Category Archives: Blog

Regular posts as you know them

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

It took a child’s book to make me laugh out loud while reading, the last book that evoked a similar response was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. (The scene in church still makes me laugh every time I picture it!).

I never watched Matilda the movie as a child, it is just one of those things that passed me by. But it was definitely worth the wait reading this book as an adult.

Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda by Roald Dahl

The book is funny from the first page. It starts by describing those parents who think that their children are just geniuses and pay too much attention to them. However, Matilda’s parents do not seem to realize she exists. From a young age, she learns to take care of herself, and by age three teaches herself to read. When she finishes reading everything in the house, which is not much, she walks to the library and starts tackling the books there. Whenever her parents ever pay attention to her, it is only to unfairly scold her so she hatches her own clever plans to get back at them. Her father’s is a crooked car salesman and her mother is addicted to gambling. Her elder brother goes to school so Matilda is left alone at home on most days, until one day the parents realize she is about 6 and a half years old and should have been going to school already.

At school, the headmistress is a mean old hag but Matilda forms friendships with some of the girls in her class and finds comfort in her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey. With the cast of characters fully introduced, Roald Dahl then weaves a wonderful story of Matilda’s adventures that is full of suspense and humour. If you haven’t read it, please do yourself a favour and read it, whatever age you are. And then gift the book to the children in your life, your sons/daughters, nephews/nieces, friend’s children, grandchildren etc.. It is suitable from anyone 8-15 I guess, but anyone can read it.

I must add that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are simply wonderful, clever, just so appropriate and add to the humour and flow of the story.

I also looked up the movie and watched it, it was good, but of course the book is much better. There are just some things written in the book that could not be expressed in the movie, so you may still want to read the book even if you have watched the movie.

Book Review: Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson
Without Mercy by Lisa Jackson

I am one of those people who does whatever it takes to finish a book one has started. That is not to say I struggled with this book, I didn’t. The author clearly is a master at writing a flowing story line, even if the plot had a few gaping holes and the entire ensemble and its premise were as interesting as watching grass grow.

It starts well. Jules Farentino’s half sister, Shay, is a troubled teenager. When she commits some crime or other with her boyfriend, she ends up getting arrested and presented with the option of detention or a (correctional) boarding school that is fancy and up in the mountains. However, something is up with Blue Rock Academy and Jules has a bad feeling about it. A student disappeared and has not been found, 6 months later. So Jules applies to be a teacher in the school so she can watch out for Shay.

At the school, Jules starts to discover there is something weird going on in the school. Religious fanaticism? There is an allusion to a sex-crazed religious man prowling the campus in the shadows of the night. Could he be one of the teachers? Jules also gets surprised to meet her ex at the same school, he too is working undercover to try and find the lost girl. Jules reminds me of Sarah, a similarly lackluster main character in the book Broken by Karin Slaughter.

And then a snow storm arrives in the mountains, shutting out the school from outside communication for a while. This is when all the characters come out to play in a final showdown, with a surprising twist in the end that is as believable as the plot about religious fanatics. There are just too many things that don’t make sense, even if the book is an easy read so you end up flipping pages and can finish reading it quickly.

Only later when I finally looked up online did I find that the author has done over 50 novels, and is quite famous. How she ended up on New York’s Best Seller List is a reason you won’t find in this book. She is like Danielle Steele writing one of the weaker plotted novels but tries to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of each scene in the character’s lives (crying because the toast did or didn’t burn, for example) in order to fill the pages, send it to the publishers and it will sell anyway because of the name. Stephen King could publish his groceries list and it would still sell, but I like Stephen King because he puts effort into all his books, none has been a disappointment so far.

If you want to kill yourself with boredom, go for this book. Yawn. It was my companion during my local train ride that has me staring at rice fields and small town houses. This is when I wasn’t keeping my face down trying not to catch the gaze of the old Japanese people stealing glances at the strange black girl with purple hair wondering what I was doing in their sleepy little corner of Japan. The train ride is only 30 minutes long but it makes 15 stops. It feels like you’ve been riding it for 12 hours when you finally get out.

But not to worry guys, the next two books I am going to review will show once again that reading is an immensely enjoyable hobby. They are Matilda by Roald Dahl and The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani.

Grammar Quiz For Father’s Day

Father’s Day falls on the third Sunday of June, at least in the USA. Since I care about fathers, and I care about grammar, here is a quiz to help you celebrate the day! Those readers whose score falls below the passmark of 60% may be barred from reading this blog in the future so be very careful with your answers. Okay, I am just kidding. Get on with it then, and have a happy Father’s Day!

This quiz was developed by the folks over at

How is Japan?

I have been asked this question about 100 times; and the brief answer is Japan is good. But that is a lie, Japan is not good. Japan is excellent. Japan is great. Japan is amazing. It is very different from home (Kenya), but it is also not home. I am about to contradict myself and say, it is home for now. So how different is it from Kenya?

This post is likely to be long.. so sit back and relax. (If you want you can skip to the title “Japanese people are kind” for personal experiences and observation, otherwise start straight below)

Japan is very clean. Walking through an average estate in Nairobi, you will note garbage dumped in vacant plots, plastic bags swaying in the wind and finally settling in the drainage by the roadside, and dust blowing into your face from the unpaved pedestrian pavement (where it exists) or from the unpaved road. Well, Nairobi CBD (downtown) is clean, especially West of Moi Avenue, the streets are cooler, it is quieter etc. But there is a waste management problem in the inner estates, and in the country as a whole. In Japan, garbage is sorted down to the last category, and there are different collection days for different types of garbage. In Kenya we include our plastic, used diapers, glass, metal and everything else into one garbage bag that is then picked up once a week. Street children then spend their time sorting out this mound of garbage for recyclables that they can resell. Not unlike India.

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtsey]
Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtesy]
From the remotest of villages to the largest of the cities, the roads are paved, the streets are clean and garbage is presorted. “The dirtiest” city I have seen so far is Osaka, my friend and I were surprised at some litter under bridges, so by Japanese standards it is dirty. But don’t say it is a third world problem, just look at Rwanda! I stayed there for 3 months and I dare say Rwanda is as clean as Japan; no Japan is as clean as Rwanda! Rwanda has banned plastic bags and so far that works for them. In addition one Saturday a month, everyone gathers for communal clean-up.

Japan has even managed to turn garbage into artificial islands on which Skyscrapers have been erected. Like Port Island in Kobe City, see image below.

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtsey
Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtesy

Japan is very safe

There is virtually no street crime. When you live in a small city (or in a rural area like me), you don’t have to lock your house. Even in the large cities, it is not a problem if you forget to lock your house in the morning. You can forget your phone and wallet  somewhere and find it there the next time, or someone will call you and get them to you. As a woman, you can walk along the streets at night, alone, without fear of robbery or rape. You can use your smartphone in a crowded street without fear of it being snatched, you don’t have to worry about your bag in the streets or in public transport, your wallet is very unlikely to be pickpocketed (I resist the urge to tell Japanese people to tuck in their wallets more safely into their pockets, the men’s wallets are always popping out of their back pockets!), when you drive home late in the evening, you don’t have to worry about carjackers, when you have bought a 60-inch screen you don’t have to worry if someone saw you with it and they are planning a gunned robbery.. and so on and so forth.

In contrast, just the other day as my dad arrived home late one evening, there were armed robbers who ambushed him, took his laptop and phone; and as my mum had opened the door to let him in when she heard the car, they forced their way into the house and demanded money at gun-point. I was so furious yet helpless, thousands of miles away and even if I were home, I am not sure what I would have done. When I left work for home in the evening, I would walk from Upperhill to Ambassador, Moi Avenue, to catch a bus home. I wouldn’t dare freely use my Samsung Note 3  while walking in the streets as I have had my phone snatched before. At the bus stop, there would be a large crowd of people gathered and not all of them are passengers-to-be, some are opportunistic thieves waiting for a chance to pickpocket you. You have to be always on the lookout.

As such, whenever a Japanese person says “abunai desu ka” or “abunai desu ne”.. “is it dangerous” “it must be dangerous”, I just say “soo desu ne” “yes it is”. What other defense is there? I do not have sufficient Japanese vocabulary to explain that when you are born Kenyan, you grow up under these circumstances so this is “normal” to you; the need to be always alert. A violent robbery (thank God no lives were lost), a snatched phone (you will get another one soon), a lost wallet (IDs are replaceable don’t worry), you forget something somewhere and that’s the end of that. I was talking to a Japanese student and told him he was welcome to visit Kenya and he visibly shuddered. abunai he uttered. I tried to explain to him that the whole country is not like that, there are safe places and there are un-safe places. But really, even when you live in a gated community with electric fencing and a trained guard with dogs, there is always the fear of carjacking etc. Kenya is not thaat dangerous, especially if it is home. And anyway, death could find you wherever you are (natural disasters anyone?), so really do take some risks (you risk death just by being alive)and come see Kenya for yourself, it is a lovely place to visit. If you are a foreigner reading this, you are missing an experience of a lifetime, I speak from experience.

Americans think the world revolves around them :)
Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Japan’s Home to the The Bullet Trains

Japan’s public transportation system has got to be among the best in the world. Sure, rush hour in Tokyo’s metro can feel suffocating (so I hear) but trains are an efficient way to move human traffic in cities. Sure beats Nairobi’s rush hour (and all day) traffic as well. When I went to Tokyo, the subway was amazing, going up to 7 levels below the ground, a different line on each level. Anyway, for comparison I have posted this before, but check it out again:


The Nairobi Commuter Train Route.
The Nairobi Commuter Train Route. Image from

Tokyo: and this is not even the complete map.

The Tokyo Train Map.
The Tokyo Train Map. Image from

Of course we can’t compare Tokyo’s 13.35 Million population against Nairobi’s 3.123 Million, but bypasses, abolishing roundabouts, smart traffic lights etc will not solve our perennial traffic congestion problem. We need trains, subways, monorails.

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this?
A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this? Image from wikipedia

Japan is very mountainous

Kenya has a vast savanna grassland, think of the entire stretch of Tsavo as you drive from Nairobi to Mombasa. And for the life of me, I cannot think of a single tunnel passing through a mountain, can you? Travelling by bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, or from Kanazawa to Osaka, you realize just how mountainous this country is when you go through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel after tunnel! Japan holds the record for the longest railway tunnel in the world that is 53,850 m (over 53 Kms!) long. Perhaps this mountainous terrain contributed to Japan’s advancement in engineering, conquering the mountains could not have been easy!

Well, this is a very short tunnel but you get the point!

Short tunnel
Short tunnel

Japan is a beautiful country, it’s breathtaking sometimes. With four distinct seasons (a beautiful spring, hot summer -though not as hot as India! – an auburn autumn and a white winter). I could describe it all it you but it will take the fun out for the imaginative as well as for the wanna-be explorers.

Japan is very proud of its culture and gardens! It has a rich history whose remains in form of old temples, castles, and shrines still stand today.

Japanese people are kind.

Case scenario: my friend told me he spent some time in India. If you are a black person in India, you are treated like you are in the lowest caste, a system of discrimination that still stands to date. I guess India has so many other problems that they don’t want to deal with this at the moment but as anyone (black) who has been to India will tell you, rude stares, snide remarks, and standing up when you sit next to them in public transport are the order of the day. Worse is, my friend even got the discriminating treatment from staff in the hotel he was staying in. Worst, is the news of a violent attack on 3 black African students in India.

In contrast, he told me a story of how he got stranded at Kanazawa Station, being new in Japan and not knowing the bus/train schedules. When he arrived the last bus was long gone. A Japanese couple noticed him and offered him a ride to Nomi Station, from where we take the train to JAIST (university). The last train was gone too, and even as he got off and looked around, the couple came back and asked him where he was going. He didn’t understand Japanese so he just showed them his school ID and they went  30 Kms out of their way to drop him off in JAIST way after 11pm. He has never seen the couple since then.  I have heard various stories from foreigners in Japan who tell of the acts of kindness they have received from Japanese people.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.
Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

No, I am not saying that Japanese people are perfect, or that Japan is perfect, but you are likely to receive help from kind strangers in Japan than in any other country I have ever heard of or experienced. In other words I think that the concentration of kind people is higher in Japan. Perhaps because they are brought up in a culture that emphasizes the importance of courtesy and respect.

Obama showing respect the Japanese way
Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Will you experience discrimination, disguised under politeness so excessive you can’t even tell if it is discrimination or an actual lack of understanding? Maybe. But is there a perfect country? In any case, I have experienced discriminatory service at Java Upperhill where white people who came later than us were served immediately while we waited for an interminable length of time. Imagine that, in my own country. Makes my blood boil. Fucking black racists. As if our money has a black mark that lowers its value or as if our credit cards aren’t platinum enough. takes deep breath, releases deep breath. Let’s move on.

Excellent service

At first it can be shocking to enter a restaurant and hear a chorus of irashaimase! (Welcome). You will also be addressed a with honorific title, okyaku-sama (honoured customer).  When you exit the shop/restaurant, it is likely that all the staff will signal to one other and you could hear another chorus of arigatou gozaimasu. The customer is king and Japanese people lead by example in demonstrating this. Excellent service is available everywhere, even at the cheapest of places. In contrast, good service in Kenya is mostly available in star-rated restaurants. Imagine walking into a shop like Mr. Price and expecting all staff to welcome you, it is more likely that you will get a look that says, oh God here comes another one. And in Japan you don’t tip. Your change comes back to you to the last yen. (The tipping culture in the US began when there was a law passed that allowed tips to make up the difference between actual pay and minimum wage). As such, tipping is agonizing for Japanese people whenever they travel to the US.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what's on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.
Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what’s on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

You could say Japanese people are punctual, they keep time to the last possible second. You have to leave your “African timing” mindset the moment you set foot on the plane. Even for social functions you can’t be late, you call to apologize if you are going to be 5 minutes late, not like in Kenya where friends will call you 30 minutes later to tell you they are stuck in traffic.

Japanese people don’t take risks. 

Herein lies their Archilles’ heel, if you ask me. For example if I go into a phone shop to ask for a SIM card, and this is the first time a foreigner is walking in to buy a SIM card, the attendant will ask their supervisor what to do. If the supervisor has no experience with foreigners, he will refer to the manual, they have a manual for every little procedure you can think of! If there is nothing in the manual, he may call his boss who will then check his manual, if this boss finds nothing he will call his boss.. and so on and so forth. Sometimes I joke that in the end they call the prime minister just to avoid risks by making any new decisions. Or ANY decisions. Japanese workers DO NOT make any decisions, they just do what they are told or what the manual says they should do. Decision making is only left to those whose role explicitly states “decision maker” but I bet even they too have a manual. So it’s like they don’t think for themselves, a robot nation  that worked well for when Japan was rising and rising and it needed workers for its massive corporations. But the tide is slowly turning and an innovative and changing society is how nations can cope with the current economic situation.

Japanese people don’t know how to loosen up, to let go, to have fun. Oh sure, they have izakayas (bars that are like boring locals) but it is not fun to just sit and drink, you need to get up and dance Japanese people. And I don’t mean the graceful sashaying of geishas that can put the most restless child to sleep; no, like shake your bodies mugiithi-style, or Jacob-Zuma style. Shake that booty, shake that belly, shake those shoulders, shake it, shake it. Shake your problems away. You can find nightclubs in the big cities but they clubs are fewer, perhaps located in “shaky/scary” neighbourhoods, so dance clubs are not a big a culture. By contrast in Kenya, there is dancing every pub/club, even some locals. When the alcohol in your blood reaches certain levels, your body catches the tune of the music and you move your body to the real or imagined tune. You don’t even have to be drunk to dance, look at our weddings, and funerals, and other celebrations, even Sunday mass/church services – I guess the holy spirit is at work here?

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the ceremony of his nth wife
Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the wedding ceremony of his nth wife. I am sure I will never see a public figure dancing, in public, in Japan.

No one knows how to have fun like Africans do. Perhaps South Americans come close.. but in spite of our problems and our bottom-of-the-economic-pile status, we don’t let that get to us. In contrast Japanese people may not want to talk about their problems, don’t have a way to let loose or perhaps “pray to God” which is what we do a lot, “we leave that to God”. They will walk with the weight of their problems into Mount Fuji’s suicide forest, never to be seen alive again.

If a Japanese person loses honour, it is a big shame not only to you but to your family as well. Some Japanese politicians have in the past committed suicide after being named in corruption scandals. A worthy politician in Kenya has several scandals under his “experience” belt. Kenyan (African) politicians simply have no capacity for embarrassment or shame. In my mother tongue I would say, mbabwati egesokero.

Japanese People are conservative. They don’t question authority. I have never seen a march/protest of any kind, perhaps there is nothing to protest about? I have never heard of a union of workers. Most of the Japanese people I know in formal employment work long hours. In spite of its technological advancement, I think that socially/culturally there is no room for even a little personal freedom.

There are no babies out of wedlock. Such a thing is unheard of. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she has to have an abortion (or get married), abortion is legal for many reasons including economic ones. See, a society that is liberal enough to allow for abortion should also be liberal enough to accept babies born to unwed parents, no? Single parenthood is virtually unheard of.

Which brings me to the family situation. An interesting fact is usually, the man’s salary will go into the wife’s account; normally a woman will stop working once she gets married to take care of the family. Therefore it is the woman who manages the money for bills, school fees, rent, and the husband’s expenditure, she determines who gets how much. They say this is the reason that Japan’s literacy rate is close to 100%, women are better fund managers and no mother is going to waste money on drinking with the mboys (Kenyans you feel me?) while school fees has not been paid.

There are no house helps/servants/domestic workers/maids/housekeepers, whatever you may call them; I have never seen a Japanese family worker. Even if you wanted to hire one, it would be too costly, you would rather stay home and pay yourself that money to take care of our own children. There are daycare centers for women who want to work, of course. But I get the feeling that this society expects you to quit your job and raise the kids (after all, if your husband is in formal employment i.e. salary man), he should make enough for the family. US families can afford cheap housekeepers from Latin America (that is what US dramas show) because US is somewhat immigration friendly. Now don’t look at me like that, see US has an immigration policy in the first place. I am not sure that Japan has such a policy that states how it can fill gaps in its employment with foreigners. And the gaps are there, what with the world’s oldest population and general population decrease.

Japan has no immigration policy

I think Japanese people adopt a “tolerant” attitudes towards foreigners, like “aww look at that baby” attitude “when will he grow up”. I get the feeling that they don’t expect you to stay long in Japan, to become “one of them”. You can be born in Japan, grow up here, receive your education in Japanese, adopt Japanese manners, be Japanese in everything except looks, but you will never be accepted as fully Japanese. In contrast, someone born in say, the US, can easily blend in and identify themselves as American. Or British. Or French. Just to show an example. Sure no one is going to force you out! You can stay as long as you like! But there is no plan to open up Japan to immigration, so really there is “no space” for you. Here is an article to illustrate my point: Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever. In short, you are welcome to Japan, but please you can’t stay forever. You can never become Japanese. Oh you can get citizenship and permanent residency but never the intangible “I am Japanese” feeling, how can you, when no Japanese would ever identify you as one of them..

This should not be mistaken for discrimination or unfriendliness; no as above stated Japanese people are generally kind and friendly and tolerant to foreigners (who are coming for a short stay). I am Kenyan in culture, race etc so no, I do not want to become Japanese. However, I worry about my son. He is just 2 years old and I will soon be bringing him to Japan. We will stay here for at least 3 years for the duration of my PhD. If I do stay longer, what kind of life will he have in a “no immigration” “homogeneous” “Japanese is one-race” place? If he were to grow up here, he will speak Japanese as his main language, have Japanese friends, absorb Japanese mannerisms and culture; but he will never be Japanese. Anyway what I am saying is, I am a citizen of the world and I will stay where there is a good opportunity to make a change etc, but my main consideration is bringing up a happy and successful child.

What Else?

Over 3,000 words! Pat yourself on the back for reaching here. There could be more but I will write that as time goes by, for instance the bureaucracy, the multiple form-filling for any simple service, ATMs that don’t operate 24-hours, the complicated process of renting a private apartment, the manga culture,  etc. I suppose this makes Japan as safe as it is now so there are trade-offs.

Apologies if I sounded whiny or critical of this wonderful nation and its distinctive people, I do love it here! Opinions here are my own and I could be wrong. I have only been here for about 9 months so I am no expert.

Next time someone asks me “How is Japan” I will just send them a link to this blog post. I doubt they will ever repeat that question to me, ever!

Thanks for reading.

Hellooo.. 27! Taking Stock

It is my 27th Birthday, if Facebook, Skype or some other app has not informed you already. I like the sound of 27, it is far enough from 30 for me to causally say I am in my 20s (I will still say this when I am 29.x years!). Although I worry about becoming old (70 and beyond really scares me), I realize I am still far away from that and I need to live in the moment. I am going to do one of those “taking stock posts” so bear with me!

27 years old
This is the dilemma I am dealing with!

Making: Research plans for the next 3 years, a PhD doesn’t come easy. In spite of how impressive that might sound, it is more like I am in a long, dark tunnel of research papers and there is still no end to the said tunnel, no light in the distance. It has been 3 weeks at JAIST, I love it here.

I am also making plans to bring J over by the time the October (autumn) semester starts. So far, the nearby pre-school has accepted the application :)

Cooking: random recipes I google from the internet. They require some spices and ingredients I am never sure where to buy from especially when everything is in Japanese. Sometimes it turns out great, sometimes it is hardly edible. I live to learn.
Drinking: Kenyan masala tea. Ahhh..
Reading: Research papers. Random articles on various topics saved on the Pocket app. A new novel I got from a friend.
Wanting: September to come quickly, I am ready to book my ticket home for a holiday and to come back with J! Also, the Samsung S6 could come in handy. A birthday present, anyone?
Looking: at the mountains behind my apartment every morning as the sun comes up, I live up in the mountains in the university student housing. The university itself is up in the mountains. In the evening, I see Kanazawa City twinkling below me from the front veranda. There couldn’t be  a more ideal location. Just type JAIST into Google maps and use street view to see a piece of my world :)
Playing: nothing. No physical, no computer games. I have become a boring person.
Wasting: time watching series online instead of carrying out a series of “projects” I had set out for myself this year.
Wishing: for the time-space continuum to be conquered so I can teleport instantly to my family in Nairobi.
Enjoying: driving around in a friend’s Mercedes Benz (friends let their friends drive their expensive cars)
Waiting: for this Saturday to arrive so I can go see the snow wall in Tateyama with my friends.

Snow Wall at Tateyama
Snow Wall at Tateyama

Liking: that the weather is getting warmer and warmer. On some days, the temperature rises up to 23deg and I can pretend I am in Nairobi. Nairobi just has the perfect weather.
Wondering: if life would be much simpler if the people we liked also liked us back with the exact same intensity, of course the reverse is also true
Loving: that I am getting used to life in Japan so much, and loving it here. Especially the JAIST environment, a high tech research center in the middle of nowhere. Like it could be in a sci-fi movie. Of course the disadvantage is that there is nothing around, transport is not so convenient and the only convenience store closes at 9 or is it 10pm!

JAIST in the mountains
JAIST in the mountains

Hoping: to get a car very soon, I am starting to feel as if I am taking advantage of my friends! A girl needs her own wheels especially if I will be bringing J here.

Marveling: at my son who is now speaking, and singing. His second birthday was just under a month ago.

Needing: a car very soon, oh I already said that. Okay, needing the Golden Week (a week long series of holidays here in Japan) to quickly arrive so I can take off to see Kobe with friends.
Smelling: Fresh mountain air, every morning, and practically every day I am outdoors at JAIST.
Wearing: shorts with more confidence :)

Spring in Kenrokuen Garden
Spring in Kenrokuen Garden

Following: my self-imposed schedule has proved impossible. I have 2 hours scheduled for exercise each day and I haven’t done any in the last two weeks.
Noticing: just how everything has become green .. Spring is truly a time of rejuvenation.
Knowing: and accepting my limits
Thinking: about my family and wishing my little brother all the best as he embarks on the road to becoming a certified doctor. He just started his internship year.
Feeling: happy. Sleeping well lately. In spite of the lack of exercise.
Bookmarking: How to dye your hair wiki page. I learned that to get the best results for vibrant colours, you first need to bleach black hair. That is why I am currently sporting a bleached blonde look. Purple coming soon. Wait, I could be going through some late quarter-life crisis or something. But as long as I am a career student, I still have some freedom to express myself :)
Opening: 10 to 15 tabs on my browser and watching as my laptop gets the blue screen of death after Chrome has “eaten” all the 4GB RAM.

Google Chrom Vs RAM
Google Chrom Vs RAM

Giggling: whenever I watch/read Cyanide and Happiness comics. I don’t get always get the dark humour but when I do.. some are downright hilarious.
Feeling: grateful to be alive, in a world full of suffering notwithstanding. Happy birthday to me!


Four Women, Four Books: The Book Review Post

It has been four books since I wrote the last book review on this blog. Coincidentally the four books I read were all by women: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Jazz by Toni Morrison, An Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid and The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. By combining all four reviews into one, I am admitting my laziness; but by writing the reviews at all I hope I am doing justice to fellow book readers searching for their next read. It is quite random how I pick what I read, why do you read the books you do?

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died, everyone was re-posting her famous quotes on every social network site you have ever heard of, yet if you had asked anyone to name any one of her books you would have been met with a blank stare or a blinking cursor on a pure white background, as it were. I quickly added “read Maya Angelou” to my hastily put together 30 Things to do Before 30 List. In December last year, I was in Tokyo at a bookshop in near Shinjuku Station that probably has the largest collection of English books in Japan. I browsed through many titles in many genres before I found Maya Angelou’s books and picked up this particular one because another friend was also reading it at the same time and I couldn’t borrow his book then.

Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The book is Maya’s childhood biography, I have since learned that she has 6 other biographies! She was brought up by her deeply religious grandmother in the South, and through it you get a glimpse of what life was for many black people in America then. Circumstances radically change in her lifetime duration; consider for instance her reading a poem on the inauguration of the first ever black American president. There is not much I can tell you about her life that you don’t already know; the suffering, the overcoming, her writing and activism career. But to read her story in her own words is to be offered a glimpse into her mind, to be let into her heart. I love it when famous people are also writers and therefore write their own stories in their own words and style. Her storytelling is captivating, her imagery brilliantly clear. She may be more famous for her poetry, but her writing is worth searching for the remaining 6 biographies to add some volumes to my fairly empty bookshelf. This book covers the ages of 3 to 16, when she becomes a teenage mother. What happens after that? I want to know too. But if you ask my why the caged bird sings, I have to reread this book again.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz is a portrait of New York in 1926. Jazz is the story of one woman who falls through the cracks of time and space, stubborn, determined Violet. Her husband Joe Trace had an affair with a young woman; Joe later kills her because he is jealous  and at her funeral Violet tries to disfigure the corpse’s face. But the story is so much more than the small but significant funeral incident, the background story of all the characters is provided to show how they eventually all end up in New York. The music to their story is naturally, jazz. Harlem in 1926 embodied freedom for workers coming from the South. The book is not an easy read, I must warn you but it is worth it. Long after I finished reading this book, I still remember Violet and Joe Trace, Dorcas who stood with toes pointed inwards and a not-so-smooth face, Golden Gray a boy with golden curls who believed he was white but grows up to the realization of his black father. It is a book about race, history, life in Harlem in the 1920s, and the undertones of jazz, which I get sometimes.

Toni Morrison's Jazz
Toni Morrison’s Jazz

I got this book from a classmate in my former Japanese class; she said it is her favorite Toni Morrison book. I exchanged with her the Maya Angelou Book for this one and it was a worthy read, thank you Chrissi!

An Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

This book is also borrowed from a friend! My bookshelf now has about 5 novels, 3 of which are borrowed! I seem to have read Jamaica Kincaid before, but I can’t remember if I read a short story or a novel (whose title I cannot recall).

An autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
An autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

There is a melancholic tone underlying this book, a longing for a mother who died on the day the author of the book was born. Xuela is a deeply troubled young woman, and as one of the reviewers on google books said, “this book is emotionally exhausting”. I don’t think she ever experiences any happiness in her entire book, but it offers a rich insight into life in the Dominican Island. Kincaid has a beautiful style of writing, it is poetry weaved into prose and yet simple and flowing. You can easily read the book in a day or two. Xuela spends her life self-sabotaging potential happy moments, her life is high sensual and she emerges herself in it, she feels little but she hurts deeply, she is a solitary character who never lets anyone know what she is thinking. Her character is haunting.

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

What can I say about this book? I got it from a local bookshop and Yoko is the first Japanese author I am reading. At first I thought it was a novel with the three stories introduced on the back cover (The Diving Pool, Pregnancy Diary and The Dormitory) intersecting at some point, but it turned out to be 3 short stories sold together as one book.

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa
The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

In the Diving Pool, a lonely teenager is secretly in love with her adopted brother, who is a diver. She is growing up in an orphanage that her parents run, but she feels ignored by her parents because she is treated just like the rest of the kids. In the Pregnancy Diary, a young woman living with her sister keeps a diary of her sister’s pregnancy. She may appear loving on the outside but her true nature is revealed in her diary, just like the underlying cruel streak of the teenager in the first story is revealed in her interactions with the younger orphans. In the Dormitory story, a woman helps her younger cousin settle into her former dormitory, but the place is haunted by a disappearance of a student who lived there, a crippled caretaker and an unexplained decay.

The stories don’t dwell in the “normal” world, they push at the boundary of realism and yet they are not unbelievable. My favorite was The Dormitory, it is beautifully written (or should I say beautifully translated), the story never quite ends but just like in real life there are many unsolved mysteries. The Pregnancy Diary is also a good read, but the Diving Pool is downright weird, perhaps it is a better read in the original language. I hope I can master enough Japanese to read the book in the next 3 years.

Well, there you have it. Four diverse reads from four different women.

Getting a Japanese Driving License

My friend Umer, who is Pakistani, was pessimistic.

“Why don’t you just wait until I get a car and then you can practice at night when there is no one on the roads? You are going to fail. Everybody fails, let me tell you. You cannot pass the driving test. The rules are so hard, I met some girls who had failed so many times at the driving test center. Inshallah God willing I will get  car next week and you can start practicing.  ”

Well I would still be waiting because Umer still hasn’t got the car! But he was quite supportive, if pessimistic. He already passed his test exam and got his Japanese driving license (for foreigners) – the 国際運転免許証。This coveted card will allow you to drive a car in Japan, your foreign license doesn’t count (at least the Kenyan one doesn’t).

Before you can get the driving license, there are a few prerequisites. Like having at least 3 months driving experience with your foreign license. And once you bring all the required documents, you can get to exchange your driving license for a Japanese one without doing any test if you are citizen of Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal,the Republic of Slovenia, the Principality of Monaco South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Taiwan and United Kingdom. As a citizen of the esteemed republic of Kenya, I had to undergo a 10-15 minutes driving test to qualify for the Japanese driving license.

Being in Ishikawa Prefecture, I researched and read up on all the requirements for converting my license to a Japanese one. There was a lot of useful information online, including a step by step guide. I read it diligently, I gathered all the required documents and went for my first appointment.

The first time I went to the Unten Menkyo Center,  I went with a Japanese friend to the second floor were they handle foreigners driving license matters. I presented my documents: passport, residence certificate, translation of driving license, actual driving license… The guy at the counter couldn’t believe we were still using passport-sized licenses with glued-on photographs. I did a separate post on it here. If @Ukenyatta is reading this, please tell him we need digital DLs. Update: I have heard the new DLs are indeed, digital-sized but I guess I was a few months too early to get mine?

The Kenyan Driving License vs a "normal DL"
The Kenyan Driving License vs a “normal DL”

When he was through turning the DL over and over, he then looked at the translation. According to my Kenyan DL, I am allowed to drive class B, C and E. Yes, I am allowed to drive a manual lorry, your average Mitsubishi Canter. Yes, I did my driving test on an an actual lorry whose controls (clutch, brakes, accelerator) I could hardly reach while still seeing out of the dashboard because the seat couldn’t be adjusted; it was an old lorry. How I passed is er.. a miracle but suffice to say my test involved starting, driving for about 2 minutes along a straight stretch, and stopping.

The Japanese guy at the counter was surprised I could drive a lorry haha, but I have not driven one before and since the test. Anyway, my documents were all in order and I was asked to set a date for the practical test. My Japanese friend would later get very busy and so could not take me (I suspect his girlfriend is keeping him busy 😉 ) so I set up an appointment  and decided to go there by bus.  There is a bus that goes there from Kanazawa Station only twice a day, once in the morning and once at noon. I called Umer and we went together.

I had read online on how to pass the test. When driving keep to the left of the lane about 30-50cm from the white line; when turning to check for pedestrians/other cars before changing lanes or turning you should exaggerate your motions; brake down hard when slowing down; be sure to indicate 30 meters before a turning; stop before the line; stop and count to 3 at any stop light; etc. I had read them all and I was confident. Umer’s doubts could not get to me. The online comments giving a pass rate of 30% did not faze me. After all, I had driven for about a year in Nairobi’s rough streets, and several times I had been downtown in some crowded streets with those awful Githurai buses where not many Nairobians dare drive (the East of Tom Mboya Street). I have reverse parked in tiny basements.

But I failed the first attempt.

It was after the test that I realized it is not about knowing how to drive, it is about following the very persnickety rules. When you do the test, there is a route that you have to follow and a new route is set out everyday. The route will make sure to test your control on the S-curve, the crank, how you do left/right turns, traffic lights, maneuvering around road constructions, broken-down cars in the middle of the lane etc.

The first time I was doing the test, I had not mastered the route. Umer and another Egyptian guy (his name is Amr and I don’t know how to pronounce it) I met at the center were quickly trying to give me tips to crack the course. I was panicking. If you have not mastered the course, the examiner who sits beside you on the passenger seat can give you directions (in Japanese!), but the driving track is a bit small so you might not get enough time to switch lanes before stop lights etc. I was driving in the middle of the lane, like any normal driver in the real world does, so that was my biggest failure. When doing the test, you drive so far to to the left that the driver’s position is almost at the center of the road. When coming out of the crank, one of the rear tires got off the road and at the sound of it, the examiner groaned out light; I had failed.

A typical driving test track in Japan
A typical driving test track in Japan

I booked a date for a repeat exam a week later and went home feeling dejected. Failure is not easy to deal with but I was determined to pass the next time I went. Umer advised me to take a class at the practice center just next to the test center and I booked for two hours on the morning of the test. Driving tests are usually in the afternoon. Umer was supportive as usual “Don’t worry even if you fail, you can come again and again, they can’t stop you from trying again”. But I was determined it would be the second and last time. I did two hours of the practice session, driving very very left, looking not just at the mirrors but over my neck, stopping long enough at a stop light, etc.

When my name was called on the public address system that afternoon, I had already mastered the course over lunch hour. It was a straightforward course that day. I was confident. I was ready. I checked under the car for any children or pets hiding there before and after the test. I craned my neck at turnings. I kept 30-50 centimeters from the left. I smoothly snaked the S-curve and the crank, I kept 1 meter away from the broken car when passing it. I could hear the sound of the examiner ticking away as I passed the test and oh what a sweet sound of success! When I finally parked the car at the end of the test, the examiner said, Kyoo, Ok! (Today was Ok!). I remembered to look under the car even as I walked away from it.

Later, I noticed that the exam card on which our photographs are stuck has about 20 slots! I passed at the second attempt. However, I know met who were failing their 4th attempts, and I have heard a record 33 attempts!

Ah, the sweet freedom that comes from having a license to drive and go anywhere you like. But wait, I still need a car. That is secondary though because after all, I am in Japan, the home of half maybe more of the world’s motor-vehicles.

My advice to anyone who wants to get their Japanese driving license, take the practice classes! A little expensive but worth it!

Image from

Waiting for Sakura

For a short time in Japan during Spring, the cherry blossoms bloom and the streets are bathed in pink flowers. Sakura, it is called. Japan can be incredibly picturesque and now the trees are on the verge of flowering, so we are all eagerly waiting for the beautiful flowers and their fragrance to accompany us on the walks along the rivers, across the streets, and through the roads.


To be honest, this post will be a rumble of disorganized words and I am writing it more for me and less for the reader. March has been a long month for me in some ways. In April, I move to the university where I will spend the next 3 and a half years, up in the mountains. I spent my holiday trying to work on “projects”; progress has been slow and painful but nothing good comes easy, right? When I was not “working” (the definition of working has been very loose indeed), I was studying Kanji, going through marathons of watching series and movies, reading a few novels, taking very long walks, jogging till my ankle hurts, working on getting a 6-pack (so far we are 2 in, 4 more to go), discovering new bookshops, hanging out with obaasan-tachi from church, making a new Ethiopian friend, having lunch at a Korean restaurant, meeting a Japanese artist, having dinner with friends, planning on attending the Rugby 7s Series Tokyo edition etc ; oh wait, I have really been a busy body.

Korean food, it was delicious
Korean food, it was delicious

More pictures over at Instagram.

Anyway I am glad Spring has finally arrived, the sun is out, the temperature is getting warmer, and the cherry blossoms start blooming next week.

Here’s to a beautiful Spring.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Movie Reviews: The Interview and The Memoirs of a Geisha

For the last few weeks, I did not feel like writing and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t muster enough will to actually do it. Was it a writer’s block? I don’t know.. Writer’s blocks are for actual writers and I am your ordinary blogger. Whatever it was, the end result was an ignored blog and I have had to brush away the dust and sweep away the cobwebs on the walls (and this is not the only wall with cobwebs insert sly grin but I digress) before I could begin writing.

I will review two movies that I have had the pleasure of eyeballing in the last few weeks that I have been on holiday. A lot has happened, including a heartbreak (sob sob but they say better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, no further details to be divulged though), new friendships, I finally got my Japanese driving license (I have to do a separate post for this!), an English test (sometimes I get a flare of anger because they made me prove my English proficiency, after receiving at least 18 years (8 primary-4 secondary-4 undergraduate-2 master’s) of education in the language, people should learn how the world works. Half of Africa speaks English, the other half speaks French with a few exceptions like Ethiopia, Angola etc (deep breath, namaste,deep breath namaste) Okay I have calmed down..  But let us get on with the movies, shall we? Enough segue, sexy as it was.

The Interview

The Interview
The Interview

I wouldn’t have watched this movie had it not caused such uproar among some people; who seriously threatened to blow up theaters if the movie was shown in the said theaters; and who were possibly so offended that they hacked into the Sony network revealing emails among executives, movie plans, costs and such other information. I must confess I don’t understand their outrage, unless they view Kim Jong Un as their god which they perhaps they do.

An American journalist finally gets an interview with the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. (By the way Kim Jong Un if you are reading this, you can hack my blog but please stop firing test missiles into the Japan sea; I quite live near the said sea.) This could be the great interview that makes the journalist’s career, a break from interviewing celebrities like Eminem who confesses that he is gay which explains his homophobic lyrics. So off he goes to North Korea but of course the CIA uses this chance to give him poison with which to kill the dictator and save the people of North Korea. What follows is a tragic comedy of events, the interview finally happens.. but does he kill the dictator like planned? Things go wrong horribly but in a stupid and comical way, if you have 112 minutes to spare, please yourself. But if you don’t have time, you will not have missed anything if you never watch this movie. Trust me.

The Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha

I am living in Japan and had never watched this movie until 3 or so weeks ago. I have seen some women dressed in kimono and with powdered faces and guessed they were Geishas but I had no insight into the culture. According to Wikipedia, Geisha (芸者 ?), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, games and conversation, mainly to entertain male customers. Everything entertainment except anything sexual.

Memoirs of a Geisha follows the pre-world war II story of a young girl in Japan whose family has “sold her off” together with her sister because the family is unable to take care of them. Sayuri is trained as a Geisha and joins this admired yet lonely profession; a Geisha is not permitted to marry. She falls in love with a man whom she cannot marry but carries on her life, becoming the most sought after Geisha in the city. This happy setting does not last, the war soon sets in and everything changes.

With American soldiers full in the city streets, and with the harshness of war, many women claim to be Geishas but sleep with the soldiers for favours, money.. in short prostitutes. The Geisha profession is no longer respected. Sayuri has to do manual labour during the war; until the man she’s in love with finally comes looking for her, he needs a favour from her. Would she take up the shamisen (traditional musical instrument) once more, wear the kimono and make up once again, and be a hostess to one of the Americans who could possibly finance his business that had collapsed in the war?

It is an engrossing story, watch it if you have the time.

The Stages of Learning Japanese

I am sitting here at my table (as always), staring at the sandwich I just made wondering if the bread has really gone stale or not. The date of expiration states 11th and I will be eating it for lunch tomorrow – Feb 14th- when I go skiing again for the second time; it started snowing again and I need to make the most of this cold weather. This is ironically, the sunny side of winter.. winter sports that is. Anyway the point of today’s post is Japanese. I have been in Japan for exactly 4 and a half months, and have been studying Japanese for exactly that long. Next week, I have final exams before heading on a month’s break, spring break as it were. I currently have no plans beyond a vague idea of seeing the cities Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe but ideas are welcome.

I don’t need to learn Japanese beyond the basics actually, my research will be entirely in English. But I want to pick up a fourth language, almost everyone in Kenya speaks at least 3 languages so of course I want to be unique; and when I get time I will hopefully pick up a 5th one, French for when I have to order wine at an expensive restaurant (red/white/sweet/dry, who uses those anymore?! ;-)) I think 5 will be my limit though!

While the normal stages of learning things of interest for me have been 1)excitement 2) some understanding 3)comprehension/plateau and 4)competence,  with Japanese the stages have been 1) Frustration 2) Excitement 3) Frustration 4)Some Understanding 5) Excitement 6) More Understanding 7)Some Depression… in short, it is an up and down graph. After learning and understanding something, I get excited then I quickly realize how much more I don’t understand and the frustration/depression has me plummeting again.

Learning Japanese
Learning Japanese

 1. Let’s start with Frustration

My first lesson in Japanese was actually in Japan. The first lesson in class was introducing ourselves. Which was easy to speak, but I couldn’t write or read; I could not read hiragana or katakana. I finally mastered hiragana after about two weeks (sure it might seem slow but we had to learn on our own as the pace of the classes assumed hiragana/katakana competence). So naturally I now entered the second stage, excitement!

2. Reading kana led to Excitement

Suddenly I could read the words in the textbook . We used Dekiru Nihongo which has no Romaji or English explanations. I could finally tell people which country I come from, which are my hobbies, when is my birthday, ask how much something is etc, and I could write these in kana! The textbook has hiragana readings above very Kanji character but of course in everyday interaction hardly any Kanjis are going to be having hiragana readings on top.

3. Leading to Frustration Again

Sure, we could now tell you what time, day, month and year it is, we could say what we do on weekends, what will did and what we will do. Now that the introduction was out of the way, it was time to learn Kanji and when we started a once a week separate Kanji class, you start to realize that one character can be read in several different ways, depending on whether it is a word on its own or it is being combined with another character to form a new word. It can also be a component of a bigger Kanji. Then you realize there are more than 10,000 Kanji (my Chinese friend told me that is why all Chinese people wear glasses, the strain they go through as kids trying to master all the Kanji.. and now that I think about it all the Chinese people I have encountered here in Japan do wear glasses hmmm..). However, we started simple, and we learned that in Japan the newspapers use about 3,000 Kanjis and the weekly characters we learned corresponded with our grammar & vocabulary classes, making it easier to remember them.

4. Thus we Finally Had Some Understanding of Japanese

By the third month, we could speak simple sentences about every day things. We could write down our schedule, waking up, walking to school, studying Japanese, doing homework in the library, having dinner at a restaurant, ordering, past tense, present continuous etc.. We could even read some Kanjis!

5. Excitement: I can Read Kanji

It was then the third month into the course, and we could even read and write some Kanji. It finally stopped being incomprehensible sticks that don’t make sense; it was still sticks but we could make out shapes and get a sense of what they were trying to communicate. In a paragraph, it was possible to find one or two words that we could read and understand the meaning! Such as 日本語(Japanese), 日本(Japan), 酒(alcohol, yes I know my priorities ;)) and days of the week 日、月、火、水、木、金、土「曜日」

6. More Understanding

The lessons started to get more interesting. We learned more ways to say something, when to use one way and not another. When to say something must be done, something should be done, it is not necessary to do something, and other nuances; learned to offer opinion, how to ask for help (even when you don’t exactly understand any answer you would be given in the real world), how to pick out important information in a poster for an event using the few Kanjis we knew (when, where, what time), learned to give directions, explain symptoms to a doctor, parts of the body, etc.

Four months in and we could speak, read, write and hear basic Japanese. However in the real world, language is so much more than the basic need to pass information about where you are coming from, what you are going to eat, what your plans for the weekend are, and what part of your body hurts. Language is also about bonding, creating bonds of friendship by revealing your thoughts and opinions to your friends.

After understanding this, you start to realize just how little Japanese you know hence..

7. Just a little depression

Sure you can read maybe 300/3,000 Kanjis (I may be exaggerating to make myself feel better) and can speak many more Japanese words; you cannot get lost in Japan and can even have a decent conversation with someone you just met for the first or second time. But the third time you meet that person you need more than that. You can ask someone something, but you can’t quite understand their response. You know just how much you don’t know! Which is about 20%. You need a break, spring break! Then come back for the 80% which will be definitely much easier to learn since now you know what to expect. Or more difficult to learn since the level of complexity is increasing. Either way, challenge accepted!