Fifth Tuesday Random Five Facts About Japan

Welcome back to the random five series. There haven’t been any posts up recently as I’ve been a bit under the weather and my brain turned to mush… still had to go to work though, since here in Japan, sickness is NOT considered an acceptable excuse for absence, leading us on to fact no.1..

1. People wear facemasks all the time here. Remember the SARS masks? Yep – well, basically, it’s those, ranging from your 100-yen standard sort of white-cotton mouth and nose covering, all the way up to state-of-the-art types like these. I don’t really know how or if they work (can they really stop you spreading your cough and cold germs around the train??) but I always see people with them on. They’re also worn for hayfever. I’d say about 30% of people on any JR train carriage AT LEAST. K has a theory that they are worn to gain bonus marks at work from your boss, in the way that we might go around sniffing with a tissue all day at work, to get people to feel sorry for us and to make us look like the most dedicated worker ever. (BTW I haven’t ever worn a facemask, I just couldn’t get over the internal embarrassment if I were to ever try.)

2. I know this isn’t exactly a random, unknown fact about Japan but I am still amazed by the long hours people work here. Or, to be more accurate in some cases, the long hours people spend at work here (I have it on good authority that in certain cases, those long hours are not productively spent – S. says that although some of the teachers stay at his school until late into the night, some of that time seems to involve games, cooking food, surfing the net and sleeping). I asked one of my students how he was today. “Tired,” he replied. He looked it, too. “Why are you tired?” “I had to work a little overtime last night.” “What time did you finish?” “Oh – midnight.” That’s as opposed to the normal finishing time of 9 or 10pm then… these are salarymen whose day at work starts at 8.30 every morning. I would NOT want to be reborn as a salaryman.

3. Taxi doors open by themselves. Well, the passenger doors anyway. They also have automated closing. Yes, for a while I was told off for trying to close my own door behind me…just as no doubt, once I move back to the UK, I will be in trouble with taxi-drivers for leaving the door open and expecting it to close on its own. I can just see it now. (Angry black cab driver: “Born in a ******* barn, were we?”)

4. * You might not want to read this part if you have an easily upset stomach, are vegetarian, or are freaked out by spider webs*

Although much of the food here is cheap, fresh and delicious, Japan is also host to the world’s most disgusting food- natto. Apparently, the more time you spend here, the more of a taste you might develop for it. However, I don’t see how that could be true if like me, the only time you have tasted natto was a truly traumatic experience. Natto is made from fermented soybeans, a description which, truly, belies its unsavoury character. This description from Wikipedia might give you a little more indication as to why I don’t like it:

“The first thing noticed by the uninitiated after opening a pack of nattō is the very strong smell, akin to strong cheese. Stirring the nattō produces lots of spiderweb-like strings.”

While I totally agree with the ‘spiderweb-like strings‘ description, I would respectfully beg to differ on the ‘akin to strong cheese’ part. I like strong cheese. Natto smells more like a mixture of dog food and, well, dog-processed-dog-food. And it tastes like you’ve been sick in your mouth…Sorry.

But the thing that makes this food truly stand out as being yucky is the way the taste stays in your mouth. All day. I had half a bite of a natto sushi roll and I had to spit it out (and I have tasted crab brains, raw squid heads AND eaten roe from the belly of a pregnant fish not to mention home grown stuff like black pudding or TJs burgers & kebabs*) and yet, somehow, I could still taste it hours later. It put me off my karaoke I tell you.

5. Everyone seems to know their blood type in Japan, and you sometimes get asked what yours is. I wondered why this was until someone told me it was because they have a belief system, akin to a belief in horoscopes, that a person’s bloodtype reveals their character. So it’s just like asking someone, “what’s your starsign?” Except, apparently, this belief was invented by the Nazi’s

*Although I did pass on the fried locusts, boiled frog and ants’-eggs omlette I got offered whilst in Thailand.

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