Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Pina Colada at Trader Vics

Some people have interesting traditions. In something of a different era, I once called a friend on the last Friday before Christmas. People were out of town and truth be told I was somewhat bored so calling around those still in situ. One friend answered thinking it was his girlfriend (let's not get into what he actually said when he found out it was me...) and we decided to catch up. He had something with him I'd never seen before, and it held a lot of music. The iPod had been launched to the world some two months prior and so I've always been able to date that last Friday to his shiny white headphone attachment.

And hence a traditions was born. On the last Friday before Christmas each year I host a small lunch for a few friends who don't necessarily know each other but I think they'll enjoy meeting new friends. And I also somewhat define what actually is the "Last Friday". Given the habit of many to leave Japan toward the year end for their homeward journey I've decided I'm allowed to opt for alternative dates to enjoy their company, though these days there are the obvious restrictions of airborne bugs and lack of airplanes.

And so on Friday 17th a few friends met up. We were all vaxed and asked the staff not to approach the table but allow beverages to reside on a side counter where we could select the range ourselves to avoid them having to expose themselves to any potential risks (total count in Japan that day, 56). They didn't do this of course as service is their pride. For which we are extremely grateful. One day we are going to be back to abnormal times, but I'd still like to thank the staff of Trader Vics for kindly welcoming us again. See you next year. With a Pina Colada. And yes, you have to figure that one out...


Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A Namamugi Incident

More years ago than I care to remember I walked "The Kiso Way" from Magome to Tsumago in Nagano-ken, one of the few remaining sections of the Tokaido, the Edo Period stone highway connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. At least I thought I did. Researching this article I've found I'd strolled the Nakasendo, the other road from Tokyo to Kyoto. Which somewhat negates the flow of this article that last weekend I walked the other end of the Tokaido, but this time I'm sure. I had a historian with me. And he had a map.

Setting off from Hachiko in central Tokyo at 6.00AM beating the noise and heat of day (admittedly in December so we somewhat embraced the chill of the morning) with a purpose in mind. I enjoy a good walk and my destination was the Gaijin Botchi (Foreigners' Cemetery) on the bluff overlooking Yokohama, some thirty-five kilometers to the south. I had a detour in mind this time, I'd known of the Namamugi Incident when an Englishman took on the 700 strong retinue of a homeward bound Daimyo with a somewhat predictable outcome. But at least they put up a plaque to him and erected a small (and quite quaint) memorial right next to the Spring Valley Brewery (interestingly founded next to our destination for the day).

Strolling in the morning light we passed through Magome again, this one a suburb of Tokyo (no offense to the residents but, don't go there) and caught up with the third of our party. And then age and sore hips started to take their hold and a detour via a morning cafe where wine and painkillers would be gratefully quaffed became something of a necessity (en-route to which we came across a rusted Nissan Skyline shooting break carrying a tax disk that showed it hadn't been driven in over thirty years, about the same time I was walking through the peace and beauty of the first Magome. And strangely a sign on the side announcing "For Public Use Only"). 

Sustenance received and we moved on. To the train station from where we advanced to Namamugi of said incident only to find the wall and the plaque had succumbed to a wrecking crew less than a week before and the memorial had been relocated (but this one we found). We did find a red footprint and decided this must be the spot of the epic battle and so declared the first objective of the day duly successfully achieved and boarded our train bound for the Gaijin Botchi, a few stops beyond Yokohama Station.

Climbing the steep rise to upper plateaux of the Bluff (actually, there's an escalator concealed inside the hill) we reached the destination of our eventful day. To find it locked. But what a beautiful day, December and people were picnicking on the lawns with a bridal pair thanking their lucky stars for the photo-op. So we crossed from the view of Fuji to the other side of the hilltop and took in the view of Yokohama Bay, thinking of those days before escalators had been invented. And then we went home. By train. No reason to be silly about it.

Thanks go to Rory and Marty!

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

A Horse to Hokkaido

In 1878 the (yet to be) empire of Japan had not only opened to foreigners for the first time in nearly 300 years but had been through a civil war, embraced a new (actually its first) constitution placing the Emperor (Mikado) at the center of both political and religious helms but also relocated said foreigners from Shimoda (where they could count the ships supplying supplies to Tokyo) to the sleepy port town of Yokohama (where they could be seen but not heard). And then Isabella Bird arrived.

Leaving England to find balmier climes for health reasons (and not enjoying Australia too much) she arrived in Yokohama to start a quite remarkable journey. The limited foreign residence ensured she quickly had the opportunity to embrace international society in Japan including the interesting (and, one day to be, ambassador) Ernest Satow (who had arguably, accidentally, set of the civil war mentioned above by noting that foreign powers needed a central government for negotiations rather than a loose affiliation of warring factions). Her purpose was to ride a horse to Hakodate. A distance of some 800km to the north on the (extremely remote at that time) island of Hokkaido.

She hired a guide, stayed with local people, was viewed as a exhibit to be seen, met and dined with Ainu, experienced a typhoon whilst returning home and all of this by the age of 47. Almost exactly 100 years later an Englishman by the name of Alan Booth reversed the journey walking from Cape Soya in Northern Hokkaido to Cape Sata, the very southern most point of Kyushu. And much of their tales ring with resemblance. The kindness of people, the beauty of the country, the isolation (and the revenge of the fish). And this weekend I'm planning to take a walk from Hachiko in central Tokyo to the Gaijin Botchi in Yokohama. It'll be interesting to see how much of the journey remains.

Friday, November 19, 2021

89.7 - The most important number in an earthquake

At  5.46 on a cold January morning in 1995, as the first Shinkansen prepared itself for the journey west from Osaka, a 6.9M earthquake struck some twenty kilometers south of the city of Kobe. There was no tsunami however, as the temblors rushed through the city they reflected off the mountains that encircle the prefecture to the north. And caused an interference pattern that flattened the metropolis in under twenty seconds. Over 6,000 lost their lives that day.

Famously, the elevated highway, snaking along the coast, wavered and then collapsed. Cars were crushed and an overnight bus hung, front wheels in free air, becoming the global image of the catastrophe. Fires ripped through the carnage, especially in the old, wooden, quarters of the city. They would continue through the night as rescue was catastrophically delayed. And, in the days before the internet, with the power grid razed, the only information came via battery powered radio. 

Many learnings came from that day one being to stop the government restricting the roll out of the now ubiquitous mobile phone (they were just mobile then, no smarts...) and another was to grant licenses across the country to new, English speaking, radio stations. The new broadcasters contractually bound their bi-lingual teams to live within walking distance of their studio to ensure service could continue if possible. And, if we're ever hit by the big one in Tokyo, one of those can be found at 89.7 in glorious FM stereo.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Welcome to our Shinkansen

Thirty years ago today I landed at Narita, an hour north (wish) of Tokyo, no visa but an assignment for two years in Japan and England had just lost the Rugby World Cup to Australia. I'd wondered what I would think of myself as a young twenty-five year old if I turned down the opportunity and so here I was, lost. In those years I
’ve seen a few changes, little kids don’t run up and touch me, running off laughing that they’d touched a foreigner anymore.

A kind gentleman with a complete absence of English guided me from Tokyo Tower to the Shiba Park Hotel and turned back with a wave. We have mobile phones now and it doesn’t cost $4 a minute to call England any more, if you need to contact someone, the fallback is to call, then it was a message on a cassette on an answer machine they wouldn’t receive until they got home. 

There was no social networking, you met people the old-fashioned way by saying hello, which gladly you can still do today. People were kind to me and that is still true as well. In 1993 I met and married the lady who still sits beside me today. Street signs are in English (!) as are Shinkansen announcements (and not just the recordings, though I did love the lady's voice back then, welcome to our Shinkansen). I could fly Virgin to London and be invited to sit in the cockpit for landing into Heathrow though those days are long gone now. 

I no longer have to sit, typing in code that had been faxed to me, to hook my computer up to the internet to watch Mozilla scroll up in front of me with a modem beeping away in the background (I wonder what happened to Global Village). We’ve had some significant earthquakes although I still find myself explaining the difference between the Japanese and international scales however, bar the once, I haven’t had to shovel mud from someone’s home again. 

I’ve lost many friends, some to distance and some to circumstance. There was a different pandemic back then, but we figured it out, hopefully we’ll do so again. I hadn’t even thought about my son but now I sit in awe listening to his guitar. It’s been a good thirty years. I’ve been lucky. And, just about now, the plane landed.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Atago Shrine - a Horse and Hanami Story

In Tokyo proper, ie the one with a mere 13 million people (as opposed to Greater Tokyo with its 30 million), there are precisely 2,782 temples (they're tax exempt so yes, there is a known number) providing the services of your local, friendly, neighborhood monks performing a number of historical duties. And if you visit all the nearly 3,000, remember to take your temple book as evidence of your achievements! One, in the center of the Shitamachi district of Tokyo (literally "Downtown") was, in days gone by, situated, at 26m above sea level, upon the summit of the highest ground around, Atago Hill. That is before the elevator was created.

Atago Jinja boasts multiple shrines to various deity though on the whole with a theme of success and good fortune in various aspects of future life. There is, as well, a pond with some of the meanest looking koi I've ever seen as they climb over each other for the food distributed by the tourists. It is also the location of the 86, near vertical (slightly steeper than El Capitan if you see what I mean), "Steps to Success", a flight of stone stairs that led from the street to the summit. And, to woo the good favor of Shogun Iieyesu, were ridden by a samurai, who gained a blossom branch and fame and fortune. 

The illustrations show the intrepid knight riding directly up the stairs, though physics would suggest it must have been sideways or he would have fallen rather inelegantly back to the foot of the stairs. History records the samurai declared he had achieved his life's desire. Strangely however, it doesn't seem to have made a record of what precisely was going through the horses mind as it precariously tiptoed those 45 minutes all the way down again...

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Tokyo - An Olympic Finishing Line?

In 2012, London hosted what can only really be appreciated as a successful Olympics. Yes, I know that's a little tricky to define but let's take it based on a straw pole of the popular vote, the man on the top of the Clapham omnibus was more positive than negative toward the extravaganza. Not sure that can be said in Tokyo of Mrs Watanabe on the Sangenjaya chin chin densha in the midst of a pandemical lockdown. When Ben Johnson was caught cheating he said to his mother in a hotel in Seoul, "mum, no one died". Let's hope Thomas Bach can say the same, come August 24th...

The rings of steel have been in place for the last week or so, to control crowds around the sporting venues, except there aren't any crowds, just empty stadia with canned laughter and annoyed locals who have the inconvenience of long walks in the summer heat to find a way into their apartment when the roads are blocked and locked. Blue Impulse, the aerobatic display team, have rehearsed writing the insignia in the sky, which may or may not come off depending on the weather (side note, the time for rehearsal was not released so as to avoid crowds, no one seemed to consider that for an aerial display, you just look up). And vaccinations have reached an astonishing 15% or so of the population, 85% below the official declarations just a few months earlier.

Japan was first awarded the Olympics in 1940 only to see this one fizzle out after a small invasion of China. '64 was a coming out party and the infrastructure lasted until recent years so let's say that was also a positive. Macron is here to pick up the baton for Paris but the "Olympic Bubble" has popped, teams are abandoning the "Village" and Brisbane has been awarded 2032 after being the sole candidate to contest the bid. So the question has to be raised, if no one is into it anymore, has the Olympics run its course? I cannot recognize the athlete highly enough, their hard work, dedication and sacrifice is unquestionably of heroic proportions. But as an institution, is it time to weave a cocoon and aim for a butterfly reboot one day in a land far, far away? Mrs Watanabe would probably think so...

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

An Olympic Game of Chicken

100 days to go. In 100 days there will be a subdued opening ceremony, no international fans (no discussion about International corporate attendance I've seen to date). Long term residents isolated overseas will watch as some 11,000 athletes (without counting Para-Olympic competitors), coaches, trainers, support staff and (as yet unconfirmed) families of competitors, are waived through the airports of Tokyo. And they won't be too happy to put it mildly.

The country will also watch these visitors from overseas and we're down to 24% support for the entire event as of today. Although the mask culture has been long established and shaking hands the exception, on the ground it is generally seen as a super-spreader event. The one big difference from last year being vaccinations. Except the government has been caught somewhat, flat-footed. Where as Bhutan has managed to inoculate nearly the entire mountain Kingdom, UK is well into it's own program with millions already having had the jab and America, the stumbling giant, has finally woken up and is now running an impressive rearguard action, Japan remains below 100,000 arms with jab wounds. Total, not daily.

The government is now discussing how commensurately complex the logistics are to inoculate a population of 127m. It isn't like they've had over a year to plan for this. One good step forward, yesterday the laws requiring new drugs to be tested on Japanese subjects prior to release (the Pill took over two decades (funnily enough, Viagra required mere months) for approval) were finally suspended. What's good enough for 200 million and counting, can now be applied here too. But the IOC and JOC are playing a tactical game of chicken. It's difficult to know whom will blink first and call it all off. Or maybe it'll be the competing countries who pull the proverbial plug first. The irony being that that would be following the lead of North Korea which pulled out recently due to COVID concerns.

For now however, "Let the Games Begin!". At least until the fat chicken sings...

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Welcome back...

So, a little over a year ago I decided to "park" TenguLife after six years of rambling, though with the plan to be revived at a later date. What had been fun (and interesting for me) to write, was becoming more of an obligation than a hobby. And then we had a pandemic. Japan's constitution doesn't provide for an "actual" lockdown, but the government asked, and the people cooperated. Masks are not obligatory, but everyone wears them. You can sit on a bench, but you're going to be lonely. And my hands have had more alcohol than my mouth in the last year.

Anyway, back to the point. I've enjoyed my year off. Six hundred articles seemed a fairly good place to put the wheel clamps on but now, a year (or so) later, it's time to take the dust covers off, change the oil, and check if the engine still turns over. And, of course, take the wheel clamps off, goes without saying...  Let's get vaccinated and have a hanami party where we can sit and be close enough to walk, talk and laugh again. Welcome back. I've missed you. Hello 2021! A little late, but happy to meet you.