Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Fine and Happy New Year!

It's New Year's Eve and Tokyo is quiet as people have returned to their home towns to be with family. Tonight the country will be sitting in front of the TV watching Kohaku, the annual "Boys vs Girls" (boys in white, girls in red) sing off that has been running for, it would seem, ever. All the favourite singers and talento of the day join in an multi-hour extravaganza of a competition, wrapping up just before midnight as everyone switches over to watch the countdown on Jonny's Pop Show.

But there's an interesting aside for the name of Kohaku. The reason why the girls are in red and the boys are in white is that Kohaku is actually a stylised koi carp which is also red and white. Bred in the 1800's it's now featured in garden ponds the world over and each and everyone can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Kunizo Hiroi who successfully mated the first pairing to an ornamental fish. But more impressively, single handedly invented the concept of an ornamental fish in its own right.

But as Kohaku closes, the camera will switch to a tolling bell, ringing in the New Year. And that's when everyone changes channel to the Jonny's party. A neighbour of mine, the lead guitar of a band  known as "New Dawn" used to hangout here and we'd have beers on the balcony. He was a really nice guy and I never really knew what he did or who the band were. Until I saw him closing the show as the countdown sounded. I asked him later about why a famous guy like himself would sit and drink a glass with me (of all people) and he said that as I didn't know who he was he just felt like a regular guy. And he liked that. Happy New Year.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Smile, it's a beautiful day

This happens to be my 500th post on TenguLife, and as such please indulge me a little. Allow me to recount a story from the closing days of December 1991, in the depths of downtown Tokyo, I was in a bar, long since fading into history, when the girl of my dreams walked through the door. And here I am today, all these years later, walking the sights of Tokyo, the two of us still holding hands. And it's a sunny day.

When we met she spoke no English and my Japanese was remarkably close to useless. Luckily her friend who was with her that evening had spent a couple of years in LA and helped us out at the beginning but after that, it was just her, me and a dictionary. Conversations were confusing, slow and difficult but we persevered, sometimes with hilarious consequences as we tripped over each others language and culture.

This was in the days before Google and the mobile phone, the two great facilitators of the modern era. Arranging a date via answer machine was almost always a hit and miss affair, you just had to repeat the time and place three times, hang up and hope. But slowly we figured it out, developing a language the two of us could understand but others, may be not. And now our son is leaving for university. You really can do anything you want to do in life. You just have to try and give it a go. Have a wonderful day.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Winter is Coming

Winter is coming to Japan. Soon the daytime temperature in Tokyo will be hitting low single digits and already snow has fallen in the capital; though admittedly that was the earliest winter wonderland has arrived in nearly sixty years. And this means it's onsen season. Yey! It may sound a little strange to the uninitiated but one of the greatest pleasures in life is to laze in a tub of hot water with friends as the snowflakes falls around you. And Japan is very good at this.

These days there are four essential styles of onsen (hot spring) that are popular with the populace. The international tourist focussed ones tend to require swimsuits but the traditional pools are almost universally au natural as it were though modesty maintained with a handy modesty towel. The classical onsen are segregated allowing your time or relaxation, neck deep in piping hot water, with the guys or girls. Though it has to be said the chatter from the ladie's side tends to be a little (lot) louder than the men's. 

Konyoku, mixed bathing, is actually the traditional variety (it's not inappropriate to bathe, however it is inappropriate to look) but these largely disappeared following western influences over the last century though if you really search around they can still be found, hidden away. And the final version is known as kazokuburo, or family bath. Usually unfrequented by teenagers but younger families or the slightly older will enjoy time together chatting the night away. Japan is more relaxed about spending family time together, a little freaky for a westerner, but just wait for the snowflakes to fall. Winter is coming.

Friday, November 25, 2016

How easy is life in Japan?

It's a perennially interesting question, "how hard is life in a country where you're not an element of the culture, can't speak the language, and haven't a clue how to read those little squiggles known as kanji?". Strangely the first part of the question rarely arises. Without knowing how different the culture of Japan is from the baseline of a home country born and raised, it is actually quite hard to realise this is a valid vertex of the triangle. And yet it is.

The answer is "no, it's not hard, but it's not quite exactly what you'd expect". And the internet has made a world of difference. The pre-digital age search system was to ask a friend. Or trawl through something like the Kansai Flea Market, the free rags available around every corner, keeping the wheels of the non-native community turning with fun facts and information. But it's not quite the same as Google.
So yes, twenty five years ago it was a bit tricky and you had to accept the gaijin abyss as part of daily life; though the phone boxes used to have ISDN ports (remember those?), but I've yet to meet anyone who had ever used one. But the world is a simpler place these days with instant communication and Amazon-on-Demand. Hard work in an unknown language, yes; hard life? No. A well kept secret though. Oh, and earthquakes and typhoons. But you can't have everything.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The cure to the global loneliness of Japan

Japan couldn't exactly be said to be on the way to anywhere. Sitting at the top left-hand corner of The Pacific, traffic to China is direct these days, Europe to Australia is via Singapore or Hong Kong and Dubai is now a hub for almost anywhere. If you land in Japan it's because you wanted to be there. So the chances of an old friend just passing through and stopping off to say hello are slim to nothing at best. 

LonelyAnd so one of the greatest pleasures of life is when an old friend is in town, for whatever reason, and takes the time to look you up. I once made a life changing mistake of not taking the chance to meet a friend from Tokyo as I passed through London on business. A few weeks later we lost him to a small piece of cholesterol that lodged in his heart and I'll never forget those missed moments we could have spent, beers in hand, laughing about our lives in Japan. I'll never make that mistake again; but I can't take it back.

And so when your phone rings, and there's a country code on display, you know it's something special. Rain, shine, bubonic plague, you move heaven and earth to be able to meet, even if it's just for a twenty minute coffee that has taken you an hour or more of trains and taxis to make. Friends are important and in the transient life of a global metropolis they are rarely just around the corner. But when you do sit down together, it feels like only yesterday. And that's important in a sometimes lonely country with no passing traffic.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Seeing the skies again

Coney Island may have a little more fame as an out-of-city resort destination but Atami, located on the north-eastern shores of the Izu Peninsula beats it by a little something over a thousand years. A short hop from Tokyo (these days, less than an hour's sojourn by shinkansen), its popularity has waxed and waned with the rise and fall of the capital's economy, earthquakes, tsunami and the success of the hot springs and their attendant onsen geisha.

Sitting reasonably close to the intersection of three tectonic plates, in 1923 it took a direct hit from the Great Kanto Earthquake as the temblor first flattened the mountain side town and then sent in a 10m tsunami to make good on the job. Today there are helpful signs all along the shore line, where exists a popular boardwalk, letting you know the height above sea-level and which is the direction of the closest evacuation point. And remember, run, run uphill, don't look back, just run.  

It has to be said though that the Soapland car park was astonishingly good value as pointed out by a friend of my wife when she suggested we leave the car there, but during our weekend away in this urban escape all I could wonder at were the stars. They're still there. I occasionally see planets in the Tokyo skies trying to extend their presence through the light pollution of the metropolis but from Atami I could see the Milky Way. And now I know why it became a resort town over a thousand years ago. It's simply a beautiful place to visit. Thank you Kato-san.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Tales of days gone by

In the nearly 500 articles I've written for this blog (an enjoyable hobby and everyone should have one...) there is only one where I have used someone else's words, and that's because they created the story I'd always wanted to but did it so much better than I could have penned. And my thanks are still there to Yuri Kageyama. The following though are my words but inspired by someone writing recently online about their experiences in Japan twenty five years ago. And was the world a different planet in those days:

I landed in Japan in October 1991, twenty five years ago this week. No phone (it cost $700 just for a number and another $100 to have the line installed; and then I had to buy the phone), it would be nearly another half decade until mobile phones came into existence and then they only worked in Japan; so no worries about roaming charges. No internet, no Skype, and it cost $4 a minute to call home. Which at that point I missed. Postcards were the only viable communication platform.

A date (with the wonderful lady who eventually became my wife) always included a dictionary. If it happened at all. Calling her home number I would usually experience the answer machine (these were popular before mobiles) and repeat time and location several times in my awful Japanese. And then pray to the telecommunication gods she would be there. Train signs were only in kanji, children would run up and touch me and run away laughing they'd touched a foreigner and red wine was chilled and white warmed. And it cost $100 a bottle. But I still fell in love with the country. And I'm still here. What a wonderful world I live in. TV's still the same though...

Friday, October 21, 2016

The little engine that could

Japan has something of a fondness for its rail network. For many, the stations are an essential part of the daily commute with the famous images of the attendant, resplendent in white linen gloves, packing every last soul they can into a carriage. And then a few more just for good measure. And without the trains Tokyo would be either a ghost town or an exercise in gridlock of Biblical proportions. No one comes in, and no one goes out, without the trains.
And as a result, forty-four of the world's fifty busiest stations can be found in Japan with the king of them all, Shinjuku seeing some 3.6 million commuters pass through its entry gates every single day. Allow me to put that in context, if the entire 64 million headcount of the UK were to use Shinjuku Station over any given three week period, that would actually be below regular daily capacity. They'd need to do it in eighteen days flat to provide today's typical experience.

However the opposite is also true. In 2013 on the snowy northern island of Hokkaido, the under-loved station of Kyu-Shirataki was scheduled for closure along with the local line. That was until the parents of Kana Harada appealed to the railway that the train was the only way their daughter could journey to school each day. The train faced the severe weather each day on it's journey and, although Kana was the only regular passenger, they kept the lonely station open for another three years. And when she graduated high school on 25 March 2016, the station closed its platform for the last time. Trains are important in Japan.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunset, Fireworks and Fuji - life doesn't get much better

Enoshima, or Bay Island, is situated a little over an hour away from Tokyo by train and holds a special place in the Japanese psyche. Apart from being breathtakingly beautiful at sunset, it isn't actually an island due to the 600m bridge that connects it to the mainland. And the bridge itself was built on a sand spit so hard to argue however when you see it, you'll be fine with the distinction of an island as it's rocky outcrop rises from the waters of Sagami Bay. And man is it good for launching fireworks.

Bought by an Englishman by the name of Samuel Cocking in 1880, it's development was certainly assisted through the slaying by Benten, one of the seven lucky gods, of a five headed dragon, the continuing existence of which would certainly have discouraged the 500,000 tourists a year who visit for a hearty day out at the botanical gardens situated in it's upper reaches. An added bonus on a good day is the backdrop of a sunset over Fuji, so if you're looking for a day out, it pretty much has the full Monty.

And once a year the seemingly entire population of Japan descends on this coastal picture postcard town to watch some three thousand rockets blast into the night sky, each explosion enough to set off car alarms in California. This spectacular display continues for over half an hour, sometimes set to music, and sometimes purely visual. And as the final fiery stars tumble into the bay, millions of excited people turn and head for home although we sat down to ice cold beer, kindly organised by Mie-chan, to whom I'm eternally grateful. And if you click on the picture below, you too can join the final moments of a magical evening.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The lights go out in Tokyo

Back in the balmy summer heat of August 2006, I found myself driving to work when I noticed the traffic signals were no longer talking to me. In fact they weren't talking to anyone at the time as the power had been cut across a large portion of the city. The cause turned out to be a serious construction barge carrying a rather large crane along the Edogawa (river) had sliced though the main supply lines from the north of the country that were suspended high above the waters. And then the crane promptly sliced through the backup line approximately two meters further down stream from the main lines themselves. 

In a country that almost universally relies on traffic lights rather than roundabouts (I know of a sum total of one), entertaining the concept on crossing the road took on a whole new risk level. In fact in Japan, where you give way to the left at a crossing, the introduction will take a lot of time and would need to be exercised with extreme caution, as seen when a car pulled out in front of me on said circular on the basis he had right of way being on my left. Wombat.

And so the lights are out again today in over half a million homes. Second time in a decade. On this occasion due to an unhappy thirty five year power cable buried to the north of Tokyo. Earth shattering ground tremors aside, Tokyo is built to withstand massive shocks using multiple back-up facilities (except for a back up generator in Shinjuku powering the Yamanote Line, housed in the same building as the main generator which unfortunately caught fire and reduced both to smouldering ash). But that day in 2006 we all slowed down and inched out way to respective destinations. Despite 250,000 being affected, no one was reported to have been injured. There was no drama; people simply lit the way and just got on with the job.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The importance of being earnest

Japan has something of a reputation for politeness. Let's face it, even the gangsters register with the police, it would simply be impolite not to. People bow to various degrees depending on whom they my be thanking, saying goodbye to, or, the lowest of low bows, apologising to. Fortunately foreigners are somewhat exempt from this particular tradition, largely because we'd be expected to get it wrong anyway. But the civility is recognised, exercised (almost expected) and respected.

Thanks are passed not simply at the time but remembered and referenced the following chance people meet again. I was once told you need a good memory in Japan, it's not easy remembering to say thank you months after the fact. But somehow Japanese people manage this feat, as well as waking up just before their station but then that's something of a different story. Which raises the question of whether this is a universal trait.

Well, yes and no. The country has it's fair share of wombats, just like any other country or culture. There's always the customer shouting at a junior staff who was clearly not responsible and the person who demands they've been affronted whether they have been or have not. But people do feel the sense of commitment to society remarkably deeply. And it becomes a binding process. A gift given will be remembered and returned. And as another friend once told me, you do not ask favours lightly in Japan.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Life in Tokyo

I sometimes am asked the question "how can you live in Japan?". After all, I'm a foreigner nearly half a planet away from my home village in the north of England living in a country where I can read less than half the words in a newspaper and when a subject changes in a conversation I can follow almost nothing for the first few minutes. It's a valid question. But one originating from days gone by, no longer valid in today's world.

I'm sitting, writing a blog post that will be read around the world, my Japanese wife sitting next to me posting on Facebook and my seventeen year-old son is downstairs, where he's adopted the ground floor of our house, playing beautiful guitar. The world is not the frightening place it used to be. There are constants and connections. Leaving home no longer has the implications it carried even twenty something years ago when I first saw Mozilla scrolling up my screen.

I think about my son and it amusingly strikes me that he is exactly the same as I was at seventeen. Except he speaks two languages, reads and writes four alphabets, his artwork is displayed around the capital, his physics is outstanding (actually, mine wasn't too shabby either), has friends around the world and is about to embark on a university life in a country he's known from vacations. And he plays beautiful guitar. Apart from that, we're exactly the same. Wherever you're from, these days, Japan simply isn't that far from home.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The point of Daikanyama

Nestled between Ebisu and the southern fringes of Shibuya on the western centre of Tokyo is a little district, similar in feeling to Greenwich Village or Wimbledon in London. If you've ever had the enjoyment of watching "Lost in Translation" and you don't know Tokyo (and even if you do) there's a line that doesn't ring true when the newbies to Japan say "let's go to that little sushi place in Daikanyama". Two days on the ground and you'd never knew it existed.

Though the dancing lesson reference is hilarious. One station for the stopper trains to Yokohama and three main intersections, perched on top of a bluff between the Shibuya and Meguro rivers, it's the area the people who know, know. Created with concrete to protect from the shocks of earthquakes following 1923's levelling of the city, it has slowly morphed into the fashion district of Tokyo. You can walk the streets, but you're not going home without buying something.

And so what is the point of Daikanyama? Home to Tora-san (you can research that one yourself if you don't already know), a gift given away as a Philippines embassy, location of awesome photographers and place where The Last Samurai would visit his brother. It's a residential oasis in the centre of Tokyo, one of the three global cities on the face of the planet. And if you visit, you're going to find somewhere for a coffee. And then you can sit and watch the world go by. Welcome to Japan.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The secret of Silver Week

Silver Week, as the name suggests, is something akin to Golden Week in Japan when a number of national holidays fall closely together and people take the opportunity to forget the daily grind and relax if only for a short few days. The difference from Golden week though is that it contains two floating dates, one locked as the third Monday in September under the Happy Monday Law, and the second either the 23rd or 24th of the month according to the orbit of the earth and the auspices of the Autumnal Equinox. 

The result is that every few years "Respect for the Aged" falls on the 21st and the equinox falls on the 23rd triggering a second law to come into play that allows for a single gap day between two national holidays to become a day away in its own right. And so two days off can suddenly become three, as if by magic. Which partly seems to be the case as the date of the equinox is only announced by the government in the February of the year prior to the event itself. And in a world where we can predict the next Transit of Venus to be 10 & 11 of December 2117, some 101 years from now, this seems a little peculiar.

Perhaps I'm being a touch paranoid but it would be interesting to see in which year elections were held or the economy needed a little boost and compare to the years when Silver Week was at it's finest. But I digress. The interesting origins of the Autumnal Equinox were actually laid with the new constitution in 1948. State and Church were separated as the Founding Fathers had envisioned and so national holidays become non-denominational. And this one had previously been a Shinto celebration of one's ancestors. So the Vernal Equinox became a payer for a good harvest and Autumn thanks in turn. Though how this separated Church from State somewhat remains a little bit of a mystery...


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The answers to your questions

Japan can be confusing. Fascinating but confusing. And there is an Olympics at the end of the Super Mario tunnel. So the question has been raised, for quite some time now, as to exactly how will the country accommodate an international influx which is largely unlikely to speak very much of the local language and who understand even less of the landscape around them. In truth, this isn't an Olympics question though; twenty million tourists poured through Japan's doors in the last twelve months. The issue is not four years in the future, it's very much front and centre here today.

And so how do you find your way through a country and culture that is so fundamentally different from so many others. People here don't, on the whole, speak a lot of English. Nor are they too concerned about it either. Japan has done pretty well for itself without the assistance of the Bard. Though there are chinks in the armour; ask a taxi driver a question and he may well whip out his cheat sheet and ask you to point to the question your asking. Or as mine recently did, he may well tell you the cheat sheet is in the boot. Rome was not built in a day.

But with the advent of Pokemon Go! the world is a rapidly changing place. Augmented Reality allows the user to hold up their phone and read road signs in the language of their choosing. The boat may have been missed in traditional terms as to integrating an in-bound diaspora but teaching children to speak English is only one arrow in the quiver of fascinated interest. There are some very clever people out there who can answer the simplest of questions "what shall I do tonight?" and not a human voice is raised in answer. Our world is changing and the answer is at your fingertips. Literally.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The ignorance of bliss

The Economist magazine is rumoured to operate an editorial policy of assuming the reader is intelligent and yet ignorant of the subject and therefore they will compare IBM (a computer services company) to Apple (a telecoms and hardware company), just in case you didn't know. But Japan isn't quite like that. It assumes you're intelligent, but it's somewhat up to you to fill in the blanks. And that's where it can evolve to be the horribly wrong; for we fill in the blanks with the world we know.

And our prior experiences compared to Japan have all the relevance of peanut butter to a glass of Chateaux Petrus. And so when someone says "yes" we will tend to assume it means, well, "yes". Rather than "maybe". And as Dave Barry once pointed out "no" should be more accurately translated as "your idea should be fed to the goats". So learning Japanese as a language is never the end of the story, what an answer means may not be anything related to the words of representation.

And so when a computer translation attempts the impossible, the result is usually the unintelligible. But this is missing the key ingredient of brought to the kotatsu by The Economist. It took me probably five years to be able to understand that I genuinely didn't understand what was happening around me in this country. And recognition of one's ignorance, now that's a powerful stair to ascend. In Japan "ignorance of the facts" is a world apart from "ignorant of the fact".

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The traffic of Tokyo

There are many ways of moving around the city of Tokyo. The reputation of gridlock and hours to travel from A to B may have been true but these days are limited to the days of the odd earthquake and those special 1st September mornings when everything is disrupted deliberately to remind the general populace of what the day of a major earthquake will actually be like. Without the death, fires, collapsed buildings and washed up fish in the street of course. 

In these modern days the roads are, more likely than not, to be pleasantly clear. And then the occasional odd, somewhat surreal, occurrence will, well, occur. Driving through central Tokyo recently I was somewhat surprised to look left whilst more than a little bored at a set of inevitable traffic lights and there, sitting next to me, was Super Mario. He looked, smiled, waved. And I was reminded of the early jet test pilots who would wear guerrilla masks so if any other plane saw them, no one would believe a word of it.

And so, some twenty years ago, I heard a story from a slightly older colleague, of local transport highly efficient over rough terrain and driven by an engine needing little more than the odd bucket of water every now and then. And opposite the New Otani Hotel in Akasaka was a set of railings, well embedded in the verge of the road, perfect for ensuring and solid anti-theft properties.  For he swore blind his boss used to come to work on a horse.