Friday, May 11, 2018

A fishy tale in Tokyo

Those having been around more than a little while in Tokyo may remember the beautiful, bohemian apartments sadly demolished to make way for the somewhat less than eye-endearing Omote Sando Hills (apparently designed to make you feel you're outside when in, somewhat myopic to the exterior). (And where I once gave a speech in Japanese memorized from a recording obligingly provided by my assistant).

The apartments were eventually demolished in the early 2000's, not so much as to make way for progress but more that although everyone loved their atmosphere, no one actually wanted to breath it and they were mostly deserted and, actually, unloved.

The structures themselves were known as Dojunkai after the development agency established to create fire and earthquake proof structures; something considered quite a good idea after the razing of Tokyo in The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (better late than never) and were one of the few structures to survive the firebombing on March 10, 1945 which left most of the area surrounding Harajuku (and most of the rest of Tokyo) nothing but smoking cinder. But that's not why I write this article. This is why I write this article...

At the lower end of the Dojunkai building (Omote Sando, like the Champs Elysee it is often compared to, is on something of an incline) ran a river known as the Onden, a tributary of the Shibuya River, which in the early 1960's was covered over and became what is today known as Cat Street. And as the Onden ran both sides of Omote Sando there must have been a bridge. But I cannot find reference to it anywhere. In searching I found the Onden waterwheel though, amongst the famous "Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji" circa 1890 if you're interested. Less cars, less buildings and an annoyingly illusive bridge.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A bridge and station story

The ghosts of Tokyo's watery past are everywhere to be seen around the cities districts. You'll quickly notice that almost everywhere you go there is the repeating suffix of -bashi, meaning "bridge", and they were everywhere, more often than not defining the name of the locale. Bridge comes first, bridge gets a name, local area adopts the name, government write it on a map and there you have it, a place named after a bridge. And that of course is where it gets complicated as many of the bridges have long since been removed in the 1960's rush to lay concrete and landfill. But the names stayed.

So, for example, Kyobashi (Kyo-bridge) is actually a subway station. The name can be translated as "Capital Bridge" in reference to Tokyo, the capital of Japan (as opposed to Nihonbashi which means "Japan Bridge" (and is the start of all highway sign "~km to Tokyo" reference point)). Many date from the early seventeenth century as Tokyo (Edo in those days) as the new shogun, Tokugawa, brought peace to the country and located his capital several days march east of the Emperor residing in Kyoto in, what was then, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast with a lot of rivers and inlets that needed, well, bridging.

Kyobashi is interesting though as it perished as the origin of the shuto, the elevated (and subterranean) highway of which some 200km plus now work and weave their way around the metropolis. It was, in effect, the first on the chopping block of the uptake of the automobile. But part of it did escape and you can still see two carved columns of the original 1872 stone bridge that replaced a slightly concerning wooden structure dating from 1603. They're joined by a concrete, copper plated pilar from the 1922 final construction that would disappear in sometime around 1964. And so if you see a place name ~bashi, look for a river. If there isn't one, you're standing on landfill.

Thanks Marty, again!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

When Liberty came to town

Odaiba, on the eastern flanks of Tokyo Bay is a peculiar place. A destination in it's own right, it is a late twentieth century vanity land fill which encases one of the six gun batteries (hence the name meaning big, flat place) constructed (more or less) across the marine access to the pre-Meiji era conurbation of Tokyo to protect (less) against the onslaught of barbarian ships (ie European and American). However, the development as a whole then came to a shuddering halt in the mid-1990's deplete of tourists, residents, businesses or access.

Revived as a commercial project in the decades to come, it now boasts tourist shopping, a Madame Tussauds, cinemas, a very strange head office of Fuji TV (the construction cost of which nearly bankrupted the broadcaster at the time) and the first sand and sun beach east of Minato Mirai in Yokohama, some thirty kilometers to the west, the remainder being port facilities and oil storage (yes, we're one spark short of a thermo-nuclear explosion in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world).

It also has its own replica Statue of Liberty which came around more or less by accident. In 1998, Japan was celebrating a year of the French and borrowed the lesser known Parisian statue from the Ile Aux Cynes, an island in the middle of Paris. And it turned out to be a massive hit with the tourists  for the fledgeling commercial developments around the futuristic, though deserted, Tokyo Teleport. And so when it was returned to France they built another one; a replica of a replica of the real thing. And given the number of selfies going off on a weekend, seems like the rather unlikely idea has rather handsomely paid off.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

With a little help from my friends

Sometimes you need a little help. There's nothing wrong with that; if you're in a hole, your friend's hand can always help you out. And you can pay forward the favor one day. To quote the "West Wing", 'when your neighbor's house is on fire, you lend them your bucket'. We all need a little help sometimes. And this is role a man called "Shoe" set out to fulfill. And Fukushima-ken was the friend needing a hand one day. And he reached out.
Iwaki FC - 'We Will'

Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima are impregnated in the minds of the collective. But Fukushima was, is and remains, a beautiful location. And here I'm not talking from imagery, it's a place I've visited many times in the years after it was cursed with an axial changing quake, tsunami and ultimately the possibility of armageddon. But it was only a dirty bomb, leaving the land alone. Fukushima-ken is beautiful.

I once took nearly 500 people there for three days, a year after the disaster. There was a lot of fear and trepidation but at the end, all gained a little insight and illumination. But that was simply three days although it became more. Shoe built a home for 400, he built a football team and he built a destination for families. And then he took us to a baseball game. When your neighbor's house is on fire, lend them your bucket. And then help them rebuild. And then help them take their lives back. Little by little.

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.