Our man in Japan, Bill Hill, has somehow got himself caught up in this coronavirus business (just like the rest of us!). Here’s his column about what life is like during a global pandemic in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Unfortunately I’m not the late Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez back from the afterlife, but I AM in the land of the rising sun, and he’s not. Mind you, if you’ve ever tried to read his Nobel prize clinching novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in any lingo, you might be glad I do not share his literary talents.
I’ll at least try and make this piece vaguely readable, if not entertaining.
Japan’s large northern island, Hokkaido (literally North Sea Way/Circuit, or something of that ilk) has had the unenviable pleasure of hosting me for the second time in less than 6 months. I arrived at New Chitose airport on August 30 last year, that’s 2019, to study Japanese in the sizeable city of Sapporo (whose beer you might have heard of a few moons ago when it graced pubs and supermarkets alike in the UK) … On the subject of Japanese beer in the UK, the massive Asahi company seems to have taken over from them, and not subtly. Asahi lager’s everywhere, and I have a bone to pick with the company. A year or so ago they acquired the Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick, London, known for its London Pride (although between you and me, the meaty and highly-fruited ESB is far, far better. Pride’s rightful place is one of the pots I allude to in a few moments).. Fuller’s (Fuller, Smith & Turner) was one of the last, if not the last, family-owned brewers in London. When I heard of the sale, I winced, just like Jasper our late Tabby did when I helped my cousin’s wife remove his testicles one Boxing Day last century. To her credit, she was a vet, and sober, and had administered some kind of anaesthetic, but even so, hardly a Christmas treat for the unfortunate moggy. Then again, he had no advance warning. Actually, imagine knowing in advance you’re gonna have your crown jewels lopped off.. must be akin to knowing you’re gonna be hanged, or face the firing squad (in that vein, I recommend the Blackadder episode where he’s in that position.. “ready, aim, fire” ….. Google-searching ‘ready aim fire blackadder’ should give you a list of clips on YouTube)
06.52 Wednesday, 15 April 2020.. just boarded the Rapid Airport Train bound for Sapporo. So named because it goes to and from Shin Chitose Airport (CTS), rapidly. Fair smattering of passengers, 90% masked up. We’ll be in Sapporo at 07.19. Hang on! That’s longer than the usual 24 minute journey time. Am I confused?
Not unimpressive snow-clad mountains pass me in the distance on either side. I was skiing on one of them a month ago, if you can call it skiing. You try taking a 40 year break from the pistes.. a degree of rustiness had .. err.. set in. And getting those boots off afterwards! That was by far the worst part. For an interminable fifteen minutes, I felt like one of those idiots that go to A&E to get piss-pots and the like surgically removed from their heads.
After 10 minutes my carriage is full, a few people standing.
Quick check of the Corona stats worldwide. USA forging ahead, but UK doing its best to climb the rankings, now deep into the top 10, like a low-handicap golfer desperate to be off scratch. Have to say, it’s not looking good, this cv. Japan languishing down in 25th. This Asian country’s trajectory is however, upward, like most. Burgeoning pockets of cases prompted central government to declare its version of a state of emergency last week in a number of provinces (called “prefectures”, of which there are 47, some very big, some very small), with restrictions currently less tight than those imposed in Europe. Hey, they’re making an extra stop at Shiroishi.. hence the extra minutes… but I digress…
My island of Hokkaido, a “prefecture” in itself, or more specifically a “circuit”, whatever that means, has not been dictated to yet by Tokyo, but it is, as it did for 3 weeks in March, taking its own measures. These, I understand, include suspending school classes from yesterday. I was at an extra-curricular football practice session for 9 year old kids last night, and there were loads of them running around together.. so I’m not sure where the distancing measures start and end. Anyway, the Hokkaido governor in charge of the island is highly regarded, and trusted to take prudent decisions. That might be something to with being a spritely 35 year old who cuts a fairly dashing figure with the ladies. Barely out of nappies for a high profile public servant, he’s regarded as “hansamu” (you can work that one out, methinks. Japanese has a penchant for filching words from other languages, sometimes changing their pronunciation beyond all recognition, and giving them curiously different meanings. This one, however, remains relatively true to the original). I’ve never seen him without a mask, though, so he might have an awful-looking nose and mouth.
Well, 07.32 and I’m in a branch of Tully’s Coffee here in central Sapporo. They’re a chain, like any. In fact I’m using my Starbucks reusable tumbler (which gets me a 30 yen discount – tamburaa-nebiki …. tumbler discount -) .. which I bought last September while studying Japanese for 3 weeks before taking in a couple of the early Rugby World Cup matches in the same city. After that I bullet-trained it around the country seeing a lot more matches, including the England highs and lows in Yokohama at the end of October and start of November. Well, I came back late February this year for more Japanese lessons at the same school in Sapporo (Hokkaido JaLs .. very good, by the way).. which Corona restrictions put an immediate hold on for three weeks before unleashing me on 23 March. What did I do for that “down” time? I traipsed aimlessly around supermarkets, coffee shops, department stores.. and any place that randomly caught my eye, and I learnt and immediately forgot reems and reems of Japanese vocabulary. It’s what I do.
Tell you what though… this lingo has a certain impenetrability about it. Perhaps that’s the attraction. Masochism.
Originally due back early May, the uncertainty of flights and the Corona situation, particularly in the UK, prompted me to approach the regional immigration office recently regarding a possible extension to my stay. It bore fruit… my new deadline is late August. This is a welcome gesture of flexibility on the part of the Japanese authorities. Whether I’ll actually end up availing myself of this extra time is yet to be decided, but I am very grateful to have been afforded this buffer. I understand some other countries have made similar offers to visitors, including the UK.
Who knows where this dizzying bullet of a roller-coaster ride through this mesmerising language and culture will take me. But, I recommend to one and all a dip in this mysterious ocean.
Okay.. 09.18.. classes start 09.30 a few minutes walk from here. On entering the school reception-cum-lounge, I will have to don my face mask (yes, like Hokkaido’s dashing governor), have my temperature taken, which will invariably be about 35 degrees, meaning I’m some kind of zombie, and then take the lift to the 6th floor where I will sit down with my two classmates … a Canadian of Korean extraction, and a Frenchman. The Canadian looks and sounds Japanese, and the Frenchman seems to understand most of what’s going on. Then there’s me.
Sayonara.. for now
ps. Temperature was 36.0.. going up