#84 Karaoke

Who knew that some of the best lessons in life can be learned in a karaoke room?

As year abroad students with little to lose and and not experienced enough yet to be afraid of hangovers, we were amazed by the prospect of all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai) for the equivilant of about $15.

So we used to go out to various Japanese bars (izakaya) to order as many drinks as we could stomach within two hours (which, it turns out, when you have a bunch of foreigners including Americans and Europeans competing with each other, is a ridiculous amount).

Despite being a bustling city, the last train would be at the ridiculously early time of midnight, so we would usually find ourselves checking into karaoke to pass the time before the first train the next day. We discovered that a karaoke room is the cheapest (and probably most fun) place to spend the night without having to sleep in the streets, or take an overpriced taxi all the way home.

Just as revenge is a dish best served cold, karaoke is best served with copious amounts of alcohol. By the time we got inside, we would be pretty wasted, but this made for the best karaoke nights.

Suddenly everyone could sing like Mariah Carey, or at least we thought we could, as we screeched power ballads, and danced to Lady Gaga on the tables. In reality, we probaly sounded more annoying than continuous police sirens, but we didn’t care. If somebody was actually good at singing, we wouldn’t bring them with us anyway.

Not to be put off by the dozen trips per hour to the restroom that we had to take from all that we had already drunk, we would also help ourselves to the free soft drinks that came with our entry price. We would sip coffee to keep us going, and mix syrup with oolong tea, or drink too much of the mysterious green stuff pictured above.

Our disappointing moments of not being able to find a song we loved on the playlist would immediately be replaced with the joy of finding a popular chart song, a teen classic, or an anthem from the 90′s to belt at the top of our voices. (Side note: I must have sung AKB48′s ‘Heavy Rotation’ about 500 million times. To this day, it is remains a staple part of any karaoke trip).

Looking back, we may seem a little overindulgent, but at the time, we were having the most fun in our lives. It was those nights, which started out so optimistically at an izakaya, escalated to epic proportions at karaoke, and ended with a walk of shame to McDonald’s on the way to the station for the first train home, that were worth remembering.

JET Programme and Japan Part II

Image

Okay, I didn’t get it. But my other half did. So after graduating last May, I worked for a little while in London, before flying to Japan in September. It was the first time I had been back since my year abroad in second year of university. It felt great to be back, surrounded by Japanese signs, bowing shopkeepers, and delicious food.

Returning to Japan

We lived together in Kochi Prefecture for a few months, where I spent most of my time studying for the JLPT. It was a good life, living in a small coastal town in the countryside. We were quite far from the nearest city, about two hours by train, and even though Kochi City itself isn’t the busiest place in Shikoku, but we had plenty enough to do, and we were happy. 

tano river

I went for runs along the beach, and after the busy life I had just spent working in central London, I didn’t mind spending my days in peace and quiet in the house. For the two of us, it was quite spacious, with three tatami rooms, a big living room and even two balconies. I converted one of the rooms into my yoga/study room where I did my daily stretches by day, and read while snuggled under the kotatsu by night.

Tokyo

Then, in December, I was accepted for a position at the British Embassy in Tokyo.

I had applied on a whim, without seriously considering whether or not I would get it. It turned out that they thought my experience of working on energy and climate change in London would come in very handy, plus I could already speak Japanese. My interview was just two days before my JLPT exam, so I almost didn’t go. Not only that, but I didn’t feel confident that I would get it, so what was the point in going? To get to Tokyo from Kochi meant getting on a plane, which took a lot of time and money.

Nevertheless, I took the plunge in the end, and I was accepted. Somehow, I ended up with a second amazing job opportunity during what I had intended to be my year off. I guess the universe is telling me that it was about time to get off my ass.

So now, here I am, living in Shinjuku, central Tokyo. I call my partner in Kochi everyday, but I’m quite used to living on my own for now. I spend most of my time at work, or reading, or reluctantly studying for the next level of JLPT. Well, I say ‘reluctantly’, but I’ve been studying Japanese for five years now, I don’t know what else to do with my spare time. It was inevitable that I would go for JLPT N1 one day.

For me, a little bit of solitude is always accompanied with the need to write. I thought about this blog, which I started years ago, before I even went to Japan for the first time, and how little I knew back then.

I used to follow a whole bunch of blogs like this one, telling me about what life in Japan would be like. Since then, I’ve learned a lot, and I lately I’ve been thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to pay it forward?’

#25 Tempura

Perhaps I could have set higher expectations for my year abroad than to eat a bowl of battered-fried vegetables but, as a woman, I am genetically predisposed to being attracted to anything laden with fat and/or sugar, so I happily added tempura to the list of conquests.

I’m the kind of person would basically eat her own foot if it was covered in batter anyway, so I knew all along that tempura couldn’t possibly fail me.

I was not disappointed. In ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ style I ate them in restaurants, karaoke joints, izakayas, in Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Shikoku, in tiny dishes, from large platters, piled on top of a steaming bowl of udon, with sushi… almost anywhere I could order them, I did.

Real Japanese Tempura (yes, with capital letters) is crispy, light and so subtly delicious that my mouth is watering right now thinking about the taste of dipping it whilst still warm into a dish of tentsuyu (tempura sauce), tilting my head back and dropping the entire thing into my mouth like those claw machines at fairgrounds. It’s an art that any true British person has mastered by the age of seven from practising since birth, The Art of Dipping the Rich Tea Biscuit – how to perfectly time the immersion so that you could pop the morsel in your mouth dripping with liquid on the outside and yet still remain crispy on the inside.

Good tempura batter tastes like buttery air and the vegetables still maintain their fresh sweet taste even after frying (deceitfully disguising the calories hidden inside).

Like the ‘scrambled egg test’ that a lot of trainee chefs have to pass in order to prove that they can cook well, (the premise is that if they can’t cook even a simple dish properly, then they have no hope), it’s hard to find Real Japanese Tempura anywhere else other than in the kitchen of a skilled chef. I remember once my host mother tried to make it but there wasn’t enough air in the batter so it was more like a piece of chopped vegetable was trapped inside dough mixture (which I had no problem with eating anyway), rather than wrapped in a delicate cocoon of translucent batter.

Speaking of transluscency, I can tell from my almost sexual way of describing Real Japanese Tempura that I enjoyed it a bit too much. Now I have become one of those people who have been to Nirvana and has come back to never be able to face a cod and chips again without comparing it to tempura and thinking, “Ew, this tastes like my foot in batter”.

ただいま Tadaima

It’s been over a year now since I’ve returned from Japan.

As I became so busy with my studies back in England, I had almost given up with writing for this blog. But, I realise now that I can’t keep away. Japan will always have a special place in my heart, like an old friend, who, no matter how bat-shit crazy they gets sometimes, I will always think of with affection.

I’ve been lucky enough to make a lot of new friends with Japanese language students in their fresher year, who are in exactly the same position I was when starting this blog. There’s something special about being able look back on my time in Japan and being able to see it from a more grown-up standpoint, rather than the magical land of rainbows that I had imagined it to be before I went.

As I saw my friends fervently preparing for their year abroad, I felt a strong urge to condescendingly pat them on the head and say, “You have no idea what you’re in for, young one”.

Pangs of nostalgia hit me at random moments – when I hear a song we used to sing at karaoke, a smell that reminds me of my host family’s home, when I look at old purikura or photos I took on my travels, I feel like I want to go home, back to Japan.

I wasn’t there for very long, but those hot summer and chilly winter days made up the time of my life, and each day stood out for me like a whole week or month back in England.

I had written a lot of draft posts that have sat forlornly on my dashboard, like dusty manuscripts wanting to see the light of day. Now as I flick through them I realise that even though they were modest goals, completing each one made me truly happy, and I should honour those feelings with my words.

So, due to popular demand, I have decided that I shall indulge myself in my memories once again and return to writing for 101 Things in Japan. Thank you to all those that have stuck with me and to new readers – please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, you’re in for a ride!

#44 Zen Garden

For some inexplicable reason, I have more than just a passing obsession with carefully laid out rocks.

Now, in case you’re thinking about what a strange and rather sad obsession this is, let me just say… you’re not wrong.

It takes a special kind of person to have the ability to derive so much pleasure from pieces of nature that can’t be smoked. Yes, that kind person is me, but you’d be surprised at how many other normal-looking people also flock to famous places to silently ogle for an hour at raked sand.

Zen gardens are definitely very high up there in my favourite kinds of Japanese landscape (yes I have mental list of such things), which is quite impressive if you think about the kind of things Japan offers – glorious snow-capped mountains, miles of cherry blossoms along riverbanks and huge cities glowing with the neon lights of urban life.

Zen garden near Koya-san, Wakayama prefecture

I can’t say exactly what it is about these gardens that get me going except that there’s something about the fact that even though they are man-maintained, they still have a strong sense of natural beauty and an air of tranquillity about them.

Unlike gardens one might find in Britain (the kind I’m more used to seeing) Japanese gardens don’t try so hard to aim for perfection outside of nature’s ability to create it. This is a generalization of course, but it’s not uncommon in England to find hedges that are trimmed to at perfect right angles (and/or any ridiculous bear/snowman/phallis shape), red roses cross-bred for generations and lawns trimmed more carefully than one would their fingernails.

The Zen garden of Ryōan-ji, Kyoto

Whatever the reason, I for one really appreciate the thought that must have gone into arranging the gardens, even though to the untrained eye they may look as random as having been offloaded from the back of a truck. For example, in Ryōan-ji (pictured above) there are fifteen stones carefully placed so that no matter from which angle you can look upon the garden, you will never be able to see all of the rocks at the same time.

There are many interpretations but to me it simply means “that’s life”.

And if that wasn’t enough to blow your mind, I checked out Wikipedia (my reliable source for everything I know) and found this utterly fascinating piece of knowledge:

According to the researchers, one critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief.

The researchers propose that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewers unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. In support of their findings, they found that imposing a random perturbation of the locations of individual rock features destroyed the special characteristics.

For that kind of genius the I give the Anonymous who designed Ryōan-ji a non-patronising slow clap of respect.

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