Wednesday, December 25, 2013

It's Christmas

When I first arrived in Japan I lived in a city of eight million people, roughly two thousand of whom were foreigners. Young kids would run up to me and tag me, running off laughing that they'd touched a foreigner. It used to make me smile. How else are you going to take it.

Christmas day though is something that makes you think of family. It's not a day to be on your own. In those days we had orphan parties, someone would organise the event and invite us all around. My first orphan party was in Sakai in 1992. It snowed. And I'd like to thank them all for including me. Happy Christmas to all around, and I think of you to the two who sadly are not. But I still wish you Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas with chicken wings

In Japan, some TV campaigns are just rubbish. However some go down in legend. For example Tokyo Gas once ran a campaign with the tag line "My life, My gas". Probably should have had that one run by a native speaker first but at least it has gone down in legend.

Kentucky Fried Chicken managed something else though. In the 1980s they ran an Xmas campaign in Japan under the banner "Christmas isn't Christmas without Kentucky Fried Chicken". People took this seriously and it has actually managed to enter modern day popular culture. Tonight, on Christmas  eve, people will queue up to collect their bucket of pre-ordered KFC's finest and later sit down to enjoy their family evening. And they'll be happy. Merry Christmas wherever you may be and whether or not you have chicken wings.

Xmas Party Pack - Order before 30 November!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Everything you ever wanted to know about Japan but were afraid to ask!

December 23, the national holiday with a secret

December 23 is a national holiday in Japan. The timing is completely unrelated to Christmas, something essentially uncelebrated here, but is a celebration of the Emperor's birthday. For some holidays throughout the year, had they fallen on a Sunday they would have, by law, been moved to Monday to ensure everyone has the day to relax. Not in this case though. This is known as the "Happy Monday" law which in it's own right is also unrelated to the 1980s English indie rock band.

December 23 also stands out for one other reason. In 1948, after a series of trials in Tokyo, the seven remaining key protagonists of the Pacific war were finally executed having been sentenced the previous November. The date was no coincidence. December 23 was chosen specifically because it was the then Emperor Hirohito's son's birthday. The allies knew that no one would celebrate martyrdom for these individuals on the Emperor's birthday in the years to come. And 65 years later they were right.  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Turkey vs Wild Pig

First turkey of the year is about to go on the BBQ. With the lid on it acts like an oven and over 6 ~ 7 hours will cook the 18lb bird we ordered. The difficulty in Japan is actually procuring the turkey in the first place. These days it's relatively straight forward in Tokyo but once outside the city it becomes near impossible.

I was once in a store about two hours into the mountains and asked if I could order an 8kg (18lb) one and listened as everyone behind the counter discussed what I was looking for and came to the conclusion I'd got it wrong and really wanted an 800gm (2lb) bird. It took about half an hour to convince everyone I knew what I was looking for and only then did they say they didn't have one.

There is an alternative though if you're open to different approaches to Thanksgiving or Christmas. Wild boar (inoshishi) is available at this time of year and can be cooked over the fire for several hours to bring around that family feeling. Wild boar though is a little tough to eat and so Japan has solved the problem by breeding inobutta - wild pig. Delicious and available in the mountains where the turkeys don't roam.

Friday, December 20, 2013

And Santa lives!

Christmas decorations aren't the highest priority for most of Japan at this time of year. Standing outside my house it's hard to see another house with lights or a 10 foot Santa apart from on our own home. That was until three days ago when we had a wind storm overnight and Santa decided to fly from our roof and land in the middle of a nearby park.

The following morning he was found by a concerned neighbour lying face down and initially thought to be a party reveller who had imbibed a little too much and was sleeping it off in the grass. The lady soon realised what it was and being the only house with a Santa suddenly became a benefit. She picked Santa up and bundled him over to our door. The first we knew of it was a very sorry looking Santa sitting in the drive.

It has rained since that morning until today when there has been a slight let up. Santa is inflatable and we hadn't been able to check whether his acrobatics had damaged his motor or not until now and plugging him in I was initially disappointed as nothing happened. Checking all the connections I found the loose one and having fixed that Santa stands tall again. He makes neighbourhood smile and I'm glad to say Santa lives again. Though a little more firmly tied down this time.

Homeward bound

An annual feature of the Christmas holidays in Japan is the chance for many foreign families to head out to see friends and family in their home country. The trigger is the day the international schools close and the following days see mayhem at Narita as a mass exodus begins, stressed parents desperately trying to corral excited children past check-in and onto security. Most will eventually find their way to a waiting lounge and a well deserved glass of Christmas spirit.

Tokyo takes on a slightly surreal quality at these times. The traffic is visibly lighter and the streets of Roppongi much calmer than normal. By New Year though, both the foreign communities and the Japanese will have exited the city. By this time the streets are not just quieter but almost deserted. The reduced traffic means less pollution and the cold winter air becomes crystal clear. Fuji feels like you can literally reach out and touch it. Going home to see family is important when you live away from daily contact, but staying and seeing Tokyo at its best is just as rewarding.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A smokeless revolution?

[Update] Since first writing this post, McDonald's has now joined Starbucks in banning smoking outright in its restaurants from late 2014. Although this isn't exactly the definition of fine cuisine it is a step in the right direction. Nothing like your kids nagging at you go to Mickey D's because it doesn't smell like an old ashtray to focus the minds of the parents. Nicely done McDonald's, now, who's next?

For a country that creates some of the most delicious and delicate food in the world, Japan still struggles with the concept of whether smoking should be banned in bars and restaurants. In many cities smokeless zones have been declared on streets with signs painted in the road letting everyone know where they can and cannot smoke, but inside, there seems to be no solution.

Although a welcome move in the right direction for many, there remains a belief that smoking isn't harmful to health and I've even heard the argument it is positively beneficial. However, without entering into the discussion over the rights of individuals to smoke or suffer smoke, no one can argue that it makes sushi taste better to have someone light up next to you, even if you are an ardent smoker.

Recently the debate reached a new level. A popular talento (TV personality) saying she would slap her boyfriend if he smoked when she was around. Although she was speaking metaphorically (though  maybe not) she has ignited a debate on the subject. However, Japan is still a million miles from following many western countries and banning smoking in public completely. And ironically, as people don't socialise at home here, the economic impact to bars and restaurants would be minimal. People will still eat out, they just won't smell of stale tobacco when they wake up in the morning.

The Japanese Office Romance. Secret or Open?

An interesting recent article in the press recommends that expats should be open about their relationship in the office when a romance begins. The logic behind this being that the boss may feel betrayed if they find out indirectly that you're dating someone you work with. Interesting advice. Should come with a country specific warning though.

In Japan relationships are kept absolutely secret. This is to the extent that even Japanese colleagues and co-workers will be unaware of the relationships around them. In many instances, this may even remain true even when the happy couple actually ties the knot. The advice in the article today may be spot on in certain countries and cultures, but it needs to come with a location stamp. In Japan, secrecy rules.

And if you let anyone know you're dating someone in the office, you're probably going to be looking for a new date very soon.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mobile phones and an international marriage

Twenty years ago today I met my wife to be. I spoke little Japanese, she spoke no English and had never met a foreigner before. In the days before text messages and mobile phones, arranging dinner on the phone was more a question of repeating a time and place over and over then hanging up and hoping. Everywhere we went we took a dictionary with us to help translate what we wanted to say and little by little we began to develop our own vocabulary, something we both understood but was, to all intents and purposes, unintelligible to others.

Now, twenty years later, we can look back at those times and be thankful we both made the effort to get through the difficult times and focus on the good ones. An international marriage brings its own set of problems, cultural misunderstandings and language barriers but as with any marriage patience and compromise will see you through. When she was late for dinner once, she came running up asking if I was angry. Me not understanding and she not knowing the English word for angry, she started to sign with little devil's horns. You can't help but laugh and life moves on.

I must admit, a mobile phone and text messaging would have helped though.

Monday, December 16, 2013

How to avoid the men with white gloves - travelling in Tokyo

Tokyo has a reputation for being extremely difficult to get around. The traffic does snarl and lock up, there really are men with white gloves pushing people onto trains and the main airport is located 80kms from downtown. The key though to a more relaxed life is simple timing.

The rush hour is very short-lived. The working day typically starts between 9~9.30 and everyone times their journeys for this. 7.30~9.00am is just a bad time to travel. But outside that the trains are no different to any other city, the white gloves are put away, the roads are clear and crossing Tokyo can be achieved in 30 minutes from one side to the other. Unfortunately the airport is still 80kms from downtown though.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Community spirit remains strong in Japan

The concept of community spirit is alive and well in Japan. Each neighbourhood has it's own character and leadership that ensures everyone is included in activities throughout the year. Summer matsuris, a  softball tournament  three weeks ago, children being taught to use firehoses this morning and a small festival in the park this afternoon.

The role of organising these events falls to the local committee that meets in a community house. Similar houses exist across the towns and cities of Japan, dedicated to supporting the residents and paid for by the ward office. Community spirit remains important in Japan.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Should the president be foreign or Japanese?

This is an old dilemma for all foreign brands in Japan and tends to be a pendulum swing as opinion at the head office country cycles backwards and forwards. The questions arise around not simply skill set and experience but around language, culture and understanding the Japanese consumer. But rarely do they revolve around the question of communication. Everyone tends to overlook this point until it is specially raised to their attention.

The confidence a global business has in its international subsidiaries is driven not simply by quarterly results and the issues above but, in my view, to a significant degree by the communication lines between the two. Small and simple misunderstandings can grow to being major obstacles to confidence and credibility. By definition it is the foreign head office that will decide the CEO of a company and it is the foreign head office that will decide if the time is up and change is needed.

Small misunderstandings over long distances, time zones and regularly but not daily contact can lead to mistrust and a breakdown of this necessary confidence. Small misunderstanding down the length of a corridor can be managed and resolved simply by walking into someone's office and asking. The success of the local president is not simply defined by the results but by managing global relationships. Anyone who can do both can be successful in Japan but manage only one and they'll be looking for a new job sooner than they may realise.

Kawanoji - waking up with the family

As a generalisation Japanese homes tend to be smaller than western one. There will be less rooms and each room may be smaller than their direct western counterpart. This has the effect of requiring the family to be more practical in use of space, one approach to which is how everyone may share a single bedroom together. 

The phrase for this is called kawa-no-ji and comes from the kanji character for a river which is three vertical lines spaced closely together. In other words it is showing how the character for "river" looks similar to the parents sleeping with a child between them. Although the name stays the same, as more children arrive the family will continue to share the room into their teens.

The interesting thing for me is that, as any parent who has ever allowed their children to sleep with them at night knows only too well, that the child will sleep any direction other than that of the parents. But it does mean that the family wakes up together every morning.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When it rains, it's serious in Japan

There is a rainstorm in Tokyo at the moment. Heavy rain but light winds. This one though is characterised by rolling thunder. I've always been in the habit of counting the silence between lightning and thunderclap to know how close or far the storm was. Today I can't see lightning just the overwhelming sound coming from grey skies continuing on and on.

Today's advice: save the golf for tomorrow.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Seeing the future in Japan

Being able to tell what will become of you is a highly regarded skill in some quarters of Japanese society. Fortune tellers will await custom on the streets of Shinjuku and provide details of whether a business venture will work or when a girl will meet the man of her dreams. I must admit though, I've always wondered that if they were that good, how come they're waiting for customers instead of just turning up when they know the customer will be there.

One of the beauties of Japan is this adherence to traditions. As people walk past a shrine they will stop for a moment in thought and to offer respects. Religion in Japan, though not as directly representational as in many other countries, is deeply ingrained. It is quite an experience to visit the Meiji Shrine on New Year's Day and be part of the throng more than a million deep coming to ask for good fortune in the coming year.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Early December in Tokyo

Sometimes the weather is just rubbish. And then others it can be awesome. Sitting in a t-shirt on the roof balcony today it was an awesome day. Lets see how the evening goes.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rolling Stones - On Fire and in Japan

Less than two weeks ago I lamented that the big acts pass Japan by, preferring countries where they can connect with the audience more easily. The exception recently was Paul McCartney followed by Bon Jovi in the last few days. Today The Rolling Stones turned that completely on its head.

An eight year gap since their last tour of Japan (which I missed being out of the country at the time!) they have announced three dates in February and March next year. Ring side seats at ¥80,000 ($800) are available by lottery as of today and the rest from January 18. 2014 is looking good for Japan, Clapton in February, the Stones in March. Now we just need Zeppelin to come out of retirement.... 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

You may kiss your Japanese bride

International weddings are becoming more and more common in Japan though it has to be said it is more often the foreign husband who meets his bride here rather than the other way around. Although life after a wedding can bring its own interesting moments the wedding itself can provide some interesting cultural differences.

A Japanese friend of ours was getting married to a European she'd met in Tokyo and invited us to the celebration. At the moment the words "you may kiss the bride" were spoken he lifted her veil and leant forward for their first kiss as a married couple. She looked at him and thirty years of cultural upbringing kicked in. She dodged left and avoided the kiss. He tried again and she swung right. Different cultures, different styles.

A Japanese question of succession

Historically Japan had allowed female succession to the Chrysanthemum thrown however this all changed with the Meiji restoration when a law was enacted restricting the throne to male heirs only. This was then tightened post war to allow only male heirs from close relatives. No more third cousins twice removed.

In 2006 this became a problem. There were no more male heirs but there were several female heirs who would have succeeded had the law not been changed. The debate started to really get heated when the Emperor's second son announced they were expecting a baby. If it was a girl then Japan would have to change the law, but how? Should the laws be loosened to allow more distant relatives and a male heir be found or should the change allow for female succession. The country was split though a majority favoured female succession. The debate became even more heated.

On 6 September 2006 the country held its breath. Would it be a boy or a girl? It was a boy. Immediate crisis over, proposed law for female succession shelved. But it will be back, Japan will need to face the decision one day.

Not this time, Japan isn't quite ready for you yet

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Japan's earthquake sensor net - a good use for smartphones

Following the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Japan developed a vast earthquake early warning sensor network across the country entire. The timing of an earthquake cannot be forecast with current technology however as soon as an earthquake is detected it's relayed through the mobile phone network to give people advance warning. In Tokyo we get about 10 seconds warning of an earthquake in Sendai, near the March 2011 epicentre. Not much, but enough to get to the kids and check they're safe.

Recently a new discussion has started. Now smartphones are so prevalent, why not use them to detect earthquakes. When the shaking starts enough peoples phones can relay this for a central system to identify what it is and sound the alarm to the wider populace. The interesting thing about this for me is that this technology does not require the billion dollar investment of a sensor network. Just a lot of smartphones. This means it can be exported to countries that couldn't afford one. And that has to be a good use of a mobile phone. 

A little light background on Japan

At first sight Tokyo is part of Japan, there is only one way to count, you don't need to know the time to say hello, your bank account can't be emptied using a small piece of wood and you'd rather be approximately right than exactly wrong. Japan will make you question yourself on each of these points and many, many more.

Tokyo is an awesome international metropolis, very different to the country once you leave the city. "Hello" is different from before 10.00AM, through to dusk and then again at night. There are thirty six ways to count in regular usage, get it wrong and everyone will be confused. A hanko can be used by anyone to empty your bank account and the final point I'll leave until another day, unless you'd like to read it on your Kindle.

Is it hard to enter the Japanese market?

Many global brands regularly eye the Japanese market with an element of envy as there are a lot of wealthy consumers they would like to access. Often though the decision is taken not to enter as it's considered too complex and too costly. Essentially fear of the dark.

For a retail brand the message has to be clear that Japan is very open for business. Import and distribution is very efficient, there are no legal restrictions on developing a retail footprint and the rule of contract is absolute unlike certain other countries.

Japanese consumers tend to look for individuality and personalisation, the myth that everyone wants to look the same is just that, a myth consigned to history. As a result, foreign brands can be extremely successful in the market and grow quickly and profitably. Japan isn't dark, there are floodlights everywhere.

Monday, December 2, 2013

But why is the English button in Japanese?

Japanese TV broadcasts, unsurprisingly, in Japanese. That includes programs such as CNN or the BBC. Even movies are usually dubbed into English rather than using subtitles. Sitting in a hotel room and seeing something that obviously should be in English but it's actually in Japanese can be a little frustrating but there is a solution. The English is also being broadcast, the TV is simply set to default to Japanese. On the remote control you'll find a button with four kanji on it. Press this and your TV is magically converted to English.

As the default language is Japanese, I've never actually worked out why the button is labelled in kanji rather than English though....

Doesn't matter how many times you press the button, this will still be in Korean

The meaning of "Yes"

The Japanese word for "yes" is "hai". The Japanese world for "I'm sorry, I haven't a clue what you're talking about, could you repeat it" is also "hai". This can lead to some obvious problems though not as much as the reinterpretation of the actual meaning of "yes" itself.

Recent arrivals to Japan are often surprised to find that business life is significantly simpler than they'd been led to believe as everyone they meet agrees with what they are saying. When asked a question, their Japanese colleagues will often reply "hai". In this instance though, the actual meaning of their response is more akin to "I recognise you're in the room and talking to me, I think I'd like a coffee".

It took me quite a while to understand that I really didn't understand.

The Essential Beginner's Guide to Japan

I have to admit, this was enjoyable to write. Available from Kindle (and if you don't have a Kindle, the app for iPad, iPhone or Android is free to download) "But Why? - The Essential Beginner's Guide to Japan" covers hundreds of subjects about life and living in Japan. Written to help newcomers make sense of the world they've landed in, old hands will recognise the things that make Japan such a fascinating and sometimes confusing country.

The book covers subjects as diverse as a quick history of the last four hundred years in under one page to asking whether Tokyo is Japanese. I hope you enjoy and if there are any questions please leave them in the comments below.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Snow + Tokyo = Chaos

Northern Japan is very used to snow with places such as Akita or Sapporo receiving several meters throughout the winter. It's a little less common in Tokyo but when it arrives, chaos ensues. Tokyo drivers are unused to snow and many tend to drive as if it's a beautiful summer's day. To add to the situation, pedestrians also tend to assume that the sliding car coming quickly towards them will be able to break and stop, although they've probably already thought of that. When it snows in Tokyo, stay home and keep warm. It's better than being run over.

Unagi, Anago, Inago - the little differences matter

To a non-Japanese speaker, and indeed to a non-native speaker, the slight variations in spellings and pronunciations can prove problematic. Many words seem similar though in Japanese they hold a vastly different meaning. Unagi is the word for fresh water eel whereas anago is the word for saltwater eel. It's interesting that in English there is only the one word - eel, something of a "but why?" moment.

It becomes important when it comes to pronunciation though. If you order a plate of unago and your pronunciation is slightly off and it sounds more like inago, you will receive a plate of lightly fried grasshopper instead. Bon appetite!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving and Japan - A celebration?

Not really. Thanksgiving, unlike Halloween which seems to become more popular each year, hasn't translated to Japan. It's an important celebration for the sizeable American community across the country who kindly invite friends of all nationalities to join them for the day but turkeys are relatively safe compared to their US compatriots.

An English friend of mine was once asked by someone unaware of the origins of the day if he also celebrated Thanksgiving back home. His reply "yes, but we celebrate in March when they left".

Oh, and if you want a chuckle, go to Google and type "George Bush turkey" and click on images. It will make you smile.

Japan loves a good festival

During the summer months and into autumn Japan lights up, literally, with paper lanterns, music, parades, food and of course, beer. Each village or district will have a local festival organised by the neighbourhood. Everyone dresses in light yukata and parades will be held throughout the streets. Many events are small and go almost unnoticed being held over a few hours on a Saturday afternoon or evening with maybe a few dozen people joining in.

Others can be major events in their own right with thousands of people turning out to celebrate the bon-odori. This one in Ebisu attracts over 5,000 people from across Tokyo each year with the entire crowd slowly circling the central drum tower, all moving in rhythmic time together. And if it rains, you get wet.

If you ever wondered where those discount luxury items come from, here's one way

One source of discount luxury goods arises from a  uniquely Japanese situation, the hostess club. Hostess bars are common ground for businessmen who overtime will fall for the old routine of “she must really like me”. He will, overtime, develop a favourite and at some point she will lead him into the discussion of her favourite luxury brand. She may say that Louis Vuitton has released a new bag and that she thinks they’re wonderful. 
In a vain attempt to gain her pleasure he will purchase the bag and present it to her as a gift. Each night she then plays the same game with a different customer. By the end of the process she may now have several identical Luis Vuitton bags, all but one of which she keeps carefully in the original wrapping and promptly sells them to a discount retailer. The one she keeps she shows to each of of her customers and tells him that’s the one he bought specially for her and she loves it. The punter is happy and the girl has made a little spare cash. Everybody wins.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We Japanese - a unique national identity

One of the interesting cultural reflections of Japan is the sense of a unique individuality of the nation as a single, all encompassing entity. When discussing how to phrase something, a non-Japanese person would probably say something like "in English we call this …..". Not the case in Japan where a Japanese person would, more likely than not, say "we Japanese call this …..". There is a cultural bond that comes with being a 99.5% homogeneous nation. And provides an interesting contrast to how other nationalities perceive themselves as well.

Cultural misunderstandings - and there are many

It's relatively simple to walk into a cultural misunderstanding without really realising and with the best of intentions on all sides. I was once in a meeting discussing how, and how not, to talk to the press in Japan. A slide was shown on the screen and used as an example of how not to present yourself, the issue being to always ensure you remembered to shave before the conference. Looking at the picture I wondered if the participant realised that their extremely expensive designer stubble was being misinterpreted for having got up late in the morning.

Three awe inspiring things about typhoons

The sound when you are standing in one


The day after

Fox tears, when it rains from a clear blue sky

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Golf in Japan - the game of gods

The stereotype of the golfing corporate executive is not so much a stereotype as actually true in Japan. A day on the links is considered vital to the good development of business relations and to turn down an invitation something of a slap in the face. Golf is serious business, I’ve actually agreed to play in a typhoon after my colleagues looked at me in horror when I suggested we should shelve the day as there was a risk we could be killed in the storm.

When language is difficult it's a great way to get to know people and it does seem to provide several extra vacation days a year to those who enjoy the game.

The Places People Play...

In Tokyo there is one main centre for a new foreigner to look for both socializing and networking, the Tokyo American Club (TAC). However, TAC isn’t the only place in town. The British Club, having expired many years ago, left a hole that has partly been filled through and expansion of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, the FCCJ. 

Out of Tokyo there's the Yokohama Country and Athletics Club or its sister the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club in Kansai. In Hiroo, the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club sports no grass but ten clay courts and if it's the view then it has to be Roppongi Hills for dinner on the 51 floor. 

And then there is the Tokyo Club. And anyone who doesn’t know what this is, probably shouldn’t.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A dilemma in the snow. Was this the right solution?

The snow has already started falling in northern Japan and over the next few weeks will begin to spread south. The Japan alps are looking spectacular and the ski slopes are already open for business.

Last January heavy snow fell on Tokyo as well, something of a rarity. Walking to the station in the morning I saw a group of teachers clearing snow from in front of the local school. None of the work was really making a difference, the sidewalks were already clear as was the main entrance. The point though was not to clear snow but, as a team, to be seen to be clearing snow and therefore contributing to the local community. One of them, a female teacher in high heels and business suit, was using one of only two spades and clearly suffering for her efforts. 

This created for me a very Japanese dilemma. Should I offer to take the spade and help clear the snow  or simply walk on? In my home country I may well have offered to take the spade, but this isn't my home country and the objective wasn't necessarily to clear snow.

If I had offered to help and taken the spade the teacher would simply have continued, as many of her other colleagues were already doing, using her bare hands. I would actually have made the situation worse. She was there to be part of the team and would continue until the team itself finished. The group is always more important than the individual in Japan.

So I gave her my gloves and asked her to leave them on the wall when she'd finished. At least she'd have warm hands.

If you ever wanted to try skeleton

Nagano is host to the 1998 Olympic bobsleigh run which doubles up for skeleton and luge as well. Skeleton, where you are facedown and head first, is actually considered the safest of the three disciplines. If you fall off a skeleton sled you’re only a few inches from the ice and the two of you will travel as a pair together to the end. Fall off a luge and you may become airborne and that can get unpleasant.

This is where it gets awesome. Twice a year, the track is opened for public days. The first run, to let you get used to the idea, is one third from the bottom. They push you off and a team is waiting to catch you at the finish line. Then it’s one third from the top and you really feel the speed, and a little like Darth Vader as you breath in and out and all you can hear is the ice and your breathing. 

The finish line is a long straight incline and almost everyone finishes at around the same point where the team is waiting for you. However, as a foreigner, I had a little bit more gravity on may side and went through the finishing trap doing about 30mph with the crew sprinting up the ice to catch me before I started coming back down again. At the end of the day you come away with your official timesheet as a souvenir and one massive smile on your face.

That little shutter sound

So you've arrived in Japan and have just received your new iPhone. Everything is going well, the menu is in English and the service seems to work without a hitch. Then you go to take a photo of your sleeping baby and "snap!" the camera makes a loud shutter sound. Loud enough to wake baby. Searching for the Settings option to switch off the noise, you come up empty handed.

There's a reason for this. In Japan, digital cameras and camera phones must make an audible noise when a photo is taken to allow people to know they're in a picture. And when you read about some of the pictures people try to take on the train, it kind of becomes obvious why. When baby is asleep, best  leave them to sleep in peace.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Karuizawa - Getting away from Tokyo

At around 1,000m (~3,500ft) Karuizawa is just over an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo. It makes the temperature in summer about 10C cooler than in town and the same in winter. In January the temperature will drop to -10 but the air is so dry you can walk outside and drink a coffee in a t-shirt. In fact in winter people will dry their laundry by hanging it outside and letting the ice sublime away. 

Two thirds of the way to the Japan sea coast, Karuizawa is also home to Asamayama, one of the most active volcanos in Japan which put ash onto Tokyo in a 2004 eruption, minor compared to the 1108 eruption when the pyroclastic flow came to where I'm standing some 10km south. It's also the edge of the inland glaciers in the last ice age as well as being home to the only statue of Sherlock Holmes in Japan. Its nice sometimes to get away.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November, the best time to come and visit

Although Japan moves almost seamlessly from Trick or Treat to Santa Claus, early November is undoubtedly the best time of Year to visit. The summer heat has passed and taken it's humidity with it. The weather is cool and dry and without any significant holidays, roads and trains are calm and comfortable. But the best has to be when you have the chance to travel to the mountains. The forests of central Japan have turned to scarlet. There are few sights better in life.

Japan often misses the tours but sometimes, just sometimes...

It has to be said that Japan often misses out on concert tours. The Stones recently didn't come to Japan, as didn't Springsteen, it's been nearly ten years since we saw Madonna and when The Who played in 2008 it was the first time they had been here after nearly forty years together. Some artists find difficulty relating to the crowds due to the level of English and others simply find there isn't the demand. However Clapton will make his twentieth visit next year, nearly making the Budonkan his home from home (the Albert Hall) and when Paul McCartney played the Tokyo Dome recently, 180,000 got a rare chance to see an old master take them back to the days of The Beatles. You have to be patient, but they do come.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bonenkai season is fast approaching and the diary is rapidly filling up

December is bonenkai season in Japan and the corporate invitations will be rapidly filling the calendar. The important thing to remember about the bonenkai though is that it's not a Christmas party. The bonenkai is an important part of the ritual calendar and whether it is a short celebration of a full evening party, it's officially the last chance for anyone to complain about anything that happened during the year, literally translating as "forget the year party". Effectively it's a cleansing process so that the new year can start afresh and any ill will or trouble is consigned to history. Bonenkais really are an important part of the corporate year, enjoy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How do I say "I" in Japanese? - Well that sort of depends

One of the difficulties of learning Japanese is also one of the great pleasures when you get it right. The language has essentially two forms, standard Japanese and keigo, the honorific language used when circumstance suggest extreme politeness. I'll come back to keigo in a later post but to illustrate the issue of understanding relative positioning, take the English word "I" as an example. In Japanese it has multiple forms for varying circumstance dependent on whether you are a man, woman, senior or junior. The problem being, if you get it wrong you can cause quite some offence or, alternatively, hilarity depending on the mistake you make.

Watakushi:    used by both men and women when being extremely polite
Watashi:     the equivalent but used in normal conversation
Atashi:   used by women only when talking to a friend
Boku:   used by men only when talking with friends
Ore:   used by men only when talking to someone more junior

If you're ever unsure, use watashi. As a foreigner, it's polite enough and you'll be forgiven any slight errors of etiquette.

Do I need to speak Japanese to live in Japan?

The simple answer to this is "no". Although I do speak Japanese, I have colleagues who have happily lived in Tokyo for many years with no Japanese at all. The key here is the word Tokyo though. Outside Tokyo, the English ability disappears very rapidly and at least basic Japanese becomes much more important. Even in Osaka, a city of more than eight million people, English is very thin on the ground.

If you are thinking of coming to Japan to work, your company may provide Japanese lessons. These may be of help but the real learning comes with practicing with Japanese friends, and that doesn't come overnight. Setting realistic targets such as how to direct a taxi or asking simple directions will take a lot of the strain out of living in Japan and will help direct actually learning the language.

If you're on a 2~3 year assignment, you're not going to working in Japanese unless you're a good linguist to start with. And then the answer may be in keigo (the honorific vocabulary) and you may just be lost all over again. Investing time into understanding Japanese business practices and cultural approaches will provide rich rewards over an above learning the language itself.

However, learning the language is enjoyable in its own right and really can be very rewarding as the fog of life begins to clear and everything becomes just a little less confusing.

Navi System - your in-car marriage counsellor

Japanese car navigation systems (navi systems) are awesome. Every country I visit, I ask the question about what the navigation system covers and it seems Japan still has the edge on most. Finding your destination by address, phone number, general location etc has been around for a long time but how about McDonalds or fuel or hotels (of various kinds) or police road blocks. They even give you the heads up on speed traps. However, for me, the really impressive feature of the Japanese system is the real time traffic information on almost all roads across the country. I'm not talking simply highways but in-city roads too and the re-routing system is seamless and simple.

There is really only one problem for the newcomer to Japan and that's that the maps are, and will always probably remain, in Japanese. Menus can often be switched between English and Japanese but the incentive for the manufacturer to invest in creating an English map is virtually zero. Navi systems have taken the tension out of a marriage on a long journey when a map book used to be involved and will be able to show you the traffic ahead if nothing else but you may need the support of Google Maps to really get around. Next step, learning kanji.