Sunday, September 30, 2018

The silver lining of being lost in a foreign language

That language gap can sometimes be hilarious, and other times catastrophic. When I first landed in Japan, speaking nothing of the native tongue, I remember having lunch and taking the wonderful waitress outside the store to point at the plastic bowl in the window I would like to order. She smiled, nodded, and explained to a (somewhat surprised) real waitress what it was I was looking for lunch. She then rejoined her family. And I felt a little bit of a wombat. The language barrier is real but the communication not so much. I still got lunch, and also, realized how kind people can be.

And then there's the story of my friends ordering pizza. But getting the number wrong. Repeating the order and hanging up. The pizza always arrived but the family they were calling by accident was, understandably, becoming a little tired of taking the order and passing it on to the delivery place. Living in a foreign language can be an interesting experience, especially one you don't really realize the immersion.

And then we lost the boss last week. Placed in a car to come to the hotel the driver hadn't received the updated message. And didn't speak English. And no one in the car spoke Japanese (except the driver obviously). And so, an hour outside Tokyo, he realized things were't quite going to plan. As I had realized, waiting at the hotel to pick him up. Making the best of the situation I decided to take the opportunity to have a little breakfast, as one does. And there, at the table next to me, was Alice Cooper having a coffee. There is always a silver lining...

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Cranes of Tokyo

Seeking to gain the affections of a talented young singer / songwriter, Yoko Ono slipped John Lennon a note on which there was written a single word. The note said "Breathe". And the rest was a little piece of history. And this concept is why breathe is my favorite word in the English language. However, that has absolutely nothing to do with this story except that one day I was asked my favorite word in the Japanese, which is Tsuruhashi, the sound of which has always had a similar, calming effect for me.

The word refers to a small merchant district in eastern Osaka and translates into English "crane bridge", crane in this instance referring to the bird regularly pictured throughout Japanese mythology (and, on the odd occasion, actually traversing the waterways of Tokyo). Which brings me too the story of Sadako Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes, which she did complete but it couldn't cure her of the grasping hand of the blinding light and black rain of August 6, 1945. But I digress once again.

Tokyo is in the midst of a great construction boom; of Biblical proportions. Looking from my office window I count thirty-one cranes on the horizon and a further eleven on the opposite side. Except these can't fly and have no wings but are the work horses raising a new city profile that will last for the next fifty years. Which made me wonder where they all came from as you don't usually keep a spare crane or two in the garden shed. And then it made me wonder what was actually going through the operators heads when the storm hit a few days ago...

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The rarity of a Skylark

Great picture but seriously, don't try this at home!
A rare, reverse arc, typhoon, Jongdari (Skylark in Korean (Asia takes turns at naming them if you were  wondering)) made landfall overnight on 29 July 2018. Typically typhoons will arrive from the southwest, often crossing the southern province of Kyushu before skirting along the eastern coast of the main island of Honshu, without always making further landfall, and then slowly dissipating in the cooler waters of the northern Pacific. But not this time.

Due to a convergence of higher latitude pressure systems, Skylark came in from the east and I really can't remember the last time that happened. The typhoon crashed on shore a little south of Tokyo, we dodged a bullet and just got very wet, but the storm penetrated far inland and headed southwest through the centre of the country. These are areas usually spared from this type of disaster and the defenses are less than in coastal areas and hence the risks can be higher and damage greater. 

And then Jongdari passed over western Japan. Those guys didn't deserve this. A month before saw rains at record levels with over two hundred lives lost in the ensuing flood waters. And then there came the record heat, turning the mud flows into concrete. And now there comes a rare inland typhoon. Still, from each disaster, there are learnings, Japan is now so much more prepared  for storms that span the planet than in past history. At 9.00am on the morning of 26 September, 1959, Typhoon Isewan (known in the west as Vera) came on-shore south of the Izu Peninsular. And when Vera had left, she'd taken a full 4,000 souls with her. And that didn't happen last night.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Greatest Show on Earth

Tokyo, as a global metropolis, is something to be experienced. There's genuinely little to see, an afternoon on a tour bus will cover most of the sights (caveat; the architecture is avant guard and spectacular, just visit the Prada building on Omote Sando) but that isn't the point of the city. Tokyo isn't there to be seen, it's there to be experienced. So enjoy it, every single day.

When I first arrived in Japan I was taken to a Live! as it's known in Japan, or Live House if you actually want to know what it means, that went by the name of Bauhaus. This was in the old days before it relocated to the environs of the Hard Rock Cafe in Roppongi. No larger than the three tables if boasted, the band in the corner fronted by Ziggy Stardust on lead vocals (turned out his day job was a professor at Waseda University) and a bass guitarist you'd freak about if your daughter brought him home after a date.

They would occasionally invite guests to play with them too and Doctor Suzuki, in his suit and tie, walking on stage transforming into Jimi Hendrix and the girl who spoke no English (at all!) could belt out the Janis Joplin classics like I've never heard before. I once witnessed as a guy in the audience ask if he could try out the drums. And. He. Nailed. Black. Dog. So don't worry about visiting the gates of the Emperor's Palace or taking the boat on the river to see concrete, rather, experience Tokyo, it's the greatest show on earth.

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.