Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everybody. I'm off to Okaasan's. It's time for her yearly kiss. I wonder if she's feeling nervous yet?

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bad, BAD gaijin!

I have developed a new habit recently, since the electronic goods store in our neighbourhood was enlarged and they added a bigger, better digital camera selection . This store is in the same building as a supermarket, and with my new interest in digital cameras I like to visit and see what they've got when I finish at the supermarket. Not that I need a new camera; I have a perfectly adequate (cheap) one. I just like to play with the toys on display. I especially like to play with the more expensive ones.

Anyway, as I wander around playing with the display cameras, I always check to see if they have the option of switching to an English menu, just in case one day I'm rich enough to buy one of the really good cameras. If they have this option, I change the menus to English and leave them like that. (I don't, however, limit my activities to only the good cameras. If I have time I change them all, including the movie cameras. I don't limit myself to English, either, if there are other options.)

Yesterday I noticed that I was being followed at a discreet distance by a polite young store clerk who was picking up the cameras after I'd finished playing with them. When I did a second round I discovered he'd changed the menus back to Japanese.

Naturally, I changed them back to English again (except for the ones I set to Russian, German, or Spanish).

I wonder how long it will be before they politely ask me to STOP DOING THAT YOU STUPID GAIJIN? And I wonder how long it will be before I grow up?

Who are you?

At the flea market on Christmas Day I picked up a box of glass plate negatives, about 80 years old. I had never seen glass plate negatives before, although I'd read about them, and wasn't sure whether I'd be able to see the pictures. But I was intrigued. I wanted to try.

I was able to scan the plates, and using Photoshop (which I'm not very good at) retrieve at least a semblance of the original photographs. I don't think the photographer was very good. Out of about twenty, at least half of them are hopelessly blurred. But never mind. They're a glimpse into a bygone world.

I also have a folder of old negatives, brought from the same stall. I'll get around to scanning them sometime, too, but it takes time and there are a lot of them.

In the meantime, here are some pictures to dream on. Who were these people, I wonder? All I can tell you is what you can see: the young man is very good looking, the baby is pissed off, and somebody got married. As for the others, your guess is as good as mine.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

All sorted

The Man bought a new jacket today. It was the last one on sale so he couldn't choose the colour, which is brown. He asked me if it went with what he was wearing.

"Not really," I said. "Perhaps you should dye it."

"WHY?" he demanded indignantly.

"You're right, it's not a very good idea," I said, somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of his reaction. "It would be difficult, and probably wouldn't work anyway."

He poked worriedly at his flat tummy as the conversation got more and more confusing.

Eventually we sorted it out.

He is going to a bonnenkai (end-of-year party) tonight. If he comes home and falls into a coma it will be his own fault for eating the wrong bit of fugu.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

News report

The death toll from the tsunamis has passed 30,000, with many areas still out of contact. There is a blog here, where you can find out where to send your donation. It is a sort of information clearinghouse for relief efforts. If you want to know what it is like on the ground, and find out just how desperately your help is needed, check this out. Not for the faint-hearted.

For those who wish to know more about tsunamis, Librarianguish has put together some useful information and links. Thank you, Librarianguish.

This quake was so big it made the earth move, and changed the map. Geologists and cartographers, accept all invitations. You will be a hit at parties for at least nine days.

That awful man has been making low-budget home movies again. Nobody is watching. We're all preoccupied with one of the biggest natural disasters in human memory, and he is not it, despite what some people would like us to think. We will survive him. We might not survive global warming, however.

About three hours ago there was another earthquake in Niigata. It was a low five on the Japanese scale. No damage or casualties reported, yet, but this is quite large enough for those people, who have endured enough to last a lifetime. When will it end?

In other news, Liza Minelli fell out of bed. Also, Americans with delicate sensibilities are warned not to visit Japanese aquariums, which are infested with penguins who have obviously not been reading their Bibles, or they would not indulge in such shocking, unChristian behaviour.

And finally, Badaunt spent the day washing the entire contents of her closets, because now that the dry weather is well and truly here she is determined to get rid of the smell. Four full loads of washing later the smell has gone. Badaunt would be happy if that were the only urgent housekeeping job she had to do, but it isn't, so she isn't. She spent her time waiting for the washing machine to do its thing surfing the web, as the sharper of her readers may have already deduced.

That is the end of today's report.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Earthquakes and tsunamis, public and private

The Man and I went shopping yesterday. We cycled to Uniqlo to look for a new jacket for him, and ended up buying three polo-neck cotton tops and a sweater for me. The jackets were all either too short or too uncool for The Man. I thought he was being fussy until he tried one on to show me what he meant, and no, I don't want him to look like he's wearing a Mao jacket, either.

I spent less than ¥4000. Things are cheap there anyway, and they had a sale on.

We then went to a builders' supply shop, and got some sticks (The Man insists these are not 'sticks', but carefully measured and cut pieces of wood) which he'll be using to do a bit of odd-job work at the acupuncture clinic. Then we went to the supermarket, where he took care to not put out my eye with these bloody awkward two-meter sticks he was carrying around and somehow managed to avoid putting out any other shoppers' eyes either. I think we did our shopping the wrong way around, but the building supplies shop was on the way back from Uniqlo.

We bought our groceries and then came home, and I checked my email and learned from a friend about the earthquake in Indonesia. She had emailed to ask whether we were here, as we sometimes have holidays in the affected areas. I emailed back that we were, and went downstairs to check the news on TV.

While we were watching TV, aghast at what was being shown, the phone went, and I heard my brother-in-law's friendly voice. I took the phone upstairs. I felt shocked by the devastation I had seen, and shocked all over again to realize who I was talking to. All this family/religion nonsense had been far from my mind. I have to say something, I told myself. I can't let this go on.

So I did. It was very, very hard to do, and I babbled badly, and stumbled and messed up for a lot of the call, and wasn't as coherent as I've been when I've been mentally rehearsing. He caught me at a bad moment. (But any moment would have been a bad moment.)

It was a long call - too long - but I ended up making it clear (at least I hope I did; I hope I was coherent enough) that I am not interested in contact as long as they're in the sect. "Can we stay in touch with you?" he asked, sadly. "How do you feel about that?"

I hesitated. I knew what I should say, but I couldn't.

"It's up to you, I suppose," I said. "Just don't expect much from me."

After a long, long silence, and then a few more words, we said goodbye.


I hung up feeling like a complete and utter shit.

How come they could do it so easily and suddenly, all those years ago? How come they could just cut us off like that, without explanation or apology? How come they could turn their backs on us, ignore us on the street, hang up when we called, return letters unread, and all that crap? How could they live with themselves for all those years? Why is it so hard for me to tell them I don't want them back in my life, when I do have good reason?

And how the hell did did I end up feeling in the wrong again?

(P.S. I'm feeling better now. I was not wrong. I just hated having to say things like that.)

Here's a picture from yesterday's flea market. It's a bit of a picture, actually. The picture as a whole was a failure, but this corner of it is rather lovely, I think.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Creepy squeaky Christmas clown

I hope everybody is having a lovely Christmas. Ours is finished (it's 2.30 am) and I'm about to drop. But before I nod off, here's a picture or two.

I went with a bunch of friends to a flea market in Kyoto (Kitano-Tenmangu), as we usually do at Christmas, and after that to dinner at a hotel. I didn't buy much but took lots of pictures. This is my new, cheap method of 'doing' flea markets. I don't buy, I point and click. This means that when I see a wonderful ivory Hotei, costing ¥50,000, I don't worry about not being able to afford to buy it. I can afford to take a picture of it. I have blogging to thank for this. It hadn't occurred to me to take pictures at flea markets before. Click! Click! Click!

Here is Hotei. This ivory Hotei is now mine, because I have a picture of it. I didn't have to pay ¥50,000.

I saw some masks I liked, too, but where would I put them, I wondered? On my computer, of course. CLICK!

I also spotted some old posters that I rather fancied, and having no wall space was no problem. CLICK!

For some reason I felt compelled to take pictures of dolls today, even though I don't actually want any dolls. Dolls are spooky. CLICK!



There are a lot more, but for now I will leave you with the scary Christmas clown at the hotel. It was a rather disappointing Christmas dinner. No turkey, and no Christmas pudding.(No Christmas pudding! Stuff the turkey - I want my Christmas pudding!) To top things off there was a scary Christmas clown. The clown was scary because he kept playing with balloons, and one time a balloon popped and we all jumped. Also he made mysterious squeaking noises and we couldn't figure out where the squeaking came from. It did not come from the balloons. Sometimes he squeaked when he poked at his nose, sometimes he squeaked when he poked at a balloon (and made me cringe), and sometimes he held his hands in the air and squeaked for no apparent reason at all. He was a creepy squeaky Christmas clown.

The food was good, but it was not Christmas food. Only in Japan would it have been called a 'Christmas buffet.' We'll be back at the Hilton next year, I think, where there are no clowns but there is Christmas pudding. With brandy sauce.


I'll post some more pictures tomorrow.

A very good Christmas night to you.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas!

Every year I notice the same thing: my students, in their 'free conversation' time, start to focus on Christmas, starting around the beginning of December. They ask each other, "What are you doing in the winter break?" and then, smirking, "What are you doing on Christmas day?" Especially the guys.

Christmas Day isn't even a holiday here (although it is for university students, usually, depending on when the New Year break starts), so why all the interest, you might wonder?

The answer is that there is is a new tradition in Japan (Japan is hot on 'new traditions') and what Christmas has come to mean here, for young people especially, is 'dinner and a bonk'. With presents. If you are a girl, the idea is to get a rich hot date, so that he will take you to a good restaurant, pay for a upscale hotel for the night, and give you a suitably expensive present. Never visit Japan at Christmas if you want to stay in a nice hotel. They're all booked out months in advance.

I don't know what these young people think Santa Claus and Christmas trees and carols have to do with all this. The symbols of Christmas are everywhere at this time of year, and I'm having to wear my Walkman to go shopping in order not to be driven insane by the tinkly Christmas carols assaulting my tender ears wherever I go. But no doubt it all adds to the kinkiness of the occasion. I shudder to think what the love hotels are doing with it. The nativity scenes I saw plastered all over a large store's windows the other day probably made more sense, in a bizarre sort of way - there's a man and a woman and a baby in there, yup - but even so, I wonder how they think the animals fit in, exactly?

In this BBC story they've been a lot more polite about the phenomenon than I have. They call it romantic.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Boring, boring, boring

Inplicit Association Tests.

Your data suggest little or no automatic preference for Young relative to Old

Your data suggest little or no automatic ethnic association with American or Foreign

Your data suggest little or no automatic preference for Dark Skin relative to Light Skin

I've only done three tests so far, but I'm not feeling much like taking any more. I was hoping to discover a secret preference for, say, old, dark-skinned, foreigners.1 Instead I discover that I have no preferences at all.

Boring, boring, boring.

1. The Man with a Tan?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


The other day The Man and I were in town, and we were hungry, so stopped at a coffee shop and had sandwiches. (Sandwitches, actually, according to the menu.) They weren't great sandwiches, but they filled a gap. The Man read a newspaper while he was eating, and I read a book, as is our antisocial custom, and we chewed peacefully.

When I got to my last mouthful, I looked up and noticed that The Man was eating his last mouthful as well. We both swallowed at the same moment.

We stared at each other.

"Synchronized sandwich eating," I said. "How do you think we did on technical merit?"

"You've got a crumb on your chin," he replied. "You'll lose points for that. But don't worry. You do great on artistic impression."

We grinned at each other.

"We've been together too long," I said.

I wiped the crumb off my chin, and we agreed that we eat well together, but our conversations are getting sillier.


A friend passed on some sweets that were given to her by a colleague who returned from an overseas trip. After careful sampling, I can heartily recommend, if you ever go to Hong Kong or Singapore, that you pick up some Bamboo Garden Icy-Crispy Dragon Beard Candy.

Alternatively, you can get it in Seattle.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Art for art's sake

The Man, who although not in a paying job is never unemployed, is currently working on designing a book for a friend who publishes a book (at least) every year. While most of his books are commercial propositions, the end-of-year one is self-published and more personal. He puts together bits and pieces he has collected through the year, and sells it privately. We always buy it.

One of the discoveries he made this year was of a new collage artist. This woman has been keeping scrapbooks of her collages, and The Man brought two of the scrapbooks home the other day, to scan some of the pictures into his computer in order to make a few pages of the book. He showed them to me.

Now, I'm not a very artistic person. I'm ignorant about art, and not particularly interested (although I feel I should be more interested), but some things will grab my attention. A few years ago The Man and I translated a book about a commercial artist (an acquaintance), and I discovered that I liked his art, although I'm not sure if 'like' is the right word, really. At first I didn't like it, but his pictures and sculptures invaded my dreams, which became wonderfully infested with flying fat women and giant insects and blue men. Art doesn't usually get into my dreams like that, and so I decided that it was probably effective, and therefore deserved to be called 'art' even though it was commercial. It affected me, although I wasn't sure that I'd want to live with it all the time.

This woman's collages are affecting me in a similar way, except the feeling is less uncomfortable. Her collages infect me with sense of wonder. She cuts out pictures from the advertising materials that arrive with the daily newspaper, and juxtaposes them in unexpected ways. Her collages are wonderfully balanced in terms of white space and colour and shape - even a peasant like me can see that - but the images themselves are often startling. You wonder whether she is doing this deliberately or whether she is choosing the pictures purely for their colour and shape. Did she even notice that this is, say, a chicken leg, when she pasted it on top of this car, or did she just choose it for the orange colour? I wish I could put some of the collages on here, but The Man has told me I can't. They're going to be published, albeit privately, and there are copyright issues. So I'll try to describe them, although I don't really have the vocabulary for this sort of thing.

If you look at her collages from a distance they instantly strike you as brilliantly put together. They are vivid. The shapes and colours are just right, and very satisfying, but at the same time not what you expect. They are strikingly harmonious, if that makes sense. Then you get a little closer, and you see that what the images are, and you feel a sort of shock. Because there is a cabbage, and there is some jewellery, and there is a white woman modelling underwear, and there is a sandal with a foot in it, and a bird on a branch - anything at all might be there, in bizarre juxtaposition.

One of my favourite collages is of a carefully cut-out plate of stew with a large piece of daikon in it, and overlapping this is pasted a dinosaur. It's a very simple collage, and I can't figure out why I like it so much.

That sounds odd, and it is. But it is also beautiful, in a strange way. The colours are just right, and the shapes are just right, and there is a lot of white space above and around the collage that is also just right. It is a curiously soothing picture, and very, very weird.

When I started looking through the two scrapbooks The Man had brought home, I expected to flip through them and hand them back. But half an hour later I was still occupied. I was looking through them again, pausing at some, and going back to others. They are powerfully strange. I was wishing that these collages were all displayed on one big wall with a chair in front of it. I thought they'd make a great thinking wall. You could sit in front of it for hours and never be bored.

The artist's eyes are obviously very sharp, and her hands very steady, and to cut out the hands of those models she must have had the patience of someone with all the time in the world. But remarkably, these collages are the hobby of a woman who is 104 years old.

I'm sorry I don't know any more about her than that. I don't know how long she has been doing this, although apparently she has a lot of these scrapbooks. But I don't know whether 'a lot' means ten or a hundred. I can guess that she is not hoping to start a career as an artist, or hoping for recognition of her talents. At 104, I don't suppose you expect very much at all from the future. All I know is that making the collages makes her happy, and that's why she does it.

I am fabulous

Badaunt you are fabulous !!!

Saturday, December 18, 2004

A long and lonely life

The Polymeal diet will make you live longer, according to Dutch scientists. It includes red wine, fish, dark chocolate, fruit, vegetables, almonds, and garlic.

Sounds like an attractive sort of diet, but the garlic does it for me. I'll just have to live shorter. However, I'm not sure that I'd want to use this diet to live longer anyway, after reading that researchers found the diet did have one unfortunate side effect -- bad breath and nasty body odor.

Actually, I find this kind of story a bit annoying. There is no real information there. How long do you need to be on the diet before the effects kick in? A month? A year? Ten years? Twenty? How do they know? Is it effective for everybody? In what proportions are the foods eaten? What if I've been on the diet for twenty years and get run over by a bus and killed. Can I sue?

A lucky guy

One of my students is a very cheerful and smily sort of bloke. He is always happy, and a delight to have in the class. He works hard and his English has improved quite a lot, which also makes him rather unusual. He is an inspiration to other students because he is so comfortable with himself. He makes mistakes, learns from them, and grins. Everybody likes him.

Today I discovered why he is always so cheerful. In his oral test, he told me a little story. It was an unbelievable story, he told me, but true, and it happened ten years ago when he was eight years old. Before New Year he badgered his father for enough money to buy some lottery tickets. At certain times of the year they have 'Jumbo' lotteries, and he wanted the New Year ones.

Eventually he persuaded his father (I don't think it took much), and was taken to buy his tickets. He chose them himself.

On New Year's Eve they show the lottery drawing on TV, and he sat down to watch. His family didn't, but he did. And - you know what's coming, don't you? I haven't exactly set you up for a surprise, have I? - he won.

His family didn't believe that he had won. They thought he must have got the numbers wrong. None of them had been paying attention, and they couldn't check. And after all, he was only eight years old. So they waited for the morning newspaper before getting excited.

But he was right. He had won. One hundred million yen.

When he told me this, I didn't believe him either. I asked him to write the number down. My students are pretty bad at numbers, usually, and especially big numbers. One hundred million was quite likely to be one hundred thousand. He wrote it down, and I counted the naughts. Eight. ¥100,000,000. That's just under a million US dollars, in case you are wondering. Rather a lot for an eight year old.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I wondered if he was making up this story, but he assured me he wasn't. He then told me about how his family reacted. His mother burst into tears, and then his father started as well, and the whole family went bananas with celebration and disbelief.

When I expressed my amazement at the story he grinned, and I could see he was happy to have amazed me. In fact I got the feeling that the happiness he felt when he won has never quite left him. Who said money doesn't buy happiness? That little eight-year-old set up his family for life, and ten years later he's still pretty damned pleased about it. If he wasn't such a nice guy I'd hate him, but as it was the only malice I could summon up was to ask him whether his family had become fat. He laughed and told me they hadn't.

"Well, I bet they all think you're pretty special," I said, and he nodded, looking ever so slightly smug.

I must remember to ask him to buy me some lottery tickets, to see if some of that lucky, happy glow rubs off on me.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Let It Be

I was testing students today again. My favourite conversation was one where both students liked the Beatles. One asked the other, "What's your favourite Beatles song?" and the other thought about it and replied, "I like Let Me See."

His partner nodded, then there was a pause while they frowned, looking puzzled. Something was wrong and they both knew it.

The conversation was almost derailed, but they rallied and carried on, still frowning. I told them the name of the song after they'd finished. I think they were happier about finding out what had felt so wrong than with finding out that they'd passed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Traps for language learners

A lot of the English that people are exposed to here is in the form of katakana, one of the Japanese phonetic syllabaries. This can cause huge problems with pronunciation, because of the different sound systems of English and Japanese. One problem is that words which contain 'th' are rendered into katakana as a syllable containing, instead, 's' or 'z'. If the vict... learner is not aware of the English spelling, he or she will sometimes wonder if it should be a 'th' or an 's', and a wild guess will result in something funny.

Today I was testing students. It was a 'conversation test', in which I graded pairs of students having conversations (or approximations thereof). They were very nervous. Two guys, who don't generally make silly mistakes, had an enthusiastic and highly-strung conversation about soccer. (They were friends, and disagreed about a lot.) The problem arose when early on, one of them became suddenly convinced that it was not soccer but thoccer, and the other one was so nervous and excited that he followed along and uncorrected his own correct pronunciation.

So these two guys went on and on about thoccer, and I sat there trying to keep a straight face and agonizing over whether I should correct them (you're not supposed to in a test, but my tests aren't that serious, are they? I wondered), and I was very tired because it was the end of the day so my mind started to wander, and I suddenly thought: This is my life. This is what it is all about. Sitting around and listening to a couple of katakana English casualties rabbiting on about thoccer. Oh dear. I want to go home.

I waited until they finished and then told them the correct pronunciation. They both immediately claimed they thought so but the other guy started it. A few wild accusations followed, and we all ended up laughing.

Monday, December 13, 2004


English word order is a complete mystery to some of my students. I could understand this if it were some of my Chinese students having the problem - the ones who enter my classes barely knowing the alphabet (or in some cases, not knowing the alphabet at all) - but they rarely do quite so badly, generally. At the very least, they end the year able to put together a simple sentence and communicate in a very basic way.

No, this is the Japanese students, who have all had six years of English language education before I meet them, and I am forced to conclude that this so-called 'education' is the problem.

I have a difficult class on Mondays. It's a very small class by most standards here - just 12 students. The problem is that there are five Japanese students, two Koreans, and four Chinese, and the levels are so different it's impossible to treat it as one class. (There is also one irrelevant student who turned up once, had a wee nap, and never reappeared subsequently. I don't know her level.) Of the four Chinese students, one can hold a conversation with me quite fluently, one is a little lower level than that, but not much, and the other two barely knew the alphabet at the beginning of year. The Korean students are hard-working intermediate level. Four of the Japanese students are mid-beginner, and have some word order problems, but the last one ... well, I don't think she has understood yet that English is a language, rather than some purely random academic activity designed to be particularly tricky.

This student has a way of throwing words together in any form and order, and then asking me to check them, and when I read what she's written, or hear what she says, my brain seizes up. Where to begin? If I give her a 'fill-in-the-blanks' exercise with adjectives missing, and provide some adjectives, she'll ignore the provided adjectives and fill in the blanks with verbs, nouns, adverbs and articles. And perhaps the occasional adjective, by accident. Once I resorted to trying the boring old audio-lingual approach with her (while the others were busy with something beyond her), which generally has some effect with students like that. We did some simple word-substitution drills, which I demonstrated for her first on paper and out loud.

When she seemed to understand, and it was her turn to try, she substituted the wrong word, introduced new words, omitted correct words, and mangled the order when she repeated the sentences, almost every time. She is capable of doing this to a four word sentence. "The man is happy," I say, and she repeats it, leaving out 'is.' I get her to repeat it again, and she substitutes 'and' for 'is.' I do it again, and she finally gets it right.

All fine so far. Then I tell her "sad", and she says, obediently, "Sad and the happy." "Try again," I say. "The man is sad," and she repeats it, after apologizing and hitting herself on the forehead. "Good," I say. Then, "Tall," and she thinks hard and says, "Tall happy by sad."

"Where did by come from?" I wonder to myself. "And tall happy?" I want to scream, but don't, because I'm a kind person and also because I really, really want to get some basic sentence patterns burned into this girl's brain. I carry on, slowly. It doesn't work, of course, but at least I tried.1

Six years of English education! What do they do in those classes?

Last week in class I'd given this group a handout with a lot of examples of very simple definitions. I wanted them to be able to approximate words they didn't know - to be able to describe something they didn't have a word for. After a few demonstrations, I gave the students some words to define. I kept these simple for the lower level students, and gave the higher level students more difficult and abstract words to define. This worked quite well to keep everybody challenged, and they did well, at their various levels. Some needed more help than others, but it went fairly smoothly. I gave them some words to do for homework as well.

My problem student neglected to follow the simple patterns I'd given them and that they'd practiced in class. She also chose her own words, and made heavy use of a dictionary, judging by some of the words she used. (Brimful? Supple?) However, she's done a bit better with the word order this time, at least by her standards. I'm counting this as a success. It's a pathetic success, I know, but with this student anything she produces that starts to make a little bit of sense is a success.

Can you guess what she is defining? (The idiosyncratic capitalization is hers, too.) The first three are pretty easy, I think, but the other two...?

1. this color is yellow. Monkey is favorite Fruit.
2. Sky travel take vehicle.
3. supple move in water. As if by fish.
4. be on fast Move ground. Push against The winds.
5. Brimful Of figure. very Difficult.

Note to self: This student does not have a phonological loop. She has a phonological dot. Perhaps I could gather some data and write a paper about her.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Frustrated spinster

In the mysteries I've been reading (which I'm enjoying immensely, by the way), all written before 1960, I've noticed that there is almost always, in the cast of characters, a frustrated spinster. She is usually eccentric, has some kind of obsession (cats!), and generally behaves bizarrely. There are various 'types' of spinsters (bluff and hearty; fussy and prim; coy and sex-mad, etc), all instantly recognisable. These women become particularly erratic when they reach a 'certain age.' Occasionally there is a man (usually unmarried) who is labelled 'spinsterish', and we instantly know what is meant by that.

These characters have disappeared from modern mysteries, and indeed from modern western life. What happened to all the frustrated spinsters? Hellooooo? Are you out there?

Actually I've been thinking of getting rid of The Man and becoming a frustrated spinster myself. (I could possibly arrange to avoid the 'frustrated' bit.) It seems a pretty attractive life to me. You can do what you want, because no matter how bizarrely you behave you are tolerated (well of course, she's a spinster, poor dear...), on the fringes of society at least. A sort of honourary member of society, with a recognised rôle.

And what better place to be, than on the fringes of society?

Eyes vs ears

Language Log has an entry about the McGurk effect, which links to this video. It's startling to discover that closing your eyes can change what you hear. I keep going back to check that it really happens.

It does. Check it out.

Friday, December 10, 2004


This morning on my second train (I have to take three), I happened to glance at my watch. Ten to seven, it said, and I thought I'd managed a bit better than usual. I would get to the coffee shop by seven thirty, and have almost an hour to relax before heading off to work. I go early to my station and have breakfast there on Fridays, in order to miss the rush hour. I'd wanted to be a bit earlier than usual today, because I had a fair bit of preparation to do.

Later, as I tucked into my third cup of coffee, I glanced at my watch again. Nine minutes to seven, it said, and I thought WOW! I've managed to take that last train, eat breakfast and drink two cups of coffee in one minute!

It was a bad morning for my watch to give up the ghost. I wasn't late, but I wasn't as early as I'd hoped to be, either. I've been rushing ever so slightly all day, just keeping on top of things.

This evening I got to the acupuncture clinic early, and sat with one of the guys drinking tea and chatting. I showed my watch to him and told him it had messed up my morning. He stared at it. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Oh, I see, it's a minute slow..." He looked puzzled. "Was that really a problem?"

I looked up at the wall clock, and sure enough it was seven minutes to seven, and my watch now said eight minutes to seven.

This weekend I have 120 tests to grade. I'll get up early, grade them between 6.54 and 6.55, and have the rest of the weekend free.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Decomposing books

Recently The Man came across an unexpected windfall of books for me - a whole bunch of old mysteries in a second-hand bookstore, 50 yen each. These are all Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and Ngaio Marsh mysteries. Although the paper in these paperbacks has gone yellow and brittle from age, they look like they've never been opened, let alone read.

Reading these books has been keeping me happy on my commutes the last couple of weeks, at least when I am lucky enough to get a seat. I sit down, open a book, and sink into the comfortable snobbery of the English classic mystery. On the other hand, I cannot read standing up, because almost every time I turn a page it comes loose from the binding, no matter how careful I am. And it's impossible to control all those loose pages while standing and holding onto a strap with one hand.

I suppose I could just let the pages go. I've been passing on the better quality books, but the last two have come completely to pieces. I don't think anyone would be particularly interested in going to the effort of keeping the pages in order for long enough to read them. Perhaps I should just let them flutter around the train, and provide my fellow commuters with a little entertainment. I can just imagine some struggling language learner trying to make sense of this:

"Mr. Bertie Saracen was also immaculate, but more adventurously so. The sleeves of his jacket were narrower and displayed a great deal of pinkish cuff. He had a Berlin-china complexion, wavy hair, blue eyes and wonderfully small hands. His air was gay and insouciant. He too was a bachelor and most understandably so."

Oh, my.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Having a break

This is what the teachers' room looks like in the ten minute break between classes at one of my universities. (The one where we're allowed to smoke.)

Monday, December 06, 2004

Identikit artist

Today in my smallest class (only nine students today) the lesson in the book was about describing people. After doing some of the textbook activities it became clear that the students weren't really getting it. Well, they were getting the language just fine, but it wasn't real for them. So I invented, on the spot, a game called 'Identikit pictures.'

This started when I paired myself with a student (because there was an odd number) and asked her to describe someone she knew. The other students were doing the same thing, in pairs, and not finding it very interesting. As my student was describing the person, I was doodling in my notebook, idly, and suddenly realised that trying to doodle what she was saying was making me aware of what language was necessary. So I started asking her questions, using language that was not in the text and explaining it to her as we went along. "Are his eyebrows thick, thin, average? Do they arch, or are they straight? Is his face thin or wide? Does he have a big chin?" And so on.

As she answered my questions, I drew the person. I exaggerated the bits she said were not 'average'. (Thick arched eyebrows, downward slanting eyes, wide nose...) She was looking puzzled, and kept wanting to see what I was doing, but I hid it from her until we'd finished. Then I held it up.

"Is this him?" I asked.

She stared at the picture for a moment, looking stunned. Her jaw dropped. Then she let out an ear-splitting scream. "My FATHER!" she shrieked hysterically. She grabbed the picture and waved it at the others. "LOOK! It's my FATHER!"

Eight more jaws dropped, and chaos erupted. They laughed themselves silly.

After they'd calmed down a bit one of the other students asked, still laughing but aghast at the same time,

"Does your father really look like that?" .

She looked at it again.

"Well, no," she said. "But ... but ... there's something... " And she collapsed again.

I would show you the picture, but she confiscated it, to show her father. (Uh-oh.)

After that things really picked up. I got the others also doing Identikit pictures, with similarly hilarious and awful results.

Those of you who are familiar with my artistic abilities will understand why my picture caused such mayhem in the classroom today. You will also understand why I am a little worried. Luckily it's a women's university, so it should be easy to spot any angry-looking men striding around campus looking for someone. I'll be extra alert over the next week or so, ready to make a speedy escape if I spot that sinister-looking face I drew in class today.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Masters of forgetting

I think I may have mentioned before how shaky my students' knowledge of geography is. I don't think I've commented on their spelling, but I can assure you it's just as shaky. Well, I've been marking homework all day, and came across a couple of short sentences which managed to combine shaky geography and shaky spelling, with extra shaky results:

U.S.A. has 'Statue of Liverty.' Australia has 'Ground Carion.'

That made me grin.

But what a depressing day it has been otherwise. Along with marking homework, I've been calculating grades so far for my classes at one university, and have confirmed that in three of my four first-year classes at least 30% of students are failing. I've been warning them since about the third week, but they don't take me seriously. What on earth do you do with students who, when you tell them the exact three questions that will be in the weekly test, 'forget' that there will be a test, even though there is a test every week, and fail it weekly? Who, when you explain how important it is that they do their homework, either don't do it or hand in identical homework to 12 of the other students in the class? Same multiple stupid mistakes and all? And this is after telling them that they are failing and that this homework is important if they want to pass. "I want to see evidence that you have made some effort, because I haven't seen much to grade you on yet," I told them. And when I collected the homework, I said, "This is very important. Is it your best work? You can have another week if you want. Are you happy with this? Because I'll grade it low if it is not good."

A couple of them hesitated, but then you could see them thinking they didn't want to do it again. Too much trouble appeared in little thought balloons above their heads. She won't notice anyway. They exchanged guilty glances and came to a decision. They assured me that this was their best effort. They laughed when I asked them if they were sure. "Remember, you could fail if your grade for this homework is not good," I said.

"No, no, it's fine!" they told me.

I don't think they believe that I'll really fail them. They probably think I'll do what most of their other teachers do - give full marks to the students who handed in the homework, and then throw the homework away without looking at it.

Perhaps they've forgotten that I failed eight or nine of them last semester. They seem to forget everything else, so that wouldn't be surprising.

And the question is...

Here are the last seventeen searches that resulted in hits on my blog, from the 'keyword analysis' that Statcounter provides for me.

do pineapples grow on trees or on bushes?
symbolic shit
where do pineapples grow
how do pineapples grow?
pineapples how do they grow?
where do pineapples grow?
how do pineapples grow
growing pineapple trees
where do pineapples grow?
skill and care in constructions
picture of pineapple tree
pineapples grow tree
bring back my body to me
how pineapples grow
where do pineapples grow
pineapples how do they grow
how do pineapples grow

Is anybody else seeing a pattern here?

To people with questions about pineapples, the answer is that they grow upside-down. (There's a link to a picture.)

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Sitting on fruit

It's raining again. This is the result of a typhoon, although it isn't actually a typhoon any more. The typhoon has petered out into a tropical storm after hitting the Philippines very hard, doing a u-turn, passing over Taiwan, and fading into a tropical storm. There is a lot of rain and not much else. According to the typhoon sites I usually visit it isn't even anywhere near Japan. It's still down south, just above Taiwan. But it has pushed up a mass of cloud and the rain is bucketing down outside1. I'm inside, happy that I don't have to go to work in this, and a sudden increase in the intensity of the rain a few minutes ago caused me to sit on a mikan.

This happened because after finishing dinner I came upstairs with a cup of tea and a mikan (mandarin orange), and couldn't find a clear spot on my desk to put both. So I put the cup of tea on the desk and the mikan on the chair, meaning to move something to make space for the mikan. Then the rain got heavier suddenly, and it occurred to me that the window in the bedroom might be open and letting the rain in. So I went to check. Then I came back, and moving automatically the way you do when you're doing something you do 20 times a day, swivelled the chair around and sat on the mikan. (I don't mean that I sit on a mikan 20 times a day, but I expect you guessed that.)

I have decided that this incident is significant. Sitting on mikan is not an entirely pleasant experience. It feels funny, like sitting on something alive. It signifies that I should clear the surface of my desk so it doesn't happen again. I thought I just did that recently, but perhaps it wasn't as recently as I'd thought. In fact I'd say it can't have been very recently, judging by the way things look around here. This housework stuff is neverending, and I don't seem to get any better at it.

1 The Man wants to know why we say this. "It's raining hard outside," he repeats after me, and wonders where else you would expect it to be raining. Also, he wants to know why we look for a 'book to read'. "What else would you use a book for?" he asks. I tell him that sometimes books are good for a table with a short leg but he isn't convinced.

Monkey business

In the paper this morning there was a picture of some monkeys enjoying bathing in a hot spring. These are wild monkeys, and their picture appears in the paper every year around this time. It doesn't even have to be a slow news day.

You can understand why, really. Animals doing human-like things are fascinating. There is always the niggle in the back of our minds when we see them, Are those animals behaving like humans, or are we behaving like animals?

I checked the web to see if there were any information, and found this. Click on the English link. You will get lots of wonderful pictures, and lots of wonderful English. (My favourite quote, from the Monkey's Now link: " Spring has come for the excrements of the monkey.")

But best of all, there is a webcam. While I was checking it out just now a large monkey was sitting beside the hot spring and regarding it thoughtfully. Is the temperature just right? it seemed to be thinking. Shall I take the plunge? When I refreshed the page the decision had been made and a satisfied face was poking out of the water.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Dump me. Please.

I'm too tired to go to bed. It's horrible, and silly. I'm sitting here thinking longingly of bed but don't have the energy to stand up.

I wonder if The Man would pick me up and just dump me in bed if I asked him nicely? It's only about four meters, and I'm not very heavy.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Short bloke in a tall body

A colleague I always meet on Thursdays - let's call him Bob - surprised me again today, by standing up. For some reason I think of him as a short person, or at least not a tall person, but when he stands up he turns out to be tall. This means that every time he stands up I am surprised. I can't think of any reason for this. He's a perfectly normal guy - and a very nice perfectly normal guy - I like him a lot. He has plenty of personality and is often very funny, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way. (Is that it? Is it because he's quiet and unassuming?) He's about the same height as The Man, who is 183 cm and who looks pretty tall to me. I'm the short one. I come up to his chin.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking along from the station and a foreigner was in front of me. I didn't call out because the guy was tall, so I thought it couldn't be Bob, although the shape of his head looked familiar. That's funny, I thought. That guy looks like Bob, only taller.

Of course it was Bob, and of course I was surprised. I don't know how or why he got to be filed in my head as 'Bob, that short bloke', but the idea just doesn't seem to go away. I think he must be a short bloke in a tall body.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Where are the bubbles?

There's something really, really annoying happening at one of the universities where I work, and it's all about soap.

When we moved into the new building, we were delighted to find that the teachers' room had a sink where we could wash our hands. However, there was no soap. The toilets, of course, have soap, but the soap used in there is liquid soap so heavily diluted that you have to pump and pump and pump and even then you're lucky if you can get enough of the watery muck collected in your cupped hand to raise even one bubble. It's more like vaguely soapy water than actual soap. It doesn't get chalk off, and if you use the chalkboard at all (which I do, a lot) your hands are permanently covered in chalk throughout the day. I am not an obsessive hand-washer, but chalk is not pleasant stuff to have on your hands, and while it comes off pretty easily with soap, it doesn't come off with water.

Anyway, instead of requesting soap (which would have probably required a committee meeting to get approval for and taken six months at least) I took in a bar of soap and a soap dish for the teachers' room, and we used that. Some other unknown benefactor(s) or I have been replacing the soap when it runs out for about three years now. But this year, at the beginning of the year, the university suddenly started providing it. I was so pleased. They'd finally understood that teachers don't like having chalky, dirty hands, and that if we have a sink it's logical to also have soap.

But then I tried the new soap.

It's amazing. It's like a rock. You simply cannot get a lather out of this stuff. You pick it up, run the water, and do the whole hand-wringing thing with the soap until you do feel like an obsessive hand-washer, and no matter how much you try you can't get it to produce a single, pathetic bubble. Eventually you give up, and your hands are still covered in yellow chalk. Nothing has changed at all. It's the most remarkably unsoaplike soap I've ever encountered.

This soap has been there since April, and I keep forgetting to take in a replacement. I get annoyed all over again every Tuesday, and still forget. I'm hoping that writing this will remind me for next week.

But really, where on earth do they find this stuff? I'm starting to wonder whether it really is soap, and not some kind of inert substance that just happens to look like soap. It has become slightly smaller since April, but when we use real soap it lasts a month at most. This stuff just goes on and on, not doing anything useful.

At the two other places I work, one place also dilutes the soap beyond usefulness, and the other has stopped pretending altogether, and the soap containers are always empty except for a brief few days at the beginning of the year.

But I don't understand it. Soap is ridiculously cheap. What is going on? What do they have against bubbles?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Multi-choice questions

Last night on the train I had fun teasing The Man about his way of offering me choices.

"I like the way you include me in all our decisions," I told him. "You always ask me first before doing something."

He looked wary. He knew something more was coming.

"And then you do what you want to do anyway," I added.

"That's not true!" he said.

"Oh yes it is," I said. "'Are you cold?' you ask, when you come into the room. 'Do you want the heater on?' And when I say no, I'm fine, you tell me it's very cold and turn it on anyway."

"I do not!" he said.

"Oh yes, you do," I said. "What about when you wanted an extra blanket on the bed. 'Do you want another blanket?' you asked. 'I'm fine', I said, and you put another one on anyway."

"It was cold!" he said. "I was doing it for you!"

"Yes, I know. You do everything for me," I said. "The other day, when we'd been walking a lot and wanted to stop somewhere for coffee, you asked me which coffee shop I wanted to go to. I said the one we were passing looked fine to me, and you said it didn't look very good, and why didn't we try the other one up the street a bit. So we did."

"It was a good coffee shop though, wasn't it?" said The Man.

"Yes, it was," I said.

Silence for a while. I grinned to myself. The Man caught me doing it.

"I'm not that sort of person!" he said, looking wounded.

"Yes you are," I said.

"No, I'm not!"

"Yes, you are!"

"No, I'm not!"

(And so on and so forth...)

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Party all night

The jazz concert was great. It was also very, very long. It was held at the NHK concert hall in Osaka, started at five, and finished shortly before nine. By the time we got home it was nearly ten, and we hadn't eaten. There are no restaurants open around the NHK concert hall on a Sunday night.

The hall was packed. I don't know how many people it holds, but I heard someone mention two thousand and something. A lot of people. There were something like 40 musicians taking part in the concert, which was not a retirement concert as I'd thought (i.e. he's not retiring), but a 50th anniversary concert. That's fifty years of performing - the pianist, Zensho, is 70. He'd collected many of the musicians he's played with through the years, and probably about a third of them were similarly aged. They were wonderful. Zensho was on the stage the whole time, looking about 55, which he does close up, too (does jazz keep you young?) and he was superb. 'Play' is exactly the right verb for what he does with a piano.

The part I liked best was when there was just three of them up there, the original trio that started off 50 years ago. Metcha cool music.

Now I have to get some sleep. Those old guys might be partying through the night but I have to work tomorrow.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Old and tired and worn out

Today The Man and I went shopping at Uniqlo, a large discount clothing store which has opened a branch near here. Well, quite near. (It was a longer cycle than we'd anticipated.) We bought a few things for winter - polo neck tops, a couple of jerseys (sweaters, for Americans), and so on. It was all very cheap and the quality is good.

While we were there I was trying on a jersey and looked in a mirror. The lighting was good. Too good, in fact, and I got a nasty shock.

"God, I look horrible," I said to The Man. "Old and tired and worn out, like I'm sick or something."

The Man looked at me. "Don't worry," he said, cheerfully. "You always look tired. It's the shape of your eyes."

I ignored him and decided it was the colour of the sweater that was making me look so bad. I didn't buy that one.

Later we cycled to another place, quite a long way off in the other direction, and splashed out on a new top futon. It was on sale, but still quite expensive. Our old one is ratty. The feathers have gone all flat and it's not warm any more. It's very old.

When we got home The Man and I had a wee fight while we were struggling to get the futon into its cover. According to The Man I was doing it all wrong. According to me I was doing exactly the right thing and it was the stupid cover's fault, not mine. Why are those things so bloody difficult? Why don't they make it easier? Can't they make them so the covers open all down one side, instead of having to thread this great ballooning feathery thing through a small hole? It's silly.

Our fight had nothing to do with his comment at Uniqlo, of course. He was just being unreasonable about the futon, that's all.

The new futon feels great and the expense was worth it. I tested it. I would have stayed there, testing it some more, but I have to do the washing and then prepare some lessons for next week. We're going to a jazz concert tomorrow. The pianist is an old guy who is retiring, and this is his last concert. He's very good. And it's a good thing The Man remembered, because I'd forgotten all about it.

Look at me in the ear and say that

Imagine being able to see with your tongue, or with your ears. This NY Times article describes how a new device, the BrainPort, is making it possible for blind people to regain some vision. The BrainPort also makes all kinds of other things possible, and it's very, very weird to think about.

How long do you think it will be before some rich lunatic decides he wants eyes in the back of his head?

(Registration required for the link, or use BugMeNot in the left menu to get a password.)


To the ESL teachers who come here looking for ways to teach the simple present tense, I apologize. I'd be annoyed too, if I wanted to filch a lesson plan of the Internet (I do it all the time) and instead got me rabbitting on irrelevantly about something quite different. Yes, I have noticed your searches, and feel guilty every time one pops up.

I recommend that you go here instead, at least for a start. Also, you need to narrow your search. Using Google, include ESL "lesson plan" "present simple" (include the quotes) in your search, and you'll narrow it down a bit.

When I have time to figure out how to make a sidebar with some useful links, I'll do it. That way when you turn up here, instead of just getting frustrated and cranky you'll have somewhere useful to go next. I have dozens of teaching links bookmarked. I just don't have time right now to check them out and make sure they're still there, and then figure out how to make the sidebar.

But I will. Promise. And sorry for wasting your time. I know how busy you are.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Navel gazing

I've been using Bloglines for a while now, and as anyone who uses it will know it gives you suggestions for blogs you might be interested in. You get a message that says: "Based on your current subscriptions, Bloglines has generated this list of feeds that you might be interested in. This list is updated daily." Sometimes the list contains some very interesting blogs, and this is a good thing if I have time to read them and a bad thing if I don't, because I add them to my feeds and end up with a huge backlog of unread but probably fascinating blogs.

But recently something a little disturbing has started happening. It has started recommending my own blog to me. It has become quite pushy about it, moving me right to the top of the recommended list. I'm not sure whether to be flattered or alarmed.

Does this mean I only read and write about the things that interest me? It makes me feel terribly narrow-minded, but on the other hand, well, should I read and write about things that don't interest me?

And what is my blog about, anyway, that would make it so fascinating to me? Even I'm not sure, and I write it. I can't think what gave Bloglines the idea I'd be interested in reading such nonsense.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Little surprises

Tonight I was chatting with some colleagues over curry after work, as usual on Thursday evenings, and one of them pulled out something he'd brought to show his students today. It was his driver's licence from twenty years ago, when he was living and working in Saudi Arabia.

After we'd finished laughing at his hair I asked him if the driving test was hard.

"Oh, no," he said. "You just had to give a pint of blood."

"And...?" I asked.

"And nothing," he said. "That was it. Give a pint of blood and you got a licence."

We thought about it. It made sense, in a mad sort of way. Get your licence, have an accident, and be refilled with your own blood.

I asked what it was like, living there.

"Oh, it was great!" he said, enthusiastically. "Wonderful entertainment, you know. You get invited out to public beheadings every Friday night."

After we realised he wasn't making this up, he told us, more soberly, that he'd never attended one, but his Saudi friends used to sometimes push him to go, because if a foreigner went he'd be pushed to the front, and they could tail along and get a better view. He said one of his colleagues went and had nightmares for six months afterwards.

He also said that you could fill your car for about ten cents, but unfortunately water was more like ten dollars a gallon. And whisky was about one hundred dollars a bottle. One day, he said, when a certain embassy was having a piano delivered, the crate bounced a bit too much on the docks as it was being unloaded and started to leak whisky, almost causing a Diplomatic Incident.

After working there for three years he'd saved enough to go back to England and buy a house, but he said he wouldn't do it again. The principal of the school where he worked is still there, though.

Funny how every Thursday evening I learn a little more about my colleagues. We work together every week but barely have time to talk. An hour or two over curry, though, and little surprises keep popping up. I've worked with this guy for seven or eight years and never knew he'd lived in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Today as I was cycling to work (very carefully, see my last blog entry) a woman shot out of a side road without looking either way to see if anybody was coming, and I braked sharply and swerved to avoid her. She didn't see me. She cycled on obliviously, and I followed more slowly, wondering how on earth anybody in Japan makes it to adulthood. She had a baby on the front of her bicycle and a toddler on the back, and had sped straight through a stop sign out into a fairly busy street. Eventually she turned into another busy street, also without looking first, and narrowly missed a garbage truck that was coming the other way.

A bit later there was another incident when an older woman cycling towards me, slowly and carefully, got a big surprise. A crow, which had been sitting on a fence facing me but not visible to her, suddenly flew out and passed right in front of her face. She swerved and shouted, then stopped and stood there for a moment, breathing heavily and looking shocked. It must have been scary - this huge black thing swooped right in front of her face so close she must have felt the wind from its wings. The crow landed in a tree and looked smug. I think it did it on purpose.

From now on I'll be watching out for stupid cyclists, stupid drivers, and crows. I think I also need some protective demons, like the ones pictured below. These are the demons guarding the gates of Shi-Tennoji, where I went on Sunday. I want protective demons that look like that.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Little shit

I decided to go out and do a little grocery shopping just now, on my bicycle (with the wonderful baskets). It is a beautiful autumn day. I stopped at an intersection and looked to see if anyone was coming. Someone was. Two someones, in fact. They had the stop sign, not me (although I stopped anyway, because often cars don't stop there) - but they ignored it. These two kids on bicycles, going as fast as they could, came zooming down the road, straight through the stop sign, and zoomed into the road I was in. One of them rode full speed into the back wheel of my bicycle.


He flew off his bike and it skidded across the road. My back wheel skidded sideways a bit and I stood there aghast. Good god, doesn't anybody teach kids any road sense? (Answer: no. And this is why I stop at intersections even when I don't need to, because adults are no better.)

The kid hit the ground and bounced up again, grabbing his bicycle and starting to mount it. "Are you OK?" I called. He'd fallen hard, but apparently he'd rolled the right way because he looked fine and said so. "Sorry! Sorry!" he shouted, and he and his friend giggled and sped off again, as fast as before. The last I saw of them they were far away, speeding through another stop sign. Apparently one accident wasn't enough for them.

I stopped worrying about the little shit when I tried to ride off again and discovered that my back wheel was buckled. The bike shop man tells me it's too buckled to fix and will have to be replaced. It's bloody expensive, and if I see that kid again I'll be hitting him first. If he's alive, that is. Darwin's law suggests that he won't be.

More flea market pictures

Here are some more pictures of the flea market on Sunday.

First, some more of the temple grounds generally. This one is of the pond in the middle of the grounds, which is full of turtles. One year I came here in spring, and there were a lot of baby turtles. Someone had thrown in a whole slice of white bread, and a baby turtle had its front feet up on the bread and was paddling with its back feet. It looked very comfortable. I guess it was white bread surfing.

Naturally I didn't have a camera with me that day. But here are the turtles, sunning themselves on the raised platform in the middle of the pond. It's not a great picture, but you can get the idea.

In this one you can see my friend. Well, you can see my friend's hair. You can also see the temple in the background.

Here is another stall. As I said, it's all rather messy, but this just adds to the treasure hunt feeling you get when you're at these flea markets.

I don't have enough pictures of stalls. I was generally too involved in rummaging to remember I had my camera with me. But here is one, of my favourite kind of stall. There is an amazing amount of junk and I don't know what a lot of it is. This just adds to the mystery. I think that wooden wheel thing is for winding wool, or silk.

And here is another.

This woman was selling new noren, and other indigo-dyed cloth. They looked lovely flapping in the breeze.

Here are the dried snakes. I didn't buy any.

And, finally, can anybody identify this vegetable?

Monday, November 22, 2004

The promised pictures

I said I'd post some pictures from yesterday, so here are some. I took a lot, though, and this makes it difficult to choose which ones to put up. I've decided that I'll choose a few myself, and after that describe some of the others. If you want to see any of them, make a request and I'll post it.

The ones I'll put today will give an idea of what to expect.

First, a sort of general picture, giving some idea of what the place was like. This was taken from a slightly elevated position, but still only manages to capture only a fraction of what there was to see. The problem with this temple is that the only way to get a good overview is from a helicopter. You can't even see the temple buildings in this one.

Here is one of the temple buildings, but I'm not sure if it's the main one. Maybe it leads to the main building. I'm not sure.

The reason I'm not sure is that I always get lost in these temple grounds. There are a lot of large buildings. Add the crowds, and you have a very muddled Badaunt.

At one point, though, I must have been right next to the main temple area because we were sitting on some steps and having a little rest, and when I looked behind me I saw this:

Obviously this was the main area, but I was too close to see the actual building complex. There were very few people inside. Most people were out in the temple grounds, wandering around and checking out the numerous stalls. We were there for over four hours and I don't think we saw them all.

Remember the picture I posted of a kimono stall at the last flea market I went to, where all the kimono were hanging up, tidy and beautifully presented? That flea market was in Kobe, and was smaller and classier. This flea market is in in the middle of Osaka, in a fairly old and rundown neighbourhood, and is much larger, messier, and less genteel. It's also quite a lot cheaper. Here is what a kimono stall looks like at Shi-Tennoji:

You rummage through the piles of kimono and if you're lucky you find a gem. While my friend and I were sitting on the steps (with the inner temple area behind us, see previous picture), a beautiful young British woman started an extensive hunt through this stall, which was in front of us. She tried some kimono on. She was wearing jeans and boots and a big jersey (sweater to Americans), and had a huge mass of curly dark hair - entirely wrong for 'traditional' kimono wearing. But when she put one blue kimono on (she is not in the picture, but the kimono is one of the blue bunch in the front left) it looked stunning, even over jeans. I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted (because I was too knackered to get up), "IT LOOKS WONDERFUL! THAT'S THE BEST ONE FOR YOU!" and she turned around, looking surprised and uncertain.

"Really?" she said. "Do you think it's better than this one?" She held up another blue one, almost the same shade, but which somehow didn't work for her. We assured her the first one was definitely the one, and she told us that actually she wanted to buy two, one for herself and one for her boyfriend in London. We spent quite a bit of time giving helpful advice, but both of us stuck by that blue one. She roped in some passing guy and got him trying on men's kimonos for her so she could see what they looked like on. It was an entertaining and friendly interlude.

She ended up buying the original blue one and another darker blue one for her boyfriend. They were very cheap. And they looked great.

I was feeling particularly happy while I was sitting there because I'd just bought some bowls. I've been looking for some more. I'd bought two rice bowls, a long time ago, and regretted not getting more. The ones I got were expensive, but we've been using them every day since then and they feel right in your hand when you lift them. They are beautiful, the balance is perfect, and there is something very satisfying about them. Before I bought those bowls I don't think I'd ever really understood the pleasure of eating from beautiful dishes. I'd had nice dishes before but nothing like those bowls, which are over 100 years old. They are, somehow, exactly right, and I've often wished I'd thrown caution to the wind and bought more than two.

I've been looking for more ever since. They didn't have to match (and in any case that would be impossible), but they had to have a similar feeling of rightness. And yesterday, I found them.

This picture isn't a great one, although you can get some idea of what the bowls look like. I don't know how old they are, but the designs are hand-painted so they're not very new. I bought four, two rice bowls and two okazu (side dish) bowls. The okazu bowls are a little larger, and have lids that protrude over the sides of the bowl. The rice bowls lids fit inside. You can see these two types on the left of the photo. The rice bowls are in the front, and the okazu bowls just behind them.

Now I'm sort of wishing I'd bought some of the plates as well, but actually they weren't as big as I wanted. I already have some lovely plates, and the smaller ones don't get used so often. I like to buy things I can use a lot. Also, while these dishes weren't as expensive as my other rice bowls, they still weren't that cheap. And if I'm going to have mismatched dishes, I might as well wait and get some other mismatched ones, otherwise it's going to look as though I had a set and then broke half of them. I'd rather have it look as though I had several sets and then broke most of them!

This next picture is here just because I thought the old guy was très cool.

The final picture today is my favourite, for no particular reason except that it makes me smile to look at it. There was a little path off the main area, which had a few stalls down one side of it. It's a sort of side-entrance to the temple, probably a sort of tradesman's entrance. There is space for parking, which wasn't being used, and stalls down only one side of the path. On the other side, by the empty parking spaces, some people had stopped to rest. We stopped there for a little while, too, and took the weight off our feet. Then we carried on, and as we were leaving my friend said, "I think you should take a picture of that," and I did. Perhaps next time I should just hand her the camera. It's the best of the lot.

I think that's enough pictures for now, but following is a list of other pictures I took. If you want to see any of them, let me know and I'll post them. Alternatively I could just post one or two with each blog entry for a while.

Red demon
Green demon (these demons guard the entrance to the temple)
Mystery vegetable
Fascinating junk stall
Indigo noren in the breeze (Noren are those sort of half-curtain things)

There are also several more general sort of pictures, rather messy, but that's what it was like, really. Messy beyond belief, and wonderful, glorious fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Snakes and manhole covers

I've had a brilliant day. The weather was gorgeous, the flea market was crowded and lively and full of fascinating junk, the company was good (the same friend I went to the last one with), and I took lots of pictures. They are not ready to post yet because they need some adjusting (trimming, fixing the contrast, and so on) and also resizing for the web.

But here is one picture to start with, which shows the temple where the flea market was held. It also illustrates a charming detail about cities in Japan which is rather at odds with the general ugliness. Every city, or area within a city, has its own design of these:

That's right - it's a manhole cover. And because I was in Tennoji, an area of Osaka, this one shows the temple which is Tennoji's landmark. Only some of these manhole covers are coloured. The plain ones have the same design, but with no colour.

I bought some bowls today. I will post a picture of them, but probably in a day or two. Right now I'm exhausted and although I'd rather just go to bed I need to plan three lessons for tomorrow first. I left the house at nine this morning and got home at nine this evening. It's been a long, wonderful day, but unfortunately it isn't over yet. I'm thinking now I should have bought one of those dried snakes I saw, instead of just taking pictures of them. A snake strategically planted in the classroom would have taken care of my lesson plan problem. No students, no lesson plan, no problem.


I'm going to another flea market tomorrow. I intend to forget the work piled up here, forget the massive desk tidying job I've been putting off for weeks, forget everything, and just enjoy myself. The weather is forecast to be sunny, a perfect autumn day, just like today.

Tuesday is a public holiday, so I will catch up with my procrastinating then.

Friday, November 19, 2004


I had a sad but somehow funny and hopeful little exchange with a student today. Andaloo's blog entry about racism in Spain reminded me of it.

I had been asking students to tell me a funny, frightening, exciting, or embarrassing thing that happened to them. (I've been getting them to tell anecdotes.) One very small student, a gormless wee lad, chose to tell me an embarrassing story. His story was in terrible English which I won't try to reproduce here, but the gist of it was that one day he was at the train station and three foreigners approached him and asked him for directions. He was a high school student at the time, and he was 'very surprised.' He said he knew they were speaking English, but he couldn't understand what they wanted. So he told them he didn't speak English. Then he went to the other end of the platform, and then realised they'd wanted directions he could probably have given if he'd tried.

(I mentally translated this into a terrified, "No English! No English! and a panicked dash for safety - I've come across this behaviour before - and tried not to grin.)

I asked him why he was so embarrassed by this incident, and he looked up at me and said, "They were black." And then he looked down, quivering. I think he knew it wasn't really an adequate explanation, and his English wasn't adequate to explain more, but... well, in a way, it was adequate.

This kid is 18, and he's little. He makes me feel big, and I'm not. He breaks into a sweat whenever he has to talk to me, even though he has improved over the year and doesn't shake quite so badly these days. I'm not an imposing person, but he still makes me feel like some sort of monster. So I can only imagine his reaction to being approached by not one but three foreigners, and not just foreign but tall, black foreigners. He must have been petrified. All three were men, and he said they were 'very tall'. (I should add here that he thinks I'm 'very tall', and I'm 164 cm, so it's equally possible that they were very short.) He'd never seen a black person before. There aren't many, here. I can just imagine three friendly black tourists towering over this wee boy and unintentionally scaring him witless. I asked him if they were friendly, and he looked surprised, and then said, "I think so," and looked ashamed.

But what I liked about this story is that he clearly knew there was something wrong with his reaction. He felt bad about it. I also like it that he told me - it's sort of weird, really, since I'm also a foreigner and he is also scared of me. It felt like a confession, and also a step forward.

I asked him if he would try to communicate next time, if something like that happened again, and he got an inward look on his face as he struggled to imagine it. The idea clearly scared him at the same time as it made him think very, very hard. But finally he looked up with a frightened face and whispered, "I hope."

I thought that was a lovely, honest answer. I hope, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Mating season

It's the textbook ordering season, and the textbook publishers have come out of hibernation and are performing their mating dances. I don't know what's up with them this year. Perhaps there's some sort of Viagra for textbook publishers. Everywhere we go, there they are, trying to push their latest book on us and telling us how wonderful it is. It's starting to feel like we're being stalked. I've even been visited by the same guy twice. He was at one university lurking in the teachers' room after work, waiting to pounce, and then turned up a week later at a different university to disturb our lunch break. (To be fair, it's kind of hard to get hold of us at any other time.) This turned out to be a good thing, I thought, since instead of sending me the text I'd asked for, for inspection, he'd sent the sample CD that comes with the book, which wasn't much use to me. After complaining about this, and while I had him on the spot, I asked for one other text as well. If he didn't want to send it out, I told him, could he at least send an inspection copy to the school? I will not use a book I haven't checked out first.

A couple of days ago the first book I'd asked for finally arrived, but then instead of sending me the other one I wanted he sent me a different one, which his company had already sent me a copy of with their catalogue. My colleague, who had asked for two other books, got the same one. I guess that's their latest and greatest, and they're trying to get us to order it. Considering that he'd also left an inspection copy at the school and we'd already told him it was unsuitable we weren't very impressed.

The same company, yesterday, apparently organised a lunchtime meeting at the place I was at today. I'm glad I wasn't there, but from what I'm told it did have some entertaining moments. They brought along the writer of the book they're pushing (yes, the same one I have two copies of, which I know I won't be using), and also a 'very experienced teacher' to give us some hints about how to use the book.

The writer started off badly. She told the assembled teachers (who had been bribed with pizza) that she knew the problems we had with motivating students, and how important it was to 'engage their interest' and 'get them involved in their own learning.' For this reason, she said, she had researched the target audience and included only topics they were interested in. This made this book unique, she said, and particularly suited for the Japanese university student.

My colleague told me he was intrigued by the idea of a 'unique' textbook 'particularly suited for the Japanese university student,' and picked up the sample copy and leafed through it. He frowned, puzzled, and picked up the book he's been using this year. Sure enough, it had exactly the same topics as the new book. And exactly the same topics as every other textbook for English learning that has been published in Japan in the last twenty years or so.

Being a kind person, he didn't point this out. He chewed on his pizza and listened thoughtfully.

Our boss, however, wasn't quite so restrained. When the writer introduced her special guest, the man with extensive English teaching experience in Japan, who had "been teaching here for years and has a lot to offer," the boss interrupted.

"We have a lot of experience right here in this room," he said. "How long have you been teaching in Japan?"

"Four years," the guy replied proudly.

"Four years, eh?" said the boss, and no doubt got that horrible little smirk he gets when he's about to be heavily sarcastic. (I wish he wouldn't do that. It spoils the effect.) Then he went around all the teachers in the room - about twenty of them - asking how long they'd been teaching in Japan.

The shortest period he got in response to this question was from my colleague, who has been teaching here for nine years.

The same company is offering free drinks to any teacher who wants to go to a particular bar in Osaka tonight, where they'll be buying rounds and telling their captive audience all about their latest and greatest offerings. I am not there, obviously. I'm here. Even if it wasn't on a weeknight when I have to be up at 5.30 am, even the free drinks don't predispose me to being patronised by people who haven't researched their audience properly. The same writer and 'experienced teacher' will be there.

I didn't get my usual let-off-steam-dinner-with-the-guys tonight, either. I turned up at the Indian restaurant, as usual, and discovered that along with four other teachers, there were three strangers; a short dark intense-looking bloke with glasses and two younger women who looked a bit more relaxed. As I removed my raincoat, one of them pulled out a seat for me. I was a bit surprised, but assumed that they were friends of one of the other guys. However, once I was seated, the little short bloke with glasses leaned forward earnestly and said,

"First of all, I'd like to thank you all for coming to this meeting."

A quick look round at the guys' faces showed me I wasn't the only one who didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

"What meeting?" I asked.

"I haven't heard about any meeting," said one of the other guys.

"And, er... who are you?" asked another. "I mean, I don't want to be rude, but, er, perhaps you were expecting someone else...?"

No. They were expecting us. It turned out they were from another textbook publishing company. This lot were really serious. They had come from New York (the women, who were British) and London (the guy, who was American) to research the textbook market in Japan, and were visiting various schools and universities and setting up meetings with teachers.

I still don't know who set up this particular meeting, but we hadn't been informed. If it was the boss, who knows we go to the curry shop after work, I will have his guts for garters tomorrow.

I did, however, perform a service for teachers in Japan at this meeting. I told the researchers that we would all appreciate it very much if they would remove, from all their textbooks, that horribly unnatural question that is the bane of English teachers everywhere: "What's your hobby?" This question has enraged me ever since I first encountered it, and most especially since I had a peculiar fan follow me around for a while in the area where I live. He'd pop up in the most unexpected places, and one day when I went in a coffee shop to wait for my washing to dry at the launderette he followed me into the coffee shop. He wanted to talk, and I told him I didn't want to, so he sat at a nearby table, watching me and grinning dementedly while I tried to read my book, and wrote a letter to me, on a paper napkin. When I left he presented the letter to me. It began, "Dear Lady. Where did you invade from? What's your hobby?" stopped making sense for a bit, and ended "God save the Queen!"

I thought the hobby bit spoiled the tone of the letter, but my demented fan (who was wearing a dress that particular day) had obviously learned his lessons well. Every bloody English textbook in Japan includes that question in the first chapter.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Good idea

Now this is the kind of earthquake I could live with.

Upside-down fruit

Do you know how pineapples grow?

Today I took to work a whole bunch of travel pamphlets in English that I've collected over the years, and had one class working out travel plans for themselves based on the information in the pamphlets. They had a ball, getting serious about organising trips that would include all the places they were interested in. After a while, one of the students called my attention to a very small photo in one of the pamphlets from Malaysia, of a pineapple plantation. Because the picture was so tiny it was hard to see anything much except a bunch of people carrying pineapples through some low-growing plants. The student asked me,

"Do pineapples grow on little bushes?"

I stopped and stared at her. "No, of course they don't!" I said. "What a funny idea! They grow on... um... let me see. They grow on... er..."

And then I realised I didn't have the foggiest idea how pineapples grew. The student showed me the wee picture, and I squinted at it and didn't learn anything. I apologised for my ignorance and told her I'd look it up later.

Back in the office at lunchtime I asked some other teachers, and they all reacted pretty much the way I did. "Oh, I know this one! They grow on, um... er... trees! No, bushes! No, trees! Yes, of course - pine trees! No wait... er..."

We discussed whether we'd ever heard of anybody being bonked on the head walking under a pineapple tree, and wondered why they were called pineapples. We decided that the answer to the first question was no, we couldn't remember hearing of such a thing, but perhaps they don't fall until they are squishy and harmless. To the second, we realised, after a moment's thought, that they're called pineapples because they look like pinecones, not because they grow on pine trees. That seemed pretty obvious. But after that we were stumped.

Finally it occurred to us to consult the secretary, whose computer is hooked up to the web. I looked up "pineapple plantation", and found this. "Eh?" I said when the picture appeared. I don't know how I thought pineapples grew, but that wasn't it.

I called the other teachers over and had the satisfaction of hearing them do it too. "Eh?" One added, "But it's standing on its head!"

Funny the things you learn when you're teaching language. Today I learned that pineapples grow upside-down.

Is this something everybody already knew except us? I mean, it was reassuring not to have all the others pointing and laughing at me and saying, "Didn't you know that? Are you stupid or something? Everybody knows that!" - but what if all the Wednesday teachers at that school are ignorant?

Did you know?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Ripped off

Today I used the haggling game again, in my community class. This class is of older learners. The ages range from mid-thirties to mid-seventies. They are beginners, and are keen to learn.

They loved the game, and proved themselves to be very good hagglers, far better than the university students the other day. They were downright tricky, in fact, and at the end of the game I felt compelled to teach them a new word. I wrote I GOT RIPPED OFF! on the board, and waited until they'd all noticed it. (Some of them were still haggling, being reluctant to stop the game before closing a sale.)

When they saw the words on the board, they all started scribbling in their notebooks. I waited. Eventually one of them asked, "What does 'ripped off' mean?"

Sometimes it's faster to give a translation, so I dredged through my pitiful Japanese vocabulary for one. "Inchiki, I said, then mumbled to myself, "No, wait, that's what I call The Man, that's not it, or is it...?" Then I said, "Well, it might be inchiki, or possibly damasu"

(The woman sitting nearest me doubled over with laughter at my comment about The Man, and I remembered that her English was quite a bit better than that of the others.)

They thought about it, and still looked puzzled, so I decided a demonstration was necessary. I stood up and pointed a finger accusingly.

"Watch out for Mrs Tapioka!*" I said, sternly. "She ripped me off! Do you know how much she charged me for half a Chinese cabbage?"

Mrs Tapioka jumped, went pink, and erupted. "This year typhoons!" she shouted indignantly. "Vegetables expensive!"

"No!" I insisted. "You ripped me off!" I appealed to the others. "FIVE HUNDRED YEN for HALF a Chinese cabbage!"

Little lightbulbs went off all over the place, and there was uproar as discussions erupted amongst the women over whether or not that was the going price. (The only man, Mr Happi*, aged seventy-something, was laughing so hard he started to wheeze alarmingly and couldn't contribute.) I think I won in the end, although Mrs Tapioca refused to give me a refund.

By the end of all this everybody knew exactly what 'ripped off' meant.

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to teach adults, and especially how much fun it is to teach middle-aged Kansai women.

*No, that is not her name, but it is her shape.

*No, this is not his name, but it is his nature.

Saturday, November 13, 2004


I will never understand why, when it comes to western design, many ordinary Japanese people seem to lose all their aesthetic judgement. They'll get the Japanese design just right, but the western touches will be so wrong you wonder if they suddenly went blind.

The reason I was thinking of this today was that I was hanging out washing, and looking out over the back where there is now a large, ugly apartment building behind us. If I lean out a little from the balcony I can almost butt my head on it. When I first came here there was an old Japanese house on that section, but it was half destroyed in the earthquake, and demolished shortly afterwards.

That house behind ours was the first real Japanese home I visited in Japan. The people there kindly invited me to lunch when I first arrived. They were an ordinary middle-aged middle-class couple, with married children who had moved away. The old house had a lovely tatami-style traditional interior and a huge and gorgeous Butsudan - family altar - in the main room. To one side of the Butsudan there was a scroll depicting a misty mountain scene, which complemented perfectly the muted wall colours and the tatami. It would have been wonderful, except that on the other side of the Butsudan they'd carefully tacked up a life-sized poster of Sylvester Stallone.

Several beers later I discovered that the tiny toilet room was festooned with frilly flowers - a frilly flowered toilet seat cover, a frilly flowered toilet paper holder cover, a frilly flowered mat, etc etc. The final touch was a large soft padded plastic Mickey Mouse poster on the toilet room wall. The overall effect was ghastly, funny, and totally baffling. I think I went into culture shock right then and there, sitting on the toilet with frills tickling my bum, staring at Mickey Mouse.

Still, I miss that old house, and the old neighbours. They had a traditional garden as well, with a lovely old bent and gnarled tree that we could see from our balcony. Now the people are all strangers, and from the balcony we can see a blank wall.

Friday, November 12, 2004


I have come to the conclusion that my head is just too heavy. It's all those brains in there, weighing me down. That's why my neck hurts so much.

My acupuncturist tries to tell me that it is the humidity, which has still not gone away (it's supposed to, tomorrow) although the weather has become much cooler. This is meant to be one of the dry months, but it hasn't been, so far. But I reckon it's my brains. Clever, clever me.

Also, ouch. And in case you weren't paying attention the last time I wrote this (if I did actually write this - I can't remember, perhaps due to a bang on the head): Never, ever let yourself get a bang on the head. It messes up your neck forever.

That's my advice for the day. Avoid accidents. Also, don't be too clever.

I was too clever today, when I decided to borrow my Iranian friend's joke. I found myself in a lift with two Americans and a Pom. (This sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it? It is. It's the beginning of a failed joke.) I hadn't seen any of them for two weeks, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

"Congratulations on your newly re-elected President!" I said, brightly.

Everybody stared at me. The silence stretched. The doors went ping! and closed. A atmosphere of deep gloom would have descended except that we were going up, so in fact the atmosphere of deep gloom ascended. Then the Pom said, gently,

"Well, Badaunt, that wasn't very kind."

"Sorry," I said, humbly. "It was supposed to be funny."

"Ha ha," said one of the Americans, heavily. They both looked infinitely depressed. The doors went ping again and we exited. The Americans stomped off, and I mentally apologised to their students.

I should have known that overworked teachers would not appreciate a joke like that on a Friday morning, especially after they've been forced to try to explain the inexplicable all week to baffled students. I wasn't thinking straight, and my neck hurt.

It's been a long week.