Saturday, December 29, 2018

The noodles of Queen

Well you genuinely learn something new everyday. And run with me here, at first it may not seem about Japan, but read on.

Having grown up with Queen and remembering the moment Freddie Mercury died (I was driving past Tooting Bec Lido if you were wondering) we went to see the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (spoiler alert, never try it at karaoke, you can't. Unless you're Adam Lambert, then you can). Loved the movie, Rami Malek amazing, Brian May played Brian May, Lord knows how they made him younger; John Deacon and Roger Taylor likewise. And then, sitting at home in central Tokyo, I had a jaw dropping moment. And that doesn't happen to me all that often.

Watching back on Youtube the old clips of Live Aid (and yes, I watched through it's entirety on the day with my friend Jeremy Eades at his home and with his dog, didn't know what we were seeing at the time except U2 becoming global superstars with a hug) and my wife (back to the present) clicked a Japanese link. I'd heard from a friend the band had loved Japan and it was a documentary around their times here, in tea gardens, with their security guard, walking the streets and, of course, singing on stage.

IN JAPANESE!!!! Freddie had actually phonetically learnt the words and was blasting them out with unashamed brilliance at the Budokan in uptown Tokyo. Even my wife dropped the phone at that point. Over twenty-five years I've been to many a concert here. I've enjoyed and sung to their music, songs I'd grown up with. But I had never, never, ever seen a foreign act translate one of their songs to Japanese. And now I'm searching Youtube all over again to find that clip (found it!). Because I lost it last night. But I did find, in my searches, the venerable lead singer of one of the great rock bands of all time, singing a Cup Noodle advert. Second time my jaw dropped in twenty-four hours. But I'll let you enjoy that one.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Blue signs and hubcaps - the speed cameras of Japan.

Retracing the journey from Nagano on the Japan Sea coast on a Sunday evening into Tokyo, there would inevitably be a long (long) tailback about 50k's out of town. And then nothing. Clear horizons all the way. No crash, nor roadworks, nothing. Except for a speed trap that would cause everyone to drop to 100kph triggering a vehicular shock wave that would role back up the highway as thousands of weekend get-awayers touch the brakes and subsequently sit and watch the hubcaps tick by.

And if you were wondering, there are two individual styles of cameras on the highways of Japan. The ones that look suspiciously like just a camera are exactly that, just a camera. They record the activities of the drivers of the country up and down the roads as they pass by. And that's it. Pictures only (unless you hold a guilty secret of course, in which case they really are tracking you). However, separate from this system there are the speed traps which are the ones with a square box sitting smiling next to them. That's the radar. Except for the newer ones, these they have started to place more subtly at side of the road in a hedge, somewhat hidden away.

Which, on the face of it, seems somewhat unfair. But as Jeremy Clarkson (he of Top Gear fame) once pointed out, the photo needs to show your face (which is why the police don't send the picture to you but request you drop in for a chat; saves the awkward moment when an inappropriate "friend" was in the passenger seat). And, to be fair, they do give you a heads up, if you ever see those large, blue, square signs at the side of the highway, it translates as "there's a speed camera ahead so slow down!". Happy camping,  and now they've taken away the speed camera outside Tokyo, no more slow moving hubcaps.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Dragons, Trees and Pirate Ships

Some 700m above sea level, Ashinoko (literally, the reedy lake) is the home of many a shrine, onsen and one particular nine-headed dragon. Oh, and the confluence of three tectonic plates just for good measure. It's also home to one of the check points on the Tokaido where the heads of unfortunate travelers, caught without the appropriately stamped and sealed papers, would be displayed for good measure to dissuade others from this inappropriate action (a little like a parking fine in modern times as it were).

Formed in this volcanic land some 3,000 years ago, said dragon was initially believed to be malevolent however has taken on the role of a revered deity over the centuries. And strolling along the north-east of the water's shores, you'll come across the peaceful Kuzuryu Shrine located in an arboretum representing some 70% of native trees to Japan (and the only thatched building I can recall in this country). And they are beautiful in autumn. Interestingly you'll also notice a series of shuttered lodgings which quietly closed nearly a decade ago following an influx of wild boar into the ryotenburos (outdoor bath) of the retreat. How I wish I had a picture of this.

And one of the most popular pastimes is to take a ride on the cruise ships plying the length of the lake, viewing vistas of Fuji reflected in the water. Two Spanish galleons and a brace of four deck catamarans sail the lake from tip to toe throughout the day. And sitting at the shrine, looking out over a dragon water fountain, all that I could think of was, how on earth did they get these ships up 700m from sea level in the first place?

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.