Sunday, February 10, 2019

A culinary tale in Tokyo

Everyone needs a hobby. Mine happens to be writing obscure articles in a blog about Japan and a little bit of photography (can't do landscapes but passable at available light portrait pics). But interests  often lie in many directions and one that always caught my fancy was the engineering of the fountain pen. I own many, use many less, but am always fascinated by the flow of the ink, barrel to tip. But this isn't about fountains pens, another of my interests is the engineering of the humble folding knife.

Strangely, the Rambo style blade, the Crocodile Dundee "that's not a knife, this is a knife..." never really interested me, though the creation of the blade is certainly a matter of art meets steel and science. No, it was the beauty of the elegant folding knife that caught the imagination and led to the creation of something of an ensemble in the attic (actually the study, but "attic" somehow resonates more effectively (actually, I don't have an attic at all if you were wondering)). In particular, the liner lock, a solution to deploying and retiring a blade with a single hand.

And one of the finest in my (remarkably) small collection is an example by the Oregon company of Al Mar. Al Mar, an Asian Special Forces veteran who volunteered for duty in Vietnam, also had an interest in design that he eventually brought to life. Recognizing the importance of both handling and usage, he designed blades with the thought of tactical usage in mind. And when he went to market, he took the manufacturing to the city of Seki in central Japan  (a little north of Nagoya, a little east of Kyoto) where some of the finest steel implements of Japan are created. And if you visit, yes, it has a Bladed Hall of Fame if you were wondering. When Al Mar sourced, he chose from those up there with the best of the best in the world.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

And then there were 600

And then there were six hundred. A little over five years ago I started to write TenguLife for fun and quickly it somewhat took over my very existence. Of course in those days it was launched as "ButWhyThe". With not that many people able to type it all in without making an error of one form or another. And so it was transformed to TenguLife and has lived as such ever since. And the purpose has remained the same from the origin; to introduce Japan to non-Japanese nationals. However then Japan started to read it too. In fact these days Japanese readership is the second only to American.

The articles have touched on the vacations of John Lennon in Japan, life and death, how to make a bullet train nose cone, how Japan nearly sold Buddha, a mystical mining disaster and most recently, the British rock band, Queen, performing in Japanese. I've carefully created each one from my own simple perspective, as far as humanly possible fact checking to provide an accurate though interesting background to the country. And it's achieved my original objective. It's been fun to write.

So if you have a question about Japan, are confused by a base-four counting system, wonder why katakana is a phonetic mirror of hiragana or are wondering what is the deadliest beast in the country, feel free to ping me. If you're reading this on a mobile you can reach me at and if you're on a  computer you can see the contact information in glorious technicolor. Six hundred, not bad for a hobby...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The noodles of Queen

Well you genuinely learn something new everyday. And run with me here, at first it may not seem about Japan, but read on.

Having grown up with Queen and remembering the moment Freddie Mercury died (I was driving past Tooting Bec Lido if you were wondering) we went to see the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (spoiler alert, never try it at karaoke, you can't. Unless you're Adam Lambert, then you can). Loved the movie, Rami Malek amazing, Brian May played Brian May, Lord knows how they made him younger; John Deacon and Roger Taylor likewise. And then, sitting at home in central Tokyo, I had a jaw dropping moment. And that doesn't happen to me all that often.

Watching back on Youtube the old clips of Live Aid (and yes, I watched through it's entirety on the day with my friend Jeremy Eades at his home and with his dog, didn't know what we were seeing at the time except U2 becoming global superstars with a hug) and my wife (back to the present) clicked a Japanese link. I'd heard from a friend the band had loved Japan and it was a documentary around their times here, in tea gardens, with their security guard, walking the streets and, of course, singing on stage.

IN JAPANESE!!!! Freddie had actually phonetically learnt the words and was blasting them out with unashamed brilliance at the Budokan in uptown Tokyo. Even my wife dropped the phone at that point. Over twenty-five years I've been to many a concert here. I've enjoyed and sung to their music, songs I'd grown up with. But I had never, never, ever seen a foreign act translate one of their songs to Japanese. And now I'm searching Youtube all over again to find that clip (found it!). Because I lost it last night. But I did find, in my searches, the venerable lead singer of one of the great rock bands of all time, singing a Cup Noodle advert. Second time my jaw dropped in twenty-four hours. But I'll let you enjoy that one.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Blue signs and hubcaps - the speed cameras of Japan.

Retracing the journey from Nagano on the Japan Sea coast on a Sunday evening into Tokyo, there would inevitably be a long (long) tailback about 50k's out of town. And then nothing. Clear horizons all the way. No crash, nor roadworks, nothing. Except for a speed trap that would cause everyone to drop to 100kph triggering a vehicular shock wave that would role back up the highway as thousands of weekend get-awayers touch the brakes and subsequently sit and watch the hubcaps tick by.

And if you were wondering, there are two individual styles of cameras on the highways of Japan. The ones that look suspiciously like just a camera are exactly that, just a camera. They record the activities of the drivers of the country up and down the roads as they pass by. And that's it. Pictures only (unless you hold a guilty secret of course, in which case they really are tracking you). However, separate from this system there are the speed traps which are the ones with a square box sitting smiling next to them. That's the radar. Except for the newer ones, these they have started to place more subtly at side of the road in a hedge, somewhat hidden away.

Which, on the face of it, seems somewhat unfair. But as Jeremy Clarkson (he of Top Gear fame) once pointed out, the photo needs to show your face (which is why the police don't send the picture to you but request you drop in for a chat; saves the awkward moment when an inappropriate "friend" was in the passenger seat). And, to be fair, they do give you a heads up, if you ever see those large, blue, square signs at the side of the highway, it translates as "there's a speed camera ahead so slow down!". Happy camping,  and now they've taken away the speed camera outside Tokyo, no more slow moving hubcaps.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Dragons, Trees and Pirate Ships

Some 700m above sea level, Ashinoko (literally, the reedy lake) is the home of many a shrine, onsen and one particular nine-headed dragon. Oh, and the confluence of three tectonic plates just for good measure. It's also home to one of the check points on the Tokaido where the heads of unfortunate travelers, caught without the appropriately stamped and sealed papers, would be displayed for good measure to dissuade others from this inappropriate action (a little like a parking fine in modern times as it were).

Formed in this volcanic land some 3,000 years ago, said dragon was initially believed to be malevolent however has taken on the role of a revered deity over the centuries. And strolling along the north-east of the water's shores, you'll come across the peaceful Kuzuryu Shrine located in an arboretum representing some 70% of native trees to Japan (and the only thatched building I can recall in this country). And they are beautiful in autumn. Interestingly you'll also notice a series of shuttered lodgings which quietly closed nearly a decade ago following an influx of wild boar into the ryotenburos (outdoor bath) of the retreat. How I wish I had a picture of this.

And one of the most popular pastimes is to take a ride on the cruise ships plying the length of the lake, viewing vistas of Fuji reflected in the water. Two Spanish galleons and a brace of four deck catamarans sail the lake from tip to toe throughout the day. And sitting at the shrine, looking out over a dragon water fountain, all that I could think of was, how on earth did they get these ships up 700m from sea level in the first place?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The silver lining of being lost in a foreign language

That language gap can sometimes be hilarious, and other times catastrophic. When I first landed in Japan, speaking nothing of the native tongue, I remember having lunch and taking the wonderful waitress outside the store to point at the plastic bowl in the window I would like to order. She smiled, nodded, and explained to a (somewhat surprised) real waitress what it was I was looking for lunch. She then rejoined her family. And I felt a little bit of a wombat. The language barrier is real but the communication not so much. I still got lunch, and also, realized how kind people can be.

And then there's the story of my friends ordering pizza. But getting the number wrong. Repeating the order and hanging up. The pizza always arrived but the family they were calling by accident was, understandably, becoming a little tired of taking the order and passing it on to the delivery place. Living in a foreign language can be an interesting experience, especially one you don't really realize the immersion.

And then we lost the boss last week. Placed in a car to come to the hotel the driver hadn't received the updated message. And didn't speak English. And no one in the car spoke Japanese (except the driver obviously). And so, an hour outside Tokyo, he realized things were't quite going to plan. As I had realized, waiting at the hotel to pick him up. Making the best of the situation I decided to take the opportunity to have a little breakfast, as one does. And there, at the table next to me, was Alice Cooper having a coffee. There is always a silver lining...

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Cranes of Tokyo

Seeking to gain the affections of a talented young singer / songwriter, Yoko Ono slipped John Lennon a note on which there was written a single word. The note said "Breathe". And the rest was a little piece of history. And this concept is why breathe is my favorite word in the English language. However, that has absolutely nothing to do with this story except that one day I was asked my favorite word in the Japanese, which is Tsuruhashi, the sound of which has always had a similar, calming effect for me.

The word refers to a small merchant district in eastern Osaka and translates into English "crane bridge", crane in this instance referring to the bird regularly pictured throughout Japanese mythology (and, on the odd occasion, actually traversing the waterways of Tokyo). Which brings me too the story of Sadako Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes, which she did complete but it couldn't cure her of the grasping hand of the blinding light and black rain of August 6, 1945. But I digress once again.

Tokyo is in the midst of a great construction boom; of Biblical proportions. Looking from my office window I count thirty-one cranes on the horizon and a further eleven on the opposite side. Except these can't fly and have no wings but are the work horses raising a new city profile that will last for the next fifty years. Which made me wonder where they all came from as you don't usually keep a spare crane or two in the garden shed. And then it made me wonder what was actually going through the operators heads when the storm hit a few days ago...