Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Beer Gardens of Shibuya Castle

When I first arrived in Tokyo, beer vending machines lined the streets of city taking pride of place at the front of a queue of underage school children enjoying their Saturday afternoon Asahi Super Dry on their way home from the compulsory weekend educational schedule. Times have changed and from around 2000, store keepers have slowly removed the "givers of joy and enlightenment" to the young of Japan, only to replace them today with in-store touch screens that require you confirm you are of legal age to drink alcohol. Note there is no option to say "no, I'm to young" by the way.  

But a few years on and you find yourself more in the mood for an afternoon tipple and chatter with friends than a furtive sip in a back street in case your mum's friends walk by. In summer it is time for the beer gardens where you can sit outside, get eaten by the rampant mosquitos, and while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, as it were. And my favourite location used to be in the grounds of, the now long gone, Shibuya Castle; of which only the shrine still remains. Strolling down Hachiman-Dori and across the remnants of the Shibuya river (which, back in the day, acted as the southern defences of the castle itself) you find yourself climbing back up the slope to Konno-Hachimangu Shrine.

And it was in these gardens, concreted over in the name of progress a decade or so ago, where a friend, a professional horologist, once demonstrated how my watch was both shock proof as well as water resistant by drunkenly slamming it off the table and dropping it into my beer. Never did tell the time particularly well after that. But sip and sup as we might, it was always fascinating to imagine the lives of the Lords of the land, as they would drink with friends, swapping stories from somewhere between the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. Little exists of the castle today except an unassuming corner stone in the grounds of the shrine; which is worth a visit when you have a free afternoon . Something to enjoy; that and the thought of a beer on a sunny day.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The snows of a Tokyo winter

It rarely snows but it does get cold in Tokyo during the darker months of winter. But not ridiculously, "Scott of the Antarctic", so; and it tends to be a "dry" experience rather than the "wet" bone chilling cold of my home country that saps your very soul no matter the insulation you wrap yourself within. Indeed, an hour outside the capital in the mountains of central Japan, the temperature just before dawn will often fall to -15C however the air is so dry you can drink your coffee in a t-shirt outside happily chatting to a neighbour. 

And whilst the macaques are rolling snowballs in preparation for a pre-emptive strike, strangely the neighbour will be hanging out their washing to dry in this sub-zero world of ice and snow. Taking advantage of the low humidity and lower temperatures, the villagers of central Japan have figured out that sublimation does actually work where ice changes spontaneously to vapour without melting first (look it up if you've forgotten your high school physics...). The result being your socks will dry a treat despite the weather giving Hell a good run for its money. And then there's the ice age.

Japan is, give or take a Roman Empire or two, approximately on a par with the latitude of the northern coast of Africa and so the polar ice sheets never actually made it all the way to Tokyo some 24,500 years ago as they engulfed North America and the western reaches of Europe. But the heights of the Northern and Southern Alps (as the central mountain ranges of the country are known) were sufficient to generate their own glacial flows and so classically smooth sided super-valleys and areas terminal moraine can be found when you know where to look. And soon it'll be summer. 40C and 100% humidity, and we'll all be wishing for winter's sweet chilling bite once again.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Life in Tokyo - Sanbanme no....

Sometimes you find yourself in the most unexpected of quarters. Last week I walked into a stage show and, as the emcee laid eyes on me, he politely enquired of my wife whether I could understand Japanese. Replying, actually in Japanese, I explained I couldn't speak a word and would it be ok if they switched to English from here on. The crowd howled and so did the emcee and, of course, we ended up back-slapping by the end of the night. Never has situational comedy been so entertaining as when you're actually speaking the truth; I literally didn't understand a word from there on but had a great time none the less.

A week before that I found myself in an underground bar listening to a fantastic rock band as they drove the crowd wild with their high energy sound. As the lead singer stripped off his shirt in the heat, so did a five year old fan in the audience (much to the surprise of his mum). Invited, as was everyone enjoying the show, to the after-party (known colloquially as a nijikai), I had the chance to meet the guys, several of whom spoke English, which made for a highly entertaining night as I listened to their fascinating stories. And, being something of a curiosity as a stranger in an inquisitive land, a number of the fans came over to introduce themselves and have a chat too (including the five year old boy). And this was just a week after being hauled on stage to perform (badly) with an awesome five piece band, one of whom actually owned a Jimmy Page Original guitar.

The crowd "enjoying" my performance....
And this weekend I was due to join a French, Japanese, English, American, German, nani nani nani.... dinner, but ended up stuck on a train until midnight after Guns N' Roses just kept playing and playing into the night (and what a show that was). I'm often asked if life in Japan is daunting when you can't speak or read or write the language. Well, admittedly I speak a little but, as longtime protagonists of TenguLife will know, my reading and writing are, to put it politely, somewhat in the category of a bilingual illiterate. However, the point being that  language is never the genuine barrier it may appear to be in Japan; maybe there's not so much to see in Tokyo but there is an almost inexhaustible menu of experiences to, well, experience. You just need to stand up and walk out of your front door. Enjoy your life here. It's probably going to be the only one you get.

Guns N' Roses Tokyo 28 January 2017

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Turning Eighteen

Our son turns eighteen today. In the UK he's legally an adult, responsible for all his actions, and in return, granted full participant in the world around him. Get on a plane and fly back to Japan after a vacation and it's a little bit of a shadow land for the next two years. He can vote for a government, join the Self Defence Force, drive a car, get married and be legally bound by a contract however until he is nineteen he would still be tried as a minor in a court of law and, given everything above, he still can't buy a beer in a  bar until he's twenty.

Strangely I don't remember my actual eighteenth birthday day though I still have the gift from my parents (a beautiful watch) and the one from my brother (an engraved pewter tankard). However, I do remember the night before. I walked to my local pub, asked for a pint (of warm beer) and sat quietly and alone in the corner, supping it slowly, contemplating how life was about to change. It was a weekday early evening and the barmaid looked across the empty room and quietly asked "last one before you're legal, love?" I smiled, realising my secret never really was that much of a secret after all.

And now he's eighteen, but I can still walk up the road with him in the mornings as we talk about the world. He's grown to manhood in Japan but lived the experiences of his life in a vast international community with students from some forty plus countries in attendance at his school. He's our only child and so many have asked won't we be sad when he leaves us soon for university overseas. Of course we'll miss him, though this will be tempered by Skype, Line, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram etc etc etc. But sad? No. An overwhelming sense of pride though? I can't find the words. Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beatles and The Budokan

During The Beatles' first movie "A Hard Day's Night", John Lennon is asked how they found America. The reply, whether scripted or off-cuff, became legend, "we turned left at Greenland". However, for their only tour of Japan, which unfurled oh too briefly in the summer of 1966 they needed a slightly more northerly route. In the midst of the Cold War, Russian airspace was very firmly closed to anyone unable to say anything more than "Nyet", and jet range being less than today, flights would have to make a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. Finally, landing at Haneda Airport in downtown Tokyo, this being more than a decade before international air travel became a lot more inconvenient with the opening of Narita, the four mop tops, wearing JAL happy coats that an air hostess had persuaded them to don at the last moment, they made their way into town to their home for five days at The Hilton Hotel in Akasaka. 

However, anyone who knows Tokyo knows that The Hilton is in Shinjuku, but that is a different story and only from 1983. Opening in 1963, the year before the 1964 Summer Olympics, The Hilton Hotel is now the Capital Tokyu Hotel sitting atop Hoshigaoka, however the venue commenced life in 1959 as the first international collaboration between Japanese and international developers, The Hilton Group. Locked in their rooms 24 hours a day, Paul made a break for it but was soon "redirected" by one of the 30,000 additional police drafted in to manage the sea of fans flocking to the Tokyo to catch one of the five shows over the next four nights. 

John made a rather more successful bid for freedom. Using a roadie's security card and figuring all foreigners look the same, he made it all the way to the International Bazaar on Omote Sando, some half hour's walk. Until he too was "redirected". Over four nights The Beatles played five sets to the screaming crowds of the Budokan. But for some reason the sets were limited to thirty minutes a piece, and the end of life on the road must have been in sight. They never played Japan again as a group but individually visited many times over the years. McCartney is playing again in April this year, and this time I have a ticket for my son. And I'll be able to say to him "that's a Beatle. Back in Japan".

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Amakudari - the Descent from Heaven

In the classic 1946 movie "A Matter of Life and Death", David Niven (the quintessential Englishman) plays the role of a bomber pilot forced to bail out without a parachute or face the flames as his aircraft is consumed by fire. However, lost in the thick channel fog, he is missed by the angels and spends his time falling in love and arguing his case with the powers that be to stay on earth, alive, rather than take his place beyond the Pearly Gates.

Well, Japanese business has its own form of this and it remains significantly less altruistic than the life of Squadron Leader Peter Carter and his debate with the afterlife. Known as amukadari, or "descent from heaven", it's the practice of the retiring bureaucrats in grey suits from the government taking remarkably well compensated roles in the industries they had been charged with overseeing throughout their careers. And yes, this does somewhat create a conflict of interest.

And so, after nearly three decades of economic stagnation and decades more of the practice being an open secret, a law was enacted in 2009 to curtail these activities. Which brings us full circle to another all time classic movie as Japan reaches its "Casablanca" moment. Things have been quiet until recently, however now there appears to be a voice crying in surprise "shocked, shocked I am that there is gambling in this establishment" as Claude Rains exclaimed to Humphrey Bogart, just at the moment he pocketed his winnings. And no, the line "play it again Sam" never did appear in the movie. And also no, we'll probably never know why now. But someone's clearly not happy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Kobe Earthquake and the birth of the smartphone

At 5.46AM on January 17, 1995, the early shinkansen was readying to pull out of Shin-Osaka station bound west for Hiroshima and beyond. Had it been ten minutes earlier it would have been travelling at speed as the second most devastating earthquake of the twentieth century eviscerated the city of Kobe, the shockwaves rebounding from the mountains encircling the metropolis of 1.5m people, causing an interference pattern that would create utter destruction in one block whilst leaving the next untouched.

There were heroes and villains that day. I walked the ground nearly six weeks after the catastrophe, as that is what it had become, the fallen highway already cleared from the view of the world, and I stood in respect and watched small gatherings in the burnt out wreckage of Nada-ku, silently praying for the souls of those lost, trapped under the heavy tile roofs of the flimsy wooden structures, unable to escape as the fires closed in. The Governor of the Prefecture of Hyogo, being an ex-communist, refused to allow the Self Defence Forces, the only organisation with the resources to make any difference that day, into the city. The SDF was initially restricted to operating "training" flights from the skies to assess the damage.

Two events in particular that day made life saving differences. The technicians at the hydroelectric station supplying energy to the city realised they'd lost one third of their demand and the grid would soon catastrophically overload. Ignoring the manual and authority lines they flipped the switches and started pumping water back upstream saving the power grid from total meltdown. And then the Personal Private Secretary to the Governor signed the order to allow the SDF in to the prefecture. He announced to the press the Governor had signed the instrument and then went to the Governor and said "you tell them I lied if you want to".

The Great Hanshin Earthquake was a natural disaster magnified a hundred times into a man made catastrophe. But as a result the laws were changed and ex-communists can no longer fiddle as their cities burn. And as 300,000 telegraph poles collapsed and the phone lines ceased to function, the few with mobile phones, the only communications still available, placed them on street corners next to small collection tins for those to use who needed to let loved ones know they were still alive. Or that some were gone. And Japan came to a collective realisation that the mobile phone was a gift and not a curse. And we are connected today to each other partly through the price paid by the city of Kobe in the early hours of the morning of January 17, 1995.