Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Secret Scenes from Movies in Japan

Japan can be the inspiration for many things. Karaoke is one (hint: sing the songs you know, not the ones you like) but there are also traits that show up in many great movies.

If you ever wanted to walk the streets of Black Rain, you'll find the scenes include the central avenue of Dotonbori in Osaka, a hive of activity and businessmen who have imbibed a little too much. However, don't try and replicate the motorbike scene that leads to the demise of Andy Garcia. If you ride the bike into the underground car park you'd find you've actually crashed directly into the entrance barriers at Hankyu Umeda station.

If you ever have the urge to re-enact the opening scenes of Blade Runner (interestingly also a Ridley Scott movie) go down to Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, Tokyo at night. Amongst the thousands of people and towering screens you'll feel you're in the film set itself. It was inspired on a visit to Japan and although Scott made Black Rain later in Japan he decided he'd had enough and didn't return here to make a movie again. 

The scene at the secret transport hub in You Only Live Twice is the not-so secret Nakano-Shimbashi station in the Tokyo district of Nakano. The station is still there with daily services using some of the shortest trains on the network at only four cars. The castle used for the secret training camp is Himeji, west of Osaka. Interestingly Himeji is one of only three original castles left in Japan, the rest having being destroyed in the civil war of 1868 (rather than WWII) or dismantled and sold for raw materials.

Lost in translation is set in the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Although a funny and interesting movie, more so for people who live here I believe, I still question whether someone having just arrived would really know about a small sushi bar in Daikanyama. Though I can't fault the concept, they are excellent.
And finally, Inception. A movie that defies comprehension but in my view, that's part of the charm. The castle is based on Nijo Castle in Kyoto and the Shinkansen (bullet train) scenes are from the Tokaido Shinkansen that links Tokyo and Osaka. However the helicopter scene is from Ark Hills, the only helipad in Tokyo licensed for commercial flights. And if you would like to take a trip don't forget to ask for the Luis Vuitton helicopter!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nanataki - onsens, waterfalls, babies, barrels and spiders

Nanataki, on the Izu Peninsular, is a small onsen (spa) town about two hours drive from Tokyo. The meaning of Nanataki is "Seven Waterfalls" and true to the name there are seven waterfalls within a reasonable walking distance of each other though a couple are stretching the definition of what a waterfall actually is somewhat.

The main falls are in the centre of the town and open to the public so for first time practitioners they have the modesty saving advantage of allowing bathing suits at the outdoor pools. Be warned though, jumping into the plunge pools in the river is a bone chilling experience. Whoever said the waters are warmed by volcanic springs was applying a touch of poetic licence.

The man made pools at the side of the river are a pleasure though and you can even sit the afternoon out in your own private warm water barrel if so desired. And if you are looking to start a family then there is even a special cave to receive the blessings of the spirits. Though you may want to check there's no one in there first.

The town is situated at the bottom of a steep sided gorge and access is via a massive double spiral bridge that circles down from the skyline to the valley floor. An experience worth it in its own right. 

In fact Nanataki is a wonderfully picturesque weekend away for many reasons. But for me the hand sized spiders are not one of them. Though I did see one chase a waitress once….    

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Volcanoes of Japan - Ontake Erupts - Update

Recovery crews enter the shrine at the summit of Ontake

[Update] 8 October 2014. More than ten days after the sudden eruption of Ontake it's now known that over fifty people lost their lives and a number still remain missing. The threat of further activity, gas clouds and typhoon Phanfone has curtailed the recovery efforts but the teams continue to search for those believed to remain near the summit.

It was a beautiful autumn day and people were simply out enjoying the view. Current reports suggest that the type of explosion was steam rather than magma driven and therefore hard to detect given the current monitoring systems. The ash is deep and the rocks so large many are immovable. But the recovery teams continue their efforts.

[Update] 36 hours after the start of the disaster things are now looking significantly worse. Over 250 are reported to have been on the mountain when it erupted and at least thirty may have lost their lives. Question is, why were people allowed up there in the first place? I'll try and answer this as it becomes clearer, in the meantime let's hope the people remaining there come down safely along with the emergency crews.

Japan is an island of earthquakes, fault lines and volcanoes. And four hours ago at 11.55 today one of the volcanoes awoke. Normally it would be possible to forecast eruptions through seismic activity in the area. Indeed a few years ago I was "advised" to leave the area of Asamayama and the following day it let us know it wasn't pleased and deposited ash on Tokyo, some 200k's distant.

Mt Ontake appears to have taken people by surprise this time though. The first reports and video being relayed by hikers actually on the mountain. Thankfully no reports of fatalities as yet.

The volcano itself is some 200k's west of Tokyo so it's unlikely there will be any impact here but the local area is being blanketed in some 30cm of ash with more on it's way. The ash weighs on buildings and brings the risk of collapse and is also statically charged which can short power systems and add to the difficulty of rescue.

Ontake is in a relatively rural area but the real concern is if Fuji erupted. The mountain is in a relatively populated area and is approximately 100k's from Tokyo. This would cut Japan in half, severing the main transport routes between Tokyo and the west of the country.

And that wouldn't be good.

The Catfish are on the move - Earthquakes in Japan

This week has been a mobile one. As legend would have it, the namazu (catfish) deep under the earth have been a little restless. A M5.0 and M5.6 slightly up the coast from Tokyo were enough to ensure the windows were rattling and the doors banging. Business as usual since March 2011 on the whole. Life isn't quite as active as it used to be but the tectonic plates like to let us know they are still around.

In Japan it's possible to receive a warning of an impending earthquake providing a few seconds to ensure the kids are safe and brace yourself for what's coming. It works across an automated sensor network throughout the country. When one sensor detects an earthquake it issues an alert across the entire mobile phone system.  Not very useful if you're sitting on the epicentre as you'll feel it before the alert but if you're 100k's away, you'll get the warning before the impact.

Although now all phones have the software built-in there is a very useful third party App called Yurekuru (Temblor's Coming) that can provide the alert if you're using an older smartphone. And last year I found out that sitting on a friend's balcony in Los Angeles it works just fine from there too as it let me know Shibuya was under attack. So if you' like to follow earthquakes in Japan in real time, download Yurekuru, set the parameters, sit back, and wait for the  alarm. You too can join in the fun.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Saruman in Japan - The Ashio Mining Disaster

Japan has had it's fair share of environmental disasters. Minamata disease is the famous one and the concrete coating of anything that doesn't move has to be up there in more recent times. Reputedly there remains one single navigable river that doesn't sport a concrete lining these days as the country uses four times the amount of the material each year than the US.

However one disaster remains little known outside Japan. The Ashio Mining Incident (read "devastation"). The Ashio mines were a series of copper mines that started to supply the early Shogunate in the seventeenth century. Modest at first, they grew to dominate copper supply in Japan until technology meant they could no longer economically be mined and effectively closed in the early 1800's. As technology improved though they re-opened in the late nineteenth century and again expanded rapidly.

Without any form of governmental control the destruction of the local environment began. Pollution from the mines poisoned the fish and the food chain down stream and the demand for timber led to deforestation, reduction in flood protection and the destruction of townships as typhoons ravaged the mountains of Tochigi.

Recently the site was visited by the Emperor as a sign of spiritual healing. However the images we saw reminded me of something completely different. It's really not a difficult jump to go from the mines of Ashio to those of Saruman. The nightmare scenes of the birth of the Uruk Hai really did happen. And it happened at Ashio.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Hai" and the etherial Japanese meaning of "Yes"

One of the interesting oddities of Japanese is the meaning of the word "yes". On the face of it "yes" would normally be inferred to mean, well "yes". But not necessarily so in Japan.

Here "yes" can literally mean yes, no, maybe or even "I'm sorry, I haven't a clue what you're saying". You can imagine the depths of the confusion this can lead too especially when first encountering the word "hai" (the Japanese word for "yes").

The yes and no meanings typically happen in business. A question asked in English may genuinely receive a positive confirmation. However, and this is often the case, it could be a strategic yes, where the answer is actually no but everyone in the room is working out exactly how to break the bad news. 

Added to this, there is often a concern about clarifications. Asking a Japanese colleague "do you understand" will invariably illicit a positive response however the reality could very well be "may be, I'll have a think" or even "what did he say?". Especially in a group it would be rare for someone to actually put their hand up and "Sorry, didn't get that. Could you explain again?" 

And then there's the I haven't a clue what you'er talking about. If someone says "hai" but with a distinctly upward inflection and then just stands there looking at you, you need to try again. This wasn't a yes confirmation but more a statement of "what did you just say?". 

Oh, and don't even get me started on the answers to negative questions. I'll save that one for another day.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The PoW's of Karuizawa

Karuizawa is a quiet town some two and a half hours drive from Tokyo. However, before the highways were built it was a post town on the Nakasendo, one of the main routes from Tokyo to Kyoto where people could rest for the night. And their journey was a lot longer than two and a half hours. Before trains and reasonable roads the journey would take up to four days and part of that was scrambling over rocky hillsides.

So in 1939 when hostilities broke out between Japan and the western allies it seemed the perfect place to intern non-combatant prisoners of war. In America there were camps on the west coast where people of Japanese descent were interned. In Britain people of German ancestry were held on the Isle of Man. And in Japan they were held in Karuizawa, in the central mountains, in the middle of a forest covering half the journey back to Tokyo. And if anyone did try to escape, where were they going to go to anyway?

It's interesting that this is a little known side of Karuizawa however the father of an American friend of mine was one of those caught up in the chaos of war and spent several years in actually quite a beautiful area. Deep snow in winter and cooler than Tokyo in summer. And now, all these years later his son is building a summer retreat here. He learned of it from the stories told by his father and has decided it's somewhere he wants to spend more time. I guess it's true, every cloud does have a silver lining after all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dengue Fever Grips Japan...

A little melodramatic as a title I have to admit. A month ago the first cases of Dengue Fever occurred in Tokyo since the end of WWII. It seemed to originate from Yoyogi Park, the main open expanse in central Tokyo, a little like Central Park in Manhattan or Hyde Park in London. The theory is that someone carrying the disease brought it back from overseas and was then bitten in the park infecting the mosquitos there. And since then it's been steadily spreading across Japan.

The fact that it could be eradicated in 1945 with all the hardships and constraints on resources the country was experiencing speaks well for the chances this time around as well. However, it's not pleasant for those who contracted it and you have to be impressed it was identified at all considering it hasn't been around for nearly seventy years.

And so people are beginning to avoid anywhere where mosquitos are known to inhabit. Yoyogi is closed, a friend's building in Shinjuku is only allowing entrance through a side door avoiding a garden harbouring the insects. And this morning I found it very easy to get coffee at my local Starbucks. Normally at 8.00AM on a pleasant summer morning I wouldn't be able to get a seat. But today, there wasn't much competition.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Kei Nishikori - a turning point?

First, congratulations for Cilic for taking his first grand slam title and to Kei Nishikori for being a worthy opponent. Although the match was a little one sided let's not forget Nishikori beat Djokovic to get there. Not many people have that feather in their cap. 

And then to address the question of whether Nishikori is the first Asian in a final the devil is in the detail. He is clearly the first man from Asia and one holding Asian nationality at the time to be in a final. Michael Chang was born in New Jersey to Taiwanese parents and is listed American so although of Asian descent, he wasn't actually from Asia or holding an Asian nationality at the time.

However for me this match seems to have been something of a turning point for the fans even if not the players. One area of development the Japan sports authorities has worked hard on over the years is to encourage the average fan (as opposed to the dedicated one) to support their team / player / athlete even when they're losing. Historically, if a team under-performed, the support simply dried up and interest moved on. England would regularly play to empty stadiums if people there took this approach!

So the most interesting aspect of the Nishikori defeat for me has not been the condemnation but the wide spread support in defeat. Losing is taboo in Japan with even Olympic athletes being forced to apologise to the nation if they didn't bring home a gold. However, so far on-line media is reflecting on the positives. He made it. He beat Djokovic. He's put his name firmly on the global map of athletes. And everyone seems to be saying "well done". Congratulations Cilic. Congratulations Nishikori. I wonder if this is a turning point. I really hope I don't need to delete this post in the coming days.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Farewell Virgin - it's been a good flight

[Update] And so it ends. The last flight flew and an era ends. Great team and great people. Thank you for all.


Twice in a week I've started a post this way. After twenty five years Virgin Atlantic have announced they're pulling out of Japan. And I've been flying with them for twenty three of those years. A huge thank you to the staff and crew who have provided an outstanding service over that time. I still miss the lounge on the plane which preceded even the bar. And yes, I'll also miss the bar. And the massage. And the car. And the lounge at Heathrow. And the in-car check-in. And all the people I've met over the years at that in-flight bar.

The alternatives for those travelling Japan to the UK are now limited to BA, JAL and ANA. JAL seats are designed for people with knees approximately six inches closer to their body and BA employs a layout designed to make you introduce yourself to the person eating from your lap. So I guess it's going to be ANA (pronounced zen-nikku if you were wondering) but I hear good things about them. They have a habit of landing on the correct runway and parts of the planes don't seem to come off too often (also reasons I'm not that keen on JAL).

I choose to live in Japan but some aspects of life can be difficult and complicated for the non-native. The service provided by Citibank and Virgin made some things just that little bit easier. As the phrase goes, "so long and thanks for all the fish". And the parties with Richard Branson of course.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The sirens of a tsunami

Some things in life you like to forget. Indeed some people in life you like to forget. Let them go, move on. However some things in life you can't forget. Changing channels last night I came across a documentary on the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. And in every piece of film footage there were the tsunami sirens. As I say, some things you'd like to forget. And some things you can't.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Time - A very Japanese concept

Soon it will be the Autumnal Equinox, a phrase I have never heard used outside Japan but as it's one of the national holidays here, it makes it into every calendar there is. For those unsure of the actual nature of an equinox, it's a day that occurs twice a year when night and day are precisely the same length. Twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness. In Spring it signals the advent of longer evenings and in Autumn it's the bringer of cold mornings and huddling home early.

In Japan though it was one of the few days of rest for the local village monks for one of their roles was always to adjust the clocks. Time in medieval Japan was not measure in the regular way of dividing the day into twenty four hours. This was a European concept and not adopted until contact was established hundreds of years later.

A day in Japan was divided into twelve hours. Six of them for daylight and six of them for darkness. And there lay the problem and the need for constant adjustment. As the period of daylight and darkness varied throughout the year, so the clocks needs moving slightly forward or backwards depending on the annual cycle. Life for the village monk used to be a busy one, rushing to update time pieces everywhere. 

You have to wonder though what they do now to keep busy in the modern era of quartz watches and hours that remain an hour irrespective of the time of year.