Mistaking turtle blood for a backgammon lid

Mistaking turtle blood for a backgammon lid

As I write this, it’s been more than 36 hours since I’ve read any news. I almost managed to miss the Notre Dame incident altogether.

I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, an experiment. What happens if you don’t follow the news as rabidly as a newsletter writer usually does? What if you ignore daily current events, and get on with more important things in life?

Does the stock market cease functioning? Do bonds skip their par value payouts? Do options expire early? Do companies dodge their dividend promises? Does Brexit actually happen?

Of course not.

The world trundles on, even during financial crises.

A forced diet reveals the true nature of my consumption

But why did I miss out on my daily dose of surreality, as provided by the financial news?

Because I was somewhere over the North Pole. I spent the entirety of my birthday, thanks to time differences and a flight delay, on a flight from London to Japan.

We’re visiting a seriously ill grandfather here.

He’s doing suspiciously well today though.

Almost better than the jetlagged me, anyway. But he was still mighty surprised to have a gaijin (foreigner) walk into his hospital room this morning.

He doesn’t know who anyone is anymore, so he didn’t recognise me from last time.

Apparently, that’s immensely amusing to the rest of the family…

Imagine meeting your grandfather-in-law for the first time over and over again. A fourth-generation Japanese small-town dentist, too.

It wasn’t easy getting here.

A push-back truck broke down after we boarded the flight from London. It was pushing a plane from a stall at the far end of the terminal.

But then it broke down halfway through the push-back, blocking the terminal entrance. That put all the planes behind it, and those trying to get to their gates at the terminal, in limbo.

Apparently, it’s particularly hard to disconnect such a truck from a plane if it’s not working.

After six months in London, and what felt like years at the airport, I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to be back in Japan. A London Review of Books article by Edward Luttwak explained why:

One can fly to Japan from anywhere, but from Japan one can only fly to the Third World, and it hardly matters whether one lands in Kinshasa, London, New York or Zurich: they are all places where one must be constantly watchful and distrustful, where one cannot leave a suitcase unattended even for ten minutes, where women strolling home through town at 3 a.m. are deemed imprudent, where the universal business model is not to underpromise and overdeliver but if anything the other way round, where city streets are clogged at rush hour because municipal authorities mysteriously fail to provide ubiquitous, fast and comfortable public transport, where shops need watchful staff or cameras against thieving customers, and where one cannot even get beer and liquor from vending machines that require no protection from vandalism.

Japan was the world’s only really different country when I first visited forty years ago, and it remains so now, despite many misguided attempts to internationalise its ways to join the rest of the world.

This isn’t just clever marketing by Japan. It’s all true.

When I went go-karting around central Tokyo one night, dressed as a Pokemon character, we left our wallets with the go-karts while sightseeing on foot.

The trouble is, you can get caught on the wrong side of all this. In all sorts of ways. That I’ve proven personally.

Easter is about religion or family or chocolate, but not finance

We were three minutes late to the domestic transfer desk at Haneda Airport, thanks to the push-back truck incident.

The Japanese don’t allow for foreign airports’ and airlines’ tardiness in their schedule.

Instead they send squadrons of their staff running around the airport looking for you. If they find you, they don’t point you in the right direction. They run to the gate with you.

But this time, thanks to the push-back truck, even that couldn’t save us.

So we ran through the domestic terminal and arrived at our gate, with the checked luggage still in tow.

This caused complete confusion among the security, bus and airport staff along the way. We didn’t even have luggage tags.

There is nothing like a Japanese employee who is forced to go above and beyond for their customer, but is also completely perplexed by that customer’s situation.

This isn’t much better than what happened to me last time around. I managed to walk out of the airport so quickly I forgot my checked-in bag altogether.

I heard the sucking noise of the cleverly hidden one-way doors close behind me and knew I was in trouble. An airport staffer had to go and get my bag off the luggage carousel for me and push it through the security doors…

Luckily, nobody was there to pick me up and see the devastating embarrassment. I get the impression it’s fairly normal for gaijin to make these mistakes. As the Japanese see it, we’re just not used to the efficiency of functioning airports.

But Japan isn’t all sushi and sakura. Things do go weirdly wrong here. Such as the turtle blood and backgammon cap incident at the hospital.

We hope you have a wonderful Easter

My grandmother-in-law talks a lot. Enough to prevent anyone else from saying anything.

As part of her campaign to prevent anyone else from getting a word in, she told my grandfather-in-law’s doctor a story about one of his amusing senile-related incidents. (There are a lot.) This one involved mistaking a backgammon game’s lid with turtle blood.

Where to begin?

Apparently, some people in Japan drink turtle blood.

Please keep in mind that this was translated badly.

Apparently, they literally cut off the turtle’s head and drain the stuff into a glass. Then, bottoms up.

Doing this is said to make the drinker ‘genki’, which has various meanings depending on the context.

The practice probably works in a comparative sense, given the un-genki effect on anyone else around while you’re drinking the turtle blood.

The peculiar drink is called ‘suppon’.

But ‘suppon’ is also the onomatopoeia for opening a tube with a cap on the end. Like a roll-up backgammon set. We might say ‘pop’ to describe the noise of the air vacuum popping as you pull the lid off. The Japanese say ‘suppon’.

Over time, ‘suppon’ has come to mean the very tube-shaped container itself, which makes such a noise when you open it.

At least, in a certain suburb of a certain small Japanese town, they call such tubes ‘suppon’.

When my grandmother-in-law told my grandfather-in-law’s doctor that his patient had tried drinking from the backgammon tube’s cap, thinking it was a cup, she used the word ‘suppon’.

She meant the tube’s lid. The doctor misunderstood her. He thought his patient was drinking turtle blood during his treatment. And the hospital sprang into action rather dramatically as a result.

Who says financial markets are interesting?

Have a great Easter with your family.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble Signature

Nick Hubble,
For The Daily Reckoning Australia