Thursday, March 30, 2017

An international gift

When my son was a teenager I was once asked what I'd been like at the same age and I replied I'd been exactly the same as him. Except "he speaks two languages, reads and writes four alphabets, plays guitar like Jimmy Page, his artwork is displayed in galleries across Tokyo, his physics gains top scores and he has friends in regular contact from more than forty countries around the world. And he thinks that's normal." "Apart from that, we're exactly the same." How the world has changed.

Generalising, there are two varieties of international schools in Japan. Those that cater to students returning home in the relatively near term, and those that cater to students who probably won't; often because home is Japan though their lives are global and culture international. The former existing to maintain a relative level within a curriculum so that on return the integration is painless and the latter as a means to an end in its own right without focus on any one specific nationality.

And although there is always the option of Japanese school itself, for those of us grown up in a mono-cultural environment, leaving a home country is something akin to cutting the umbilical cord. But the students of this international environment of high school in Japan are all the better prepared for the transition as they move from country to country in the future. And I can simply look on and think to myself "I wish I could play guitar like Jimmy Page..."

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mother Earth and a Rocket to the Skies

It takes a number of times enjoying Princess Mononoke to realise that there actually isn't a princess in the film and a clear dearth of anyone by the name of Mononoke. The title refers more to a concept and with a western upbringing "Mother Earth" would probably be the closest interpretation. And knowing that, the film makes an awful lot more sense however now that you know, you should watch the movie as I'm not going to explain it here other than to say it's an incredible creation.

The inspiration for the setting of Princess Mononoke are the woodlands of Yakushima, an island lying to the south of Kagoshima off the coast of Kyushu (one of Japan's four main islands). The ancient forests and thirty plus mountain peaks over 1,000m provided the Director Hayao Miyazaki with the identity of the feature though in reality Yakushima has been all but replanted following extensive logging over the centuries which finally drew to a close in the early 1960s.

However, if you do have the opportunity to visit you'll not only see deer with monkeys riding their backs (full disclosure: I've never actually seen this but am told it happens), an old tree, my friend's bistro and quite a few imported tanuki, but also the occasional sighting of an H2 rocket launch from the shores of nearby Tanegashima. And for that you need to watch a different Miyazaki movie, Howl's Moving Castle. Something that is also worth taking your time.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The masks of a hidden country

A friend of mine once attended a course in the traditional art of mask making for stylised theatre form of "Noh". Carving the creation from a single block of hinoki (Japanese cypress), the weeks went by as he strove to finally gain the approval of the sensei, all to no avail. He knew that although to his eyes the result was identical to those used in the plays, his teacher refused to recognise his efforts; indeed he pretty much refused to recognise him at all. Until one day he smiled and a new Noh mask existed in the world. And interestingly, given the effort, my friend was more astonished than relieved.

Masks play a significant role in Japanese life. Culturally, and here I admit I am somewhat generalising, it is more important to save face (literally) than to display emotion. The words "honne" and "tatemai" refer the genuine feeling inside and the outward projection to the world outside. Whether you like it or not, swallow your pride and smile. Essentially a living mask for an entire nationality. Although these days there appears to be a little assistance in the form of white, slip on, surgical masks.

People would originally wear these masks, not because of industrial pollution in the cities (Japan has relatively clean air these days compared to even the best of them), but to avoid spreading a cold or dose of flu out of politeness to those around. The outbreak of swine flu in Asia lead to growth in use and the upturn in cedar pollen plaguing the country led to a further steep rise in their application. And then girls started use them as a preventative to unwanted approaches and now it is almost becoming a habit to wear one rather than not. But whatever the reason, despite the emoji option, it also means it's harder to see your friend smile.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Shibuya Incident and a very Bad Film

Shibuya - 1945
1946 wasn't a good year for Japan, though arguably better than 1945. The harvests had failed, food imports from the ex-colonies had ceased, some 5m+ refugees and returning soldiers added to the scarcity of resource and, on top of all this, the police were beginning to lose their grip. With Tokyo (and most other large cities) flattened by the war, the population started to turn to the black market for anything and everything needed. One enterprising yakuza gang even openly advertising for what little produce that existed to be "re-dsitributed" to the population. By themselves obviously.

Ebisu - 1946
The trade was highly lucrative and markets started to spring up around train stations across the country, a major one being in downtown Shibuya, which eventually, given the tensions between rival factions (and the police), led to The Shibuya Incident. A group Third Nationals (so called as they no longer held citizenship in Japan or their home country), in this case from Formosa (Taiwan), squared off with members of the Matsuba-kai (a registered yakuza gang still in existence today) and the inevitable riot ensued. A number of people were killed and many more injured though there is something of a disparity between various reports as to exactly how many of each.

Which brings us to the 2012 instant cult classic "Bad Film" by Sion Sono. The epic fight scene at the movies heart was filmed in one take at Shibuya Crossing without street permits and essentially as what we would call today a "flashmob" in 1995. It was then spliced together some seventeen years later by the director himself. And this depiction of violent gang warfare very nearly came to pass in those post-apocalyptic days (saved only by the Korean War...). But if you're wondering, the actual incident occurred outside Shibuya Police Station in what is now the intersection of 246, Roppongi Dori and Meiji Dori. However, if you're interested in Bad Film, a quick spoiler alert, make sure you know what you're getting into before you press play ok!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Escaping the summer heat

The summer in Japan can be hot. Like seriously hot. And did I mention humid. Bucket and buckets of humid are seemingly poured over you the instant you step out of your air-conditioned bliss. But of course practical climate control has only been around for a hundred years or so though the Egyptians and Romans figured out the use of evaporation for cooling purposes but note the careful use of the word "practical". Slaves carrying jars of river water aren't commonly available these days.

However, as the old saying goes, "there's more than a single approach to removing a cat from its fur" and the well healed of Japan realised that relocating to the ocean-side or mountain peaks was an excellent alternative to boiling in the capital and so resorts such as Atami and Miura grew up on the coasts south of Tokyo and Karuizawa and Yamanakako provided refuge at altitude ensuring cool and pleasant summer conditions. And these summer "villas" became known as beso in Japanese. 

The foreign community soon followed realising (as with the strong vest in summer), Japan knew a good thing when it saw it. And with the rich and influential, further benefits followed; bullet trains and convenient service area exits off highways (and highways for that matter) to name a few. Many these days are imported, leveraging the skill and experience of North America in wilderness oriented construction with a focus on these summer retreats becoming more year-round abodes. So if your sweating your summer away, find a friend with a beso. And offer to buy them a beer.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Finding those hidden secrets

Japan is full of hidden mysteries and one of the key points about being hidden is that, by definition, it makes your mystery particularly hard to find. But in these days of the inter-web there are both human and digital hands to help you beyond the scope of a much loved but well thumbed and dog eared copy of The Lonely Planet. Oishii Tokyo (Tasty Tokyo) which arrange tours for groups or families who definitely are looking to get past the JTB Reference Guide and see where locals go to eat and all the while make merry. And all in English too. So, if you want three Michelin stars then go to Paris, if you want local, localise. It's the way to go. And, spoiler alert, I'll be at Ebisu Yokocho Friday night. Apologies in advance...

Another new resource I wish had existed all those years ago when I thought that TGIF's was the height of Tokyo's offerings has recently come to life. Digitally designed to answer your questions whilst at the same time passing the Turing Test, I swear it's psychic. Want to go for dinner in the little shop around the corner, find an onsen friend or simply hangout in an idyl after dropping your bags on the floor of your Airbnb home for the next two weeks? All available through Levart. Even a tricky question it'll politely ask you to wait while it works out the answer. Just awesome.

And, focussing more closely upon the cultural aspects of Japan, is My-Taiken (My Experience) which uses real guides to take you by the hand and explore this ancient land of Amaterasu. And if you were wondering who Amaterasu is, they can probably answer that for you too. 

Then of course there are the Users; for every guide there are the guided (except for Confucianism, but that is a different story). It's easy to forget that magical pleasure of stepping off the Narita Express and finding yourself five floors below street level at the start of the busiest escalators in the world when you've been here so long. But these four guys from Scraptown dropped me a video of their eleven day visit to the country. And for those who still can't work out ramen dispensers, kleptomaniac monkeys and inappropriately attentive deer, you're in for a treat. Thanks for sending guys, I'm glad you enjoyed your experience.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sometimes you need to cry to be strong

On Saturday, March 11, 2012 I sat down in front of a video camera to record a simple thank you message to all those who had so selflessly helped in one way or another a year before when, at 2.46 on a cold and wet afternoon, first the earth shook and then the seas came. And they didn't stop. And I couldn't make the video. I knew the words I wanted to say and the people I wanted to thank but the sound simply wouldn't come. Each time I pressed the red record button I choked. Time and time again.

On a March weekend some seventeen years earlier I had visited Kobe to see a city destroyed. Small groups of people were gathered in the wreckage saying prayers for the family members they'd lost. At the time I thought this was the closest I would ever see to a war zone, something, thankfully, I have never experienced. Within twenty seconds the city had been razed and nearly 6,000 lost. I grew up in the countryside of northern England. We didn't have earthquakes there, or tsunami or typhoons, tornados or floods for that matter. We just had rain.

So I packed up the camera a walked with my son back into the house, turning on the television and watching the memorial services. My son had made a video a year earlier. Many had but this one made just a little difference. A message I'd received from Tohoku from a lady there made the point. We were all so shocked that day we'd forgotten to cry but here note, written from a shelter, told me how it had helped her start to weep. With strangers all around she'd cried like a child. And then she felt strong. And that was good.

Miki Endo stayed at her desk announcing over the city loud speaker system
that the wave was coming. She saved hundreds in her town at the cost of
here own life. March 11, 2011.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"Curiouser and Curiouser"

I'm relatively sure that Alice didn't actually arrive one day in Tokyo (though Gulliver actually did if you were wondering) although she traversed a looking glass and descended precipitously down a rabbit hole on separate occasions. And the answer to the classic pub quiz question of how she made it through the door, the revelation is below*. And no, she didn't drink from the bottle to enter but you will more than likely kick yourself when you see how she made it to the appropriate size. However, for some reason the door does appear to have established territory in the streets of Japan. And it's following me.

The way in to last night's izakaya, nearby Nakameguro Station, was an old sliding door, slightly below waist height, where the attendant dutifully reminded me to watch my head as I got down on hands and knees to cross the threshold (fun the first time but when the washrooms are on the outside, somewhat straining on the second or third occasion). But the food was worth the entrance, though this is probably not a phrase used by Michelin in their guide. As the third of our party arrived somewhat late, we offered one of two chairs at our table. Luckily selecting the correct one, as the other turned out to be for the date of the quiet gentleman sitting to my left. Who probably wouldn't have said anything anyhow.

Though somewhat unusual, this is the second time (with the same friends) I've ended up crawling into (as opposed to "out of") a wonderful location. The last time was in Shibuya where I walked up a flight of stairs over a 7/11, past the washing machines, along a suspended gantry and banged on a door only to have a nearby steel hatch open, a head pop out, and waitress inquire the name of my reservation. I think they are used to lost clientele. To miss-quote Churchill "Once is an accident, twice a co-incidence, three times enemy action". I'll know next time how much fun they are having at my expense... but as always in Japan, it was great food and great company. And a great experience. Back on Friday, with Gandalf. But that story is for another day.

* she nibbled on one side of the mushroom following the advice of the caterpillar (and Jefferson Airplane) as he gently smoked his hookah into oblivion.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stepping out into the cold

A teacher once suggested to me that kids today have more information thrown at them in twenty-four hours than our grandparents received in a life time. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but maybe not one too extreme in nature. Indeed the same teacher pointed out to me that a ten year old with an iPhone would win hands down in quiz night with all the parents aligned against them. Children are wiring up differently today, they have to.

The teacher I mention taught and inspired at one of the international schools in Japan. Not focussed on any single  country, there are a number to be found across the major cities. The American school is excellent, as are the British, German and French schools however they are principally designed to ensure the offspring of expats remain on a par with their land locked contemporaries back in the home land. However, for those existing in an international environment there are schools supporting the global diaspora. Yokohama International School being the grand-daddy of them all.

But as Grade 12 comes inexorably to a close, these citizens of all countries are about to spread their wings and fly. Universities in Japan are primarily (though with some notable exceptions) for Japanese students embarking on a Japanese career. But if you're wondering how this story ties itself to the imagery here, this was my son's final art exhibition, displayed before he himself moves on to university overseas. To study physics. The international schools of Japan raise remarkable students. And I'd be known as "oya bakka", and I'm kind of proud of that.