Friday, July 31, 2015

Grab your yukata - the Ebisu summer festival

The Ebisu summer festival (matsuri) is traditionally held the last Friday and Saturday of July, so if you have no plans for the evening, put on your happi-coat (or yukata) and head down there when it's in full swing. Ebisu is almost an underground neighbourhood of Tokyo nestled between Roppongi and Shibuya, its more recognised nightlife cousins. Even without this particular annual event, it's worth a visit of an evening if you're looking for out-of-the-way watering holes and restaurants, there's always something interesting around the next corner.

Japan is awash with summer festivals but this one, a little like Tsukiji fish market, is one of those sights that should be on everyone's 'life-list' but unlike many of its more famous counterparts, it tends to run somewhat under the gaijin radar. Which is peculiar given that four to five thousand people attend each evening. The centre of the village, next to the station, is closed and a giant, pagoda-style, platform erected in the focus, large enough to carry twenty people or more. And, through the evening, as the dance grows, thousands join the ritualistic festivities.

And this one is extremely family and foreigner friendly. Everyone, whether young or old, is welcome to join, and although the steps are intricate, the overall patterns are repeated over and over so the motions soon become fluid and familiar. The obligatory food and beer stands line the side streets but somehow the entire area remains moving. So if you have a spare evening at the end of July, grab your happi-coat and head on down to Ebisu. You'll enjoy a uniquely Japanese experience.  

A Short User Guide to TenguLife

TenguLife set out with the objective to introduce some of the lesser known and, in many ways, more curious, aspects of life in Japan. Now, with several hundred articles, it's arguably only just scratching the surface of the country and culture. And so if you're looking for something specific, interested in browsing popular posts, would like to send a comment or wished I'd write in anything other than English, here's a few how too's:

Follow on Twitter: Feel free to follow TenguLife on Twitter. Every article posted here will be Tweeted as well;

Translation: A translation button is included for multiple different languages. Knowing how this can sometimes go tragically wrong, it's been checked and given an 8/10 by French, Spanish, Russian and German native speakers;

Popular Posts: This includes both this week's popular posts (interestingly, sometimes older posts suddenly come to back to life) and, if you scroll further down, there are the all-time popular articles from the history archives; 

Contact: This emails TenguLife directly. Feel free to place comments and ask questions; I do read and reply. I've made quite a few like-minded friends this way!

Search: The search function allows for look-up by subject; simply type the word and press the go button;

Archive: This includes all posts since inception sorted by date. It's always interesting for me to see how the style has progressed over time;

Facebook: You can follow TenguLife on Facebook too. All articles are reposted there so you're not going to miss anything!

RSS: This is very new so feel free to let me know if it's misbehaving;

Comments: It is possible to comment on an article directly but you need to be a 'logged-on Blogger' to do so. If this doesn't work for you, feel free to send the comment via 'Contact' and I'll post it for you;

Guest Writers: This is a "Coming Soon" service. If you have the occasional story about Japan you'd like to post but don't want to create a full blown blog, here's your chance. More details later...

In addition to these functions, there are also links to Blogs on Japan I enjoy as well a number of interesting videos. The bookshop covers the (fascinating) companion books to this site which are also available on Amazon and from a number of other e-Commerce vendors.

I hope you enjoy reading TenguLife, I enjoy writing it.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Three nights of heaven and earth - O-bon

O-bon will be with us soon. Although not an actual National Holiday, the entire country will close down and the city dwellers will return to their ancestral homes to be with extended families. During the middle of August each year, Tokyo becomes a veritable ghost town, devoid of cars, noise and inhabitants. Almost everyone will be on a train at 200% capacity or queuing patiently at an airport waiting for their flight. And those who chose the car will be in a 100km tailback. 

If you do chose to spend the time in the hinterlands, you are in for something special though. Across many of the ancient lakes, families will float burning candles to say farewell to those lost in the past year or simply to remember those who came before them. There will be festivals in the streets of usually sedentary towns as well as in the woods and forests that cover most of Japan's mountainous centre. Kyoto will celebrate with the giant, burning symbols of the Daimonji, the guiding gates to heaven for the souls of their ancestors. 

And if you are looking for something even more special though, the Owara Kaze-no-Bon is an experience to behold. Nearly two weeks after O-bon, faceless dancers spend three nights protecting their crop from the force of mother nature. Seen as the highest risk time of year in the rice farmers calendar, with the typhoon season at its peak, the hypnotic figures ward off evil spirits, repeating a ritualistic, almost hypnotic, dance over and over again, hats pulled close to hide their faces. And, after the three nights are complete, the town returns to normal. Until it's time to protect their land and lives again next year.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rooftops, beer gardens and international friends

Beer Gardens are a wonderfully Japanese concept, very different from their European or US counterparts. During the summer months, when the heat and humidity make street life close to unbearable, many department stores provide an obvious solution. They open their roof gardens to the good and the thirsty of the city from mid-afternoon to late into the evening. For a fixed fee, usually $25~35, it's all-you-can-drink and, for a little more, they throw in all your gastronomic requirements as well.

The pricing is clearly designed for the domestic market where the average person probably only quaffs a couple of beers over an evening. For gaijin, where many of us often carry a somewhat higher capacity tank, it is great value for money. You're out of the heat and the noise of the street, in many instances with a great view of the city and to add to the enjoyment, most Japanese get giggly (or sleepy) when tipsy. Which is always fun.

Everyone occupies large, open, tables and, as the first glass or two go down, so do the inhibitions. Japanese can often be hesitant to talk to foreigners simply from the perspective of being embarrassed about using English. But it won't be long before conversations arise between the adjoining parties and as the evening comes to a close, new friends will have been made. And they might just know another, even better, beer garden on a roof that serves an equally refreshing summer nomihodia

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Doctors, babies and how to call an ambulance in Japan

A number of the concerns for any expat arriving in a new country tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Finding somewhere to live, getting children into schools, opening a bank account and finding medical support in a language they themselves support. There's nothing like a good illness without a doctor you can talk to try the spirit especially if it's malady unfamiliar in their home country. Even  drugs can have different names adding to the confusion. Something of an issue for those with severe allergies.

The good news is that Japan has outstanding, first world, medical facilities. Although you have to pay upfront, if you're on a local contract then a significant element of the cost is covered by the government. But caveat emptor, using your national insurance card and finding a doctor who speaks your language are not, necessarily, the same thing. The international facilities tend not to accept the local green card and the domestic hospitals are unlikely to speak anything other than Japanese outside the major cities.

One further point to note is, if you happen to need an ambulance (dial 119 by the way) it will arrive quickly but then, in many cases, commence calling around to find a hospital to take them. Something of a pain if you're in, well, pain. This isn't anything against foreigners, it's the process for Japanese too. But once you're in, the place will be pristine and the service quick and efficient. Unless you're having a baby that is; then you can be in for a week or more. For fun, try asking how long women are pregnant in Japan and you'll be surprised to hear it's ten months. And that's a whole other story.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tokyo heat, air-conditioners, thunderstorms and cruise missiles

It reached 34C in Tokyo today. With an effective temperature approaching 40C when you take into account that the official figures are measured in a small, sun sheltered box of the Met Office. Now it has to be said but I actually don't know the name of the Japanese Met Office so we'll stick with the UK version for now. But it was these people who figured out, in November 1944, just what a jet stream, a narrow and fast air current, running at about 30,000 feet, is all about. 

Realising these air currents ran around the world, Japan invented the world's first cruise missiles by launching balloon-bombs with timers that drifted across The Pacific until time was up and they dropped on the west coast of America (sadly taking the lives of a family, out for a picnic one day, the only arial bombardment casualties on the continent during WW2 hostilities). So these guys are clever and creative people. But if you want to know the weather, just look out of the window of a morning. If people are carrying umbrellas, it's going to rain.

But today was hot. Nighttime temperature is not forecast to drop below 26C. There's a noticeable lack of joggers on the streets and the taxis are running with full air-con blowing. Except, of course, for mine today. And the next seven days are all forecast at 32C or hotter accompanied with thunderstorms, except for Saturday. Which doesn't have thunderstorms. So I would just like to thank Willis Haviland Carrier, who, in 1902, invented the modern air-conditioning system. Thank you Willis, and if your decedents are reading this and outside, see you in October. When it's cooler.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Five years until the Olympic Opening Ceremony

There's a major thunderstorm outside, no huge surprise for this time of year. I was once in-stadium for a national team game that was somewhat shortened by something similar. When the lightning struck the stadium, the referee blew the whistle, time for the players to head for safer territory. And time for the spectators to head for cover too. So the obvious question to ask is, why hold the Olympics at this time of year? Peak heat and thunderstorms. Could be an interesting event with no roof to the stadium. At least that was the thought until suddenly there was no stadium.

OK, that strike was close. The car alarm it set off is a good indicator we're in something of the centre and the neighbouring building has just taken a direct hit. The rain is now getting heavier and Tokyo's micro-climate is enjoying a summer's day. In 1964 the summer Olympics were held here in the middle two weeks of October. Beautiful weather at that time of year. But it's now almost black outside in the middle of the afternoon. At least in October there is only the occasional typhoon to be concerned about. And earthquakes of course but there is little anyone can do about those.

So what happened to the stadium? Well, last week the government moved a controversial set of new laws through the Diet and, to boost flagging popularity, appears to have cancelled the equally controversial design for a new stadium. The old one had seen better days and is now a hole in the ground, no coming back from there. The cost of the new one was simply becoming stratospheric. The belief is that ingenuity will come to the rescue and a new, more taxpayer friendly, option will be chosen and implemented. Five years is a possible time line for the 2020 Olympics. But that's probably not a comfort to the organisers of the Rugby World Cup for 2019. That was their stadium too. Still thundering outside.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thank you and good luck

I once saw a brilliant speech by Kathy Matsui on the challenges of being a working, female professional in Japan. She concluded, with a smile and wink, there was no glass ceiling here, just a thick layer of men. Continuing the thought, there was once someone who worked for me as a temp. She was late one day and when I asked her what had happened, she explained she'd been halfway to her local train station when she realised she was wearing an 'inappropriate' brand of shoes, had turned around and gone home to change. She got the permanent job on the spot. She'd understood what it was all about and would rather be late than suggest disrespect to her colleagues.

She was there when we went through World Cup in 2002 and she would tell me to calm down and have a coffee when the stress levels were building. And she shed a tear the day we had to tell the team she was moving to work for the president and then again in the years to come when she decided to take on a line role. She turned out in the rain when the national team played and she took each challenge in her stride. And through her own determination she rose to become the Head of Accounting for a billion dollar company.

And now she is leaving for a new opportunity, it is time again for something different. Over fifteen years she showed how it was possible to develop a career as a young, female executive in Japan. No small task and she did it well, an incredible role model. Good luck Ide-san, Christophe and I are proud of you. We had a beer recently and talked about the old days and your reasons for moving on. We couldn't argue with your decision, it is a good one. Oh, and one more thing, sorry about the times you had to tell me to sit down and shut up.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Great British Pub - just the ticket in the summer heat of Japan

When I began working in the City, many years ago, it was the norm to enjoy a pint of the landlord's finest at lunch. These days though, this practice has all but gone the way of the dinosaur. No longer is the pub lunch considered an appropriate start to the afternoon, and probably reasonably so, we never did get that much done after 1.30 on a Friday. However the pubs that haven't closed their doors and rung time on their customers have found a way forward in the UK where TenguLife has been travelling these past few weeks.

The focus of the English Pub is clearly now on food and family, and an excellent few lunches were sampled during the tour. Which marks a serious contradiction with the opportunities in Japan of a lunchtime. Although everyone obviously has lunch (and many still smoke like chimneys over both their, and everyone else's, cuisine) the concept of a pub-lunch extending into an afternoon has never really caught on. The small eateries typically open at 11.30 and close for business around 2.00 leaving those looking for a beer and a chat, out of luck until the early evening shift comes around.

And this begs the question why don't pubs exist in Japan (outside of those more of a novelty attraction)? An English Country Pub with good food and a wide selection of ambience would be a welcome addition to life in Tokyo providing the location for that vital 3.30pm discussion that just can't wait until the evening. However they don't exist and watering holes are few and far between of an afternoon. But if you do find one, ask for your beer "awa-nashi de". You'll be surprised how much  more you receive in your glass if you do. And in this summer's heat, kampai!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Spirit of a Constitution

The Diet (Parliament) of Japan has begun the process of enacting new laws to empower the Self Defense Forces to, put very simply, act in anger if provoked. The country is clearly divided in its opinion as to whether this is desirable or even constitutional. Lets put the latter to rest first, here is Article 9 of the Japanese constitution:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. 

To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. 

Interestingly there is an English translation available from the Cabinet Office. The interesting point being that the Constitution was actually written in English and as such a 'translation' is something of a misdirection. So, to be straightforward, there is a significant question mark as to whether the new laws comply with either the spirit or the letter of the document that has held Japan together for the last seven decades. And this is the point being made by the protest movement. 

But, without entering into this debate, there is the odd fact of the current state of the Japanese armed forces. They are remarkably modern and remarkably well equipped. Perhaps it's about time this debate is aired in public. For or against. Japan, let's have the discussion. That's what constitutions are all about. Nicely outlined in Article 21 if you were wondering.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Sorrow of Super Mario

When my son was born I would spend the early hours watching over him as my wife claimed some much needed, and well earned, sleep and entertain myself trying to solve the puzzles of a Nintendo 64. As my son grew we played these games together, father/son time as it were and slowly he developed the skills to beat me at every possible opportunity. The first time he completed the course on Mario Kart I can still remember the jumps for joy as he screamed "I did it! I did it!".

When he was six he came to me and said he wanted a Game Boy. As with any parent I showed hesitation but when I saw his friends on the school bus wified together and competing to score the winning goal, I realised it was the lone kid with the book who was the outsider. Games were no longer isolationist, now they were the social activity, bridging the gaps rather than building them. We did a deal, he learnt to read 'Green Eggs and Ham', and Santa was happy and brought him a brand new DS.

These days the DS is long gone but we still spend time beating each other's scores on Star Wars on the old '64. It remains a time we can spend together, a time I can remember and enjoy. Few Japanese companies have genuinely created something new, many simply improving on previous ideas, something Apple is very good at if we're being honest. But while I've been travelling Nintendo lost someone who was part of my son and I growing up. And Mario is sad about that.