Saturday, January 13, 2018

A series of pleasant surprises

You know that moment when you bump into someone you haven't seen for years just walking along the street (I once bumped into my old legal director from Tokyo walking along Piccadilly in central London some 6,000 miles from home) and think "wow, what are the chances?". Some situations are causal, if I hadn't taken the chance to come to Japan, my son wouldn't have just gone to St Andrews University. But others are co-incidental, and last night was the defining example. Strange things can happen anywhere, but I swear they focus on Tokyo, the co-incidental perspective vortex as it were.

And so it goes. Last night my wife and I decided to go to our local little B1 bar for a bite to eat. Nothing special but a nice location close to where we live, friendly staff and the best beef in red wine sauce you can find anywhere on the planet. Only to be surprised as the manager had quit after arguing with the owner and taken all the staff with him and it now the new (and emergency airlift) staff only served sushi (not completely perfect on a cold winter night). The new manager was a little weird it has to be said, (take this objectively rather than subjectively, he really was weird) not speaking but still standing next to our table in the otherwise empty locale, just swaying to the music. I was genuinely feeling a Psycho moment waiting for him to lock the doors and turn slowly around, and so, finishing up quickly, we paid up and departed somewhat looking over our shoulders.

At this point, I'm still hungry. Going next door to our favorite local restaurant (great food, atmosphere, staff) the place was packed except for two seats at the counter next to a lady sipping a glass of wine on her own. My wife struck up a conversation and started to discuss the essence of different tipples and at one point the Japanese word for an oaky flavour, "taru" came up. I misheard and thought it was "taro", which meant my friend, Kashiwa-san, had named his dog over a clever English word play. "Kashiwa" means oak tree and his dog was called Taro, meaning oaky. I explained to the ladies chuckling at the whit until they disabused me of the brilliance of thought and explained I was a wombat and had misheard.

Anyway, it turned out that the lady worked in a small bar opposite our favorite place in a small alleyway known as Nombe Yokocho (Drunkard's Alley) hidden in the backstreets of Shibuya, central Tokyo. It then turns out that she was relatively new to town and had grown up in small village in the mountains west of Karuizawa in central Japan where we've had a small bolt hole for a number of years which is excellent for weekends out of town and away from the summer heat. And of course then we find she worked with a friend of ours when she was young in said mountains. And then, the grand finale, it turns out, obviously, she actually knew the very Kashiwa-san I'd been chuckling about earlier in the evening. And, of course, his dog, Taro. It's a funny old world, Tokyo. And if the old bar manager hadn't quit, we'd never have known. It was a really nice night. Though somewhat surprising...

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Samurai Santa and the last Friday before Christmas

Lunch on Friday, 21st December, 2001 I was bored. Very bored. Working for an international brand pretty much everyone had departed for foreign shores and as the weekend was going to be a national holiday, many of my local colleagues had taken advantage of slightly eery silence and headed for the door as well. Feeling lonely, I called a friend to see if he was interested in a mildly liquid lunch (an extremely rare experience these days but remember, it was 2001) and in a remarkable Lesley Philips~ish voice the phone was answered with a long and low "helloooooo". Disappointed to find it was just me on the other end we agreed to split the difference and headed to a bar in the center of Tokyo.

Surprising to say, we both made it back to our respective offices that day after many ales were quaffed but not before agreeing it had been an excellent excursion and should be repeated the following year on, obviously, the last Friday before Christmas. And a tradition was borne. Each year since we gather and a long lunch ensues. Bringing a little flexibility to date in recognizing many of my friends have left Japan by the actual day, the Last Friday is now celebrated on an honorary day selected by calling the good to order. The invitation is always via a blind cc to people who don't necessarily know each other and that's part of the intrigue and enjoyment.

The location remains the same after all these years and usually there are slightly (!) more people than chairs. Indeed, being something of an annual distract, the hotel manager comes down to say hello and the staff have come to expect a little disruption when the booking comes in but they know we'll be only good natured. A Pina Colada is always sipped (and if you can figure out why you can also figure out the location so drop by, surprise me, and become a post on TenguLife). But how is the founding year remembered? Well, that day my friend had a brand new curious gadget about which he swore was the way of the future. That day he was showing off his brand spanking new iPod, that year's Christmas present to himself. And it was so cool. And it had just been released. And had white earphones which I'd never seen before. Tomorrow is the long lunch.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Making movies, on location, with an Elf

The old English phrase "to take a leap of faith" interestingly has a real life Japanese equivalent in "to leap from Kiyomizu", a some thirteen meter drop from the terrace of the ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto, which if survived would answer the wishes of the short-form skydivers. And this being Japan, records were kept, and 85.4% of leapers achieved their desire. The remainder were cremated and the practice has subsequently been banned. However, coming to experience life in Japan could, in it's own way, just as much be considered a leap of faith. And it's a rare individual who knows in advance exactly what they're getting in to.

However, in taking that leap of faith, it's one thing to talk about Gulliver arriving on a flying island; let's face it, he wasn't real. But it's something else entirely to sell up, pack up and arrive via Haneda Airport to bring something new to this land of the rising sun. Having encountered many talented Japanese in his homeland, one individual recently did precisely this, he sold up, shipped out, and is starting the hard way to bring a new film school to Tokyo, making movies on location, in English. With the ELFS of Japan. 

So if your Japanese is rubbish and you're looking to raise a camera, write a script and make a movie, your life in Japan has just got that little bit easier. And if you're Japanese and you're worried your English is rubbish, that's the whole point, to help you to go global. So the Lord of the Elves (he will kill me for that!) arrived in Japan with not much more than a great idea and a SIM card and now look, there is a company, staff and (most importantly) paying customers. Not too shabby from a standing start less than a few months ago with sore feet and a friend in Airbnb. So Lights! Camera! Action in Japan! You actually did take that leap of faith.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's now or never - bonenkai season

Japan is somewhat famous for late night "nominication"; an interesting hybrid-word that combines "nomini" the Japanese for "let's go drinking" with the western concept of "communication". Nominication is therefore the conceptual representation of "let's go talk over a beer". Excessive liver damage aside, it's an excellent system that allows the more junior in the ranks to address those somewhat sensitive issues with the boss that normally couldn't be raised in the office. Or vice versa...

But there is one time of year when nominication is taken to an almost formalized, ritualistic extent. And this time it will include the entire company, and everyone will be expected to be there, like it or not (though for temps it's somewhat optional it has to be said, some do, some don't). This is the all encompassing December "bonenkai", the "end of season party", often somewhat mischaracterized as the "office Christmas Party" whereas it's true translation is actually more along the lines of "let's forget the year party".

Seemly somewhat staged counterintuitively to conventional wisdom (wouldn't you rather celebrate the year passed and move on to the new?) it carries one critical difference to the western Xmas bash, in that it is the last time you are allowed to whinge, moan and complain about anything or anyone in the year gone-by. The implicit function is to clear the air, get it out of your system, and then move on. "Speak now or forever hold your peace" as it were. So as bonenkai season enters full swing, remember, now's your chance, and it's officially allowed! But do be a little reserved; when talking to the boss it's always worth remembering the old maxim: "shutting up is sometimes the better part of valor". Have a great party. And bring on the nice and clean new year.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

When Haneda Came Home

In the world of one-upmanship, the expat who can say they arrived in Japan before Narita opened takes some beating. That was in 1978 so any remaining septuagenarians are, we, likely to be in their seventies by now. And if coming from Europe would have either travelled via Anchorage or through Hong Kong as Russian airspace wasn't opened until a good few years after that. But that's a different story. Anyway, Narita was opened to relieve pressure on the (much more convenient) downtown Haneda which subsequently took over domestic duties whilst Narita provided international routes. And so we all hubbed out of Seoul until they realized that de-planing and carrying your bag an hour and a half across Chiba Prefecture wasn't such a bright piece of planning overall.

But back to Haneda. Originally seen as an alternative solution to landing on the beach (no, seriously), Haneda was opened in the early 1930's to the delight of the Empire's extremities around Asia who were now in reach of daily newspapers. The original terminal was still in use until relatively recently serving flights from Taipei to Hawaii as there was a little dispute over sovereignty going on at the time and it wasn't seen as being of particular diplomaté (I may have made that word up) to hub certain airlines via the same landing strips. And so from 1978 until approximately 2010, the only international flight was the tri-lingual Honolulu Special. Which went about twice a week. And then finally we got a real international terminal. But for night flights only. Until 2014. When we got days.

Looking back though, Haneda was first a civil airport and then from 1945 - 1952 expanded under MacArthur as a US Military base before being returned to the original owners. The first expansion had been due to be on a landfill island in Tokyo Bay but was scrapped in favor of an extension to the existing site (the landfill island is now known as Yumenoshima (Dream Island, a name not without a certain sense of irony that shall host the Archery tournaments of the 2020 Olympics; and I believe the last resting site of one of the fishing ships exposed in the Bikini Atol mishap (but that's a whole Lithium 6 vs 7 story)). And so these days, as you come in to land, when your sitting at the back, you still feel the whiplash as your plane makes it's final descent, taking a steep left turn towards the island runways. And that's so that you come in over the bay rather than rattle the city so that we can all sleep peacefully at night. And with that I shall say thank you, and have a nice flight.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Samurai Stories - when to shoot a duck

So the question has been asked, "why didn't the land of the samurai warrior man up and shoot down those North Korean missiles as they flew over the Emperor's sovereign territory?". Well, taking a step back, at least this time Japan saw the missiles coming as opposed to the first time back in 1998 when Kim - "the middle one", lobbed a patriotic singing grenade over the country and the government had to be notified via a small telephone from America (though the same is true of the Russians who also missed it in flight, though apparently, as was later explained, it had been tricky and swerved to avoid their sensors).

But before we arrive at an answer, there is the slight confusion as to whether Japan already is actually currently able to shoot down a ballistic missile aimed in its general direction (Monty Python spoiler alert) or does the country need to purchase yet more kinetic hardware from the shelves of Lockheed Martin Space Systems to resolve the issue once and for all? A ponderance that begs the question "what exactly are those Patriot Missiles doing lying around the Ministry of Defense in downtown Ichigaya if not to defend against in-coming?" But let's save that for another day.

So could the reasons that Japan decided not to press the button really be two fold. Firstly, if something is flying towards you, shooting it down enhances your chances of cranial injury; i.e. if you shoot at a duck, it might just spear you out of a refined sense of irony. Point made; the second main, and much under-reported, reason for not shooting at these ballistic javelins was that as they traversed Japan, they were at a peak trajectory of some 750 miles. That's roughly double the altitude of the International Space Station to put things in perspective. Japan knew these missiles were going going to miss by the proverbial mile. And as legend would have it, those wily samurai also knew both when, and importantly when not, to shoot at a duck.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your dinner's in the dog

There was a time when the idea of walking into a restaurant and being confronted by a slobbering dog would have seen me spin on a dime and head in the opposite direction. And then, of course, we acquired two wonderful furry friends and my approach to life changed overnight. But that still leaves the question of lunch. Now, I'm used to the idea of sunshine, a glass of wine and a balcony with a dog. Which is wonderful in summer but as the skies close in (and allow me to avoid saying "winter is coming"), the question arises as to where exactly to go.

And these days there's a plethora of options largely driven by the rising popularity of small, home specific bundles of fun. And we're not talking about a water bowl on a deck; we're talking full on, high-end restaurants that provide for your four-legged friend to join the fun at the table. And granted this may be a little unsettling for those without pets, it's a boon when you're looking for somewhere to celebrate a special occasion and you'd like to be able to take your dogs with you. Or just going for lunch. And it doesn't really end there.

If you don't have your own favorite pet, why not meet one pre-packaged? Owl cafes are something of a rage at the moment; you can literally sip your coffee under a beady eye. Or you can pat a bunny at a rabbit restaurant or stroke a feline in a cat cafe. There is even one location that specializes in hedgehogs, though I'm not totally sure what you can do with these spikes little balls of, well, spikes. Or you could just go to Starbucks, have a coffee and surf the internet looking at pictures of puppies instead. Let's face it, there are worse things to do with life. But I love my dogs and, having finished this post, I'm going to take them for lunch.