Monday, July 05, 2010

Narrowly avoiding shaming myself again in Japan.

The last of a lot of things I wrote last Sunday in a Cafe.

A history of friction.

My trips to Japan, staying with the in-laws have not always gone terribly smoothly. I am allergic to their house and it brings on my asthma like nothing else I have encountered. Usually I only suffer if I play soccer on a really cold day or something but their house is my kryponite. It's quite old and Japan is incredibly humid. A friend bought a bamboo bag this summer and that evening (the day she bought it), the bag had a one-inch layer of fuzzy, fluffy fungus growing on part of it. Add to this the cat, dog, birds and other animals (which have never given me a problem elsewhere) and I get wheezy within minutes of entering the house. On every trip, after a few days I have had to struggle to the English speaking doctor who gives me a bag-full of drugs and inhalers which get me back to normal in about 2 weeks.

These near-death experiences do not make me a good house-guest and last time I was there, my lack of energy (and hence enthusiasm and politeness) caused some friction.

After coming back last time, my Irish doctor gave me a preventative inhaler which I suck on every day whether I feel like it or not. It's a remarkable thing. Whenever I get a cold now, I have pretty much no symptoms until I get a fever and feel like crap. No snots, coughs or wheezes.

So, for this trip to Japan I was prepared. And it worked. For the first few days, I did feel a tiny bit wheezy in their house, so I cut back my time in there and soon after I was better. After that I seemed to get a bit of immunity and was able to hang around without any problem. It probably also helped that we were there in the summer this time. As uncomfortable as summer there is, I much prefer stripping off to wrapping up (hope you weren't eating when that image hit you). I think no more winter-time trips to Japan from now one.

Disaster looms.

I was in Japan for 3.5 weeks (1 of them spent in Okinawa) and so far had been getting on perfectly well with everyone. On my last night, with Midori and the kids asleep early, I took a trip to the big second-hand book shop near the train station. It's part of a big chain called Book Off (I have lots of ideas for a competing brand - Book You, Book Me, Book That, What the Book?, Go Book Yourself With a Chainsaw etc.). I wanted to buy some teenage-level manga, many of which have the pronunciation alongside the Kanji and in fact I got one that I'm having good success in reading (it does appear to be some kind of teenage girl time-travel romance adventure but it's enjoyable enough so far even if I have to hit the dictionary for nearly every sentence).

I borrowed Midori's dad's bike and even though he always says "don't lock it, it's not worth stealing", I did, because I knew the combination and having the bike stolen would just be so embarrassing. What I didn't know was that Midori's mother's bike looks almost the same in the dark and has a different combination!

So an hour later, I'm outside Book Off realising what has happened. I phoned the house to find that they don't know the combination number, confirming my worst fear. My last day in Japan is going to involve getting Midori's mother out of bed and down to the station in the now pouring rain to unlock her bike. I'm to ring back in 2 minutes. I think perhaps her mother doesn't know the number anymore but does know what buttons to press and is going outside to press them on another bike and make a note of the numbers.

Screw you Japanese bicycle locks!

Japanese bicycle locks are for the most part laughable. Some have a key, some have a 10-digit pad and you press down the right 4 of them and push in the tab to open the lock. In both types you are just pushing a piece of metal through the spokes in the back wheel. You're not actually locking it to anything and the whole thing could be hack-sawed off or pried open in about a minute. I guess it just stops kids from jumping on your bike to get home from school quickly. Most of the bikes are of the "mama-chari" style, a Japanese abbreviation of "mamma chariot". I saw hundreds of bikes every day and I'd say maybe once per day I would see something like bike in Dublin. That is a mountain bike, hybrid or racer (road-bike). On the rare occasion I saw one, it seemed to have a bit of a beefier lock too but still nothing special.

Anyway, I was determined not to shame myself entirely after such a smooth trip and spent some time examining the lock to see if there was something simple I could do to open it. I remembered cracking a luggage combination lock years ago by just pulling on the lock and twisting each dial until it kind of stuck a bit. Then you know the dial is at the point where it's interacting differently with the... the whatever you call the bit of metal that you're pulling on.

Wow these locks are crappy.

So I tried variations on that without success. Finally I just tried pushing and pulling the tab and seeing which button reacted. I pushed that button and wiggled some more. After 4 buttons the tab pushed in and the lock opened! I couldn't believe it. Earlier, I had assumed that such a simple approach would not work and had tried other stuff. OMG these are really, really crappy locks. It took me 8 minutes to figure this out and now that I know how, I guess it would take me about 30 seconds to open another one.

So I phoned the house again and told Mr Inagaki the code. They had already found it by then and I don't think Mr Inagaki was really listening to me - after I finished talking he proceeded to tell me the code. I rode home in the cool rain with a little buzz of victory!

In the morning when I told my story over breakfast, only Mr Inagaki thought it was cool.

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