Friday, September 23, 2016

The point of Daikanyama

Nestled between Ebisu and the southern fringes of Shibuya on the western centre of Tokyo is a little district, similar in feeling to Greenwich Village or Wimbledon in London. If you've ever had the enjoyment of watching "Lost in Translation" and you don't know Tokyo (and even if you do) there's a line that doesn't ring true when the newbies to Japan say "let's go to that little sushi place in Daikanyama". Two days on the ground and you'd never knew it existed.

Though the dancing lesson reference is hilarious. One station for the stopper trains to Yokohama and three main intersections, perched on top of a bluff between the Shibuya and Meguro rivers, it's the area the people who know, know. Created with concrete to protect from the shocks of earthquakes following 1923's levelling of the city, it has slowly morphed into the fashion district of Tokyo. You can walk the streets, but you're not going home without buying something.

And so what is the point of Daikanyama? Home to Tora-san (you can research that one yourself if you don't already know), a gift given away as a Philippines embassy, location of awesome photographers and place where The Last Samurai would visit his brother. It's a residential oasis in the centre of Tokyo, one of the three global cities on the face of the planet. And if you visit, you're going to find somewhere for a coffee. And then you can sit and watch the world go by. Welcome to Japan.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The secret of Silver Week

Silver Week, as the name suggests, is something akin to Golden Week in Japan when a number of national holidays fall closely together and people take the opportunity to forget the daily grind and relax if only for a short few days. The difference from Golden week though is that it contains two floating dates, one locked as the third Monday in September under the Happy Monday Law, and the second either the 23rd or 24th of the month according to the orbit of the earth and the auspices of the Autumnal Equinox. 

The result is that every few years "Respect for the Aged" falls on the 21st and the equinox falls on the 23rd triggering a second law to come into play that allows for a single gap day between two national holidays to become a day away in its own right. And so two days off can suddenly become three, as if by magic. Which partly seems to be the case as the date of the equinox is only announced by the government in the February of the year prior to the event itself. And in a world where we can predict the next Transit of Venus to be 10 & 11 of December 2117, some 101 years from now, this seems a little peculiar.

Perhaps I'm being a touch paranoid but it would be interesting to see in which year elections were held or the economy needed a little boost and compare to the years when Silver Week was at it's finest. But I digress. The interesting origins of the Autumnal Equinox were actually laid with the new constitution in 1948. State and Church were separated as the Founding Fathers had envisioned and so national holidays become non-denominational. And this one had previously been a Shinto celebration of one's ancestors. So the Vernal Equinox became a payer for a good harvest and Autumn thanks in turn. Though how this separated Church from State somewhat remains a little bit of a mystery...


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The answers to your questions

Japan can be confusing. Fascinating but confusing. And there is an Olympics at the end of the Super Mario tunnel. So the question has been raised, for quite some time now, as to exactly how will the country accommodate an international influx which is largely unlikely to speak very much of the local language and who understand even less of the landscape around them. In truth, this isn't an Olympics question though; twenty million tourists poured through Japan's doors in the last twelve months. The issue is not four years in the future, it's very much front and centre here today.

And so how do you find your way through a country and culture that is so fundamentally different from so many others. People here don't, on the whole, speak a lot of English. Nor are they too concerned about it either. Japan has done pretty well for itself without the assistance of the Bard. Though there are chinks in the armour; ask a taxi driver a question and he may well whip out his cheat sheet and ask you to point to the question your asking. Or as mine recently did, he may well tell you the cheat sheet is in the boot. Rome was not built in a day.

But with the advent of Pokemon Go! the world is a rapidly changing place. Augmented Reality allows the user to hold up their phone and read road signs in the language of their choosing. The boat may have been missed in traditional terms as to integrating an in-bound diaspora but teaching children to speak English is only one arrow in the quiver of fascinated interest. There are some very clever people out there who can answer the simplest of questions "what shall I do tonight?" and not a human voice is raised in answer. Our world is changing and the answer is at your fingertips. Literally.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The ignorance of bliss

The Economist magazine is rumoured to operate an editorial policy of assuming the reader is intelligent and yet ignorant of the subject and therefore they will compare IBM (a computer services company) to Apple (a telecoms and hardware company), just in case you didn't know. But Japan isn't quite like that. It assumes you're intelligent, but it's somewhat up to you to fill in the blanks. And that's where it can evolve to be the horribly wrong; for we fill in the blanks with the world we know.

And our prior experiences compared to Japan have all the relevance of peanut butter to a glass of Chateaux Petrus. And so when someone says "yes" we will tend to assume it means, well, "yes". Rather than "maybe". And as Dave Barry once pointed out "no" should be more accurately translated as "your idea should be fed to the goats". So learning Japanese as a language is never the end of the story, what an answer means may not be anything related to the words of representation.

And so when a computer translation attempts the impossible, the result is usually the unintelligible. But this is missing the key ingredient of brought to the kotatsu by The Economist. It took me probably five years to be able to understand that I genuinely didn't understand what was happening around me in this country. And recognition of one's ignorance, now that's a powerful stair to ascend. In Japan "ignorance of the facts" is a world apart from "ignorant of the fact".

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The traffic of Tokyo

There are many ways of moving around the city of Tokyo. The reputation of gridlock and hours to travel from A to B may have been true but these days are limited to the days of the odd earthquake and those special 1st September mornings when everything is disrupted deliberately to remind the general populace of what the day of a major earthquake will actually be like. Without the death, fires, collapsed buildings and washed up fish in the street of course. 

In these modern days the roads are, more likely than not, to be pleasantly clear. And then the occasional odd, somewhat surreal, occurrence will, well, occur. Driving through central Tokyo recently I was somewhat surprised to look left whilst more than a little bored at a set of inevitable traffic lights and there, sitting next to me, was Super Mario. He looked, smiled, waved. And I was reminded of the early jet test pilots who would wear guerrilla masks so if any other plane saw them, no one would believe a word of it.

And so, some twenty years ago, I heard a story from a slightly older colleague, of local transport highly efficient over rough terrain and driven by an engine needing little more than the odd bucket of water every now and then. And opposite the New Otani Hotel in Akasaka was a set of railings, well embedded in the verge of the road, perfect for ensuring and solid anti-theft properties.  For he swore blind his boss used to come to work by horse.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Barrels of Grace and Good Luck

A little search on Google will quickly show the remarkable resiliance of a champagne bottle compared to the hull of an ocean going liner. But celebrating the launch of a ship is very much like the launch of a company, a project or a concept. And Japan knows how to celebrate and in this case it's not just about a container aimed at a vessel, it takes mallets, people, ribbons and barrels of sake. And the trick is to stand well back.
Traditionally sake was sealed, stored and transported in wooden barrels of varying sizes and emblazoned with creative designs. But the importance of a barrel is the end is always a circle and circles represent harmony and perfection. And so to celebrate the launch of something new, the assembled members surround the barrel and pummel the lid with mallets until it breaks, releasing the perfect circle and with it, perfect success.

However, I mentioned that these barrels were also used to transport the liquid inside and so are extremely tightly bound and no manner of banging is going to open the lid of an unprepared cask. So when you see the smiling faces celebrating the launch of whatever is new, know that the top has already been prized open, the wood sawn through and then carefully replaced to appear untouched. But try to do this yourself and be warned, it will fight back. And you'll carry the sweet odour of sake for the rest of the day. This I know from personal experience.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

My Boots of Nakanoshima Leather

Japan is an archipelago of some 6,852 islands, or possibly 6,853. Being a volcanic island chain it does tend to produce young off-shoots on a somewhat regular basis, the latest of which is off the coast of what is known as Nishinoshima (Western Island) and has emerged, following a series of sub-ocianic eruptions, over the last year or so. And Nishinoshima itself barely popped it's head above the waves some forty years ago, the blink of an eye in geological terms.

The five main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa retain the majority of the population. But then things get a little complicated. There are many, many habitations on the smaller and less well known locations. Having visited only four of the five it's about time I made the journey to the last, Shikoku. Somewhere made magical that I really want to walk, first brought to my consciousness in "Dogs And Demons" the story of how Japan, unchecked, may implode but at the same time, how beautiful Shikoku, the island, actually is. 

However, these days as I've found, it takes a little over three hours to walk from the island of Nakanoshima to the central station in Susaki City based on the timelines of Google Maps. With the creation of infrastructure, the islands of Japan are slowly being brought together. Not long ago the journey from centre of town would have been interrupted by short ferry ride but today it can be made with boots of leather. And over that bridge come some of the nicest people in the world. And it's a place I must one day sit, probably booted feet hanging over the edge, and say thank you.