Friday, October 30, 2015

Tossed on the Salad of History

From the early 1900's, even before the war with Russia, Japanese settlers began to colonise areas of northern Manchuria, then a part China but later to be annexed as the state of Manchukuo. In instance of Ohinata nearly the entire village emigrated. By the end of the war, more than 1.5 million Japanese, including the children of the early settlers, were effectively stranded with the surrender of Japan and, known as "outer Japanese" could no longer call for protection from their mother country.

More than 37,000 farmers had emigrated in the first half of the century from the Japan sea coastal prefecture of Nagano and now found themselves stranded on the border with Russia and acting as a buffer zone between the two armies. The majority eventually made their way back to Japan between 1946 and 1949 but were required to prove they were Japanese by finding a relative in Japan to sponsor them. And many found they were being roundly rejected as a further burden on their impoverished families.

Settling on unwanted and unproductive land to the west of Karuizawa, on the slopes of the Asayama volcano, they worked the land little noticed until they started to grow some of the finest crops in Japan. And so if you see a photograph of the Emperor in the salad fields of Ohyuga, it's something to know they are there by the labour of the returnees from Manchuria, people who had been tossed on the sea of history, as their fate became known.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What The Dickens! - A Shakespearean Pub in Tokyo

What The Dickens! is an English style pub tucked away on the top floor of a distinctly curious building in the back streets of Ebisu, a lively district on the fringes of Shibuya in central Tokyo. One of the pioneers of warm beer and great pub grub, it opened its doors in the late 1990's and boasts an interestingly winding two floor interior as well as loud live bands. It also features a brain teaser of an entry; if you can't open the door, that's not the door you're trying to open. Look for the handle on your left.

Stepping inside you could be forgiven for thinking you'd just been transported through space and time to the back streets of Victorian London. They have absolutely nailed the authentic decor of a traditional English pub. Relatively famous amongst the foreign crowd, the walls are plastered with Dickensian quotes and passages, which is a little ironic as the phrase has nothing to do with Dickens but rather derives from Shakespeare, spoken some 250 years earlier by Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. 

The space also boasts an interesting history having previously housed an office of the now defunct death-cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which, one day in March 1995, thought it might be a good idea to release sarin gas into the Tokyo Metro. The organisation was subsequently disbanded and What The Dickens! moved in. And although there has been at least one unfortunate individual who has shuffled off this mortal coil over a beer in the years since, this had nothing to do with the fine ales and chicken pies served by the friendly landlord. All in all, Shakespeare would probably have been quite at home here in Ebisu.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Community - the heart of the Japanese spirit

The phrase "fighting spirit" is often banded around in Japan to recognise achievement against the odds. However it rarely questions whether the achievement was actually the right thing to do in the first place. When two schools recently competed in baseball and the game remained tied for four days the teachers forced the pitchers to continue hour after hour. The parents praised the children's "fighting spirit" for having stood in the summer sun for four straight days. However, in many other countries the teachers would be considered guilty of child abuse.

Strangely though, there is a significantly more real, and arguably more important, aspect of the Japanese character, and that is a real and genuine sense of community. It's something I haven't experienced in my home country; there would be many local events true, where we would go along and join in the fun as a family, but not necessarily as a community. Would we know each other or would we turn out to represent our local neighbourhood, for example?

So when the local Sports Day in Japan comes around, it's not simply a school event, in fact, it has nothing to do with the school at all. Organised by the representative committees, over three hundred people spent the entire day competing (more or less) in a series of races, obstacle courses and various imaginative trials by cardboard box. Fifteen neighbourhoods, from toddlers to teens to great grand parents, everyone came together to enjoy their community. And it's something special. An achievement so much more important than "fighting spirit". And I like that.

sports day

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Trams of Kamakura

Kamakura is a wonderful coastal town roughly an hours drive to the south of Tokyo, famous for many sights, including the giant statue of Buddha, dating back to the mid-thirteenth century. The stature stands in the open, a stream of halls having been destroyed in storms over a period of two hundred years with the final one being taken by a tsunami in 1489. At this point the locals took the hint and left Buddha uncovered to smile at the stars.

Ringed by hills and only accessible by sea, from 1185 to 1333 it was also the capital of the fledgeling country until the destruction of the existing shogunate and a return to Kyoto rule. These days Kamakura is a popular tourist destination and equally popular with the windsurfers. But it is also home to the tightest electric railway in Japan. Slotted between the houses and back streets, the Enoshima Electric Railway opened in 1902, joining Kamakura with the town of Fujisawa, some fourteen stations further down the coast. 

The line, including some of the tightest turns or track in Japan, is a must for any train enthusiast but also has a completely separate influence on the town. When constructed, the railway cut directly through the residential centre, isolating many homes and the odd restaurant from their access roads. So if you want dinner, you're going to have to walk across the tracks. Not sure I'd really want to try that after a couple of glasses of sake it has to be said. However, good to know that 'Health & Safety' demurs to charm in Japan.

Kamakura railway

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Future - a Car's Tale

The new Star Wars trailer may be making long-patient fans widely delirious after yesterday's launch but today surely belongs to Back to the Future, for at 4.29pm, 21 October, 2015, Marty McFly landed in the DeLorean to save the world once more. Released in November 1989, it's interesting how little, and how much, has changed since then in Japan. For example, X-Japan launched their breakthrough album and today, are about to hit the stage again.

Toshiki Kaifu became the third Prime Minister of the year and today we have stability (loved or not so loved). The soccer team had yet to qualify for pretty much anything and today the rugby team walks heads held high on the world stage. The bubble, the biggest money making scheme in history, was in full swing with the stock market peaking in the December achingly short of 39,000 but today languishes at a little over half that number.

School kids still wear the same uniform, a design copied from pre-WW1 Germany, but now they  have perfected the art of being the smartphone zombie, living in the world of single fingered interaction. Interestingly there are a lot less cars on the streets than in 1989 when a beat up Nissan Cedric was "de rigueur" for every twenty-something. But as the classic-car race, the Mille Miglia, winds it's way through the mountains of central Japan this week, it's reassuring to think that seven years from now, the DeLorean will be qualified.

Have a great Back to the Future day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


It would take someone with a heart of ice-cold stone not to be moved by the images flowing from Europe at present as refugees pour through rapidly closing gateways. There is the greatest exodus in living memory crossing the continent with the hope of reaching the northern states and a new life. Germany is leading the way, but then again, it needs to. The German population is going into reverse; Germany needs the people.

Japan is staring the same stark long-term decline in the face, the count of Japanese citizens already falling following the peak in 2012. The government has announced a policy to ensure the population doesn't fall below 100m, from 127m today, but the problem is, the country needs people and it needs them young. And with a fertility rate of ~1.41, this is simply not happening. Towns and villages in the countryside are already shutting up shop, how long until the regional cities are forced to follow?

The Prime Minister has announced to the United Nations General Assembly that Japan has its own headcount problems and until these are resolved, mass immigration is off the table. Unfortunately the  outcome is imminently predictable; count the babies today and you know the population tomorrow.  In the meantime, one village has decided to take a stand. Nagoro, in southern Japan, is repopulating with scarecrow people. Not really sure this is a long term solution though. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sometimes you just get lucky

ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION are a highly successful Japanese Indie band who can trace their heritage back to the days of the mid-1990's when they came together as friends at college sharing a similar taste in music. And in early 2015 they came together in Los Angeles to record their new album over two weeks of intensely creative development at the Foo Fighters' studio in the north of the city.

I was lucky enough to be travelling to California at the time with JJ, the famous Japan based music producer (you should hear his track for Fall Out Boy by the way). He knew the guys and they invited us to the studio one evening to enjoy a recording session (David Grohl was out of town before you ask). The studio was an incredible mix of guitars, amps and gold records and the recording desk itself had a legendary status having been used in the mid-seventies to lay down the tracks of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours album amongst others. 

And yes, I did lay a very reverent hand upon the hallowed machine. But the story is not about getting lucky and having the chance of visiting the home of some of the world's most successful music. The point is these Japanese guys, who spoke little English, had looked overseas and taken a risk and, in the days of introspection, they're setting a great example for the youth of their home country. In the era of global communication, they're embracing the globe. And I have to admit, I like that.

ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION at the Foo Fighters' studio in Los Angeles.
And the awesome Barefoot speakers in the background.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The phones they are a-changing

When I arrived in Japan in the early 1990's, the monopoly national phone carrier, NTT, kindly charged me $700 for a phone number. Just the phone number mind you, installing the line cost me another $150 and then I had to buy the phone itself. And then of course I could barely afford to use it with international calls cost around $4 per minute. Postcards became my default means of communicating back home.

Without recognising the irony, my colleagues pointed out (after I'd stopped ranting about the costs) that I'd be able to recover the $700 (or most of it) when I left Japan at the end of my secondment. None of them seemed to realise that they'd never be seeing their own money again, being Japanese, they were unlikely to be leaving. And still today, new arrivals are required to hand over this "bond" for the simple benefit of a land-line phone number.

Things started to change in on 17 January, 1995 when an M6.9 earthquake devastated the city of Kobe in western Japan and, at 5.46am, 300,000 reinforced concrete telephone polls fell over. Communications were out all over the city and the few with mobile phones would leave them on the street with a collection dish so people could make their calls. And today the market has taken the hint, NTT still charges $700 for a number, but it's becoming harder and harder to find anyone who has a home phone anymore. The mobile has taken over. And Skype of course.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Rugby World Cup - A team that chose to fight

So Japan won their third game and were cruelly ejected from the Rugby World Cup, the first time a country has lost only a single game and not continued to the later stages of one of the world's great tournaments. Eddie Jones and the team have done their country proud and set a very high bar for the men preparing for 2019 when the games will be held with home country advantage.

The loss of the national stadium, now back on the drawing board as the country re-assesses its options prior to the Olympics, is a blow but realistically it's not going to happen so let's move on. The opening ceremony will now be at the Ajinomoto Stadium in the suburbs of northern Tokyo, and the final will be held, once again, in Yokohama, a repeat of the football World Cup in 2002 though the choice of Kamaishi, in wave ravaged Tohoku, is inspiring for the pool games.

There has been quite some discussion as to the non-nationals who played for the country including the captain, Michael Leitch, who proceeded to astound the nation by conducting his post-match interviews in flawless Japanese. It hadn't been a question of Japanese or foreigner, simply who was the best man for the job. And those born outside these shores paid the highest tribute to the country they could; they chose, committed, fought for and were selected to represent this country, something I'm sure they are all very proud of now they are flying home. To Japan.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Kagurazaka - a village within a city

Kagurazaka, a small neighbourhood hidden in plain sight and tucked away in the centre of Tokyo, is strangely relatively unknown. It was traditionally a focus of manga artists and the publishing industry, boasted a thriving geishi culture and is home to seemingly hundreds of outstanding little restaurants and bars. For many years it was also home to Adidas that had set up in a Norman Foster designed building in the area (though the building is now gone, having not survived too well during the earthquake of March 2011).

Stepping off the main strip you quickly find yourself lost in a maze of narrow back streets, barely wide enough for two to walk shoulder to shoulder. The occasional geisha still frequent these alleyways as they stroll to the expensive kaiseki restaurants where they entertain the exclusive clientele throughout their meal. It's also home to the French community in Tokyo, the school being close by and the French Institute running a stream of cultural events.

Historically, the area was daimyo (feudal lord's) land to the north of Edo Castle where a bridge crossed the moat, which is now used as a fishing pool. Temples abound and the sakura, Cherry Blossom, is stunning in early spring. Everything has a story to it and even the rare tidal-flow street that reverses traffic direction in the morning (local folklore suggesting this was to allow an influential politician to visit and then quickly leave his "hobby" during the 1970's) adds to the charm. And you can walk the area in days or minutes. Up to you, but there is always something interesting to see and experience. Not bad considering in March 1945 it was a display of nothing but scorched earth.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The 1940 Summer Olympics

1940 doesn't immediately bring to mind the concept of The Olympics, the world being somewhat distracted by a raging war snowballing across the globe at the time. However, the games were indeed awarded and preparations were underway before events overcame the host city which, four years after Hitler's Olympics in Berlin, was Tokyo. Japan had seen them as something of a PR coup, especially given the fighting in China which was leading to a growing isolation from Europe and America.

It eventually fell foul of the Japanese military though which had at first tolerated the preparations, assuming the war in China would be concluded swiftly but was coming under pressure as hostilities continued. The cancellation became inevitable in the summer of 1938 as resources continued to be directed towards the overseas actions and the high command lost patience with what was being seen as more and more of a distraction. Surrendering the cause, the presiding minister pledged the games would be held one day, when peace returned to Asia. A pledge eventually fulfilled at the country's coming out party in 1964.

So 2020 is not the second time that Tokyo has prepared for an Olympics but the third. Additionally, Sapporo, the main city of the northern island of Hokkaido, had also been planned for the Winter Olympics in 1940, something it could deliver finally in 1972. But with criticism of the make up of the organisation committee, no national stadium and a logo allegedly copied from Belgium, it is not going quite as smoothly as could be desired. However, the loss is not going to be in sports, that will eventually come together, the real loss will be in the opportunity to further internationalise the country. That race, sadly, looks to be already lost.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Kitsune - the foxes of Japan

Foxes, those mischievous shadow dwellers, play a special role in the mythology of Japan. Gaining tails as a source of power, when it acquires nine in total it is said to turn white, and at the age of 100, it becomes a polymorph, a shape shifter, often taking human form. They come in good (zenko) form as well as malicious (yako) and nearly a third of all temples and shrines in Japan will be home to a pair of red kerchief sporting foxes (kitsune, pronounced kit-su-neh), close confidents of the god Inari.

Legend has it that they have a habit of possessing people usually entering the body from under the fingernails, and in Japan there is a genuine medical condition known as kitsunetsuki where an individual believes they have been taken by the spirit of the fox. Peculiarly the symptoms include a craving for rice and red-bean paste, so somewhat difficult to differentiate from every single normal child in the country.

However, one manifestation of the spirit of the fox sometimes briefly arises the day after a typhoon when a light rain falls from a super-saturated blue sky. The phenomenon is known as Fox Tears and, although extremely rare, TenguLife has been lucky enough to experience this twice over the years. Looking up there was a clear sky, without a cloud in sight, just rain falling from nowhere. Something to enjoy while it lasts, for an empty sky really doesn't make an interesting photograph. 


Monday, October 5, 2015

A perfect day - saying goodbye

It wasn't the day but the detail. A young man quietly wept into his shirt, covering his face, an older one finding it hard to focus on the road ahead. As the funeral car had pulled away from the hospital the night-shift doctor had come running to pay his respects. The weather unseasonably warm for October, the body, a mother and grandmother peacefully laid out to rest in a room where people obviously cared. A friend from her younger days silently cried and each there, in turn, stood and whispered a prayer, burning incense as they rang a small bell to let the gods know they would like them to listen.

The priest chanting and the detail becoming more vivid. There were two candles, one dancing in a draft from somewhere, the second standing still, a cobweb under a chair in a corner, people slowly folding their prayer beads. And then the helpers from her care home arrived, not one as a representative, but nine who had known her. Each in their everyday clothes, sandals and pens in pockets but they stood one by one and said their own silent prayer, wishing her spirit well on its journey.

The gathering placed flowers and then photographs into the coffin, then mementos from her life, chocolate, the last thing she'd been able to eat, a toy rabbit that had kept her company in the months since her stroke. The dogs sat quietly in the corner and the daughter adjusted her headband and painted on lip-gloss. It has been more than thirty years since she saw her husband and she wanted her to look her best. Then we all held the cover as we finally closed the coffin. 

The cremation took an hour, the priest staying until the fires were started. And when it was over, the remains of the skeleton lay there on the sand and we picked up the bones and placed them in the urn. The groundsman, pausing to pray as he opened the family grave, and stepping down he placed the container alongside the remains of her husband. It was a perfect day, the people who cared were there, and many we didn't know came to say goodbye. And her daughter slept that night, the first time in a long time.

Chiyoko Yoshida 1940 - 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015

Shichi - Go - San, the kids in Japan are about to get cute

The kids on the streets of Japan are about to get cute. Although officially celebrated on 15 November, shichi-go-san, or seven-five-three, is a Japanese rite of passage for children that has essentially spread its wings beyond the single day. In modern practice, girls of seven and three, and boys of five will dress in traditional style and visit their local shrine for a blessing to drive out evil spirits, ensuring a long a richly rewarding life ahead.

Although over the years commercialism has crept into the fray, for once it works in our favour. As the focus for most is now the kimono clad family photograph, the studios of Japan become block booked around the time and people are forced to arrange a sitting ahead of time. This means you get to see entire families in traditional dress for weeks in advance as the celebration is extended into October and people try to find an available space in the local photographers schedule.

For many children it may be the first, and for boys possibly the only, time to wear traditional attire and so the faces are often slightly bemused as the youngsters shuffle through the streets of Tokyo. The tradition is open to all though, so if you happen to be non-Japanese and in Japan, you can still take part, the studios providing the clothes and helping you with the intricacies of lacing an obi. And for three year olds it means your parents can now officially stop shaving your head. Though how they used to do this in the first place I have absolutely no idea.