Thursday, October 20, 2016

The little engine that could

Japan has something of a fondness for its rail network. For many, the stations are an essential part of the daily commute with the famous images of the attendant, resplendent in white linen gloves, packing every last soul they can into a carriage. And then a few more just for good measure. And without the trains Tokyo would be either a ghost town or an exercise in gridlock of Biblical proportions. No one comes in, and no one goes out, without the trains.
And as a result, forty-four of the world's fifty busiest stations can be found in Japan with the king of them all, Shinjuku seeing some 3.6 million commuters pass through its entry gates every single day. Allow me to put that in context, if the entire 64 million headcount of the UK were to use Shinjuku Station over any given three week period, that would actually be below regular daily capacity. They'd need to do it in eighteen days flat to provide today's typical experience.

However the opposite is also true. In 2013 on the snowy northern island of Hokkaido, the under-loved station of Kyu-Shirataki was scheduled for closure along with the local line. That was until the parents of Kana Harada appealed to the railway that the train was the only way their daughter could journey to school each day. Although Kana was the only regular passenger they kept the lonely station open for another three years. And when she graduated high school on 25 March 2016, the station closed its platform for the last time. Trains are important in Japan.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sunset, Fireworks and Fuji - life doesn't get much better

Enoshima, or Bay Island, is situated a little over an hour away from Tokyo by train and holds a special place in the Japanese psyche. Apart from being breathtakingly beautiful at sunset, it isn't actually an island due to the 600m bridge that connects it to the mainland. And the bridge itself was built on a sand spit so hard to argue however when you see it, you'll be fine with the distinction of an island as it's rocky outcrop rises from the waters of Sagami Bay. And man is it good for launching fireworks.

Bought by an Englishman by the name of Samuel Cocking in 1880, it's development was certainly assisted through the slaying by Benten, one of the seven lucky gods, of a five headed dragon, the continuing existence of which would certainly have discouraged the 500,000 tourists a year who visit for a hearty day out at the botanical gardens situated in it's upper reaches. An added bonus on a good day is the backdrop of a sunset over Fuji, so if you're looking for a day out, it pretty much has the full Monty.

And once a year the seemingly entire population of Japan descends on this coastal picture postcard town to watch some three thousand rockets blast into the night sky, each explosion enough to set off car alarms in California. This spectacular display continues for over half an hour, sometimes set to music, and sometimes purely visual. And as the final fiery stars tumble into the bay, millions of excited people turn and head for home although we sat down to ice cold beer, kindly organised by Mie-chan, to whom I'm eternally grateful. And if you click on the picture below, you too can join the final moments of a magical evening.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The lights go out in Tokyo

Back in the balmy summer heat of August 2006, I found myself driving to work when I noticed the traffic signals were no longer talking to me. In fact they weren't talking to anyone at the time as the power had been cut across a large portion of the city. The cause turned out to be a serious construction barge carrying a rather large crane along the Edogawa (river) had sliced though the main supply lines from the north of the country that were suspended high above the waters. And then the crane promptly sliced through the backup line approximately two meters further down stream from the main lines themselves. 

In a country that almost universally relies on traffic lights rather than roundabouts (I know of a sum total of one), entertaining the concept on crossing the road took on a whole new risk level. In fact in Japan, where you give way to the left at a crossing, the introduction will take a lot of time and would need to be exercised with extreme caution, as seen when a car pulled out in front of me on said circular on the basis he had right of way being on my left. Wombat.

And so the lights are out again today in over half a million homes. Second time in a decade. On this occasion due to an unhappy thirty five year power cable buried to the north of Tokyo. Earth shattering ground tremors aside, Tokyo is built to withstand massive shocks using multiple back-up facilities (except for a back up generator in Shinjuku powering the Yamanote Line, housed in the same building as the main generator which unfortunately caught fire and reduced both to smouldering ash). But that day in 2006 we all slowed down and inched out way to respective destinations. Despite 250,000 being affected, no one was reported to have been injured. There was no drama; people simply lit the way and just got on with the job.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The importance of being earnest

Japan has something of a reputation for politeness. Let's face it, even the gangsters register with the police, it would simply be impolite not to. People bow to various degrees depending on whom they my be thanking, saying goodbye to, or, the lowest of low bows, apologising to. Fortunately foreigners are somewhat exempt from this particular tradition, largely because we'd be expected to get it wrong anyway. But the civility is recognised, exercised (almost expected) and respected.

Thanks are passed not simply at the time but remembered and referenced the following chance people meet again. I was once told you need a good memory in Japan, it's not easy remembering to say thank you months after the fact. But somehow Japanese people manage this feat, as well as waking up just before their station but then that's something of a different story. Which raises the question of whether this is a universal trait.

Well, yes and no. The country has it's fair share of wombats, just like any other country or culture. There's always the customer shouting at a junior staff who was clearly not responsible and the person who demands they've been affronted whether they have been or have not. But people do feel the sense of commitment to society remarkably deeply. And it becomes a binding process. A gift given will be remembered and returned. And as another friend once told me, you do not ask favours lightly in Japan.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Life in Tokyo

I sometimes am asked the question "how can you live in Japan?". After all, I'm a foreigner nearly half a planet away from my home village in the north of England living in a country where I can read less than half the words in a newspaper and when a subject changes in a conversation I can follow almost nothing for the first few minutes. It's a valid question. But one originating from days gone by, no longer valid in today's world.

I'm sitting, writing a blog post that will be read around the world, my Japanese wife sitting next to me posting on Facebook and my seventeen year-old son is downstairs, where he's adopted the ground floor of our house, playing beautiful guitar. The world is not the frightening place it used to be. There are constants and connections. Leaving home no longer has the implications it carried even twenty something years ago when I first saw Mozella scrolling up my screen.

I think about my son and it amusingly strikes me that he is exactly the same as I was at seventeen. Except he speaks two languages, reads and writes four alphabets, his artwork is displayed around the capital, his physics is outstanding (actually, mine wasn't too shabby either), has friends around the world and is about to embark on a university life in a country he's known from vacations. And he plays beautiful guitar. Apart from that, we're exactly the same. Wherever you're from, these days, Japan simply isn't that far from home.

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...