Sunday, December 17, 2017

Samurai Santa and the last Friday before Christmas

Lunch on Friday, 21st December, 2001 I was bored. Very bored. Working for an international brand pretty much everyone had departed for foreign shores and as the weekend was going to be a national holiday, many of my local colleagues had taken advantage of slightly eery silence and headed for the door as well. Feeling lonely, I called a friend to see if he was interested in a mildly liquid lunch (an extremely rare experience these days but remember, it was 2001) and in a remarkable Lesley Philips~ish voice the phone was answered with a long and low "helloooooo". Disappointed to find it was just me on the other end we agreed to split the difference and headed to a bar in the center of Tokyo.

Surprising to say, we both made it back to our respective offices that day after many ales were quaffed but not before agreeing it had been an excellent excursion and should be repeated the following year on, obviously, the last Friday before Christmas. And a tradition was borne. Each year since we gather and a long lunch ensues. Bringing a little flexibility to date in recognizing many of my friends have left Japan by the actual day, the Last Friday is now celebrated on an honorary day selected by calling the good to order. The invitation is always via a blind cc to people who don't necessarily know each other and that's part of the intrigue and enjoyment.

The location remains the same after all these years and usually there are slightly (!) more people than chairs. Indeed, being something of an annual distract, the hotel manager comes down to say hello and the staff have come to expect a little disruption when the booking comes in but they know we'll be only good natured. A Pina Colada is always sipped (and if you can figure out why you can also figure out the location so drop by, surprise me, and become a post on TenguLife). But how is the founding year remembered? Well, that day my friend had a brand new curious gadget about which he swore was the way of the future. That day he was showing off his brand spanking new iPod, that year's Christmas present to himself. And it was so cool. And it had just been released. And had white earphones which I'd never seen before. Tomorrow is the long lunch.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Making movies, on location, with an Elf

The old English phrase "to take a leap of faith" interestingly has a real life Japanese equivalent in "to leap from Kiyomizu", a some thirteen meter drop from the terrace of the ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto, which if survived would answer the wishes of the short-form skydivers. And this being Japan, records were kept, and 85.4% of leapers achieved their desire. The remainder were cremated and the practice has subsequently been banned. However, coming to experience life in Japan could, in it's own way, just as much be considered a leap of faith. And it's a rare individual who knows in advance exactly what they're getting in to.

However, in taking that leap of faith, it's one thing to talk about Gulliver arriving on a flying island; let's face it, he wasn't real. But it's something else entirely to sell up, pack up and arrive via Haneda Airport to bring something new to this land of the rising sun. Having encountered many talented Japanese in his homeland, one individual recently did precisely this, he sold up, shipped out, and is starting the hard way to bring a new film school to Tokyo, making movies on location, in English. With the ELFS of Japan. 

So if your Japanese is rubbish and you're looking to raise a camera, write a script and make a movie, your life in Japan has just got that little bit easier. And if you're Japanese and you're worried your English is rubbish, that's the whole point, to help you to go global. So the Lord of the Elves (he will kill me for that!) arrived in Japan with not much more than a great idea and a SIM card and now look, there is a company, staff and (most importantly) paying customers. Not too shabby from a standing start less than a few months ago with sore feet and a friend in Airbnb. So Lights! Camera! Action in Japan! You actually did take that leap of faith.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's now or never - bonenkai season

Japan is somewhat famous for late night "nominication"; an interesting hybrid-word that combines "nomini" the Japanese for "let's go drinking" with the western concept of "communication". Nominication is therefore the conceptual representation of "let's go talk over a beer". Excessive liver damage aside, it's an excellent system that allows the more junior in the ranks to address those somewhat sensitive issues with the boss that normally couldn't be raised in the office. Or vice versa...

But there is one time of year when nominication is taken to an almost formalized, ritualistic extent. And this time it will include the entire company, and everyone will be expected to be there, like it or not (though for temps it's somewhat optional it has to be said, some do, some don't). This is the all encompassing December "bonenkai", the "end of season party", often somewhat mischaracterized as the "office Christmas Party" whereas it's true translation is actually more along the lines of "let's forget the year party".

Seemly somewhat staged counterintuitively to conventional wisdom (wouldn't you rather celebrate the year passed and move on to the new?) it carries one critical difference to the western Xmas bash, in that it is the last time you are allowed to whinge, moan and complain about anything or anyone in the year gone-by. The implicit function is to clear the air, get it out of your system, and then move on. "Speak now or forever hold your peace" as it were. So as bonenkai season enters full swing, remember, now's your chance, and it's officially allowed! But do be a little reserved; when talking to the boss it's always worth remembering the old maxim: "shutting up is sometimes the better part of valor". Have a great party. And bring on the nice and clean new year.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

When Haneda Came Home

In the world of one-upmanship, the expat who can say they arrived in Japan before Narita opened takes some beating. That was in 1978 so any remaining septuagenarians are, we, likely to be in their seventies by now. And if coming from Europe would have either travelled via Anchorage or through Hong Kong as Russian airspace wasn't opened until a good few years after that. But that's a different story. Anyway, Narita was opened to relieve pressure on the (much more convenient) downtown Haneda which subsequently took over domestic duties whilst Narita provided international routes. And so we all hubbed out of Seoul until they realized that de-planing and carrying your bag an hour and a half across Chiba Prefecture wasn't such a bright piece of planning overall.

But back to Haneda. Originally seen as an alternative solution to landing on the beach (no, seriously), Haneda was opened in the early 1930's to the delight of the Empire's extremities around Asia who were now in reach of daily newspapers. The original terminal was still in use until relatively recently serving flights from Taipei to Hawaii as there was a little dispute over sovereignty going on at the time and it wasn't seen as being of particular diplomaté (I may have made that word up) to hub certain airlines via the same landing strips. And so from 1978 until approximately 2010, the only international flight was the tri-lingual Honolulu Special. Which went about twice a week. And then finally we got a real international terminal. But for night flights only. Until 2014. When we got days.

Looking back though, Haneda was first a civil airport and then from 1945 - 1952 expanded under MacArthur as a US Military base before being returned to the original owners. The first expansion had been due to be on a landfill island in Tokyo Bay but was scrapped in favor of an extension to the existing site (the landfill island is now known as Yumenoshima (Dream Island, a name not without a certain sense of irony that shall host the Archery tournaments of the 2020 Olympics; and I believe the last resting site of one of the fishing ships exposed in the Bikini Atol mishap (but that's a whole Lithium 6 vs 7 story)). And so these days, as you come in to land, when your sitting at the back, you still feel the whiplash as your plane makes it's final descent, taking a steep left turn towards the island runways. And that's so that you come in over the bay rather than rattle the city so that we can all sleep peacefully at night. And with that I shall say thank you, and have a nice flight.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Samurai Stories - when to shoot a duck

So the question has been asked, "why didn't the land of the samurai warrior man up and shoot down those North Korean missiles as they flew over the Emperor's sovereign territory?". Well, taking a step back, at least this time Japan saw the missiles coming as opposed to the first time back in 1998 when Kim - "the middle one", lobbed a patriotic singing grenade over the country and the government had to be notified via a small telephone from America (though the same is true of the Russians who also missed it in flight, though apparently, as was later explained, it had been tricky and swerved to avoid their sensors).

But before we arrive at an answer, there is the slight confusion as to whether Japan already is actually currently able to shoot down a ballistic missile aimed in its general direction (Monty Python spoiler alert) or does the country need to purchase yet more kinetic hardware from the shelves of Lockheed Martin Space Systems to resolve the issue once and for all? A ponderance that begs the question "what exactly are those Patriot Missiles doing lying around the Ministry of Defense in downtown Ichigaya if not to defend against in-coming?" But let's save that for another day.

So could the reasons that Japan decided not to press the button really be two fold. Firstly, if something is flying towards you, shooting it down enhances your chances of cranial injury; i.e. if you shoot at a duck, it might just spear you out of a refined sense of irony. Point made; the second main, and much under-reported, reason for not shooting at these ballistic javelins was that as they traversed Japan, they were at a peak trajectory of some 750 miles. That's roughly double the altitude of the International Space Station to put things in perspective. Japan knew these missiles were going going to miss by the proverbial mile. And as legend would have it, those wily samurai also knew both when, and importantly when not, to shoot at a duck.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your dinner's in the dog

There was a time when the idea of walking into a restaurant and being confronted by a slobbering dog would have seen me spin on a dime and head in the opposite direction. And then, of course, we acquired two wonderful furry friends and my approach to life changed overnight. But that still leaves the question of lunch. Now, I'm used to the idea of sunshine, a glass of wine and a balcony with a dog. Which is wonderful in summer but as the skies close in (and allow me to avoid saying "winter is coming"), the question arises as to where exactly to go.

And these days there's a plethora of options largely driven by the rising popularity of small, home specific bundles of fun. And we're not talking about a water bowl on a deck; we're talking full on, high-end restaurants that provide for your four-legged friend to join the fun at the table. And granted this may be a little unsettling for those without pets, it's a boon when you're looking for somewhere to celebrate a special occasion and you'd like to be able to take your dogs with you. Or just going for lunch. And it doesn't really end there.

If you don't have your own favorite pet, why not meet one pre-packaged? Owl cafes are something of a rage at the moment; you can literally sip your coffee under a beady eye. Or you can pat a bunny at a rabbit restaurant or stroke a feline in a cat cafe. There is even one location that specializes in hedgehogs, though I'm not totally sure what you can do with these spikes little balls of, well, spikes. Or you could just go to Starbucks, have a coffee and surf the internet looking at pictures of puppies instead. Let's face it, there are worse things to do with life. But I love my dogs and, having finished this post, I'm going to take them for lunch.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A magical Wash 'n' Dry

Although now something of an anachronism given Japan's penchant for demolishing and rebuilding their residence on a seemingly weekly basis, it is only in recent times that having your own bath became the norm rather than something of a luxury reserved for the rather more well-healed. And so, in days gone by, the daily wash-down would occur in the local communal bath-house, known as a sento. Unlike the more familiar onsen hot springs of rural Japan, where the weary traveller goes to relax in the therapeutic waters bubbling from the volcanic lands, the humble sento is predominantly functional. It's the place one goes to get clean.

And never having been to one, I decided it was time to tick this particular experience off the list. Japan is very relaxed about bathing together with friends and family often enjoying a gossip through the soapsuds and water, though post-war spas have typically been segregated as the western influence has encroached into life on the ground. And so on arrival into the back streets of Nakano in western Tokyo, nestled in an old, quiet residential neighborhood, we took off our shoes and my wife went through one curtain and I the other. And then things got weird. Inside the sento the walls were decorated with pictures of Fuji and a high tiled wall separated the men from the ladies and the first thing you notice is the incredible noise. 

It's amazing how loud a group of friends can be in a bath. And then there was the man covered with tattoos (something of a taboo in an onsen) and after I washed down politely I jumped into a one of the pools. Only to be electrocuted (I should have read the sign first). Washing down once more I headed back to the changing room where I relaxed for a few minutes au-natural (as you do). Looking up there was a kind old lady looking down, smiling through the open window of her house across the street. And then the attendant turned out to be a world class magician and began a series of incredible card tricks of which I am clueless as to how he achieved them. So, after all these years here, I proved to myself that the old adage is true; you learn something new every day. Have a nice bath.

Not me. If you were wondering....

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Confused, you will be....

Some of my international friends believe the UK can be a little, shall we say, confusing. Sarcasm apart (and read into that what you will), we measure distances in miles, land in acres and weight in stone. Yes, we have liters for petrol (gasoline) but that only came into effect at the outbreak of the first Gulf War as the prices hiked and no one really understood what 95p per liter was compared to the good old gallon. And we measure whiskey by the gill, but that would be a different gill between England and Scotland. And then again the US gallon needs an extra top up of around 20% just to make it to the table with its English cousin. At least we no longer have 240 pence to the pound and let's not even discuss the good old guinea (which I could have sworn was equal to twenty one shillings but let's let that one go).

However, don't even get me started on Japan. Ok, do. And let's start at the beginning. The counting system, for example, revolves around "base 4" rather than "base 3". And yes, I did just hear you go "huh?". Western numeracy would refer to 10,000 i.e. 10 x 1,000 however the Japanese system would refer to 10,000 (ichiman, if you were wondering) as one, ten thousand or 1 x 10000. Confused, you will be... Especially when you go to the cash machine and take out several thousand dollars rather then the intended few hundred. Or see the apartment rental steal of the century only to find it is ten times the price you were thinking.

Currency is maybe easier; for a start there are no decimal points (watch the IT system programmer go white when you mention this). In days of yore there were 100 sen to the yen and one yen to the dollar. And then there was a small Pacific incident. There are 2,000 yen notes but they're not used as they're generally considered unlucky being divisible by two. One plate is ichi-mai, a bottle i-ppon, a minute i-ppun and a typhoon ichi-go. And if you really want to show off, a pair of chopsticks (hashi) are not the expected "ni-hon" (two long thin, round things) but rather ichi-zen; being one pair. So next time you become confused between stones and pounds, miles and kilometers, tsubo and square meters just pause, and take a moment, and be glad it isn't MCMXCIX any more. Unless an Imperial succession occurs and then it could be 29 and 1. But that's another story. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Oh no, it's The Time Warp Again

It has to be said that I am probably one of the world's worst time travelers (speaking in terms of the jet age rather than that of HG Wells and his eponymous Time Machine as it were). Those few hours of difference between Asia and Europe will leave me disoriented, degraded and at a complete loss to not just the time of day but the very day itself. Give me a week and I'll still be rubbish but eventually the rhymes and rhythms of this existence of mine will settle down and I'll begin to feel (ab)normal once again. But why does the journey have to be so painful in it's own right.

Heathrow (T2 from T5)
My return home started with a domestic flight in the UK (delayed two hours by the wrong type of rain) at Heathrow. Where, upon arrival, I had to wait forty five minutes for my luggage to be recovered from the bowels of the aircraft. A ten minute walk, five minute train ride and another fifteen minute walk and I arrive at the chaos of Terminal 2, where the self check-in system appears to be requiring more staff at that moment than the conventional counter and clerk. And then it's another fifteen minute walk to lounge (yes, I indulged myself a little I admit), at least that's what the signs said but as the first two "fifteen minute" signs were about five mins apart, I'm going for more like a twenty minute hike.

And twelve hours later we land on a proverbial different planet. Narita may be the wrong end of nowhere but a modest walk where a soft English voice gently reminds me "the end of the walk is ahead, please mind your steps", a sign welcomes me to Japan (though the Japanese version actually says "welcome home") and a dedicated queue for returning foreign residents has me to the luggage carousel faster than my wife can make it through the Japanese passport lane. Which, to be fair, does annoy her somewhat. And standing there you notice all the bags are emerging from the center of the earth before the passengers have even arrived; and they're neatly spaced with handles carefully turned towards their expectant owners. And, I have to say, it's the little things that make the difference. It's good to be home.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

See you soon!

TenguLife is on vacation. Which is good because it is wet and cold in Tokyo. In August. And I'm going to England. Where it's usually wet and cold at any time of year. I really should plan my vacations better. See you soon...

Monday, August 21, 2017

The "Mother of the Seas" - A Seaweed Story

It has to be said, I enjoy good sushi with my two favorite delicacies being uni (the inside of the spiny sea-urchin, akin to eating slightly thickened seawater) and ikura (the slightly less salty and more familiar, salmon roe) both of which arrive at the table encircled in nori, the dark green crispy seaweed which is actually conjured from a red, cool water algae (it isn't actually green at all). And without this porphyra seaweed, my two favorite dishes would be simple pile of mush on a plate.
And in 1948 that was very nearly the case. Harvested from the eight century, porphyra began to be actively farmed from the seventeenth when farmers would place poles into the water for it to wrap and grow around. The use of nets was later introduced proving a success and significantly increasing output but nets were capital intensive though in good years proving a sound investment. In poor years though it could prove something of a gamble and then in 1948 a series of typhoons, peaking in September of that year, all but wiped out the sea crop.

And at this point in wades the Mother of the Sea to the rescue, literally. In the 1920's an English phycologist (yes, I misread that as psychologist too at first), by the name of Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker figured out the reproductive cycle of the algae, something that had been a mystery until that time. Her breakthrough provided the groundwork for the resurrection of the nori industry in Japan and in recognition of her contribution to saving their industry the people of Uto in southern Kyushu erected a monument to her, named her "Mother of the Seas" and dedicated 14 April in her honor. And rescued my favorite mush.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A dogs life, in English, in Japan

So we have two dogs. They're unrelated but are both the same cross. Chihuahua / poodle. And they're cool. They joined us on Valentine's Day 2011, which, for anyone who cross references, is about three weeks before the earthquake. The big one. Five days after the quake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, etc etc, I got my family on a flight to foreign lands but stayed myself with our new little friends / responsibilities. And I was so grateful that they were with me as the gasoline ran out and lights began to fail. Those weren't great days but all in the past.

And then you know how it happens. Everything goes wrong at the same time. It's a national holiday. My wife is out of contact. And one of our dogs dislocates her hip. We don't know how but I found her at the bottom of the stairs not being able to stand and gently whimpering. [(earthquake while I type) (tiny and I caught the tv) (no worries)]. Having been a rugby player and seeing a shoulder dislocation I can guess the pain she's in. And, of course, her regular vet is closed for  National Mountain Day and with any vet, without my wife, the Japanese is going to be tricky. "Dislocated hip" isn't exactly in my vernacular.

And then the best thing that could actually happen, happens. My wife's phone comes back on line. She's found another vet nearby and he speaks English (as does his wonderful assistant). And on a national holiday he will open up early for me. And, after sedation and two general anaesthesia, our six inch tall little chawoodle is now on the mend. I rarely evangelize here on my blog but this time, it's a huge thank you to the team at West Cross in Nakameguro, downtown Tokyo. Life in a foreign land and language is tricky sometimes. But it's not impossible. And it's important to say thank you.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Where to stand when the lights go out

Hmm, join the queue...
It's summer. And to many that means something involving Mount Fuji, the sacred symbol of Japan the world over. Looking exactly the way a child would draw a volcano, these days it attracts some 300,000 each year to its slopes with its currently popularity being attributed by the government to a World Heritage listing in 2013. Presumably the thinking goes that people hadn't noticed it until then. And so if you are going to climb to the top of a 3776m stratovolcano, you might want to remember that the vertical lift from the fifth station is greater than sea level to the peak of Ben Nevis, the highest location in the UK. And that the support facilities are closed on weekdays.

The west coast of Izu
But if your plan is to see, rather than scale, this national icon, don't actually go there. If you do you'll see a car park and a path. There is not much to view when you're standing on it as it were. The photography from Yamanakako to the north or Hakone to the south can be stunning and the west coast of the Izu Peninsula offers a beautiful, though rarely seen, vista (and don't even try if you get car sick). But you also need to be lucky, there's a lot of cloud available when you're the highest obstacle between the winds of continental Asia and the warm waters of The Pacific. And then of course, the question is where to stand when the fireworks go off for real.

Fuji from the 40F Cerulean Bar
Technically still active, Fuji-san last erupted in 1708 though a M6.2 quake in the locale that went off late on a Tuesday evening following the mega-quake of March 2011 did make us all somewhat wonder if we were in for a more contemporary visit. And if it does go off, the conventional view points mentioned above would be a little too close for comfort. However, the bar on the fortieth floor of the Cerulean Hotel in Shibuya, downtown Tokyo, might just be ideal with a 100km direct line of sight. And then you might want to leave. That ash cloud will fuse the power grid and collapse the city as it slowly crawls towards you.

When Fuji erupts (with thanks to

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Of Bitcoins and Bedsprings

June 9, 2017 and the Japanese government passes into law the Airbnb Act. It isn't technically called that but then again, neither is "Obama-Care". The act allows for the average citizen to register with their local authority and offer out a spare room, sofa or house to paying guests. For roughly half the year these properties can supplement the more traditional venues for a quick vacation and now with no-minimum nights stay requirements. Which, if you dwell on it, is in direct competition to the established hotel and tourist industry and, let's face it, Japan is not too famous for encouraging competition in the face of vested interest. So what's different?

The root cause of seemingly broad support lies in a fundamental problem surrounding the incredible success of the government in marketing Japan as the ultimate oversees tourist destination. And as a result of all the additional bodies, there is a dearth in supply of night-time nests. There simply aren't enough beds to go around. The original target of 20 million inbound tourists by 2020 for the Olympics was blown away by 2015. The target has been raised by the National Tourism Organisation to 40 million by the time they fire the starting pistol to celebrate as the games begin and then after that 60 million penciled in for 2030. And with a reputation for safety, cleanliness, a little peculiarity, reasonable prices and lots to do, it's looking on the cards.

Budget price hotel chains such as APA, with 150 properties across the country (which it utilizes to distribute its publications with a slightly alternative view of Japan's "liberation" of Asia) are growing fast but with twenty million additional slumber parties to accommodate in the space of five years, that's an extra 55,000 heads to rest each night. 365 days a year. One proposal to convert ten thousand Love Hotels, an industry that would appear to be in death spiral as the youth of the country forget how to enjoy themselves, seems to have floundered and so it's private enterprise to the rescue as it were. The Airbnb Act it is. And so no one's complaining as in reality there's more than enough to go round for all. They'll be taking Bitcoin next.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The aging elves of the Bullet Train

The problem, when it comes to crafting the nose cone of a bullet train, is that there generally isn't an overly gushing abundance of requirement for them. In fact, each generation of the Shinkansen requires only something between fifty to a little over one hundred of the gracefully curved creations. After all, these cutting edge technological marvels aren't exactly popping out of the woodwork. And so it would seem to be an extremely expensive proposition to tool up and manufacture for such a limited production run. Which is precisely why they don't.

As with the (possibly apocryphal) story of NASA spending millions to develop the space ready ballpoint pen and the Russians saving their development dollars and issuing their cosmonauts with pencils, Japan dispatched with the high-tech approach and reverted to that simplest of tools, the humble hammer. And in the small town of Kudamatsu, in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi (the mouth of the mountains if you were wondering), Yamashita Kogyosho tap tap away, shaping and creating the pointy architecture that cuts through the air in front of some ten billion passengers and counting.

This cottage industry solution to a modern day problem has been so successful that its reach has extended to both Korea and China however there is a cloud to this silver lining. As with most cottage industries, the worker bees are showing the signs of age and with an apprenticeship of a decade or more there may soon be a bottleneck in the production cycle of these future high speed marvels. And so, in these days of uncertainty, if you're looking for job security, it might just be time to invest in a little magic hammer.

Thanks Marty.