4700 miles east of 4000 miles north

Well, this will be the last post of 2008.  I’m spending it recuperating from a year of work and study, staying with family on Vancouver Island in Canada.  There’s been a historic snowfall here – everything is blanketed, so it looks like my first white Christmas!

I’m staying in a town with a population in the ten thousands, and so the difference to Tokyo couldn’t be greater.  Bald eagles fly around and perch on trees near the river, looking for salmon down below.  In the barber shop, everyone greets everyone by name.  Stores close at 5pm on the dot, and it’s a ghost town on Sundays.  Someone directing traffic through the icy streets was chatting to a passerby about his family.  And of course, everyone speaks glorious, glorious English.  Well, something close to English anyway, eh?  (Sorry Canadians – really, you’re all very nice).

Well, today is my first day ever of learning how to snowboard, and if I survive, I’ll be back and posting next year.  Here’s a few pictures of snowy Vancouver Island for anyone about to have a much hotter Christmas while insisting on sending Christmas cards that pretend we can all make snowmen in the southern hemisphere.

Merry Christmas and a yoi otoshi o (Happy New Year)!

Puntledge River in the winter

Coastal run

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Now thar’s some edgy marketing

One of the fixtures of a weekend in Tokyo are these small trucks that slowly cruise up and down neighbourhood streets.  They blare a recorded message over a loudspeaker persuading you to give your unwanted electrical goods to the local second-hand shop.  The amazing thing is that you’ll be giving your stuff to them for free, or that you’ll even be paying them for the privilege of taking and reselling your items.  Sweet deal for some, eh?  Such is life in a city with a low car ownership and limited landfill space.

Anyway, the owner of this recycle shop truck should invest a little of their filthy lucre in some English R&D:

Recycle shop

And commence white goods jokes… now.

Winter by the fire

Winter is really starting to set in here now.  Out come the scarves, mittens, sunsets at 4:30 pm and a faint sense of gloom.   One of my favourite cures: a great way to spend a cold winter’s night is eating yakiniku, Korean barbecue:


There’s a yakiniku place I love to go to near my house. Under a canvas awning on the street outside the store, there’s a row of earthen jars filled with lit charcoal, flames licking around their lids. When you sit down, you’ll get one of these white-hot jar of coals to play with (tong are recommended for this).  They also thoughtfully give you a small plate of ice to quench the inevitable grease fires as the meat drips into the embers.

It’s a self-service type affair. You order by the dish of raw ingredients, which generally go for between $3 to $6, and include beef, chicken, pork, cow’s tongue, liver, chicken innards.  Nothing seems to get wasted. To make things extra challenging, the menu is written in Japanese, but some of the words used to describe the cuts of meat come from Korean. So, unless you know someone familiar with the various varieties, you’re taking a leap of faith on exactly what you’re ordering. Don’t let that stop you though – randomly pointing and trying is the best policy!  Just about everything is good, and most of the problems of eating the unknown are purely psychological. Except for liver – seriously, who eats that stuff?

The thing I like about the yakiniku place near me is that it’s very simple – big wooden sliding doors leading into a bright, cavernous tavern made of lightly-coloured wood. It’s warm and smokey with plenty of chatter, and all the staff shout an enthusiastic welcome to you as you sit down. You’re sitting around a wide wooden benchtop, seated with maybe ten other people tending to their grills, drinking and talking loudly.  Except for the cash register, there’s very little that’s high-tech about the store – just glowing coals, beer, raw meat and vegetables. There’s something comforting in the fact that precious little must have changed in this restaurant for many, many years.

My final tip: don’t wear good clothes.  The all-pervading smell of meat is your souvenir of a fine night of eating.  It’s well, well worth any dry-cleaning costs later.

Exam season

You know it’s that time of the year when it’s 8:30am on a Sunday and you see a foreigner on a Tokyo subway – not rare, but uncommon.  Then you see another.  Then another.  You find yourself all getting off at the same station.  Then the four of you meet another posse of five foreigners at Shibuya coming from a different line, converging like rivulets becoming a stream.  Finally, you see a train packed with foreigners, their noses stuck in books, the stream becoming a mighty torrent snaking towards Tokyo University.  There’s probably only one time in the year you can see this: exam time.

JLTP instructions

Yes, today that that day of the year for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).  It’s one of the primary qualifications of Japanese ability, ranging from level 4 (beginner) to level 1 (fully functional / fluent, able to enter Japanese universities and companies).  Last year was level 4, so this year I had a go at level 3.  It’s a slightly grueling event, a multi-part exam covering vocabulary, kanji, reading ability, grammar and the dreaded listening.  It’s conducted under university examination conditions, and given that several thousand people take the test at Tokyo University alone, there’s mercifully no speaking component.

Since languages are such a vast body of knowledge, it can be difficult to prepare. However, the greatest asset you have is the same one as in high school and university exams: past papers.

JLPT past papers

(Side note – the 16-18 you can see above are actually year numbers referring to 2004 – 2006. In some official documents and the like in Japan, years are counted using a system based on the number of years since the ascension of the emperor at the time. The current period is the Heisei period and the Emperor is in the 20th year of his reign, so 2008 is Heisei 20. 1970 is Showa 45. Still, you’ll see regular Gregorian calendar years much more frequently.)

Unfortunately, the JLPT examiners are less lazy than most university lecturers, and actually change their questions from year to year. So, while doing a past paper gives you a good idea about how you might go, I’ve found that the questions from year to year can vary significantly in terms of difficulty.

All things considered though, Tokyo University is a nice place for an exam:

Tokyo Uni

There was even a game of field hockey at lunchtime for amusement. I learned that Japanese for “Kick it to me” is “Oi, oi!”.

Tokyo Uni field hockey

Of course, the first problem that examinees face is finding their way to the exam venue based on Japanese navigation signs. Based on the number of people who sailed past the correct train station after they mistakenly took the express train, it’s an uphill battle even before you’ve sat down.

So, it’s all over for another year…. which means there’s no time to lose getting started on JLPT 2.

Slowly dying by the foot of Fuji

Today, my body knows only pain. Pain, punctuated with agony to keep things interesting. My legs feel like lead pipes, their ability to bend seemingly given up the ghost. My walk is not dissimilar to a robot, with stairs now presenting a major challenge. Yes, these are my rewards for having attempted a half-marathon yesterday.

The Kawaguchi Lake Marathon is held once a year near the foot of Mt Fuji. It’s 44 kilometers (or 27 kilometers) of hell through some absolutely heavenly scenery:

Kawaguchiko marathon

Honestly, at plenty of points along the way, I just wanted to forget about the whole “running” thing, sit down in a deck chair and just admire the view for a while.

Some co-workers were kind enough to invite me along with them, and it was a great weekend.  Around 10 thousand people turned up, and I can understand why it’s such a popular event.  For one, it’s just hitting the tail of autumn, and the leaves are still changing:

Kawaguchiko marathon

Amazingly, some people still had the energy to raise their arms above shoulder height:

Kawaguchiko marathon

There’s nothing like running towards a steaming active volcano:

Kawaguchiko marathon

And let’s not forget the most welcome sight of all:

Kawaguchiko marathon

This was my first attempt at a half-marathon, and if I learned anything, it was that my preparation was woefully inadequate.  Still, it was a great experience, and I’m trying to re-engineer my pain into some sort of feeling of self-satisfaction and accomplishment.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go and be mercifully immobile for a while.  I may be some time.