Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Guest writer - The man on the top of the Ebisu omnibus

Dr Gabriel Symonds is a long term member and stalwart of the foreign community in Japan. He's also a friend of mine. He looked after me when I was sick and he told my son he would get better when he was too. Now, in well earned retirement, he remains Tokyo based and focuses on helping people kick that nicotine monkey off their backs. And he dropped me a note asking if it would be ok to post a story of our adopted country to TenguLife. And of course it is. Oh, and he also, over lunch one day, inspired a story of street art that will make you smile.

Tokyo Travel

It’s interesting traveling on buses in Tokyo. You can tell the drivers are very well trained and safety is paramount. When a bus turns a corner there is usually a pedestrian crossing, as in the illustration. The bus will come to a complete stop and the driver will deliberately look and point to the left and right and check the front mirror to ensure the road is clear before proceeding. He may audibly say ‘Left, right, front – OK’. This is called ‘pointing and calling’. You can also observe this if you are in the front carriage of a local train, behind the driver. It’s quite a performance. The driver is alone in the compartment and appears to be talking to himself.  He points with his white-gloved hand at the timetable, speedometer and any wayside signs and calls these out aloud. The idea is to focus attention for safety, in which Japan has an excellent record. 

Though I usually travel by car on Tokyo’s congested roads – an experience in itself – sometimes I take the bus. Having reached retirement age, if the bus if full, often a young person will offer me their seat. At first I was shocked that I must appear so old! Now I just say ‘Thank you’ and take the seat – unless a very old person gets on after me in which case I offer my seat to him or her.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

So run, run uphill

So run, run uphill, don't look back, just run. And then you can tell others. Because you lived.

I'm simplifying a memorial to those who were caught by the wave seven years ago. But still I remember the moment when, walking home as the roads had choked and the trains sidelined for twenty fours hours, I saw that wave crossing the land. A store had turned a TV to the window and a crowd had gathered around. I had just spoken with my son via Skype and he'd said it was reported at an 8.4M. But the helicopter was now flying above the water. Which used to be land.

A tsunami wave isn't like another. They simply don't stop. Yes, you can surf a three meter wave on the beach of Hawaii, but how about a fifteen meter wave two miles inland? And then you can't find the ones you love, you know, or even your house or town. The trains are gone, and so are the rails, and the roads. No power or gasoline and no one to help or hold your hand. Tsunami are merciless. And we watched one that day; the world's first digital disaster. The Fukushima nuclear disaster didn't kill people. Water did that all on its own.

And I look back on that moment frozen in time. A life defining moment like few others. And all I can think is "run, run uphill, don't look back, just run".

Monday, February 19, 2018

Punk and the price of medicine

When Johnny Rotten (he of the Sex Pistols infamamous infamy) walked off stage at the curtain of  The Pistols last gig of a somewhat self-immolatory American Tour in January 1978, he crouches down, turns to the crowd and with undisguised loathing uttered the words "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" And that was that. Within a year Sid Vicious was dead from a heroine overdose whilst trying to explain he had no idea how his girlfriend was shot dead. Next to him in the hotel room. But he was innocent. 

However I digress.
Occasionally, like everyone in life, I will need to
visit the doc. I used to avail upon the services of of an excellent international physician based quite close-by however, subsequent to his retirement, I took the plunge and went local with a new clinic recently established not too far from where I live. And also by now my Japanese was at a standard where it was no-longer overly intimidating to put my hands in the life of a foreign language. And so today I made the journey with what had the unpleasant feelings of the on-set of flu season inside my head and, feeling miserable and a little pathetic, I walked up the road the two minutes it took to get there.

Having waited less than thirty minutes for the doctor to invite me in (and remember this wasn't a scheduled visit, I had no appointment, I had just walked in) soon he was taking blood pressure, providing a general consultation and handing me over to a nurse to check for the H3N2 virus (this being executed by what seemed to be a three foot syringe straight up my nose that even the nurse said must have hurt). The swab was tested then and there in the lab and I was declared to be plague free a few minutes later. The doctor then prescribed two sets of medicine that he said would see off the worst over the next few days (oh, and provided a repeat prescription for another lurgy we've been working on recently). The drugs were despatched by the receptionist in about ten minutes and I was on my way having been charged a total of a little shy of $25. And if your country's healthcare isn't the moral equivalent of Japan's, then get out your old vinyl and ask yourself the question "ever get the feeling you've been cheated...?" 

Friday, February 16, 2018

The wonderful works of Jin Watanabe

Japan, it has to be said is somewhat awash with museums of a wide and wonderful kind. Some of them even have exhibits (there was a small problem with bubble era funding, great architecture, and then the money ran out before the purpose could be fulfilled and artifacts installed). But there is one that is a throw back in time and you really need to know where to look. And it isn't a throw back in the sense of the Smithsonian or the Natural History Museum, both of which are triumphs of their era that somehow remain contemporary today; no, this one leaves you sipping tea, sitting in a world that would not be unfamiliar to realms of Hercule Poirot.

Set behind a high stone wall in amongst tall, shady trees is the creation of master architect Jin Watanabe who, in 1938, in the early years of the Showa period, designed the self enclosed Bauhausian structure for businessman Toshio Hara, grandfather to the current owner. In 1979 it was finally liberated from use as various embassies and converted to an art museum, though arguably the finest piece in its collection is the building itself. If you ever happen to be in the vicinity of Kita-Shinagawa, downtown Tokyo, it is worth a waste of time.

But Jin Watanabe is not so famous for this delight but more for the Wako Building in central Ginza; the one with the clock tower. Soon a favorite meeting point, the clock tower is actually the second incarnation of the Seiko time piece. The building was originally created in the late 19th century in the central glitzy area of then up and coming Ginza. Which then burnt down a couple of times. And so in 1932, the all new, Jin Watanabe designed, Wako Building was created with a genuine stone facade to defend from the flames. Which turned out to be useful as it was the only building in the area to survive WWII. And it had a spanking new clock on the top. And it's still a favorite meeting point today. And Seiko means precision in Japanese; just if you were wondering.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Tokyo Snows

It is upon a rare occasion that snows fall on Tokyo. That isn't to say they never do, but maybe every half decade or so there will be enough to disrupt the traffic of the metropolis. In more northerly climes and along the Japan Sea coast, local ordinances require cars to don snow tires during the winter months come icy blasts or no, but not Tokyo. When the snow sprinkles, chaos reigns. The highways close, the normally clock perfect train system is delayed and drivers put their foot down as if it's a summer's day. And wonder why they spin. And then the tunnels close too and people leave cars, keys in the ignition so the rescue services can move them later, taking to shanks' pony home.

The airports will see hundreds of cancelled flights and yet optimistic travelers still battle the elements to arrive on time for a blanket and a piece of floor for the night. Daylight sees planes, great stranded steel birds, queueing for a gate to load tired but stoic passengers and finally take them to the skies. There is little dissent or disruption, and if there is, it is more than likely not of Japanese making. People just politely accept their lot, keep calm and carry-on as it were.

I once walked, in an early morning, past a school where the teachers were clearing the snow in front of the gates. This is seen as something of a civic duty, an act in which almost all of the population will engage. One of the teachers was a young woman in a business suit and high heels and, with her colleagues, she was shoveling as best she could. Being western my initial thought was to help, take the shovel and complete the task for her. But stopping to think from her perspective I realized she wasn't there to clear the snows, but to be seen to be making her own contribution. If I took the shovel she'd more than likely continue with her bare hands. In trying to help, I'd be making the situation worse. And so I lent her my gloves, asking if she would leave them on the wall when she had finished. And there they were the next day, folded neatly, exactly where I'd asked her to leave them. And so Tokyo may fall apart in the winter weather, but the people remain Japanese. Polite and thinking of others. Happy snow storm.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A series of pleasant surprises

You know that moment when you bump into someone you haven't seen for years just walking along the street (I once bumped into my old legal director from Tokyo walking along Piccadilly in central London some 6,000 miles from home) and think "wow, what are the chances?". Some situations are causal, if I hadn't taken the chance to come to Japan, my son wouldn't have just gone to St Andrews University. But others are co-incidental, and last night was the defining example. Strange things can happen anywhere, but I swear they focus on Tokyo, the co-incidental perspective vortex as it were.

And so it goes. Last night my wife and I decided to go to our local little B1 bar for a bite to eat. Nothing special but a nice location close to where we live, friendly staff and the best beef in red wine sauce you can find anywhere on the planet. Only to be surprised as the manager had quit after arguing with the owner and taken all the staff with him and it now the new (and emergency airlift) staff only served sushi (not completely perfect on a cold winter night). The new manager was a little weird it has to be said, (take this objectively rather than subjectively, he really was weird) not speaking but still standing next to our table in the otherwise empty locale, just swaying to the music. I was genuinely feeling a Psycho moment waiting for him to lock the doors and turn slowly around, and so, finishing up quickly, we paid up and departed somewhat looking over our shoulders.

At this point, I'm still hungry. Going next door to our favorite local restaurant (great food, atmosphere, staff) the place was packed except for two seats at the counter next to a lady sipping a glass of wine on her own. My wife struck up a conversation and started to discuss the essence of different tipples and at one point the Japanese word for an oaky flavour, "taru" came up. I misheard and thought it was "taro", which meant my friend, Kashiwa-san, had named his dog over a clever English word play. "Kashiwa" means oak tree and his dog was called Taro, meaning oaky. I explained to the ladies chuckling at the whit until they disabused me of the brilliance of thought and explained I was a wombat and had misheard.

Anyway, it turned out that the lady worked in a small bar opposite our favorite place in a small alleyway known as Nombe Yokocho (Drunkard's Alley) hidden in the backstreets of Shibuya, central Tokyo. It then turns out that she was relatively new to town and had grown up in small village in the mountains west of Karuizawa in central Japan where we've had a small bolt hole for a number of years which is excellent for weekends out of town and away from the summer heat. And of course then we find she worked with a friend of ours when she was young in said mountains. And then, the grand finale, it turns out, obviously, she actually knew the very Kashiwa-san I'd been chuckling about earlier in the evening. And, of course, his dog, Taro. It's a funny old world, Tokyo. And if the old bar manager hadn't quit, we'd never have known. It was a really nice night. Though somewhat surprising...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Samurai Santa and the last Friday before Christmas

Lunch on Friday, 21st December, 2001 I was bored. Very bored. Working for an international brand pretty much everyone had departed for foreign shores and as the weekend was going to be a national holiday, many of my local colleagues had taken advantage of slightly eery silence and headed for the door as well. Feeling lonely, I called a friend to see if he was interested in a mildly liquid lunch (an extremely rare experience these days but remember, it was 2001) and in a remarkable Lesley Philips~ish voice the phone was answered with a long and low "helloooooo". Disappointed to find it was just me on the other end we agreed to split the difference and headed to a bar in the center of Tokyo.

Surprising to say, we both made it back to our respective offices that day after many ales were quaffed but not before agreeing it had been an excellent excursion and should be repeated the following year on, obviously, the last Friday before Christmas. And a tradition was borne. Each year since we gather and a long lunch ensues. Bringing a little flexibility to date in recognizing many of my friends have left Japan by the actual day, the Last Friday is now celebrated on an honorary day selected by calling the good to order. The invitation is always via a blind cc to people who don't necessarily know each other and that's part of the intrigue and enjoyment.

The location remains the same after all these years and usually there are slightly (!) more people than chairs. Indeed, being something of an annual distract, the hotel manager comes down to say hello and the staff have come to expect a little disruption when the booking comes in but they know we'll be only good natured. A Pina Colada is always sipped (and if you can figure out why you can also figure out the location so drop by, surprise me, and become a post on TenguLife). But how is the founding year remembered? Well, that day my friend had a brand new curious gadget about which he swore was the way of the future. That day he was showing off his brand spanking new iPod, that year's Christmas present to himself. And it was so cool. And it had just been released. And had white earphones which I'd never seen before. Tomorrow is the long lunch.