Posts Tagged ‘confusing’

Just when I thought I had seen it all in Japan, I realised I have only been scraping the surface of bizarrity. (That isn’t a word but it sounds right somehow. My English ability has dropped to the level of a 6 year old.) I went for a mosey around the public library at Tsurumai Park the other day, and was more than a little surprised to see that there is a Sugakiya (ramen restaurant) inside. Not attached to the outside, but actually inside the library. I was thinking how amazing it would be if SOAS had something similar – during the exam period and 24hr opening a ramen restaurant in the library would be the perfect antidote to a hard nights revision!

But it gets even weirder than that. After a hunger fuelled stroll in search of a new and exciting restaurant, we found the perfect place that the producers of Hells Kitchen would probably commit acts of indecency in public places for Gordon Ramsey to sort out. A restaurant called “Mountain”, which specialises in interesting types of rice and spaghetti. Naturally, amongst the list of about 60 types of spaghetti (which actually turned out to be more like a noodle-pasta hybrid; best not to ask) you have standard sauces such as bolognese, carbonara and Japanese style flavours such as Mentaiko (spicy roe). What is surprising however, is seeing strawberry pasta make an appearance on the menu. Or kiwi pasta. Or banana pasta. There were a lot of very strange combinations – none of which sounded very appetising! I saw someone eating said strawberry pasta, and it seemed that it was the sauce and not the actually pasta which was strawberry flavoured. I must say it looked truly horrific. However the absolute worst item on the menu had to be the “Italian Tomato Parfait”. What part of  mixing ice cream and tomatoes seems like a good idea?! And what sort of person orders such a vomit inducing concoction?! Whats more, the portion sizes were bigger than American sizes, enough for 2 very hungry people or maybe even 3! After eating about a third I had to give it up to Michael who has the appetite of an mammoth. I would love to see Gordons reaction to the menu and restaurant…

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Question: what whips Japanese girls into a fury of baking, borrowing sugar, and locked kitchen doors? Valentines day of course!

Valentines Day in Japan is the complete opposite to what you would expect. The tradition here is that on February 14th WOMEN give MEN chocolates! And as if that wasn’t unromantic enough, they are nicknamed called “obligation chocolates” for the reason that they have to be given to male work colleagues, superiors, teachers, and all men who you interact with on a frequent basis. Its not all bad for women though; exactly a month later the men who received these chocolates have to return the favour by giving presents such as handkerchiefs or hand towels on what is known as White Day.

The fun part for the men is working out whether the chocolates are “Honne” (a gift from the heart) or “giri” (given out of social obligation). Obviously the more time you take to make them or the more expensive they are, the more love they show.

Rebbekah and I spent the best part of Saturday afternoon making home-made chocolates for our friends with fairly good results:

Valentine Chocolates

Valentine Chocolates

Oh and one other thing. To add another twist into the mix, and apparently due to the “influence of western customs”, one of the major chocolate manufacturers has brought out “reverse chocolates”. These are exactly the same as the normal chocolates except for the fact that the packaging is printed in reverse, and MEN are meant to give them to WOMEN in accordance with the usual Valentines day customs. And before you ask, no I am not joking.

Essentially, noone knows who to give chocolate to anymore.

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As a Japanologist (hah!) I get asked a lot of questions by friends and family about Japanese life and culture, ranging from relatively simple topics to the obscure. However the question I get asked more often than anything else is “Why do Japanese people always make the V-sign in photographs?”. One cousin even enquired as to whether it is some kind of Churchill-envy. Today I will put this great mystery to rest for those of you who have always wondered.

Most people think that it has something to do with being a symbol of peace/victory, but in actual fact it is a rather old fashioned dating device. Over 100 years ago it was used as a secret signal to members of the opposite sex who could be considered partners for marriage. Since a face-to-face conversation with a stranger in the street would be far too forward, a simple flash of the signal would show interest in that person and allow for arrangements to be made for private discussions, inevitably leading to marriage. Since then, with the invention of the camera and demise of arranged marriages single people use it as a pose in photographs to indicate their single status. Whilst this might seem embarrassing, it means singletons can more successfully pick and choose prospective partners from looking at friends’ photographs. If you see a cute guy/girl making the sign in your friends’ photograph then arrangements can be made for a not-quite-so-blind blind-date. So, be careful about making the V-sign when having your photograph taken in Japan!

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I understand that desperate times lead to desperate measures. Cut backs, switching from branded goods to generic, making certain necessary sacrifices etc. However, what I saw today, red wine being sold with a free sample of processed peelable “cheese string”, is verging on unacceptable. Even more so when you consider that this has NOTHING to do with the credit-crunch. So the cheese stick thing is tied on to a bottle of red wine with an elastic band, which then has to be kept in the refridgerator section to prevent the cheese from going off. COLD red wine, plastic cheese. The insinuation that this is a good combination makes me want to cry a bit inside. On their own they are bad enough, but what a combination.

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One of my favorite things about studying Japanese is the subtlety of this language. A lot is left unsaid, words ommitted or abbreviated, and so one has to rely on context to understand the overall meaning. There is also a lot of variety that we dont have in English, such the different first person pronouns you can use in Japanese. By choosing a particular first person pronoun you can instantly make yourself seem more masculine, feminine, humble, superior or a combination of the above. Choosing the most appropriate word out of a selection of five or six is slightly tricky. But what is more interesting is trying to understand what someone is saying when they use a particular word which has three or four different meanings!!  Japanese has so many homophones that misunderstandings easily occur. “Kami” can mean 紙 “paper” 髪 “hair” or 神 ”god”. Japanese people argue that the pronounciation is different, and whilst this may be the case I still have to rely on context to know which one they mean!

Luckily I am allowed to make mistakes as I am not a native speaker, and when I do it is cause for laughter rather than offence. Since the last few days have been peppered with examples, I want to share two which stood out.

On Saturday I went to Nagoya Port and to see the aquarium which was a lovely day out. As soon as we got there my Japanese friend said to me 「さかなみたい」. Now, depending on the context and how it is written or pronounced, this could either mean 「魚見たい」 ”I want to see the fish” or 「魚みたい」 ” (something) looks like a fish”, but the difference is very minimal to the untrained ear. Since we were at an aquarium, it really wasn’t very clear which she meant. To add to the confusion, another friend said 「魚食べてみたい」, which means “I want to taste the fish”. Whether they meant the ones swimming around in the tanks in front of us or ones fresh from the port was unclear, although I hope they meant the latter!

On Thursday evening I decided to get my hair coloured at a place nearby, and on my return to the dorms I met a couple of people I hadn’t seen in a few days. When they asked about my new look I replied “I just got back from the Beauty Parlour”. Unfortunately, the word for Beauty Parlour/Hairdressers is very very similar to the word for Hospital and my friend looked at me half shocked and worried until we both realised my mispronunciation, at which we burst out laughing!

So whilst learning a new language can be a minefield, it is also incredibly funny if you take a step back and laugh at your own mistakes.

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Japan can often seem like a bewildering place for a gaijin (outside person = foreigner) and I still get surprised about some of the little things that occur on a daily basis.

Once you get over all the obvious differences like vending machines every 50 metres, height difference, the cutsie cartoons that tell you how you should behave/how to operate a water fountain etc, the abundance of advertisement (even on handrails on escalators in a major station – now THATS thinking outside the box!) you start to notice the smaller things.

The following are a couple of things which really stuck out.


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