Epilogue: Airline Barf Bags (Still) Make Me Sick

Source: Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum

[Before reading, please check out the first post I wrote about a year ago – Airline Barf Bags Make Me Sick.]

I can’t believe it happened again. What is it about international flights with a South-East Asian destination that causes our two children to excrete bodily fluids in unpleasant yet spectacular ways?

This time it was ID’s turn to put an airline sick bag to test. He waited until half way through the flight, and then after he had a full stomach he enthusiastically emptied its contents into a paper bag 10 kilometres above the ground.

Wise from history, however, we were prepared. We sat him up straight and pushed his head forward into the sick bag that we had pre-opened for his convenience. This time the only other collateral damage was his T-shirt. We were calm. We remained relatively clean. No other passengers visibly gagged.  What a relief.

Despite one year passing since the original “unpleasantness” I can confirm that the designer of airline sick bags still doesn’t actually test them prior to manufacture. They still can only be opened by tearing along a near-invisible perforation, and they still have a tendency to rip down the side rendering them useless for their intended purpose.

This is why we now have a new family ritual. Each time we are initially seated on a flight we carefully open all the sick bags in the pockets in front of our seats. Our fellow passengers must think we’re about to perform a magic trick, or perhaps make our own in-flight popcorn. Later they’ll only wish it was so.

So, there you have it. A moderately absurd year sandwiched by high-altitude vomit. I’ll leave you with one final thought to chew over, and perhaps regurgitate at some unexpected time in the future: Airline barf bags… they still make me sick.

That’s a Wrap!

Our moderately absurd gap year has finally come to an end – all too quickly I might add. In just a couple of days we will be heading back to Adelaide, Australia.

This year we’ve had a blast in Japan! We’ve eaten lots of great food, improved our Japanese (even Nicewife), spent precious time with friends and family, done some interesting work, travelled a little, and made some mistakes.

Together we’ve laughed and we’ve cried. Well… we’ve cried at least. Thank you, dear reader, for sharing our adventure, and may you continue to discover things in your own life that are neither mundane and ordinary, nor completely crazy, but perhaps just Moderately Absurd!

Sayonara!

10 Japanese Certainties

  1. TV presenters will proclaim all food, no matter how disgusting, to be “delicious”.
  2. There will be ten new Prime Ministers by the time this decade is out.
  3. Payment of inducements to public servants serves the greater good by building business relationships.
  4. The miniskirt will never go out of fashion.
  5. Overtime spent in an office = Automatic productivity.
  6. Nature is evil. It must be cleansed by concrete.
  7. Owning an old car is bad for the economy dangerous.
  8. In order to (dis)respect someone, you must first be certain of their age.
  9. English exists solely for the design of unintelligible T-shirts.
  10. The older one gets, the freer one becomes. Once you’re over 90 you can say whatever the heck you want.
cleansed by concrete
#6: Nature cleansed by concrete in Shinjuku, Tokyo

The Sounds of Summer

cicada
A cicada that almost became an accessory to my shoe

Summer in Japan is hot and humid. The temperature does not vary significantly between day and night. Being a simple man I like the fact that for the last three months, no matter the time of day, all I’ve needed is a T-shirt, shorts and a pair of Crocs. Barring indecency, dressing doesn’t get much simpler.

For the last couple of months the stillness of the evening has been pierced by the loud clicking of cicadas and the croaking of frogs in the adjacent rice field. These are the sounds of summer in semi-rural Japan. (There’s a Japanese pun in there if you’re a particularly astute student of Japanese!) The cicada in particular is pretty loud. Some cicadas can produce sound of up to 120dB SPL which The Internets reliably informs me is the “threshold of discomfort”, or as Australians like to classify it, “bloody loud”.

One can take some quiet sadistic satisfaction, however, upon learning that the life cycle of a cicada is kind of tragic. Just like the Spice Girls at the London Olympics, cicadas emerge after many years of being underground, make a lot of noise in a short space of time, and then, within a week, disappear into eternity.

The Boys Kitted Out for Summer Festival

the boys in yukata
The Boys in their Yukatas

Summer in Japan is festival season. The days are hot and humid and the evenings are pretty much the same (except just a little less hot). It thus figures that the best time to hold an outdoor festival is in the evening when the temperature has dropped a little.

There are fireworks, traditional dancing, taiko drumming, stalls selling festival food and cold beer, and locals dressed in traditional costume. In some ways it reminds me of a Scottish Ceilidh (dinner dance), which provides the rare occasion for everyone to dress in kilts and dance the night away.

Of course wearing a kilt in the traditional manner at close to 60 ° North is quite a different climatic experience to wearing a Yukata on a balmy summer evening in Japan.

Do I Make You Uncomfortable?

homogenous
Homogenous

Today I visited a local bakery to get a cream bun, a coffee, and a quiet space to do some work. I approached the small seating area to discover that all three tables were occupied. (There are long bench seats at each table and in this particular establishment it is not unusual to have to share them with strangers.)

I choose the table with the least number of other occupants. A middle-aged OL (Japanese-English for Office Lady) is sitting by herself bang in the middle of a 6-seater table. Impressively, she had managed to occupy almost every corner of it by strategically positioning plastic binders of A4 paper, splayed open to display various important-looking charts.

I stand beside the table for a few seconds. My presence is not acknowledged although she feels a little guilt which is evidenced through a slight shifting in her seat. I ask if I can sit down. Without lifting her face from her important work, she nods, and instinctively moves her handbag just a little closer to her side.

I sit at the opposite side of the table, perching myself right on the corner. I take out my laptop and start to work. She shifts uncomfortably for a couple of minutes in a routine that would be funny if it was so intended. She forgets how to read. She remembers again. She rearranges her binders. The wall suddenly becomes inexplicably fascinating. She then finds something very interesting in the binder at the furthest side of the table.

Suddenly she has to go. She abruptly and ungracefully packs up her binders, feigns a look at her watch (too late). For a few awkward and impressive seconds she is actually moving away from the table and packing her bag simultaneously. She escapes from the foreigner’s ambit unharmed.

Meanwhile an elderly couple sit at a separate but close table on my right. They look like they are farmers having their morning break. They stop talking after I sit down, and then resume very quietly. They skull their scalding hot coffees and promptly leave. It looked like a drinking game… The husband won at the cost of first-degree burns to the inside of his mouth.

Japan is a homogenous nation. There is no distinction between Japanese ethnicity and Japanese nationality. 98.5% of the population are Japanese. Of the remaining 1.5%, most are from Japan’s Asian neighbours like China and Korea. This means that if you are in Japan, and you are anything other than Asian, you are part of a very small visible minority.

Sometimes it is nice to be able to clear an entire area of all signs of human life simply by showing up. I’m sure that in an emergency situation it could save my life! But sometimes it wears a bit.

Occurrences similar to those I describe above happen pretty much every week. I get stared at every day. Three years of experience living in Japan hasn’t prevented this from unnerving me.  Even when everyone is ignoring me I start to become paranoid. I find myself suddenly rubbernecking to check if the man who just glowered at me as I passed has stopped and turned to do likewise.

He usually has.

Trip to Hamamatsu

We recently took a short family vacation to Hamamatsu, a small city of around 800,000 residents in neighbouring Shizuoka Prefecture.

A visitor to Japan will soon realise that every Japanese prefecture and every Japanese town is ‘famous’ for something. Nagasaki is ‘famous’ for deep fried noodles. Aomori is ‘famous’ for apples. The fact the locals are required to tell you that, for example, the tiny town of Azai is ‘famous’ for weaving, is an irony that seems lost on most of them.

Bucking the trend however, Hamamatsu has some actual fame in the area of musical instruments. Yamaha, Kawai and Roland are all headquartered here, and just so as to remind you that you are in the “City of Music” the only skyscraper in the city is shaped like a giant harmonica. Subtle Japanese pride.

One of the city’s prime attractions is the Museum of Musical Instruments. I particularly enjoyed their selection of pianos, harpsichords and clavichords, although understandably almost all of them were not able to be played by museum visitors. Some of the more unusual items on display included a traditional grand piano with dual (upper and lower) keyboards, and a double-headed piano that could be simultaneously played by two people – one at each end.

small piano
Our small man standing next to an appropriately small piano.

We stayed at a motel situated on the shores of Lake Hamana. It was new, comfortable, clean and relatively cheap. Only one other room was occupied while we were there. Why would such a new, clean, comfortable and relatively cheap motel be so unpopular, we wondered? That was before we opened the curtains to find ourselves face-to-face with a carriage-load of train commuters. The outside track of the JR Tokaido Line passed literally a few metres from the window. Freight trains ran all night at 10 minute intervals which unfortunately made sleeping nearly impossible. But this is Japan, the land of both trains and stoics. The second night we slept better – either because we were becoming more stoical or, more likely, we were really, really, really tired!

We spend one afternoon relaxing at an onsen, and on the way also tried out a public foot bath.

footbath
A free public foot bath at Lake Hamana

One of the most interesting places we visited was the Hamamatsu Air Park, a museum and, I suspect, a recruiting station for the Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF). Given that the latter is probably the primary purpose of this place, entry is free!

I can confirm that JASDF personnel are overwhelmingly female, young and beautiful. These lovely young ladies will help you sign away your life, after which point you will be permitted to enter the actual JASDF base to discover that your real colleagues are overwhelmingly male, balding and uncouth.

Anyway – back to the museum… it rocked! It was all Top Gun and I was Tom Cruise before he became a prick. I tried out a couple of flight simulators and managed to crash just about everything they had. The boys dressed up in JASDF uniforms and practiced waiting for a war to come to them.

pilots
What, you thought this country with its famously pacifist constitution didn’t have a military? Think again.
2-year-old pilot
Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash.

Banzai!

Little Princess Syndrome in a Dog

sakura

Nicewife’s parents have a beautiful black labrador. They bought it after both their adult children had left home.

The dog serves a vital purpose. It indulges their need to pamper something younger and cuter than themselves. The dog’s life perks include the following:

  • Green tea on demand.
  • Year round climate control: Air conditioning in summer. Central heating in winter.
  • A raised feeding bowl so the poor dear doesn’t have to strain her neck to reach for food on the floor.
  • A wind shelter on windy days. A sun shelter on sunny days.
  • A collection of mats that are rotated according to season: Airy tatami, a gell-filled “cool pad” and thick luxury carpet.
  • An electronic insect repeller.

If there is a fly in her room she will bark until they remove it. She refuses to go for a walk if the ground is even slightly wet, yet alone if it is actually raining. She also won’t walk if it is much over 30 degrees outside. Nicewife’s dad cuts open old yoghurt and ice cream containers so that she can lick up every last drop. (I’ve yet to see him help with housework by cutting up the containers that we are required to recycle.) If the family are eating some special treat that has been given as a gift, one is often reserved for the little princess. Even her transportation is first-class. Despite the fact that Nicewife’s parents own a small tray-top truck perfectly suited to canine carriage, the dog will only visit the vet in the BMW.

The pampering of dogs is something of a common theme in Japan. It is not unusual to see women taking their small dogs for a walk…. in a Louis Vuitton bag! The dog looks bored. The woman looks exhausted. Yves Carcelle looks immensely satisfied.

I thought I’d finish with a photo of an elevator at a local shopping mall. This particular elevator (of a total of three available) is specifically intended for the use of customers who have come, to this very nice modern indoor mall, accompanied with their bagged dogs.

pet elevator

The Customer is God

not mcdonalds

In a previous life I worked in retail in the Highlands of Scotland. We were told by our foul-mouthed, hypocritical manager that we should provide good customer service because, “the Customer is King”. Of course in practice it was pretty rare to see this policy turn to action, particularly if the customer happened to be an unwelcome English “white settler” with a posh accent.

Japanese businesses espouse a similar policy to that of my former employer, but the implementation is worlds apart. In Japan, they say “O-kyakusama wa kamisama” – the customer is god.

I am sitting at a clean, comfortable and modern Japanese restaurant. I watch as a petite, professional Japanese waitress in her mid-30s runs to a seated customer to deliver their meal to their table. It’s not a full-on sprint, more like a dainty trot, probably no faster than walking. But it communicates something: The customer is god. She apologises profusely for making them wait. (They had been waiting less than 2 minutes.)  Another member of the restaurant staff wipes down tables, literally running from one to the next and apologising for the “interruption” to each nearby customer. Since she does this every 10 minutes the table she is currently wiping is already impossibly clean. A family of five enter the restaurant and her attention shifts. She runs to welcome them and to take their order.

“So what?”, I hear you say. That’s no different to a nice restaurant in Australia. But there’s something I’m witholding from you. I’m not sitting at what you would consider fine dining establishment. I’m at McDonalds, having just dropped $2.40 on a chicken burger and milkshake. I finish my meal and approach the rubbish station to sort the rubbish on my tray into 10 different recycling categories. An eager staff member approaches to takes the tray off my hands, laboriously sorting my rubbish on my behalf. “Thank you very much. Please come again!”, she effuses.

It got me thinking about where this motivation to provide excellent service comes from. It’s clearly not the $12 an hour she’s receiving for her considerable trouble. Nor is it flexible working hours or world-class workplace gender equality. Why did she run, instead of walk, to deliver a tray of fatty burgers to a bunch of fatty teenagers?

Most Australian employees are constantly, and unknowingly, calculating the risks and rewards of taking an action that costs effort. We do this hundreds of times a day without realising it. An Australian Maccas employee subconsciously determines that they personally risk nothing if the fatty teenagers have to wait a few minutes longer for their fatty burgers. Stuff table service – these pimple-faced angst-filled pre-adults can just wait here at the counter, right next to the perpetually overflowing rubbish bins.

Back at McDonalds Japan I watch one of the over-helpful staff members more closely. When she talks her mouth smiles but her eyes are glazed. Her voice is upbeat and chirpy, but there is no detectable melodic cheer in her words. She provides polite but impersonal service. She is an ultra-efficient Japanese robot, the product of 12 years of education designed to a produce loyal, unquestioning, hard-working employee. The individual is sacrificed to the group, and as a result my burger arrives quickly and my table is clean.

Who would’ve thought one could attain divine status just by spending $2.40 on a burger and shake?