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...