No excuses

I’ve lived in Japan for nearly three years now and I’m still in awe about their fantastic train service. For someone who lived in England for 14 years, the Japanese trains are bloody amazing!

When I move back to England, one of the things I will miss even more than the irresistible Japanese food (that has over the past 3 years added about 10kg on my waist) is the stress-free bang-on-time train service that I have been using to commute to work every weekday and to travel near and far around Japan during weekends.

You see, England is country whose train service can hardly be referred to as ‘bloody amazing’ and thus, I will have to soon again get used to all sorts of excuses as to why I won’t be able to trust that my train will be on my platform when it should.

This might be a bit mean to the English government (that seems reluctant to make any investment whose benefits last beyond their term in office) and to English train companies (whose only aim is to make profit for their shareholders regardless of how appalling a service they provide their passengers in the process) but I can’t resist pointing out that the English train operators’ three typical excuses for delayed, cancelled or overcrowded trains seem rather moot in comparison to the conditions in Japan. They appear to be the following:

1. Weather and natural disasters

Japan has a multitude of additional and frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. Regardless of these, Japanese train operators manage to provide a fantastic service. For instance, the average delay annually of the Shinkansen, i.e. the bullet train is between 20-50 seconds depending on the year (this includes delays due to uncontrollable causes, like earthquakes!).

In comparison, in England, trains are cancelled as there are ‘leaves on the tracks’.

2. The number of people

English train operators often defend their poor service by saying that the volume of people in modern day England does not reflect the capacity of its Victorian infrastructure. Namely, the platforms are too short for longer trains whose use would enable less overcrowded trains. I’m guessing the company/government decision-makers are not stupid, and thus they are aware that one could (a) modernise the platforms to reflect the needs of the modern day or (b) run a more frequent train service without extending the platforms. However, extra trains and longer platforms mean investment, more man-hours and higher fuel costs, all of which result in less profits, so the government and the companies are as eager to change the platforms or add extra services as your stingy auntie is to turn the heating up in the winter.

About 120 million people live in Japan. This is roughly twice as many as in England. Regardless of this huge number of people, the commute to work in Japan is generally relatively stress-free. If you do not fit onto the train you were expecting to take, you simply join the queue on the platform, and take the following train, which is likely to arrive a couple of minutes later. Therefore, not fitting onto the overcrowded train creates a delay on average of about 2 minutes.

The train and tube connections between different lines are unbelievably well thought through and executed. As your first train pulls in to the platform, your connection is usually already there waiting for you, or it will arrive within 30 seconds. So, all you need to do is basically just walk out of your first train and walk into your connection on the other side of the platform before it leaves 30 seconds later. It’s like magic! I assume English train companies’ intention is to provide something similar, but they haven’t quite managed to hone the operations to the point where passengers can enjoy their connection waiting for them at the platform instead of it arriving 45 minutes later (if even then).

3. Old equipment

Maybe a valid point is the functionality of the train company’s equipment. We get to the importance of investment here again, but let’s assume that one had to make do with pretty old trains. Would this be a valid reason to let your train service perform like a pensioner with a heart problem using a zimmer frame?

Well, in Japan it’s not. In Japan they have their high end bullet trains (would you not agree with me that they look like platypuses, see photo below) and they are investing now in the Maglev, the super fast magnetically levitating bullet train.

 

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Platypus

 

But in addition to these super fast, super reliable long distance trains, local Japanese train companies (many of which are privately owned), such as the one I have been using for the past three years to commute to work and back, use less sophisticated technology (see photos below).

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What I love about the aboves photo, and what to me gives an indication of the rigour and determination that the train companies and staff have about their schedule is the old-fashioned pocket watch on the dashboard. Every time the train stops, the driver checks the watch to make sure the train leaves on time. I suppose my point with the picture is that: good train service is not just about the equipment.

And ass I pointed out above, I think it’s not about the weather or the number of passengers either.

So what is it about?

I think it’s about attitude. I think it’s as simple as that. If train operators wanted to put passenger satisfaction first and provide good service, they would simply adjust to the needs of the modern society and to current passenger numbers, even if it meant a little less money for themselves/their shareholders.

But in a country with a long history of dog-eat-dog competition, where can we find the train operators or their decision makers that are not only concerned about money?

 

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One more point relevant to trains, but from a slighlty different perspective: Even though the train operators don’t care about their passengers very much in England, other passengers on the train do (only occasionally you are unlucky enough to encounter a person whose BMW was broken down and they’ve had to take the train. These are the people who behave on the train platform like their time is more valuable than everyone else’s). In England, if for instance an elderly person or a pregnant lady is on the train, you can be sure that someone will give their seat to these people. Japanese people on the other hand rarely offer their seat to anyone even if it was obvious that the other person needed the seat more than they did (see photo below of me carrying my sleeping 4-year old for a 40 minute journey from Kyoto to Osaka).

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A few tips to help you make friends in Japan

Japanese people are a little bit like the Finns, i.e. relatively introverted and shy, and even though they might want to have a chat with you they are as eager to open a conversation with a foreigner as a squirrel is to cuddle a boa constrictor. Consequently, you might find it’s hard work to make Japanese friends… well, that is unless you are in Osaka, where on the train or in the park old ladies frequently engage with you in lengthy conversations in Japanese (regardless of whether or not you speak Japanese) and hand out to your children bags of sweets, bookmarks or pieces of fruit (regardless of whether or not you consent to it) and where random strangers tap you on the shoulder and ask (a) if you could be their foreign friend and/or (b) if they could practice their English with you. But elsewhere in Japan it might be more difficult to talk to the locals.

But not to worry, if you are visiting Japan and would like to experience authentic Japanese communication in a friendly situation or even make friends with some random Japanese people this is what we’ve found works marvellously:

1) in the evening, go to a small izakaya (gastro pub) or a standing sake bar, the smaller the better really, a 5-10 seater would be perfect.

2) sit/stand at the bar (in very small izakayas there are no tables anyway)

3) have a couple of glasses of dry sake, sweet plum wine or a pint of beer

4) start talking to the person sitting next to you. It helps if you know a couple of words in Japanese, after all, the chances are the Japanese person will have a very limited knowledge of English. The quickest way to start a conversation is to comment on the sport on the TV in the izakaya, or mention how delicious the sake or food is. Further into the conversation you should mention how much you love Japan (which shouldn’t be difficult as Japanese food, public transport, customer service, culture and nature are all amazing). Even though Japanese people love their country, what they love even more is foreigners telling them that they love Japan.

5) one additional tip for connecting with Japanese people at 11pm when you’ve jointly emptied the sake reserves of a small izakaya is to learn the lyrics to USA for Africa’s We are the World song before your trip to Japan. Seriously! Surprisingly perhaps, pretty much everyone in Japan, or at least in Osaka, knows this song (because the kids’ area at the Universal Studios in Osaka plays this song non-stop all day every day).

To convince you that the above method works like a dream here are a couple of random but wonderful instances of us making friends in Japan:

 

Crazy mama-san

A German friend was visiting me in Osaka and we were looking for a place to eat. We stopped outside a small Korean izakaya to have a look at the menu (which was written in Japanese and we couldn’t understand any of it) and decided not to go in. But as we started walking away from the restaurant a salesperson from a bike shop across the road storms out of his shop and with a few words of English persuades us to go to the Korean restaurant, saying that the food is great and the mama-san (owner/manager) is very friendly. We felt obliged to go in.

We sat at the counter next to two salarymen and a lone guy. We struggled to order anything because mama-san and her sous-chef/waitress didn’t speak English so the lone guy next to us offered to translate. It turned out he owned his own restaurant a couple of blocks away but was having his ‘break’ (involving no food, but hefty glasses of sake). We had a chat with him about his visit to Canada some 20 year ago, and when he had to go back to work (a little tipsy), we turned to the two salarymen sitting next to us and to another group of men who had come downstairs (from the seating area upstairs) to talk to us. It was an interesting mix of people. There was a piano tuner, a university professor, a relatively famous actor, office workers, a car sales person, two crazy ladies behind the bar and me and my German friend, both of us university lecturers.

The night turned a bit crazy with singing, mama-san taking a gulp of wine, gurgling it and spitting it back in the glass and redrinking it, several of the customers ended up serving drinks/food behind the bar and the punters, mama-san and the sous-chef trying to pronounce my German friend’s name even in a remotely similar way to the way it should be pronounced.

It was a hilarious evening and ended in everyone exchanging their business cards to indicate friendship.

 

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Mama-san and a customer behind the bar

Standing Sake bar the size of a match box

My husband and I have a favourite standing sake bar in the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka. It is tiny. It literally consists of one table (which is really just a piece of wood balanced on top of some drinks crates) and a fridge to keep the sake cool.  As to food, the owner is happy for you to bring in whatever you like (including take-outs from the local 7-eleven). And we like the place precisely because of these properties. The sake bar having only one table means that you have to talk to the people next to you, and the cold (or hot) sake helps with no single mutually intelligible language. Regardless of the fact that my husband and I don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics and the other customers generally not speaking English beyond the very basics every time we’ve been to this place we’ve had a great time, maybe partly because most customers when coming in exclaim with delight kokusai (‘international’) party or because more than once when we haven’t managed to understand each other a Japanese customer leaves the sake bar, goes searching the surrounding bars and eventually comes back with a Japanese person who can speak some English to translate between English and Japanese.

We love this place so much that we often take our European visitors/friends there with us. Here’s a photo taken at my most recent visit with a friend.

 

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And to prove that this is not only the case in Osaka, here are a couple of pictures of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo where I went with a Japanese friend and ended up having a great time with some other diners (who were eager to tell me that they had visited Europe and their son was an associate professor of English at a university in Nagoya) and the owner of the restaurant who wanted to practice his English. Having been able to talk to the owner, who was the sushi chef of the place, allowed me to finally put some words to the foods that I’ve been eating for the past 2 ½ years.

So, not only will you have interesting, hilarious and entertaining evenings interacting with random Japanese people after a couple of glasses of something slightly stronger than just green tea, but you will learn a lot about Japan and Japanese culture as well.

 

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Sushi chef (owner) secretly took a selfie with my phone

 

Even though I am posting this blog post on New Year’s Eve, the above tips are not really meant to be used tonight or any other NYE. After all, in Japan NYE is a little bit like Christmas eve in Finland or Christmas day in England, i.e it’s spent at home relaxing with one’s family eating too much, watching TV and maybe visiting a temple/church during the night. But if you are in Japan pretty much any other evening than NYE,why not try and make some Japanese friends. And if you are a bit shy to open the conversation, remember that the chances are that the Japanese person sitting next to you is as eager to talk to you as you are to them!

Good flight with the kids? –Erm…Never.

IMG_1872 We have just arrived in Brighton, UK where we will spend Christmas, NYE and a couple of weeks in January. It is so nice to be back home: smell the familiar smell of my house (damp to be more precise – after all this is England) and sleep in my own bed. I can get freezing water straight from the tap (something we can’t seem to do in Japan). I can leave my laptop on our little breakfast table in our kitchen without having to worry that an earthquake will throw it on to our stone floor and break it. I can go to the shop and I will actually know what I am buying. The same goes for restaurants – for the next three weeks I will know what I am eating, unless we visit my mother-in-law. Not that she would serve us cow’s pancreas or chicken’s throat, which we have involuntarily ordered in Osaka, but she is one experimental cook, I can tell you that for free.

We are back home, but the journey from Osaka to Brighton was roughly as much fun as me dressing up as Santa and volunteering to work in Santa’s grotto for 24 hours solid in one of England’s fake Laplands. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are relatively well behaved, as kids go, but kids just aren’t the most chilled travel companions overall – and neither are they the most chilled when they visit Santa’s grottos.

In case you missed my previous blog post, we travelled via three busy airports a couple of days before Christmas (when it seems that half the globe is on the move) and attempt (a) not to catch anything like the flu or a tummy bug for the holidays (we want to be able to see our friends and have a good time while we are here in the UK) and (b) not contract Ebola from the health workers, missionaries or anybody else returning home from West Africa for Christmas. I had a plan: We took some preventative measures to avoid catching anything (see photo below), and I had timed meal times and sleeping for the journey so that the journey would go as smoothly as possible. But as any parents out there reading this might have already guessed – my plan was as successful as Finnish European Song Contest entries generally are (although there was that one occasion when to everyone’s surprise Finland sailed to victory – on every other occasion it’s been complete carnage).

IMG_6064On a positive note it all went fine to start with. The first leg of our journey – a 10h flight (Osaka-Helsinki) was something I could call a success. We all had our face masks on (this is very Japanese – their function was to restrict the amount of times the kids put dirty hands in their mouths or noses), the kids were watching films and my daughter even played with some stickers for a moment – luckily only for a moment as I dread to think what the interior of the plane would have looked like after an extensive sticker session (see photo below). All in all, they were behaving relatively well. The best thing was to sit there and communicate effectively with people around you. Communication with other people is something I still find extremely difficult in Japan. There are not that many foreigners in Osaka, so the majority of people one meets are Japanese. The Japanese are a bit like the Brits – both nationalities seem to have about as much desire to learn foreign languages as a Christmas bauble. Although I am interested in learning foreign languages, my current level of Japanese is about as good as my 3 year old daughter’s ability to play chess. Consequently, communicating in restaurants, bars, shops and public transport in Osaka is pretty laborious.

IMG_6095On a slightly disappointing note, the biggest man on the plane happened to sit behind me and even though I had not reclined my seat the airhostess came and asked if I could put it in the upright position. Her being Japanese and hence extremely polite and helpful to the man’s request for more room in the minimal space he was squeezed in, she was doing what she could to help. But of course no extra space could be provided (unless they had detached my chair from the floor and moved me with the chair elsewhere – luckily they didn’t go that far). Although, I know how that guy felt. A couple of weeks ago my husband and I went for a Korean-type BBQ in Osaka (see photo below). The menus were placed underneath the counter where we were sitting. As my husband was pulling our menu out there was an awkward 3 seconds in which the menu was wedged between my belly and the counter. So I did feel for the poor guy, I had to pull my stomach in for a couple of seconds in that restaurant, he had to do it for about 10 hours on the plane. In any case, this guy sitting behind me meant I could not consider reclining my chair for the duration of the flight – the poor man wouldn’t have been able to breath had I done that. So, me sleeping on that flight was pretty impossible. Actually, it would have been impossible also because the kids didn’t sleep during that flight either. They were too excited about the journey and about seeing their dad. Actually that’s not true – they were watching so many films that that they were too wound up to settle down and sleep. I know, many parents don’t like the idea of their children spending an entire intercontinental flight watching films (as this is not exactly great parenting) but I hope that most of you parents agree on this statement with me: It is acceptable to let your child watch 10 hours of films if you are on a plane, unacceptable in the comforts of your own home. A 24 h hour journey is not the place to try to enforce all the principles that you have outside that aeroplane – flying with kids is about surviving the journey without any major meltdowns. If films do it for your kids, I say: let them watch.

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The larger than average guy behind me wasn’t ideal but our real problems started at Helsinki airport. We had 4 hours to kill before our flight to London. The kids (and I) were getting tired because at this point it was about 10pm in Japan and none of us had had any sleep since 7am that morning. The kids were ratty; even though there is an ok play area for kids at the airport, they were too tired to fully enjoy it; our 3 year old was also no longer all that keen on wearing her facemask – the straps hurt her ears. When we finally walked on to the plane to go from Helsinki to London (at 2am Japanese time) our daughter was crying because she was so tired. The good thing was that I knew she would sleep for the 3 hours of that flight. In fact, we all went to sleep as soon as we had buckled up (see photo at top of this page). However, half an hour later, I woke up because my daughter was crying again. There was a great big wet patch underneath her. I sheepishly disclosed to an airhostess the fact that my daughter had peed herself. The airhostess kindly brought us a plastic cover and assured me that the person sitting on that seat on the next flight would not have to sit on a wet seat. I then changed our daughter’s clothes and we all dozed off again – until 20 minutes later the same airhostess wakes me up to say that my daughter had a nosebleed. Disorientated, I try to make sense of it all and finally compute that yes – there is blood everywhere. I apologize to the airhostess again, wake my daughter up to stop the nosebleed and change her clothes again. I doze off again but in my sleep I can hear a young Finnish woman talking shit to her English boyfriend across the aisle for the duration of the entire flight. She thinks her English is so good that she could pass as an English person and even talks to the airhostesses in English. She wants to show off. I can see myself in her 10 years ago. I used to be exactly like her. When my younger self was sitting in the departure lounge in London waiting for my flight to Helsinki I would boldly take my phone out and call an English friend and have a little chat with them, just so that the Finns sitting around me would hear my pretty good English. I don’t want to come across as an arse, but my English is fairly good – it’s not perfect but I think it would be fair to say that it is pretty good. I think the fact that I am a linguist helps – and the fact that I really love the English language. So when the girl across the aisle was so eagerly using the 3 hour flight to show off her English skills, I wasn’t cross but in fact was a little smug because I thought to myself that my English was better than hers. Even though her English was good, and she used many colloquial phrases and slangy words that many Finns would not know, her pronunciation of certain consonants and several vowels gave her away. By the way – nowadays I am too busy worrying about nosebleeds and wet patches on aeroplane seats to care about whether or not other passengers think my English is any good or not.

We eventually got to Heathrow, ended up jumping the queue at passport control thanks to a kind member of the airport staff spotting that my daughter was crying her eyes out having woken up after a mere 3 hours of sleep. There haven’t been that many occasions when I have been more happy to see my husband. When I handed the kids over to him at that Heathrow arrival hall I really felt I like I had endured the equivalent of running a marathon in a Father Christmas outfit.

So, the journey wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable 24 hours of my year, but seeing many of my friends after nine months will be! I hope you, like us, will be surrounded by wonderful friends and/or family this Christmas!

Kids, travelling and infection control

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In a couple of days, my two children and I will travel from Osaka to Brighton, England for Christmas, which means that we will be sweating through three busy airports, including Heathrow. I might be an overprotective mother but I am really quite worried about Ebola and other bugs that we might encounter during that journey. Young children are a nightmare in terms of infection control, and my children are no exception. If anything, the fact that our daughter has Type 1 diabetes means that it is even more of a nightmare than for many other children because the frequent finger prick blood tests that she has to have for her blood sugar readings mean that the germs have as easy access to her bloodstream as the Pope has to the Vatican.

So, you can probably see why I am worried about that trip and the germs that my children might pick up along the way. For the past couple of weeks I’ve tried to figure out (a) why my kids touch every surface they possibly can when we go outside, and (b) when my kids will stop doing it, given that you don’t see many adults walking next to a metal car park fence dragging their hands across the metal bars singing Gangnam style (but my kids do this pretty much every day).

I can remember the moment of time in my childhood when I consciously made a decision not to run my hands along every outside surface I possibly could. I was 4 years old, me, my twin sister and our parents went for a day trip to a zoo in Helsinki. I still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was sunny, and we were having a good time. Me and my sister were jumping around like two ponies in a meadow, and touching everything around us. I remember our mum told us several times not to touch the animals’ cages, bannisters or in fact anything in the zoo because it was all dirty. By the peacock pen, she got really cross and in a particularly firm voice and with an evil look on her face signaled to us not to touch the birds’ cage. Regardless of this, I dragged my hand on the cage while walking next to it – until I felt something on my finger. I am sure most of you can guess what that was – Peacock shit. I remember thinking: Oops. Mum just said not to touch the cage and here I am having just done that and ended up with this brown stuff on my finger. So, I did what I had to do to save my ears from a lecture from out of this World: I put my hand in my trouser pocket and wiped the shit on the inside of the pocket. Getting rid of the evidence felt like the safest approach to the problem in hand (and on it). After all, I could not tell my mother that I had ignored her firm advice just 10 seconds earlier. I then asked to go to the toilet because I figured that that would allow me to wash my hands in a non-suspicious manner. Unfortunately, instead of taking me to the toilets my parents spotted a tree a couple of metres away, pulled my trousers down (recall I was about 4 years old) and so completely screwed by plan of getting my hands washed. But thinking back, I have to say that my approach to hiding the bird poo was not bad at all for a 4-year old. However, that incident made me learn my lesson. I stopped touching every surface possible – after all, I had to spend the rest of the afternoon at the zoo with a couple of pretty bad smelling stains on my fingers.

Let’s get back to our forthcoming trip to England. I think the best thing to prepare the kids for the journey and the germs along the way is for them to experience my experience in the zoo in Helsinki. But, I don’t think it would be useful to take them to a zoo in Osaka because the Japanese are even more obsessed with cleanliness than me with my OCD tendencies. That is, we would struggle to find any peacock shit on birdcages over here. A successful plan B might involve taking the kids outside and recreating the experience, i.e. smear a wall with some dog shit, tell the kids not to touch everything they can get their hands on, emphasize that the walls and fences are very dirty and then let them roam free in that area (no gloves allowed). However, call me ‘a princess or ‘a pussy’ but I can’t see myself (a) following some Japanese stranger and leaping towards him and his dog with an erect arm and a plastic bag as soon as the dog’s finished squatting or (b) create brown graffiti on a wall with what the dog had left on the ground. So, perhaps it’s for the best if I do not attempt to recreate the experience in Osaka which I was in 30-something years ago. I also don’t have the time to wait for the poo-on-the-finger incident to happen naturally. I mean, I think eventually my kids will get some shit on their hands judging by the rate with which they touch extremely filthy surfaces. But I only have another couple of days before we head to the airport for the 20 plus hour germ ridden journey. So, I feel I need to adopt a different approach: We will do three things that should cut down the likelihood that my child/children will pick up a bug en route to Brighton.

First, we will adopt the Japanese way to protect oneself from germs. That is, we will all wear surgeon masks for the duration of the journey. We will only remove them when we eat/drink and when we enter our car at the car park at Heathrow. The good thing is that we are flying out from Japan, and that this is flu season. At the moment, many Japanese people on public transport, at hospitals, in shops, at work and at school wear a mask (to protect themselves from germs or avoid passing on to others something that they have). No-one will flinch when our two kids and I hail a cab in Osaka or walk around the terminal at Kansai International Airport wearing surgeon masks. Even on the first leg of our journey out of Japan, all the passengers are likely to have seen people wear masks, even if those passengers were not Japanese, so on that flight we should blend in as well as gin blends into tonic. During the second leg of our flight us with masks will blend in as well as candle wax blends into tonic, but who cares. My children and I will not enter Heathrow without those masks.

The mask will not only provide some protection from airborne nasties but also the spray of mucus that we will be likely to experience during the journey – after all, this is the flu season. In addition, the mask might discourage the kids from putting their fingers in their mouth or nose every 30 seconds. I really hope the masks are as effective in real life as I hope they are.

Second, instead of testing my daughter’s blood sugars by doing a finger prick test, during the flight, and about 24 hours prior to the flight, I will draw the blood from her toes. At least that way,  even if she happened to place her fingers on something with particularly dangerous germs on it the-nasty-whatever-it-is would not be able to access her body via her fingers.

Third, we will go completely OCD for the duration of the flight. We will spend more time soaking our hands in soapy water than a hard working kitchen porter does and we will use gallons of disinfectant hand gel (preferably with some chlorine in it!).

Now all I have to do is to find a hand gel with a chlorine component. Or, perhaps I should just bring a bottle of bleach with me on the flight and rub it on our hands instead of the hand gel. That should do the trick of killing everything I don’t want to end up in my children’s mouths, noses or eyes. Then again, I don’t really want the bleach to end up in those places either.

In any case, even though I am not particularly looking forward to the journey, I am really looking forward to seeing my husband, and all our friends in England, who I haven’t seen for the past 9 months. Wish me Bon voyage!

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