Green Hills of Japan

It looks a long way out of Tokyo. Even when you live half way out already.

I carried my bike out the front door at six, trying not to bang it against the wall and awaken Y and H sleeping upstairs. I’d designed my route the day before; had it scrawled on a scrap of paper in case the GPS failed me. Both scrap and phone were stuffed in the pouch in the back of my top, along with cash for snacks and emergencies. Apart from that, just the water bottle, pump and basic repair kit in the saddle bag, plus banana. No need for a waterproof: the forecast was dry. It was to get hotter, but as I rolled onto the deserted street, there was a pleasant chill in the air.

The route was just a succession of road numbers: up route 12, left onto route 3 > 57, right onto 108 a wee bit, left onto 54, cross Sagami river, right up route 65, back on 108, retrace home.

The Sagami River, from what I could see, looked like the boundary of Greater Tokyo.


I changed the first section, took a quieter, hillier road that I’d ridden before, and hit route 3 a little further along than I would have done on the dull route 12. Here I turned left and pedalled, stopped, pedalled, stopped (damn these traffic lights) for ages. At some point I moved into Machida city: not that it made any difference. I was a globule filtering along an artery through the suburbs: garages, car showrooms, petrol stations, discount sports outlets, drive in restaurants, convenience stores with absurdly large parking lots. And sometimes, squeezed in between them, neatly cultivated vegetable plots, tumbledown wooden shacks, and the odd set of stone steps leading up to a bamboo sheltered temple.

Eventually, at the top of a rise in the road, I saw the hills. Steep, tree clad, a green that was somehow both pale and dark. Beneath the blue sky, wreathed in a diaphanous mist.

Lightened by one banana, I negotiated my way onto route 54 and descended into the Sagami valley. I was desperate to lose the traffic, especially the giant-wheeled trucks that squeezed me to the inside. Thankfully most of them turned north or south along the road that skirted the river, while I kept going west, up into the hills. The gradient sharpened. Thick forest either side: bamboos, pines, cedars. This was it. I’d made it out of Tokyo. It was tempting to go straight on, towards the hills I could see in front of me, but I stuck to the plan and took the right on route 65. At first it looked like the gentler option: a flattish road that would skirt the line of hills to the left.

I cycled through one of those country villages that are really just a collection of buildings notched against the road. Houses: mostly humble wooden structures, though a few elaborate, with lacquered roofs, curved like a sultan’s slippers. I passed a gaggle of nursery kids in yellow hats; junior high schoolers and pensioners on decrepit ‘aunty bikes’. Then the forest closed in and the gradient snapped at me. I called on a higher gear, swigged from my water bottle, and settled into the climb. When I looked up from the handlebars a conical peak was looming ahead. I passed a sign: some Japanese characters and ‘1450m’. Irrational thought: had I missed something on the map? Did Route 65 climb to an altitude worthy of a lower alpine Grand Tour stage? The idea lodged in my head and gained traction. I could always just go back the same way. Or take it on? How hard could 1450 metres be?

I was going towards a black hole. A real one, opening into the hillside, about 1450 metres after the sign that almost certainly meant ‘tunnel’. Okay, so I wouldn’t have to find out that the obvious answer to my hypothetical question is: pretty fucking hard.

Three hundred metres later I emerged into daylight again. The flat gave way to descent, gentle at first, then steeper. I zipped down, leaning into the curves, the most joyous part of cycling, at least until you come a cropper doing it, which I haven’t. Yet.

Soon, too soon, I was at the junction with route 508. I had planned to turn right here and begin the slog back into the city. But I’d made amazingly good time. It was still only half eight. Checking Google Maps for the twentieth time, I saw that if I carried on route 65 I would come to a lake. Then I could turn right along the lakeside and come back to 508 further down.

So another climb though forest, with only a few cars and me on the road. Then I topped out and saw the glassy surface of Lake Tsukui spread out in the valley below. Westward, more mountains bulked up the horizon.

‘Next time’, I told myself as I whooshed down to the junction with Route 413.

For today, it was back to the megalopolis.


Ok, finally we’re ready to go. Hannah’s been dressed in her new dress. She has her new shoes on. There was a battle to get the new socks on, but I won it after brief resistance. I’m in a shirt too. And smart shoes. Yuuka’s wearting white shoes that I’ve never seen before. Where did she get them? And why didn’t she tell me? Was it for the same reasons that I haven’t yet told her about the new pen I bought yesterday? But she did tell me about the new brooch. It’s from her Mum. And this morning’s bad mood with me may have started when I failed to give a considered opinion on the matter of which side she should pin it to. You see We’re all supposed to be smart, because this is THE OPENING CEREMONY!

Of what? The G7 summit?

Well, a small group of individuals who feel they are the centre of the world will be gathered in a room and encouraged to participate in common activities.

But I doubt Obama, Octopus Face and Abe Shinzo will be accompanied by their mothers.

No. This is the Sakura Nursery Pre-Nursery class opening ceremony. I don’t start work til twelve so I’m to be in attendance. There might be other fathers there too, but I’m not expecting it.

Anyway, we’re ready. In the words of one of Hannah’s songs, which tend to reverberate inside my head, ‘Off we go.’








Japan means business

A few months ago I came across this article by Ruth Alexander on the BBC website, about the surprising popularity of the Business Novel in Japan.
Surprising to outsiders maybe, but if you live and work here, it’s immediately obvious why the genre is so successful, since the influence of business is immense, not least on the psychology of the individual. I can easily understand why someone working twelve hours a days in his or her ‘kaisha’ (company) should seek to pass the commute immersed in a fictional account of the world of work. As Alexander points out, customs and pragmatism dictate that dissatisfaction is rarely expressed in the workplace. As a result, Japanese, like anyone else, turn to imaginary heroes to show them a way out of the impossible web that a large company structure presents.

Based on my recent conversations with students learning English for business purposes, and inspired by a fresh reading of that great work, Gulliver’s Travels, I now humbly propose to the reader my


A has been posted to an overseas assignment. His mission is to ensure that PLANT 14, acquired by LBX Corp two years ago, maintains an upward trajectory of productivity.
There are several reasons why A has been chosen for this role. Firstly: he is a long-standing employee of LBX Corp; he has gained experience and the respect of his colleagues during fifteen lengthy years of service.
Secondly: A has spent the past nine years in management roles of increasing levels of responsibility. He is ready for the task.
Thirdly: The Board of Executives view A as future Executive material. It has long been company tradition that before taking on an Executive role, managers must prove themselves in overseas environments.
Fourthly: A is a competent speaker of THE GLOBAL TONGUE. Senior Executives whom he has accompanied on overseas trips have had reason to note this.
Fifthly: The permanent leadership position at PLANT 14 has been vacant for four weeks, since the unexpected loss of the previous manager, K.
A meeting has been called to inform A of this decision. Present are the Company Chairman, the Head of A’s Section (also a member of the Board of Executives), and the Company’s Head of Human Resources, Miss H. The meeting takes place in the boardroom, on the forty ninth floor of Head Office Tower. The window commands a superb view of the metropolis, with the rebuilt Imperial Palace in the centre. Standing close to the glass, executives can look down on the National Assembly, the government buildings, and the Prime Minister’s Residence with its garden and wall of fir trees.
The other attendees were already present when A arrived. Despite being early, he apologised for keeping them waiting. The usual niceties were observed, following which the Chairman informed A of his assignment. A expressed gratitude, and in the accustomed form, pledged to repay his debt to the company for the trust they had placed in him. A’s Section Chief then informed him of the importance of the mission. A acknowledged his understanding of the fact, and reiterated his commitment to the goals outlined. The Chairman thanked A, and, switching to an informal register, informed him that the colour of his suit matched the fabric on the boardroom chairs very nicely. It hardly need be said that this was a way of hinting to A that a Head of Section Role was awaiting him, should he be successful in this assignment. A, a man of some culture, smiled and quoted the proverb which can be translated into the Global Tongue as ‘A Wise Man Observes the Colours of his Master’s House’. The chairman laughed and told him that soon he would see ‘many many colours’ (another proverb), but hopefully not so many as would make him blind (the Chairman’s invention). There was much laughter at this among the four. They were seated two by two at the top of the boardroom table, though leaving empty, of course, the seat at the head belonging to the Company’s Octogenarian President and Founder.

A lies awake, sweating off the alcohol the Chairman and the Section Chief poured down his throat. Before the drinks, he called his wife to inform her of the assignment. They had already discussed the possibility of him going overseas. After much agonising, they had decided that it would be better for his wife and young son to remain behind, though in the event, given the location of Plant 14, there would have been no other option. When A returned home after midnight, she and the three year old boy were already sleeping together in the large bed. A went into the spare room and crawled into the single bed. He fell quickly into an alcoholic sleep, but after a couple of hours woke up again. Now it is three thirty am. He has to get up for work in two hours.

No one knows this, but A suffers from bouts of a crippling lack of confidence in his abilities. Such a bout is assailing him now: visions of failure and humiliation leap unbidden into his brilliant but fragile brain. He has bought numerous books on how to control these emotions, and now he tries to employ the diverse techniques they suggest.
Finally, he identifies the precise point that is bothering him. It is that at the drinks, no further mention was made of what happened to K. Unable to sleep, A gives up trying. He enters the messages on his laptop, and locates the one he was looking for:

Memorandum: to all staff
It is with sadness and regret that LBX Corp must inform staff of the loss of a valued and gifted employee, K. As many employees will have been aware, K was heading up the important work being carried out at our recently acquired Plant 14. To his credit, in the fourteen months since his taking on the role, productivity more than doubled, while on a recent inspection by Quality Control, procedural standards including safety were found to have greatly improved.
The Company thanks K for his tireless efforts throughout a long career which began sixteen years ago in the Engineering Division, where he spent seven years before taking on a role in quality control, as a Chief Officer much loved by his staff. A successful two year stint as Operational Manager of Plant 9 was then followed by his final assignment to Plant 14.
A brief memorial service for K will take place at 1pm in the company canteen, for any employees wishing to attend.

A closes the message. He then recalls when he first heard about the incident with K, only the day after it happened. This was in conversation with his coetaneous colleague C from Corporate Communications. The two had been in the queue together in the office canteen.
C (in conspiratorial tones): Have you heard about K?

A: I got the feeling there was something going on out at Plant 14. What’s up?

C: (at close quarters, giving A a whiff of the tobacco he’s addicted to) This is not official knowledge. But apparently K climbed a ladder and pitched himself into one of the vats. Nasty way to go, boiling alive.
Those words rebound inside A’s skull now. ‘Nasty way to go, boiling alive’. Mentally, he attempts to translate them into the Global Tongue. He realises he does not know how to capture their colloquial import: he can only say ‘Boiling alive is an unpleasant way to die’. This is the other factor that is bothering him: he does not share his superiors’ confidence in his linguistic abilities. What if he does not understand the native workers, and they don’t understand him? They will not take him seriously. Productivity will drop, and quality will also suffer, as they realise they can return to their sluggish ways.
K was a natural leader. A is nothing of the sort. In his own language, he can play the part of one – but how on earth will he do this in THE GLOBAL TONGUE?

January 5th

The assistant behind the desk in the second hand book chain, Book Off, a slightly dishevelled guy in his twenties, relieved me of my phone with infinite gentleness. ‘Katazuketakunaru Heya?’, he said, after scrolling down my What’sapp messages for me. Was that the title of the book I was looking for?
‘Sou desu.’ Yes it was. And how can you make pronouncing it sound so easy? To me it’s a monstrosity, a giant python of a word that should be locked in a cage for children to goggle at. They would especially enjoy feeding times, where the keeper tosses in a freshly defrosted rat to be devoured.
Attaining a tidy bedroom. That is, more or less, what this serpent is innocuously called. So let’s observe it more closely, from a safe distance through the bars of its cell.
Translating its Japanese parts directly into English, it would be more like: ‘Tidied becomes bedroom’. This hints at the vastly different way in which words are linked together in Japanese, and explains why using Google translate from Japanese into English invariably produces gibberish. My objection though, to katazuketakunaru is more to the way various components have been stapled together, Frankenstein-style, into something you’re expected to utter as a seamless whole. Also that the bits (as happens everywhere in Japanese) are all consonant vowel syllables. This happens in English – if we were to say, for example ‘an apparatus in an attic’ there would be a similar fiddliness in getting it out. But it’s the norm in Japanese, with the result that your tongue has to be going up and down like a piston engine while your lips hardly move at all. There are no opportunities for those lingering, labial consonants you get in the obviously sexy languages, Italian and French, and even in the apparently unsexy English. My first foreign languages were French and then Italian, which is probably why I find these habits hard to drop, and Yuuka sometimes laughs at my Japanese pronunciation, calling it ‘sexy Japanese’.
The book, by the way was for her; even though I told her that with all the guides in the world on the subject, there would be no possibility of attaining a tidy bedroom with Hannah around. In the end the shop assistant led me to the shelves and looked for it himself, in vain.
‘Sumimasen, arigatou gozaimasu.’
So in the end we were both sorry and thankful, but at least we had both tried our best. Now I had to go back to work and help my Japanese students deal with the numerous snakes that English has lying in wait for them.

January 4th

‘Juichi gatsu ni Scotorando kara hikkoshi o shimashita.’
It came out sounding quite nice I thought, all the prepositions right, no awkward mid-sentence fumbling in a dark cupboard in search of the next word while my listener wondered if they had time to go off and make a cup of green tea. I had, let’s be fair, rehearsed it in my head beforehand, perhaps even mouthing the words silently as the sliding doors opened and I walked into the entrance of the Aoba International Lounge. The day after returning from Niigata, with Yuuka and Hannah staying on an extra two days, I had searched for Japanese language classes and found this place, which appeared to offer them at a lower cost than the private language schools. So here I was to enquire, and though the staff would surely speak English, I was determined to make my little introduction in Japanese.
‘Nihongo no class o sagashite imasu,’ I continued, at which the woman behind the desk smiled, said ‘hai’ and called to another lady who was just then walking by.
This woman, middle aged and full figured, wearing trousers and a denim shirt, had a relaxed smile and eyes that twinkled behind her glasses. I repeated my now well-honed opening gambit, that I had moved from Scotland in November.
‘Scotland,’ the smile grew wider. ‘Where in Scotland?’
‘Ah! I used to live in Edinburgh!’
Now things were getting easier – and not only because we were speaking English. Here was someone who knew, quite literally, where I was coming from. Soon she said something that I often hear, ‘You don’t have a Scottish accent’, at which I chuckled ruefully. When foreigners who have been to Scotland say this, what they mean is they can understand me without difficulty. And yet for some reason, I feel as if I might be disappointing them, and usually take it as a request for what the yearned for incomprehensibility might sound like. So Ogawasan, as her name turned out to be, was treated to ‘Ah dinnae ken’, which she didn’t know, but now does, means: ‘I don’t know’.
After speculating on whether regional differences in Japan are equivalent to those in the UK (frighteningly, Ogawa thought they are), we returned to my original request. She showed me the class days and times and, in Japanese again, smoothly rolling out the words like new Toyotas off the production line, I said that since I worked on the other days I could only manage the Saturday morning class. In that case, the first one would be on January 9th.
‘Kiite ii desu ka?’ Was it ok if I came?
‘Mochiron.’ Of course.
‘Arigatou gozaimasu.’
And I walked out into the January sunshine, glowing with success and optimism.

A Year Lost in Translation

This year I’ve decided to keep a diary about my struggles to overcome the communication barriers that constantly rise up around me in Japan.
When I get round to it, I’ll post the entries here.

January 1st 2016
Happy New Year: Akemashite omedetou. I said that this morning, with acceptable pronunciation, though a second too late, like a robot running on low batteries. I had spent the night at an onsen, a hot spring resort in the snow clad mountains of Niigata prefecture. The onsen is one of the great Japanese New Year’s experiences, and Yuuka’s family had chosen a good one, booking two suites of rooms, one larger on the ground floor, where her parents, grandfather, and our daughter Hannah had slept; and one smaller, directly above it, in which Yuuka and I had been relieved for the first time in a while of the threat of nocturnal crying.
We rose at what for me was a sluggish hour, despite not even having made it to midnight. Part of the reason for this, in Scottish terms, heinous crime, was the toll on our stamina taken by a truly enormous meal which we had begun at six o’ clock, washed down with plenty of beer and sake. In my case, an added plea was that I had been raised on a Hogmanay TV diet in which the promise of Only an Excuse, the annual pastiche of Scottish football (which frankly does a good enough job of pastiching itself) can keep me up with the hope that it might just, this year, recapture its former glories. Sadly, I hadn’t found the same allure in Japanese TV’s big night jamboree – a song contest called Kohaku in which the traditional Enka style figures highly, along with numerous pop acts familiar in Japan but not to me.
So, having failed to witness the climactic vote, we were well rested and barely hung over, and Yuuka soon descended to join the rest of her family while I sat in my yukata in front of the majestic view and attempted to capture some aspects of the onsen experience in prose. Looking back, most of what I wrote was tosh, a bizarre mix of attempted poetic similes and estate agent-like estimates of tatami mat coverage in square metres. But at least writing it gave me a little time out, as, hovering on the edge of the family bosom, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by a sense of linguistic isolation.
We had arrived in Niigata on the 30th, with me full of enthusiasm to use what I confidently thought of as my new improved Japanese. Two days later, my keenness had been blunted by the effort of straining to follow conversations, interjecting with varying success on the rare occasions when a) I thought of something to say b) I knew how to say it and c) the moment had not already passed. I was even beginning to feel jealous of my almost two year old daughter, as her every utterance was praised to the hilt. It wasn’t fair. How did she reckon I’d get on if I went round obsessively pointing out the presence of clocks? People would think I was mad.
‘Asa gohan wa ready desu’, Yuuka had come to retrieve me for breakfast. As I followed her down the wooden stairs, walking with duck feet to prevent my slippers slipping off, I remembered my objections to onsen breakfasts. I have no problem sitting cross-legged at a low table for a two hour evening meal composed of seventeen different dishes, manoeuvring them in front of me as if they were pieces in a puzzle. But repeating this again at 8.30 in the morning is a step too far. My longing for a mug of coffee and toast was strong as I walked in and saw the kimono-clad lady kneeling to assemble several hundred dishes on the long table. On a visual level I was aware, I think, of Yuuka’s family, Hannah on her grandmother’s lap, seated at the small table by the windows, chatting to each other. I should of course have stepped forward, greeted them with a hearty Akemashite Omedetou. And yet I hovered spectrally on the other side of the room, frozen in guilty resentment of the opulent meal to come. Eventually Yuuka’s mother noticed me.
‘Ah… Tonysan!’
And I was snapped out of my little trance, remembered my social duties as a human being, stepped forward, and hit the play button.
‘Akemashite Omedetou!’
It was alright. The cassette wheels were whirring again.


The school I teach at is on the third storey of a squared off, off-white-tiled building six stories high, located on one corner of a busy crossroads. The balconies all around each floor make you think of a chest of drawers with the drawers hanging open on all fours sides, as if a giant with a low interest in aesthetics had plonked it down in a hurry. The design seems to be standard for almost all commercial premises in Japanese cities. The Slapdash Giant style, although you could also call it Utilitarian, and it might well have something to do with the need to make everything earthquake proof.

Anyway, there are a trillion buildings like this, but on the ground floor of this one is a DVD and game rental chain. It has an extended glass fronted area loaded with ads for games, films, and series, all shoved out as close to the passers-by as possible. To the right is a covered portico area with bike and motorbike parking racks. There are two rows of waist high coin-operated purveyors of miniature plastic toys, and against the wall behind them two drinks vending machines and a small passport photo booth.

A word about these drinks machines. They are everywhere in Japan. Between the school and the nearest subway station, a three minute walk away, I pass four others. They all do soft drinks, but the heaviest advertising is for the different brands of canned coffee they can offer you for anything between 110 and 140 yen (about 60 to 90 pence). Being a coffee addict, and unable at first to use my beloved mocha, I was dependent on these. I sampled all the brands, most in their hot and cold varieties, and I feel in a position to tell you that the one furthest from real coffee, and closest to a mainline injection of pure caffeine, is the most heavily advertised of all, and the one that reigns supreme in the machines next to the staircase to my work. I’m talking about BOSS coffee.

Despite it being the paint stripper of coffeeholic hits, I’m in thrall to this brand. I can’t help but respect it, and wonder at the minds that sent it multiplying exponentially across the country, with a ubiquity second only to Hello Kitty. But what is that image? Who is the BOSS? Okay. Let me talk you through this. I want you to visualise the head of a large business. Or even his head and shoulders. Yes, I said his. If you had any notions of a female in the role, discard them. Our boss is a male. But he’s not a modern male. There is nothing of the sleek, pampered twenty-first century CEO. Ours is a figure from the past. He’s in profile, has short hair and a moustache. His eyes are narrowed, his jaw is set. His mouth is clamped around a pipe. The whole cast of his features indicates the hardness of his path to the top. The opponents he’s had to trample on. The way he’s had to filter from his soul all traces of compassion. This, then, is the Boss we see before us in a two tone print – blue features on white face. The reduction make him all the more iconic, a brute companion to Warhol’s Marilyn. Not just the Boss. The BOSS.

Now, for all I know, Japanese commentators have produced miles of column inches analysing The BOSS’s cultural significance. I may not be adding anything, but I still want to have my tuppenceworth. Point one: it had never occurred to me that coffee could be advertised as a macho drink. I find this in itself quite weird. Can you imagine the BOSS in the company of all these women who curl themselves up on the sofa with a cat and a steaming mug of Nescafe? Exactly. Point two: imagine you’re a typical Japanese office worker, out on your break. Who are you escaping from during these few precious minutes in your twelve hour working day? Your boss of course. And so where do you turn for refreshment?
On the evidence of the BOSS, let it not be said the Japanese don’t enjoy a bit of irony.

Next to the drinks machines and the passport photo booth is the steep, narrow staircase that hugs the side of the building and takes me up to the school’s entrance at the back of the third floor. The school secretary fell on it the week before I started, damaging her ankle ligaments. I still don’t know if she was going up or down at the time – which boss she was running away from.