Life in Japan

Observations on everyday life in Japan.

Note: some of the entries in this section are aimed at the "folks back home" and might not be terribly interesting for anyone living in Japan.

Monday, December 28, 2009   2:05 PM

An Honourable Pawnbroker

Recently my mailbag has been overflowing with plaintive mails along the lines of "Dear Penguin, when will you start blogging again?". Well actually it isn't, though as one of my email accounts is I've been getting an increasing amount of emails addressed to other people who happen to share my surname, including an intriguing invitation to join the University of Iowa GraDykes Facebook group.

I digress. Work has been keeping me busy, and when I'm not busy I try to spend as little time in front of the internet as possible, as that is what occupies most of my day. And, tragically, this blog is not entirely anonymous, which means unlike more prolific work bloggers such as Foreign Salaryman or Green-Eyed Geisha I am not really at liberty to blog from the rich vein of juicy stories from the fascinating world of business life in case someone gets wind of the fact that I am lampooning them on a public website. (I may or may not have a totally other, completely anonymous blog for that purpose).

However I think I can share with you, dear reader, this slightly long-winded anecdote which might be mildly amusing if you are familiar with Japanese business etiquette, and if not please bear with me while I try to explain it as I go along. (If you are easily distracted, now might be a good time to go and follow someone on Twitter or whatever it is the young people like to do nowadays).

Saturday, October 31, 2009   1:30 AM

Blow, not suck


Dear residents of this fine archipelago,

You may have noticed that the colder season is drawing upon us, as it does every year. You may also have become aware of a certain tendency, from time to time, for your nasal passages to be occupied by a mucus-like substance, often in association with a cough and repeated sneezing events.

Fear not, Japan and the Japanese people are not alone with this affliction, particularly in these times of porcine influenza. However, we from gaikoku have an important potentially lifestyle-changing tip we'd like to share with you:


Now, we understand the barbaric practice of having a good blow into a hanky Is Just Not The Done Thing around here, and when you think about it, it is quite revolting, especially when you see someone put the sodden tissue into their sleeve for later retrieval.

On the other hand this outstanding nation is blessed by a wide range of freely available public conveniences where we would like to suggest that you can - in relative privacy - evacuate the unwanted contents of your respiratory system into e.g. some of the paper tissues distributed free of charge in copious amounts on busy streets.


The person sitting next to you trying to resist the urge to strangle you with your cheap polyester tie.

Monday, February 9, 2009   8:53 PM

12 months

It's incredible to think that it's been six months since I wrote that it has been six months since I made landfall on Japan's tetrapod-lined shores. Time flies when one is having fun, doing battle with the local fauna etc. etc. Unfortunately too busy to wax lyrical right now, but life has certainly got a lot more interesting.

And at least it isn't snowing (yet).

Friday, January 16, 2009   2:29 PM

Blogs on a roll

Unfortunately I spend way too much time in front of a computer to have the energy to be an examplary citizen of the blogosphere. Fortunately I don't have any statistics utilities in operation (other than the raw logfiles which I systematically scour for bad bots so I can block the hell out of them) so I don't lose sleep over the amount of people who might or might not be reading here (hi Mum!). Nevertheless I've recently come across a couple of blogs to add to the roll on the right (if you are reading this on the main page) and thought I'd take the opportunity to mention them in the hope of gaining some bloggy karma or whatever.

First off, a Brit who lived a long time in Germany, married a Japanese citizen and moved to Japan. And no, this isn't me, it's David, aka mdid, who is also penguin-friendly and so qualifies for an entry in the list of bloggy linkiness even if he never makes another post again.

Another bogging Brit is our man in abiko, a place for which I have a soft spot because although I've never been there I did commute on the Odakyu Line for a while, which connects via the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line to whatever line it is passes through Abiko, and the platform destination signs always contained references to Abiko and other exotic-sounding destinations such as Ayase and Toride. At least they sounded distant and exotic to me, although no doubt if you get off at Abiko you will see a) a station square with some bus stops and a statue of something random like a young girl juggling pumpkins; b) a shopping street called e.g. "Abiko Ginza" or "Abiko Sun Road" containing an eclectic mix of local shops and chains such as McDonalds, Doutor and Yoshinoya; and c) a giant pachinko complex. Fortunately our man in abiko doesn't blog much about local issues, even though the place is no doubt much more delightful than I imagine, but does have an interesting and incisive take on Japanese political affairs, which deserve all the satiric commentary they can get.

Finally, not exactly a new discovery but someone I have neglected to read more often: Thomas, who as his domain name suggests, lives in Sendai. A much more diligent poster than I, he has some interesting insights into long-term life in Japan and well worth following.

PS Anyone know what's happened to Tokyo Cowgirl?

Thursday, January 1, 2009   1:01 PM

Scrambled Crossing

This is Shibuya Crossing. Even if you've never been to Tokyo you've very probably seen it on TV. Or in "Lost In Translation". By law anyone doing any kind of filming has to shoot at least one scene here or they won't be allowed to leave the country. It's very impressive, what with the masses of people and all those futuristic-looking high-tech video screens. In fact it's one of those iconic locations where it'd be fun to celebrate the countdown to New Year, sort of like New York's Times Square or London's Trafalgar Square. As you can see from the picture below, at around 11pm there were quite a lot of people gathered with the intention of having a bit of harmless fun:

New Year in Tokyo, Japan

But not if Mr. Policeman is going to have anything to do with it. Oh no. Mr. Policeman is evidently having a great time repeating the announcement that there would be no countdown at this location, and that anyone planning one should please bugger off somewhere else off his beat. He'd even gone to the trouble of having those futuristic video screens shut off.

New Year in Tokyo, Japan: Policeman in Shibuya

Meanwhile Mr. Policeman's friends were busy blocking off the diagonal bit of the crossing, to prevent any blatant and gratuitous acts of fun:

New Year in Tokyo, Japan: Shibuya Crossing

So, sensing that Mr. Policeman's friends and some rather less friendly-looking friends of his with big sticks might impose officially-sanctioned boredom, we buggered off somewhere else.

Saturday, December 20, 2008  11:32 AM

A New Commuter Trick

Just when you think you've seen it all... there I was at Shinagawa Station, waiting on board the little local train in the general direction of Yokohama to puff into action (well, it was electric of course, but that line still has some quite quaint old-fashioned looking trains hailing from a foregone era) and minding my own business while noting that the doors were closing accompanied by the usual "doors are closing and don't even think about trying to board this train" which was a sure sign it would be departing very shortly (the slightest spot of rain always seems to muck the timetable on that line up somewhat) when Mrs. Fat Middle-Age Trout comes waddling down the steps onto the platform. Now, I would be a whole lot more kindly disposed towards Mrs. Trout and love her for her beautiful mind and not her toad-like body if she hadn't done what she then did, which was to stick her bag into the door literally as it was about to close all the way.

Now, if I'd been the person standing by the door I would have - without stopping to think - pulled open the door slightly and pushed the bag firmly back out, because try a trick like that where I come from and you'd be dragged along the platform and possibly impaled upon the platform end signals unless you had the presence of mind to let go of the bag, something which probably wouldn't occur to Mrs. Trout, who - let's be honest here - is probably a bit of a stupid bint who deserves whatever's coming to her (such as the next immobile, sharp and pointy signalling device).

But, this being Japan, the guard opened all the doors again, allowing Mrs. Trout to board at the inconvenience of the person who was standing by the doors, and the train was only delayed by 15 seconds or so, which - all things considered - is better than the inevitable indefinite delay which would have been caused by what I would happily have testified to the inquest as being the last suicidal act of an obviously deranged person.

The rest of the day wasn't too bad though.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008   2:30 PM

Dear old dude at Matsuya

My apologies if I was a little curt and abrupt to you earlier this evening.

You see, I dropped by your Japanese fast food chain store place in search of a nice hot nourishing dish of dead cow on rice, as I have done many times before, and was about to tuck in to the bowl the young dude on duty had just placed in front of me when you very confusingly asked "スプーンをさしてあげましょうか?"[*] and making a gesture moving both hands horizontally sideways indicating, as far as I can tell, that you were trying to tell me something about a short plank of wood.

Did it look like I was about to tuck into a plate of curry?

Nope. Possibly you observed me poking at the deceased bovine bits on top of the rice with my chopsticks in a slightly disjointed manner? Well that was a) because I was f*cking whacked after 11 hours in front of a computer, meaning my hand-eye coordination was not at its best; and b) experience shows that if I don't do a little preparatory work on your signature dish I get a tangled sinewy mess which is somewhat hard to ingest.

If I wanted a f*cking spoon I would f*cking ask you for one.

And anyway, if you were assuming I was a just-off-the-boat gaijin unfamiliar with the strange wooden implements the civilised locals use to consume nourishment, how the fugu do you think I managed to order the darn item in the first place, seeing as the buttons on your ordering machine[**] are in Japanese only and all that? And how the hell would you expect me to understand something like "さしてあげましょうか" (a colloquial semi-formal construction probably not found in volume 1 of "Japanese for Foreigners Just Off the Boat") in the context of a short plank of wood?

Oh yes, I hope you counted the number of grains of rice left after I finished the apparently challenging task of consuming a meal using only two round sticks. I believe there was one which somehow attached itself to the side of the bowl.

[*] "Would you like a spoon with that, sir?"
[**] a labour-saving device which has the additional advantage that the people handling the food don't have to handle money as well

Monday, November 24, 2008   9:14 AM

Book 1st, Shinjuku

(Occasionally I might write the odd factual article which may be of actual practical interest to someone living in Tokyo or Japan. This is one of them.)

Cocoon Tower, Shinjuku (November 2008)
The Cocoon Tower, yesterday

Keen students of architecture, and observational types who regularly check out Shinjuku's skyline, will have noticed that the Cocoon Tower - last reported on in these pages in February - has been completed and is now incubating the next generation of Mothra, who will no doubt one day come forth and start flapping around the spotlights illuminating Tokyo Tower until someone can find a swatter big enough. I digress. The tower's full name is Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (モード学園コクーンタワー), and as a deeply unfashionable person (it contains some sort of design/fashion school) it has been of little immediate interest to me, until I noticed signs announcing the opening of the latest branch of "Book 1st", which is a fairly widespread chain of bookstores (and not e.g. some sort of booking agency, as the name might imply) in the Kansai area and around Tokyo.

As my book budget probably exceeds my fashion budget (and by fashion I mean "clothes bought at Uniqlo") and it seems to be quite a big bookstore, I thought I would toddle along the other day and check it out, with a special eye for the foreign section (me being a foreigner and all that).

Well, it is a big-ish bookstore, occupying the two basement stories of the tower. However - and take this from someone with an unusually keen sense of direction - it is very confusingly laid out. There is no internal connection between floors, and even between sections on the same floor you sometimes have to go "outside" and come back in again. It's as if, after completing the tower, the building owners realised they had all these odd-shaped spaces in the basement, and were desperate to come up with some way of using them.

If it's Japanese books which pique your interest, the selection is pretty good, but while there's a fair selection of foreign (= mainly US American) magazines, the foreign book section is quite small and uninspiring. It did seem to have a big selection of children's books though. The main advantage it has is that - on a Sunday at least - it is nice and quiet (as is the whole skyscraper district west of Shinjuku Station) and has that pleasant new bookshop smell.

Conclusion: if it's foreign books you're after, either of the Kinokuniya stores in Shinjuku, or even Tower Records in Shibuya, offer a better selection.

Opening Hours: daily 10am - 10pm
Telephone: (03) 5339-7611
Directions: From Shinjuku Station's western exit, take the pedestrian tunnel on the north side of Chuo-dori (it's the one with the walkway on the left). Cocoon Tower should be pretty well signposted. At some point on your right you'll see the Book 1st sign. Alternatively take the above-ground route to the easy-to-locate tower, then find a stairway which leads downwards and with some luck it should deposit you in front of the bookstore and not in the underground carpark.