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.