Friday, March 28, 2014

Yukidaruman, the word play character supporting snow removal in Sapporo

On Wednesday I had to give a presentation at a meeting regarding snow plowing and snow removal in Sapporo. We get 6 meters of snow every year in a city with 2 million citizens. This leads to huge problems, and the city spends 150 million dollars every year on keeping everything running during the snow season.

Another presenter mentioned that there is now a character called "ゆきだるマン" ("yukidaruman", a word play on "yukidaruma", snowman, and "man" as in "superman" or "batman"). He is used to inform people of what to do or not to do when it comes to snow in Sapporo (stop parking in the no parking zones, for instance).

The same presenter also mentioned that every night that they do remove snow in Sapporo they cover 5000 km in one night. They use about 1000 snow plowing/removing machines for this.

Waffle Day

I forgot to take photos before I was down to the last batter that was not enough to make a full waffle...
In Sweden we have "waffle day" every year on March 25. It is apparently a mishearing of "vårfrudagen" ("the day of our lady", which would be the mother of Christ) as "våffeldagen" ("waffle day"). It began as a Christian thing celebrating Maria getting pregnant, but since few people are religious anymore, it has been misunderstood as a day to eat waffles. And that is what it has become.

I have a waffle iron to make Swedish waffles (Japanese waffle irons cannot be used to make Swedish waffles since they are made for batter that will swell and Swedish waffles are not made using that) so I make waffles every waffle day. Sometimes friends show up and eat them with me, but this year I was all alone. It does not help that everyone (including me) always has to work in the evenings here.

Here is a short report but with a nicer photo from last year's Waffle Day in Sapporo. I also have a blog post with the recipe for Swedish waffles, which is one of my most frequently accessed blog posts.


Spring in Sweden Hills
Last Sunday I went out to Sweden Hills to make "nikuman" with some friends who live there. It was the first time I ever made nikuman, though I have eaten many. It is a steamed bread bun filled with meat or whatever you can come up with.

Dough, filling, and a pot for steaming

Dough stuffed with filling (the smooth ones are not made by me)


You always have to have lots of dishes in Japan, so the nikuman were eaten with fried rice and noodles.
The end result

Me in a coupon magazine

In Sapporo there is a coupon magazine for food, entertainment, and hostess bars called "Susukino Tsuushin". Checking this month's issue, there is a guy who looks a lot like me on the page for our magic bar.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Me in the newspaper

Last Friday there was a newspaper article about our magic bar in the Hokkaido Shinbun newspaper. There are two photos, one of my colleague Tsubasa, and one of me wearing a shirt that says: "I am not Japanese" in English and Japanese. I am also holding a set of cards that have photos of me.

The text talks about our magic bar, how our owner came to open it, about doing magic in bars in general, etc. It also talks about Tsubasa because he is the youngest (21 years old now, 18 when he first joined our staff, I think) and about me since I am the weirdest (not Japanese).

About me it mentions that I make a lot of props myself and that I invent new magic trick presentations, wear strange clothes, and in general do a lot of original things... It mentions that I started doing magic to pass time since I do not have any friends (when you move to a new country, you start out with very few people you know around you; in my case 0).

I do not get this newspaper (or any newspaper, since newspaper Japanese contains too many words I have never seen (I learned Japanese by talking to my friends and I learned reading Japanese by reading e-mails from them, and apparently their e-mail vocabulary has very little overlap with newspaper Japanese)), but the same day a Facebook acquaintance posted a photo of the newspaper with the comment: "I found Jonas in the paper today!"

I re-shared the photo with the comment: "There is a guy who looks amazingly much like me in the paper today" in Japanese. In Japan, people usually do not get sarcasm or irony and my friends state that they do not understand that kind of things. Disproving this, several Japanese Facebook friends left comments like: "Indeed [he looks like you], and he even has the same bad fashion sense!", showing that not only do they understand irony, they can even be sarcastic themselves.

Ropossa and onomatopoeia

Apart from sword swallowing, mama also swallows huge balloons.

In Sapporo we have a "snack bar" called Ropossa ("Sapporo" read backwards in the Japanese alphabet). The "mama" there does magic every night, but she claims that her bar is not a magic bar and she also says she is not a magician. She is good at magic, though.

I went there on Thursday and had a good time. I ended up sitting next to a very old man who picked up magic as a hobby after retiring and who wanted to show me some magic. He had a very impressive cigarette trick. I showed him some magic too, and he seemed very happy.

Tsubasa showing magic to the Ropossa people in our magic bar.

On Friday, the Ropossa mama showed up in our magic bar at 2 a.m., together with one of her regulars who I showed some magic to a while back. They seemed happy with my magic and the magic of the other magicians in our magic bar. I did some tricks that mama also does, and she was excited to see them from the spectator's position, she said.

On Saturday, my magician colleague Tsubasa went to Ropossa after his shift in our magic bar finished. He messaged me and said I should come too. Right then, we got a set of new customers in the magic bar, so I performed for them and had to stay a while longer, but at 3 a.m. I left and dropped by Ropossa on my way home. Mama likes surprising people, in any way possible. She for instance burns large amounts of "flash cotton" (this burns very quickly, like a small and not dangerous explosion) close to your face from behind. Tsubasa reacts very strongly and in funny ways to such things, so it was a lot of fun seeing these two interact.

Mama also finds it funny that the owner of our magic bar has a project where he tries to get me to "learn" Japanese expressions with the wrong meaning, so I will use them in inappropriate situations and people will laugh at me. I once told him that it is difficult to me to pick up or understand Japanese onomatopoeia, since they are often not listed in dictionaries. When they are listed, the explanations are not very detailed either, so "sakusaku" (used to describe the crunchiness of things like cookies) and "paripari" (the crunchiness of things like potato chips) would both be translated as "crunchy" (if listed at all). I said that I usually pick such expressions up from how people seem to use them, or by people telling me "paripari is for example potato chips".

A good way to learn Japanese onomatopoeia!

He now goes out of his way to use the wrong expressions when I am around, in the hope that I will think that is how you use these expressions. The Ropossa mama gave me a children's game where you have to grab a card with a drawing representing an onomatopoeic expression when that expression is read by the game leader. Whoever grabs the most (correct) cards quickest wins the game. It came with an answer key, so I can use this to learn the correct way to use such Japanese expresion.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Very Japanese restaurant

We had two weeks of having foreign guest professors here at our lab. This meant getting up really early in the morning and working really late in the evenings (you have to attend and give presentations during the days, and since you also have to get your normal work done you have to stay one extra working day in the lab after the visitors go home). It also meant working some Saturdays, since the guests were here during the weekend and if you are in Japan for the first time, why would you not want to spend all your time having meetings, right?

We also visited a very Japanese (and very expensive) restaurant with our guests. The staff all wear kimonos, you sit on the floor (tatami mats), the food comes in tiny sizes (but the number of dishes is huge so the total volume of food is good), and the decorations are very Japanese. We had a calligraphy drawing on the wall in the room for our group that was written by one of the Japanese Nobel laureates. We also had our own private bath (though no one bathed during dinner) and our own private tea ceremony room (!).

The food was of course excellent. It did include some very Japanese things such as deep fried fish sperm, which some of our foreign guests found a bit strange.

Our own private tea room!

I was told by our secretary the day before the late dinner that: "Your name is on the list for tomorrow at 19:00. Did you know that?", which I did not know. Neither she nor I knew what that list meant, either, but I cancelled all my private activities for the evening and prepared to stay at work. At around 15:00 of the day in question, my boss stopped by and asked: "You can join at 19:00, right?", and since I had cancelled all previous engagement I said yes and asked what was going to happen. I was pleasantly surprised by it being dinner (and not for instance a night session of work related presentations). Though it might have been nice to be asked somewhat earlier if I had time to do work related things until midnight (since my contract tells me I only get paid until 17:00).

Our own private bath.

Since it was a job function, the project turned out to pay for the food. Apparently, the project can only pay for food, not for drinks, so we had to pay for our drinks ourselves. Which I was informed of the day after the dinner, when my boss came to my desk and said: "So do you have 2500 yen for me?" The Japanese explanation was along the lines of "You pay for what you drink", but I am guessing we actually split the bill evenly between all of us (and the non-guests paying for the guests parts too) which is common in Japan, since I only had one glass of tea and I think even in an expensive restaurant they do not charge you 2500 yen for that, haha.

Menu printed on expensive Japanese paper

Paying only 2500 yen for enjoying a dinner as nice as this one is of course very cheap and I was quite happy to pay, but I was a bit surprised that no one told me about having to pay in advance. Perhaps they generally tell you that when they invite you/ask you if you have time to come, and since I was never asked that either this information never reached me?


Trout with miso

Beef steak (Japanese size)

Deep fried fish sperm

Crab eggs on rice


Conveniently sized hotel room

During my trip to Tokyo, I could not find any hotels with reasonable room rates that actually had rooms for me. I stayed in a capsule hotel, which means you get a locker to put your stuff and a small tube to sleep in. This is actually not that bad, and I have stayed in capsule hotels many times. This time it also came with free drinks, TV (which all capsule hotels have), and a very nice public bath. Location was great, price was cheap.

Conveniently sized phone

One of my colleagues have some new toys. He has an Android tablet and an iPad. The Android also actually works as a cell phone. A very conveniently sized phone.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Kirin Nuda, no Calories, no sugar, no anything

The vending machine outside the meeting room had all kinds of teas and juices. I liked "Kirin Nuda". It is apparently something that tastes of grapefruits, but it also says: "0 Calories, no sugar, no fruit juice". So it seems to be chemically flavored water.

Recycling "flammable" garbage

In Japan, we sort our garbage. Normally you sort things into "burnable", "not burnable", "cans", "PET-bottles", "plastic", "paper", etc. At the National Institute of Information science, where our work meeting was held, they apparently expect people to want to throw away only two types of garbage, "plastic" and "flammable". How much flammable stuff do people in Tokyo carry around with them to motivate a huge basket like that?!


After our meeting with the invited guest to the Tokyo meeting, my professor told me that he wanted to take the guest to a nice restaurant, so perhaps I could go and have dinner on my own (me not being up to standard get let in to higher class restaurants, perhaps, haha). This suited me fine, since it would give me a chance to stop by a magic bar or two in Tokyo.

I found a small restaurant serving Mexican food. The Japanese guy running the place recommended having chicken tacos, so I had that. They were great.

Snow in Tokyo

Extreme snow in Tokyo 
A few days before we went to Tokyo, they had extreme snowfall in Tokyo. Normally, Tokyo very rarely gets snow, and when it snows it is very light and quickly melts away. This time they got 27 cm. For Sapporo, getting 27 cm in an afternoon or so is just business as usual, but for Tokyo to get 27 cm in one or two days is very very rare.

More Tokyo snow

There was still some snow left when we got there, in the shadowy parts. Of course, there is still some snow left in Sapporo too.

Business as usual in February in Sapporo
Leftover snow in Sapporo

A light and healthy breakfast

Last week I went to Tokyo for a business meeting. I had to present some things to the MEXT to show them what we have done with the money they give us (other people were presenting things too).

Originally, I had booked a flight in the afternoon of the day before the meeting. Going early in the morning of the day of the meeting would not work, since I was scheduled to talk really early in the morning.

My professor kindly stopped by the day before departure and said: "Oh, I rebooked you to a flight early in the morning instead." So I ended up getting up at around 5 in the morning to catch a really early flight to Tokyo (so I ended up not having time to do any work that day). The reason my professor changed my flight was that the invited guest speaker also coming to the meeting was arriving at around lunch on the day before the meeting. My professor figured that the first thing you would want to do after flying for 20 hours or so to get from Europe to Japan would be to have a meeting. Since no one else would have time to have a meeting with him, and we would not want him to get bored by having to get a shower and some sleep, we went there super early and met him.

So I showed him the same things I showed at the meeting the next day, my professor showed him the things he showed at the meeting the next day, and the guest showed us the things he presented the next day.

Since we had to leave Sapporo very early, no one had time to have breakfast and we had a quick breakfast in Tokyo instead. My professor took us to a restaurant at the Haneda airport, and I had deep fried pork with eggs and rice. In fact, my professor and the other people in our team also had deep fried pork on rice. Healthy stuff.

A small bag

I ran into a friend who had a souvenir for me from his last trip. I got a small bag. And when I say small, I am not kidding.

Still looking young!

The helpful "Tips for living alone for the first time" booklet was given to me
A few weeks ago, there were entrance exams at our university. Since our university is highly ranked, lots of hopeful students come here to take the exam in the hope of getting a CV including a good university. Our campus is huge (it spans 4 subway stops in the north-south direction and has a dedicated bus line that runs only inside the campus) and it is hard to find your room for the test, so already accepted students volunteer to guide people around or to stand at strategic points and point people in the right direction.

They also hand out maps, and they hand out "Good Luck" packages and other things. When I was going to work, one student came up to me and said: "Good Luck!" and gave me a bag with information about how life as a student is, tips on how to live away from your parents, and good luck charms for the entrance exam. So I guess he thought I look about right for someone who is 17... Which I was 20 years ago.

This reminded me of trying to by alcohol to bring as a gift for a friend when I was back in Sweden 4 years ago. Then the Swedish guy in the liquor store asked me to show some ID. In Sweden you can buy alcohol when you are 21, and as an (obviously :-) ) young looking 33 year old he could not be sure I was applicable, I guess. Since I do not have a Swedish ID card anymore (it expired a few years before that incident), I said I do not have an ID since I live abroad. He said a passport would be fine, but the reason I was back in Sweden at that time was because my passport expired (a few days after I reached Sweden, but a few days before visiting the liquor store). I asked if I could use my Japanese ID card, but he said he could not read Japanese so he could not understand what it said when I showed it to him. So I was out of luck.

Sad and lonely Valentine's Day (again)

Possibly partly my chocolate

In Japan, Valentine's Day is huge. It is also a bit backwards compared to Western countries. Women are obliged to give chocolate to all male co-workers. This is called "giri-choco", from "duty" (giri) and "chocolate", since they are duty bound to distribute this chocolate. Home made cookies are also OK.

Women can also give chocolate to men they are interested in, to indicate that "I like you".

If you receive chocolate, you are obliged to return the favor on "White Day", March 14. You are also supposed to return a gift at least three times as expensive as what you got. For giri-choco you have a giri to return the gift. For "I like you" chocolate, returning something means "I like you too", I am told.

The Valentine exhibits in stores around town are bigger than the Christmas exhibits in December, so this is a huge thing. Every year, and this year was no exception, well meaning Japanese try to explain this culture to me. They also always tell me: "As a foreigner, you will get huge amounts of chocolate from all the women around you, since Japanese women are fascinated with foreigners".

Every year, I end up getting very little or no chocolate at all. This year was the worst so far, with no chocolate at all received. There was a small plate of chocolate on the desk of one of my colleagues, and when he was not there, the rest of us figured "this is probably for everyone, right?" and dug in. So I did have some chocolate but it was more like "stealing" than "receiving a gift".

Not my chocolate

One of my magician friends had lots of customers dropping by our magic bar just to give him chocolate. He got too much, so he let me eat some of his chocolate.

Curry Colombo

I stopped by the small but excellent curry restaurant "Colombo" near Sapporo Station to have dinner a while back. The boss saw me and she said: "Ah, Jonas! Great timing!" It turned out they only had once more serving of rice left for the day, so everyone showing up after me had to be turned away because of lack of food.

I ordered the omelette curry, the special of the day. It was excellent, which all the food they serve is. When I said I was also going to stop by our magic bar (which they visit frequently) they also gave me two more servings of curry to give to my magician colleagues and said: "Tell them to buy some cooked rice in the convenience store downstairs".

A drawing of ... me?

I went to a bar where one of my friends work. I was introduced to a young girl who used to work there but had just quit. She was there saying goodbye to all her previous colleagues. While she was waiting for her best friend to get off work so they could go somewhere and eat, she sat and talked to me. I did some magic tricks (more or less forced to do so by my friend the bartender) and later she was asked if she had a hobby or special skill of some kind that she could show.

She said that she likes to draw, and that she is good at drawing. I asked her to draw me or a caricature of me. The result is the drawing above... Someone else suggested that maybe she could draw something simpler, like the character Anpanman. Everyone can draw Anpanman. The resulting drawing was not that similar to Anpanman.

I asked if she had any other skills that she was "also" good at, and was told that I was being mean, haha.