Juntendo Hospital

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The day after Ghibli I was back at work, despite still having problems with my lungs.  For the second time I was told about another teacher at the school who had had similar symptoms – persistent coughing – but now I learned they had eventually gone off work with pneumonia because they hadn’t had it seen to.

This shook me a little and I decided I would definitely get my cough looked at.  I knew there were a few clinics in the building where I was teaching so I asked whether any of these might be able to see me before my next lesson.  The consensus between the Japanese counsellor and the senior teacher was that I would be better off going to a hospital.  The senior teacher recommended Juntendo Hospital – it was just along the road in Shin Urayasu, and was a very well regarded hospital, used by the Emperor, no less.

My alternative would be Tokyo Bay Medical Centre in Urayasu, where I went after I dislocated my shoulder.  The advantage is they already have my details and I have an ID card for their centre.  The disadvantage is that I already know they don’t really have anyone who speaks English, and I’m a little suspicious about my symptoms starting just days after I visited it.

I decided on Juntendo and that I would go first thing in the morning.  Hopefully I would be able to be seen before having to get back to Monzen-Nakacho where I had lessons starting at 2.00pm.

At this point there was another twist in the story – I got a telephone call from the district manager saying that there was a public health concern over a respiratory disease affecting some of the offices in the district.  I explained I already had symptoms and plans to go to the hospital tomorrow.  He gave me the all-clear to continue teaching today, but obviously however concerned I had been previously I was now even more anxious to get some answers.  At the same time I didn’t want to panic anyone else or exacerbate a wider public health issue, so I kept this new information to myself.

In the morning I got up bright and early and made my way to Shin Urayasu by the usual route.  I brought everything I would need for work in the afternoon, in case I wouldn’t have time to return home.  I walked from the station to the hospital, it was another hot, sunny day with little shade along the route.  Fortunately the hospital wasn’t very far indeed.

From the outside it was pretty nondescript but inside looked much the same as hospitals tend to everywhere, lots of corridors and signs and people.  I had no idea where to go or what to do, fortunately there were people in uniforms hanging around waiting to help people like me.  I approached one of them, she asked me a couple of simple questions, and guided me to the “first time visitors desk.”

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Here I had to register with my name and address – basically just show my ID card and let the receptionist fill everything in.  She asked a couple of questions about the reason for my visit then asked me to sit and wait while they made up my registration chart.  After six or seven minutes she called me back and directed me to Block K, down the big long corridor.  This was the area for respiratory illnesses.

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I found Block K, a waiting room with a reception kiosk, and handed them my chart.  I was asked to wait, then a nurse came and asked me a few questions (with the aid of a translation book).  I described my symptoms and explained I was concerned I might have pneumonia but there was a risk of the disease my manager had warned me about.  Pretty soon after that she came back, gave me a card and directed me to Block O to get an X-ray.

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There was a smaller waiting area at Block O, and I didn’t have to wait long after handing my card in before I was called into the room.  They got me to take off my shirt and stand against the machine, to inhale, and then they took the x-ray, and that was it.  They sent me right back to Block K.

At this stage I was optimistic, I’d been registered and x-rayed within about 45 minutes of arriving and it seemed likely I would be finished with plenty of time to spare.  But the optimism was misplaced.  This time the wait got longer and longer as dozens of other people in the waiting room wandered into the consultation rooms ahead of me, one by one.

I had notified Head Office I was going to the hospital but didn’t expect to be late.  Now it was looking more likely.  I tried calling my manager to see what to do but couldn’t get through.  I decided I’d better let the hospital know I had a deadline.

They were lovely about it, they immediately put me outside the consultation room and got a doctor to see me as soon as possible.  I felt a bit guilty about “jumping the queue” and also guilty that I was definitely going to be late now that I was committed to seeing this through, but I decided in the greater good it was better to get it sorted out today.

My consultation was with a doctor who spoke passable English.  To my relief he immediately ruled out pneumonia based on a cursory look at the x-ray.  He said he would give me a prescription for my symptoms – an expectorant to loosen the “sputum” and a cough suppressant.  But he was a little concerned about the other disease and wanted to do a blood test.  He checked my availability and gave me an appointment to come back on 17th, my next day off but one.

I was then asked to wait again – only a short time – then they took me into the treatment room and took a sample of my blood.  Then I was given my charts and told to report to billing, back in the main reception area.

By now it was clear I wouldn’t make the 1.00pm deadline for checking in at work.  I notified head office again, and they were fine about it, as long as I would be there in time for my lesson at 2.00pm.  I also spoke to my manager and explained what the doctor had said and that they were checking my blood.

I was worried the billing would take a long time – and it did.  The queue wasn’t so bad but it was getting my bill typed up that took the time.  Eventually my number came up on the big screen and I was handed the bill for some 10000 yen – more than I had on me.  I paid 7000 in cash and tried using my pre-pay card for the balance – but I hadn’t charged it up before I set off, and there wasn’t enough on there.  I was directed to an ATM in the hospital but unfortunately it only had Japanese language instructions, and I couldn’t persuade it to give me any cash.  Luckily I still carry around my UK credit card for emergencies only, so I used that instead and it did the trick.

By now it was after 1pm and I was in a race against the clock to get to Monzen-Nakacho.  Fortunately the bus stop outside the hospital had buses that went straight to Urayasu Station, and one came almost straight away.  From Urayasu it was a 15 minute ride straight along the Tozai line to Monzen-Nakacho.  I arrived 15 minutes before the lesson was due to start, with my phone bleeping with messages from people trying to track me down.  And in the end, my students were late anyway!

After the first lesson I had a long gap before the next, so I went to look for a pharmacy to collect my prescription.  The medication was much better value than the hospital charges – only 740 yen for a 2-week course.  They gave it to me in blister packs in a little paper bag – no boxes.  After 4 or 5 days it is definitely having a positive effect – my lungs are less frequently blocked though I still have occasional problems breathing after coughing.

Hopefully it was just a random chest infection and the medication will kill it off.  But I’ll find out one way or another on 17th.

Ghibli Museum

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Totoro and friends

One of Japan’s most famous cultural exports is anime, and the anime that is best known and loved for its quality and heart is that produced by Studio Ghibli under its legendary illustrator and director Hayao Miyazaki.  Perhaps the best known characters are Totoro (from My Neighbour Totoro) and No-Face (from Spirited Away), but there are numerous films – like Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke – telling fantastical stories of monsters and demons, friendly and not so friendly.

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Hayao Miyazaki

Of course there is a museum dedicated to Studio Ghibli but it is not a normal museum.  For one thing, its ticketing system is pure craziness!  If you live in Japan, you can only buy a ticket on the 10th of each month, for any day on the following month.  And often (maybe always) the tickets for the entire month are sold out by the evening.  If the 10th falls on a day when you are working when the tickets go on sale at 10.00 am, you could miss out, as I did in July.

I thought the same would happen again in August as the 10th fell on a Saturday, but fortunately for me it was in the middle of the school’s 2-week summer break.  So I made a point of being awake and at my computer at 10.00am.  My days off are Tuesday and Wednesday but the museum is closed on Tuesdays, so I tried to book the earliest Wednesday in September.  It took a couple of hours (memories of trying to book London Olympics tickets!) but eventually I got my booking confirmed.  The tickets aren’t at all expensive, just really elusive!

When the day came I was a little sick.  I’d had an innocuous cough for a few weeks but it had started becoming problematic and I was having difficulty sleeping as my lungs kept filling with fluid.  I’d been promising myself to get it looked at but I didn’t want to forsake my hard-won Ghibli ticket.

Helpfully, the Ghibli museum is located at the far end of the Tozai line, which meant I could get there on one train from my local station.  All the trains that go from there into Tokyo have the destination “Nakana” or “Mitaka” on the front, but I’d never been as far as those stations.  On this day, I went right through Nakana and got off at Mitaka.

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Mitaka seemed to be a pleasant little shopping district, with an attractive, decorated central avenue.  I knew the museum was in a park to the south-east of the station so I followed a diagonal road, and was reassured when I saw a sign to the museum directing me down another side street.  Eventually I bumped into Inokashiro Park and found a map-board, and realised I’d overshot a little, the museum was just to the north.

It was clear I’d found it from the queues of people waiting around outside (presumably like me they had tickets for a 12:00pm entrance).  The Iron Man of Laputa standing on the roof of the yellow building was also a bit of a giveaway.  My timing was good, only 5 minutes to wait before I could go in.  The crowd seemed to be pretty evenly split between Japanese and international.

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I joined the queue and went inside.  They told me no photography inside the building, only on the outside areas.  They gave me a little piece of card around an animation cell (from Tales of Earthsea, apparently – one I haven’t seen) and this was my ticket to the Saturn Cinema.

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Pictures of Ghibli characters including Totoro featured in the stained glass windows of the reception area.  The building itself was designed to be like a maze.  There was a spiral staircase in a wrought-iron cage going right up to the third floor, and I couldn’t resist going up.  At the top there was a very low archway – even Japanese have to bow, for me it was more like crouching, and on the other side was the Catbus!

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The Catbus is a creature that is… well, half cat, half bus, summoned by Totoro to help his human friends travel around.  In the Ghibli museum he is a large furry climbing-frame – sadly for kids under the age of 10, kids over the age of 40 weren’t allowed on.  Inside, the floor of the bus was covered with Soot Sprites.

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There was a door to the outside, so I tried to get a picture of Catbus without breaking the rules.  I then took another spiral staircase up to the roof garden and the Iron Man.  I had to double back on myself as there was no alternative exit, so I explored the third floor a bit more, finding a library, and the museum shop.  It was pretty crowded and I didn’t see any souvenirs that leapt out at me.

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At the back of the building there is a patio area with a fast-food kiosk and an indoor restaurant (the Straw Hat Cafe).  It was pretty busy but I didn’t have much appetite with my illness, even for a cup of chips.

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I went and explored the ground floor instead.  I was pleased to discover a water feature with live fish in it.  I took a pretty good picture of two mating dragonflies but sadly these turned out to be plastic.  Inside there was a room showing some different animation techniques, including an ingenious kind of merry-go-round flickerbox, with characters in slightly different positions around the wheel appearing to come to life when the spinning and flickering started.

I used my ticket to get into the cinema to watch a short film “The Day I Harvested a Planet”.  It was all Japanese, no English subtitles, but I guess it was easy enough to follow without understanding what the characters were sayings.

I hadn’t yet checked out the second floor so I went to see what was there.  It had two main features – a guide to how the animations are created, showing how cells were coloured to a very specific colour palette – and a recreation of Miyazaki’s home studio, including lots of original drawings, lots of jars full of pencil stubs, reference books, and even the original storyboard books for Porco Rosso and When Marnie Was Here (the film I had seen most recently).

I stayed for about 2 hours in the end, I could probably have stayed longer but I wanted to get home and rest, so I made myself leave.  I wandered through the park for a while – they had tennis courts and a zoo, and a boating lake.  I ended up not going back to Mitaka but to the next station along, which was just as near.

It was an interesting day, but considering the challenge of the ticketing system and the reputation of the films as consistently wondrous and satisfying, perhaps I was expecting a little bit more.  Robotic versions of the characters, perhaps, or flying castles, or rooms modeled like locations from the films.  But then again, Ghibli isn’t a franchise like Disney, the films are all unique and stand alone on their own merits.  The museum, well it’s just its own thing too, I suppose.

Noise

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Tokyo is a noisy city.  Of course you have all the usual sounds you get in any city – traffic, people, rain, occasional sirens.  But there are a few uniquely Tokyo sounds.

The 5-o’clock chime

Tokyo doesn’t have (many) Christian churches and bell towers, or mosques with the call to prayer.  Shinto and Buddhist temples tend to be quiet places of reflection.  But every day, at – usually – 5pm, if you are in one of the 23 special wards of central Tokyo you will hear a distinctive tune, as if from a music box.

The song varies from ward to ward, in my ward Edogawa it is Yuyake Koyake, an instrumental version of a popular early 20th century song (in Edogawa it plays at 5.30pm).  Some other wards have the more familiar (to me) bing-bong-bing-bong of Big Ben.

For most people, it signifies that it is time to go home.  For me, it reminds me that if I haven’t done all the things I was planning to do today, I’m running out of time.  Its true purpose is to test the emergency communication infrastructure so that in the event of a natural disaster public announcements can be made.

There is a website here that explains the chimes and has links to audio clips of the chimes and their sources.

Animals

Crows are very common in Tokyo, especially in parks, but sometimes they can make noise in residential areas.  Other birds aren’t really so noticeable but wherever there are trees you will hear a noisy racket that sounds like a flock of starlings, and yet when you look in the trees, no birds are there.  The responsible critters are cicadas, usually well hidden high in the trees, but loud enough to be heard several trees away.  Judging from the volume at certain times of day, under certain trees, there must be thousands of them.  On hot days, this can be a continual background noise, out on the streets at least.

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I had never seen a cicada in Tokyo until last week when I found a dead one on the steps outside my apartment.  Then just yesterday I saw one on the pavement, gingerly moving sideways towards the wall.  They are surprisingly large, maybe a little larger than a matchbox.

Large dogs are not very common, Japanese love pets but most Tokyo apartments have strict rules prohibiting them, so they are not a very common sight in the city.  Smaller dogs can be seen a big more frequently, cats not so much – in the central parts of the city I guess they are mainly indoor animals.  I have seen them when I’ve ventured into the more suburban parts.

Shop assistants

Noisy shop assistants?  In a country where politeness and customer service are hugely valued characteristics, most businesses insist their staff personally greet every customer they encounter.  In supermarkets and shopping malls this is often a normal greeting (I don’t know what they are saying but the last sound always seems to be an extended “waa”, like “kinichi-waaaaaaa”).

In the convenience stores, it’s a different story.  Everyone who comes through the door gets a greeting called out to them, quite loudly – and this is then echoed by every other staff member in the shop.  Given the continual flow of customers through these shops, and it is like a never-ending melody.  Add to that the “bing-bong” that you hear whenever the door opens, and Konbini can be very noisy places.

Supermarkets and malls also have ubiquitous piped music – the one I keep hearing in Sunny Mall is a jazz-instrumental version of “If you’re happy and you know it” but they also do “Auld lang syne” and sometimes mediocre J-pop ballads.  Many shops also have little video advertisements on tiny screens strategically placed by certain products – the sounds and the jingles can be charming the first 20 or 30 times you hear them…

I was in the supermarket the other day and one of the assistants was pushing a trolley through a doorway into the storeroom.  Before she left the shop floor she turned around and gave a little respectful nod – presumably to the customers.  Can you imagine someone doing that in Byker Tesco?

Stations

Stations are noisy places of course – you have the trains, the announcements, the “beep” every time someone swipes their card to get through the barriers, the “bing-bong” everytime the door opens in one of the station shops.  At my local station they have some extra sounds, weirdly specific.  On one platform there is a repeating pattern of birdsong (I thought it was real birds at first until I noticed it just repeated continually), on the other, a repeating cuckoo sound.  I presume this is to relax commuters and make them feel like they are in a middle of a peaceful forest instead of crammed like sardines into a fast-moving metal box.

Of course once you are in the trains, it is relatively quiet.  People don’t talk.  They are more likely to fall asleep than to talk.  There are signs asking people not to use their mobile phones – of course people do but only for games or reading manga.  The only thing to break the noise of the train moving is the station announcements.

Sound Trucks

This is a weird, specifically Japanese thing.  There are trucks that pull up in heavy-flow commercial areas, and then play a recorded message on loudspeakers.  The driver is usually completely disinterested, looking at his or her mobile phone.  I don’t understand a word of the messages, but sometimes they seem to be religious (a woman’s voice calmly repeating short messages), and sometimes political (usually a lot more ranty and preachy).  They may even be commercial – guerrilla advertising.  Sometimes there are clues on the van – adverts or pictures of political candidates, but just as often it’s just a regular unmarked pick-up truck with a pair of speakers on the back.

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They are usually static when they play their message, but occasionally you get trucks playing something as they drive around – sometimes including military-style music.  Again, I’ve usually no idea what the message is, but they can be very loud and disruptive, not just to people on the street but people working in offices nearby.

Hospital

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It’s the second week of a two-week break.  You’ve been to Mount Fuji, you decided a few days in Hiroshima would be too expensive after checking the cost of booking buses at short notice.  You’re also a little worried about the typhoon that’s about to rip through the west of the country, right over Hiroshima.

You are pondering other day trips around Tokyo and have a few ideas what to do with your few remaining days of freedom.  What do you do next?  Of course, you dislocate your shoulder.

It happened while I was returning up the stairs to my room with a cup noodle, at about 1am.  I had bought a steak and was going to cook it up but felt tired earlier in the evening and dozed off.  By the time I woke it was too late to cook but I was hungry.

I think my foot caught one of the stairs and I fell forward onto the wide step where the stairs change direction.  I was trying not to drop or spill the noodles, but they were in my right hand, I had to move my left arm forward into an unnatural position to break my fall.  It did, but popped out of my shoulder as I fell on it.

I knew straight away.  I’ve done it before, twice, in the same arm, maybe once a decade.  I managed to save most of the noodles but a few bits of food had jumped out and a little bit of sauce had splashed.  Normally the first thing I would do would be clean it up but I was in a lot of pain and only had one functioning arm.  After assessing the situation a few moments I gingerly retreated back to my room.  And, waste not want not, I ate the noodles (I was hungry after all, and figured I might be in for a long night).

I did feel guilty about the mess I had left and holding my hanging arm I went back out with a few pieces of kitchen roll to see what I could do.  But this is Japan.  Someone had already cleaned the mess up in the half-hour or so I had been in my room.  I don’t even know who it was to thank them.

I decided the pain was sufficiently great to consider this an emergency, and considered my options.  Luckily I had the wealth of the internet available to me and online translation facilities.  Unfortunately it was the middle of the night on a public holiday and everywhere was closed.  I tried the English Language Medical Emergency number I had written down and placed prominently in my room, but it only operates to 7pm.  I checked a map for nearby medical establishments but they were mostly closed.  I checked a couple of websites about how to access the emergency health services in Japan, and then called the ambulance.

In Japan, ambulances are despatched from fire stations.  The guy on the line had some difficulty understanding me, and I him, and things were further complicated when he couldn’t find the address I gave (which I knew was right according to the post office!) on his map.  He could find the building but the address I gave didn’t match.  He sent the ambulance out anyway.  He called back a little later to check the address again and asked if the ambulance had called me.  I said no, but they can’t call when I’m on another call.  I decided to just assume they were outside (there’s no windows from my room that I can check from), and very slowly walked down the stairs.

Oh before I did that, I made sure I had money, my ID card, my health insurance card, my phone, my passport and put on some outdoor trousers.  What I should have done was charge my pre-pay Visa card with more cash, because the 4000 yen remaining wasn’t going to get me very far.  But I was in a lot of pain and just wanted to get moving.

At the bottom of the stairs outside the apartment entrance three confused looking men in khaki uniforms were having some sort of conference, bathed in the red glow of an emergency vehicle light.  They stared up at me, shuffling down the stairs like Quasimodo, and I called out my name just in case they still weren’t sure they had the right person.  They opened up the back of their ambulance and had me sit down inside, I found a position where I could hold my arm without too much pain and started answering their questions.

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They took my ID card and health insurance cards, which obviously had most of the information they needed.  I had also translated “dislocated shoulder” so I was able to say “dakkyu” so they knew it wasn’t broken (you don’t really need the word for shoulder when you can just point).  They took my blood pressure and pulse and checked I had no other problems or previous medical conditions.  They also established that I had dislocated my shoulder before in England, twice.  They didn’t really speak English but they had a medical emergency phrasebook to refer to and I’m getting quite good at predicting what people are saying in any given situation.

Two of them seemed to be checking which hospitals were open and had facilities for my type of injury – I don’t know if they were also checking which hospitals had English speaking staff, but I guess not, I didn’t meet anyone with even intermediate level English all night.  They said they would take me to the Tokyo Bay Hospital in Urayasu – at least I knew the way home from Urayasu and that it was only two stops along the metro.  Two of the men went into the front of the ambulance.  I grabbed a rail before the vehicle started and the third man smiled and said something and mimicked a rocking motion.  I guessed he was saying don’t worry, the journey will be quite smooth.  A few moments after the ambulance had started I reassessed that, and said “not smooth!”.  He chuckled.

It felt like a long ride but wasn’t really.  The third ambulanceman accompanied me into the hospital and gave all the forms they had been filling in in the ambulance.  I waited in a hospital waiting room – this process is no different from hospitals in England and presumably anywhere in the world – and eventually a triage nurse called me into one of the exam rooms.  The ambulanceman who had been standing behind me like a bodyguard came in too and had a word with the nurse.

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This was my first experience of Ipad translation.  The nurse would speak Japanese into his tablet, and the tablet would translate it into a written English sentence.  About 50% of the time the nurse would look at the Japanese sentence and abort the translation – I guess the voice recognition software is just as fallible for Japanese as for English.  He generally just confirmed the information I had given the ambulance drivers.   He also gave me a green plastic folder with my patient details in, apparently it was my responsibility to keep hold of this and show it to each new department I saw.

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I waited outside again – there were a few other people waiting with me, a couple of mothers with young children, an older man with a limp, someone with a bad cough.  There was a TV to look at but it was a Japanese show, I had no idea what was happening. Eventually I was called in to see a doctor.  Once more the ambulanceman came in too, but this time, after speaking to the doctor, he made his goodbyes.  I gave him a very heartfelt “arrigato”.

The doctor spoke a little English, but slowly and hesitantly.  For important questions and information he would use the tablet.  After the usual confirmation questions he said first he would give me some painkillers for the pain.  He told me to wait and came back with three pills which I downed easily – the accompanying cup of water was more welcome as refreshment than to help swallow.  He said they would take an X-ray to confirm the injury, and asked if I could lie down.  I misunderstood and moved to the bed – he said not now, later.

I kind of wished he would just push the chair I was sitting on to the X-ray room (it had wheels), but I had to stand up and follow him which was a little painful.  They took the X-rays – again, no different to the procedure in England, with the radiologist standing outside the room to avoid cumulative radiation.  Then I was directed back to the waiting area.

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I noted they had 4 examining rooms, numbered 1-5, but no number 4.  This is another example of Japanese superstition with numbers.  4 is considered unlucky because the word for 4 sounds like the word for death.  I suppose if you are going to be superstitious about death, a hospital is as good a place as any.

After a longer wait this time, the doctor called me in again, showed me the x-rays and confirmed what I knew instantly, that it was dislocated.  He said they would put me on a drip to give me analgesia.  He didn’t tell me what would happen next, but I think it was obvious.

He led me into the ICU and had me lie down on a stretcher-bed.  A different nurse came and started fussing over me, putting a towel over my legs, checking I wasn’t too cold, taking my blood pressure and hooking me up to a respiration monitor.  He then hooked me up to the IV.  I’ve had a lot of needles in my arm from 30-odd blood donations, this wasn’t the most painful but more painful than most.  But after the analgesia started flowing I didn’t notice so much.  When he asked if it was painful I said “a little, but it’s ok”.  I didn’t want to be a baby about it!

They said I would want to fall asleep.  The question on the tablet was “Do you feel fuzzy?”  It seemed to me as though I was actually getting more alert the longer I lay there, although the pain from my shoulder was definitely reducing.  Even though one arm was dislocated, and the other hooked up to a drip and a pulse monitor, I managed to get my phone out of my pocket and grab a couple of pictures to add some colour to this blog.

I alternated between trying to make myself fall asleep and looking round to see what was happening.  There was a clock just within range of my neck movement so I knew it was about 5am.  I don’t know if I was dozing or just lost in thought about something but I suddenly sensed a presence on my left and flicked my head round.  I think this was a new guy – I’m going to go with “consultant” based on the tablet referring to “teacher”.  He seemed a bit surprised I was awake but started manipulating my arm – basically moving it around like a windmill.  It did get painful at certain moments and while I wasn’t screaming I doing the “tchatchatchatchatchatcha” thing to try and get through it.

At one moment there was a strange little snap-sensation and I yelped – I think that was the moment my shoulder went back in.  I can’t remember clearly but I’m pretty sure I was unconscious both previous times they put my arm back in.  He kept manipulating the arm and clearly wasn’t happy with it, and called over another colleague who helped him with pulling, pushing, stretching, until it was back the way it was supposed to be.  Straight away the pain went right down, and I knew it was back to normal – I wanted to use my other hand to feel it to make sure but that wasn’t possible with the drip attached.

They saw me lifting my left arm to test the feeling and movement and they told me to just relax and rest it.  They would shortly take me to x-ray again to check it had set properly.  I spent the next half hour or so just lying still, thankful that the painful part was over.  This time they wheeled me to the x-ray room on the bed, though they made me stand up to take the x-ray.  I had to use some hospital slippers that didn’t fit my feet, I commented “small Japan feet” and that got a laugh after a second or two!

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After the x-ray they let me rest a bit longer, then came to take out the drip and put me in a sling (they had a bit of difficulty with that word, but I understood them from “triangular bandage”).  The doctor told me to wear it for 4 weeks, and ideally I should visit an orthopaedic clinic – they were closed this week for the holiday but I should go next week.  He would write me a letter of introduction.  He also said I had to pay for the bandage – it was 400 yen (£2.50?) and I should get one from the vending machine in the waiting room.

The first time I dislocated my shoulder I was given a sling and told not to use it for 4 weeks.  The second time I was told I didn’t need a sling, I could go back to work the next day, and I should use the shoulder normally to build up the muscles (though obviously avoid putting lots of pressure on it at once).  I presumed the different approaches were due to changes in medical guidelines based on what worked best.  But now I’m not so sure, as we’re back to 1990-advice.

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The final part of the process was the billing.  I had to wait while the administrator calculated the cost.  The amount I would have to pay (excluding the bandage) was a little over 16,000 yen – roughly £130.  This is 30% of the actual cost of treatment (detailed on the bill), because of my health insurance cover.  For context, that is more than the entire cost of my trip to Mount Fuji and Hakone, but less than the cost of a one-way Shinkansen ticket to Hiroshima.

At least I have got a blog post out of it.  I didn’t have enough money on me and my card wouldn’t cover the cost, so I asked if there was an ATM nearby.  They directed me to one about 5 minutes away in a convenience store (in the circumstances it seemed churlish to worry about the 108-yen withdrawal charge).  They asked me if I wanted to book a taxi, but I felt fine walking (I was wearing my crocs) and established the station was only 10 minutes away.  Even at 6.30 am, the temperature was high enough to leave me sweating on the station platform.

I made my way home and after updating my social media, I suddenly felt ready to sleep.  I woke at about 2pm and decided I was ready for that steak.  I cheated and didn’t use the sling for the cooking and washing, but rested my arm in it when I wasn’t using it.  This time, I decided to eat the meal in the kitchen.  Better safe than sorry!

Fujisan

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Since my last entry a couple of things have happened.  There was another earthquake, 6.4 off Fukushima, which in Tokyo felt like a level 3.  And I had a couple of days training, eating into my days off but I’m now on a 2-week holiday so no complaints.  I got to meet a few of the other teachers and reacquainted with Adam from the introductory training.  And I suppose I learned a few useful things about teaching – one of them, making a paper cat, I have already used successfully in a playgroup lesson!

I also endured some parental observations, now that my 2 month grace period is over (most teachers had these in June).  It wasn’t so bad – I regularly have parents in the classroom for my younger students at Kachidoki and most of my younger students are generally well behaved and engaged in my lessons.  One of the observations at Nishi-Kasai was with students with whom I’ve had some discipline problems in the past, but the feedback was ok.  If I am keeping the parents happy I’m probably doing a pretty good job.

So, a two week vacation in August, it was time for some tourism.  And I decided to do the most touristy thing of all, a visit to Mount Fuji.  I picked an all-in guided tour rather than trying to put together my own itinerary – this had a few extras like a boat trip on Lake Ashi, and a trip on a cable car up Mount Komagatake, and the option of a ride home on a bullet train (which if I’m honest was probably the clincher).

I booked for Tuesday, the second day of my vacation so I would have one day to rest and get it out of the way to leave time to do other stuff.  I just booked it on the internet through Viator – the price seemed reasonable though nowadays I’m converting everything from dollars to yen to roubles to pounds in my head and I’ve no idea what things are meant to cost any more.

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The departure point was from a hotel in Ginza, near a station I hadn’t used before (Higashi-Ginza).  I thought it would be prudent to scope it out the day before I left so I wasn’t running around looking for the right exit or walking down the wrong road for 20 minutes and missing the tour bus.

In the event I found the hotel pretty quickly, and had a little stroll around the Ginza area, which houses a Kabuki theatre.  In fact I ended up walking to Shimbashi Station (to my limited Japanese that sounds like “New Bridge” Station), an area full of lights and restaurants.  I found an interesting toy shop which kept me occupied for half an hour or so.

The next morning I was up very early – even earlier than when I have early classes – and had to squeeze myself onto a rush hour train towards central Tokyo.  I changed at Kayabacho to a less-packed train, and emerged at Higashi-Ginza with plenty of time, but from completely the wrong exit.  I was momentarily lost but looked up for a building with a crane on the roof which I remembered from the previous night, and straight away found my bearings.

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I waited outside the hotel, I was not alone, another group of 3 travellers were waiting at the same spot.  We kept out of the sunlight but it was still a very hot morning.  Eventually a woman came out of the hotel waving a sign for our tour, and we were gratefully led into the air-conditioned hotel reception where a dozen or more other people were already waiting.  We were told the bus would be a little late.  I was given my tour ID badge, and sat using the hotel’s free wi-fi while we waited.

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The tour operators explained that we were part of 2 separate tour groups but we would all be getting on the same bus which would take us to another point in Tokyo where my tour group (group 3) would switch to our own tour bus.  It seemed like there weren’t enough seats on the bus but we were told to use jump seats – fold down seats that filled the middle aisle.  I ended up switching with a guy who didn’t want me sitting between him and his daughters.

We switched at Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal and got on our big yellow tour bus.  I forgot we had reserved seats and just sat anywhere, and had to get up when the seat’s owner came to claim it.  A few others had the same issue and we were playing musical chairs when the tour guide barked at us to sit down – we were already late and needed to set off immediately!  I ended up taking a pair of seats to myself further back than my allocated seat.

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Fortunately the tour guide mellowed a bit, he introduced himself as Harry (that’s how he spelled it) – an older, 60-year old guy.  His English was far from perfect and there were a few misunderstandings but he generally conveyed a lot of useful information throughout the day – and got us where we needed to be.

With me on the tour were an older American couple (the guy was particularly grumpy), a middle-aged American couple, a French (or maybe French-Canadian) couple, a couple of younger black girls, a couple of sporty-looking white American girls, a couple that looked Asian but weren’t speaking Japanese (or reading it on their devices – I couldn’t make out the language but it used the Latin alphabet), and the three who were waiting outside the hotel with me, I think they may have been South African – a middle-aged couple and younger woman – maybe a daughter or younger sister.

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For the first hour we were driving through Tokyo, on the expressway.  These roads tend to be raised above street-level so it was a slightly different view of the city than I was used to.  Eventually Harry told us we had left Tokyo proper, and were in the outskirts and suburbs – an area called Hachioji that used to be the centre of Japan’s silk industry, the silk that was sold abroad and the money used to pay for arms and weapons.  Now it was a university district.

Eventually the shape of mountains ahead of us began to form and we were told that beyond the mountains lay Kanagawa Prefecture.  We would soon come to a tunnel that marked the border and we would leave Tokyo Prefecture behind.  We passed rice paddy fields, and cemeteries as the area around us became more and more wooded.  Harry told us that 70% of Japan was mountains and they could be self-sufficient in timber, but they prefer to import timber from abroad and protect their forests.

We went through Kanagawa very quickly and into Yamanashi which is Japan’s “fruit basket”.  Since westernisation – which began in the Meiji period after the Shogunate was abolished in 1868 – it also became Japan’s wine-making area.  Eventually Harry pointed to a looming triangle becoming visible from behind another mountain and told us up ahead was Mount Fuji.

Fujiyama (“yama” means “mountain”) is Japan’s highest peak and is famed for its beauty and symmetry.  The slopes seem to form the same angle from whichever direction you look and most of the year it has a distinctive snow-covered white cap.  It is also a volcano, classified as dormant rather than extinct, and last known to erupt in 1708.  It is known to the Japanese simply as “Fujisan”.

You can drive quite a way up the mountain – in summer the roads are open only to tour buses and authorised vehicles – so that’s what we did.  On the way Harry pointed out areas where typhoons had knocked down trees, and an avalanche had knocked down a building.  He also told us there are bears on the mountain, but they are only small bears.  When we leave the coach, we would be given a ticket which we could exchange for a small bell, this was a good luck charm and would ward off any bears.

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We drove up into the clouds and reached the 5th station which is at 2,305 metres.  Unfortunately cloud obscured our view of the summit further up, and mostly our view of the surrounding countryside.  There was a huge, bustling tourist area with several buildings – groups of climbers assembled in the central square, from this point it is about a 6-7 hour hike to the summit.  Climbing is only possible for two months in the summer, and everyone in Japan wants to climb Fujisan once in their lives, so it is very busy.

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I got my voucher and found the bell man who gave me my bell and posed for a picture.  I walked around and took a few more pictures but there wasn’t really that much I could capture.  The view from the far side of the tourist building seemed to be a bit clearer but there were still too many clouds for a clear landscape vista.  I ended up making my way back to the coach in good time.

Our next stop was Lake Kawaguchi – a very popular tourist spot, but we were only here for lunch.  I opted out of the group lunch and ended up getting chicken and chips from a machine (not very nice, really).  The scenery was pretty, there was a cable car up a nearby mountain, but while I was eating it started pouring with rain.  I decided not to let this ruin my day and bought myself an ice cream (a proper soft-scoop with a cone, not the freezer nonsense).  Very tasty but I got pretty wet for my troubles.  I made it back to the coach right on the dot.

Harry wasn’t troubled about the rain – the rainy season was over, this was just a localised shower and we would be driving away from it.  Our next destination was Lake Ashi.  Most of this leg of our journey was spent arranging various transfer plans with different members of the group – some of them would be staying on at a hotel and a taxi would come and collect them and Hakone.  Some would be returning by bus (about 2 hours including traffic jams) and the rest, like me, would be travelling by Shinkansen bullet train (about half an hour) from Odawara station.

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At my end of the bus we also tried to get some good pictures of Mount Fuji.  We finally had a clear view of the triangular shape, but there were still huge puffs of clouds swirled around the summit.  As we drove higher over a twisty mountain road it became unpredictable which side the mountain would appear on – often the tree cover would suddenly disappear and there she was, beautifully framed – but by the time any of us had pointed our camera at the window, she was gone again, masked by the tree cover.  Harry talked about ninjas – originally they were just spies sent by feudal lords to help them plan attacks on rival territories.  Fujisan seemed to be a ninja mountain.

At Lake Ashi we got on a boat and travelled 15 minutes to a place called Hakone (our bus would follow us by the land route).  The lake was very pretty – other boats that sailed it were styled like pirate ships but ours was more like a spacecraft.  There was a commentary in Japanese and English but it was very sporadic and difficult to hear with the wind.  There was something about a dragon and a whirlpool…

At Hakone we went up a cable car (they call them “ropeways” for some reason) to the top of Mount Komagatake.  This was an agreeable plateau containing a torii, a shrine building, and for some reason, a garden of carefully balanced rock-piles.  Between the sheets of cloud it was occasionally possible to see the distant coast, and Fujisan even came out from behind her own cloud cover.

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The top of the mountain was refreshingly cool (even high on Mount Fuji it was t-shirt weather) and it was a shame to come back down into the heat haze.  Harry was waiting for us (though I was momentarily distracted by a so-called “Ninja Bus” that drove into the lake) and soon we were on our way again to the station.  7 of us made our way to the platform to wait for the train, which was about 20 minutes away.

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As we waited, Shinkansen regularly whizzed through the central tracks, very fast and very loud.  They looked more like aeroplanes without wings than trains.  When our train eventually arrived, I got on a carriage on my own.  It wasn’t so crowded, and was pretty comfortable with plenty of legroom.  This wasn’t even the “business class” section which supposedly was even more comfortable!

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The train’s service number was 666 – I found this unusual for a country that refuses to use the words for the numbers 4 and 9 because they are bad luck!  It was a pretty smooth ride, we stopped at Yokohama and another station before arriving at Tokyo Station.  Although I had to walk a little way there was an adjoining station on the Tozai line, so I got home in pretty good time!

Tokyo Bay

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I promised myself I would explore south of Nishi Kasai and today that’s what I did!

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I went by the Edogawa Baseball Stadium, various parks and pools, across footbridges over major highways, and past the Edogawa Coastal Baseball Stadium and eventually came to Rinkai Park.

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The first thing you notice is the big wheel.  It’s really big.  I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than the one in London.  It costs 700 yen per person per rotation and I was tempted, but I wanted to get to the seafront while I still had light left (I started out in the early evening).

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There were lots of green grassy areas, wooded areas and pools, it was quite a quiet tranquil place to walk about – or would have been but for the noise of the starlings and cicadas going through their evening concertos.

There’s an area for barbecues – full of groups of young people, grilling away – then beyond that you can actually see the sea.

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There are little mini-rivers and islands between the sea-wall and the wide open bay itself, but you can cross over the bridge.

Then you arrive at the beach.  Golden sands it ain’t but there is an area protected by a spit which is safe for bathing and swimming.  In the distance you can see central Tokyo to the west and the hotel complex that serves Disneyland to the east.

There are some small, distinctively Japanese trees, there is a monument marker to something or other (Wetland Conservation Monument, apparently) and not really much else.

It is easy to pick out the landmarks of Disneyland – fairy-tale castles and a volcano!  Beyond Disneyland lay the Chiba headland, protecting Tokyo Bay from the bare Pacific Ocean.

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To the southwest, I could make out a bridge for the highway to Haneda Airport – I couldn’t see the airport itself but I could see the planes landing and flying out.

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To the northeast I could see a tall dome structure with some sunshade sails outside it.  Still not entirely sure what it was.  Maybe an aviary?

I started making my way back.  The big wheel was starting to light up now as the sky got darker, and I passed the closed Tokyo Sea Life Park.

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The walk down had taken about 45 minutes and not really wanting to repeat the experience, I was happy to find a bus station (outside a railway station) with a bus that went directly back to Nishi Kasai in only 13 minutes.

While the signs might have misrepresented the beach slightly, they were absolutely right about the Tokyo summer.  I was absolutely drenched in sweat by the time I got back home.  I’m glad I didn’t set off in the morning or midday!

Food

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OK, before I start let’s get two things perfectly clear:

  1. I didn’t come to Japan for the food.
  2. I am not an adventurous eater.

If you want a gourmet guide to Japanese cuisine, this is not the blog for you.  However, if you want a picky-eater’s Tokyo survival guide, this might be just what you are looking for.

Japanese food is scary.  I mean literally, it has tentacles.  OK, it can be insanely cute too – they basket meals into little plastic boxes with all kinds of decorations, and parents often shape rice-balls into the faces of popular cartoon characters – presentation of food is hugely important here.  In restaurants practically every other meal is garnished by a fried egg.

So if you are hungry where can you get food?  Well there’s quite a range of options.

Restaurants

Of course.  There are big chain restaurants, little family restaurants, steakhouses, Chinese restaurants, Indian restaurants, Italian restaurants, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, and restaurants for local cuisine from different districts of Japan.  Some specialise in seafood, some in curry, some in noodles, some in sushi.  Generally the bigger, more commercial restaurants are easier for foreigners to use.  Some have English menus (and English speaking staff), and the ones that don’t will be able to show you pictures of all the meals on the menu so you can point and pick.  Paying can be difficult – do you wait for the bill or go to the counter – but this is the same in any country and varies restaurant to restaurant.  Tipping is not a custom in Japan (in fact they can get offended by it).  There is often a button on the table that you can press for service.  As for chopsticks – they are the default setting but most restaurants will be happy to offer you a fork if you are struggling.  Don’t be a hero.  Take the fork.

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I have generally only visited restaurants with Japanese-speaking colleagues who handled all the ordering and paying.  The exception is the Indian restaurant next door – most Indians have pretty good English (or at least good enough to take an order accurately), and most Indian food will be familiar to the average British customer.  I did try an Italian restaurant in Kasai and wasn’t very impressed.  The best food I’ve had was probably at the Chinese restaurant in Nishi Kasai, as part of a large group.  The only down side to this one was that smoking indoors was permitted – not a pleasant eating atmosphere.  Despite this, perhaps it is good advice not to just look at street-level restaurants, go into the buildings, go up to the 2nd and 3rd and 4th floors where many establishments are based.

Fast Food

If you like KFC and McDonalds, you won’t be disappointed in Tokyo.  Unless, like me, you think KFC seems to be a bit more expensive here, the Pepsi doesn’t taste like Pepsi, and McDonalds doesn’t sell McFlurries here, the only reason I usually go in that place.  You can get really good quality fried chicken at a much better price from Family Mart (one of the Konbini).

There are local brands too – MosBurger and Detours (similar to Subway, although they have Subway here too).  There’s a doughnut chain called Mister Donut, sushi bars, and lots of tempura seafood places that offer take-away options.  But be careful.  There’s a shop called Gindaco that sells little fried balls of dough with various toppings, it smells delicious but a little bit of research quickly revealed the dough balls are actually built around grilled octopus tentacle.  Lovely.

One thing to remember with fast food is that eating on the go is generally frowned upon.  Either take the food home, or to your office, or find a quiet corner of the street and eat it there.  Or of course you can just sit in the restaurant or at the bar.

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Izakaya are more about the drinking than about the food, but you can get pretty good quality and good value meals there too.  Again, most of these places will allow smoking so bear that in mind if you like to eat in clean air.  These are a bit more difficult to negotiate if you don’t speak Japanese, they don’t always have picture menus or anyone who might speak English.

There are hundreds of these in some districts (Monzen-Nakacho for example) – once you go off the main roads and into the back streets it can be just building after building of bright lights and inebriated laughing businessmen.

Supermarkets

Of course, you can always buy your own ingredients and cook at home, but this brings its own problems.  My biggest one is that my sharehouse doesn’t have an oven – just a tiny grill oven that is smaller than a microwave.  So I am eating a lot more fried meat than roasted meat now.

Japanese supermarkets are jam-packed full of products that I couldn’t even begin to identify.  Fortunately I mainly cook with chicken and minced beef, and both of these are easy enough to recognised and packaged in a similar way to in the UK.  I didn’t take any chances with the herbs and spices and got the ones I wanted from an import shop.  Fruit and vegetables are ok (though there are a few in the supermarkets that I couldn’t put an English name to), but beyond that I struggle.

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Take crisps and snacks, for example.  You can find the American brand Lays, but only in two flavours, plain and sour cream.  Potato crisps are not so popular here, there are a few from a company called Calbee, but the packages give no pictorial hints as to what the different flavours are and all the writing is Japanese.  The ones whose flavours are obvious mostly tend to just be plain salted.  I found a puffed corn product called Uracara Corn that is comparable to what we know as Cheesy Wotsits (I’ve eaten a lot of these) but they are only available in large 150g bags.  I found another product that seems to be the same as barbecue flavoured Nik-naks – no idea what it is called, but there was a gorilla on the front, holding a burger, that was good enough for me.

I buy Cup Noodles from time to time – just something quick and filling to have handy.  Some have English writing, like Curry Cup Noodle or Chili Tomato so you know what you are getting.  Most have pictures but only Japanese writing, so you’re largely guessing what the ingredients are.

Drinks are another source of annoyance.  You can get Pepsi Cola (branded here as Japan Cola) but only in small bottles.  Rarely, you find larger bottles but only for the “Zero” or “Special Edition” variants which don’t taste very nice at all.  So I’ve mostly been buying big bottles of Coke, because it works out cheaper than lots of little bottles of Pepsi.

The only chocolate I recognise here are Snickers, Milky Way and the ubiquitous Kit-Kat – usually genetically mutated into strange local flavours.  No Mars Bars – why is that?  They have their own brands of chocolate, of course, but seem very reluctant to combine it with caramel.

Konbini

The three big convenience stores, Family Mart, 7-11 and Lawson are handy for essential items that you might need after the supermarkets close, if you are more adventurous than me you might also appreciate their extensive range of bento – pre-packed meals that you can take home and heat up (or even eat in the shop, they will heat it for you and some branches have bars and stools).

They also sell hot meat products – kebab skewers, fried chicken, other stuff I’m not sure exactly what it is.  I just tried the Family Mart fried chicken yesterday after hearing a guy on YouTube raving about it, and have to admit it is just as good as the KFC you can get here.

Import Stores

These are lifesavers, and you can find them in just about every big mall that is next to a station.  Kaldi is the most prominent but I haven’t been too impressed with their range, for me the best example is Caferrant, which is in Aeon Mall both here in Nishi Kasai and at Shin Urayasu.  Like Kaldi it is primarily a coffee importer, with two or three aisles dedicated to coffee, but plenty of other global products too.  For me the discovery of Mexican tortillas, spice mixes and sauces was a huge relief – they even have the UK brand leader Old El Paso.  They have a wider range of candy than the Konbini and supermarkets – though I have so far resisted buying bags of Lindor and Werthers, even Terry’s Chocolate Orange!  They also have A&W Cream Soda which is such a rare product I can’t even get it in England – but is so delicious I suspect I will be buying a lot of it when I am back in Shin Urayasu on Thursday!

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Further afield there are some surprises too.  There is a Japanese chain – I can’t read their name but they have a branch in Shin Urayasu and another in Ichikawa, and they have some interesting import products too – such as Weetabix and bran flakes.  The Ichikawa branch is the only place in Tokyo I have found selling real salt-and-vinegar crisps (Tyrell’s kettle chips, in fact) – much better than the Pringles at the other import shops.  The same shop also has spice mix for fajitas – not the same flavour as the ones I brought with me from England, but an acceptable substitution.  The only problem is I have no business in Ichikawa until September, I made a special trip yesterday just for the shopping, on my way to Inage!

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There is also a specialty store in the mall at Inage station where I found actual lemon marmalade!  So it pays to hunt around, and if I am at a place with an import store and not in a hurry, I will always have a browse just to see what is available – the nature of these shops is that their product range can change week to week.

 

 

Nishi Kasai

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Let me take you on a tour of my neighbourhood, Nishi Kasai.  “Nishi” means “west” so this is the west side of the area known as Kasai, in Edogawa City between the banks of the Asa (Asakawa) and Edo (Edogawa) rivers, not far north of Tokyo Bay.  It is not a particularly big district – the rapid trains go right through, but it is served by local trains on the blue Tozai line (from Mitaka to Nishi-Funabashi).

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It turns out I was right, the area is known as “Little India” or “India Town” because of the large conglomeration of Indian families that live there.  As you might expect this means there are several Indian restaurants, including this one conveniently located next to my share-house, wafting spicy, meaty smells through my window.  It is my go-to source of food when I am too tired to cook.

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Just across the road is the Sunny Mall, featuring a supermarket and drugstore on the ground floor (as well as a family fast-food restaurant), and a clothes shop, household goods store, stationary giant Daiso, shoes, phones, and games and amusements on the upper floors.  I shop there regularly because it is just so convenient, although just last week I discovered the bigger and better quality Aeon Mall (featuring KFC, Baskin-Robbins and import store Caferrant) just 3 minutes along the same road!

There are plenty of Konbini (24-hour convenience stores) dotted around, though none as close to me as Sunny Mall – unfortunately it closes at 9pm which on some nights is before I get back from work.

Walking towards the station every morning, I stroll through this pleasant dolphin-infested plaza.  Gu seems to be a shop for ladies’ fashions, but there is also a bakery, a bar, a fabrics shop, an Indian grocer and a bric-a-brac shop with all kinds of junk from used fridges to giant golden gargoyles.

This weekend the plaza hosted some kind of market festival.  There were singers, a balloon sculptor, lots of food vans, one man tried to sell me tiny bonsai plants decorated with superheroes!

Having discovered Aeon Mall last weekend and got distracted, I continued my wanderings this weekend and crossed the main road alongside the mall, to find on the other side a tranquil park, Nagisa Park.  The remnants of another market were being tidied away from the main walkways, but the centrepiece of the park was a little pool containing some VERY big fish!  I’m guessing they are Koi carp, popular Japanese decorative fish, but they are very big and ugly up close!

Beyond the park was a sports ground for kids – it had big baseball nets so they could practice their hitting – I think it probably hosts little league games.  The official Edogawa Baseball Stadium is on the south side of the station.  Further south on the shore of Tokyo Bay there is a seaside park, not far from Disneyland and Sea Disney – places I may explore in future adventures!

Observations

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I’ve been in Japan a little over a month, and I thought I would make a list of some of the things that have jumped out at me, cultural differences that I was not expecting.

Bicycles

Bicycles, rather than SUVs, are the primary means of transport for families around Tokyo.  There are massive bicycle parks, cycle lanes on all the roads (although many continue to ride on the pavements), and some areas where large ominous signs warn that bicycles left will be towed (well, carried away, I guess).

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The Tokyo bikes are very distinctive and unlike bicycles I’ve seen in other cities.  They are longer, they have child-seats on the front and back, sometimes with tent-like covers to protect from the rain.  They all have a sturdy metal stand at the back so they can safely park and let the kids dismount without the bike falling over.  I haven’t seen any bike-trailers here yet, I guess they are unnecessary with these maxi-bikes.  Apparently this style of bike is called the “mamachari”

Konbini

Many countries have convenience stores but Tokyo takes them to a new level.  As well as snacks, drinks and stuff like batteries and chargers, you can buy hot food, complete meals to take home and cook (called “bento”),  cigarettes and alcohol, they usually have ATMs in-store, some have benches and counters where you can sit and drink coffee.  Some have printer/photocopiers, and all have the facility to pay using the city travelcards, you can even pay utility bills at the counter (I paid my health insurance premium this way).  There are three main companies – 7-11 (from the USA), Lawson Station and Family Mart.  The local one I use the most is a Family Mart but they all generally follow the same pattern and have the same prices and products.

Visa

It is a huge surprise to me that Visa (and presumably other credit cards) are not accepted universally in Tokyo – one of the biggest and supposedly most technologically advanced cities in the world.  OK, if I was shopping in London in a market or a small shop in a side-street I might not be too surprised if they said “cash only.”  But in Tokyo, there are some pretty major chains with this policy – including a lot of the konbini, and even the Indian restaurant next door!

My bank were quite forceful in upselling their partners’ Visa cash card – and I’ll admit it is useful in supermarkets and for making payments online.  But I’ve been met with a shake of the head when I’ve presented it so many times – fortunately I have always had enough cash on me to cover the cost but one of these days I’m going to be caught out!  I have to always make sure I have a few thousand yen to hand, as well as keeping my travel card and my cash card topped up.

McFlurries and Tapioca

You cannot get McFlurries in Japanese Macdonalds!  They have ice-cream but just the standard snow-cone type.  But they do serve tapioca!  For some reason tapioca (in its black pearl format) is really popular here in drinks.  “Bubble tea” is a big thing here, basically tea with tapioca bubbles in it, but there are other tapioca drinks available, like milkshakes.

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Pachinko and Slot

Amusement arcades for gambling are MASSIVE in Japan.  They are usually advertised as “Pachinko and Slot” – slot machines are the typical gambling machines you might be familiar with, the type you see in Vegas casinos, but pachinko seems to be a uniquely Japanese thing, involving dropping ballbearings and trying to direct them with flippers and catch them in little cups – it’s almost like pinball.  Honestly, there are two or three of these establishments outside practically every station – the biggest player seems to be a company called Western.  They are advertised with bright colours, flashing lights and often attractive, scantily-dressed female anime figures – I’m sure children must be fascinated by these places and count down the days until they are old enough to go in and play.

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There is a law that gambling for money is illegal so the payouts are all in tokens, but if you go to another kind of store you can redeem tokens for cash.  It seems like a huge industry and a pretty ineffective law.

Plastic

Tokyo has a plastic problem.  Whenever I go shopping I have to beg them not to give me a plastic bag – they will normally offer a couple in the supermarkets.  Even tiny purchases of one item I could slip into my pocket, they put it in a bag before they give it to me.  Then there are the supermarkets – aisles and aisles of fruit and vegetables, most of the larger ones individually wrapped in plastic or foam.  Today (at my usual supermarket) I bought a couple of peppers which were actually loose – every other time they have been individually wrapped in a little plastic bag.

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Yesterday I went into a supermarket at Ichikawa, they had plastic covers for umbrellas, to stop you trailing water around, and a box to put the covers in as you left.  Surely there must be a better system?  In fairness, they are very hot on recycling – there is a strict rubbish collection schedule covering plastic bottles, recyclables, burnables and non-burnables.  But most of the plastic will end up being burnt, and I am sure that is not a good thing.

Graffiti

There is no graffiti in Tokyo.  Well, I can’t say for certain as I haven’t looked at every wall, but you can ride the whole length of the subway and train networks, past miles and miles of concrete barriers, walls, bridges, warehouses, and you will not see a single tag.  When I realised this and started looking for it, it was like a revelation!  Can you imagine a station in London with no graffiti on the walls and buildings the trains go past?

Schedule

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Temple at Monzen-Nakacho

I’ve been working for almost a month and my routine is very well established.  I teach at four different schools from Thursday to Sunday, on Monday I have my CSD mission at the kindergarten and private company, and Tuesday and Wednesday are days off.  In fact, at the end of June I have a whole week off (bar Monday) as the schools are all closed.

 

Thursday: Shin Urayasu

This is the school that is in the big Aeon shopping mall, one of the schools I visited for an observation lesson.  It has a food court on the ground floor and a branch of Kaldi – the shop that sells foreign goods, including (to my delight) salt and vinegar flavoured Pringles, and Old El Paso Mexican food products.

One week I visited, the supermarket had a huge area set aside just for kiwi fruit.  Thousands of the things.  Fruit seems to be very seasonal here, at the start of June there were strawberries in all the supermarkets, now I can’t find them for love nor money.

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More kiwi fruit than I’ve ever seen

A couple of weeks ago I was at Shin Urayasu with a cold, I had a couple of hours between lessons so I went to sit outside in the fresh air and sunlight.  A man sitting on the same bench offered me tissues (I already had a box with me) and we got into a conversation.  He was Japanese but spent most of his life in Canada and had only recently come back when his father became ill.  He told me that kanji (the Chinese written alphabet where symbols represent whole words) is very difficult even for native Japanese and he had forgotton a lot of kanji while he was living in Canada.  He also taught me some easy ways to remember the Japanese simple number system (itchy knee sun yawn go rock(u) nana hatch(i), cue, jew).

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World Map with Japan, rather than western Europe in the centre

I have a senior teacher looking over my shoulder at Shin Urayasu – Will – which puts a bit more pressure on when I have lessons with very small children, where I am still finding my feet.  He is very quick to tell me if the parents aren’t completely happy with the lessons.  Little things like knowing how the air-conditioning works and making sure the room is the right temperature, and using different tables (and other spaces) for different activities.  Keeping track of everything like that and remembering your lesson plan too, sometimes when you don’t have much time at all to prepare – it takes a lot of skill and attention to detail.

My teaching room is one of four – two don’t have windows so I’m quite lucky in that respect, although the view isn’t particularly inspiring.  There’s another teacher, Arthur, who works in one of the windowless rooms.  Disconcertingly, both he and Will are taller than me – I’m used to being the tallest person in the room (especially in Japan!) but there seem to be a spate of giants in this school!

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Bus stop at Urayasu

Shin Urayasu means “New Urayasu” and I understand the area is reclaimed land from Tokyo Bay.  Technically it is in the Chiba prefecture rather than Tokyo, but Urayasu is only a couple of stations from my Nishi-Kasai, and to get to Shin Urayasu from there I have to take a bus – I could do a long round trip by train but it seems a senseless waste of time and money!  On these buses there is a different system again – you have to get on at the front, tell the driver your destination, and swipe your travel card, he changes the setting depending on how far you travel.

 

Friday: Monzen-Nakacho

Monzen-Nakacho is a pretty central district – it’s where the Tozai and Oedo lines meet.  In fact on Saturdays I have to change here to get to Kachidoki.  The school is on a main street with covered pavements – handy for both rain and extreme sunshine, both of which there have been a lot of.

Walking around in my time between lessons, I found a department store, and a whole bunch of temples.  It is interesting to observe that when mostly older Japanese pass by the door of a temple – or even a street leading to the door of a temple, they will pause, turn, and respectfully nod, before continuing on their way.

 

The school itself is quite small, and on Fridays I’m more or less the only teacher there – another Japanese teacher sometimes comes in for an hour or two.   The schedule is pretty light compared to other days – mostly adults, a couple of pairs of schoolgirls, and nobody under the age of 8, it’s definitely the easiest day to get through.

 

Saturday: Kachidoki

I have already written about my first day at Kachidoki,  Pepper the Robot was not there on subsequent weeks, presumably touring other offices.  Nick, the tall English guy, has been very helpful and the counsellor and other teacher are very friendly.  I got some invaluable advice on counselling – a special review lesson which all adult students are supposed to go through during June, and I also had my first successful taiken – a 20-minute demonstration lesson, this one with a 4-year old girl and her parents.  Every taiken student that signs up for further lessons earns the teacher 1000 yen, so that was a nice bonus!

This is the toughest day for me, mainly because there are 3 back-to-back lessons with very young learners from 10:00, for which I have only 30 minutes to prepare – and often just finding the right materials, toys and flashcards can take up most of that time.  I end up doing a lot of improvising and filling-time in those lessons, because sometimes the children just aren’t interested in the prepared exercise, and sometimes they complete it more quickly than I anticipated.  Fortunately with very young children repetition is a significant part of the lesson anyway, so it’s not a huge problem if we do the same song or the same exercise two or three lessons in a row.

Kachidoki is a rather dull, anonymous business district.  It has big towers, a few banks and convenience stores, and not much else.  I usually don’t have any free time between lessons, but I don’t think there is much there to explore anyway.

 

Sunday: Nishi Kasai

My “home” school is very snug and friendly, on the third floor (second floor in English money) of a building above a coffee shop.  My room has windows but apart from a narrow strip at the bottom you can’t see out of them because the school’s logo is plastered all over them.

The schedule for the first two weeks was super-light, but last week I had a couple of afternoon lessons with adults.  They were very straightforward (40 minutes each), didn’t take much preparation and I was still finished by about 3pm.  The morning lessons seem to have a rotating cast of kids, as many who miss lessons during the week will come in on Sunday for “make-up” lessons.  So while I have classes listed as having 2 students I could end up teaching 4.  It can be difficult in terms of remembering everyone’s names – Japanese names are hard enough to remember, and sometimes pronounce anyway.  “Hira” and “Hiro” are different names, “Ema” is pronounced like an English “Emma” rather than “eema”, there are names with almost indiscernible extra syllables in the middle (like Yusu-uke) and anything that begins with Ryu, I always mess up.  Sometimes you can get away with mumbling a name or using indistinct vowels – but it is something I will need to work on.

Because I only work one day at any given school, I generally don’t get to see most of the other teachers, including the senior teacher (except at Shin Urayasu).  So it was nice that the guys at Nishi-Kasai organised a meal at a Chinese restaurant for all the new people starting, such as myself, and people moving on to different branches.

I got to meet Blindi, the senior teacher, who is from Essex, and Laura, who has just gone to another office but was my predecessor doing the Monday kindergarten lessons.  I also met Casper, who arrived last summer – he has Japanese heritage but this is his first time living here – and Miguel, from Mexico, who is settled here with a family.  I met the other counsellors too, the ones that don’t work on Sundays.

I learned a lot of useful information (including the gem that “chinchin” is the Japanese name for a boy’s private areas, so when telling the story of the Three Little Pigs it is probably better to miss out the line about “not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin”).

The food was quite good – I skipped the tofu but tried the fried noodles, and there were a couple of chicken dishes and a plate of fries and ketchup to keep me alive.  My contribution came to about 800 yen, which was very reasonable for the portions (cheaper than KFC anyway!).

 

Monday: Ichikawa and Inage

My second week at Ichikawa kindergarten was much more successful than the first, and I think the kids enjoyed it, the head lady was nowhere to be seen.  The third week she came in and watched parts of some of my lessons but didn’t give me any indication whether they were positively or negatively received.  By now I am quite happy that I can translate the instruction manual and syllabus into three workable lessons including lots of movement, at least one song, and vocabulary practice, and I’m starting to enjoy the lessons.  In the last one, I even had an English speaking kid in one of the groups – he said he didn’t understand much Japanese so I think my lessons were a bit of a relief to him!

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Before the kids arrive…

The lessons in the private company on Monday evenings have also mostly gone well, but on the second week I had an absolute nightmare.  It was pouring with rain all day, I ran into rush hour, I got to the bus station and realised I would be late so I tried to notify the school – using all the incorrect channels – eventually I was on the bus and about 15 minutes out from the site when I got the call that the lesson had been cancelled.  So I had to travel all the way back – over an hour.  To make things worse I lost my travel card which had 3000 yen of credit.  And of course, I won’t be able to reclaim travel expenses because it was my fault I was late.

On the plus side I did see an awesome monorail system, but I’ll have to try and get a photo of that another week for you, when it isn’t raining so hard.

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The boardroom/classroom

Needless to say, the following week I arrived an hour early and made copious use of the free wi-fi from the convenience store across the road from the site while I waited.

 

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The site