“It’s a present for you”

 Senzokuike

Since January I have been walking every day, spurred on by my faithful yet tyrannical FitBit. As well as opening my eyes to all the beauty I hadn’t realised was around me, I’ve also built up a repertoire of local walks. One of my favourites is a park about a mile from my home. Although the walk there and back is along a busy road, the walk around the park is beautiful and I go there often.

On the way to the park there is a tiny shop which sells small antiques and secondhand items; a lot of them are glass or ceramic and not so expensive. A few weeks ago I noticed a small square relief of Madonna and child. The shop wasn’t open every day, but the Madonna was in one of the glass cases outside the shop, so I kept taking a look at it and gradually decided to ask if I could take a look at it and ask how much it was.

Madonna:square

One day the shop was open and I asked the owner to show it to me. It was only ¥1,000 and I bought it.

Since that day the owner has always said hello when he sees me walking past. A few days ago I was walking past the shop again. He had opened one of the display cases and handed me an even smaller round Madonna and child.

Madonna:round

“This is Maria too,” he said. “It’s a present for you. I’m Buddhist.”

Friday again

Planet earth 2

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years already, but here we are again, March 11th. It’s a date to remember, to mark, but not a date that jolts like it did the first couple of years. Add in a leap year, and it’s fallen on a Friday, just as it did That Day. Five years on, most of Japan is back to normal, thank you very much. Really, western Japan wasn’t directly affected by it much anyway, and for us in Tokyo, the energy-saving and the empty shop shelves soon faded into memory.

But for the people of Tohoku, the people whose homes, villages, schools and places of work were wiped off the map, things are not back to normal. There is still an exclusion zone (which is smaller than it used to be) around Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant is still not secure, and there are still tens of thousands of people displaced, living in temporary housing in Tohoku or in other cities in Japan, in housing provided by local governments.

I remember that day clearly, and since today mirrored it in some ways, it was easy to feel its echo through the day. My morning was the same, five years ago and today; I spent it in school, working on end-of-year grades. I came home around 2pm and got ready for the reading group of Japanese ladies who come twice a month. They arrive at 2:30 and I make them tea, and so five years ago we were drinking tea and chatting before we started to read, when the quake started, a sort of medium-sized quake at first, the kind you notice and wonder if it’s going to get bigger or just fade away.

This one just kept getting bigger and bigger. I was standing for most of it, and felt the ground start to rock as the building swayed with the quake. Apparently this is a good thing, that the building has some give in it; otherwise it would just shatter as the tremors went through it. Even as I was standing there, feeling the ground rocking, I looked at a vase of freesias and watched them swaying around. One of the ladies picked up a cushion and put it on her head, some elementary-school training kicking in.

When the shaking and rocking finally stopped, one of the ladies turned on the TV and we watched the news coverage. My own very British reaction was to decide to make more tea. And so it was, about ten minutes later, I think, that we sat with fresh cups of tea and watched the tsunami rolling in and destroying everything in its path. I remember one of the anchors announcing that the tsunami was arriving at the coast, using the same language platform announcements use when a train is arriving and then watching with disbelief as the grey water just kept coming. It looked like an ordinary wave until you realised the scale of it, that those small objects being tossed by the water were cars and buses, that buildings were disappearing like matchboxes.

The aftershocks continued, and one was large enough to make us wonder if it was starting again. The TV coverage continued, with the anchors wearing hard hats and as each aftershock hit they encouraged people to take cover, to take care, as they hung onto their desks and tried to sound calm.

About half an hour later, my doorbell rang, and I assumed it was someone from school coming to check that I was all right. It wasn’t. It was the postman, delivering a package too big to fit in my mailbox. I expressed surprise that he was still out doing his job; he reassured me that he was outside and completely safe.

We didn’t read that afternoon. We watched the news, we drank tea and sat as witnesses to the horror unfolding in Tohoku. At some point I think we saw footage of Fukushima Daiichi and the beginning of what we now know was several meltdowns and partial meltdowns. The phone networks, both mobile and landlines, were mainly down, but trying repeatedly we managed to make a couple of calls to the ladies’ relatives at home.

At four o’clock they decided to try to get home. I asked them to come back if they couldn’t get anywhere. Of the five ladies, one walked home, one took a taxi to where she had parked her car (usually a fifteen-minute train ride away) and the other three went to the station. When they found the trains weren’t running they went to a large teaching hospital down the road and sat for hours watching the news and making occasional forays to the station to see if the trains were running yet (they weren’t) and to buy food at the convenience stores. At 11pm the hospital announced to the people who had taken shelter there that they couldn’t stay there any more and had to leave, something I still find quite shocking. Only at that point did they call me and ask if they could come back, as I had asked that they do seven hours previously.

I went outside and watched them walk back up the hill. They looked stressed and exhausted and when they came into my apartment they all sat in the middle of the floor. They were hollow-eyed and worn out after watching the news for hours on end. I remember telling them that instead of the usual tea in cups with saucers that I usually gave them, that I was making tea (more tea!) in mugs. They drank their tea and looked a little better.

To be honest, I was glad of the company that night, it was not a time to be alone. They slept on the sofa beds in the living room. In the morning we were all up early. The trains were running again and they were anxious to get home. After they left I went into school and found that about one hundred members of staff and students had spent the night stranded. Everyone was calm and the focus was on making sure the girls could get home safely.

The days and weeks that followed were strange; stressful yes, but people were kinder, seemed to interact more. As the news from the nuclear power station grew worse a lot of people left, some temporarily, some permanently. I remember being at Starbucks with a friend and hearing two Japanese women remarking on us as a rare sight after so many foreign residents had left.

We held a pared-down version of Graduation Day and then it was the spring vacation. I had planned to take it easy anyway, but I spent my days close to home, sending e-mails to friends and family reassuring them that Tokyo was all right, and firing off complaints to the BBC about their irresponsible and overwrought reporting. I never received any response.

For a while the energy-saving measures (brought on by the total shutdown of all Japan’s nuclear reactors) made Tokyo a dimly-lit place. A friend who had been out of the country at the time came back and said it looked like Blade Runner. We put one foot in front of the other and life in the capital was normal relatively quickly. For Tohoku, not so much. Five years later, I can still write so many sentences about the area using ‘not yet’ and ‘still’. I think the questions I heard most in the days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami were, ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Were you alone?’

For the people whose homes and lives were impacted that day, the answers are, ‘I was home, and can never really go back,’ and maybe, ‘I am now’.

Say it with Pocky

For a long time, KitKat has been marketing itself as a kind of lucky chocolate. February and March are the season for university entrance examinations in Japan and KitKat has used a play on words to imply that pairing your study time with its chocolate bars will bring certain success: kitto katsu, 屹度勝つ, you will undoubtedly win, or gain victory. You can see how this would appeal to an anxious high school senior, munching away on sustaining sugary snacks while they study for potentially the most important exams of their life.

In recent years there has been less pressure on high school students; with the declining birthrate there are fewer students, and the exam hell imprinted on the imaginations of people in the West is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what every high school student goes through. Universities need to fill their places and in the autumn there is a system of early admission which assures many students of a place. Of course, the ones who want to go to prestigious universities and other students who have not yet secured a place still face the exam hell of February and March.

In past years I have seen combination packs of KitKats and a matching mug for sale in convenience stores, but this year I haven’t seen any. KitKat has moved into other auspicious times of the year; the post office sells specially-packaged bars with the animal of the next year on the box and an ‘otoshidama’ (お年玉) envelope for New Year money attached to the back.

With such rich pickings to be had in the auspicious chocolate market, if only you can carve your own niche, it’s really a wonder that it has taken Glico this long to market its Pocky varieties as more than just ‘stick to fun’. Of course, there are the many seasonal and regional variations, but until now Glico hasn’t messed with the Pocky name itself. But this spring, Glico has introduced a range of ten different named boxes, all with an eye to the Valentine chocolate market and beyond.

I don’t know how long these special boxes will be available, and not all the boxes have the special names. To find the originally-named boxes you have to poke along the shelf and past the regular boxes. Your reward will be the boxes below. Beneath each special name is a short phrase clarifying the message. Not all Pocky varieties have these special boxes, it’s confined to five varieties; the original red-box Pocky, thin Pocky, almond crush Pocky, heart-shaped strawberry Pocky and ‘adult milk’ (?) Pocky.

And now, with a drum roll, please, I’ll present these ten wonders, in reverse order, according to their awesomeness, having set myself up as the Pocky Authority:

#10: Okaecy

Okaecy

This is my least favourite. ‘Okaeshi’ (お返し) means a return gift, something you give to someone  after they have given you a gift. Under the name it says ‘おかえしです’, which simply means, ‘this is a return gift’.

#9: Lovecky

Lovecky

Going over-the-top with the heart-shaped, seasonal, specially-named strawberry-with-bits-in variety here, I’m putting Lovecky at #9, in large part because I’m not sure how Glico wants us to pronounce it. Under the name it says, ‘ai shitemasu’ (愛してます), or, I love you.

#8: Mamacky and Papacky

Mamacky           Papacky

In joint 8th place I’m putting the Mamacky and Papacky pair. I suppose these are aimed at the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day markets, but they’re some of the most difficult to find. Under Mamacky it says, ‘Mama, arigatou’ (ママ、ありがとう) or, thank you, Mum. Under Papacky it says (predictably), ‘Papa, arigatou’ (パパありがとう) or, thank you, Dad.

#6: Tomocky

Tomocky

Here is the pair to Lovecky, Tomocky. ‘Tomodachi’ (友達) is the Japanese word for ‘friend’ and under the name it says ‘kore kara mo, tomodachi’ (これからもともだち), from now on too, friends, or I suppose, let’s always be friends. I can see this one being quite a hit with high school girls.

#5: Thanky

Thanky

The first of the thin Pocky pair, Thanky. Under the name it says, ‘itsumo sankyuu desu’ (いつもサンキューです) or, thank you always. Probably one of the more popular ones, it would be nice to have this one available permanently, but I suspect it won’t happen.

#4: Yorocky

Yorocky

Here comes Thanky’s twin, Yorocky. Under the name is the phrase, ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ (よろしくお願いします), one of the great untranslatables. My dictionary app offers the following; please remember me, please help me, please treat me well, I look forward to working with you. It’s a way of appealing to someone for their patronage, really, and while that might sound odd in English, it’s amazing how often there are opportunities to use it. Another that might be good to have around.

#3: Ganbacky

Ganbacky

Just as ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’ is a phrase for daily life, so is the wording on this box; ganbatte kudasai’ (がんばってください), or, please do your best or hang in there. You can use it to exhort someone in any endeavour. There’s also a version you can use to assure those around you of your intention to do your best; ganbarimasu, or 頑張ります. British fans of Takeshi’s Castle, an old Japanese series on repeat somewhere in the ether, will be familiar with this declaration, made by contestants before they attempt a challenge. Another Pocky there would probably be a permanent market for.

#2: Sukky

Sukky

Here is the runner-up, the fantastically-named Sukky. The message on the box is ‘anata ga suki desu’, あなたが好きです, or, I like you. A clear candidate for Valentine’s Day and maybe next month’s White Day. Clearly the genius here is in the name, which Glico must have thought looked cool but of course looks just plain wrong. I have bought a number of these to take back to the UK as gifts. Excellent.

And in 1st place . . . another drumroll please . . .

#1: Giricky

Giricky

Pipping Sukky, it’s original Pocky twin, to the post, ladies and gentlemen I give you Giricky. Disappointed? Maybe you don’t speak Japanese or don’t know about the particular traditions of Valentine’s Day in Japan.

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is the day that girls and women give chocolate to men; men reciprocate (if they want to!) a month later, on March 14th, White Day. Valentine chocolate can be divided into two categories. The first is honmei choco, or genuine feeling chocolate. This is traditionally homemade chocolate or cakes and cookies and is given to a boyfriend or father. The other category is giri choco, or obligation chocolate, and is given in massive quantities in workplaces. I read recently that the average amount spent on each ‘obligation chocolate’ gift is ¥500 to ¥1,000. Clearly, it can be an expensive day.

But now, Japanese women and girls have this genius option: Giricky. The message on the box is ‘giri choko desu’, 義理チョコです, or, THIS IS OBLIGATION CHOCOLATE.

I have no words for how much I love this. Every year I see women buying huge amounts of chocolate, spending all that money, and then at work I see my male colleagues looking increasingly pleased with themselves through the day as they fill a carrier bag with all the chocolate they receive, puffed up on the smugness of (apparently) being popular.

I am hoping that this year a lot of women have decided against spending that ¥500 to ¥1,000 and have instead nipped down to their nearest convenience store, spent ¥130 and bought up a good supply of these boxes. I am imagining men across Japan going to work tomorrow, happily anticipating a haul of chocolate and instead receiving boxes of (admittedly yummy) Pocky emblazoned with the message: THIS IS OBLIGATION CHOCOLATE.

Be under no illusions, men of Japan. This is OBLIGATION chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day.