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 cliché 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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Anime of Japan - three weird and wonderful movies

Japanese movies can be somewhat hit and miss. For all the incredible work from Studio Ghibli or Kurosawa there is the genuine (though enjoyable) junk of the likes of Godzilla and every samurai under the sun. Television movies are a generation behind the rest of the world in visual quality and TV programs that equal the likes of CSI or NCIS (or X-Files or Twin Peaks or….) are utterly unknown. But animation is where the country excels and if you're in the mood, here are three.

Ghost in the Shell - free falling
Ghost in the Shell is a futuristic world where everything is controlled by a shadow like government and the cybernetics in individuals. The ghost in the reference is a random piece of computer code that is infecting the control systems but ultimately is freeing them. Has to be said, not for the children.

Howl's Moving Castle as every child would imagine it
Howl's Moving Castle comes from the power house of Studio Ghibli. And very much for the kids as well as the parents. It's full of magic but also has a dark side referencing the destruction brought by war and personal failure. Ultimately an incredible, inspiring film.

Akira somewhat defies explanation but is an astonishing experience. Post WWIII when Tokyo has been destroyed it follows the hero Tetsuo and his relationship to Akira as he tries to rebuild his world. This one is for the late Friday night and a glass of wine.

There are many, many more where these came from but the central theme is always the visual imagination that has defined them. Japan may be running behind in live action films (Kurosawa excepted) but when it comes to animation, it's up there with the best.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The hidden gems of Ebisu

Tokyo has many famous districts. Shibuya with Hachiko crossing, Shinjuku and the robot cafe or The Ginza with its designer boutiques and colossal department stores. But Ebisu is a little bit of a hidden gem, rarely spoken of but hugely interesting, buzzing with bars and restaurants and many of the enjoyable old style tachinomi (stand and drink bar).

The area is relatively new for Tokyo having been developed early in the twentieth century around the new Yamanote Line station serving the Ebisu brewery (now Ebisu Garden Place). The name comes from one of the seven lucky gods, Ebisu who protects working men and women as well as bringing good luck to young children.

But if you arrive in the evening and leave the station through the west exit you'll find crowds waiting to cross the main road (Komazawa-dori) to escape into the little side streets that make it so interesting. Just follow them and soon you'll be lost in izakaya's, sushi restaurants and the occasional gaijin pub, one of which was the head quarters of the Aum cult in its day. A little off the beaten track but definitely worth the visit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Happy Birthday! - We're 1!

A year ago today I sat down and wrote my first blog entry about how to become lost in Japan (it's all in the maps, north not necessarily being at the top). 177 posts later I've covered topics from lunch boxes to lakes (and why people don't swim in them), why traffic lights are blue and what to do in an earthquake. Occasionally the posts become suddenly popular then I'll find a re-post somewhere around the world. USA, Japan and UK are regularly popular but every now and then Rumania or Greece might pop up, China and Russia too. 

The most popular posts to date related to finding John Lennon in the forests of Karuizawa and another on the meaning of kawanoji, the family waking up together. The blog was started to help people understand a little more about the alternative aspects of Japan, a "But Why?" information centre, a beginner's guide. I hope you've enjoyed it and if you have any questions about Japan feel free to ask. And now I'm off to celebrate my first birthday!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Foreshock - an extract from Fifty-Six Days

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 started much like any other day so far that year.

Then Wham! The world moved sideways. There hadn’t been a sizable earthquake for a while and the building didn’t seem like it was enjoying it at all. Everything was over in a few seconds and I was glad that we weren’t any closer to the origin. We switched on the news and saw that the center was some 350 kilometers north from Tokyo off the coast of Sendai, the main city in Tohoku, northeast Japan. That’s what Tohoku means, northeast.

The catastrophe didn’t actually start for me on 11 March, 2011. It began here two days before at 1.54pm on March 9 when this M7.2 earthquake struck off the coast. Unbeknownst to us this foreshock was forty kilometers from where we were going to see the earth stretch and shatter two days later.

The shock was enough to rattle us and certainly got our attention. We had friends in Tohoku and as soon as we realized where it was we contacted them just to check everyone was alright. We also reached out to the stores we had in the area and confirmed all was OK there too.

Paul had been on the street when it happened and hadn’t felt anything, the shaking being masked by the rumble of heavy traffic. Asking about Xebio, a customer located in Koriyama, near the epicenter, I said to him “can’t hurt just to drop a note and ask if they need any help”. The reply we received was “thanks, all OK here, just a bit shaken”. And then life carried on.

What we didn’t know at this point was how our lives were about to change. The innocence of those two days now seems somewhat surreal. What was to come would see five minutes of extreme violence. Japan would move twenty meters closer to America, the coast subsiding and accelerating the giant wave that was generated as 500 kilometers of seabed ruptured creating a sound that could be detected from space as shockwaves encircled the earth. The catastrophe that would bring Japan so very close to collapse had begun.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Remembrance Sunday - something Japan needs?

Remembrance Day, or Veteran's Day, is something recognised in many countries around the world on or around 11 November each year. A reflection for those who lost their lives in conflict wherever and whenever it occurred. It's an important moment as the world falls silent for a brief moment and everyone looks to themselves for what they owe. I was once at Heathrow Airport as the silence fell. We stood and even those who didn't understand could see this was important to those who did. 

Japan sometimes struggles with its past. There is a lack of knowledge, teaching and recognition of the events of the last century. The Yasakuni Shrine leads to nothing but conflict as within Japan the overwhelming perception is that it honours the dead of war but outside Japan it is the honouring of the founders of the conflict. No one believes it wrong to remember those who died for their country but it is important to recognise the difference with those who started the conflict in the first place.

Today is Remembrance Sunday in England and many other countries. There will be a ceremony at the Cenotaph in central London at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And people will stop and think about what happened. And sometimes I wish my friends in Japan would have the same opportunity and finally let the past go.

900,000 poppies at the Tower of London. Remembering.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Which Murakami? A Brace of Authors in Japan

Japan has many outstanding authors, some of them even beginning to end stories without the traditional and obligatory tragic ending exemplified in the works of Yukio Mishima. Mishima's books not only individually always ended badly, each of his books in the four piece cycle the "Sea of Fertility" ended on an extreme down (forcing you to question why you picked up the next each time) but the entire tetralogy fades to death and nihilism. Added to this, the day he finished the final work, he led a failed coup, ultimately committing ritual suicide. It has to be said, that is somewhat redefining the meaning of "a tragic ending".

Mishima apart, there are two authors who somewhat break the mould and they're both called Murakami. Haruki and Ryu are each prolific writers exploring life and love through a series of surreal, and often violent, story lines. Haruki is probably the better known internationally,  his work having been more widely translated but so have a number of the books Ryu Murakami, the most widely recognised probably being Coin Locker Babies and the extremely dark In The Miso Soup

If you read Haruki Murakami's 2011 (English publication date) work, IQ84, and wondered at the title, it's actually a clever play on the Japanese for the number nine which is pronounced "kyu". IQ84 being the identifier of an alternative universe to this where the date is 1984. In fact many of the works of Haruki play on English phrases, my favourite being A Wild Sheep Chase and I defy anyone to completely understand his book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The one thing the two brilliant authors do have in common though is simple. Whatever you do for Christmas, do not even think of giving copies of either of them to your Great Aunt Nellie. Unless you want her to pop her clogs…

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Competition time - A new name for my blog

My first "blog birthday" is just around the corner and I hope everyone has enjoyed reading at least some of the posts. During that year I've used the name "TheBeginnersGuidetoJapan" but have always thought of shortening it. Something short and catchy if you see what I mean but related to the theme of explaining some of the more curious issues experienced here. If anyone has any thoughts I'd love to hear them. I'll send the winner a discount code for my books (though that might just be a disincentive to some….)

All suggestions please post below. Very grateful for your time and thoughts!

The perils of katakana - A Homer Simpson moment

Katakana is one of the four basic alphabets in use in Japan, the others being Hiragana, Kanji and the Roman alphabet. The useful aspect for foreigners though is that Katakana is used predominantly for western words and where as you may know how to pronounce something in Hiragana or Kanji you may not necessarily know what it means.

For example, if you can read the word "ice cream" in Katakana, you know what you're ordering but even if you can read "bonenkai" in Hiragana, you may well still be at a loss to know you've just been invited to a Christmas party. And this can lead to problems.

Back in the day I worked at adidas in Japan (and yes, it is spelt with a lower case "a" though whoever thought of this had clearly never used a auto-spell checker or would have given it up as a lost cause). We were sourcing product from various countries across Asia when we received a message from a factory in Thailand. They had shipped 400,000 T-shirts with a slight typo in the Japanese tags. Instead of correctly printing: 

アディダス ジャパン

which is how to spell "adidas Japan", they had misprinted it forgetting the modifiers and mistaking the "n". The result was we had 400,000 T-shirts on their way with this:


printed on them. If you read it out loud it's actually "atitas Japaso"! "But don't worry" they went on to say, "only a native speaker will realise"….

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Winter's coming - it's onsen time

After the heat of summer comes typhoon season to clear the air in Japan and then the temperature falls as winter draws in. Early November is still comfortable in Tokyo and walking outside in a shirt is possible, but not for long. Soon it will be freezing, the snows already falling in the north of the country. But with winter also comes onsen season.

An onsen is a natural hot springs, often in the mountains, designed for a relaxing evening, soaking in the  reputedly therapeutic waters. Resort towns have grown up around the springs and people will travel for a weekend away for nothing else than to eat, drink and have a bath. In summer the temperatures are too warm and the springs are often empty but as the weather cools they become part of a national pastime.

These days they are mostly separated but family pools are still popular allowing everyone to enjoy their time together. But the best are the outdoor baths, the rotenburo, especially in the snow. Sitting neck deep in how water with snowflakes coming down, towel neatly folded on your head, what could be better than that.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lunch box art - simply awesome!

Japan is famous for it's exquisite gastronomic creations, presented to the diner in beautiful and creative arrangements. Nothing is out of place, each morsel arranged in perfect alignment. Mouth watering sushi adorns the tables of some of the finest restaurants in the world; teppanyaki prepared in front of your eyes, each cut meticulously controlled with definitely no bagging of knives or flipping of food. 

It may not be as famous though, but Japan has also raised the humble lunch box to what can only be described as an art form in it's own right. Mothers labour lovingly over their creations for their children to be sadly deprived of the chance to see their faces as they open them later at school. Some of them are truly works of art. The images below were all recently prepared by friends of mine for their children; and I write in awe at their skill and imaginations.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Halloween. The Americanisation of Japan?

Shibuya, the youthful, nightlife centre of Tokyo came to a virtual standstill last night as tens of thousands of people dressed up as everything from Dracula to Waldo and partied into the night. Halloween has seriously come of age in Japan. And the question has been raised of whether this is a further Americanisation of Japan and is that a good or a bad thing.

The coordination was remarkable. Friends had arranged themes and arrived as individual concepts groups. The lockers around the station were bulging with clothes as people changed (presumably so their parents didn't see them leave the house dressed in such creative ways). Each time the lights changed at Hachiko Crossing police would run to the centre in a vain attempt to try and control the revellers. Wasn't happening. They were instantly overwhelmed but really didn't need to be there.

So, in answer to the question as to whether this was a further example of an Americanisation of Japan I would say no. There were literally thousands of teenagers gathered together simply having fun. A lot of work and organised planning had gone into this night. This wasn't an Americanisation of Japan, this is the Japanisation of Halloween.