Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Englishman's keyboard in Japan

At the moment I'm sitting nervously awaiting the outcome of the third attempt at recovering my sick Mac from it's TimeCapsule back up. The first two completed but then helpfully said they didn't want to work because there was an error. Which particular error is information they kept to themselves. 

If this becomes completely irrecoverable it won't just be a disaster. On this computer, and in it's backup are the only copies of fifteen years of weekly video diary. I'm trying one more time. Thankfully my photographs are on a different back up. If asked the one thing I'd bring with me if there was a fire in the house, this would be it.

In Japan, technical support in English can be a major headache. 99.9% of consumers are Japanese and so naturally almost all support services provide little English back-up. There are a few exceptions for example GOL my ISP that I'm celebrating twenty years with this year. I've only known my wife a few months more than that. And then there's the Apple Genius Bar. And I'm really hoping tomorrow they can fix the problem and recover the diary I've been keeping all these years. If they can't, it will be a tragedy.

Update: Six visits in total. Computer is dead. Backup encryption key has failed. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Namazu - the mother of all quakes

Earthquakes are generally considered to be by-products of plate tectonics. As the continental plates that make up the surface of the earth slowly drift across the globe they crash into each other in infinite slow motion. And the result is an earthquake. At least that's the commonly held theory.

In Japan there was another idea. It wasn't continental drift that had anything to do with it but a giant catfish, a namazu, far underground that when it thrashes around, the earth shakes. Normally the namazu is restrained by a god holding it down with a large stone, but every now and then it wriggles free and causes chaos.

And as this is now known to be the cause, the symbol for an earthquake emergency is now a catfish. The emergency service roads that provide access across cities and country in the case of a major quake are marked with a prominent fish. Keep clear if see one when the time comes and happy fishing.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fifty Six Days - The story of an earthquake in Japan

It was fifty-six days from the moment the earth sent its first warning of the catastrophe to come until the day it took a brief pause for breath. Fifty-six days that saw one of history's most violent earthquakes and tsunami followed ultimately by the nuclear disaster that threatened Tokyo itself. 

And this is the story of how it unfurled around me. 

Fifty-six days.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Whales vs AKB48 - which is the more traditional?

In the last weeks Japan has been called to task for whale hunting. Since 1986 it continued to hunt whales for "scientific purposes" whilst arguing it was traditional and therefore should be allowed. If it was for scientific purposes then the justification about it being traditional seems somewhat superfluous but lets leave that for the moment.

Slightly before WWII Japan introduced industrial hunting with technology from Norway. Only then did whale hunting start to increase significantly. Prior to that, Japan had consumed no more whale meat than any other fishing nation and hunted far less than countries such as America. It was only after the war, when Japan desperately needed to feed a starving country, did the hunt increase significantly. School children in the 50's and 60's grew up on whale meat.

So, hunting whale can be argued to be no more traditional in Japan than in any other country that has abandoned it permanently. However, as can be seen from the lunch yesterday held by members of the Diet (the Japanese Congress) who are here eating whale, the industry maintains a powerful level of political support. So the question is why do people continue to argue it's traditional or even scientific research. 

In summary, it might be argued that it's reasonable to say whale hunting in Japan is no more traditional than AKB48, a current popular girl group, a format which traces its traditions and culture to the entertainment districts of Yoshiwara 400 years ago. Also, they're a lot more popular, don't receive a government subsidy and it has to be said, look a whole lot better than a dead whale.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tongue-twisters of Japan

As a child I used to love tongue twisters. I would scour books (it being the days before the internet) looking for harder and harder ones to master. A simple "she sells sea shells on the seashore" became far too straightforward very quickly however the classic "Peggy Babcock" reeled off three times fast still catches me out every now and then to this day.

However, coming to Japan opened up a whole new world of pain for me. A quick search on Google shows how many different examples there are. Japanese people love tongue twisters. So as you go about your day, try saying "red paper, yellow paper, blue paper" but do it in Japanese. This is still my favourite. Have fun.

Aka-maki-gami, ki-maki-gami, ao-maki-gami

Friday, April 11, 2014

The surreal beauty of walking backwards through Tokyo

Sometimes the creativity amazes me. I've lived in Japan over twenty years and have never seen anything that illustrates as well as this how my life sometimes feels. This is a remarkable piece of video which not only delightfully introduces the streets of Tokyo but at the same time captures the surreal feeling it can also induce. It's not simply surreal beauty, it's surreal reality. Welcome to Japan. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Crossed fingers and paying the check

One of the universal laws of the planet is that when you have finished your enjoyable dinner at your favourite restaurant, you summon the check by signing your hand with an imaginary pen, letting the waiter know you would like to pay. That is, it's a universal law everywhere except in Japan. Signing your hand in the air is more likely to illicit a pen from the waiter or a simple confused look of "what is that person doing waving his hand in the air?".

I've always wondered why this is but when you consider that signatures aren't used in Japan it becomes obvious. People don't understand because Japan doesn't use signatures. It uses hankos. So to summon the check you cross your index fingers and soon you will be on your way. Simple really. And this gives me a good excuse to show a picture of a restaurant. Not just any but one of my favorite in Japan. The Hacienda in Daikanyama. Order the frozen margarita and ask for the "yarda" version. Trust me. It'll make you happy.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A stretching birthday present in Japan

It was my birthday recently and I had a wonderful day with the family. One of the gifts I received though was a sports stretch session at SSS in central Tokyo. Never having been to a stretch session before I was somewhat unsure what to expect. And today I found out.

Kaneko-sensei is awesome! Although the guy in the corner in the background had me somewhat concerned as I arrived, I was subject to potentially the most painful workout I have ever been to. Thirty minutes of exquisite pain. But I was promised that afterwards I would feel better. And now I do. Thank you for my birthday present!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Orphan tsunami - an alert in Japan

The M8.2 earthquake experienced by Chile yesterday was massive. Few quakes in history have been larger and in fact there have been less than twenty of this scale anywhere in the world in the last 150 years. And earthquakes can produce tsunami. And these can be worse. Then following a M5.3 in Tohoku at 8.22 this morning a tsunami warning was briefly issued but quickly cancelled.

However, one characteristic of these huge waves is that they travel enormous distances relatively undiminished. The Chile quake created a two meter wall of water towards the immediate coastline but it also sent one in the opposite direction into the Pacific. These orphan tsunami are historically unpredictable but can be devastating when they come on shore as they arrive without tremor or warning. And now, after it has crossed the ocean, we're under tsunami warning again in Japan. Twice in one day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The tiny bars of old Japan - soon to be no more

Shinjuku's Golden Gai, the street of many bars, is famous in Japan. It's in all the travel books and even comes replete with its own wikipedia page and robot cafe (but that is a different story). It's also, despite claims to the contrary, not unique. There is a very well kept secret in Shibuya that will not be with us much longer as it's scheduled for redevelopment very soon. So if you get the chance, take the time and visit Nombei Yokocho and step into a different world.

The area is a block containing forty seven separate tiny bars, each with a handful of seats at street level and a "function room" upstairs (that can accommodate a further three or four people). The main street is no more than a narrow alley-way (Nombei Yokocho roughly translates as "Drunkard's Alley") lined with tiny sliding doors. The area was actually developed post war as a cheap place for people to relax and forget their worries for a while. Now it's one of the few remaining in Japan.

Stepping inside the Mama-san will welcome you in and motion for you to take a seat. Often this means the current occupants will need to shuffle round but are always happy to do so. And suddenly you're back about three hundred years in time. The fire safety people would never allow it today...

April Fool's Day and the World Cup

Looking around I'm somewhat at a loss to find any really good April Fool's stories today in Japan. Nothing on TV that I've come across and nothing seemingly in the newspapers either. Except possibly for one particular article. It's been report that the chairman of the JFA, the Japanese Football Association has offered to host the 2022 World Cup in Japan if Qatar falls completely apart.

The reason this is a questionable one is that it would mean Japan has the Rugby World Cup in 2019, the Olympics in 2020 and then the World Cup in 2022 (followed by the Women's World Cup in 2023 if that bid is also successful). So either someone is being opportunistic with the news today, or we're in for an awesome run of events over the next few years!