Saturday, May 31, 2014

TEDxTokyo Day

Today is TEDxTokyo Day. The annual presentation of a myriad of different ideas, actions and projects from people all around the globe who come to the stage in Shibuya to share their thoughts with a crowd lucky enough to have obtained one of the rare and sought after tickets. And what a beautiful day it is. However, if you weren't lucky enough, you can always follow in English (or Japanese) through the live feed at:

Every now and then one of the presentations stops you in your tracks. Last year it was a speech by an Irishman, Rene Duignan, called "Saving Ten Thousand Lives". A emotional and very personal look at how suicide takes the lives of thirty thousand people a year in Japan. 

He explained the lack off support for sufferers of depression, how life insurance policies pay out on suicide so people are actually incentivised to kill themselves to free their families of money problems and even how relatives are made to pay the clean up costs after someone steps in front of a train.

And he spoke of the lady next door who took her own life. All she wanted to do was talk to someone. And now he is haunted by regret that will last the rest of his life that he didn't say "hello". So on this beautiful day, look up from your phone and smile at someone. It might just change their life.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ten things to do in Tokyo

1     Ride the subway at rush hour

2     Visit the Robot Cafe in Shinjuku

3     Count the different varieties of coffee in a vending machine

4     Ask directions from a policeman

5     Take a 360 panoramic shot standing in the middle of Hachiko crossing

6     Walk along the Meguro River at night

7     Ask two people to read a newspaper out loud together

8     Stand in a convenience store and read a manga comic

9     Ask for something related to, but not actually on, the menu

10   Sit at the bar in The Cerulean and watch the sun go down


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A little piece of Britain in Japan

Last night I joined what is becoming something of a regular tradition. People from various different countries gather together on usually the third Tuesday of every month near the railway tracks of Ebisu to celebrate one of the great British traditions, chat, compare notes and compete at the highest levels. And at the end of the evening, everyone walks away with a few more friends than when they arrived.

There were probably fifty people there last night. I counted people from England, Scotland, Canada, America, France, Australia and I'm sure many other countries. There was even a table of ladies from Japan joining in the evening. And so to the strains of Joni Mitchell singing "Big Yellow Taxi" we figured out the connection was "transport" and still lost, going down to better team on the day. The great British pub quiz is alive and well in Tokyo, raising money for charity and testing anyone who cares to join at the Footnik whether the door was black or red. Thank you for another great night.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An ARK in a storm

It has to be said that Japan is a country of animal lovers. Landlords and building owners often try to get in the way of this but on the whole it's always possible to find a place to live that will allow pets. But the living with your pet isn't the main issue. Japan on the whole is in love with new pets. And that is going to set you back easily more than a thousand dollars just to leave the store with your cuddly bundle of fun.

However there is an alternative. Following the disaster of March 2011 thousands of pets were lost. Some as their owners were lost to the wave, some during the evacuation of Fukushima and the towns around it. And some in the flight away from Tokyo. A friend of mine volunteered to look after dogs as their owners flew their families away. He acquired quite a pack. 

But there are shelters. One was started thirty years ago in Kansai, western Japan, as a not-for-profit organisation. These days it also has a Tokyo branch as well and they're looking after many animals lost or abandoned by their owners. And if you have a friend thinking of buying a new pet, suggest to them to try the shelters as well as the pet stores. They might just find their new family member and little bundle of fun there. And at the same time make room for one more.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Ghosts of Norwegian Wood

Karuizawa is a small town in the mountains of central Japan. It was discovered early last century by missionaries looking for somewhere to relax out of the sweltering summer heat of Tokyo. Before that it had been a small stop over on the Nakasendo, the postal road between Kyoto and the capital. Over the years it's become a popular mountain resort as a getaway and in the forests that surround it there are many small and enjoyable coffee shops and trinket stores.

One family, the Onos, had a summer house here too. And they used to pass the days cycling around the woods and hills visiting lakes and waterfalls to simply enjoy the peace and tranquility. And then one of them, Yoko, married an English man. She used to bring him to her favourite coffee shop and he became friends with the owners. A year after this photograph was taken he was shot five times by a complete stranger on the streets of New York. Over a cup of coffee there today I sat and thought "what a waste".

John Lennon enjoyed Karuizawa. He became almost anonymous there. I often think of Yoko Ono as being curiously English and find it easy to forget that although they met in London she is Japanese and her family lives in Japan. Walking around the town there are many small bars and cafes with pictures simply showing him having a normal day. In Karuizawa he became a regular guy again. So if you go to Rizanbo in the forests to the west of Karuizawa, take your guitar, sit on the porch, enjoy your tea and sing Norwegian Wood. And think what could have been.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The children of Rikuzentakata - a thank you letter

I received an email last week. It was a thank you message to adidas, forwarded to me by my old company. In 2012 I'd arranged for the mayor of the town of Rikuzentakata to come and talk to us about his vision for the future. We didn't want him to talk about the tsunami but that was inevitably part of the story. He wanted to change his town so it would be somewhere families would want to live and children would want to stay. Before the wave it was already declining and the events of that day just accelerated the trend.

Coming out of this talk was the beginning of a relationship between the town and the company. People volunteered their time to visit the schools and events were arranged for the children to enjoy. One of the senior team even took the idea to a global level and this resulted in the home town of adidas becoming twinned with Rikuzentaka itself.

Another act was to provide a new baseball uniform for the children, and this brings me back to the letter. It wasn't simply a note of thanks but it explained the importance to them I'm sure no one had realised in advance. The letter explained that before the tsunami there had been three schools but afterwards these were merged into one. The loss of life, facilities and subsequent relocation of families had meant three schools were no longer viable.

The letter explained that at first the children had difficulty coming together. There were rivalries between the different groups and this extended even to the sports field where they found it hard to work together. The letter goes as far as saying they didn't think they would ever see themselves as being one team. And then adidas provided them with a new uniform. It had brought everyone together. Now they were all the same. They felt completely different and much more positive. Now they were one team. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Where did the Koinobori go?

Japanese national holidays tend to be themed. There's Sports Day, Respect for the Aged Day, Marine Day, Coming of Age Day (my personal favourite) and several more. Today though is officially known as Children's Day (kodomo no hi), a name it was given in 1948. Unofficially though it's known as Boy's Day and is largely celebrated by families with young boys rather than girls (there is a separate unofficial Girl's Day later in the year).

The day is traditionally celebrated by flying koinobri, large carp like streamers. These would be flown from roof tops across towns and cities, the number dependent upon how many boys there are in the family. The top streamer represents the father, the next the mother and then one each for the boys. My neighbourhood in central Tokyo used to have many families proudly flying their koinobori. As I walk around today there are none. I wonder to myself if this is a sign of changing times or a sign of an ageing population. Whichever, the neighbourhood used to be a brighter place on Boy's Day.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Golden Week - traffic queue anyone?

The Golden Week holidays are a time to relax in Japan. Four national holidays fall within a few days of each other and added to the weekend it provides one of the few opportunities to take an extended time off work and not feel guilty about it. And as a result about 20% of the population will decide to go somewhere. All at the same time.

The traffic queues are always horrendous. This morning they started before 5.00 AM and by mid-morning the standing traffic extended over 120km out of Tokyo. And Sunday it will be exactly the same coming back. However whilst stressed motorists are sitting baking in their cars in this beautiful weather, I'm going for a walk in Tokyo where the streets are empty and the cafes are quiet. Whatever you decide to do I hope you enjoy your Golden Week.