Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sailing Sagami Bay - what a beautiful day

Sagami Bay, to the south west of Tokyo, is made up of the Izu Peninsula to the west and the Miura Peninsula to the east. It's deceptively wide and sits on top of the intersection of the Pacific, Asiatic and Philippine's tectonic plates. Indeed, the Izu Peninsula is actually on a separate element of the earth's crust from the rest of Japan. And the bay it creates is not only famous for earthquake swarms, it is also perfect for sailing.

And watch out for the flying fish. If you're not quick, everyone else will believe you're seeing things.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Andy's - the izakaya with the best crab in the world

Tokyo has some of the finest cuisine in the world. When first included in The Michelin Guide in 2007 there was general consternation when the tally of stars exceeded that of other renown cities such as Paris and New York. People were surprised that such a gem had remained hidden for so long. A short stay on the ground will quickly persuade the uninitiated that it really is a place worth visiting if just for the food alone.

There is however an alternative to the expensive restaurants of places of the likes of Ginza or Marunouchi and that is to go native and search out the cheap and cheerful izakayas where ever they may be found. Exploring the backstreets of Shibuya or Shinjuku can often turn up tiny places full of life and laughter as well as the thick smoke of charcoal fires cooking everything from squid to chicken livers. Venture inside and you'll always be welcomed with a smile and an invitation to take a seat.

One of my favourite areas of Tokyo though is underneath the railway arches of Yurakucho. And one of the best places to visit is "Andy's". It's always packed with people relaxing, laughing and enjoying a beer. Andy, a long term English resident of Japan, greets you with a smile to make you feel welcome as you squeeze your way to your seat. As the evening moves on, soon you'll find everyone is talking to everyone else as the separate tables seem to merge into one. Don't worry about the menu, just ask Andy to chose for you. But whatever you do, make sure he brings out the crab. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Godzilla comes to Tokyo and the Patriot Missiles move to Ichigaya

Godzilla can be fairly said to be an iconic pop-culture super-monster. The name is pronounced with a very soft "d" in Japanese, almost to the extent it can sound more like "Gojzilla" most of the time. Created in 1954 he has had various different characters, sometimes the saviour of Japan and sometime destroyer of New York. And the movies contain probably some of the worst special effects ever created. But then maybe it was just ahead of it's time.

The latest incantation has recently hit the silver screen around the world and will finally launch in Japan on 25 July, the 98th of 101 countries to be shown. Only fans in Angola, Bahamas and Bosnia have had to wait longer. We can assume it will be incredibly successful but even before it is seen by the stars at the premier it has already provided a wake-up surprise for the residents of Roppongi in central Tokyo.

Midtown is a swanky development opened in 2007 that brought a much needed refresh to the old site of the Defence Agency including a hotel, offices, a labyrinthical shopping arcade that defies navigation and a very nice park used for skating in winter and picnics in summer. It's also where the occasional pop star is arrested for being somewhat inebriated and having forgotten his clothes earlier in the evening. And the relocation of the Defence Agency having the added benefit of no longer requiring Patriot Missile batteries to be stationed in the centre of nightlife every time the North Koreans decide to send a missile flying over the country.

And then last week a 25 foot high Godzilla climbed out of the earth and came for a visit to the quiet and peaceful Midtown park.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Thirty three years - farewell from Kamakura

Kamakura is a beautiful town on the Pacific coast of Japan about one hour's drive from Tokyo. Although designated a city, it is home to only about 180,000 residents. In the days before reliable transport and modern roads it was a summer getaway for the rich and famous of Tokyo but no easy journey. It's also the home for the great Buddha, once housed in a huge temple destroyed by a tsunami some 700 years ago. If you visit you will also see how it also moved several inches in 1923 during the Great Kanto Earthquake. It's also been the penultimate resting place of millions of souls as they pause on their way to lasting peace.

Kamakura is a natural fortress being surrounded by mountains on three sides and ocean on the fourth. And in the mountains the hillsides are lined by cemetery after cemetery. These are places of peace and tranquility rather than of sadness. People and families are remembered but in a good way for the lives they lived. And the happiest of times comes thirty three years after they passed away. In a short ceremony the spirit is finally released and the family can wish them well and let them go. And then you can step back and ponder just how beautiful the hills of Kamakura really are. I never knew you but enjoy your peace, your family is happy now.

Blue or Green - The Schizophrenic Japanese traffic light

Every country in the world uses a standard convention for traffic lights. Red for "stop", amber / orange for "stop if you can stop safely" (though in many places this appears to be interpreted as a sign for "speed up") and green for "go". This is generally seen as a good thing. Imagine the chaos if different countries used different conventions. Even imply crossing a border could lead to disaster if red means go and green means stop. And add to that switching from left to right.

Japan also abides by this convention. More or less. In an interesting local twist, although the light for "go" is demonstrably green, it's referred to as blue in Japanese (aoi instead of midori). The reason for this relates back to the roots of the language itself. Originally there was no differentiation in Japanese between the colours blue and green. In fact the word for green didn't come into common usage until much later than the word for blue. Hence Aoyama, the high class area of central Tokyo means "Blue Mountain" when it's a reasonable assumption that in fact the mountain was green. And it was a hill.

So the reason why people refer to traffic lights as blue is simply habit. At least it was until 1973 when the government said "let's make them green but as blue as we can".  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Neoguri leaves a farewell gift - a rare double rainbow over Tokyo

Tropical Storm Neoguri came and went in the early hours of Friday morning. By the time it reached Tokyo its force was essentially spent, depleted from below by travelling over land and cooler water and from above as its upper reaches were ripped apart by the jet stream. However it left us a gift to remember it by. As the sun was setting the skies in the southwest cleared even as the rain continued in the northeast. And it produced a rare double rainbow.

A rare double rainbow over Tokyo at sunset

Often after a typhoon the skies can be vivid displays of colour, brilliant blues during the day and bright crimson at sunset. A double rainbow is something special though. It's caused a double reflection of light inside the raindrop. Hence the second arc is fainter and the colours become inverted. It's also very rare and said to bring good luck and fortune to those who see it. And in this case I could actually make out the apartment block where they should now be sitting on a pot of gold...

The order of the colours becomes inverted in the second arc
with red on the inside and violet on the outside

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Typhoon Neoguri is on it's way - incredible images from space

Without diving into discussions on global warming, it does seem like there are more typhoons around these days than in the past. I'd been in Japan three years before I experienced my first (which precipitated the evacuation of the Tokyo subway network I was riding on at the time) but now they seem to come by with alarming regularity. And the next one is on it's way. And it's massive.

Thanks to the astronauts aboard the International Space Station we're given a bird's eye view of what is to come. The good news for the capital is that it will have diminished in strength by the time it arrives. But that is probably scarce consolation to the people of Okinawa and Kyushu who have taken a direct hit from the full fury of the storm. Very sadly three dead at the time of writing but Typhoon Tokage a decade ago took nearly 100 people with it as it swept across the country.

Typhoons have two defining characteristics. The windspeed and the ground speed. The windspeed is used to characterise the level of intensity with a super typhoon such as Neoguri showing sustained wind speeds of over 120mph. And anything travelling at 120mph will cause a lot of damage on impact. The ground speed is also a good indicator of how much rain we'll receive. The longer it lingers over us the wetter we'll be. Last year I measured 20cm (8 inches) of rain in a single night from a double typhoon which made landfall in October.

If you've ever wondered, the difference between a typhoon, a cyclone and a hurricane is simply location. Typhoons are in the Pacific, cyclones in the Indian Ocean and hurricanes in the Atlantic. Japan also has another name used to refer to the typhoons that destroyed the invading Mongal army first in 1274 and then again in 1281. In Japanese it's called the "Devine Wind" something we know from a more familiar term from WWII. The Japanese word for "Devine Wind" is "Kamikaze".