Friday, December 30, 2011


My first day of the six day university winter holiday turned out to be full of snow. When I woke up and looked out, I could not see very much because there was so much snow in the air that visibility was close to zero. When I got dressed (quite a while later) and went out on my balcony to take a picture it had cleared up quite a bit, but visibility was still bad. There should be lots more buildings visible from my balcony than the ones in the photo above.

Presents from Sweden

Wednesday was the last day of work at my university, then we have 6 days off for New Years, which is a big holiday in Japan.

In the morning I woke up and got into the shower and with fairly good timing, the mailman called from downstairs to tell me that there was a packet for me that was too big to fit in my tiny mailbox right as I got out of the shower. So I buzzed him in and managed to wrap a towel around myself before he got up to my floor. He brought me a package from my parents, full of chocolate and other things that will make me even fatter (but delicious :-) and some cooking books with Swedish Christmas food.

Later when I was having lunch at the university, I got another present from Sweden. Two Swedish friends who are currently visiting our university gave me more chocolate (filled with salty licorice, which is nice both because it tastes good but also because no one else in the whole country can even eat it, so I do not have to share :-) There was also Swedish waffle mix. So I will likely swell up like a balloon, especially since I cannot get rid of this very tiresome cold I have had since I played with all the kids at the Christmas party, so I cannot even exercise.

After work, I went with two colleagues to a Mexican restaurant and had some (well, a lot) nice food. We then continued on to a bar where one of my friends work. When the three of go out at night, it always turns into a heated discussion of politics/ethics/economics. And we have very differing views, so discussion never ends, but it is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of the year-party

Fried chicken cartilage
On Monday I was working hard trying to finish writing a research paper for my professor. He had to submit a 6 page paper by Tuesday, and since he had other things to do and we were working on a paper together since some time back, he told me to write it for him. He sent me 7 pages of text to add to what we already had, though, so he contributed quite a lot too.

He sent me this on Christmas Eve, since why would you not be working on Christmas, right? Well, in Japan Christmas is just a normal day, so that thinking may be reasonable some years, but this year Christmas Eve was a Saturday... Also, it was a little unclear if we really needed 7 new pages to fill out our already long paper when the page limit was 6 pages...

Anyway, at 17:09 I got an e-mail to my cellphone from a girl who is in the lab at my university where I used to work. She said: "I know this is short notice, but our lab has the end-of-year-party (忘年会) today, and many would be happy if you came. It starts at 18:00, near Sapporo station. Can you come?" Yes, short notice indeed. I said I'd try, but would not make it by 18:00.

I managed to finish the paper, or at least my part in the process, by 18:15 and reached the restaurant at 18:35 or so. I got to talk to my old boss, my Bulgarian friend, a Japanese guy I did some experiments and ate insects together with, some Swedish people I know, lots of Polish friends, and much more. I also got to see Miss Sapporo for the first time (she is in my old lab, but I have never managed to appear at a party where she attended, though I have been to several of their parties).

I also got to speak a little to two former students in our lab who are now working at universities in Yokohama and Fukuoka. They were back in Sapporo for New Years (I guess). They said that the most surprising thing about being back in Sapporo was that I was wearing a shirt with longs sleeves. Apparently, every other winter (and summer) party that we had when we were all in the same lab, I attended in a t-shirt... I thought it was only two or three times I went that lightly dressed in the winter, but still.

In my current lab, they keep putting all parties of Fridays, i.e. on days when I work in the magic bar. So I almost never participate. My old lab had the good sense to know that people have other things to do on Fridays than to hang out with their colleagues from work, so I could participate almost every time when I was in their lab (and often participate now too, though they rarely remember to invite me despite me begging them to not forget me...)

The photo shows fried chicken cartilage. This is very popular in Japan (all kinds of ways of preparing cartilage are). In Sweden we do not generally eat the cartilage, so this qualifies as slightly strange food for me. The first or second time I was in Japan, I was travelling with my brother. We went to a restaurant with two of his Japanese friends, and neither of us knew much Japanese back then. My brother decided to try to use what little Japanese he knew and tried to order something himself from the menu without asking the Japanese girls for help. He could read "chicken" and "fried", but ended up ordering fried chicken cartilage and the girls asked if he really meant that, if he knew what he just ordered, etc. He asked if he had ordered something weird, but they said no no, no problem. It was a bit weird for us, when it showed up.

Package from Sweden

A Swedish friend I met in Sapporo but who now lives in Sweden again sent me an envelope full of Swedish candy for Christmas. It arrived with impeccable timing, on the 24th. Salty licorice...

Japanese Christmas

Roast beef and salad.
In Japan, people do not really celebrate Christmas. The celebration that Japanese people do are mainly: 1) stand in line at Kentucky Fried Chicken and buy fried chicken (everyone knows that in the West, people eat turkey for Christmas (not in Sweden, though...) and KFC is close enough, and it is American, so it must be Christmas food); and 2) buy strawberry sponge cakes (because that is also Western, and very Christmasy (in Sweden we do not eat that for Christmas either...)).

Home baked bread!
Christmas is also a night were you have to go on a romantic dinner date if you have a girlfriend, so there are lots of couples out that night. Luckily  (?) I do not have anyone who would date me, so I spent both Christmas Eve (when Japanese people date) and the 25th in our magic bar, working. In fact, I worked every night from Thursday to Sunday, since Friday (23rd) was a holiday (the emperor's birthday) and we were open on Sunday because it was Christmas.

Christmas cake
On the 24th, I was invited to a friend's house and four of us spent a few hours there eating Christmas party food. It included a cake with strawberries, of course, and also had roast beef, avocado salad, octopus carpaccio, various stick vegetables, and home baked bread. Everything was very good (it always is when my friend is cooking). Especially the bread!

My friend is great at cooking, but less great at cooking proper amounts of food. There is always way way way too much. But delicious, so everyone ends up eating too much. Everything was of course home made. My friend even has a proper oven, so she roasted the roast beef herself, and baked the sponge for the cake etc.

Free wine

In Japan it is not uncommon to find stores giving you free wine (free sake is also common). In Sweden I have never seen that happen. In the Sapporo Beer museum it used to be the case that if you took the free tour (entrance is also free) you got one beer for free. This was apparently abused by lots of Americans that took the tour over and over again, so now you have to pay 100 yen for a beer.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I have caught a cold. My colds are very strongly correlated with going to childrens' parties, doing magic, and playing with children. On Sunday I was playing with over 100 kids for over 2 hours, and like clockwork I had a bad cold on Tuesday.

When you have a cold (or influenza, or anything that spreads when you cough or sneeze) you wear a mask in Japan. Many foreigners seem to think that Asian people wear masks because they are afraid of getting sick, but it is actually the other way around. They are afraid of making you sick when they are already sick. When you see someone with a mask you know they have a cold and you can keep your distance if you are worried, so it works as an easy to spot signal. It also helps a little bit that they cough out all their viruses into the mask too, I guess.

You can also wear a mask to help against pollen. I have an allergy to pollen that makes my nose run like crazy and my eyes itch so much I may consider sticking a fork in my eye to relieve the itching sometimes. Taking allergy meds helps quite a lot but it makes me very sleepy. Just putting on a mask helps even more, and the main problems are only that your suntan looks weird and that your sunglasses fog up. With a mask and no allergy meds, I have gotten rid of my allergy problems almost 100% the last seasons. My mother forbade me from putting on a mask when I was in Sweden, though (apparently it "looks weird"), so I had to take meds again. That did not help as much as the mask does.

Another great thing with masks that I have found out is that in the winter when you have a woolly muffler covering your face, the mask keeps wool out of your mouth.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Gus station

When trying to figure out how to get to the Toyohira Kumin Center from the subway station, I noticed that there are quite a few "gus stations" in Toyohira.

Nabe party

On Sunday I was invited to a nabe party. Nabe is the Japanese word for "pot" and this type of food is a broth in which you boil lots of vegetables and meat, and then scoop up into small bowls and eat together.

The friend who invited me has moved recently and when I asked where he lives now it turns out that he lives about 2 minutes walk from the Toyohira Kumin Center where I did a magic show until 16:30 the same day. Since the party was to start at 17:00 this was good timing indeed.

As with most of the Japanese people I know, everyone was late to the party though. I showed up at 17:00 sharp (I waited in a nearby convenience store not to show up too early) and one girl showed up about 20 minutes later. The rest came at around 18:30 and the last three showed up slightly after eight... My experience is that no one I met in Japan ever shows up on time so for me this was normal, but everyone else I know say all Japanese people they have ever met are always on time and that the 300 people or so I know must be the only 300 people in Japan to ever be late...

In the traditional Japanese way, everyone also brought lots of food with them even though the host had declared that they had prepared all the food necessary. So as usual, there was a huge amount of food to eat. This is great in all ways except that you grow fat from doing this :-) There were for instance four different people who came with cake. Each bringing enough cake for everyone. All the food was great.

My friend has not only recently moved, he has also recently got married. They did not actually have the wedding yet (it will be in March they said), but they have been to the city office to register the marriage officially. Apparently in Japan you tend to not have the wedding and party on the actual day that you get married but at some random unrelated day instead. Anyway, I introduced him and his wife, since she was a friend of one of my other friends and she asked me: "I want to meet a nice man. You are a man... so you must know other men, right? Can you introduce someone to me?" I figured the one most suitable for her of all the people I know was this guy, and since they married in under a year I guess I was more or less right.

It is interesting though that all my female friends tend to ask me things like "I want to meet a nice man. You are a man. So you must have some friends who are men. Introduce some nice man to me." No one has yet said "You are a nice man". But I guess I must at least be funny enough to be around

The English native speaker Dr. Hato

On Sunday I did a volunteer magic show for over 100 kids (and over 40 grownups). The English conversation school ECC had a Christmas party at the Toyohira Kumin Center. There is a huge stage there that was quite nice to use.

I showed up early to the party (my show was the final point in the programme) and played with the kids for two hours before doing the magic show. I was introduced as a native speaker of English (which was a surprise to me, haha) and as "Dr Hato". That is my user ID and mail address for many of my digital accounts, since I am a doctor (Ph.D. in computer science) and since Jonas comes from the Hebrew word for dove (as in the symbol of peace) and that would be "hato" in Japanese. It is not really a name I use when talking to people though, but they asked if they could introduce me like that and I said fine.

I did a 15 minute show for the kids and despite the angles being quite severe (people where mainly in front, but there were people behind, and to both sides as well, and some were looking more or less from underneath...) everything went well. The kids seemed very happy.

After the show, a girl of about five years came up to me and scolded me though. She said, "So you can speak Japanese! If you can speak Japanese, why didn't you talk to me in Japanese from the start?!"... :-) Well, I had been asked to speak English to all the kids since it was an English conversation practice thingy that held the party. Doing magic in English is difficult for me since I am not used to it, and impossible for the kids to follow along with anyway, so the magic show I did all in Japanese. The girl thought that for communication purposes it would be better to chose a language where we both are fluent enough to understand each other :-)

Magical party and lightly dressed people

Me in the Sapporo winter.
After our big stage show, the university magic club had a party too. In the club, you can only be a member for three years. This was my third year, so me and the other people who entered at the same time got flowers and a present at the party.

My flowers.
Every year it used to be a tradition that you had to make a promise about your stage performance ("I will not drop any thing during my juggling performance") and if you could not fulfil that you had to take the responsibility by being punished in some way that you decided yourself ("I will cut off all my hair"). This year, it seems there was no such system, but I figured I had not really lived up to my own expectations (and traditionally, all the third year students have to promise that they will be the most highly ranked performer of the year, meaning most will fail to live up to their promises :-) so I took it upon myself to do last years punishment (last year everything went fine, so I did not have to do it then).

The party place. Notice people wearing down jackets and coats...
So I went to the party in shorts and a t-shirt, which was a bit cold (minus 5 degrees Celsius outside). As a bonus, it turned out that the party was held on top of the Norubesa building. As in "not inside the Norubesa building" but actually on top. There were plastic sheets used as walls/windows, so there was no wind but it was still cold. I found the chair closest to the one lonely gas burner used to keep the staff vaguely warm, and sat there :-)

My friend, the stove.
Many of the others came up to me when we were waiting outside and asked what was up with my clothes. Funnily enough, the first one to ask was touching his own muffler when he asked it, and since I thought it was cold outside I also had a muffler, so I took his question to mean "Why are you wearing a muffler?" and I answered "I think it is cold outside today, so I wore a muffler". Another guy standing nearby thought that was funny, and every time someone would ask what was up with my clothes he would jump in and say "Jonas thinks it is cold today so he is wearing a muffler". I guess there is a first time for irony to be understood in Japan too :-)

Stage Magic Show

On Saturday, December 17, our university magic club had its yearly big stage magic show. This year it was the 40th Magic Festival ・ 2011年12月17日「第40回Magic Festival」. About 30 magicians did all kinds of magic for about two hours. Since my camera broke that morning, I do not really have any good pictures from the event, but it was a lot of fun.

Me producing lots of balls from a flower pot.

My performance did not go as well as it could have, but the audience seemed happy enough. I could not see anything since the seats of the audience were in the dark and I had a strong spotlight in my eyes (I could just barely see the things I was using during my performance) but people came up to me afterwards and said they liked my performance. Pretty much everyone said they thought it was too short though. Which I guess is good praise in some sense, since they apparently wanted to see more.

The death of a camera

Now my camera takes pictures that look like this.
On Saturday we (as in the university magic club) had our yearly big stage magic show. My camera chose that morning to die. So instead of having a lot of funny pictures from back stage, I have a broken camera and one picture from the short one minute period when the camera started to work again (and then nothing interesting was going on).

The last picture my camera took properly. When nothing special was happening.
After the show, I picked up my very old camera from home and took some pictures with that but the quality is not so good. I have too much to do, so I do not really have time to out and buy a new camera either. Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Strange Swedish

At the Swedish-Japanese party in the previous blog post, I learned that the couple organizing the party had been to Sweden this summer. They also had a guide book for Japanese tourists going to Scandinavia. It had a short list of useful phrases in the back. They turned out to contain a surprising number of errors for such a short list. And strangely enough, all the pronunciation hints with Japanese phonetics were completely fine, so someone who knows quite a lot of Swedish must have been involved somewhere...

Things I noticed that should be corrected included some minor typographic and spelling errors:
"Tac så mycket" -> "Tack så mycket"
"God Morgon" -> "God morgon"
"Kandu packa in dem separat?" -> "Kan du packa in dem separat?"
"Notan,tack" -> "Notan, tack"

Grammatical errors:
"Det var jättegod" -> "Det var jättegott" (or possibly "Den var jättegod")

Forgetting to replace the English word with the Swedish one:
"Var ligger toilet?" -> "Var ligger toaletten?"

 Semantic strangeness:
"Får jag ha en karta?" -> "Kan jag få en karta?"
(the first version is correct Swedish, but means something like "Is it still OK if I come here and have a map with me?" instead of  "Could you give me a map?" that they wanted to write).

So out of 15 phrases, 7 contained errors. Maybe they should proofread better.

Incredible amounts of food (Swedish-Japanese party)

On Sunday I was invited to a "home party". When I was invited I was told that the person inviting me mainly wanted to introduce me to a Swedish girl that is "incredibly cute". And also married, but still...

The person organizing the party held it in her own home, and everyone was supposed to bring some food to share with everyone else. Participants were the organizer, her husband, the Japanese woman who invited me, me, a Swedish friend of mine, and the cute girl.

Swedish Christmas sweets made in Osaka.
Other Swedish sweets, made in Sapporo.
My Swedish friend impressed everyone by bringing traditional Swedish Christmas sweets that he baked in Osaka. His oven here in Sapporo is too small to be useful, so he travelled down to Osaka to use his friend's oven there.

Swedish Christmas food.
Close up of the Christmas food.
The Swedish girl made a traditional Swedish Christmas dish which is kind of an anchovy casserole, described in English and Japanese at Wikipedia. Quite impressive, and very good.

My contribution.
I brought some Dutch waffles that I bought at the airport in Amsterdam... not so impressive. But still tasty.

There were of course enormous amounts of Japanese food too. And when you could finally see the end of the food orgy, the husband decided that since food was running low he would go out and buy sushi and yakitori too... A lot of good food, but as usual way too much food.

There was also a lot of fun and interesting conversation. I for instance learned that the Swedish girl who is married to a Japanese man does not speak Swedish at home. Nor Japanese. Nor English, which might have been a reasonable guess. In fact, they speak Chinese at home. Which makes very little sense, but there was a perfectly logical explanation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

When urine research

We have a whiteboard where someone has defined URIs. Lots of URIs. From URI 1 to URI N. So in the middle of lots of incomprehensible stuff, someone spelled out URINE with large letters.

This reminds me that the Germans that picked the name for the huge EU project we are (possibly) part of decided that "P-medicine" would be a good name. Our professor showed up and started telling us that we were now working for the "pee medicine" project. It took some time to figure out what he was talking about. And telling the people in charge that they might consider picking a different name had no effect. It would have been a good and funny name if the project had anything to do with pee, but it has not.

Possibly a pun

Today I found "Freba" in our coop shop. This comes from "fureba" in Japanese, which means something like "if you shake". So it is a form of snack where you are supposed to shake the bag before opening it, to make the flavoring stick to the snacks. I think it is also a pun, since it is quite common to use the English word for "flavor" in Japanese, and that then becomes "fureebaa".

I also like that there is lots of English text that seems to make sense, but where the main part is hidden by a picture of a glass of beer. It makes me curious. What were they trying to say? And why did they cover the text with beer?

Japanese Christmas food

This month our university coop run cafeteria has a Christmas fair. This means food they believe is Christmasy. Which means it contains the colors green and red, and preferable also yellow. So we have such Christmas like things as "hashed beef in curry sauce with omelet (yellow), broccoli (green), and ketchup (red), on rice"; Christmas chicken: chicken, potatoes (yellow), broccoli (green), and tomato sauce (red); fish egg salad (reddish fish eggs), corn (yellow) and broccoli (green)...

Speaking of Japanese Christmas food, the whole concept is a bit weird. In Japan, traditionally people do not celebrate Christmas (with no one being Christian, this is not surprising). The American influence is strong in Japan, and now there are slightly strange Japanese versions of Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine's Day.

Christmas is celebrated in two ways. If you have a girlfriend, you celebrate by going to an expensive restaurant serving European style food (like pasta) and have a romantic dinner. Christmas is the night for dating couples.

Christmas is also celebrated by standing in line in front of Kentucky fried chicken. This sounds like a joke, but people actually form lines of several hundred meters just to get into KFC on Christmas. For real. People also book fried chicken in advance from KFC to take home and eat as a Christmas dinner with the whole family. Booking well in advance is your only reasonable chance of getting KFC on Christmas.

Not only do they do weird things like stand in line for KFC for hours, they also think that "this is what you do in the West, right?" Um, no? We do not even have KFC in Sweden. Apparently, the thinking is something like "Americans eat turkey at Christmas" -> "turkey is a bird" -> "KFC serves chicken, which is also a bird" -> "KFC serves traditional Christmas food" -> "everyone in Europe and America eats at KFC during Christmas" -> "we should do that too".

Valentine's Day is also weird here, but that is a story for another day.

Hot soup

Yesterday I tried the new item on Bottom Cafe's food menu. It is a spicy soup with thinly sliced lamb, turnip, garlic, and some other healthy looking things. I think they said the soup had lots of tequila in it too, which is perhaps not quite as healthy. It was very good, and came with a plate of very spicy peppers on the side, that you could add to make the soup as spicy as you wanted.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do not lick the birds

Here is another poster from our office at the university. I saw it from such a distance that reading it was still difficult. Did the picture of the girl with her toungue sticking out and hugging a chicken mean that we are not allowed to lick birds anymore? No, it turns out to be a notice that there will be some talks about new and evovled flue strains.