inexplicably, for reasons I still don’t understand, the men often win. The prize is only bragging rights.

After midnight, it’s tradition to travel to various Buddhist temples and help ring the temple bells 108 times (each person only rings three times). The number of rings represents the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief and ringing the bells helps purify people for the start of the year. (For the record, I believe I’m at around 85 sins; so much to do, so little time.)

The next morning is spent drinking sake and eating ozoni, a kind of vegetable soup with rice cakes. I plan to eat three rice cakes—each is about the size of a deck of cards.

Last, all the kids get otoshidama, or New Year’s money from relatives. This is envelopes full of cash (with amounts based on relationships).

The final tradition is She Who Must Be Obeyed and I seizing large portions of the money and putting into savings for the girls. This is followed by fending off accusations of theft from our girls.

That’s tomorrow though. Until then, Happy New Year!

Ruin the Snacks Ruin the Holiday Ruin the Company

It’s hard to believe that a few trays full of snacks could break an entire company, but in Japan it’s been known to happen. The more popular the company in the West, the more likely it is to happen.

First you have to keep in mind that Japan is one of the only countries where Nokia failed; where Blackberry never caught on; and where Ebay failed (although that’s because the Japanese had yet to discover credit cards and accessed the internet over their cellphones).

A few years back Groupon attempted to get a foothold in Japan. It had some early success, but the Japanese were always rather suspicious of it. The Japanese don’t necessarily clip coupons and because prices for the same item tend to be the same from store to store, they aren’t used to shopping around. In fact, the only coupons they regularly use are those offered by McDonalds and other fast food places through smartphone apps.

Groupon’s early success came with a lot of problems. Clients complained about the number of “coupons” being offered versus what they thought would be offered and that there was little repeat business from coupon users.

The killer, though, came over New Year’s snacks. One of Japan’s staple New Year’s traditions is the serving of Osechi, which is a kind of tray of snacks that remind me a lot of the Hickory Farms cheese and sausage and cracker sets people used to buy as last minute gifts. (And, for all I know, may still buy.)

The osechi is set out before dinner and consists of random cold foods, including chestnuts, spicy shrimp and teriyaki chicken. Although there is some variation, there are also several traditional foods expected in each tray.

Groupon sold a coupon for osechi and apparently enough people signed up that it broke the provider. Rather than cancel, the provider sent half-filled trays, some with single slices of ham from a plastic package from the grocery store, some with things that were flat out gross.

The angry reaction was big enough that it began to hurt Groupon. As I’ve said before, no one piles on like the Japanese press. They found every complaint ever issued against Groupon and interviewed lots of unsatisfied customers.

This prompted the CEO of Groupon to say something resembling an apology via a video. The backlash against this was bigger than the osechi scandal. To point out the biggest issues:

First: Video.
Second: His attitude was one part dismissive, one part “besides, it’s not my fault” and one part “Lighten up, Francis.”
Third: Clearly no one had briefed him about how big a deal New Year’s celebrations are in Japan.Christmas is no big deal. New Year’s is to the Japanese what Christmas is in the West. If you’re in the USA, add both Christmas and Thanksgiving to get the importance.
Fourth: Clearly no one had briefed him about the importance of apologies in Japan. As I’ve mentioned before, you can accidentally kill people whilst joy-riding in a submarine and an apology will help turn the public to your side here in Japan. If he’d come to Japan in person and done a proper apology and then spent a lot of money to make things right, Groupon might still be around.

Instead, the fall out was brutal. Groupon is gone from Japan and almost no one has attempted the group coupon model again.

Luckily, osechi is still around. I’ll be enjoying it (whilst fighting for the Chili Shrimp) tomorrow.

Rally the Troops Toward the Train

Today I had the odd responsibility of getting three different females out the door on time so that we could catch a series of trains.

She Who Must Be Obeyed complicated things by having to work in the morning. That left me to rally our girls. The “rallying” involved several steps, including telling them to pack their own day bags. I didn’t repeat this as I couldn’t care less if they carried their own stuff or not.

However, as they packed, I pointed out that neither She Who Must Be Obeyed nor I would carry anything that belonged to them. They should therefore choose carefully.

This prompted a bit of rethinking on their part.

The next stage involved reminding our oldest to clean the bath and reminding her that snapping at me for interrupting her was NOT an acceptable response to such a request.

I reminded our youngest that she’d probably want her new Nintendo 3DS on the train and that draining the battery at home was probably a bad idea. She plugged in the power cord and kept playing.

Somewhere in there I made lunch, which amounted to cleaning out random leftovers and encouraging the girls to finish them. (In my defense, these were my orders from She Who Must Be Obeyed.)

Eventually, She Who Must Be Obeyed returned from work and finished the last of the leftovers. I then had the job of getting her out the door along with the other two. This involved getting shoes ready and asking why the washing machine was running only 15 minutes before we were scheduled to leave. (There’s a long explanation for why it was running; short version: girls.)

We managed to leave on time, which was a disappointment to me as we were actually on schedule to leave early until the washing machine somehow got involved and my daughter decided to do her hair.

I the end I waited until everyone was out the door and then put on my shoes and locked the front door.

Our youngest then had the nerve to say I was slow getting ready.

Sitting in the Corner Waiting for the Dance

Tomorrow we head off to visit the in-laws for a few days. This means I’m at risk of gaining a lot of weight.

I’ve mentioned before how the in-laws tend to start handing us beer and food as soon as we arrive. This will be especially true tomorrow as we will be arriving at supper time. This means we get to combine exhaustion and general crankiness with sudden carbo-load and beer. Even though we are at a house, my in-laws continue the Japanese tradition of everyone pouring beer for everyone else. I can be forced–through courtesy oddly enough–to drink even when I’ve had enough simply because someone sees I have an almost empty glass and points a bottle at me.

To make matters worse, the glasses are barely twice the size of a shot glass. One sip nearly empties it and encourages someone to pour me more. I then enter this odd dance of trying to eat whilst simultaneously drinking and offering my glass to be filled.

If this only lasted one night, it would be awesome. Unfortunately this dance continues the second night and the night after. I’ve slowly convinced them I don’t need beer at every meal and that slows things down. (They seem to interpret  “don’t need beer at every meal” as “don’t need AS MUCH beer at every meal.”)

Once I’ve got things slowed down, they trick me. They move the entire dance to a restaurant. This means there’s more beer and even more food.

Because it’s the new year, the drinking and eating will be especially heavy and there will be extra people around taunting my inner introvert. (This is also a trick, as it inspires me to drink more.) I’ll have to be pleasant and engaging and won’t have any place to escape to–at least not that’s heated.

By the time I get home, I’ll be ready for a diet, and, counter-intuitively, a drink.


Camera Bags on a Train; Moron on the Platform

I once left my camera bag on a train. Unfortunately, I got it back a few days later with everything intact.

In 2000, a few months after I moved to Tokyo, I joined a photography class run by Andy Barker–who has a terrific photo book about Kamakura, if you can find it. After a photoshoot, a group of us were riding back to Shinjuku station and, for various complicated reasons, I was carrying two bags. I set my camera bag on the overhead rack, talked with fellow students, and then got off the train in Shinjuku.

I was half way up the stairs when I realized I’d left my camera bag on the train.

Now, the smart thing to do would have been to hop on a faster train that would have put me ahead of the train my camera bag was on. I could have then easily walked over and plucked it off the rack with only minor inconvenience.

However, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you know that “the smart thing” is rarely my first choice in most situations.

Instead, my Japanese travel companion led me to the station master’s office where I described my bag and its contents, what car it was in and what time I’d arrived. They then informed other stations whose workers, in theory, actually boarded the train to find my camera bag.

Instead, I went home without my camera bag, my camera and my cellphone. I called my provider and had my cellphone disabled and started deciding what camera I was going to buy to replace the one I’d lost.

A couple days later, we got a call from Japan Rail explaining the bag had been found and that I needed to come pick it up . Unfortunately, I was working that night and She Who Must Be Obeyed went to get it. I gave her a detailed list of contents and she pondered it and went “Why do you need so much crap?” (or maybe it was “You owe me” or something like that.)

She was able to retrieve the bag despite her being a Japanese woman whilst the owner of the bag being an American man.

Nothing was missing and I had to delay my camera purchase. I remain surprised that I got everything back in one piece.

The Bag Marks the Spot and Brings the Anger

If I were less paranoid, I’d probably get to sit down more often. I’d also be a lot more calm.

The other day, before the party where I ran into former students, I decided I needed some coffee and something sweet right after I arrived in Ikebukuro. I therefore went to the Cafe du Monde for coffee and beignets. (Although this is a cliche thing to do if you’re in New Orleans, in Tokyo it counts as cross-cultural contamination, or something like that.)

When I walked in, there were a handful of tables available. My gut and experience told me that I should drop my bag off on one of the tables, but my paranoid self said “Are you insane?” My gut and experience said that the bag would be fine if I left it. My paranoid self It pointed out there was no line so I was probably safe. My gut and experience said “Are you insane?”

By the time I got my coffee and my flag, the chairs had been claimed by other people’s bags.

This is a common occurrence in Japan and is not considered rude. There may be a dozen people in line ahead of you and only one table left, but the 13th person in line is allowed to claim the seat with a bag or a scarf. Even if it were safe to do this in most countries, I still consider it rude, especially if there’s a long line. It seems to me no different than cutting in line to get served first. However, in Japan they seem to assume that you’re smart enough to know how to reserve your seat and have probably already done so. If you’re not smart enough, then, well, stand.

The only seats available in Cafe du Monde that afternoon were in the smoking section. I stood around waiting for a table. I was quietly swearing under my breath. (Yes, believe it or not, quietly.) Luckily, one of the staff asked around and someone removed his bag from a chair he’d been using as bag storage and I got a seat.

I had a lot of time to kill so I stayed around for a while. I got to see several tables open up and immediately get occupied by bags. I quietly swore at each person who did that.

Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Although I’ve brought up a lot of humbug over the last week or so, in the end I do enjoy Christmas in Japan, although it comes with a few ghosts.

Ghosts of Christmas Past
One thing I miss in Japan is that almost no one sends presents before Christmas. If they do, we usually keep them hidden. This means there’s no torture from seeing early arriving presents placed under the tree. When I was a kid, we all got good at spatial analysis and investigation and weight versus volume versus internal movement ratios as we picked wrapped presents up and shook them.

A typical conversation:
(Sister and I quietly pick up and shake presents.)
Mom– (from another room) What are you two doing in there?
Me and Sister–Nothing!
Mom–Leave those presents alone.
Me–Sister’s shaking the presents!
Sister– $@#%$ #$%^$^  @#$%$^  #$%%^^!!!
Me–Sister said bad words!

Something like that.

You also had de facto scientific experiments involving psychic ability as you waved your hands over the presents and tried to divine what they were. This improved with experience and you eventually learned which shapes were probably underwear and socks and which were actually something useful like action figures or computer games.

Every now and then a cruel parent or other relative would put socks in a larger box to throw you off.

Ghosts of Christmas Present
Here in the present we don’t have a lot of space and have never had a big tree which means we’ve never had a formal “trim the tree and put up Christmas decorations day”. Also, Christmas is complicated by the New Year’s holiday when relatives hand the girls large sums of cash contained in annoyingly cute envelopes and they go buy whatever they want (after large chunks of it are secured for savings and/or education).

It is also a tradition to explain to our girls that we didn’t actually steal their money, we just “secured it”. (Shut up. You didn’t build that.)

Also, our oldest’s birthday is in mid-January which complicates presents. We’ve not yet (emphasis on yet) been cruel enough to give one present and say it counts for both celebrations, but we’re seriously considering it. This is partly because as presents get smaller, and make a less impressive pile in the morning, they get more expensive. (This is an important formula we need to remember and need to teach the girls about.)

Ghosts of Christmas Future
Someday (hopefully next year) we’d like to get the girls back to the USA for a full blown US Christmas complete with large trees, lots of Christmas lights and several metric tons of food. I also want them to experience the torture of the early presents. (I think there’s a lesson in patience and delayed gratification in there somewhere but I’m not sure I ever learned it and will have a hard time teaching it.)

Until then, God bless you, everyone. And Merry Christmas.

Randomly Taking the X Out of Christmas

Although I spent a lot of time in history of Christianity classes at university and know that the “X” in “Xmas” is ancient shorthand for “Christ” and not some secular conspiracy, it still bothers me a bit that the Japanese use “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”.

First it bothers me that in most of the government approved English textbooks “Xmas” is offered as an appropriate example of a word that starts with X. For example: “V is for Violence; W is for Whiskey; X is for Xmas; Y is for Yelling,” (Which, now that I think about it, is a lot like shopping on Black Friday.) I keep pointing out that “X-ray” or “xylophone” would be better but then get thrown out of the discussions.

Beyond that it’s surprising how easily the religious aspects are removed from the celebration. It’s all Santa and snowmen and reindeer and no hints at all of what the X stands for. I make sure our girls know the actual history of Christmas, but it’s not a holiday here; it’s more like Valentine’s Day. (In fact, She Who Must Be Obeyed will be working tomorrow.) It’s mostly an excuse to put up lights and buy cake.

Speaking of cake, I’m also bothered that everyone asks me what kind of cake I ate at Christmas when I was growing up. I tell them I didn’t eat cake and they give me skeptical looks and go “really?” as if I’m lying to them. Eventually I go all Grinch meets Frank Booth and say “Christmas cake? F@#k that sh#t! Pecan pie!” This surprises many of my Japanese friends. (Remind me again: why don’t I get invited to parties?)

The final thing that bothers me about Japanese Christmas is the constantly played, yet limited array of Christmas pop songs including the shockingly inappropriate “Last Christmas” by WHAM!

Last Christmas:
I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away.
This year
To save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special.

That puts you right in the Christmas spirit, eh? (It’s right up there with singing “I Will Always Love You” and “My Heart Will Go On” at a wedding.) Then we get Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” a few thousand times and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” several hundred times. There are a few good Japanese Christmas tunes and a couple inexplicable ones. Kaela Kimura’s “A Winter Fairy is Melting a Snowman” is especially creepy as all it does is repeat the title endlessly.

That said, the girls are still young enough to enjoy Christmas and it’s a nice pause before the onslaught of beer and food at the in-laws (more on that in another post).

Bah! Humbug.

Beer and Students and Teacher Sightings

A former colleague of mine doesn’t like to encounter students when he’s out and about living his life. He’s so paranoid about students seeing him with his significant other that he makes her walk several steps behind him when they walk around the neighborhood.

The sad part is, although I find that a bit extreme, I actually kind of understand it.

There are few things as awkward as eating at a restaurant when a group of your students are around. They sneak pictures and talk about you (at least for a few seconds) and then snicker as you leave. I remember encountering teachers “in the wild” when I was a kid and I also remember immediately scanning their grocery carts for things like beer and cigarettes.

Last night, however, I had the unusual experience of encountering former students when both of us had been drinking.

Because it’s the end of the school year and is the Christmas season, a bunch of us decided to have an impromptu Forget Year Party with some of the Japanese staff. We chose, for reasons I had nothing to do with, to go drinking at the HUB, which is a chain of faux British pubs that serve fish and chips, Guinness, and other tasty forms of beer.

The HUB we chose happened to be near the main branch of the university partially fed by the school where we work. As result, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by college students which, for better and for worse, prompted me to do a tequila shot from a tray being carried around by a waiter. However, because it’s a British pub, and, well, there’s no cultural reason whatsoever to do tequila shots in a British pub, I was given neither salt nor lime.

After that shot, I was informed that several former students were in the pub. Including three directly behind me. This led to conversations with the students, who were drinking yard long glasses of Mojitos (which are also, not technically part of British culture).

I pointed out I could remember their faces but not their names. I said this was because while I grew old, they grew up. A couple of them wanted their pictures taken with me and, having had a couple pints of beer, a Bloody Mary and a tequila shot, my usual aversion to such encounters went away and I volunteered.

Now, I wonder if that was a good idea.

Here is Not Like There or Over There

Since I’m now 48, I’m pretty sure there are places in Tokyo it’s not legal for me to go.

One of those places is Shibuya. Shibuya is the center of youth culture and Kawaii culture in Japan. The 109 building is the center of women’s/girls fashion and I’m pretty sure there’s a permanent restraining order for men over a certain age as there’s no reason for men to go in there other than for nefarious purposes. I’m pretty sure I’d be arrested if I went in there.

The different regions of Tokyo, like most major cities, have different personalities. I think what sets Tokyo apart is that the different personalities can be reached on one train line, the Yamanote line which runs a circle around Tokyo.

Today I started in Ginza which is the Beverly Hills/Rodeo Drive region of Tokyo and which, until recently, had the most expensive piece of property in the world. It is the land of Bulgari and Tiffany and Prada and Japanese brands like Mikimoto. (It also has Ito-ya, one of the best stationery shops in the world.)

A few stops away is Akihabara, which is the tech-geek section of Tokyo. It’s the place where you see sweaty men in t-shirts carrying laptop bags as they buy computer parts and wander around anime and comic book shops. It’s also the region where Maid Cafes are popular.

Near Shibuya is Harajuku which is famous for CosPlay and Dancing Elvises (Elvi?). It has parallel streets that cater to different groups. Takeshita Street is the center of what’s cool and stylish. Where Shibuya is cute and young, Takeshita street is edgier and a little more sexy and artistic. One block away is Omotesando which is another, slightly cooler version of Beverly Hills.

Shinjuku is all about department stores and shopping and skyscrapers. The East side is different than the West side, but I like both a lot.

I ended the day in Ikebukuro, which does the difficult job of mixing youth culture with adult culture. It has game centers and stores and art centers and it’s one of the few places where you see mothers and fathers and groups of high school boys and girls roaming around. It’s also one of the few areas that feels like a college town.

Tokyo is not what I’d call coherent, but it’s a lot of fun. If you go to the right places.