Tag Archives: Kit Kats

Ishinomaki, December 2011

There is too much to tell you and not enough words.

Everyone who was here on 11 March must have a story to make the hair stand on end, about where they were and what they saw, who they lost and where they found the strength to continue.  Every empty plot of land, ruined shop and smashed car has its own story, of the people who lived or worked there, the journeys they took together and their hopes and fears for the future that never came, washed away on a tide of mud and debris that overwhelmed manmade defences too easily.  The lines on the buildings tell their own tale of how high the waters rose.

I wasn’t even sure I should go.  I’m not strong, not good at digging, not a builder or a carpenter and worried I would get in the way of those that are.  My Japanese is so lacking that I can’t even read enough to book the bus tickets.  More than once I convinced myself I should leave it to others.  Then I read the Frequently Used Excuses page on the It’s Not Just Mud website, send some emails and almost before I know how, am getting off a bus into the crisp, cold air of the most gorgeous morning I have seen since I arrived in Japan. Taking a deep breath because here I am in Ishinomaki, the city we have all seen countless times on the news, yet everything looks – well, kind of ok.

Parts of the city are relatively and reassuringly normal.  The pachinko parlour, konbinis and petrol station are open, while the streets are full of gleaming new cars.  I come from another northern port, so when I see a broken window high on a warehouse, I don’t automatically think of quake damage.  I know the wear and tear is harder here than in the pampered capital.  As you would expect, the busy streets around the central station have been repaired first, so the first-time visitor is spared an immediate surprise.  That’s reserved for the drive out to INJM’s HQ, located in the suburb of Watanoha, where the scale of the destruction begins to make itself known with every empty tract of land.  The really dramatic damage you remember from the press –boats left in the middle of the street and broken timber strewn storeys high – has largely been cleared.  What is left is somehow worse, houses standing alone where once they would have brushed up against their neighbours, and plenty of new car parks.

But there isn’t much time to dwell on such thoughts.  The INJM day starts with the more experienced hands welcoming that day’s arrivals over breakfast.  British volunteers will be happy to note there is a plentiful supply of Yorkshire Tea and no shortage of toast and jam either.  Suitably refreshed and following a quick update on the work schedule, it is time to begin the sometimes mammoth task of getting people and equipment into one of the pool of cars the group has commandeered.   INJM works with other organisations such as Samaritan’s Purse, and has a variety of projects on at any one time, so it is only possible to give a general idea of what you will be doing if you join them.   While I was there, volunteers were cleaning a damaged community centre ready for a forthcoming concert, removing mud from documents and photographs belonging to local people and ripping out damaged parts of houses ready for rebuilding.

Cleaning mud from documents and photographs is perhaps the perfect job for a writer.  I found myself alternatively marvelling that they were intact and speculating whether a computer’s hard drive would have survived so well.  It was also impossible not to wonder what had become of all the celebrating people in the photographs, enjoying sports days and cultural events.  Or while working through a file of financial records, to keep from thinking about where the hand which had idly scribbled notes across a page was now.  In the ‘to be cleaned’ pile was a schoolbag, identical to the one that all my young students have, still with mud-encrusted toy attached to the zip.  I found myself hoping that its owner was somewhere missing it, in spite of knowing that the death toll from schools in the city must make that impossible.

There are two Japanese words quoted in Jake Adelstein’s book, Tokyo Vice: setsunai and yarusenai, which are translated as ‘a physical feeling of sadness’ and ‘a sadness that you can’t clear away’ respectively.  When working in a city which is still a disaster zone, feelings like these are never very far from you, however, I believe the most practical way to deal with them is to get on with helping the survivors.  Each person does as much as they can and tasks tend to get assigned via a process of ‘can you do…’  ‘Yes, fine!’  ‘OK then, do it!’  It works well.  Breaks crop up exactly when you feel most in need of them, teas and coffees are produced, a bag of Kit Kats handed around and there is time for a chat before getting back to it.  In a Tohoku winter, there is a lot of incentive to throw yourself into work until your muscles hum and you don’t notice the cold or that the clock has ticked around to midday.  The lunches at INJM were some of the best I’ve eaten in Japan, which should give you a measure of exactly how good they were.  Warm, nourishing and served up with good humour by Hashimoto san, whose house has become an unofficial second home to the city’s volunteers.  Her kotatsu heated table was also a joy to the toes.

Donating your time and energy to help Ishinomaki via INJM in no way means living a Spartan existence.  After the afternoon’s work, brought to an end around the time the light starts to fade, everyone heads towards the onsen.  There is running water at the INJM house, but the queues and rage that would no doubt ensue from 20 people trying to get a shower mean that it’s much easier and far more pleasant to use the public baths for a scrub and a soak.  The evening draws to a close with more eating and chatting, maybe a couple of drinks to soothe us off to sleep, without causing too much of a headache in the morning!  Then the only job that remains is to find a space to set up your own array of futons, blankets and quilts – saying a quick prayer to make sure you don’t snore please – before the lights go out ready for another early start on the following day.

If you are wavering about going, don’t.  Yes, if you are strong, speak good Japanese, can drive or dig, or have any experience of building, you should definitely go!  But even if not, go anyway.  You are needed, people will be happy to see you and you will leave feeling that you have done something, even if it is only a fraction of what needs to be done.  By everyone who can taking on a little part of it, what could appear to be an overwhelming task becomes that much easier.  A lot has already been done, but there is more still to take care of.  Maybe it will happen without you, but maybe it will take even longer.

And if you need any further incentive, did I mention how good the food was?

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The seven stages of gaijinhood

Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, recently the milestones keep making great whooshing noises as they go by.  This is both my ninth month in Japan and my 200th post on ten minutes hate and, although it has been a mad rush of a week after the previous serene holiday temple wanderings, that seems to offer enough of a reason to stop and survey the scenery.

So already pondering my navel, this excellent post on the seven stages of gaijinhood* perfectly chimed with the mood.  It also includes a handy chart, to map your progress on the descent to something even your closest friends will take pleasure in shunning.  It was intriguing to wonder where I might fall.

On the one hand, I am happy to be a ‘wide-eyed wonderer’, still ticking off the firsts: first trip on a shinkansen, first visit to Kyoto, even (slightly shamefacedly) the first faltering steps towards learning some Japanese.  Yet at the same time, perhaps not so wide-eyed.

Often I struggle to answer the question of why I came to Japan when people ask, because the reason seems quite mundane.  I was tired of London and looking for something new, afraid of slipping into the dread routine and worried I would never make it out.  People told me I was crazy to give up a secure job and although I know they were rooting for me, I don’t think even my best friends thought it would really happen until we were celebrating at my leaving do.

In spite of that, and even though just before I left the UK I was writing that Haruki Murakami was about 68% responsible for the whole adventure, maybe not having a clear obsession, with manga or martial arts or anything else, helped.  Hopefully, my lack of a clear reason for choosing Japan meant that I managed to side-step some of the notions that set people up for rapid disillusionment soon after the plane lands.  The real, if slightly dull, reason I came here was that I wanted to see it for myself.

But if the ‘wide-eyed wonderer’ stage is the most self-aware of them all then it is important not to get too self-congratulatory.  It is essential to keep a handle on how gauche you are, still wet behind the ears, so required to bow (like a rice stalk in the wind, according to one guidebook I brought with me) to the superior knowledge of others.  While running counter to the spirit of adventure that got you onto the plane, on arrival, it is both safer and easier to walk in the footsteps of those who have trod the path before.

As a writer in Japan, it is inevitable that writing about Japan would rear its sometimes-ugly head.  Our Man in Abiko skewers some of the more terrible afflictions of the genre in this post:

Do not use pictures of Japanese people behaving normally, such as shopping at CostCo, walking around IKEA or eating a hamburger, as this will imply to potential readers that you don’t know the real Japan.

The Westerner’s fear of the neonsign also offers some words of caution:

Every blog about Japan – and there are too many to count – reveals a dossier of prejudices that the author either held already or nurtured during that vital first year in the country. It’s no surprise that blogs are appended so innocuously – ‘a blog about my life in Japan’, ‘thoughts on Japanese society’, ‘visual culture in Japan’ – since this is all the author believes himself to be doing.

Maybe because this site existed before I arrived, it was easier to resist the urge to document every new thing I stumbled across in those early ‘barely able to get on the right train’ days.  My posts from that time are notable either because they don’t contain much Japan, or because they don’t contain many words, although that last does include not one, but two strange flavoured Kit-Kats.  I could die of shame.

I started ten minutes hate to vent spleen at the utter uselessness of the UK’s politicians and at first it was difficult to resist the lure of or foresee an end to that topic.  That was until the time difference and distance began intruding, when it didn’t seem like I could offer any new perspectives on the cuts and the protests against them.  My last post on the subject, written on 10 March, was largely unloved and unread.

I wasn’t sure what else to do, but I knew I wanted to avoid writing another ‘weird Japan’ blog.  As an English teacher I couldn’t feel comfortable mocking attempts to use the language, especially not with six words of Japanese to my name.  The seedier aspects of life might have boosted the hit count, but apparently there are others out there making a much better fist of that, so more power to their elbows.

Maybe in the end, your subject finds you.  As with so many other areas of life, the Tohoku earthquake must have altered the gradual progressions noted in the chart.  Perhaps it has made me jump a few steps to ‘ill-informed activism’ as, horrified by the UK media’s take on the situation, I determined to tell the ‘real’ story.  That this has proved popular shows that people are keen to hear from other perspectives.  My posts since 11 March have often strayed far from what I would consider ‘newsworthy’, seeming to endlessly concern the tea I have been drinking and accompanying cakes.  Maybe there is a ‘keep calm and carry on’ nature to such posts that make them comforting to read.

I am aware of Japan slipping down the list of stories, at the worst possible point for those affected, when they need assistance and attention more than ever.  All I can do is, in a small way, keep the stories of survivors, their needs and the relief efforts directed at them, in the thoughts of people around the world who may be able to help.  To keep plugging Quakebook and other fundraising efforts and to report on efforts being made in other countries, so that Japan doesn’t feel alone, as one of my students said it did in March.

I hope that will keep ten minutes hate going for another 200 posts, although on the way there will be times when I am just as unsure of the right direction.  In Gakuranman’s post he notes that:

self-doubt and questioning is at least a step in the direction of humility.

I would argue that a little – not too much – self-doubt is an essential part of a writer’s arsenal.  You want that small voice whispering in your ear ‘it’s not good enough’, to spur you on to better things.  When strolling around new cities, as well as when writing, getting lost is usually the best way to find your way to something unexpected but ultimately more rewarding.

* A gaijin is a foreigner in Japan, lovers of wordplay will note that this was recently amended to ‘flyjin’ in response to the numbers of foreigners who made arrangements to move elsewhere when faced with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown.

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Japan: the first month

All pictures by Julia

Top: an obsession is born, Roppongi Crossing sizzles in the heat, Bento Heaven

Middle: downtown platform, Samurai noodles, Tokyo Tower

Bottom: You walk into a bar…, Japanese bowling shoes – designed by the Klaxons, told you I was obsessed!

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Hiatus Redux

A long time ago it now seems, I wrote about heading East.

As the departure date grows ever closer, so blogging is unfortunately falling by the wayside.  Julia suggests you amuse yourself in the ten minutes hate Records Department, by scrolling down on the right hand-side, until normal service – along with mention of Wasabi Kit-Kats – can be resumed.

Back soon…

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