Monday, August 21, 2017

The "Mother of the Seas" - A Seaweed Story

It has to be said, I enjoy good sushi with my two favorite delicacies being uni (the inside of the spiny sea-urchin, akin to eating slightly thickened seawater) and ikura (the slightly less salty and more familiar, salmon roe) both of which arrive at the table encircled in nori, the dark green crispy seaweed which is actually conjured from a red, cool water algae (it isn't actually green at all). And without this porphyra seaweed, my two favorite dishes would be simple pile of mush on a plate.
And in 1948 that was very nearly the case. Harvested from the eight century, porphyra began to be actively farmed from the seventeenth when farmers would place poles into the water for it to wrap and grow around. The use of nets was later introduced proving a success and significantly increasing output but nets were capital intensive though in good years proving a sound investment. In poor years though it could prove something of a gamble and then in 1948 a series of typhoons, peaking in September of that year, all but wiped out the sea crop.

And at this point in wades the Mother of the Sea to the rescue, literally. In the 1920's an English phycologist (yes, I misread that as psychologist too at first), by the name of Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker figured out the reproductive cycle of the algae, something that had been a mystery until that time. Her breakthrough provided the groundwork for the resurrection of the nori industry in Japan and in recognition of her contribution to saving their industry the people of Uto in southern Kyushu erected a monument to her, named her "Mother of the Seas" and dedicated 14 April in her honor. And rescued my favorite mush.




Monday, August 14, 2017

A dogs life, in English, in Japan

So we have two dogs. They're unrelated but are both the same cross. Chihuahua / poodle. And they're cool. They joined us on Valentine's Day 2011, which, for anyone who cross references, is about three weeks before the earthquake. The big one. Five days after the quake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, etc etc, I got my family on a flight to foreign lands but stayed myself with our new little friends / responsibilities. And I was so grateful that they were with me as the gasoline ran out and lights began to fail. Those weren't great days but all in the past.

And then you know how it happens. Everything goes wrong at the same time. It's a national holiday. My wife is out of contact. And one of our dogs dislocates her hip. We don't know how but I found her at the bottom of the stairs not being able to stand and gently whimpering. [(earthquake while I type) (tiny and I caught the tv) (no worries)]. Having been a rugby player and seeing a shoulder dislocation I can guess the pain she's in. And, of course, her regular vet is closed for  National Mountain Day and with any vet, without my wife, the Japanese is going to be tricky. "Dislocated hip" isn't exactly in my vernacular.

And then the best thing that could actually happen, happens. My wife's phone comes back on line. She's found another vet nearby and he speaks English (as does his wonderful assistant). And on a national holiday he will open up early for me. And, after sedation and two general anaesthesia, our six inch tall little chawoodle is now on the mend. I rarely evangelize here on my blog but this time, it's a huge thank you to the team at West Cross in Nakameguro, downtown Tokyo. Life in a foreign land and language is tricky sometimes. But it's not impossible. And it's important to say thank you.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Where to stand when the lights go out

Hmm, join the queue...
It's summer. And to many that means something involving Mount Fuji, the sacred symbol of Japan the world over. Looking exactly the way a child would draw a volcano, these days it attracts some 300,000 each year to its slopes with its currently popularity being attributed by the government to a World Heritage listing in 2013. Presumably the thinking goes that people hadn't noticed it until then. And so if you are going to climb to the top of a 3776m stratovolcano, you might want to remember that the vertical lift from the fifth station is greater than sea level to the peak of Ben Nevis, the highest location in the UK. And that the support facilities are closed on weekdays.

The west coast of Izu
But if your plan is to see, rather than scale, this national icon, don't actually go there. If you do you'll see a car park and a path. There is not much to view when you're standing on it as it were. The photography from Yamanakako to the north or Hakone to the south can be stunning and the west coast of the Izu Peninsula offers a beautiful, though rarely seen, vista (and don't even try if you get car sick). But you also need to be lucky, there's a lot of cloud available when you're the highest obstacle between the winds of continental Asia and the warm waters of The Pacific. And then of course, the question is where to stand when the fireworks go off for real.

Fuji from the 40F Cerulean Bar
Technically still active, Fuji-san last erupted in 1708 though a M6.2 quake in the locale that went off late on a Tuesday evening following the mega-quake of March 2011 did make us all somewhat wonder if we were in for a more contemporary visit. And if it does go off, the conventional view points mentioned above would be a little too close for comfort. However, the bar on the fortieth floor of the Cerulean Hotel in Shibuya, downtown Tokyo, might just be ideal with a 100km direct line of sight. And then you might want to leave. That ash cloud will fuse the power grid and collapse the city as it slowly crawls towards you.


When Fuji erupts (with thanks to Tofugu.com)




Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Of Bitcoins and Bedsprings

June 9, 2017 and the Japanese government passes into law the Airbnb Act. It isn't technically called that but then again, neither is "Obama-Care". The act allows for the average citizen to register with their local authority and offer out a spare room, sofa or house to paying guests. For roughly half the year these properties can supplement the more traditional venues for a quick vacation and now with no-minimum nights stay requirements. Which, if you dwell on it, is in direct competition to the established hotel and tourist industry and, let's face it, Japan is not too famous for encouraging competition in the face of vested interest. So what's different?

The root cause of seemingly broad support lies in a fundamental problem surrounding the incredible success of the government in marketing Japan as the ultimate oversees tourist destination. And as a result of all the additional bodies, there is a dearth in supply of night-time nests. There simply aren't enough beds to go around. The original target of 20 million inbound tourists by 2020 for the Olympics was blown away by 2015. The target has been raised by the National Tourism Organisation to 40 million by the time they fire the starting pistol to celebrate as the games begin and then after that 60 million penciled in for 2030. And with a reputation for safety, cleanliness, a little peculiarity, reasonable prices and lots to do, it's looking on the cards.

Budget price hotel chains such as APA, with 150 properties across the country (which it utilizes to distribute its publications with a slightly alternative view of Japan's "liberation" of Asia) are growing fast but with twenty million additional slumber parties to accommodate in the space of five years, that's an extra 55,000 heads to rest each night. 365 days a year. One proposal to convert ten thousand Love Hotels, an industry that would appear to be in death spiral as the youth of the country forget how to enjoy themselves, seems to have floundered and so it's private enterprise to the rescue as it were. The Airbnb Act it is. And so no one's complaining as in reality there's more than enough to go round for all. They'll be taking Bitcoin next.







Thursday, July 20, 2017

The aging elves of the Bullet Train


The problem, when it comes to crafting the nose cone of a bullet train, is that there generally isn't an overly gushing abundance of requirement for them. In fact, each generation of the Shinkansen requires only something between fifty to a little over one hundred of the gracefully curved creations. After all, these cutting edge technological marvels aren't exactly popping out of the woodwork. And so it would seem to be an extremely expensive proposition to tool up and manufacture for such a limited production run. Which is precisely why they don't.

As with the (possibly apocryphal) story of NASA spending millions to develop the space ready ballpoint pen and the Russians saving their development dollars and issuing their cosmonauts with pencils, Japan dispatched with the high-tech approach and reverted to that simplest of tools, the humble hammer. And in the small town of Kudamatsu, in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi (the mouth of the mountains if you were wondering), Yamashita Kogyosho tap tap away, shaping and creating the pointy architecture that cuts through the air in front of some ten billion passengers and counting.

This cottage industry solution to a modern day problem has been so successful that its reach has extended to both Korea and China however there is a cloud to this silver lining. As with most cottage industries, the worker bees are showing the signs of age and with an apprenticeship of a decade or more there may soon be a bottleneck in the production cycle of these future high speed marvels. And so, in these days of uncertainty, if you're looking for job security, it might just be time to invest in a little magic hammer.



Thanks Marty.





Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A mirage made in heaven?


Narita was for many years Japan's principle international airport, gateway to the world and embarkation point for countless young couples to their dream honeymoon as they start their new life together. And it's also the focal point, upon return, of the infamous "Narita Divorce" (Narita Rikon). Said young couple find themselves tasting reality for the first time together. And decide the proposition is not that pretty after all. Often it's the guy who is away from his mother for the first time and is just utterly useless. Can't wash his socks or fold his shirts without her help. Landing back at Narita blushing bride turns to her erstwhile husband and gently whispers "sayonara baby!". The "Narita Divorce".

Japan also has a word for the opposite end of the spectrum when a couple have been married most of their lives, the kids having grown, they're now empty nesters. Or at least she is; he's still in the office slaving over a hot desk or off drinking with his work colleagues only returning home to sleep and change. And then one day he reaches retirement and she decides she really doesn't like having him around all day long. This is officially known as a "Maturity Divorce" (jukunen rikon); not as catchy as "Narita Divorce" but preferable to the alternative proposed by the Taro Aso, the Deputy Prime Minister who suggested that old people should "just hurry up and die". 

And then there's the divorce that simply didn't happen. Unlike a wedding in many countries, a Japanese wedding, both the ceremony and reception, are just that, a celebration of a marriage officiated by someone licensed as much as was Joey's internet ordainment. The legal marriage itself occurs when the required papers are signed and witnessed, which more often than not occurs separately, and possibly several months, after the big day itself. And if they've already gone their separate ways, sometimes not at all. And at this point, the guests having attended the ceremony, celebrated the party, drunk the sake and sung the karaoke, mutual amnesia sets it. And no one talks about it. Ever. And if you were wondering, the bride's wearing of the elegant white headwear is, according to folklore, to enhance her beauty and hide the horns.






Thursday, July 6, 2017

The High Art of Sado Island


Most people in the world have heard of island nation of Japan. At least I assume that to be the case; I was once asked where the train to Hong Kong could be found to which I usefully provided directions to Tokyo Station. Good luck on that one. Most people have probably also heard of Honshu, the main island but then it's more into the realms of Japanophiles to name the other three plus one (Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa if you were wondering.) But it will be rare indeed to find someone who can point to 855 square kilometers of Sado-shima and correctly label them as comprising as the sixth largest in the 6,800+ archipelago.

Known for its fine sake, brewed from rice ripened in the bitter Siberian winds, it lies some two hours boat ride off the coast of Niigata in the lap of the Japan Sea. Harsh at the best of times, it became the exile island of choice from the eight century on for those lucky individuals who hadn't quite earned the slightly more direct death penalty. But you certainly weren't expected to return. Emperors, monks and the odd Noh actor were sent there over the centuries. Though in the case of the Zeami, the famous fifteenth century Noh artist, he actually made a triumphant return upon the death of one annoyed Shogun who had sent him there seven years previously.

Life there took a turn for the worse when gold was discovered in the early seventeenth century and from then on it was not just a case of surviving for a living but you had to work for it in the mines too. And then the bakafu (the central government of the Shogunate) saw something of a "golden" opportunity (I'm sorry) and decided to ship the unfortunate homeless of Edo off to help with the excavation. And the mine finally closed in 1989. Though I assume they had stopped deporting the poor and outcast some time before this. Which leaves two questions. Which is the seventh largest island of Japan, and is there fine sake there too?