Pre-‘rona, me and Faith were sitting in a Filipino snack bar, enjoying some BBQ pork and beers while chatting to the owner when three drunk salaryman stumbled through the door and asked: “Are they hostesses?”
Nice to know I have a back-up plan in case this teaching lark goes tits-up.
Paris Syndrome is a condition that can affect disappointed first-time visitors to the French capital that almost exclusively effects Japanese tourists.
Seen as an extreme form of culture shock, symptoms can include: delusions, hallucinations, feelings of persecution, derealisation, depersonalisation, and anxiety, as well as physical ailments such as dizziness, tachycardia (intense, quickened heartbeats), sweating, and vomiting.
France – specifially Paris – is hyper-romanticised all over the world, but particularly in Japan it is viewed as the epicentre of sophistication. Whereas people expect to step into a Dior or Chanel ad or Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, the reality is quite different.
Paris is as far away from Japanese culture as you can get:
French people are very physical when greeting with two cheek kisses, whereas Japanese people bow. In Japan the customer is king, in Paris tourists are treated with disdain and disgust by everyone from shopkeepers to hotel staff. Japanese streets are spotless (despite the annoying absence of bins) and Paris is covered in litter. Japanese public transport runs like clockwork and has a strict code of conduct – whereas the Paris metro system is hot, loud and crowded. Pickpocketing and muggings can be fairly common in certain areas – a stark contrast to the country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.*
You can see how this would be intense for anyone – Hell, I consider myself fairly well-travelled but find Paris pretty dicey compared to a lot of major European cities. However even before Covid, there was a rapid decline of Japanese people travelling abroad for leisure, in fact a recent survey found under 50% of Japanese people in their 20s have never left the country.
So you can imagine the cultural shock can be pretty intense.
That being said, in reality the condition is very rare – out of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who visit Paris every year, only approximately 0.0012% are affected.
*I’m kind of biased in this post as I’ve visited Paris a few times and honestly I don’t really care for it that much. Go to Barcelona, Brussels, Prague or Budapest instead, huns. 😉
During one of the ten minute breaks between classes before my final period of the day at my elementary school, a tannoy announcement from the principal advised that a monkey had been seen on the loose in the area.
The bairns were told not to approach it if you see it, or go looking for it. So of course on the way home, everyone went looking for it.
Most prefectures and cities have their own mascot, known as yuru-chara (ゆるキャラ) that generally represents what the place is well-known for.
Arguably the most famous ゆるキャラ is Kumamon, the bear mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture. You can find him on merchandise everywhere in the country, and he is instantly recognisable by everyone. He’s also worth a fortune – in 2019 sales of goods bearing his confused but cheerful face topped 150 billion yen ($1.4 billion).
In Hamamatsu, we don’t have such an international icon as our representative, but we do have Ieyasu-kun and Naotora-chan.
You see them EVERYWHERE from the sides of buses to the teacher’s business cards at my schools. There’s a giant effigy of Ieyasu-kun at the train station and is a popular meeting point.
Ieyasu-kun is named after Tokugawa Ieyasu, a war lord who spent 17 years at Hamamatsu Castle between 1569 and 1586.
The top of his hakama is green and blue – green to symbolise the beautiful forestry and agriculture in the surrounding areas, and blue for Lake Hamanako, the Tenryu River and the Enshu Coast. There are piano keys on his hakama skirt, because Hamamatsu is known as ‘the City of Music’ due to being the home of world renowned music instrument manufacturers Yamaha, Kawai and Roland. We also have a Museum of Musical Instruments. His family crest is the mikan orange. There are many mikan orchards here that offer fruit picking. And finally, his hairpeice is actually a Hamanako eel – a local speciality. You’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant here that doesn’t have unagi on the menu.
Naotora-chan is named after historial figure Ii Naotoram, a daimyō and priestess who lived in Hamamatsu.
Her katana is also a Hamanako eel. Being a significant female daimyō – she symbolises that Hamamatsu should be a safe city for women and children.
Finally, although not used as much as Ieyasu-kun and Naotora-chan we also have Unamo – an eel (NOT a sperm like I originally thought) with a potato on it’s head because of reasons – also from Hamamatsu City.
Unamo actually accosted me and Faith last year at a food festival downtown. A bunch of kids were clamouring for a photo but of course he made a beeline for the two gaijins.
He’s actually being pretty sassy here – asking Faith if both drinks are for her, and because we’re drinking Strong Zero (an inexpensive 9% cocktail in a can that leaves you with a brutal hangover the next day) suggesting we’re drinking for the sake of getting drunk. Cheeky!
My elementary school co-teacher spent a month in Australia on a homestay as a junior high school student, and during this time discovered a love for Swedish sensations, ABBA.
The bairns weren’t familiar with their music, so as a warm up this week we played a few snippets of their greatest hits. Unfortunately the kids took a strong liking for Money Money Money and requested it was replayed. All lesson. For the full 50 minutes.
Side note: The kids were also very confused by the name, thinking we were sayingばば (“baa-baa” – Grandmother). Cute!
PS: What’s your favourite ABBA song?
Mine is the GREATLY under-appreciated The Visitors, a gorgeous synthy bop about Soviet Union dissidents fearing a knock on the door from the KGB from their weird final album.
食欲の秋(Shokuyoku no Aki) literally translates as “an Autumn’s appetite” and more loosely “a season for eating.”
Japanese people are universally big foodies, and look forward to the abundance of foods that come into season this time of year.
A lot of people even describe an increased appetite during this time – likely due to the sudden temperature decrease, dark nights and serotonin drop.
Back home I associate Autumnal food with hearty soups and stews, which also is the case here. But my friend Haruna told me the most popular seasonal eats are chestnuts, persimmons, pears, sweet potatoes and grapes.
The full moon festival known as Tsukimi (月見) or Otsukimi (お月見) also takes place in mid October, where seasonal produce are often displayed as offerings to the Autumn harvest moon, the most popular being the sticky Japanese sweet dango, as well as the aforementioned humble sweet potatoes and chestnuts.
McDonalds of course also has a new range of items this time of year, the most popular being burgers with a round fried egg on top to represent the moon known as “tsukimi burgers.”
I’ve tried one and it was just OK. Call me a purist but those spheres masquerading as eggs have no business being anywhere except on a McMuffin.
I took a break from this blog over summer vacation – thankfully I wasn’t called into school for any additional lessons so I was able to take the whole month off.
Sadly due to ‘rona being on the up-and-up again, all my plans – Tokyo, Kyoto and Gifu – got cancelled. Depressing and disappointing – but hey, しょうがない!
While we’d been lucky so far in Hamamatsu from only having a few cases since everything kicked off in March, we had a cluster originating from some restaurants downtown near Zaza. While not a huge number in the grand scheme of things – our numbers went from 2 to 180 which had us all spooked. So I generally avoided the downtown area.
However in between ordering Ubereats and playing Fire Emblem I was able to have some – somewhat local – fun.
I met up with my friend Donna and we went to Pinco Picon, a French-themed cafe in Toyohashi – about a 20 minute train ride from Hamamatsu.
We were just going to have dessert, however we decided since it was the end of the holidays by this point we decided to treat ourselves to the lunch special for ¥3700. We were served six exquisite courses from appetisers to dessert – including tea and ‘fancies’ as my mam calls them.
You can see more on Donna’s vlog – she is vlogging every day for the next 365 days, aka: her last year in Japan. Please subscribe to her channel for her lovely, chill videos.
Me and my friend Haruna were originally going to have a road trip to Gifu, however we decided to stay within the prefecture so she took me to the famous tofu shop and restaurant Tofu Kanshiro.
The tofu and many of their soy-based products are made in-house. For their lunch special you can choose between fried and silken tofu. We chose the silken tofu, and were lucky because it was only 1pm and we got the last portion available for the day! I was vegetarian for a few years before I came to Japan, and absolutely love tofu. I really enjoyed the gentle, subtle flavour.
We enjoyed chatting to the friendly owner who travels to the UK nearly every year to go to the Chelsea Flower Show.
The lunch special was very reasonable – only around ¥1200 and included a dessert pudding made from – you’ve guessed it – tofu!
They also served soy soft serve. I was too full by this point, but that didn’t deter Haruna who bought a cone, however it was sweltering hot that day and it started to melt as soon as we stepped outside!
After lunch we explored Ryugashido Cavern: a limestone cavern formed over time from 250 millions year old strata. The cave is 18 degrees year round which was deliciously cool and refreshing after a day in the sun.
It felt wonderful to feel naturally cool air for the first time in months. There’s even usually an area open where you can cool your feet in the waters, however due to the ‘rona this was blocked off.
There’s also a really nice gift shop selling local products – the gelato in particular was very popular, made from local Inasa milk and seasonal fruits. But I just bought some cookies and also these really interesting local pops I still haven’t opened.
Since most of my plans were cancelled I decided to engage in some retail therapy (I’m a Taurus after all!) and had some days at the mall – if nothing else to escape from the aforementioned sun.
Quite a significant thing that happened this summer was I started cycling again after twenty years!
I inherited a bike from a leaving ALT, however it needed a little TLC from a local bike shop. However after a scrub down, a new chain and new wheels we were ready to hit the road. Sort-of.
It turns out re-learning to ride a bike is like – err – like riding a bike. I was definitely a bit wobbly my first few tries and nearly sent some oba-sans flying, but I absolutely love it – especially cycling on the riverside bike path near my apartment.
As a pedestrian I’ve noticed you aren’t really respected much by drivers here – cars have no problem taking a sharp turn on a red light and nearly plowing into you. But they’re seemingly nicer to cyclists. My friend told me this is because so many students ride their bikes so drivers are naturally more considerate.
Maybe it’s just me but I feel like it’s the opposite in the UK – people will (mostly) always give way to pedestrians, but treat cyclists as target practice.
Finally – and somewhat a summer rite of passage in Japan – I tried my first kakigori, or ‘shaved ice.’ Ice is shaved right down to the texture of snow, and syrup is poured over it. You can also add extra toppings such as red beans, cream, ice cream and kinako which is what I had: a roasted powder made from ground soybeans that gives it a rich, nutty flavour.
Brown sugar is a popular flavour here at the moment – in everything from bubble tea to desserts – so this is what I tried and it was absolutely delicious, like a fancy snow cone. I can tell why it’s so popular in Japan!
Me and Haruna met up with our teacher friend who moved to another school this term and we both miss very much, she’s an amazing teacher who always goes above and beyond for her students. At my elementary school once a month she would host a birthday party for everyone having a birthday that month and I was always invited. The birthday bairns got to wear birthday hats, while the other kids played the birthday song on their recorders and we all sang. They even toasted ‘kanpai’ with their little milk cartons – SO CUTE!!
She ordered the same as me, but Haruna chose a blueberry yoghurt flavour which was so lovely and refreshing – I’d definitely choose that one next time.
Another significant day over summer break was August 16th was my one-year anniversary in Japan, or Japanniversary if you will. Sometimes I still feel like a deer in the headlights and some days it feels like I’ve lived here for years. After giving it some thought, I think I do now have an end-date in my mind – so this is likely going to be the beginning of my last full-year in Japan.
I hope you’ll stick around. As RuPaul sings behind a barrage of autotune – “this is the beginning.”
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