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.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The ruins of days gone by

Everyone needs a hobby, an enjoyable outlet, something of an escape from daily life (even when it's a very enjoyable daily life). Mine happens to be writing this blog and what an escape it has turned out to be. But one of the more interesting underground hobbies of Japan is the pastime of haikyo. Literally translating as "ruins", the haikyoist spends his or her time hunting down and photographing old abandoned relics, each with it's own fascinating story of a lost little piece of history.

When I first arrived in Japan I lived near a beautiful old wooden house in the leafy suburbs of Takanawadai which was surrounded by vast (by Japan standards) gardens and a high, street side wall. The only issue was the pedestrian handrail which had been constructed directly across its main gate, which clearly hadn't been opened in many a year. The ghost house was eerily abandoned, living in something of a Mishima-esque era of forgotten Tokyo.

Indeed, across Japan there are some eight million plus abandoned dwellings as families would prefer to walk away from a tax liability than level and exit a much unwanted inheritance. But there is something a little romantic about the lives of haikyoists. Whether it's apartments, amusement parks or  deserted military bases, they are creating a digital history of Japan, one which saw it's heyday long before the smartphone was even a glint in Steve Job's eye. So Google them, after all as I say, everyone needs a hobby.

Friday, July 8, 2016

So if you're young, go out and enjoy yourself

Sitting in a small bar in the back streets of Shibuya recently, I experienced one of those slowly shocking moments when you see something totally new. And you really don't like it. Looking back it had clearly been creeping up on me, this bar, the streets outside and the deadpan youth of today; the young men around me were sipping their beers, flicking their phones and carrying the weight of their fathers. And their faces were already etched with it.

A declining birthrate and the increase of the over 65's is a well known and widely recognised aspect of life in Japan. But I remember having some of the best nights of my life in those days of my youth. Writing purely from a personal perspective, the women were charming, engaging and beautiful and the guys were witty, lively and incredibly supportive when you needed a shoulder to lean on. Even when we were divided by language. But around me this night there were no lively young women and no laughing, semi-inebriated guys. Just quiet, worried faces.

More and more Japanese are forecast to remain single throughout their lives but the heck of it is that they're not even dating anymore. 40% of twenty-somethings in a survey last year said they had simply opted out of a relationship based life. Twenty-somethings. Not fifty or sixty-somethings. Twenty-somethings. And you have to feel that if that quiet guy in the corner would simply say hello to the single, bored looking girl on the next table, they might at least get a smile and a conversation out of it. So if you're young, go out and enjoy yourself; the girl sitting at the next table may just want to say hello too.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The wet weather of a rainy season

Across eleven days from late May to the middle weeks of June each year, the Japan Meteorological Agency traces the path of the fifth season as the Mei-Yu weather front progresses east from southern Kyushu to the borders of Tokyo and then on northward, at the rate of a brisk morning walk. Although not all that wet, indeed it's more often sunny that gloomy, Rainy Season is measured and reported on a daily basis including in some years the uncommon, though not unknown, statement when it fails to come to an orderly close.

The temperature sees a modest dip following the on-set of summer real in the middle of May and indeed it actually becomes quite pleasant in advance of the stifling heat of summer. So if you are thinking of a quick trip, there are worse times than now to experience the country. And this is where the problems begin. The government's target was to receive 20 million guests by the time of the Olympics in 2020, but, and much to the ministry's surprise, this number has already been achieved in 2016. And the hotels are full. In fact, Tokyo is full and creaking at the seams.

And so the question becomes one of how will the country cope as the number accelerates toward unimagined levels. The soaring yen will assist in dampening the spirit and indeed both Beijing and London actually saw falls in traffic during their Olympiads as people stayed away assuming the worst. However the current plan to convert 10,000 love hotels to regular guest facilities does somewhat smack of desperation. Though possibly it is also a reflection of collapsing birth rate of the country. And, of course, it is now raining.