Sunday, December 28, 2014

The art of sliding backwards in a $125,000 car

Sliding downhill backwards in a friend's $125,000 Range Rover that I've borrowed for a weekend could be described as a slightly unnerving experience. Actually, it was significantly more than that but this is, after all, a family oriented blog so I'll leave it to your imagination as to what was actually going through my mind.

I'm not unused to driving in snow and can actually put snow chains on a car in under a minute per wheel. The first time I tried I gave up in exasperation after forty minutes in a blizzard. That wasn't fun either. Recommendation here is to practice when it's warm and dry rather than trying for the first time in eight inches of snow.

Snow tires are common in the mountains of Japan and many people simply leave them on all year round. The highways are often closed to regular vehicles in the north and northwest regions of the country and in Hokkaido snow tires are required by law during the winter months. But people refer to them as "studless" which I always found odd. Until a friend explained they used to have studs, and now they don't. Simple really. Now I have to go and dig a car out.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Kraken wakes - if you're not good with allergies, Tokyo is about to hurt

Seventy years or so ago Japan decided it needed low cost timber to rebuild after the war. And so it cut down much of its native woodland and replanted it with cedar which grows quickly and is relatively good for construction. Then someone thought "why not import cheap foreign cedar instead?". And so they did but they left the old trees to grow. And grow. And grow.

The problem here is that cedar produce vast quantities of pollen and a significant number of people are sensitive to it. Each spring face masks and eye washes become almost a necessity as the air becomes saturated with a quite visible threat. You can see it literally falling from trees as it fills the atmosphere. Almost all forest surrounding Tokyo are now Cedar or the equally problematic Cypress.

So why not cut the trees down? It would be a simple solution and they could be replaced with non-allergenic varieties if the concern is less trees means more concrete. The answer is economics and age-old redundant land laws forcing negotiation with each and every tree owner. And today the government announced 2015 will be a bumper crop. A lot of people will be having a hard time in six weeks from now. Time to lace your face masks up.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Jesus in Japan and other Christmas stories

Japan, on the whole, doesn't celebrate Christmas that much but there are some interesting stories around the day. In the 1980's the Sogo department store in Yurakucho is reputed to have nailed Santa to the cross but this may have been an urban myth. Good one though. I've blogged before about the buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken wings and watched yesterday as the first early customers started to collect their orders, though they appeared more from obligation than want.

Recently a news article highlighted the stories from Japanese married to foreigners and how Christmas was such a stressful time. They lamented about the difficulties of choosing presents (remember, it's the thought that counts) and having to eat turkey (seriously, don't eat it if you don't like it). But for most people the actual day is a little bit of a non-event; a normal working day just like any other. New Year is the real family day in Japan.

There is one story though of a garlic farmer who came from the east and through Alaska two thousand years ago. He settled in the village of Shingo in Aomori, northern Japan, married and had three children. His name in Japanese became Daitenku Taro Jurai and he finally passed at the ripe old age of 106. In English we know him better as Jesus Christ and you can visit the shrine to his passing currently located in the grounds of a local factory. The story of how he escaped the Romans though, well that has been lost with the passage of time. Happy Christmas wherever you may be and whatever you may believe.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Birthday Tokyo Station

UPDATE: At 101, the station put on quite a show. If you'd like to see the lights, they're on until 27th. Happy Christmas!


Tokyo Station turned 100 this week, a seminal moment given the journey it's had over that time and means it shares its anniversary with Maserati (if you were wondering). A long face lift was completed in 2012 and the station has returned to its former glory sitting at the hub of twelve separate railway lines (none of which is a subway if you're looking for it on the map). It survived the 1923 Kanto earthquake (more of which later) and a world war. Not bad for a location that would have been fairly central to bomber command.

Near to the station, a few minutes walk away, is the third Imperial Hotel, a 1960's edifice and these days possibly one of the ugliest buildings in Tokyo. The second Imperial Hotel was a majestic design by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened 1 September 1923. The very day of the Kanto earthquake. Over 140,000 people lost their lives as fire claimed the city but the hotel stood and remained open for business though some parts sank and the structure was stress tested to the limit. The FLW design was an icon of modernising Japan, the current hotel simply isn't.

So Tokyo Station reaches its centenary with an earthquake, a city levelling fire, a world war and another earthquake and it still remains an awesome sight as you drive through the glass and steel boxes that make up Marunouchi of today. Happy Birthday Tokyo Station, it may have been chaos on the day as people pounced on souvenirs and resold them on ebay but on the whole, you're looking pretty good for 100.

Monday, December 22, 2014

InterNations - the life of an expat in Tokyo

In the late 1980's there was a series of articles in the English press in Tokyo recounting the exploits of Max Danger, an Expat in Tokyo. Two books eventually came from them and looking at Amazon today you can still order them in time for Christmas if you're quick. The stories are short and hysterical, walking through all the things that make life quite what it is in Japan. To an extent the anecdotes are even funnier if you've lived here and experienced some of the challenges themselves.

These days there are many ways for expats to network from the formal ACCJ events to the more casual Brits at Lunch or even the Kobe Curry Club (not sure this still exists). But expat networking globally has come a long way since the dark and internet free days of 1980's and 1990's. There's a whole plethora of expat support groups with excellent advice that makes life simpler and more enjoyable. 

And recently one of them contacted me to say how much they enjoyed reading my blog and recommended me on their site. One of the largest and most comprehensive expat sites on the web, InterNations has a global footprint and some 1.4m members and country ambassadors to help life along. And of the contact I've had so far, they're also very nice people. Thank you for the recognition.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's bonenkai season - what's a bonenkai?

In the last few weeks of the year in Japan many, if not most, companies, clubs and societies will be organising their bonenkais. Everyone will get together in an evening either as a whole or in small departments and relax with a beer in hand and look forward to the new year to come. There will be speeches and maybe even games and, reassuringly, someone will imbibe a little too much of the holiday spirit.

It sounds like a Christmas party and indeed there are many similarities but there is one major difference that makes it a critical event in the corporate year. The bonenkai is officially your last chance to bitch about anything that happened during the year gone by. And if you don't say it now, forever hold your peace. And so it is a way of wiping the slate clean, setting a new start for the following year. Sometimes I think many of us could benefit from this as a tradition. Have a beer, it's time to let it go.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Even the road signs are polite in Japan

Although on the surface Japan may seem an impenetrable puzzle of conflicts and contradictions, this is really because so much is new to the uninitiated and underneath things are often quite straightforward once the reasoning becomes clear. The language structure is much simpler than English, the road signs are in Japanese but often with English sub-text and -san is used for Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms solving the perennial problem of how to address a letter.

However, there are somethings that still catch you out even after a good while on the ground. For example how does the person walking in front of you know the exact moment to step sideways as you try to walk past them or why do taxis always choose the narrowest part of the road to stop and block everyone else. Traffic lights are referred to as blue when they are demonstrably green and karaoke is incredibly addictive, though it really shouldn't be.

In Tokyo people stand on the left on an escalator though this would bring cries of derision in Osaka, and speaking of which the power in Osaka and the power in Tokyo are mutually exclusive. Japan has a habit of shortening words, air-conditioning is air-con, Navigation System becomes Navi System but if you refer to flu people will look at you blankly as this is still influenza. But probably the most surprising of all are the road maintenance crews one of whom paid me a visit yesterday. 

With a map, he explained what was going to be happening over the next few weeks outside our house. Apologising for the inconvenience he explained I could park my car somewhere else and if I kept the receipts they would re-imburse me when it was over. And then he bowed and went next door to apologise to the neighbours and so on. In London that would have been an unmanned hole in the ground seemingly abandoned for weeks until someone fell in. 

Even the road signs are polite

Monday, December 15, 2014

When you're away from home - The best Christmas song ever

Tokyo went into full, four wheel drive Christmas mode on 1 November, the moment Halloween was done and dusted and the Batman costumes were put away for another year. The decorations went up and the hotels started competing in the "who has the tallest tree in the lobby" competition. Couples  began booking their Xmas Eve date (you're no-one in Japan if you don't have a date on Xmas Eve) and Kentucky Fried Chicken have started taking orders for the annual rush for buckets of wings because "Christmas isn't Christmas without Kentucky Fried Chicken". 

And the carols and Christmas songs have been playing continuously for over six weeks now. For me though, not being particularly religious (well, actually not at all) Christmas is still the most important celebration in the year. It's the family time; we Skype my parents to open the presents at 6.00 in the morning and then Skype them again so they can join in the turkey dinner later in the day. And for me there is one song that truly captures that feeling of togetherness and the loneliness it can bring with it when you're a Christmas orphan. Half way around the world is a long way but Christmas is the time you remember each other. Even when you can't be there.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

No Foreigners! - not the usual welcome from Japan

I love Japan and I choose to be guest in this country. 2020 will see the Olympics held in Tokyo, the most international of sporting events. There is nothing that compares to it except possibly the World Cup to introduce somewhere new to the world. And yesterday was not its finest hour. As my friend and I walked into a small restaurant saying "futari desu" (table for two please) we were greeted by the manager with the phrase "no foreigners" (ironically in English). Somewhat stunned we left.

When I arrived in Japan some twenty years ago this type of response was rare but not unheard of. Taxis would occasionally drive straight past me and car parks would have signs saying "no foreign cars". But today? This was a throw back to the Jurassic era (and ask a dinosaur how that went). This is not the welcome Japan normally extends but sadly is a cliche somewhat believed by the many who have not had the opportunity to visit.

Japan is a warm and welcoming country despite the best efforts of a vocal minority to portray it as a xenophobic nation. The vast majority of people have always been thoughtful, kind and friendly to me but with an Olympics comes a responsibility. During World Cup in 2002 some police forces (in)famously ordered extra-large size handcuffs for foreigners and distributed training videos to bars on how to deal with the "hooligans" who were about to arrive. Let's see if it can do better this time around. Tokyo, over to you. 

No foreigners - dinosaurs still live...

Friday, December 12, 2014

The 2020 Olympics, a commitment for the future

I have no doubt that the new National Stadium in the centre of Tokyo will be up and ready in time for the 2020 Olympics. However it actually needs to be ready for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which seems to be slipping by in everyone's memories at the moment. The key question of course exactly which stadium it will be; the current spectacular, though currently controversial design, or a local re-hash in a measured capitulation to the architectural profession here. 

The cost of the project is now spiralling however with national debt approaching 250% of GDP it's hard to argue that an extra couple of billion dollars are going to make much of a difference. And diverting this cash to rebuilding Tohoku is also a non-issue as the money for that is already sitting in bank accounts and simply not being spent fast enough. But a new stadium is a necessity and it should be something that makes a statement for the next sixty years.

During World Cup in 2002 it was a sad indictment that not a single game was played in the capital city of the host nation, the final being played in Yokohama. The old stadium was showing it's age, too small, uncovered and generally in need of knocking down. The issue here though is that the arguments against the choice of stadium came to the surface only after the Olympics had been awarded and the stadium itself was a central element of the proposal. Japan made a commitment to the world. Build Zaha Hadid's design.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

A blue Christmas in Nakameguro - if you're in Tokyo, go!

UPDATE: Sadly no more. The blue lights of 2014 have become a victim of their own success and have been cancelled for the 2015 season. Adored by huge crowds, that was actually the problem. Simply too many people joined in the festivities and the call has been made it's just not safe anymore. Great while they lasted, having been in the crowds last year, reluctantly I have to admit they have a point.

Something has happened in Nakameguro, a small neighbourhood of central Tokyo, nestled below the slopes of Daikanyama. Each spring the sakura (cherry blossom) transforms the area into an almost magical walk along the Meguro river. It's packed with sightseers and no place for pushchairs but one of my favourite strolls through a city of millions of people. And usually that's it until next year. But not this time.

The tree lined Omote Sando is the Champs Elysees of Tokyo with it's high end brands and ultra fashionable shoppers. And for many years has celebrated the Christmas season by wrapping the Zelkova with white lights and it really is a wonderful sight. Now, for the first time, this year someone decided it would be a good idea to wrap the cherry trees of Nakameguro with blue lights. And it is spectacular. 

The lights were turned on at the beginning of December from 5.00PM each evening and since then the crowds have flocked down. They probably should have remembered to close the roads and the security guards were struggling hard to keep the cars and revellers apart. But what a sight. Nicely done whoever you are who made this decision. If you're in Tokyo take an evening and go. It's one of those sights you just need to see.

The incredible lights of the Meguro River

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How to be the successful expat in Japan

For the new expat, Japan can be a daunting experience. And the ones who realise this early on have a much greater chance of success than those who think they understand it straight off the plane. And I have met many of those over the years! The issue is Japan can be unintentionally deceptive, often to even well seasoned executives, simply because the cultural approach defines an alternative response set to individual situations.

Here are a few common habits of successful expats working in Japan:

1   They understand "yes" does not necessarily mean "yes" but possibly no or even huh?;

2   When they think they understand they confirm one more time, preferably in an alternative way;

3   They recognise Japan's not wrong, it's just different. Differing circumstances drive differing solutions;

4   They ask first and speak second. The culture requires agreement with the boss, so they don't tell them first;

5   They recognise they don't necessarily understand Japan and value that as a good starting point;

6   They know Japan is not China, the same as Mexico isn't Canada. The skill sets to success are the same, it's the experience that's different;

7  They understand that just because someone speaks a little English, it doesn't mean they understand full speed native English in return;

And finally to be seasonally topical, they enjoy the bonenkai with the team.

There is no magic wand to being successful in Japan but there are ways to ensure failure. And ignoring the differences and assuming understanding is way, way up there. Just think how would any of us respond in a home country if a non-English speaking Japanese boss was assigned for two years who had no local experience and arrived thinking he'd "got it". We'd make sure they had warm coffee in the morning and the latest daily newspaper in Japanese. And after that we'd probably ignore them for the next two years...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Death by snow - saving your life with a short piece of rope

Winter, and the snow is already thick on the ground in northern Japan and down the Japan Sea coast. And each year we hear the stories of people who lose their lives in the blizzards and drifts. Indeed, this week an elderly couple very sadly found themselves caught in a storm and were unable to reach shelter, perishing as the snow fell around them. However, this type of tragic mishap is not what I'm talking about here.

Soon we'll have the first reports of someone clearing snow off their roof and falling to an untimely and very avoidable end. The reason to clear the snow is to prevent the house collapsing under the added weight, so there is a sound purpose to the actual activity of climbing on the roof and sweeping it clear. The question I always wonder about though is, why didn't they just rope themselves on?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Winter Warmers - cool coffee in Tokyo

Through the spring and summer months and indeed for a fair part of the Autumn, it's a delightful way to start the morning by sitting outside the Starbucks at T-Site in Daikanyama, drink a coffee and watch the world go by. Now though winter is fast approaching and a morning coffee is more likely to attract pneumonia as the temperatures have declined markedly.

And this is where Anjin comes in. On the second floor of the T-Site complex is a vast lounge with leather sofas, counter tops and multiple work stations. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxing and the coffee excellent. Out of the cold you can browse the menu on one of the iPads scattered around and even spend time browsing through the books that line the walls. But don't bring your Starbucks in, they'll take off you and return it cold as you leave.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sights to see in Tokyo - The Ginkgo Trees of Icho Namiki

The ginkgo tree, or Ginkgo Biloba, is a spectacular living fossil, dating back some 250~300 million years with sadly no remaining relatives in it's family. It's a native of China but was introduced to Japan approximately 400 years ago and is planted widely in temples and gardens across the country. It's also tough as old boots with a number surviving the Hiroshima bombing, roasted but alive. 

It's also known as the Maidenhair Tree for the incredible colour its leaves turn in early December. The weather at this time of year can be unpredictable so the leaves stay on for a up to two weeks but rain with bring this to an early close. And a two minute walk from Aoyama 1-chome station you'll find one of the autumn's wonders of Tokyo. 146 majestic trees together forming the spectacular Ginkgo Avenue.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Ghosts of Japan

Japan has a special affinity with ghosts. You can't swim in lakes because that's where the ghosts will be, waiting to pull you under. Dark cellars are obviously out as well. And if you see a Japanese ghost you'll know instantly as they'll have no feet, trailing arms and long, extended necks. Interestingly though I've only ever seen images of girls or women depicted as ghosts, never men except for the odd Samurai warrior in a Noh play.

The word yurei would colloquially be translated as "ghost" however it's closer to meaning a broken spirit or faint spirit, strongly associated with the ties of unfinished earthly business. And it has to be said that Japan is superb at creating myths, movies and stories as to their powers of malevolence. If you'd like to have the living daylights scared out of you just watch The Ring or The Grudge.

Japan is also beginning to experience the Wild West effect of ghost towns as the population ages and villages begin to merge as they can no longer support full communal services. Schools close and hospitals are relocated as communities die a slow and protracted death. Indeed one municipality voted itself out of existence recently to provide landfill space for tsunami debris. And in the case of Hashima or Ghost Island its death became the inspiration for an excellent James Bond movie (though nothing was actually filmed there).   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ten things to do in Karuizawa, central Japan

1   Listen to the frog chorus across the valley in early May

2   Join a garden party celebrating summer and make new Japanese friends over a beer

3   Ride a motorbike across a the north slope of an active volcano

4   Leave a little late and get stuck in traffic (actually, don't do this one, always leave early)

5   Go to the axe shop on Route 18 and buy a teapot from England

6   Take a selfie with the only statue of Sherlock Holmes in Japan

7   Dance the bon-odori in the forest with hundreds in yukata, slowly turning circles in the night

8   Build a treehouse your children designed

9   Relax with a view of Asamayama and read "Last of the Mohicans"

10  Walk the coffee shops and look for pictures of John when he visited with Yoko

11  Hike to the shrine at the peak of the Nakasendo (ok, one more to make up for #4)

Any more?

Japan and weddings, an interesting idea

Last year a very good friend of mine married his beautiful Japanese fiancé after many years together. The wedding was planned for the last Friday in October, the anniversary of when they met as well as being the anniversary of the day he proposed. However Mother Nature had different ideas and organised a twin typhoon landfall pretty much at the exact location where the festivities were due to take place. For the safety of themselves, guests and the staff of the venue, it had to be called off.

In the UK this would be a disaster. The law requires a wedding is publicly announced four weeks in advance so that anyone who objects has the opportunity not to hold their peace as it were. Not in Japan. We rescheduled for the following Monday, the staff all came in on their day off and the ceremony went ahead a few days late but a wonderful time was had by all. And that's because a wedding isn't necessarily a wedding in Japan.

To get married, the couple simply need to sign the appropriate documents at the local ward office. Indeed, they can actually take the documents home and sign them there. As a witness, I've signed a friend's documents over a glass of wine in a bar when the happy bride wasn't in attendance. The ceremony is important in that it's a statement of intent and desire. A marriage though comes with red tape. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ten things to do in Osaka

1   Hold a hanami party under the sakura blossom in the grounds of Osaka castle

2   Take a selfie with the Glico man behind you

3   Sit for half an hour on the Dotonbori Bridge and watch the world go by

4   Lose yourself in the underground shopping mall of Umeda

5   Try to pronounce Nagahoridori

6   Visit the covered market at Namba

7   Take the train to Ikoma and walk to the shrine at the top

8   See the bands play on a Sunday morning at Osaka-jo

9   Walk Shinsaibashi-suji on a Saturday afternoon

10  Order okonomiyaki at President Chibo

11  Have a beer with a friend in a six mat tatami room with no air-conditioning.

OK, that was eleven. But they will make you smile.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan - a kind of Thanksgiving

A great souvenir of Japan are the Seven Lucky Gods as small bronze statues. Collecting them over time is something of a badge of honour to many gaijin living here. It shows a kind of affinity with the country and the culture. It also makes it simple to decide on a birthday present. However, although they are known as the gods of fortune in Japan, only one is actually Japanese, Ebisu.

Ebisu was born without bones (or in some stories without arms and legs) and grew up in northern Japan bringing fortune to fishermen however the remaining six gods can trace their origins to Chinese and Indian tradition. A little like Santa, they arrive on a Ship of Fortune of Treasure Ship on New Year's Eve and hand out gifts to children. The traditional gift is money, pristine bank notes in an red envelope. Also simplifying the Christmas list. 

I once shared a New Year's breakfast with the family of a close Japanese friend. This is the equivalent of a Thanks Giving dinner and it was very kind of them to invite me. It's the time the whole family comes together, brothers, sisters, uncle, aunts, everyone at the table. And the children showed me the money they had received and I taught them how to fold the notes into paper planes. Then one pushed the plane up his brothers nose and a sibling battle commenced. And from the look on everyone's face around the table, it was clearly my fault.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

TenguLife - a new name

A Tengu is the name for an inquisitive, winged Japanese spirit, full of mischief and living in the mountainous caverns under Mt Fuji. At least that's one version I've heard and the one I like the most. It's also the name of my favourite old chain restaurant in Japan which served the best chicken wings ever. Seriously ever! But now the chain as it was has gone and the wings with it. However I digress.

Earlier in November I raised the question as to a new name for this blog. The one I've used for a year is too long I decided after a friend asked what it was and it took me three times to get it right. So a new name it is. TenguLife. Something uniquely Japanese and easy to remember in English. The purpose of the blog remains the same, to illustrate and illuminate some of the more curious aspects of life in Japan. I hope you enjoy. And Eo, I'd love to see your interpretation.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Earthquake! An extract from Fifty Six Days - the story as it happened

Twenty-Four Hours

Our gas is off. I know this because the water is cold. No time for a freezing shower. It’ll be the trip-switch outside and all I need to do is reset it. All modern buildings in Japan have an emergency breaker switch on the gas supply for just this incidence. Gas is the fuel to start fires and had been responsible for the repeated fires in Kobe that had destroyed large areas of the city.

Working my way between our house and the next I reach the meter and press the safety system. Gas back, water back on. Being the good neighbor I realize the decent thing to do is also help the family next door. He hasn’t spoken to me since we moved in nearly twelve years before. He has simply decided to pretend I don’t exist. I turn to reset his system and see it’s working normally. Either he was lucky, or he’d been out earlier to fix his own and decided I remain non-existent.

The phones still weren’t working and Skype had become our default. And all the people who thought they’d have a laugh with amusing Skype names were suddenly having to tell friends their creations. The hard part was letting each other know, even the email seemed to be down now.

The office was a mess with the south building worse than the north where we had been the afternoon before. On the fifth floor of the south building entire sections of ceiling had collapsed, cabinets had fallen against the elevator doors and virtually nothing was left on any desk.
Something that still haunts me today is the sight of three one-ton fireproof safes that had been against the glass, outer wall of the building and had moved more than twenty centimeters into the building. If they had moved the opposite direction they would have fallen to the street and killed anyone unfortunate enough to have been passing.
We walk through the building. A small number people have stayed overnight, unable to make the journey home. Some due to distance, some simply lost until the trains were working. We talk and check they’re ok. They’re shaken and exhausted, worried about families and not being able to reach them but they’re ok. My office is a mess.

Dave smiles looking at his own office and comments that it seems to be an improvement.

The concrete floor of the reception area is cracked along its length and the heavy concrete steps, comprising blocks two meters long, are now all skewed from moving around during the main shock. We check the entire building. The top floor of the south building only having glass walls rather than concrete ones, the damage is extensive. I look at the glass partitions and think we’ll need bomb tape on those before we let people work near them again.

After checking the building we withdraw to a local coffee shop, amazingly still open as the scale of the disaster overwhelms everyone’s comprehension. The automatic response is to turn to routine, normality. And that is what the staff were doing. We begin to decide our approach. At this time no one really understood what had just happened. Wham!
Firstly it was clear that we couldn’t let the staff back in until the building had been structurally confirmed as safe. The next was to consider what to do about when we could re-open the office. As we were discussing this, we didn’t realize it but the first reactor building at Fukushima exploded and the crisis was turning from a disaster into a catastrophe.
We decided to issue the instruction that the office would be closed Monday at a minimum to allow time to confirm it was safe and that we’d send an update message after discussing the situation further on the Sunday.
Wham! The aftershocks continued through the morning, one large enough to throw my car around as I drove home. My house, being three stories and made of wood, simply amplified each shock and over the next few days a nauseous feeling akin to seasickness set in.

Wham! Wham! Wham! 

Emails start to sign off with “stay safe”.

Manga and the Salaryman

Manga is an interesting concept in Japan. So much more than a simple comic it covers genres from romance to science fiction to horror to graphic detail that will make your great auntie blush. It's also a massive, multi-billion dollar industry that represents an estimated 20%+ of the publishing market here. Manga are highly stylised pieces of contemporary art in their own right many of which become collectors items valued by child and adult alike.

The industry was created in the late 19th century though grew rapidly in the austere post war years when there was little else to entertain the masses. One key difference to the western style comic though is the audience. You are as likely to see a business man on a train engrossed in a story as you are to find a teenager with their nose in the book in a convenience store on a Friday evening.

We once commissioned a manga for from a number of top Japanese manga artists to celebrate the 2002 World Cup held in Japan and Korea. Forgetting to brief in detail that the intended audience included many from overseas the artwork was beautiful, story lines strong and the warning stickers we had to put on each copy, bright red and very clear. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nuclear power, earthquakes, tsunamis and the choices for Japan. And the planet.

This blog is designed and deliberately written to be family friendly. As such, here, I don't tackle controversial subjects and don't aim to argue subjective points. I simply set out to explain interesting aspects of life in Japan. And following a couple of major earthquakes over the last few days which always re-ignites the debate, here we go on nuclear power….

Before the earthquake of March 2011, approximately 30% of Japan's electricity was generated by the nuclear industry. Soon after, all 100+ reactor cores were shut down for politically acceptable "maintenance". And since then Japan has been looking for an alternative. Scrambling that first summer the country brought older power stations out of mothballs, started to import vast quantities of oil and natural gas and even plugged two massive floating generators used for powering oil rigs into the Tokyo grid.

Whilst renewables are obviously a good idea, the lack of power storage systems means they will remain marginal until that issue is resolved. Tidal power is beginning to develop, wind farms are progressing and even micro-hydro plants used in irrigation of rice fields are growing in popularity. But in reality major schemes such as terawatt hydroelectric damns (which produce significant greenhouse gasses through decay of foliage by the way) are years if not decades away. So the question is, do we continue to burn fossil fuels and risk the atmosphere, or do we switch the nuclear power back on and risk the land? Or alternatively do we switch off the lights and use less power?

Before the earthquake; Tokyo's lights are bright and vibrant

Tokyo after the quake. People switched off those lights to save power.

Europe at night. Does each light bulb have to be on?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Japan - if you do nothing else, do this

Japan is a country with a living religion. Well, actually two, Buddhism and Shintoism. And if you were wondering, Buddhists have temples and Shinto followers have shrines. Most people will actually follow both beliefs and separate them depending upon event. Very roughly speaking, Shinto is for happy times and Buddhism is for sad. But that is a huge generalisation.

Many tourists when they come to Japan enjoy visiting some of the famous shrines and temples such as the Meiji Shrine and Zojoji Temple in Tokyo or Kyomisu and the Golden Temple in Kyoto (there's also a silver one too by the way). But almost no one will take away the one single greatest memory you can have from the visit. Photographs are one thing, but a temple book, well that's part of history. 

Temple books are small, blank, folded books you can buy for a few dollars on your first visit. And then, at each location you go to, whilst watching everyone else take photographs, you can ask the priest to inscribe your book. He'll write the date, the name of the temple and stamp it with the temple's hanko. And you will have something so much more valuable as a memory of your visit to Japan than a simple photograph. Happy temple hunting.

My temple book opened out to show some of the temples I've visited over the years.

Friday, November 21, 2014

You can track earthquakes in Japan too

On Wednesday we experienced another aftershock in Japan, an echo of the M9.0 from March 2011. I posted a map showing the 949 quakes over M5.0 we've experienced since then and had several questions asking where did I find the data. Very simple, soon after the earthquake a developer called Paul Nicholls created a real time map linked into the Japan sensor network; it became something of a hobby tracking the shocks as we were thrown sideways on a regular basis. Here is a follow-up image showing all 3,234 quakes (as of 5.00PM today) we've had the pleasure to host since then and if you'd like to follow this site just go to And thank you to Paul for creating this site.

However, if you'd like to be a little more proactive following earthquakes in Japan then download this App, Yurekuru ("Earthquake Coming"). In the settings you can choose where in Japan you'd like to follow and the level of quake you'd be concerned about. Mine is set to Shibuya in central Tokyo and only alerts me for anything over M5.0. Below that doesn't seem too exciting these days.

The system is linked again into the government sensor network. When an earthquake is detected it issues an alert across the entire data network and you'll receive a few seconds warning. 

A few seconds doesn't sound much but it's about the time it takes for you to stop watching TV and get to the children's room to ensure they're safe and not scared. At those moments ten seconds is akin to an eternity.

And so if you're sitting in New York and have family in Fukushima, it will still work. And you can track when we're running to the kids' room to check they're ok and hopefully watching them quietly fall back to sleep.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Aftershock - the battered coastline of Fukushima

10.51 this morning and the house started to move again. The first p-wave came through as a sudden jolt followed by the s-wave, the slow rolling tremor that causes the real damage. Fortunately it wasn't too strong but at about thirty seconds it was obvious somewhere wasn't having a good time. Checking the earthquake App on my phone I can see the epicentre was just off the coast of Fukushima. Again.

The earthquake of March 11, 2011 was a little further north than Fukushima but close enough to change the way the world sees nuclear power. And then the aftershocks continued to pound the coastline over the next few months, slowly reducing in frequency but not actually coming to a final halt. Today's quake was a M5.4, not large by Japan standards but enough to rattle Tokyo some 300km away. 

The map below doesn't show all the earthquakes to hit Japan post 3/11. It only shows the 949 we've experienced over M5.0. In all there have been over 3,000 since the main quake. And on the Tohoku coastline, just about dead centre in the area covered with dots, is the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Much closer to the action, they won't have been having a good morning.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Daikanyama - so just how do you move a train station over night? - just watch

Daikanyama is a little know but delightful Greenwich Village type district of Tokyo nestled between Shibuya and Ebisu. It's home to the Hacienda where the finest margaritas can be found, Tableaux where Eddie, star of A-Team, Dallas and Knots Landing, would entertain as the finest mantra d' in town and referred to in "Lost in Translation" as having a great sushi bar, though I somewhat question whether anyone in their first days in Tokyo would actually know about it.

It's also home to a small train station which on 15 March 2013 had to move. The end of the line was Shibuya where the station was being relocated to the new (though fairly unloved) Hikarie building, 100m away and several levels underground. This meant that the tracks at Daikanyama would be coming from much deeper than before and would no longer intersect at ground level. The choice was to lower the station or build new tracks. They opted to build new tracks.

Just before 1.00am the final train passed through. And then 1,200 people set to work in a co-ordinated ballet lasting a little over four hours to change an entire train line linking Tokyo to Yokohama. And at just after 5.00am the first train arrived dead on time. And here's a video of it happening. Seriously, only in Japan.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Magnitude 9: A serialisation from Fifty-Six Days - An Earthquake in Japan

At 2.46pm on Friday, March 11, 2011 the office began to move. Earthquakes are common in Japan and usually begin with a jolt and then a few seconds of shaking before they subside again. I was in a meeting at the time with Paul and two others from McKinsey, a consultancy. Paul being relatively new to Japan was at first interested in the experience. He hadn’t been through a noticeable earthquake before having not felt the foreshock two days earlier.
Soon though, we all realized this was no ordinary earthquake. The heavy meeting table we were sitting at, and soon took shelter under, started to move violently around. Ceiling panels began to shake and we could hear them falling outside the door. Earthquake proof cabinets bolted to the walls sprang open and spilled their contents on the floor.
The earthquake had lasted for five minutes by the time the tremors started to subside. We looked out of the office and called if everyone was alright. We saw an entire floor of shocked staff, some in tears, everyone with the contents of their desks now on the floor around them. The standard wisdom immediately after an earthquake is to remain inside the building due to the danger injury from falling debris as you step outside. That is, unless you believe the building itself was no longer safe. With the ceiling caved in in places and cracks in concrete walls we took the decision to evacuate everyone as quickly as possible.
Clearing people from the far end of the floor, the fourth in a five-story building, we began to help staff towards the stairwells. One had recently broken his leg but refused all assistance and made his way with everyone else down the stairs. Another had left her mobile phone behind on her desk and was trying to work her way back against the tide to retrieve it. We convinced her to exit now and worry about her phone later. We cleared the third floor and then found chaos on the second where racking and samples of new apparel were now thrown around the room. We ensured everyone was out and moved on to the first floor where we found people had already left and were moving to the open parking areas outside the building.
Hurrying to the entrance we saw groups of people standing under the vast glass awning outside the building and virtually rugby tackled them as we moved them to safety. Better a little rain than several tons of glass falling on you. Then it struck us we’d forgotten to clear the top floor. Looking around at the number of people in the car park we reckoned they’d figure it out though and kept moving people away from the building.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had just experienced one of the largest earthquakes anywhere in history. This M9.0 had released ten times the power of all the earthquakes in Japan in the last hundred years. We looked around, many people were in shock, everyone trying their unresponsive phones. People were looking to us for guidance on what they should do next.
It was obvious we were going to have to close the office for the rest of the day and as it turned out we closed it for the following week too. We started to tell people to begin to make their way home as quickly as possible. If they lived too far to walk, find a hotel, we’d cover the cost; if they could find a taxi, we’d pay for that too. With the immediate closure of the rail and subway systems, many people realized they didn’t know how to get home. Living their lives on the subway system, they didn’t even know which way to walk.
Wham! At this point the first aftershock hit us, a 7.9, massive in its own right. Standing in the car park I watched as the fifth floor of the building swayed and was glad we’d made the decision to move outside.
At times like this the first thing you think about is family. The mobile phone system was already down, locked with millions of people trying to make calls to loved ones all at the same time. I tried to text Masami but this jammed too and I had no idea how my twelve-year old son, Kai, was. Thoughts of his school collapsing scream through my mind.
It was after nearly twenty minutes that I remembered he had his iPhone with him and that I could track it. The earthquake had struck ten minutes before the normal end of school. I searched for him and saw that he was on Meguro Dori, which meant he was on the school bus. If the school bus had survived that meant the school had survived and he was safe. It also meant that I knew to make my way home rather than to the school and that I could now focus on the several hundred people around me and not worry for a short while.
The relief with the knowledge that he was safe was immense and in the days that followed I sent a thank you message via a friend to Apple, it really had made a difference.
But I still couldn’t reach Masami. 
It was March and still cold with a light rain falling. Letting everyone back in briefly to pick up coats and jackets for their journey home I went back to my office on the fourth floor. My desk had moved thirty centimeters from the wall and had only been stopped from going further by a cabinet moving in the opposite direction. I had tried calling and texting from my iPhone but nothing was transmitting at this point and wouldn’t for the next few days.
The corporate email was still working and I sent a message to our head office in Germany to let them know we’d suffered a major earthquake and were evacuating the office. For some reason, as we’d initially cleared the building, I had started to video the events as they unfurled. This short video was later distributed quickly around the world so that the Group could see the devastation for themselves.
I’d been in Japan for the Kobe disaster, a M6.8 that had razed the city in 1995. I’d had friends who had been through it and had later talked to me about the experience. I knew the phones wouldn’t be working any time soon and that the rail and subways would stay closed until they could be thoroughly checked.
I also knew that the highways across Tokyo would be immediately closed for emergency inspection, if they were still standing at all. This meant the roads were going to very soon hit gridlock and using a car was going to be a liability. At this point we didn’t know if the highway system had survived inside the capital but we could see dark clouds of smoke rising from the direction of the port and the main oil terminals.
We urged staff to start the walk home as quickly as possible. Over the next few days we received many emails from people who had taken the advice, left immediately and been able to return safely to their homes by evening or had found hotel rooms to stay. We also received many messages from people saying they wished they’d taken our advice and that by waiting to begin their journeys they had been stranded for the night. We were just glad they were safe.
Hotels in Tokyo started to fill quickly and many responded by offering options to double up in rooms or provided blankets to people sheltering in lobbies. The scale of what was happening around us was beginning to become clear and we realized things wouldn’t be normal for a while.
Once the car parks had been emptied of everyone who wanted to leave, I started to walk home with MDR, a friend from the office who lived in the same direction. It was only eight kilometers and I walked it regularly simply for the exercise.
The good news was that we were seeing relatively little structural damage. Later though we found out that liquefaction had caused major destruction across northern Tokyo. Liquefaction is a deadly side effect of earthquakes where ground water is forced to the surface by the shaking, turning the earth to a viscous liquid. Buildings sink into the ground and collapse and storm drains float to the surface being pipes filled with nothing more than air.
I had walked the ground in Kobe and seen ten story buildings lying in the streets. We seemed to have been saved that fate. At this point, where we were in central Tokyo, the infrastructure was relatively unscathed. In fact, the closest I came to harm as we walked back was when a construction truck reversed quickly into the road and nearly took out a group of pedestrians, including myself.
Halfway home, as we past the National Stadium, I remembered I had Skype on my phone and that Kai, if home by now, was very likely to have his Skype open on his computer. I tried to contact him and to my great relief, connected and heard his voice. Everything changes in a crisis and the first thing I heard him say was the dogs are safe. I smiled and asked if he was OK and where was his mother.
After confirming he was OK, and that Masami was also home and fine, I continued the journey in a much more positive frame of mind. However, these feelings were soon dampened as we walked along and saw crowds standing outside shop windows. The stores had turned television screens around to follow the news coverage and let people see what was happening as the first images of the tsunami were broadcast by helicopter. We watched in stunned silence as the black wave chased tiny cars along roads and slowly swallowed each up in its path. We knew we were watching people die and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Walking on through Shibuya, the central district of Tokyo near my home, we were met with waves of thousands of people, stranded and trying to make their own way home. Each day over two million people pass through Shibuya Station and it was now closed to all rail traffic. Most people simply had no choice and they began the very long queue for a bus which itself was going to be caught in the city gridlock soon if it could move at all.
Millions were now walking. Shibuya is not just crowded but full. There is no space between the thousands waiting in line for the buses. None will be coming and none will be leaving any time soon. Train lines are closed and road is their only way home. I watch from a footbridge for a few minutes and wonder how long they’ll have to wait.

Many have already decided it’s time to move. As the crowd leaves en masse they reach a crossing and everyone stops for the red light. No pushing. It turns green and the wave of people slowly moves off together. I wonder how many times that would be repeated this night.

I was fortunate living only an hour and a half walk from the office. I heard many stories later of friends walking twenty hours in business shoes or heels and the buses from the outer lying schools not being able to return children to their homes until the next morning. Yokohama International School enacted its emergency plan and placed children with local families for the night. One outlying international school started the long trek back into Tokyo only to be caught in the gridlock until morning.
The house survived without serious damage. Kai had moved the dog cages under the table so they’ll be safe and he’s found our cycling helmets, the best protection we have. Although it sounds a clichĂ© from a disaster movie, Masami had actually been halfway through a hair appointment and came running out of the building only to see the cranes on top of the half constructed Hikarie building bending to the point of collapse.
I had a beer with MDR and we manage to Skype a message to his wife that he’s safe and will be home soon. He helps me right the television and then takes his leave.
An email arrives from my parents. They’ve heard about the earthquake and wonder if we’re OK as I haven’t contacted them. Normally if there is a report of an earthquake in Japan I’d call and let them know we’re all safe. This time there was still no telephone. I Skype and get through, telling them not to go to video mode. The networks will never take it.

That evening Skype became the lifeline. Whilst the phone systems were down, we found later than anything based on Internet communication still worked. Even Skype on my phone worked as this transmitted through the data networks rather than the voice ones. It allowed us not just to contact family outside Japan and reassure them we were still alive but also to start the process of coordinating our response to the unfolding crisis.
The first messages start to arrive asking if we’re ok. Offers of help but what can anyone do. Hugs from Vancouver, concern from the UK. Friends from school and university reach out, we’re in their thoughts.
That first night we sit watching the television with our shoes lined up at the front door for a quick exit if necessary. My earthquake bags are ready, one inside the house and another one outside in case the building collapses. We watch giant whirlpools forming off the coast and ocean freighters sitting on buildings where they’d been casually dropped, their final resting place until they would be cut up with acetylene torches months later. 
Fire was spreading across cities, something that seemed to go against the concept of the wall of water we were seeing. The first reports of deaths start to appear in the news broadcasts. A body here, two more there. Then a jump, the fire service in Minami-Sanriku reports hundreds of bodies lying in the streets. We knew that this would just be the beginning. And we still hadn’t heard of power station called Fukushima. We sleep fully dressed, the hallway lights on. Wham!

Clearing the building


Monday, November 17, 2014

Getting towed - The empty backstreets of Tokyo

When you drive the backstreets of London, or most English towns for that matter, one issue that stands out is how the roads are lined with a never ending sea of parked cars. Finding somewhere to park your own car would seem to be a major challenge in its own right. So how come the streets of Tokyo are so clean and clear? There isn't a single car deposited by the pavement overnight. 

The issue in Japan is that you have to have a police certificate proving you have off-road parking before you can even buy a car. Parking on-road is not allowed (short term drop off being an exception) and so if your house doesn't have a garage or drive way you're forced to lease a permanent lot where your car can be parked. And a relatively large contingent of usually old and retired men patrolling the streets will come around and check. And at $700 a time for each infringement, it really is worth playing ball.

And if you do leave your car on the road and later find a kanji message chalked on the asphalt next to it, consider yourself lucky. The message says you're soon about to be towed if you don't move it. And if you find a kanji message chalked where your car should be, you were just a little to slow to read the first message.

The parked up streets of London
Nothing to see on the streets of Tokyo