Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The day the earth stood still

You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning and there is clearly something, although still slightly imperceptive, definitely not quite right with the world. For some reason the earth's axis of rotation is not exactly where it should be and in the back of your mind there's a voice, not quite screaming as yet, but definitely nagging persistently and you know it will only get worse. And then it hits and everything seems to explode in one blinding fireball of fear. You lost your wallet last night.

There's a distinct sense of not being in total control of your life. It's not the cash that's the problem, mine's usually empty anyway. Nor the credit cards, notify them quickly enough and your onboard insurance will cover any stray transactions. Nor is it the cashcard, if genuinely stolen they only have three shots before it locks you out and a long conversation with the customer service centre will be required to fix this involving the names of all your pets from when you were seven years old. Nor the airline cards, medical insurance, club cards or even your Pasmo (somehow you got home so travel doesn't seem to be the highest priority).

It's the loss of your gaijin card (Alien Registration Card) that will facilitate police reports, visits to the local (!) immigration bureaux, forms, photographs, return home to retrieve your passport etc etc. And then it's the driving licence, and one of those has probably never been lost before. Or, alternatively, you can get a call from a very nice officer who says someone has handed in your wallet at the local police station and would you like to come and collect it. The quid pro quo in Japan is you are supposed to return 10% of the contents to the finder; and here lies the problem, my wallet contained nothing but cards. However convention should still require recognition and so it shall be a pair of Union Jack socks and a very, very large thank you. Nightmare over.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Change just one life; that's all it takes

Arriving in Japan can happen in a number of ways, many somewhat out of your own control. The most common approach obviously is to be born here, something in which most are both blissfully unaware and, in reality, somewhat disenfranchised. Dual nationality children from countries that allow both passports will still have until the age of twenty two to decide if they'd like to opt for one or the other; Japan isn't keen on ambiguity as it were and with international marriages running at something around 5% of the total, there are quite a few pitching up on the stork express. And then there are those who are sent here.

Expatriates (I'm deliberately excluding military here as they may be re-posted tomorrow), typically arrive for two to three years, bringing with them a specific skill set and with a clear objective ahead of them. At least that's the theory though more honoured in the breach than the observance. And many at the beginning of their careers arrive under the stewardship of the JET program to provide encouragement to young children that English really isn't as difficult as it's made out to be. Unless you really work hard at making it as complex as humanly possible.

And then there are the pioneers. Those who risk everything because of a belief. And only those who have never tried have ever truly failed. Good luck with your adventure my friend; you may not know the extent of inspiration you will pass on to those overseas looking to come to Japan or those who's lives have known nothing else than a coastline and an arrivals lounge because that parapet seems very high from down here. Change one life and your journey will have been an incredible success. Just one. That's all it takes.  

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Tokyo: Three images of a life unconfined

Copyright Aurora Simionescu
It's always an interesting question I'm asked by friends visiting the country, "What do you recommend we go and see?". And this is always followed by a brief, and somewhat awkward pause as you try to frame the answer in such a way as not to cause crushing disappointment. Because the truth is there actually isn't very much to see in Tokyo, at least in the conventional sense. Yes, there are the beautiful art galleries and a lot of cool architecture, but that's not really specific to Japan. However, if there is not that much to see, there is so much to do.

Harajuku Girl - Copyright Gajderowicz
The insane crossing in Shibuya is worth an experience along with the Blade Runner screens and the thousands of people, intertwining like a precision marching band, threading through each other every time the lights change. Getting lost from your friends at a hanami party under the cherry blossom and being gently led back to you group; visiting your local police station to recover your wallet after you dropped it in the street and some kind soul handed it in. And then there's the photograph with Hachiko, the Cosplay of Harajuku and the youth of Takeshita-Dori. Oh, and then of course, don't forget the food.

But if you really want to see something, a heads up: The Palace is simply a gate, the grassy expanse  beyond which no-one but the high flying drones will ever observe. The shrines can be interesting, Meiji, Zojoji and Asakusa being three of the best in the city (though avoid the afternoons) and each with its own history. Golden Gai and the Robot Cafe are perennial favourites but Drunkard's Alley has more character and Ebisu Yokocho has more laughter. And if you really still want to see something that will take your breath away, see the night. It's the greatest view a city can offer. And this one is world class.

All Rights for photograph to Masashi Wakui (love your work!)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Zaibatsu and the Fall of The Beatles

John Lennon and Yoko Ono
The nineteenth century Zaibatsu of Japan could be compared to the monolithic western conglomerates of yester-year. Whilst Andrew Carnegie was happily smelting iron, Mitsui had been a trading house for nearly two hundred years and whilst Rockefeller was furiously pumping away, Mitsubishi was already digging the coal from the ground to fuel the trading (and gun) ships across Asia. In other words, the Zaibatsu were enormous groupings of wealth more often than not centered around banking or insurance institutions. And orchestrated by a very limited club of immensely powerful families.

A Zaibatsu family portrait
Not only did four Zaibatsu essentially control the economy during the Empire Days of Japan, they controlled the army, navy and government as well for good measure. Disbanded post war to create the keiretsu industrial groupings (hence eliminating centralised control similar to the US Anti-Trust Laws of the early twentieth century) the key players were Mitsui and Mitsubishi as mentioned above, Sumitomo (focussed on mining) and Yasuda, a financial leviathan founded at the time of (and greatly benefiting from) the Meiji Restoration. 

Zenjiro Yasuda - Founder of the Yasuda (Mizuho) Zaibatsu
And this is where The Beatles come in. Founded by Zenjiro Yasuda, and through a series of mergers, divorces and re-mergers, is more recognisable today by the name of Mizuho Bank (formerly Fuji Bank plus a couple of lesser known entities) and he happens to be the great-grandfather of Yoko Ono. On seeing his photograph for the first time John Lennon is reputed to have commented that he was a re-incarnation of Zenjiro, not knowing Zenjiro Yasuda had been slain by an assassin's bullet in 1921. And so we will never know what would have happened if he had been a lousy businessman instead of one of the greatest of his time and would his great-granddaughter have met her future husband, quietly passing him a note that simply said "breath". 

The Beatles as they slow fell apart
Did Yasuda's great-granddaughter break up The Beatles?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Secrets of Nanpedai

As with many a large city, Tokyo is collection of smaller towns, villages and districts that over time amalgamated into a single metropolis, governed centrally, and loosely aligned with an overall character. In this instance, commerce, politics, fashion and a healthy lust for life. Nestled between Shibuya, the current heart of youth nightlife in Japan though not so long ago a district to be experienced with something of a sense of trepidation, and Ebisu, a nightlife area you probably don't know (but should as it's one of the few places ever to be named after a beer (yes, the brewery came first)), lies one of the most prized zip-codes on the planet. T150. Nanpedai, once home to the powers that be of Japan.

Until recently the land was populated by large and secluded residences of the wealthy and influential of days gone-by. And curiously, until 2015, an NTT dormitory for employees; though this too has now seen the hand of the developer along with the old estates as they've been transformed into modern (though reassuringly expensive and luxurious) condominiums. The brother of the Last Samurai once lived nearby and to the south the enclave is bordered by Kyu-Yamate-Dori (Old Yamate Street), once the main thoroughfare between Shinjuku, Shibuya, Meguro and beyond to Shinagawa where it once would have met the gated coastal road to Kyoto.

But in the backstreets of Nanpedia lies some of the most valuable derelict land in Japan. The former embassy of The Philippines, the property has been through a series of somewhat complex financial arrangements of latter years however it is now once again firmly under the ownership of the island's government. And if you were wondering why such a valuable location should be owned by the people of such an up and coming nation, well for that you need to go back to a disagreement starting the day after Pearl Harbour in December 1941. It's really quite a way to say you're sorry. Now if they would just do something with it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Beer Gardens of Shibuya Castle

When I first arrived in Tokyo, beer vending machines lined the streets of city taking pride of place at the front of a queue of underage school children enjoying their Saturday afternoon Asahi Super Dry on their way home from the compulsory weekend educational schedule. Times have changed and from around 2000, store keepers have slowly removed the "givers of joy and enlightenment" to the young of Japan, only to replace them today with in-store touch screens that require you confirm you are of legal age to drink alcohol. Note there is no option to say "no, I'm to young" by the way.  

But a few years on and you find yourself more in the mood for an afternoon tipple and chatter with friends than a furtive sip in a back street in case your mum's friends walk by. In summer it is time for the beer gardens where you can sit outside, get eaten by the rampant mosquitos, and while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, as it were. And my favourite location used to be in the grounds of, the now long gone, Shibuya Castle; of which only the shrine still remains. Strolling down Hachiman-Dori and across the remnants of the Shibuya river (which, back in the day, acted as the southern defences of the castle itself) you find yourself climbing back up the slope to Konno-Hachimangu Shrine.

And it was in these gardens, concreted over in the name of progress a decade or so ago, where a friend, a professional horologist, once demonstrated how my watch was both shock proof as well as water resistant by drunkenly slamming it off the table and dropping it into my beer. Never did tell the time particularly well after that. But sip and sup as we might, it was always fascinating to imagine the lives of the Lords of the land, as they would drink with friends, swapping stories from somewhere between the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. Little exists of the castle today except an unassuming corner stone in the grounds of the shrine; which is worth a visit when you have a free afternoon . Something to enjoy; that and the thought of a beer on a sunny day.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The snows of a Tokyo winter

It rarely snows but it does get cold in Tokyo during the darker months of winter. But not ridiculously, "Scott of the Antarctic", so; and it tends to be a "dry" experience rather than the "wet" bone chilling cold of my home country that saps your very soul no matter the insulation you wrap yourself within. Indeed, an hour outside the capital in the mountains of central Japan, the temperature just before dawn will often fall to -15C however the air is so dry you can drink your coffee in a t-shirt outside happily chatting to a neighbour. 

And whilst the macaques are rolling snowballs in preparation for a pre-emptive strike, strangely the neighbour will be hanging out their washing to dry in this sub-zero world of ice and snow. Taking advantage of the low humidity and lower temperatures, the villagers of central Japan have figured out that sublimation does actually work where ice changes spontaneously to vapour without melting first (look it up if you've forgotten your high school physics...). The result being your socks will dry a treat despite the weather giving Hell a good run for its money. And then there's the ice age.

Japan is, give or take a Roman Empire or two, approximately on a par with the latitude of the northern coast of Africa and so the polar ice sheets never actually made it all the way to Tokyo some 24,500 years ago as they engulfed North America and the western reaches of Europe. But the heights of the Northern and Southern Alps (as the central mountain ranges of the country are known) were sufficient to generate their own glacial flows and so classically smooth sided super-valleys and areas terminal moraine can be found when you know where to look. And soon it'll be summer. 40C and 100% humidity, and we'll all be wishing for winter's sweet chilling bite once again.