Sunday, December 28, 2014

The art of sliding backwards in a $125,000 car

Sliding downhill backwards in a friend's $125,000 Range Rover that I've borrowed for a weekend could be described as a slightly unnerving experience. Actually, it was significantly more than that but this is, after all, a family oriented blog so I'll leave it to your imagination as to what was actually going through my mind.

I'm not unused to driving in snow and can actually put snow chains on a car in under a minute per wheel. The first time I tried I gave up in exasperation after forty minutes in a blizzard. That wasn't fun either. Recommendation here is to practice when it's warm and dry rather than trying for the first time in eight inches of snow.

Snow tires are common in the mountains of Japan and many people simply leave them on all year round. The highways are often closed to regular vehicles in the north and northwest regions of the country and in Hokkaido snow tires are required by law during the winter months. But people refer to them as "studless" which I always found odd. Until a friend explained they used to have studs, and now they don't. Simple really. Now I have to go and dig a car out.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Kraken wakes - if you're not good with allergies, Tokyo is about to hurt

Seventy years or so ago Japan decided it needed low cost timber to rebuild after the war. And so it cut down much of its native woodland and replanted it with cedar which grows quickly and is relatively good for construction. Then someone thought "why not import cheap foreign cedar instead?". And so they did but they left the old trees to grow. And grow. And grow.

The problem here is that cedar produce vast quantities of pollen and a significant number of people are sensitive to it. Each spring face masks and eye washes become almost a necessity as the air becomes saturated with a quite visible threat. You can see it literally falling from trees as it fills the atmosphere. Almost all forest surrounding Tokyo are now Cedar or the equally problematic Cypress.

So why not cut the trees down? It would be a simple solution and they could be replaced with non-allergenic varieties if the concern is less trees means more concrete. The answer is economics and age-old redundant land laws forcing negotiation with each and every tree owner. And today the government announced 2015 will be a bumper crop. A lot of people will be having a hard time in six weeks from now. Time to lace your face masks up.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Jesus in Japan and other Christmas stories

Japan, on the whole, doesn't celebrate Christmas that much but there are some interesting stories around the day. In the 1980's the Sogo department store in Yurakucho is reputed to have nailed Santa to the cross but this may have been an urban myth. Good one though. I've blogged before about the buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken wings and watched yesterday as the first early customers started to collect their orders, though they appeared more from obligation than want.

Recently a news article highlighted the stories from Japanese married to foreigners and how Christmas was such a stressful time. They lamented about the difficulties of choosing presents (remember, it's the thought that counts) and having to eat turkey (seriously, don't eat it if you don't like it). But for most people the actual day is a little bit of a non-event; a normal working day just like any other. New Year is the real family day in Japan.

There is one story though of a garlic farmer who came from the east and through Alaska two thousand years ago. He settled in the village of Shingo in Aomori, northern Japan, married and had three children. His name in Japanese became Daitenku Taro Jurai and he finally passed at the ripe old age of 106. In English we know him better as Jesus Christ and you can visit the shrine to his passing currently located in the grounds of a local factory. The story of how he escaped the Romans though, well that has been lost with the passage of time. Happy Christmas wherever you may be and whatever you may believe.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Birthday Tokyo Station

UPDATE: At 101, the station put on quite a show. If you'd like to see the lights, they're on until 27th. Happy Christmas!


Tokyo Station turned 100 this week, a seminal moment given the journey it's had over that time and means it shares its anniversary with Maserati (if you were wondering). A long face lift was completed in 2012 and the station has returned to its former glory sitting at the hub of twelve separate railway lines (none of which is a subway if you're looking for it on the map). It survived the 1923 Kanto earthquake (more of which later) and a world war. Not bad for a location that would have been fairly central to bomber command.

Near to the station, a few minutes walk away, is the third Imperial Hotel, a 1960's edifice and these days possibly one of the ugliest buildings in Tokyo. The second Imperial Hotel was a majestic design by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened 1 September 1923. The very day of the Kanto earthquake. Over 140,000 people lost their lives as fire claimed the city but the hotel stood and remained open for business though some parts sank and the structure was stress tested to the limit. The FLW design was an icon of modernising Japan, the current hotel simply isn't.

So Tokyo Station reaches its centenary with an earthquake, a city levelling fire, a world war and another earthquake and it still remains an awesome sight as you drive through the glass and steel boxes that make up Marunouchi of today. Happy Birthday Tokyo Station, it may have been chaos on the day as people pounced on souvenirs and resold them on ebay but on the whole, you're looking pretty good for 100.

Monday, December 22, 2014

InterNations - the life of an expat in Tokyo

In the late 1980's there was a series of articles in the English press in Tokyo recounting the exploits of Max Danger, an Expat in Tokyo. Two books eventually came from them and looking at Amazon today you can still order them in time for Christmas if you're quick. The stories are short and hysterical, walking through all the things that make life quite what it is in Japan. To an extent the anecdotes are even funnier if you've lived here and experienced some of the challenges themselves.

These days there are many ways for expats to network from the formal ACCJ events to the more casual Brits at Lunch or even the Kobe Curry Club (not sure this still exists). But expat networking globally has come a long way since the dark and internet free days of 1980's and 1990's. There's a whole plethora of expat support groups with excellent advice that makes life simpler and more enjoyable. 

And recently one of them contacted me to say how much they enjoyed reading my blog and recommended me on their site. One of the largest and most comprehensive expat sites on the web, InterNations has a global footprint and some 1.4m members and country ambassadors to help life along. And of the contact I've had so far, they're also very nice people. Thank you for the recognition.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's bonenkai season - what's a bonenkai?

In the last few weeks of the year in Japan many, if not most, companies, clubs and societies will be organising their bonenkais. Everyone will get together in an evening either as a whole or in small departments and relax with a beer in hand and look forward to the new year to come. There will be speeches and maybe even games and, reassuringly, someone will imbibe a little too much of the holiday spirit.

It sounds like a Christmas party and indeed there are many similarities but there is one major difference that makes it a critical event in the corporate year. The bonenkai is officially your last chance to bitch about anything that happened during the year gone by. And if you don't say it now, forever hold your peace. And so it is a way of wiping the slate clean, setting a new start for the following year. Sometimes I think many of us could benefit from this as a tradition. Have a beer, it's time to let it go.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Even the road signs are polite in Japan

Although on the surface Japan may seem an impenetrable puzzle of conflicts and contradictions, this is really because so much is new to the uninitiated and underneath things are often quite straightforward once the reasoning becomes clear. The language structure is much simpler than English, the road signs are in Japanese but often with English sub-text and -san is used for Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms solving the perennial problem of how to address a letter.

However, there are somethings that still catch you out even after a good while on the ground. For example how does the person walking in front of you know the exact moment to step sideways as you try to walk past them or why do taxis always choose the narrowest part of the road to stop and block everyone else. Traffic lights are referred to as blue when they are demonstrably green and karaoke is incredibly addictive, though it really shouldn't be.

In Tokyo people stand on the left on an escalator though this would bring cries of derision in Osaka, and speaking of which the power in Osaka and the power in Tokyo are mutually exclusive. Japan has a habit of shortening words, air-conditioning is air-con, Navigation System becomes Navi System but if you refer to flu people will look at you blankly as this is still influenza. But probably the most surprising of all are the road maintenance crews one of whom paid me a visit yesterday. 

With a map, he explained what was going to be happening over the next few weeks outside our house. Apologising for the inconvenience he explained I could park my car somewhere else and if I kept the receipts they would re-imburse me when it was over. And then he bowed and went next door to apologise to the neighbours and so on. In London that would have been an unmanned hole in the ground seemingly abandoned for weeks until someone fell in. 

Even the road signs are polite

Monday, December 15, 2014

When you're away from home - The best Christmas song ever

Tokyo went into full, four wheel drive Christmas mode on 1 November, the moment Halloween was done and dusted and the Batman costumes were put away for another year. The decorations went up and the hotels started competing in the "who has the tallest tree in the lobby" competition. Couples  began booking their Xmas Eve date (you're no-one in Japan if you don't have a date on Xmas Eve) and Kentucky Fried Chicken have started taking orders for the annual rush for buckets of wings because "Christmas isn't Christmas without Kentucky Fried Chicken". 

And the carols and Christmas songs have been playing continuously for over six weeks now. For me though, not being particularly religious (well, actually not at all) Christmas is still the most important celebration in the year. It's the family time; we Skype my parents to open the presents at 6.00 in the morning and then Skype them again so they can join in the turkey dinner later in the day. And for me there is one song that truly captures that feeling of togetherness and the loneliness it can bring with it when you're a Christmas orphan. Half way around the world is a long way but Christmas is the time you remember each other. Even when you can't be there.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

No Foreigners! - not the usual welcome from Japan

I love Japan and I choose to be guest in this country. 2020 will see the Olympics held in Tokyo, the most international of sporting events. There is nothing that compares to it except possibly the World Cup to introduce somewhere new to the world. And yesterday was not its finest hour. As my friend and I walked into a small restaurant saying "futari desu" (table for two please) we were greeted by the manager with the phrase "no foreigners" (ironically in English). Somewhat stunned we left.

When I arrived in Japan some twenty years ago this type of response was rare but not unheard of. Taxis would occasionally drive straight past me and car parks would have signs saying "no foreign cars". But today? This was a throw back to the Jurassic era (and ask a dinosaur how that went). This is not the welcome Japan normally extends but sadly is a cliche somewhat believed by the many who have not had the opportunity to visit.

Japan is a warm and welcoming country despite the best efforts of a vocal minority to portray it as a xenophobic nation. The vast majority of people have always been thoughtful, kind and friendly to me but with an Olympics comes a responsibility. During World Cup in 2002 some police forces (in)famously ordered extra-large size handcuffs for foreigners and distributed training videos to bars on how to deal with the "hooligans" who were about to arrive. Let's see if it can do better this time around. Tokyo, over to you. 

No foreigners - dinosaurs still live...

Friday, December 12, 2014

The 2020 Olympics, a commitment for the future

I have no doubt that the new National Stadium in the centre of Tokyo will be up and ready in time for the 2020 Olympics. However it actually needs to be ready for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which seems to be slipping by in everyone's memories at the moment. The key question of course exactly which stadium it will be; the current spectacular, though currently controversial design, or a local re-hash in a measured capitulation to the architectural profession here. 

The cost of the project is now spiralling however with national debt approaching 250% of GDP it's hard to argue that an extra couple of billion dollars are going to make much of a difference. And diverting this cash to rebuilding Tohoku is also a non-issue as the money for that is already sitting in bank accounts and simply not being spent fast enough. But a new stadium is a necessity and it should be something that makes a statement for the next sixty years.

During World Cup in 2002 it was a sad indictment that not a single game was played in the capital city of the host nation, the final being played in Yokohama. The old stadium was showing it's age, too small, uncovered and generally in need of knocking down. The issue here though is that the arguments against the choice of stadium came to the surface only after the Olympics had been awarded and the stadium itself was a central element of the proposal. Japan made a commitment to the world. Build Zaha Hadid's design.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

A blue Christmas in Nakameguro - if you're in Tokyo, go!

UPDATE: Sadly no more. The blue lights of 2014 have become a victim of their own success and have been cancelled for the 2015 season. Adored by huge crowds, that was actually the problem. Simply too many people joined in the festivities and the call has been made it's just not safe anymore. Great while they lasted, having been in the crowds last year, reluctantly I have to admit they have a point.

Something has happened in Nakameguro, a small neighbourhood of central Tokyo, nestled below the slopes of Daikanyama. Each spring the sakura (cherry blossom) transforms the area into an almost magical walk along the Meguro river. It's packed with sightseers and no place for pushchairs but one of my favourite strolls through a city of millions of people. And usually that's it until next year. But not this time.

The tree lined Omote Sando is the Champs Elysees of Tokyo with it's high end brands and ultra fashionable shoppers. And for many years has celebrated the Christmas season by wrapping the Zelkova with white lights and it really is a wonderful sight. Now, for the first time, this year someone decided it would be a good idea to wrap the cherry trees of Nakameguro with blue lights. And it is spectacular. 

The lights were turned on at the beginning of December from 5.00PM each evening and since then the crowds have flocked down. They probably should have remembered to close the roads and the security guards were struggling hard to keep the cars and revellers apart. But what a sight. Nicely done whoever you are who made this decision. If you're in Tokyo take an evening and go. It's one of those sights you just need to see.

The incredible lights of the Meguro River

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How to be the successful expat in Japan

For the new expat, Japan can be a daunting experience. And the ones who realise this early on have a much greater chance of success than those who think they understand it straight off the plane. And I have met many of those over the years! The issue is Japan can be unintentionally deceptive, often to even well seasoned executives, simply because the cultural approach defines an alternative response set to individual situations.

Here are a few common habits of successful expats working in Japan:

1   They understand "yes" does not necessarily mean "yes" but possibly no or even huh?;

2   When they think they understand they confirm one more time, preferably in an alternative way;

3   They recognise Japan's not wrong, it's just different. Differing circumstances drive differing solutions;

4   They ask first and speak second. The culture requires agreement with the boss, so they don't tell them first;

5   They recognise they don't necessarily understand Japan and value that as a good starting point;

6   They know Japan is not China, the same as Mexico isn't Canada. The skill sets to success are the same, it's the experience that's different;

7  They understand that just because someone speaks a little English, it doesn't mean they understand full speed native English in return;

And finally to be seasonally topical, they enjoy the bonenkai with the team.

There is no magic wand to being successful in Japan but there are ways to ensure failure. And ignoring the differences and assuming understanding is way, way up there. Just think how would any of us respond in a home country if a non-English speaking Japanese boss was assigned for two years who had no local experience and arrived thinking he'd "got it". We'd make sure they had warm coffee in the morning and the latest daily newspaper in Japanese. And after that we'd probably ignore them for the next two years...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Death by snow - saving your life with a short piece of rope

Winter, and the snow is already thick on the ground in northern Japan and down the Japan Sea coast. And each year we hear the stories of people who lose their lives in the blizzards and drifts. Indeed, this week an elderly couple very sadly found themselves caught in a storm and were unable to reach shelter, perishing as the snow fell around them. However, this type of tragic mishap is not what I'm talking about here.

Soon we'll have the first reports of someone clearing snow off their roof and falling to an untimely and very avoidable end. The reason to clear the snow is to prevent the house collapsing under the added weight, so there is a sound purpose to the actual activity of climbing on the roof and sweeping it clear. The question I always wonder about though is, why didn't they just rope themselves on?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Winter Warmers - cool coffee in Tokyo

Through the spring and summer months and indeed for a fair part of the Autumn, it's a delightful way to start the morning by sitting outside the Starbucks at T-Site in Daikanyama, drink a coffee and watch the world go by. Now though winter is fast approaching and a morning coffee is more likely to attract pneumonia as the temperatures have declined markedly.

And this is where Anjin comes in. On the second floor of the T-Site complex is a vast lounge with leather sofas, counter tops and multiple work stations. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxing and the coffee excellent. Out of the cold you can browse the menu on one of the iPads scattered around and even spend time browsing through the books that line the walls. But don't bring your Starbucks in, they'll take off you and return it cold as you leave.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sights to see in Tokyo - The Ginkgo Trees of Icho Namiki

The ginkgo tree, or Ginkgo Biloba, is a spectacular living fossil, dating back some 250~300 million years with sadly no remaining relatives in it's family. It's a native of China but was introduced to Japan approximately 400 years ago and is planted widely in temples and gardens across the country. It's also tough as old boots with a number surviving the Hiroshima bombing, roasted but alive. 

It's also known as the Maidenhair Tree for the incredible colour its leaves turn in early December. The weather at this time of year can be unpredictable so the leaves stay on for a up to two weeks but rain with bring this to an early close. And a two minute walk from Aoyama 1-chome station you'll find one of the autumn's wonders of Tokyo. 146 majestic trees together forming the spectacular Ginkgo Avenue.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Ghosts of Japan

Japan has a special affinity with ghosts. You can't swim in lakes because that's where the ghosts will be, waiting to pull you under. Dark cellars are obviously out as well. And if you see a Japanese ghost you'll know instantly as they'll have no feet, trailing arms and long, extended necks. Interestingly though I've only ever seen images of girls or women depicted as ghosts, never men except for the odd Samurai warrior in a Noh play.

The word yurei would colloquially be translated as "ghost" however it's closer to meaning a broken spirit or faint spirit, strongly associated with the ties of unfinished earthly business. And it has to be said that Japan is superb at creating myths, movies and stories as to their powers of malevolence. If you'd like to have the living daylights scared out of you just watch The Ring or The Grudge.

Japan is also beginning to experience the Wild West effect of ghost towns as the population ages and villages begin to merge as they can no longer support full communal services. Schools close and hospitals are relocated as communities die a slow and protracted death. Indeed one municipality voted itself out of existence recently to provide landfill space for tsunami debris. And in the case of Hashima or Ghost Island its death became the inspiration for an excellent James Bond movie (though nothing was actually filmed there).   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ten things to do in Karuizawa, central Japan

1   Listen to the frog chorus across the valley in early May

2   Join a garden party celebrating summer and make new Japanese friends over a beer

3   Ride a motorbike across a the north slope of an active volcano

4   Leave a little late and get stuck in traffic (actually, don't do this one, always leave early)

5   Go to the axe shop on Route 18 and buy a teapot from England

6   Take a selfie with the only statue of Sherlock Holmes in Japan

7   Dance the bon-odori in the forest with hundreds in yukata, slowly turning circles in the night

8   Build a treehouse your children designed

9   Relax with a view of Asamayama and read "Last of the Mohicans"

10  Walk the coffee shops and look for pictures of John when he visited with Yoko

11  Hike to the shrine at the peak of the Nakasendo (ok, one more to make up for #4)

Any more?

Japan and weddings, an interesting idea

Last year a very good friend of mine married his beautiful Japanese fiancé after many years together. The wedding was planned for the last Friday in October, the anniversary of when they met as well as being the anniversary of the day he proposed. However Mother Nature had different ideas and organised a twin typhoon landfall pretty much at the exact location where the festivities were due to take place. For the safety of themselves, guests and the staff of the venue, it had to be called off.

In the UK this would be a disaster. The law requires a wedding is publicly announced four weeks in advance so that anyone who objects has the opportunity not to hold their peace as it were. Not in Japan. We rescheduled for the following Monday, the staff all came in on their day off and the ceremony went ahead a few days late but a wonderful time was had by all. And that's because a wedding isn't necessarily a wedding in Japan.

To get married, the couple simply need to sign the appropriate documents at the local ward office. Indeed, they can actually take the documents home and sign them there. As a witness, I've signed a friend's documents over a glass of wine in a bar when the happy bride wasn't in attendance. The ceremony is important in that it's a statement of intent and desire. A marriage though comes with red tape.