Saturday, January 31, 2009

Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses

A strange thing happened on my way to school the other morning.

I was walking along a busy road, listening to my iPod. My body was in Kyoto but my head was somewhere else. I didn't notice that a well-dressed, middle-aged Japanese woman had sidled up beside me, matching my stride, step for step.

"Hello. Hello. Hello? Konnichiwa. Hello," she said, jogging ahead of me and twisting her body so that her face suddenly appeared in front of mine.

Startled, I pulled my headphones out of my ears and apologized for not noticing her right away.

"How are you?" she asked in perfect English.

I told her I was fine, thanks. I thought maybe she was going to ask me for directions or maybe she just wanted to practice her English with a foreigner (which happens surprisingly often).

"Sorry to bother you," she said with a polite bow and a smile. "I'm a volunteer in this area."

Okay, she's not lost. Not looking for directions. Maybe she wants me to join some sort of neighbourhood clean-up crew?

"I'm a Jehovah's Witness," she said.

A Jehovah's Witness? They have Jehovah's Witnesses in Japan? Not just Jehovah's Witnesses but Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses?

"I'm a Jehovah's Witness" was the last thing I expected her to say.

I was so surprised I think I just said something like, "Oh." I was intrigued and annoyed at the same time.

"Have you seen these before?" she asked, handing me a copies of The Watchtower and Awake magazines.

I told her that I hadn't and that I'd be happy to take a look at them. She seemed relived that I was such an easy sell. I told her I was running late for class (I was) and didn't have time to talk (I didn't). She smiled and bowed some more and told me she hoped to see me again.

I spent the rest of the day puzzling over our brief encounter. I had no idea there were Jehovah's Witnesses in Japan. When did they get here and how did they manage to brainwash the locals? I mean, this is Japan. A country that doesn't exactly welcome foreign religions with open arms. They used to persecute Christians not too long ago.

I asked my classmates if Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses had ever approached any of them.

"Are you kidding?" said Seema. "All the time!"

Apparently, I was the last foreigner in Kyoto to have been accosted by Jehovah's minions. I was a little insulted. Why did they wait so long before approaching me? Don't I look like I'm in need of salvation too?

To be honest, I know absolutely nothing about Jehovah's Witnesses and what they believe in. So I decided to flip through the magazines before I threw them in the garbage.

The Watchtower was full of all kinds of simplistic crap like, "God's Kingdom, which is a real government in heaven, will soon bring an end to all wickedness and transform the earth into a paradise."

Thanks but no thanks. I think the Jehovah's Witnesses and I probably have different ideas of what "paradise" would look like. For example, my vision of paradise is a world without religious lunatics forcing their crazy brainwashed bullshit on other people.

Anyway, there's no real point to this story. I'm just making a random observation. I had no idea there were Jehovah's Witnesses in Japan.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cycling with fatalistic abandon

One of my favourite things about Japan also happens to be one of my least favourite things about Japan. Yes, it's a contradiction but so too is the double-edged nature of Japan's bicycle culture, which manages to be both inspiring and frustrating at the same time.

On the upside, cycling is a very mainstream form of transportation in Japan. Almost everyone rides a bike. You will see grandmothers with baskets full of groceries, mothers with kids in tow, salarymen in business suits, stylish women in skirts and stilettos, and teenagers in school uniforms. All of them on bikes.

The bikes themselves are cheap and simple. They are one-speed, no-nonsense steel workhorses that come equipped with fenders, a kickstand, a light and a steel-mesh basket. They are absolutely everywhere. As a result, there are strict rules governing what you can and can't do while riding a bike.

For example, it is against the law to ride a bike in Japan while listening to music, holding an umbrella or talking on a cell phone. It is also illegal to ride on the sidewalk or ride a bike after drinking alcohol. There is a ban on text messaging while riding. It is even against the law to ring your bell repeatedly.

But you'd be forgiven for not knowing any of these things are illegal based on the sheer number of people who do all of the above on a daily basis.

The only law people seem to obey is the one about not ringing their bells repeatedly. Not only do they not ring their bells repeatedly, they don't ring them at all. Instead, they silently ride up behind unsuspecting pedestrians and screech their rusty brakes at the last second to avoid mowing them down.

Almost everyone rides a bike. But almost everyone rides with fatalistic abandon.

No one wears a helmet. Everyone talks on their cell phone or holds an umbrella while steering with one hand (actually, riding a bike while holding an umbrella is not as difficult or dangerous as it sounds. Especially if you use one of those ubiquitous transparent umbrellas that allow you to see what's in front of you).

Even though it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk, everyone does. Some sidewalks have bike lanes but most people ignore them.

And while cars are forced to drive on the left side of the road, the same rule doesn't seem to apply to cyclists. Riding a bike in Japan means you're constantly swerving to avoid a head-on collision with other cyclists. And those other cyclists are usually only steering with one hand because they're either sending a text message or holding an umbrella.

Cyclists in Japan are also fond of riding out into intersections without looking, running red lights and riding the wrong way at night without lights.

But the thing that bugs me the most is riding on the sidewalk. This is a tough one, though. On the one hand, I completely understand and sympathize with cyclists who feel they have no option but to ride on the sidewalk. On the other hand, I think sidewalks should be strictly for pedestrians, and that bikes are just as valid a means of transportation as cars and should be given space on the road to accommodate them.

Unfortunately, most of the roads in Kyoto are way too dangerous for bikes. They are choked with cars traveling at high speeds and any cyclist daring to venture out onto them would be given no room or respect.

I've always felt perfectly comfortable riding on city streets in Canada, even on roads without designated bike lanes. But it's a different story out here.

I would never, ever ride on a busy road in Kyoto. It is simply far too dangerous. So I ride on the sidewalk with everyone else. But I ride slowly and carefully and keep an eye out for the old people who tend to careen all over the sidewalk without looking.

Unfortunately, I'm in the minority. Most cyclists zip past pedestrians at high speeds on crowded sidewalks. Whenever I walk on certain sidewalks, I feel like I'm taking my life in my hands.

Being a pedestrian in Japan is a stressful experience. You have to be constantly on alert otherwise you will be run down by reckless cyclists who are going way too fast and paying far too little attention.

There are times I want to scream, "Slow down!!!" or "Use some oil before I go deaf from your stupid brakes!!!" But this is Japan and publicly expressing your true feelings just isn't done.

Every time I see two cyclists about to collide, no one shakes their fist or mutters something about the other's stupidity. They just screech their brakes, change course and either bow their heads in silent apology or simply avert their eyes and pretend it never happened. Not one insult is exchanged.

Kyoto somehow manages to be both bicycle friendly and bicycle unfriendly at the same time.

Bikes are everywhere but there is no impetus to get them off the sidewalk and on the road. Everyone rides a bike but they do so with reckless abandon. There are laws but no one follows them.

And so I am caught between alternately loving and loathing Japan's bicycle culture. It is both inspiring and frustrating.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ketchup-flavoured rice and other delicacies

What's the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Japanese food? Raw fish, white rice and miso soup perhaps?

These are certainly the staples of any Japanese restaurant outside Japan. But it's a different story inside Japan, where the menu offers up so much more than just sashimi, sushi and tempura.

There is a whole style of Japanese cuisine that you will rarely find in North America. It's called yoshoku and it's a thousand times more popular than the stuff on offer at Japanese restaurants back home.

The word yoshoku literally translates as "Western food." But make no mistake: There is nothing Western about yoshoku. It is thoroughly Japanese. It is Western food taken apart and put back together to suit local tastes.

It includes dishes like spaghetti stir-fried in ketchup, curry devoid of spices, deep-fried pork cutlet sandwiches and omelets stuffed with ketchup-flavoured rice. It is Western food with a Japanese twist. And it is just as an integral part of Japanese cuisine as rice and fish.

The most ubiquitous yoshoku dish is Japanized pizza. The most popular toppings are squid, corn, potatoes and mayonnaise. Even the Western chains know that in order to sell pizza in Japan they have to beef up their menus with yoshoku. Want proof? Check out the flyer from Domino's that arrived in my mailbox the other day.

It's called "fondue pizza" and it's topped with Camembert cheese, ham, shrimp, broccoli and potato. None of this is at all weird.

I've been to a few yoshoku restaurants in Japan and I've found the experience akin to entering a parallel universe. Everything on the menu is familiar and foreign at the same time.

Personally, I find most yoshoku dishes to be a little too junky for my liking. Too much fat and not enough nutrition. I'll take the tuna sashimi and leave the fondue pizza for the Japanese.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mi love it bad!

By the time I leave Japan, I will be fluent in not one but two new languages. That's right. I'm studying Japanese by day and Jamaican by night.

One of my classmates and good friends out here is from Kingston, Jamaica. She has been teaching me all kinds of Jamaican slang. And not the stuff you hear in the movies. Oneika assures me that absolutely no one outside of Ocho Rios would be caught dead saying "Ayrie, mon" or "No problem, mon." That's strictly for tourists.

Here are a few of my new favourite expressions, which I use on a daily basis here in Japan. Confusing the locals is fun!

1. Mi 'ungry bad! (I'm very hungry)

2. Dat ting deh tuff! (That [thing] is wicked awesome)

3. Mi buss (I'm full, my stomach is about to burst)

4. Mi love it bad! (I love it very much)

And my all-time personal favourite?

5. Bumboclaat (motherf*cker)

Learning Jamaican is way more fun than learning Japanese. Mi love it bad!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Breakfast in Toronto, lunch in Amsterdam, dinner in Kyoto

Life lesson #475: If something can go wrong, it probably will. Especially when planes, trains and boats are involved.

I have terrible luck when it comes to travelling. Let's review the evidence:

1. I was trapped on a boat in the middle of the China Sea for 53 hours during a typhoon. The waters were so rough we were forced to stay below deck the entire time with no escape from the stench of group vomit.

2. I was stranded in Siberia after the train I was on left without me during a shorter-than-expected stop. I then endured a white-knuckle taxi ride across the Russian countryside in order to beat the train to the next stop almost 200 kilometres away.

3. I attempted to fly from Osaka to Toronto during a massive snowstorm, got stuck in Detroit after my connecting flight was cancelled, spent seven hours on a bus in whiteout conditions and lost my luggage.

4. I was stranded in Toronto and rerouted to Amsterdam on my way back to Osaka after the pilot called in sick at the last minute.

I thought I had gotten my streak of bad luck out of the way with the miserable trip to Toronto. But it turned out the return flight to Japan was just as epic.

I showed up at the Toronto airport on Sunday only to find out my flight had been canceled after the pilot called in sick. The airline was scrambling to rebook everyone on different flights. But all of the planes were full and tempers were rising.

I watched the guy in line ahead of me scream at the attendants after they told him the best they could do was put him on standby for an evening flight.


He was giving the woman behind the counter so much grief she had to call for backup. A male employee took over and she moved to an empty counter. Since I was next in line, she called me over to her counter.

Now, I was just as pissed off as everyone else. But I was smart enough to keep my anger under control. I approached her with a smile. I told her I knew the flight had been cancelled and hoped she could rebook me on another flight leaving the same day. I was polite, calm and friendly.

She punched a few keys on her computer and produced a ticket about 30 seconds later.

"There's a flight going to Osaka tonight but you have to connect through Amsterdam first," she said. "There's only one seat left and it's in business class. I booked it for you because you're nice. But don't tell anyone."

The guy with anger management issues was still screaming at the next counter. He had no idea I had just been booked in business class on the same flight he was on standby for. Idiot.

Life lesson #476: Don't be an asshole. Especially to people who work in the public service industry.

Although I was annoyed that I would be arriving in Japan a day later than originally scheduled, I was excited about flying business class for the first time.

I was literally going to peak behind the curtain that separates the masses from the elites. My interest in flying business class was strictly anthropological. I've always thought flying business class would be kind of embarrassing. Paying thousands of dollars for a few hours of special treatment and attention seems slightly ridiculous.

But since I was being upgraded for free, I could enjoy business class without shame and guilt.

The business-class experience started the moment I checked in. I was separated from the masses before I even boarded the plane. I was ushered to a private lounge where there were no screaming kids and cranky parents. Just calm people with posh British accents.

The lounge had leather couches and free computers. There was an open bar and free food (I helped myself to some water and a banana).

When it was time to board the plane, we bypassed the lineup and went straight to our seats. I felt self-conscious about walking past hundreds of people waiting to board the plane. They turned their heads to look at me.

Please don't judge me, I silently begged them. I'm not rich. I'm not famous. I'm nobody. I'm the kind of person who thinks spending $8,000 to avoid sitting in an uncomfortable seat for eight hours is a ridiculous waste of money.

When the flight attendant checked my ticket and saw that I had the window seat in the first row, he exclaimed, "Oooh. That's the queen seat."

He wasn't kidding. My seat was had so much legroom that if an NBA player had been sitting there, he could have stretched his legs all the way out and wiggled his toes with room to spare. My seatmate and I were sharing the equivalent amount of space that nine people would be crammed into in economy class.

Flying economy class is a miserable experience. But it's a different world in the front of the plane.

A flight attendant served us champagne on a silver platter while we waited for the masses to finish boarding.

We enjoyed four-course meals served on china with real silverware and a choice of wines. We were given down pillows and fleece blankets. We had large personal TV screens with a good selection of movies, which we watched with special noise-canceling headphones. We converted our seats into lie-flat beds when we were tired. We were given silk eye masks, socks and earplugs to help us sleep.

There was something infantilizing about the whole experience. The seats, with their foot rests and tables that fold out across your lap, made me think of highchairs. Maybe that's the point. People in business-class are paying to be babied and coddled and fussed over. They are swaddled in so many layers of comfort they are buffered from the grim reality of air travel.

I got a break from all of the warm nuts, complimentary glasses of wine and free slippers during an eight-hour stopover in Amsterdam. I decided to throw my carry-on luggage in a locker and take a train downtown.

I only spent a couple of hours walking around but I think I hit all of the highlights -- I saw people smoking pot in various coffee shops and half-naked women advertising their goods in storefront windows.

And then it was back to the airport, back to the first-class lounge and then back on board business class all the way to Osaka. By then, the shine had worn off a little bit. Business class or not, an 11-hour flight is still an 11-hour flight. You can sit in economy class where the tray table will smash your kneecaps when the person ahead of you reclines their seat or you can lie down in business class and attempt to sleep while your seatmate snores like a chainsaw.

Life lesson #477: You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.