Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Halloween story

The river is different at night.

By day, the various sports pitches, tennis courts, golf courses and whatever else that line the waterfront are a lively testament to the vigorous energy of Osaka's young and old alike.

Even in this season, one would be ill-advised to brave the midday sun without appropriate safeguards against burning. The myriad birds and butterflies are in their element, as are the dogs whose owners bring them down to the riverside for their exercise, continually straining on the leash in their eagerness to chase after some passing cyclist, such as I, or exchange greetings with one of their fellows across the path.

I reflect, as I ride, that with a silver lining as dazzling as this, it is easy to lose track of the cloud.


When I first came to Japan, I did so with visions of a yen-fuelled lifestyle of outrageous hedonism, backed up by a salary so grossly inflated that I would, in due course, be returning to my home country, England, with enough money saved to buy a car, go back to university, or else spend a while idling and writing the novel I had always been meaning to.

However, after about six months of rather modest hedonism, punctuated by five or six days of abject poverty as I awaited my next pay packet, I was forced to admit to myself that my expectations had been a little unrealistic. After all, these are not the 1980s.

Likewise, it seems our company president was still living in the golden heyday of the Japanese economy: whilst others might have looked to expand their profitable chain of English schools at a sustainable pace, he spent money hand over fist, opening schools like they were Starbucks franchises, waving aside queries about the ruinous losses such rapid expenditure would almost inevitably incur: the board were always satisfied with promises of jam tomorrow, whilst he passed off ominous signs as temporary setbacks, the darkest hour before the dawn, the last vegetable before dessert, and so forth.

But 1980s economics leads to 1990s fallout: eventually our numerous creditors were no longer happy to be turned away with glib lies and doctored balance sheets. They wanted money, which was the one thing we didn't actually have. Schools we had, students we had, merchandise we had; money had we not.

And so the schools began to close.


On the 19th of this month, I had a nasty shock. If one can be said to be shocked, without actually being surprised, that is. Our salary, already four days late, failed to arrive in our bank accounts, as had been promised by the illegible scrawl at the bottom of a sheet of non-headed paper, which was as much as anyone had seen of our president in months.

The ship was going down, and the captain had had it away on his toes in the very first lifeboat.

Ride out the storm, I thought: fortune favours the brave. (With such internal rhetoric as this, it is perhaps easy for a reader to understand why my financial situation is barely any more favourable than that of my benighted employer.)

I made a list of my problems: it was pretty short.

My problems

1. No money

Having read over my list twice, I put it to one side and thought about how best to deal with problem #1.

The obvious answer seemed to be that I should cash my penny jar. This however, I was forced to acknowledge, was very much a quick fix. Perhaps the equivalent, you might say, of the president of a beleaguered chain of language schools trying to borrow 7 billion yen off the kind of guys who hold meetings in saunas, while the company's already well over 40 billion in the hole.

Just for example.

In my case, the proceeds of my penny jar were enough to meet my nutritional requirements, so long as I was prepared to make a few small changes to my diet. What my dribs and drabs of small change were not going to be able to foot the bill for, however, was the cost of my commute.

Thus it came about that I would be cycling the 16 miles or so from home to work along the riverfront: at least until matters improved.


The river is different at night.

As I ride down the path, the steepness of the riverbank to my left obscures the lights from buildings, the traffic's song, the existence of the cities that punctuate my weary voyage home, like a series of closed pit stops. The only lights I see are far, far ahead, or else to my right, off across the water, on the far shore. On this side of the river bank, in the cloying darkness, eyes straining ahead, it is impossible to see all one ought. And yet it is also possible to see some things we ought not.


Night three: riding home and thoroughly sick of the ghosts, goblins and fairies that haunt the riverbank by night, wondering when on this earth or out of it I'm ever going to see my salary, wondering if my saddle's full of rocks. I pull up short by the basketball court.

Not a full basketball court, I should add, just the one hoop with the obligatory foul-throw line laid out in front. In the day it is generally empty. By night, on the other hand, it is a social hub to the various unquiet spirits that haunt the river.

I see a man, about 5'2" tall, blundering about the court. The reason for his diminutive stature and his clumsiness are one and the same: he doesn't have a head.

His head, protesting loudly all the while, is being tossed to and fro between a couple of translucent airborne spectres, as quick and capricious as the wind. His cries are of "stop!" with the occasional "ouch!" thrown in, as his head rebounds off the rim of the basketball hoop, or else lands with a rather grisly noise on the tarmac court and fails to bounce as a basketball should.

It appears to be the nightly sport of the air spirits to torment the poor body with this game. I am seeing this for the third time. On the first night, I rocketed past, terrified out of my wits, until my successive encounters with other nocturnal abominations further down the road dulled my terror and left me, as I finally rode back into the city, rather disdainful of the crude nature and unlovely personalities of the riverfolk.

On the second night, I actually stopped to watch the game a while, until a toothless old man came crawling out of the undergrowth behind me and started trying to bite my ankles with his slavering gums. Whether he was a spirit or simply an unfortunate, I know not: but I bade him farewell with the sole of my boot before leaping onto my bicycle and departing, damp sock and all.

Remembering the old man, I lock my bicycle before I stride onto the basketball court. Although the headless figure, his body clad in a filthy, decaying kimono, may well have done something terrible in life to have earned his eternal punishment, I am unsure whether Japanese post-mortal status is decided as meritocratically as in England. And besides, I have begun to grow irritated by the shrill whoops and cheers of the air spirits as they toss their misfortunate victim's head back and forth.

The air spirits do not at first seem to realise I am there. They throw their trophy around much as before, with the occasional joyous cry as they slam it into the unguarded hoop. After a few token jumps, I realise that, even with my head on, I am unlikely to dispossess the spirits. Therefore, I sit down and wait patiently beneath the basketball hoop. Sure enough, after a minute or two of throwing the head to each other over the flailing arms of the piteous body, the spirits float down the court and dunk it, whereupon it lands in my lap with a muffled exclamation of "oof!" Standing up, I stride down the court to where the body is standing. The air spirits, realising what has happened, buzz about me like a swarm of gnats. I feel their chilly breath on my neck and ears, but I am determined.

I present the head to the body, which accepts it with both hands and sets it firmly in place on its neck. I am left looking at a rather unkempt man, perhaps in his early 40s, probably born in the 16th century. He bows deeply to me, then draws a tarnished-looking sword and begins pursuing the air spirits around the court. Their whoops and cheers resume; obviously this game is as much fun to them as the basketball.

Returning to my bike, I find my toothless assailant of the previous night masticating wetly on my back tyre. I kick him into the bushes and mount my steed. Taking one final look at the basketball court, I see that the air spirits have stolen the man's sword and are throwing it to each other whilst he runs frantically about between them.


The darkness is thick like coffee. My legs are weary. I am overtaken by a large group of snakes, moving fluently like a team of bike riders, continually cycling their leader from the front to the back, as they speed past and then away in front, beyond my limited vision. I wonder why they are doing this, until a team of scorpions scuttles past in hot pursuit.

Overhead, in the branches of a tree, I actually see one of my students. As she is gnawing on what appears to be a human arm, I decide against stopping for pleasantries.


Finally, I reach the end of the river stretch of my journey. I dismount my bike for a second to stand and admire the view of the city by night across the water. Instantly, a bush to my right begins to rustle, and I realise I am in for at least one more spectacle. I give a heartfelt sigh.

A large, gruesomely-flayed rabbit pulls itself into view, panting with exertion. Mistaking my austere expression for a quizzical one, it explains its appearance as follows:

"I needed to cross the river, but I couldn't find the bridge, so I bet all the sharks in the river that if they lined up, there wouldn't be enough to go from one side to the other. Of course, when they lined up, I ran across their backs just as quick as you like, but when I got to the shore, I turned round and teased them and the last shark caught hold of me. Look at my skin!"

Laying unkind hands upon the whimpering rabbit, I toss him back into the river, where the churning of the water, interspersed with lapine squeals, informs me that the sharks are giving the rabbit a good hiding. Rabbits that try to fool people can cause a lot of problems.

Shouldering my bicycle, I begin my ascent up the steps to the crest of the riverbank, turning my back on the lunacy of its inhabitants for another night.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Black Friday II

On Black Friday, we didn't get paid (previous post.) On Black Friday II, a week later, schools didn't even open.

Current situation: at a meeting held in Namba on Friday night, we were told that the company president had got the boot (sound effect: bolt sliding shut on the stable door, followed by muffled horsey-galloping noises fading into the distance). The company now has to find a sponsor to assume its considerable debts and restore it to functioning order, or fold up completely.

As I understand it, in the former case, our benefactors will pay outstanding salaries and everyone will get complimentary chocolate biscuits; in the latter case, we will be eligible to receive 80% of outstanding salary.

In the meantime, school's out! I'm not technically unemployed, but school isn't open, so I'm on my hols.

Right now, I'm firing off resumes left, right and centre. No bites yet, but I daresay the market's a bit crowded at the mo.

Some messages:

Thanks to all who have offered support during this difficult period.

Sorry to all students who currently find themselves up the creek.

Big shout to Nova employees (the ones I can stand, at any rate): hang in there!

And to our erstwhile company president: I hope you go to jail for theft, fraud and incitement to arson.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Black Friday and what Dan did next

"Sign of the times" is a new catchphrase I'm mystifying the students with. A good example of such would be the fact that I was in a job interview for a kindergarten on Friday morning. Another would be the fact that I had a raging hangover.

Mutton-dressed-up-as-mutton across the desk asked me how life with the Evil Empire. I shrugged and gave my nth flippant answer of the entire debacle:

"Gimme a minute, I'll run down to the ATM, then I'll come back and tell you."

Friday, you see, was the scheduled date for our (already delayed) paycheck (sic). I jogged down to the cash machine afterwards and, sure enough, my remaining balance was not a single yen different from the previous day.

Depressingly low, in other words.

I crossed out the option marked "curry for lunch" on my mental roster for the day and ticked the box marked "cash penny jar."

Apparently, later in the day, another fax purporting to be from the company (non-headed note paper, illegible scrawl masquerading as president's signature at the bottom) informing instructors that they hadn't been paid (duh, you reckon?) and announcing that attempts would be made to pay us "by the end of the month."

An e-mail arrived from Adam, offering free eats at his place: an offer I couldn't refuse, given the circumstances.

The last bomb of Black Friday dropped when I was on my way home from Adam's- a mail from the man himself:

"Aah! Your stalker just found me on facebook!"

You have to laugh.


So, the next dilemma: what to do about AVON's latest betrayal. Job hunting isn't going to be easy with the amount of gaijin jumping ship from AVON at the mo, and I'm not eligible to quit and claim benefits for at least another month. Plus, I don't want to cause any supplementary headaches for my colleagues, so I decided to tough it out and keep going in for the time being. The best part of this is that my train pass became invalid over the weekend and I don't have the funds for another, so I'm now commuting to work on "The Greyhound Bike", an epic feat of pedaling which accounts for about 90 minutes each way. However, I'm riding along the river front and, for the time being, enjoying a new experience.

That said, tomorrow I have the early start, so I asked The Man In The High Castle if I could claim a night's grace on his floor. He assented, in return for which I promised to cook dinner. Who should waylay me in the shopping centre after work, but his stalker?

Giving up on English she burbled out a load about what a terrible situation we're all in and dumped 20-odd kg of perishable foods that she'd bought on me, which goes to show that, whilst her heart may be in the right place, her brain is somewhere else entirely. I did the bowing and thanking and wondered how on earth I was going to cope with biking the whole lot up to the High Castle.

Suffice it to say I managed, and tonight we ate like kings. Tomorrow: who knows?

If and when the pay check finally comes, I'm going to be in great shape from my new commuting arrangement at least.


Friday, October 19, 2007


Payday haiku blues

The autumn rain sings:
"You don't have any money,
your employer sucks."


Monday, October 15, 2007


The 1800s

Has your luck run out?

Do the wolves rummage through your bins as you shiver in a lonely apartment? Does your school not even have enough brass to purchase replacement lightbulbs? Do you try to sing the blues and play the harmonica at the same time and end up producing doleful squawking noises. Has your 2-kyuu preparation been put in the incapable hands of Darwin-sensei, the man who's dying to speak English, even though he's about 600 points away from being a Zone C?

Are words like "day" and "night" nothing more than words to you now?

If the answer is yes, thee be in the 1800s, the darkest days of the empire, and I'll shuffle up to make a bit of room for you.

"Distracting Boss" from Big Train, 1/3
(think 19th October)

"Crossroads" by Tracy Chapman

Takamura Mamoru vs Bear, from Hajime No Ippo

"Distracting Boss" from Big Train, 2/3
(think 15th November)

Classic Dennis Bergkamp goal

How to go to the toilet (Japanese)

"Distracting Boss" from Big Train, 3/3
(think Christmas Eve)


Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Haiku, tossers

Haiku composed in class:

Red and yellow leaves.
Mushrooms from North Korea,
harvested by Kim.


Notes for those not in the know:

1. Whilst a lot of folks back home will be familiar with the 5-7-5 format (generally courtesy of that South Park episode), some may not be familiar with haiku's seasonal connection. So, if it's not about a season, it's not a proper haiku.

2. The second line refers to matsutake mushrooms, a traditional Autumn delicacy. The Japanese matsutake harvest doesn't even come close to meeting demand, so matsutake are shipped in in great quantity from North America and neighbouring Asian countries, including the DPRK.

3. "Kim" in the third line was originally intended as none other than J.I. himself. On reflection, however, I decided he makes a good Korean Everyman: the name "Kim", after all, is very common in Korea, and graces president and pauper alike.


Here's another haiku for my trenchmates:

Gusts of Autumn wind:
dark clouds are thrust asunder
in a madman's dream.

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Monday, October 08, 2007


Oh my goodness...

I just noticed the date: I've been in Japan for exactly four years!

To commemorate the occasion, I would like to issue the following statement:

Attention, worms: from now on, things are going to be very different around here. I'm going to bring a new zest to my teaching and studying, and a new meaning to the word "fear."

I am going to rise to greater heights of tomfoolery than ever and my savings are going to amount to a damn sight more than what's in my penny jar.

And sushi is not, nor ever will be, "very delicious." It's acceptable at best.

But first, I'm going to raise a glass.



Words to live your life by

I was in no mood for working: the clouds of doom and gloom which have been hanging heavily over us have not only not been thrust aside (as per the unsubstantiated claims of faxes of dubious provenance) but have intensified.

Rather than occasional flashes of lightning or spots of rain, the harbingers of the coming storm are the occasional anvil or surprised-looking Bengal Tiger falling from on high.

It was in this frame of mind that I gathered up the textbook and chose lesson #1: life goals.

I went into class and doled out the mayhem to a group of variably-competent students with some choice selections from my favourite quotes:

1. "It is not enough that I succeed. Everyone else must fail"

I thought for a bit that this might have been coined by Napoleon, but it later turned out to be Attila the Hun.

2. "It is better to be feared than loved."

Machiavelli, taken somewhat out of context, but an admirable sentiment nonetheless.

3. "Are you happy? Sometime (sic) it's better just to let go."

This last is taken from the cover of my 100 yen notebook. And people wonder why the Japanese are so prone to suicide when they have this kind of material knocking around for less than the price of a Snickers.

The students seemed to enjoy my tomfoolerous lesson. At least, if they didn't, they were smart enough not to let on. The clouds are growling and something large and stripey just hit my umbrella.

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