Saturday, December 29, 2018

The noodles of Queen

Well you genuinely learn something new everyday. And run with me here, at first it may not seem about Japan, but read on.

Having grown up with Queen and remembering the moment Freddie Mercury died (I was driving past Tooting Bec Lido if you were wondering) we went to see the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (spoiler alert, never try it at karaoke, you can't. Unless you're Adam Lambert, then you can). Loved the movie, Rami Malek amazing, Brian May played Brian May, Lord knows how they made him younger; John Deacon and Roger Taylor likewise. And then, sitting at home in central Tokyo, I had a jaw dropping moment. And that doesn't happen to me all that often.

Watching back on Youtube the old clips of Live Aid (and yes, I watched through it's entirety on the day with my friend Jeremy Eades at his home and with his dog, didn't know what we were seeing at the time except U2 becoming global superstars with a hug) and my wife (back to the present) clicked a Japanese link. I'd heard from a friend the band had loved Japan and it was a documentary around their times here, in tea gardens, with their security guard, walking the streets and, of course, singing on stage.

IN JAPANESE!!!! Freddie had actually phonetically learnt the words and was blasting them out with unashamed brilliance at the Budokan in uptown Tokyo. Even my wife dropped the phone at that point. Over twenty-five years I've been to many a concert here. I've enjoyed and sung to their music, songs I'd grown up with. But I had never, never, ever seen a foreign act translate one of their songs to Japanese. And now I'm searching Youtube all over again to find that clip (found it!). Because I lost it last night. But I did find, in my searches, the venerable lead singer of one of the great rock bands of all time, singing a Cup Noodle advert. Second time my jaw dropped in twenty-four hours. But I'll let you enjoy that one.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Blue signs and hubcaps - the speed cameras of Japan.

Retracing the journey from Nagano on the Japan Sea coast on a Sunday evening into Tokyo, there would inevitably be a long (long) tailback about 50k's out of town. And then nothing. Clear horizons all the way. No crash, nor roadworks, nothing. Except for a speed trap that would cause everyone to drop to 100kph triggering a vehicular shock wave that would role back up the highway as thousands of weekend get-awayers touch the brakes and subsequently sit and watch the hubcaps tick by.

And if you were wondering, there are two individual styles of cameras on the highways of Japan. The ones that look suspiciously like just a camera are exactly that, just a camera. They record the activities of the drivers of the country up and down the roads as they pass by. And that's it. Pictures only (unless you hold a guilty secret of course, in which case they really are tracking you). However, separate from this system there are the speed traps which are the ones with a square box sitting smiling next to them. That's the radar. Except for the newer ones, these they have started to place more subtly at side of the road in a hedge, somewhat hidden away.

Which, on the face of it, seems somewhat unfair. But as Jeremy Clarkson (he of Top Gear fame) once pointed out, the photo needs to show your face (which is why the police don't send the picture to you but request you drop in for a chat; saves the awkward moment when an inappropriate "friend" was in the passenger seat). And, to be fair, they do give you a heads up, if you ever see those large, blue, square signs at the side of the highway, it translates as "there's a speed camera ahead so slow down!". Happy camping,  and now they've taken away the speed camera outside Tokyo, no more slow moving hubcaps.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Dragons, Trees and Pirate Ships

Some 700m above sea level, Ashinoko (literally, the reedy lake) is the home of many a shrine, onsen and one particular nine-headed dragon. Oh, and the confluence of three tectonic plates just for good measure. It's also home to one of the check points on the Tokaido where the heads of unfortunate travelers, caught without the appropriately stamped and sealed papers, would be displayed for good measure to dissuade others from this inappropriate action (a little like a parking fine in modern times as it were).

Formed in this volcanic land some 3,000 years ago, said dragon was initially believed to be malevolent however has taken on the role of a revered deity over the centuries. And strolling along the north-east of the water's shores, you'll come across the peaceful Kuzuryu Shrine located in an arboretum representing some 70% of native trees to Japan (and the only thatched building I can recall in this country). And they are beautiful in autumn. Interestingly you'll also notice a series of shuttered lodgings which quietly closed nearly a decade ago following an influx of wild boar into the ryotenburos (outdoor bath) of the retreat. How I wish I had a picture of this.

And one of the most popular pastimes is to take a ride on the cruise ships plying the length of the lake, viewing vistas of Fuji reflected in the water. Two Spanish galleons and a brace of four deck catamarans sail the lake from tip to toe throughout the day. And sitting at the shrine, looking out over a dragon water fountain, all that I could think of was, how on earth did they get these ships up 700m from sea level in the first place?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The silver lining of being lost in a foreign language

That language gap can sometimes be hilarious, and other times catastrophic. When I first landed in Japan, speaking nothing of the native tongue, I remember having lunch and taking the wonderful waitress outside the store to point at the plastic bowl in the window I would like to order. She smiled, nodded, and explained to a (somewhat surprised) real waitress what it was I was looking for lunch. She then rejoined her family. And I felt a little bit of a wombat. The language barrier is real but the communication not so much. I still got lunch, and also, realized how kind people can be.

And then there's the story of my friends ordering pizza. But getting the number wrong. Repeating the order and hanging up. The pizza always arrived but the family they were calling by accident was, understandably, becoming a little tired of taking the order and passing it on to the delivery place. Living in a foreign language can be an interesting experience, especially one you don't really realize the immersion.

And then we lost the boss last week. Placed in a car to come to the hotel the driver hadn't received the updated message. And didn't speak English. And no one in the car spoke Japanese (except the driver obviously). And so, an hour outside Tokyo, he realized things were't quite going to plan. As I had realized, waiting at the hotel to pick him up. Making the best of the situation I decided to take the opportunity to have a little breakfast, as one does. And there, at the table next to me, was Alice Cooper having a coffee. There is always a silver lining...

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Cranes of Tokyo

Seeking to gain the affections of a talented young singer / songwriter, Yoko Ono slipped John Lennon a note on which there was written a single word. The note said "Breathe". And the rest was a little piece of history. And this concept is why breathe is my favorite word in the English language. However, that has absolutely nothing to do with this story except that one day I was asked my favorite word in the Japanese, which is Tsuruhashi, the sound of which has always had a similar, calming effect for me.

The word refers to a small merchant district in eastern Osaka and translates into English "crane bridge", crane in this instance referring to the bird regularly pictured throughout Japanese mythology (and, on the odd occasion, actually traversing the waterways of Tokyo). Which brings me too the story of Sadako Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes, which she did complete but it couldn't cure her of the grasping hand of the blinding light and black rain of August 6, 1945. But I digress once again.

Tokyo is in the midst of a great construction boom; of Biblical proportions. Looking from my office window I count thirty-one cranes on the horizon and a further eleven on the opposite side. Except these can't fly and have no wings but are the work horses raising a new city profile that will last for the next fifty years. Which made me wonder where they all came from as you don't usually keep a spare crane or two in the garden shed. And then it made me wonder what was actually going through the operators heads when the storm hit a few days ago...

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The rarity of a Skylark

Great picture but seriously, don't try this at home!
A rare, reverse arc, typhoon, Jongdari (Skylark in Korean (Asia takes turns at naming them if you were  wondering)) made landfall overnight on 29 July 2018. Typically typhoons will arrive from the southwest, often crossing the southern province of Kyushu before skirting along the eastern coast of the main island of Honshu, without always making further landfall, and then slowly dissipating in the cooler waters of the northern Pacific. But not this time.

Due to a convergence of higher latitude pressure systems, Skylark came in from the east and I really can't remember the last time that happened. The typhoon crashed on shore a little south of Tokyo, we dodged a bullet and just got very wet, but the storm penetrated far inland and headed southwest through the centre of the country. These are areas usually spared from this type of disaster and the defenses are less than in coastal areas and hence the risks can be higher and damage greater. 

And then Jongdari passed over western Japan. Those guys didn't deserve this. A month before saw rains at record levels with over two hundred lives lost in the ensuing flood waters. And then there came the record heat, turning the mud flows into concrete. And now there comes a rare inland typhoon. Still, from each disaster, there are learnings, Japan is now so much more prepared  for storms that span the planet than in past history. At 9.00am on the morning of 26 September, 1959, Typhoon Isewan (known in the west as Vera) came on-shore south of the Izu Peninsular. And when Vera had left, she'd taken a full 4,000 souls with her. And that didn't happen last night.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Greatest Show on Earth

Tokyo, as a global metropolis, is something to be experienced. There's genuinely little to see, an afternoon on a tour bus will cover most of the sights (caveat; the architecture is avant guard and spectacular, just visit the Prada building on Omote Sando) but that isn't the point of the city. Tokyo isn't there to be seen, it's there to be experienced. So enjoy it, every single day.

When I first arrived in Japan I was taken to a Live! as it's known in Japan, or Live House if you actually want to know what it means, that went by the name of Bauhaus. This was in the old days before it relocated to the environs of the Hard Rock Cafe in Roppongi. No larger than the three tables if boasted, the band in the corner fronted by Ziggy Stardust on lead vocals (turned out his day job was a professor at Waseda University) and a bass guitarist you'd freak about if your daughter brought him home after a date.

They would occasionally invite guests to play with them too and Doctor Suzuki, in his suit and tie, walking on stage transforming into Jimi Hendrix and the girl who spoke no English (at all!) could belt out the Janis Joplin classics like I've never heard before. I once witnessed as a guy in the audience ask if he could try out the drums. And. He. Nailed. Black. Dog. So don't worry about visiting the gates of the Emperor's Palace or taking the boat on the river to see concrete, rather, experience Tokyo, it's the greatest show on earth.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A fishy tale in Tokyo

Those having been around more than a little while in Tokyo may remember the beautiful, bohemian apartments sadly demolished to make way for the somewhat less than eye-endearing Omote Sando Hills (apparently designed to make you feel you're outside when in, somewhat myopic to the exterior). (And where I once gave a speech in Japanese memorized from a recording obligingly provided by my assistant).

The apartments were eventually demolished in the early 2000's, not so much as to make way for progress but more that although everyone loved their atmosphere, no one actually wanted to breath it and they were mostly deserted and, actually, unloved.

The structures themselves were known as Dojunkai after the development agency established to create fire and earthquake proof structures; something considered quite a good idea after the razing of Tokyo in The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (better late than never) and were one of the few structures to survive the firebombing on March 10, 1945 which left most of the area surrounding Harajuku (and most of the rest of Tokyo) nothing but smoking cinder. But that's not why I write this article. This is why I write this article...

At the lower end of the Dojunkai building (Omote Sando, like the Champs Elysee it is often compared to, is on something of an incline) ran a river known as the Onden, a tributary of the Shibuya River, which in the early 1960's was covered over and became what is today known as Cat Street. And as the Onden ran both sides of Omote Sando there must have been a bridge. But I cannot find reference to it anywhere. In searching I found the Onden waterwheel though, amongst the famous "Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji" circa 1890 if you're interested. Less cars, less buildings and an annoyingly illusive bridge.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A bridge and station story

The ghosts of Tokyo's watery past are everywhere to be seen around the cities districts. You'll quickly notice that almost everywhere you go there is the repeating suffix of -bashi, meaning "bridge", and they were everywhere, more often than not defining the name of the locale. Bridge comes first, bridge gets a name, local area adopts the name, government write it on a map and there you have it, a place named after a bridge. And that of course is where it gets complicated as many of the bridges have long since been removed in the 1960's rush to lay concrete and landfill. But the names stayed.

So, for example, Kyobashi (Kyo-bridge) is actually a subway station. The name can be translated as "Capital Bridge" in reference to Tokyo, the capital of Japan (as opposed to Nihonbashi which means "Japan Bridge" (and is the start of all highway sign "~km to Tokyo" reference point)). Many date from the early seventeenth century as Tokyo (Edo in those days) as the new shogun, Tokugawa, brought peace to the country and located his capital several days march east of the Emperor residing in Kyoto in, what was then, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast with a lot of rivers and inlets that needed, well, bridging.

Kyobashi is interesting though as it perished as the origin of the shuto, the elevated (and subterranean) highway of which some 200km plus now work and weave their way around the metropolis. It was, in effect, the first on the chopping block of the uptake of the automobile. But part of it did escape and you can still see two carved columns of the original 1872 stone bridge that replaced a slightly concerning wooden structure dating from 1603. They're joined by a concrete, copper plated pilar from the 1922 final construction that would disappear in sometime around 1964. And so if you see a place name ~bashi, look for a river. If there isn't one, you're standing on landfill.

Thanks Marty, again!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

When Liberty came to town

Odaiba, on the eastern flanks of Tokyo Bay is a peculiar place. A destination in it's own right, it is a late twentieth century vanity land fill which encases one of the six gun batteries (hence the name meaning big, flat place) constructed (more or less) across the marine access to the pre-Meiji era conurbation of Tokyo to protect (less) against the onslaught of barbarian ships (ie European and American). However, the development as a whole then came to a shuddering halt in the mid-1990's deplete of tourists, residents, businesses or access.

Revived as a commercial project in the decades to come, it now boasts tourist shopping, a Madame Tussauds, cinemas, a very strange head office of Fuji TV (the construction cost of which nearly bankrupted the broadcaster at the time) and the first sand and sun beach east of Minato Mirai in Yokohama, some thirty kilometers to the west, the remainder being port facilities and oil storage (yes, we're one spark short of a thermo-nuclear explosion in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world).

It also has its own replica Statue of Liberty which came around more or less by accident. In 1998, Japan was celebrating a year of the French and borrowed the lesser known Parisian statue from the Ile Aux Cynes, an island in the middle of Paris. And it turned out to be a massive hit with the tourists  for the fledgeling commercial developments around the futuristic, though deserted, Tokyo Teleport. And so when it was returned to France they built another one; a replica of a replica of the real thing. And given the number of selfies going off on a weekend, seems like the rather unlikely idea has rather handsomely paid off.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

With a little help from my friends

Sometimes you need a little help. There's nothing wrong with that; if you're in a hole, your friend's hand can always help you out. And you can pay forward the favor one day. To quote the "West Wing", 'when your neighbor's house is on fire, you lend them your bucket'. We all need a little help sometimes. And this is role a man called "Shoe" set out to fulfill. And Fukushima-ken was the friend needing a hand one day. And he reached out.
Iwaki FC - 'We Will'

Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima are impregnated in the minds of the collective. But Fukushima was, is and remains, a beautiful location. And here I'm not talking from imagery, it's a place I've visited many times in the years after it was cursed with an axial changing quake, tsunami and ultimately the possibility of armageddon. But it was only a dirty bomb, leaving the land alone. Fukushima-ken is beautiful.

I once took nearly 500 people there for three days, a year after the disaster. There was a lot of fear and trepidation but at the end, all gained a little insight and illumination. But that was simply three days although it became more. Shoe built a home for 400, he built a football team and he built a destination for families. And then he took us to a baseball game. When your neighbor's house is on fire, lend them your bucket. And then help them rebuild. And then help them take their lives back. Little by little.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Guest writer - The man on the top of the Ebisu omnibus

Dr Gabriel Symonds is a long term member and stalwart of the foreign community in Japan. He's also a friend of mine. He looked after me when I was sick and he told my son he would get better when he was too. Now, in well earned retirement, he remains Tokyo based and focuses on helping people kick that nicotine monkey off their backs. And he dropped me a note asking if it would be ok to post a story of our adopted country to TenguLife. And of course it is. Oh, and he also, over lunch one day, inspired a story of street art that will make you smile.

Tokyo Travel

It’s interesting traveling on buses in Tokyo. You can tell the drivers are very well trained and safety is paramount. When a bus turns a corner there is usually a pedestrian crossing, as in the illustration. The bus will come to a complete stop and the driver will deliberately look and point to the left and right and check the front mirror to ensure the road is clear before proceeding. He may audibly say ‘Left, right, front – OK’. This is called ‘pointing and calling’. You can also observe this if you are in the front carriage of a local train, behind the driver. It’s quite a performance. The driver is alone in the compartment and appears to be talking to himself.  He points with his white-gloved hand at the timetable, speedometer and any wayside signs and calls these out aloud. The idea is to focus attention for safety, in which Japan has an excellent record. 

Though I usually travel by car on Tokyo’s congested roads – an experience in itself – sometimes I take the bus. Having reached retirement age, if the bus if full, often a young person will offer me their seat. At first I was shocked that I must appear so old! Now I just say ‘Thank you’ and take the seat – unless a very old person gets on after me in which case I offer my seat to him or her.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

So run, run uphill

So run, run uphill, don't look back, just run. And then you can tell others. Because you lived.

I'm simplifying a memorial to those who were caught by the wave seven years ago. But still I remember the moment when, walking home as the roads had choked and the trains sidelined for twenty fours hours, I saw that wave crossing the land. A store had turned a TV to the window and a crowd had gathered around. I had just spoken with my son via Skype and he'd said it was reported at an 8.4M. But the helicopter was now flying above the water. Which used to be land.

A tsunami wave isn't like another. They simply don't stop. Yes, you can surf a three meter wave on the beach of Hawaii, but how about a fifteen meter wave two miles inland? And then you can't find the ones you love, you know, or even your house or town. The trains are gone, and so are the rails, and the roads. No power or gasoline and no one to help or hold your hand. Tsunami are merciless. And we watched one that day; the world's first digital disaster. The Fukushima nuclear disaster didn't kill people. Water did that all on its own.

And I look back on that moment frozen in time. A life defining moment like few others. And all I can think is "run, run uphill, don't look back, just run".

Monday, February 19, 2018

Punk and the price of medicine

When Johnny Rotten (he of the Sex Pistols infamamous infamy) walked off stage at the curtain of  The Pistols last gig of a somewhat self-immolatory American Tour in January 1978, he crouches down, turns to the crowd and with undisguised loathing uttered the words "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" And that was that. Within a year Sid Vicious was dead from a heroine overdose whilst trying to explain he had no idea how his girlfriend was shot dead. Next to him in the hotel room. But he was innocent. 

However I digress.
Occasionally, like everyone in life, I will need to
visit the doc. I used to avail upon the services of of an excellent international physician based quite close-by however, subsequent to his retirement, I took the plunge and went local with a new clinic recently established not too far from where I live. And also by now my Japanese was at a standard where it was no-longer overly intimidating to put my hands in the life of a foreign language. And so today I made the journey with what had the unpleasant feelings of the on-set of flu season inside my head and, feeling miserable and a little pathetic, I walked up the road the two minutes it took to get there.

Having waited less than thirty minutes for the doctor to invite me in (and remember this wasn't a scheduled visit, I had no appointment, I had just walked in) soon he was taking blood pressure, providing a general consultation and handing me over to a nurse to check for the H3N2 virus (this being executed by what seemed to be a three foot syringe straight up my nose that even the nurse said must have hurt). The swab was tested then and there in the lab and I was declared to be plague free a few minutes later. The doctor then prescribed two sets of medicine that he said would see off the worst over the next few days (oh, and provided a repeat prescription for another lurgy we've been working on recently). The drugs were despatched by the receptionist in about ten minutes and I was on my way having been charged a total of a little shy of $25. And if your country's healthcare isn't the moral equivalent of Japan's, then get out your old vinyl and ask yourself the question "ever get the feeling you've been cheated...?" 

Friday, February 16, 2018

The wonderful works of Jin Watanabe

Japan, it has to be said is somewhat awash with museums of a wide and wonderful kind. Some of them even have exhibits (there was a small problem with bubble era funding, great architecture, and then the money ran out before the purpose could be fulfilled and artifacts installed). But there is one that is a throw back in time and you really need to know where to look. And it isn't a throw back in the sense of the Smithsonian or the Natural History Museum, both of which are triumphs of their era that somehow remain contemporary today; no, this one leaves you sipping tea, sitting in a world that would not be unfamiliar to realms of Hercule Poirot.

Set behind a high stone wall in amongst tall, shady trees is the creation of master architect Jin Watanabe who, in 1938, in the early years of the Showa period, designed the self enclosed Bauhausian structure for businessman Toshio Hara, grandfather to the current owner. In 1979 it was finally liberated from use as various embassies and converted to an art museum, though arguably the finest piece in its collection is the building itself. If you ever happen to be in the vicinity of Kita-Shinagawa, downtown Tokyo, it is worth a waste of time.

But Jin Watanabe is not so famous for this delight but more for the Wako Building in central Ginza; the one with the clock tower. Soon a favorite meeting point, the clock tower is actually the second incarnation of the Seiko time piece. The building was originally created in the late 19th century in the central glitzy area of then up and coming Ginza. Which then burnt down a couple of times. And so in 1932, the all new, Jin Watanabe designed, Wako Building was created with a genuine stone facade to defend from the flames. Which turned out to be useful as it was the only building in the area to survive WWII. And it had a spanking new clock on the top. And it's still a favorite meeting point today. And Seiko means precision in Japanese; just if you were wondering.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Tokyo Snows

It is upon a rare occasion that snows fall on Tokyo. That isn't to say they never do, but maybe every half decade or so there will be enough to disrupt the traffic of the metropolis. In more northerly climes and along the Japan Sea coast, local ordinances require cars to don snow tires during the winter months come icy blasts or no, but not Tokyo. When the snow sprinkles, chaos reigns. The highways close, the normally clock perfect train system is delayed and drivers put their foot down as if it's a summer's day. And wonder why they spin. And then the tunnels close too and people leave cars, keys in the ignition so the rescue services can move them later, taking to shanks' pony home.

The airports will see hundreds of cancelled flights and yet optimistic travelers still battle the elements to arrive on time for a blanket and a piece of floor for the night. Daylight sees planes, great stranded steel birds, queueing for a gate to load tired but stoic passengers and finally take them to the skies. There is little dissent or disruption, and if there is, it is more than likely not of Japanese making. People just politely accept their lot, keep calm and carry-on as it were.

I once walked, in an early morning, past a school where the teachers were clearing the snow in front of the gates. This is seen as something of a civic duty, an act in which almost all of the population will engage. One of the teachers was a young woman in a business suit and high heels and, with her colleagues, she was shoveling as best she could. Being western my initial thought was to help, take the shovel and complete the task for her. But stopping to think from her perspective I realized she wasn't there to clear the snows, but to be seen to be making her own contribution. If I took the shovel she'd more than likely continue with her bare hands. In trying to help, I'd be making the situation worse. And so I lent her my gloves, asking if she would leave them on the wall when she had finished. And there they were the next day, folded neatly, exactly where I'd asked her to leave them. And so Tokyo may fall apart in the winter weather, but the people remain Japanese. Polite and thinking of others. Happy snow storm.