Thursday, April 30, 2015

Simple steps to prepare for an earthquake

With the current terrible events Nepal dominating the headlines, the power of the planet is front and centre on our television screens once again. Although there is always the Monday-morning-Quarterback who "predicted" the Big One was coming from watching his fish swim in circles or local sheep climb mountains, it remains an alchemists dream to actually be able to do so. The science of today can predict (to an extent) where an earthquake will happen but not yet when. Even then, Kobe was on a surprise unknown fault line and no one believed Tohoku could produce a 9.0.

If you live in an earthquake zone, whether it's Japan, California or Italy, you accept that it's a fact of life you are going to experience one at some point. But if you live your life worrying about it, better to move to the Australian Outback or middle England and save your stress levels. However, having been "lucky" enough to be in Japan for both the Kobe and Tohoku quakes, there are a number of actions that become obvious post-event that you can easily take in advance. This won't prevent a quake, but it might make the difference afterwards. Not an exhaustive list but here are a few thoughts:

1   Ensure there is nothing over the bed that can fall on you. Earthquakes happen at night as well as the day and the last thing you want is your favourite glass-framed picture landing on your head when one does.

2   Have a communication plan with your family. In the event of a major incident the phone lines will be down within minutes and may remain out of action for several days. But anything internet based may still work including Skype, Facebook, Twitter etc even from your phone.

3   Know the school policy in the instance of an earthquake. Do you pick the children up or will they be sent home? And then, what happens if neither is possible and night is closing in? 

4   Set the "Find-my-Phone" system for your family's smartphones. After the first thirty seconds of shock the next thing you're going to be thinking about is where's your family. Once you know that, it is so much easier to decide what to do next.  

5   Prepare an earthquake bag. In fact, prepare two and keep them in separate places in the house in case one becomes unreachable. Include the standards: water, money, basic medical kit, rain covers etc. And use a bag with wheels. You might be walking with it a long way.

But most of all, don't worry about it everyday. Enjoy your life. As far as we know, it's the only one you've got down here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Abe in America, Okinawa in despair

Okinawa is a beautiful, subtropical island some two and a half hours flight from Tokyo. Although today it is a prefecture of Japan it was actually an independent kingdom until 1879 when the King was summarily replaced by a Prefectural Governor sent by the Meiji government. And although it had been vassal state of China, in 1609 the Satsuma clan of Kyushu had already invaded and enforced a dual vassal status from then on. However, to avoid antagonising China at the time it wasn't formally annexed for the next 270 years.

Although a proud nation, maintaining six separate languages largely incomprehensible to mainlanders, Okinawa remains sadly troubled by its past. The only area of Japan to experience a land based conflict in WWII, the island lost up to one third of its population to the invasion either directly or indirectly by their own hand at the instruction of the Japanese military powers. Even today, whilst Prime Minister Abe is on tour in America, the question of the relocation, or as the islanders would prefer, the removal, of the air-base at Futenma remains highly controversial (though Abe has said "it will not be a problem" to his hosts).

Post war, Okinawa remained under US administration until November 1971 when it was returned to Japanese control and finally Okinawans could again reach the mainland without a passport. Even this though wasn't without its detractors as a vocal minority were actually set on all out independence. It did mean though that the prefecture would, in 1978, become only the second world territory to convert from driving on the right, as in America, to the left, as in the rest of Japan. Perhaps the most poignant moment in its modern history though came slightly before the signing of the transfer treaty itself. Although officially unconfirmed and after everything they had been through, Hirohito casually remarked to Nixon "you can keep them if you like".


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Kites of Hamamatsu - a sight for Golden Week

For me, it all started when my parents gave me a Peter Powell Stunt Kite for my tenth birthday. I had never seen anything like it before and was instantly hooked. Two string design and a strong aluminium frame, it could dive bomb and loop-the-loop all day. Intrigued by the possibilities, my father soon started making kites of all shapes and sizes, some so large they needed the aid of a car to just anchor them down. One, made of mylar (a type of untearable aluminium foil), flew wonderfully but it had to go when the police came to check a strange object appearing on local airport radar. Some won awards and one, with a strong but simple self-correcting design, was considered for a radio mast on an antarctic expedition. On the whole, I've loved kites from a young age.

And so, when a Japanese friend told me of the Fighting Kites of Hamamatsu it was an instant must see. Each year, during Golden Week, local teams, all in happi-coats, compete with each other across the great Nakatajima sand dunes of the Enshunada coastline. The kites are beautifully crafted and, up to four meters across, take a team of a dozen or more to fly and control them. With nearly a hundred in the air, more than a thousand kite warriors bate their breath and wait for the canon roar of fireworks that signal it's time to let the games begin. And the fighting starts. The hemp lines are deliberately crossed as teams run back and forth trying to cut each other's creations out of the sky. The last kite flying, the winner. And the crowds go wild. 

The origins of the festival date back to the sixteenth century when the town's folk celebrated the birth of a son to the Lord of Hamamatsu Castle. And this being Japan, the day doesn't finish there. As thousands make their way back into the city, the niijikai, literally "second party", begins. Giant, ornate floats are hauled through the streets, some more enthusiastically than others as the day's consumption begins to take its toll. Many are  carrying drums and flutes and lutes, adding to the general cacophony. And at the end of it all, you finally flop down into your  seat for the ninety minute ride back to Tokyo. Happy but exhausted, ears still ringing, all you need to worry about now is, where's that nice lady with the beer trolley.

Hamamatsu Festival - 3~5 May

Monday, April 27, 2015

When an Englishman went to war with Japan

No, the events I'm referring to are not those commencing in 1941. That was the second time Great Britain and the Empire of Japan had crossed swords. This action occurred much earlier. In 1863 to be precise. The (thankfully short) campaign was precipitated by the unfortunate death a year earlier of an Englishman by the name of Charles Lennox Richardson in what became known as the Namamugi Incident. The English considered his death unprovoked murder, the Japanese, a justifiable action considering how inappropriate his actions had been.

Travelling north from the foreign enclave of Yokohama on the Tokaido, the ancient highway to Tokyo, Richardson and his party were enjoying a day out to visit the local Kawasaki Daishi temple. En route they encountered the retinue of the Regent of Satsuma embarking on the long journey to Kyushu after a stay in the capital. Refusing to make way, Richardson reportedly remarked to his friends that he "knew how to deal with these people" and rode through the centre of the Regent's entourage. The Regent, refusing to believe anyone could be that provocative, proposed his rapid demise then and there.

Outraged and demanding reparations, the British ordered their ironclads to Kagoshima, the capital of the Satsuma domain, bombarding, and eventually setting fire to, the city. However, having anticipated the arrival of the British ships, the population had previously been evacuated out of range and the city's own guns prepared. Returning fire, surprising the British and felling the Captain of the British flagship, Japan gave as good as it got. The "Anglo-Satsuma War" eventually cost the lives of five Japanese and thirteen British combatants but the Daimyo was so impressed by the British guns that eventually he became a supporter and entered into a treaty. And he never did repay the shogun for the loan he'd taken to settle claim in the first place.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ernest Satow and an accidental war

Ernest Satow arrived in Japan in the summer of 1862. Nineteen and fresh out of university, he found a country in turmoil with the ageing Tokugawa shogunate in terminal decline. At this time English was virtually unknown in the country with the only language spoken, apart from obviously Japanese, being Dutch. And so Ernest Mason Satow commenced his career as a junior translator to the British delegation in Yokohama. At this time Japan was still run under the feudal government of the shogun, the Emperor being little more than a puppet who resided at the Imperial Court in far-off Kyoto. However, unrest was building with disillusionment amongst the anti-Tokugawa factions stirring the cooking pot. 

Seeking a return of the Emperor and supporting the end of the shogunate, the mobilisation of the Choshu, Tosa and Satsuma western clans ensured the stage was set for war as they marched on Kyoto. And at this point Ernest Satow re-enters our story when he wrote an article for the local English weekly broadsheet. In it he argued that whilst Japan remained divided as it was, it was virtually impossible for the western powers to negotiate with the Tokugawa government as it didn't represent the country as a whole. He went on to suggest that it would be much simpler all around if the Emperor represented Japan in treaty talks instead. And the government panicked. They believed this not to be the thoughts of a relatively minor individual in the British delegation but in fact a statement of Imperial British policy.

There was nothing for it but to petition the Emperor at his palace in Kyoto, now strengthened by the newly arrived forces of the western alliance. The upstarts were smaller in numbers than the Tokugawa armies but  better equipped. The British declared that no European powers would interfere in this internal matter in effect forcing the hands of the French and Spanish who were in the process of supplying gunships to the shogun. Deprived of resources and losing a series of battles, Tokugawa Yoshinobu surrendered his capital of Edo (Tokyo) and withdrew to the north of the country. Ernest Satow himself went on to carve out a long and successful career as a diplomat for the British government. And didn't accidentally start any other wars. As far as we know. 

Ernest Mason Satow 1843 - 1929

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The six trees of Roppongi

Roppongi is one of the more famous, or rather infamous, nightlife areas of Tokyo. Home to a plethora of bars and restaurants, it's often the first stop for foreigners new to Japan looking to dip their toes into the waters of a foreign land. The sports bars are popular and often broadcast events in English, something of a rarity when 99.9% of customers are non-English speakers. And recent police crackdowns have led to a noticeable decline in the street hawkers looking to entice the unwary into their clubs.

But the question arises, if Roppongi means "six trees" (which it arguably does), where exactly are they? Mentioned in Mishima's book "Spring Snow", they were in theory still around in 1912 when the book was set. And there are also stories that the first three were felled long before the final three met the same fate. Certainly there are no signs of them anymore though my Japanese teacher when I first arrived explained they had been uprooted to make way for a branch of the Asahi Bank (also no longer with us).

Interestingly though, no early photographs of the trees appear to exist. The trees themselves were thought to be zelkova which in Japanese is known as keyaki and indeed there is a street in Roppongi called Keyakizaka (Keyaki Hill). But there are few trees there today. So I'm going to go with a working theory. Roppongi Hills is a sprawling expanse of offices, high end boutiques and residential apartments. And at it's centre is the Grand Hyatt with an excellent restaurant called Kayakizaka. And remind me to ask Mori-san if this actually was the location next time I see him. 

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Kaizen - the most Japanese of concepts - or was it...?

Kaizen, or as it is more commonly known in English, "continuous improvement" (though the kanji characters would more appropriately be translated as "change for the better") is virtually synonymous with Japanese manufacturing techniques. It encapsulates continually enacting micro adjustments to a process to bring about long term improvement in quality and efficiencies of practice. Toyota is the World Heavyweight Champion when it comes to driving Kaizen not only through production but also the entire supply chain as well as the complete corporate hierarchy.

As early as the 1980s, Japan had thrown off the image of being the home to cheap, though somewhat shoddy, goods. Whether children's toys or automobiles, Japan became recognised as the unstoppable machine, exporting reasonably priced, high quality products and the low quality baton was passed to China. The process of kaizen was seen as a panacea for industry and began to be replicated around the world. Japan was indeed seen as a visionary market that had created a winning formula.

Well yes, and no. Japan did indeed execute kaizen brilliantly, initially in manufacturing followed by supply chain (think "Just-in-Time") and then extended into services. But it didn't actually invent the concept so closely associated with its own success. It was actually America that imported the idea post-war as Japan sought to rapidly reconstruct it's shattered economy. Building on the earlier work of Walter Shewhart, an engineer and statistician, The Economic and Scientific Section of the Occupation Forces actually implemented kaizen so successfully into Japanese industry. And in 1960, the Emperor even gave them a medal for it. 

Kaizen, a thoroughly American concept

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Secret Rivers of Tokyo

There are multiple definitions of what actually constitutes "Tokyo". The Metropolis of Tokyo, bordered on the east and west by the Tama and Edo rivers, is home to some 13 million souls whereas the Tokyo Metropolitan Employment Area swells to an eye water 35 million. Then again the classic "23 Wards of Tokyo" supports a trifling 9 million, just a little more than London. But there are a lot of rivers running through it whichever you look at it. And most are fairly short. Actually some are very short.

The sunken Shibuya River is about to see the light of day again in the current redevelopment of this central area of Tokyo. Formed by the confluence of the Onden and the Uda rivers underneath the feet of the shoppers of Hachiko Crossing, it flows a mere 2.5km before emptying into the Furu River which in turn empties into Tokyo Bay. Much of it is now nothing more than a backstreet storm drain, itself due for a refresh over the next few years bringing public access for the first time in more than half a century.

But it is the signatures of the Onden and Uda rivers that are today hidden in plain sight to those walking the streets of Shibuya. When you walk along Center-gai you're actually walking along the path of the Uda river and when you stroll the fashionable boutiques of Cat Street, you're retracing the waterwheels of the Onden. Tokyo is criss-crossed by hidden waterways that lost out in the battle for concrete and modernisation. And so the rivers of Shibuya became the forgotten victims of the 1964 Olympics. That is until today.

The pedestrians of the Onden River


Monday, April 20, 2015

Nihonbashi - the bridge where Japan begins

It's an interesting question as to where the "Tokyo" is on the highway signs that line the arteries of Japan. The city is a large place after all. It can't all be the same distance away. Well, that's true, it isn't. Around the world cities adopt a specific location and then everything is measured to that point. Often this will be the City Hall but not always. For New York, distances are measured to Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park. In London, it's the statue of Charles I in the courtyard of Charing Cross, a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square. And in Japan, distances to "Tokyo" are measured to Nihonbashi, the historical bridge at the start of the ancient routes linking Tokyo to Kyoto. The administrative capital to the Imperial capital. 

The original wooden structure, built in the early days of the Tougawa Shogunate, was eventually replaced by the larger stone structure still standing today. Over the next 300 years the area boomed being at the centre of not only transport, but also bordering the seat of Government on one side and the traders of Ginza on the other. The Mitsui family located their new store, Mitsukoshi, there and a lively food market grew up with the associated bustling noise and distinctive odour of the fish merchants, much to the disdain of the mandarins of the western fringes.

And then Tokyo suffered a direct hit. Some 140,000 perished in the fires and aftermath of the 1923 earthquake. Downtown was razed as a firestorm ripped through the city. And the men in grey kimono saw their chance at last. The recently abandoned foreigner's enclave in Tsukiji, a couple of miles to the south, would be perfect for a new, improved, fish market they argued. It's near to the river, closer to the bay and freely available. It was also not in their backyard. The fish merchants were pushed out and Nihonbashi returned to being a "civilised" district once more. And then, for the 1964 Olympics, they built a massive highway on top of it. And you'd no longer know that this is the place where Japan begins.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Guns of Zaemon and the Shopping Malls of Odaiba

Odaiba is the only coastal stretch in metropolitan Tokyo to actually boast a sand filled waterfront; fortunate as it's designated to be the location of the 2020 Olympic Beach Volleyball tournament. It's home to shopping malls and exhibition sites, all utterly inaccessible except by car or taxi. If you can work your way through the convoluted road system that is. And then if you can find parking. Located at the north approaches to Rainbow Bridge is was planned to be a model new town until funding was switch off by the new Mayor of Tokyo in the mid-1990's.

Fuji TV was already committed by then and their shimmering headquarters, with its floating, spherical office, dominates the view of the coastline. A slightly sad and lonely figure in stark contrast to the open, undeveloped land around. Being reclaimed land from the waters of Tokyo Bay, the area also suffered serious liquefaction following the earthquake of March 2011. Buildings listed and storm drains rose through the ground as it turned to liquid. But Odaiba wasn't reclaimed to simply build retail shops and amusement parks. It's history goes back a long way before that.

Tokyo has been Japan's capital city since the days of the Shogun Ieyasu; the burgeoning population being sustained by supplies shipped through the inshore sea-lanes of the eastern coast. And it was under threat. At the direction of the Government, Egawataro Zaemon designed a defensive wall of batteries to protect the city from foreign invasion. In less than twelve months a series of islands were constructed with gun emplacements and interlocking fortresses to defend again the imminent threat. But this wasn't 1945 and the threat wasn't Admiral Nimitz. It was April 1854 and Odaiba was part of the defences against Commodore Perry's Black Ships. Who arrived in January, three months early. And the guns were never set.

Tokyo Port c1948 - The Daiba Gun Batteries that once nearly defended the city     

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Not Invented Here" - the syndrome slowing Japan

Japan has long since shed its image of the country that covertly "borrows" technology, marginally advancing the concept, then selling it back to the inventor. Let's face it, the Honda Cub, with over 60 million sold, showed the world how to mass produce a method of transport that started on a cold morning and didn't leave an oil slick in it's wake. But Honda didn't invent the motorbike, nor Sony the radio, nor Toyota the car. However they did make them a lot better and continued the crucial process of innovation.

Life is a pendulum and over the last two decades Japan has moved from one end of the swing to the other. The approach has migrated from one of key-step improvement to a continuous desire to reinvent the wheel. Is there really any need for Mitsubishi to develop a brand new medium haul jet, Japan's first since, well, Japan's first. The last plane Mitsubishi built was the Zero Fighter. Excellent aircraft, not that great for passengers though. And they seem to have forgotten Embraer and Bombardier have pretty good products out there already. Honda has just flown its first business jet despite there being a myriad available on the global market, though as they point out, it can carry four executives as well their vital golf clubs. Wheels reinvented?

It has to be asked if Japan prefers zero internal innovation to gradual development of an external idea. No longer improvement, now a dead stop. In the 1960's, 70's and 80's Japan was a hotbed of invention. Western countries were swamped with everything from children's toys to mobile computers that took an idea and built on it. But the question arises, when was the last time Japan created and exported something that was a genuine step forward? My money is on the blue laser and Nintendo Wii a decade ago. And that's a long, slow swing of Faucalt's pendulum. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Nicotine Monkeys and Other Stories to Scare the Children

Having been a lifelong smokeless zone, I only recently came across the phrase "Nicotine Monkey". Smoke free individuals will probably never understand the power this creature has over its victim as it sits on the back of every smoker on the planet, encouraging them to pick up their next cigarette. It gets particularly angry when there are none to hand, driving people to go to quite extraordinary lengths to obtain their next shot of nicotine. And woe betide those who try to shake it off, they're in for quite a fight.

Smoking in Japan, although down over 40% since it's peak in 1996, remains relatively common amongst the male population and is widely accepted in restaurants and offices across the country. Local governments are beginning to enact restrictions but while the National Government owns over 30% of Japan Tobacco, the vested interests in the Diet remain lethargic in their zest to act. The Ministry of Health and Welfare considers smoking to be "totally a matter for the individual". Well, so's murder but there're laws against that. 

Starbucks for a long time has banned smoking and McDonalds is now following suit. Currently KFC has an outright ban in one, single, store. Seriously, Colonel Sanders? And so, in his retirement, one man is working to help those who would like to kick the habit and resign their Nicotine Monkey to the grave. And he's helped the expat community of Tokyo for over thirty years every time they had a cold or their children had a bump. Enjoy your retirement Dr Gabriel Symonds, thank you for looking after us. It's a good thing you do.

Mt Aso, a sleeping giant under the feet of Japan

Krakatoa is famous for a number of reasons, probably the most unfortunate being the (catastrophically bad) 1969 disaster movie "Karaktoa East of Java". Panned by the critics, it was not only the only disaster movie made in wide format Super Panavision 70, but it also miscalculated the location, Krakatoa actually being west of Java. Aside from this, it was also responsible for the loudest recorded "bang" in human history, with the shockwaves being picked up on barometers around the globe. However, as an eruption, it was dwarfed by the much larger, though relatively unknown, Tambora some seventy years earlier. Which actually is east of Java.

The Krakatoa eruption, of 1883, delivered approximately 35 cubic kilometres of rock into the skies, an explosion more than 10,000 times that of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Puts the nuclear age somewhat into perspective. Tambora in 1815, by comparison, ejected 160 cubic kilometres into the atmosphere and was so extreme that it caused famine around the world, 1816 being known in Europe as the year without a summer. And then we come to Mount Aso in Kyushu, Japan.

Aso, with a circumference of 120km, is one of the world's largest volcanos, or more accurately, super-volcanos. It sits in the centre of the southern island of the main Japanese archipelago, approximately 1,000km to the southwest of Tokyo. Although Mount Aso is constantly rumbling, the last time it really decided to let everyone know that it was there, it sent over 600 cubic kilometres skywards. Nearly twenty times the scale of Krakatoa, that's approximately equal to launching Mount Fuji into the heavens. However, looking on the bright side, at least that was some 300,000 years ago. And I'm pretty sure they didn't have barometers back then.

Sending salt to your enemy - if a job's worth doing....

"Teki ni shio wo okuru" is a Japanese phrase that literally translates as "Sending salt to your enemy" the meaning of which is taken to be that even in conflict, one should act with humanity

The origins date back to the long running conflicts and feudal disputes that ravaged Japan prior to unification under a single Shogun Ieyasu in the early 17th century. Laying siege to a castle, the lord of the besieging army believed it unfair to starve out his enemy and instructed that salt be delivered so that they may live to fight (and presumably die) in true battle for the lands.

Without debating whether this would also be the act of a true Klingon, the question though as to whether it is the appropriate colloquial translation. Given that the attacking army was looking to ensure the destruction of the defenders through open battle where they could be despatched with sword and arrow, a more accurate translation might be "If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well".

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Log Road of Daikanyama

Daikanyama, the village styled neighbourhood sandwiched between Shibuya and Ebisu, has had a great run in the last few years. Already home to some of the most fashionable stores around, T-Site opened providing the outdoor street side cafe environment Tokyo cries out for. The fact that the organisers also like classic cars and hold Ferrari and Austin Healey rallies there on a regular basis doesn't hurt too much either in my book. 

Then the accursed level crossing was closed and the train line was dropped below ground level. Overnight. And if you'd like to see that happening, you can find it here. Honestly, you'll catch yourself cheering with the crowds. Then it was announced that the new Shibuya Station redevelopment will provide direct access on the south side of the 246, the main East / West highway through Tokyo, some five minutes walk away.

And now the unused remaining rail tracks above ground have been converted into a new pedestrian area. A Fred Segal luxury lifestyle experience and the world famous Tartine Bakery and Cafe. And tomorrow, Kirin are very kindly throwing a Grand Opening party. If you happen to be in the area, should be and interesting time. But the question of questionable English arises once again. Why "Log Road"? Even "Timber Road" would be better. Then you could have a few beers and stand at one end and see if your voice carries the entire length as you shout the predictable "TIMBEEEERRRRRR!" Which you just know is going to happen now anyway.


You may kiss the bride...


It's generally assumed on the ground in Japan that international marriages are predominantly between Japanese women and foreign men. Interestingly the statistics show otherwise and it's a great example of sample bias. Over 70% of international marriages are actually with a foreign bride. Maybe the 28% of foreign guys are just louder about it....


International weddings were becoming more and more common in Japan up to 2006 when the immigration laws were changes and have since been in consistent decline year by year. Typically it is  said to be more often the foreign husband who meets his bride here rather than the other way around though recent statistics are beginning to contradict this. Although life after a wedding cake brings its own interesting moments the wedding itself can provide some interesting cultural differences too.

A Japanese friend of ours was getting married to a European she'd met in Tokyo and invited us to the celebration. At the moment the words "you may kiss the bride" were spoken he lifted her veil and leant forward for their first kiss as a married couple. She looked at him and thirty years of cultural upbringing kicked in. She dodged left and avoided the kiss. He tried again and she swung right. Different cultures, different styles.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The tired and emotional salarymen of Japan

The long suffering salaryman is the quintessential cliche of Japanese business. Long hours in the office will often be followed by semi-mandatory drinking sessions with his (and it is predominantly a male phenomena) co-workers. The days of the corporate expense account to support these bonding sessions are long gone so as the money comes out of their own pocket, the search for a more cost-effective venue has been adopted.

The evenings will often involve an enjoyable, though budget priced, dinner and quite a significant quantity of the foamy beer served ubiquitously in the bars and restaurants of Japan. There is one, almost predictable, side effect of these evenings. Someone is going to get absolutely trolleyed. Japanese, as with many of Asian descent, often lack an enzyme that breaks down alcohol. Westerners fortunately have it in abundance so will often be just starting the evening as their Japanese colleagues are snoozing at the table.

An interesting social effect of this is that it is often impossible to tell whether someone slumped in the corner has had a single beer or a veritable skilful. And so there is little stigma attached to appearing to be tired and emotional. Eyebrows remain completely unruffled at the signs of intoxication. And usually a quick shake or smack on the back will bring the individual around when it comes time to leave. Their friends always ensuring no man is left behind. Even when it takes three of them to lift him off the floor.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The trees to the end of the world

Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa was born in 1543 within the walls of Okazaki Castle, to the southwest of the present day metropolis of Nagoya, Japan's third city. He would probably have been surprised to find that 400 years later the site was also home to the sole importer of the famous British sports cars, TVR. But that's a little off topic for today. The castle became the ancestral home of the Honda Clan and Ieyasu spent his early days caught in the political turbulence of vassal-hood as the family split along lines of diverging loyalties.

On reaching majority, fourteen in those days, he spent his life slowly climbing the military ladder. In 1567, after multiple name changes he finally settled on Tokugawa Ieyasu. Now aligned with the powerful Oda Clan he set about successfully clearing out the remaining opposition in the region, seizing the lands to reward his own growing coterie of vassals. And then he bet the farm and accepted a proposal to exchange his own lands in return for what is today the Kanto Plain, including a small castle in the town of Edo, eventually to become his capital, better known today as Tokyo.

Famously Ieyasu "won the war by retreating" as the phrase goes. And then in 1600 he solidified absolute power at the Battle of Sekigahara, on the shores of Lake Biwa near Kyoto, unceremoniously disposing of the massed forces of western Japan. After this and a few minor distractions he ruled in effective peace until passing away in 1616 at the ripe old age of seventy three. And then they buried him. And then dug him up and reburied him finally at Nikko, 130km north of Tokyo. And then they planted a 35km avenue of Sugi (cedar) trees totalling 200,000 in all. Today 13,000 still stand, though the avenue loses some one hundred each year to age and weather. But if you want to see a piece of history, why not walk the trees to the end of the world? The first Shogun of all Japan did.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ten things probably best not to do in Japan

1 - Swim in the lake around the palace - yes, it has been done. By a very drunk British tourist in 2008. In his defence he did live in Spain though. The comedy came to a head as two policemen chased the miscreant around the moat in a small rowing boat. Luckily they didn't catch him but you can imagine how many would have been in the water had they done so;

2 - Blow your nose on your handkerchief in public. If you've ever wondered why many Japanese public washrooms don't have hand towels, it's because that's how people dry their hands, and in the hot summers, their faces too. If you blow your nose on your hanky, the assumption is that next you'll be wiping your face with it. Yes, I know, but seriously, that's why people look aghast. Really.

3 - Touch the taxi door. It may look automatic as it swings open to greet you but actually its a simple lever under the driver's seat. If you slam the door you're also slamming the drivers fingers into the floor. Ouch....

4 - Pay for a coffee with a ¥10,000 note. The waitress will try her best to accommodate you but you've just paid for your breakfast beverage with a $100 bill. Although sometimes it does feel the coffee did actually cost nearly that much...

5 - Become frustrated when people don't understand your best Japanese. It's going to happen. 99.9% of all Japanese speakers are native speakers. It's not surprising in that context that people will struggle with even the smallest error. The first one being, you probably don't look Japanese!

6 - Pay a visit to the Imperial Palace. You'll see a gate. And a lot of other tourists taking selfies in front of high stone walls behind which the Emperor is probably watching his favourite show. Tokyo is interesting, lots to do, not much to see.

7 - Bite into a doughnut without checking the contents first. Instead of a tasty jam or custard interior, you may well be biting into an anko inside. This is a delicacy here but, made from a red bean paste, has the consistency of goo and transmits itself around your clothes in a very similar fashion to baby poop!

8 - Worry about losing your wallet. It'll have been handed in at the local police box where you lost it. Remember you're supposed to give 10% of the contents to the finder. And if there were just credit cards inside, a box of chocolate biscuits goes down just as well.

9 - Complain loudly about radiation. Honestly, we've heard it all before and still are OK to live here. The end of the world hasn't arrived. Well, not yet anyway.

10 - Take a selfie with the officer who has just stopped you for speeding. Actually, you can try this and recently a friend was actually successful. Nicely done sir.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The flotsam and jetsam of Fukushima

"Highly radioactive" is a somewhat emotional phrase being regularly applied to the debris drawn into the Pacific Ocean after the tsunami of March 2011. Although elements of this disaster have been washing up on the shores of the west coast of North America for quite some time now, recently the first traces of radiation, identified to come from Fukushima, have also been identified along the Oregon shores. You needed to read a long way into the reports to see the levels were fractions of fractions of a percent of the everyday background radiation. Not really something to worry about but it makes a great headline.

The debris field is the remnants of millions of tons of the everyday items that made up the towns and villages of the Tohoku coast that was scoured away that day. Whole habitats simply disappeared along with everything they contained. A football crossed the oceans quickly and was emotionally returned to its owner months later. A motorbike, a Hog, kept in a weather-proof plastic garden shed landed in British Columbia and was refurbished and presented to a delighted owner. The wreckage of floating docks, ghost ships, houses and even fishing tanks with live fish still in them (hmmm, I question that one) regularly wash up on the shores of the Pacific countries now.

The debris itself set off on its sojourn across the oceans in the days before the meltdown at Fukushima and is generally not considered to be radioactive or pose a risk of wild mutation. What it does carry is the ability to pollute the shorelines when the wreckage comes to rest and potentially this poses an even greater risk is to wildlife. The flotsam carries with it hitchhikers, species native to the waters of Japan but that were not necessarily established elsewhere. Although the process of ocean current transfer has always existed, this time it is on a scale never seen before. Radiation isn't the problem, fare dodging passengers are. This could be an ocean wide environmental disaster to follow the natural one of 2.42, March 11, 2011. But it just might be forgotten until it's too late.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Amazon - the world's biggest fresh-air shipment service.

I like Amazon, I really do. When it launched back in the 90's it was an absolute game changer for a foreigner's quality of life in Japan. No longer did I have to take a train halfway across Tokyo to the small section of English language books tucked away on the third floor of the Shinjuku Kinokunia (which were generally significantly overpriced). Now I could browse on-line and search recommendations, order multiple copies and have them all delivered to my door. Even the international delivery costs didn't discourage me, it was still cheaper to buy them from America than in Japan.

And then came CD's that weren't just J-Pop and then English language DVD's followed by almost anything else you desired. Kindle took me full circle back to books and then came Amazon Japan. Now delivery was next day, no waiting for international shipments, and soon that improved to same day. Payment could be made by credit card or direct bank transfer. And then it could be cash-on-delivery or even payment at the local convenience store. Delivery improved again and was not just same day but soon it was same afternoon.

But two issue still stand out for me. Firstly, why does Amazon Japan print the labels using a microscopic font that you need the eyesight of an eagle to read? But that's just me being picky. More importantly, why does Amazon enjoy shipping so much air around the country. Each time I receive an item the box is completely oversized and predominantly empty. That's spare air they're shipping. And although it is generally considered that air is free, it's actually not. A larger box means less boxes on the truck. And that means more trucks. All that free air is costing you carbon dioxide. And I'd really rather not pay for the book I want with an ice cap.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

TenguLife - where life began

TenguLife, as a concept, began in the close of 2011 as the aftereffects of the devastating earthquake that Spring began to simmer down and slowly come under control. We'd made it through summer, saving power by turning off the lights and upping the dial on the air-conditioning. Not as many foreigners as thought had left, but enough to notice. And then new faces started to appear in the Fall as a little confidence in the country began to return and the doom-sayers were finally falling silent. 

I was talking with someone who had hesitantly just arrived and was so concerned about what was happening had left his family behind in the relative "safety" of their home country. He asked a thousand questions about life in Japan, good questions, ones I wished I'd asked someone when I first arrived and I mentioned this to him. He, in turn, pointed out that he was glad he had someone to ask in the first place. And then he laughed and said I should write a book about it. And so I did.

The Beginner's Guide to Japan contains the answers to those thousand questions, designed for anyone coming to, or just plain interested in, Japan. Whether for a few months or a few years, we all face the same problems on "Day 1". The Beginner's Guide then spawned a sequel in The Expat's Guide to Japan, a book specifically aimed at those arriving to face the challenges of working in the Japanese market. And then more people, both foreign and Japanese alike, started asking even more questions. And so TenguLife was born, a place where answers could live in real time. Now approaching 100,000 words, maybe I'll compile all three into a single, giant compendium one day. But in the mean time, I hope you enjoy.

Tokyo - Spring 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

Tokyo and Osaka - two very differently similar cities

In many ways the great cities of Tokyo and Osaka share a number of key characteristics. For a start they are both immense with Tokyo boasting some 13 million people with a local zip code and Osaka weighing in at a very respectable 8 million, equivalent to the size of London. Osaka makes better okonomiyaki but Tokyo has the choice of finer wines. The standard phrase for good morning in Tokyo is pretty much "good morning" whereas in Osaka you'll ask "are you making money?" Osaka were the merchants and Tokyo the administration.

As in many countries both the accent and the vocabulary differ significantly over the 500km dividing the two cities though many will insist there is only one "Japanese". The differences can indeed be so extreme that it becomes impossible to use the phone and I've actually seen people give up and communicate by fax (this was a while ago). But the populations of both love their golf and karaoke and sake is a binding passion.

However, one curious difference is that, although both city's inhabitants predominantly commute by subway, on returning to the surface on any of the thousands of escalators, Tokyoites stand on the left and Osakians stand on the right. But now the local Osaka Government has decided to convert the entire population to standing on the left to align with Tokyo in time for the 2020 Olympics. There's even the threat of a warning to be followed by a modest fine for repeat offenders. Seriously guys, good luck with that one. Grab your video cameras, you're about to witness civil disobedience  Kansai style. Standing on the right.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A forgotten story of a volcano

Asamayama, at nearly 2,600 meters, is one of Japan's larger volcanos. It remains active and although there hasn't been a major eruption for approximately 300 years, a decade ago it threw enough ash into the air to make everyone clean their cars in Tokyo, some 200km away. Back in 2010 I was hosting a birthday party in January and took everyone up to the snows on the slopes of the mountain and within thirty minutes was summarily asked to remove our contingent from the area. The next morning it erupted again, but this time just a small example of its efforts though I should thank the official for warning us to leave.

Asamayama in 1913 

The structure of Asama is complex and the peak is actually closed to the public, toxic gas emission being regular enough to endanger hikers as they traverse the path to the summit. It is a beautiful volcano though and twenty five thousand years ago it would have looked just like a child's drawing of what one should look like. And then it blew itself apart but you can still see the western fringes of the remnants of that explosion. 

There's another reason for its fame though. In 1955, with Japan just recovering from the war, it became the birthplace of road racing in Japan with the Asama Kazan (volcano) race. A 19.2km track, with a starting line in north Karuizawa, the track encircling the volcano. Honda made it's name there have bought war surplus generator engines and strapped them to bicycles a just few years earlier. Today it is silent, no one races any more though there is a 3km stretch of perfectly straight road across the north side of the mountain is you'd like to take your bike for a ride. And last night the self defence force were testing their jets over the peak. Or it could have been aliens of course.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Farewell to the 19th Century, hello the 21st

The first of April is the first day of the Japanese fiscal year and the traditional moment hundreds of thousands of new university graduates begin their working lives. All sombrely dressed in black suits (dark grey being considered a little too ostentatious) they could be seen on the streets of Tokyo this morning heading for their inauguration ceremonies at the company where they may well spend the rest of their working lives. 

This year appears to mark a shift in market conditions towards a sellers market. For the past several years recruitment has been on the decline however the post-war baby boomers are now in their mid sixties and are retiring in droves. Japan Inc needs to bring in new blood. Toyota is taking on some 1,500 and ANA over 1,000. In a bit of a stunner even TEPCO is taking on 700.  

But for me the most poignant moment came in the days before this 21st century right of passage. At the ripe old age of 117, Misao Okawa neatly arranged her geta by the door for the last time and quietly slipped away. With her passing, the next oldest person in the world is a mere 112 and coincidently also resides in Japan. But, if you think about it, this means that the last living person to be born in the 19th Century has taken their final bow. Farewell Okawa-san, I trust you had a good innings. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Running the Nakasendo - From Kyoto to Tokyo

The Nakasendo, Japan's central mountain road, is one of Japan's five (relatively) ancient super-highways that stretched some 500+ kilometres from Kyoto to Edo, modern day Tokyo. The problem had arisen in the early days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the military government that came to power in the early seventeenth century. For the first time Japan had a potentially stable leadership and to secure that stability it needed rapid communications. Edo and Kyoto being the two effective seats of power, it became necessary they were linked.

Prior to the creation of these roads, travelling the length of the country was little more than navigating village lanes. Not an ideal approach to deploying the occasional army or carrying a message in the fashion of the Pony Express. And so the lanes were connected and the roads became highways and the Nakasendo came to cut through the centre of the country. With sixty-nine overnight stations, approximately a days walk one from another, the super-highway was created. And although it didn't require fords, it did have its breaks where a little scrambling is required.

The village of Oiwake, with its statue of Sherlock Holmes (a story for another day), is one of those stops, it's central route through the town having been recently repaved in a more traditional style akin to the days of the Shogun. And if you visit during Obon, make sure you follow the drums and wander into the forests. You'll be surprised the sprites you find there. But if you want to see the entire length of the Nakasendo, do what the British School in Tokyo achieved last year. Repeat the run, on foot, all 332 miles of it. In five days. Nicely done to students, teachers and parents who took part, what an incredible achievement.

The Nakasendo through the old postal town of Oiwake, Nagano-ken