Fuji, Falconry, and Kamakura

Mount Fuji is the most iconic peak on earth. The name alone conjures vivid images of a huge mauve cone, topped with snow, in the minds of those who have never seen it. It is not a mountain but the mountain, the platonic ideal of which all others fall short. Like all truly memorable summits, it stands alone, isolated and massive, rather than peeking over the shoulders of others. Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn, Mount Mayon, Fuji-san crowns the lot, and this weekend I went to see it up close.

The Boss

Its outline is ever-present on the approach from Tokyo, and looms larger and larger as the road wends its way through verdant hills. An hour into the journey, we turn off the highway, and I assume we have arrived, for by now the great volcano is so vast that we have to be at its base, surely. After a toilet break, we drive onwards for another hour, my jaw dropping lower as Fuji-san rises ever higher. The autumn colours are just beginning to show through, and the bright red ivy leaves strangling conifer trunks makes it look like the forest is burning. At last, we stop at a viewpoint a few miles away, and finally, we can enjoy it in the open air after so long pressed against windows. Ignoring the teacher`s suggestion that we take photos of it with the carpark in the foreground, myself and a small band of renegades head to the viewpoint 50 metres away, which causes a surprising amount of consternation. On the small mound there are stands of long grass, yellow flowers, and people with cameras. The plain between the mountain and us is sparsely populated with denuded cherry and conifer, which peter out as the altitude increases. The bare slopes are a complex mix of deep gold, dark brown, and faint purple, which intermingle like camouflage paint. It is worth the teacher’s ire. The sides of the mountain rise gradually and symmetrically, slowly increasing in gradient, accelerating upwards, suggesting an asymptote. The curves terminate abruptly, never meeting, either side of the crater. Snow is dusted more liberally onto the North side. It is too perfect, too designed, too beautiful to be real. It fills up the sky.

 

See, I was justified in using “replete”

Our next stop is a bird sanctuary, the front half of which is filled with sad owls in small Perspex boxes gazing morosely out at the cameras. I skip this section to find a flamboyant greenhouse replete with flowers and hanging baskets. The angel trumpet tree has very impressive flowers. I sulk a little because we are inside so close to Fuji, but thankfully we soon head out past the emus, which are being hand fed by some courageous tourists in their enclosure, to a wooded glade with a perfect view of Fuji above. There is a bird of prey demonstration here, and shortly after it begins I have my heart set on a shot of fuji with a raptor`s silhouette. I flick up the shutter speed and manually focus to where I think they`ll fly. The hawk flies too low, the owl (avoiding a goldilocks reference) too low, but the falcon flies just right. I get two shots with it central, one with a lure, and one without. Much to my surprise, I prefer the one with the lure and the rope.

Lucky Shot

Le Gang

We stop for lunch beside a lake encircled by hills and filled with waterskiers. Everyone pitches their food into the middle and feasts with wide smiles. At the end of the meal Japanese toys are produced (I’ve forgotten the name), which you spin by twisting the rope, maintaining its motion by pulling the string outwards when the bob stops spinning.

 

Spinning Class

If you would like an idea of what life is like in Japan, try the following. Imagine you are in a cult, and then add in the cityscapes, futuristic gadgets, and stunning scenery found here. The word cult is almost exclusively used negatively, especially in recent years, but here I use it in the sense of a community bound by common beliefs and actions, which may be viewed as strange by outsiders. This is not to say that all of Japan is one large cult, but rather that aspects of the national psyche produce a predisposition towards ‘cultish’ behaviour. Especially important (in my opinion) is the emphasis of the collective over the individual, which contrasts starkly and often admirably with Western individualism. Perhaps it is time for some examples rather than what could be critiqued as navel gazing…

 

Tsurumi ward provides very cheap Japanese lessons to foreigners, run by volunteers, and this weekend all the classes were invited on a group trip to the base of Fuji-san. This was of course, irresistible, and we turned up bleary-eyed at 7:40am on Nichiyobi (Sunday). Orange ribbons on safety pins were distributed to allow easy identification of wandering gaijin, and soon we were sat comfortably on the seat allocated to us by stickers on the headrests. Think a school trip but with more rules. Seats that folded out into the aisle meant the bus could hold 25% more people than usual. Each of the ten Japanese Senseis gave lengthy speeches as we set off, pausing regularly to stimulate chorused replies and applause. The bus stewardess (seemingly present on all bus tours) then gave another speech, and then tunefully sung a hymn about Mount Fuji. This was rather soothing, until the song sheets were distributed, the dance routines learnt (mainly shoulder thumping and clapping), and we all were exhorted to join in (which we did). Most of the song was a mystery to me, except the line (roughly translated) Fuji-san is the first mountain of Japan. Once into it, the group’s chorus and synchronised movements seemed the most natural thing in the world, as we wound through densely forested hills towards the ever-present snow-capped peak ahead.

 

At the bird sanctuary we had been told to remove our stickers, and when setting off home we found this was to allow those who had been sat at the front to be allocated seats at the back, and vice versa. No mingling of partners, just a question of fairness regarding bus position, apparently. The return journey was similarly filled with entertainments (and half-hourly stops at service stations); we began with a quiz. This was in Japanese, and I only understood the first question, but the sensei nearest to me seemed to misunderstand quizzes somewhat. Whenever a question was asked, she would thrust the microphone towards a student and loudly whisper them the answer. My meiji smarties were the reward for repeating that the 1000 yen note had a picture of Fuji upon it. Once the stewardess was out of questions, she distributed bingo cards, and a TV screen folded down from the roof to call us. Each number was followed by a lengthy instrumental that seemed to have been composed with the sole aim of invoking insanity in the listener. Finally, the first BINGO was greeted with whooping and applause, and a blaring rock riff from the TV crowned the jubilation. A prize was passed back, and the Bingo resumed, I presumed to find second and third place. However, it became clear that the Bingo came would continue, with applause for each additional winner, until everyone on board had won. After an hour my time investment was amply rewarded with a Mickey Mouse ring and ring holder, which now holds pride of place at my desk.  Bingo finally concluded as we hit traffic returning to Tokyo. Karaoke began shortly after.

 

PARROTS IN LOVE

A small part of my salary is automatically deducted each month to continue my membership of the charismatically named “RIKEN Mutual Benefit and Wellness Society”. This week my (female) colleagues told me that a monthly company Yoga session would be taking place after work. Me and Brussels Glasses (Belgian, with glasses and wavy blonde hair) decide to give it a try. We turn up with towels and sweatpants (Brussels Glasses) or shorts (which were in hindsight too short), ready to relax for the next hour.  The hall is tall and airy, and smells strongly of air freshener. The bottom half of the walls are clad in light pine, the upper half has planks rotated in front of a white wall. It reminds me of the sound baffles by motorways. A thin and taut Japanese woman turns puts on a CD full of the tidal sounds, bird song, and directionless music favoured for massage. We follow her lead and hold our hands together in prayer position. The instructions are in Japanese. Everyone closes their eyes, and me and Brussels Glasses steal a smile at each other before taking the plunge. The instructor talks expansively over the music, and I intermittently peak out from between my eyelashes to check everyone else hasn’t moved into the bewildered yak position or similar. Eventually, we open our eyes, and begin slowly bending at the waists, backs arched, arms held in a crucifix. It feels like diving in super slow motion. Next we are made to hold the stress positions outlawed by the British military until my arms and legs are screaming. The instructor periodically calls out instructions (most of which I can understand, thanks to Judo), and yukkuri, meaning slowly. Yoga is a bit harder than we expected; it is a long hour. By the end we are drenched in sweat and my legs shake softly as I try to walk out and thank my tormentor. She sees our sorry state, and says with a smile:

 

“Did nobody tell you? This month it’s power yoga

 

No, I replied, glancing at our giggling co-workers, no they did not.

 

RIKEN’s foundation day was on Monday, and brilliantly was a holiday. After putting on my washing I packed a bag and took the train down to Kamakura, an ex-capital (almost all of Japan was capital at one point or another in its tumultuous history). In 1333 it was lost, and around 7000 Hojo people committed seppuku (a rather unpleasant Japanese hobby). All my T-shirts were in the wash, so I just wore a thin sweatshirt. The weather was unseasonably warm, so by the end of the day I was a borderline biohazard. It’s good that I went alone. Kamakura lies beside the sea, and is filled with temples (65) and shrines (15). Throughout the city steep forested hillocks burst upwards, little islands of nature above the streets. In fact these hillocks are so common that it seems more like both city and jungle patches are islands, rather than one lying within the other. This lends the place a wild and peaceful feel.

Bring on the cherry blossom

The avenue to the main Shinto temple has impressive torii and is clearly designed for cherry blossom; I’ll return in spring. The Shinto temple (Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu) has curved red bridges, prayer flags, and watercolour painters on fold out chairs. There is a gardening competition in 3x3m plots. Mosses and stone dominate, rather than flowers. Numerous sites have bloody stories. Children in traditional dress are common, and later I find that this is an aging ceremony of some form, attended when 3, 7, and 9 (I think). The place is filled with history, and peace and pigeons.

 

 

 

 

 

Kencho-Ji

Next I head to Kencho-Ji, the oldest Zen monastery in Japan. It has been a monastery almost as long as Oxford has been a university. The usual reds are absent here, instead the deep brown of ancient, woodworn beams. People stroke and pat them gently. Whilst taking a photo of a golden gate, I hear a loud manic panting, and glance up to see a Japanese man with the dimensions of an obese polar bear looking down at me. I stammer out Konichiwa, and he nods in response. I realize he wants to get past, and stagger out the way, feeling that in a wide open plaza this wasn’t really necessary. Not that I said anything. Asking for directions at another temple, I get onto a ridge walk to the Daibutsu (giant Buddha). Striding along, munching natto with chopsticks, bamboo overhead, sweating profusely, the world seems anew. After getting lost briefly, I find the bronze Daibutsu, which is extremely impressive, having being cast in the 13th century, 13 metres tall, and weighing 93 tonnes. It moved forward a metre in an historic earthquake. Flowers and incense lie before his huge folded hands. It is getting late, so I grab a green tea ice cream (a bit too sweet and floral), some taco doritoes (delicious) and get the train back home.

Big Bronze Buddha

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Earthquakes and Turbulence

Earthquakes are Difficult to Photograph. Here’s a Hibiscus.

This week, after a whirlwind relationship and a few beers, Japan took my earthquake virginity. I was peacefully lying in the hazy limbo between wakefulness and sleep when suddenly it became apparent that my bed was shaking. In the gentle insanity of such tiredness my first instinct was to look over to my bedside and tell whoever happened to be shaking my bed to stop it. Seeing no-one, my brain finally twigged that this was an earthquake. The shaking was slow, soft (but forceful), and metronomic, and wrapped up warm under the covers it seemed a rather pleasant disaster. The sensation was similar to being in hammock, swinging back and forth from a fixed point in the heavens, and almost as comforting. Then I remembered that air conditioning units can fall off walls, and drew my legs up tight to my chest, out of harm’s way, and waited for it to get worse or stop. The wait is filled with the uncomfortable sensation of true powerlessness. No one can make it stop. After an uneasy sleep, I was sitting in a lunchtime seminar about ChIP-chip (and seq) on the seventh floor of RIKEN, when the shaking resumed. There was nervous silence sprinkled with nervous laughter, and Tetsuo opened the door (if frames shift in a quake doors can be jammed shut). Height amplifies the movement through resonance. We sat with wide eyes, seeing no evidence of movement, but feeling it in our guts. Seven floors suddenly seemed a lot higher, and I was contemplating getting under my table, when the quake began to fade, and the seminar resumed as normal. A friendly plump Canadian woman at my company orientation had said with a black smile:

“They’re terrible, but you’ll get used to them”

Earthquakes (jishin) are a fact of life in Japan.  Around 40 of magnitude seven have struck in the last century, most killing a surprisingly small number of people, one killing 140,000. Many businesses express their condolences for those lost in the big one last year, and those who were here talk about it with reverence. My little brother told me a story about our old geography teacher before I left home. Our teacher is tall, a keen fellrunner, and wears very short shorts. He pointed out that if you were to plan large settlements you would avoid faultiness, floodplains, and volcanoes, then grinned and pulled down a map of Tokyo.

Sleeping Beauties

Public transport in Japan is a singularly somnambulant affair. I am typing on board an AirAsia flight to Fukouka, where I will see Lune for the first time in a month. The windows show glimpses of a cobalt blue sky striated with wisps of cirrus. These clouds are so fine that you’re obliged by literary tradition to liken them to gossamer. There are dark conifer forests on the mountains and beige settlements crowded along the arching coast. Everyone is asleep. The moment the flight began, every person on board closed their eyes and bowed their heads and have moved very little since. A few were roused by takeoff. Perhaps more (initially) unnerving is the morning commute, which is filled with sharply dressed urbanites dozing like babies, heads rolling in unison with the sway of the train. It feels almost perverse to see so many strangers so vulnerable.

Go Ahead Madeline, Drop Your Hat, You’re in Tokyo

In my first week, Bundesliga told me over lunch that train enthusiasts in Japan are even more extreme than those in Europe. Not content with merely spotting trains, many can be seen with expensive directional microphones, recording the tone, timbre, and cadence of approaching locomotives. In addition, they record the station jingles, which are played every time a train arrives or leaves at a station. You can buy compilations of jingles for different regions in CD shops. Each station on the major lines has its own unique jingle, and after hearing this I begin paying attention to those on my commute. Oomori (my home station) has a short light hearted tune, which already feels comforting and homely. Kamata has an eerie refrain in a minor key which reminds me of abandoned fairgrounds and horror films. Commuters tune in to the jingles relevant to them, so when we stop in Kawasaki, by the jingle’s third note half of the carriage has roused, blinked heavily, and started for the door. The stations too are infused with a relaxed sleepiness; huge queues build up, but only for the stationary side of the escalator. Almost no-one takes the stairs. It feels as if everyone is trying desperately to recharge their batteries just a little more before the long day at work. It also imparts a strange feeling of community, especially when you follow suit, through the sharing with everyone what we normally reserve for friends and lovers. I can see the dark mountain ridges of Shikoku to my right, slicing up through the soft white of mist and the harsh black of my neighbours hanging fringe.

Pokemon Trainers

The Japanese work ethic is that of the paddy field (to paraphrase Lune). Many do not take their allocated paid holidays, and there are announcements to encourage employees to leave work on time. Despite, or maybe because of this, there is a panoply of national holidays in aid of a diversity of causes. On Monday it was sports day, designed to promote exercise and well-being, through the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of closing most clubs and gyms. There are however large organised events, often put on by schools, which you can watch and sometimes take part in. Lune’s school practiced for weeks, with a dress rehearsal before the big day. The kids wore cute boxy white hats and jogged on the spot in blue polo tops, while Lune and co kept an eye out for dropped caps. Sports day was created after the Tokyo Olympics, so I’m hopeful that London 2012 may have the same effect. Not knowing the events in my area, I go for a run around the Kawsai Steel Circuit in my local park, consisting of a number of exercise stations dotted around a short run. A gang of kids playing Pokemon cards at a picnic table talk excitedly about their little war. As ever, there is a baseball game, and in honour of sports day I stop to watch and take photos. The kids are as thin and fast as whippets, or stocky power hitters.

I run onward, past a car park with lifts to save space, similar to those that can be seen beside many private residences. Multistorey car parks near stations are human free: you leave your car on a circular pad, take a ticket, and leave. The car is then mechanically filed into a  tall compact tower, only to be retreived when you return your ticket. Welcome to the future. There is a flea market under the second level of another carpark; the harsh midday light is cut into grids by the metal above. Everything from pokemon cards to ‘antique’ pottery is on sale, but lacking a wallet I jog on. The next park was built to serve the community by the neighbouring racecourse, as gambling establishments must give something back to the community. When I heard this from May a few weeks ago I asked what all the Pachinko places did. These are slot and games arcades which invariably have very loud flashing lights and music. She said with a little laugh

Pachinko isn’t gambling”

Then smiled and added

“well, not really…”

No, Really

The park borders a river, and many people are perching on the boulders along the shore, fishing under an odd golden sculpture of a woman riding a goose through a hoop. I get a strange fear whenever walking near fishermen that a hook will catch my cheek when they cast. There are sonorous plops every second or so, and assume that it is the floats of lines hitting the water. Actually, the carp in the river are jumping gracefully out of the water like dolphins,promptly remembering that they are carp, and re-entering like bricks. I fail to think of a reason why the whole river is filled with jumping fish,  shake my head, and move on. There is a nature trail in the park, and a bird hide beside a kidney shaped lagoon lined with tall reeds, where egrets, bitterns, and a heron are fishing. It is an oasis filled with birdsong and the low-frequency hum of heavy traffic.

Gone Fishin’

The plane is now in a steep descent and banking left, which is very unsettling. People are even waking up. The wings tug at the fuselage as they flex up and down in the strain. It is the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. The plane finally levels out, and the clouds below are ruffled and lit so brightly that their edges look dark. Their outlines look like the cover of Unknown Pleasures. We slip below the clouds and there is the grey sea, and a curtain of lancing sunlight between us and more sharp mountains in the distance. We are soon in a clear patch, and there is the unusual sensation of seeing a cloud layer at eye level and the earth far below. An airport in a perfect rectangle of reclaimed land is linked by bridge to terra firma.

Fukuoka airport is a naked rectangle shaved into the city’s tower blocks, and bordered with a three-storey turquoise highway. It reminds me of the partially shorn heads of teenagers at house parties. In arrivals Lune is bent over her homework, and I almost feel guilty for disturbing her. There is an enormous feeling of relief when reuniting with someone you have missed so sorely. We chat and giggle and take trains back to her suburb. One of the trains has switchable backrests so you can arrange seats to face forwards or backwards. The most striking thing about Fukuoka is how spacious it feels. The sky is clear with a scraping of high cloud that makes it look far higher than when clear. Pavements are noticeable emptier. Stations aren’t fused into department stores. We take the strangely upright bikes from Lune’s scholarship (she’s learning Japanese) along a narrow meandering road through a series of small paddy fields. People beneath traditional conical straw hats chug along on top of strange modern cubic harvesters.

Rice and Lune

The scholars hail from Oxbridge, and are housed in Cambridge House (a minor PR coup, I’m sure). It looks like a typical university accommodation building. Atypically it has an airy atrium and a central court where a large number of European style statues stand in a dull brown pond. There is a Yakult factory over the road. Cambridge House’s corridors are three metres  wide, and the scholar’s floor is enormous (by Japanese and university standards), but half empty. In fact, the whole building feels eerie and deserted. Around half of it is uninhabited. We eat in the canteen, which is decorated like a diner and packed with empty tables. The food is passable, and there is always a vegetarian option. The scholars seem friendly, and later we head to their local Izakaya. It has low tables, cushions to kneel briefly and then sit on, and your first drink for 100¥. We pass around our Japanese drinks, and I sample both the earthy shochu and the deliciously sickly umeshu (plum liquor). My Highball (whiskey and soda), the self-proclaimed drink of the moment in Tokyo, is an abject disappointment. Me and Lune decline an invitation to an all you can drink event in favour of a bad action film and too many snacks.

The return flight was much gloomier than the flight out, and I sat reading the sordid USADA report on LA, surrounded by the sleeping masses, wishing that I didn’t have to leave.

A View from Cambridge House

Imported word of the week: mineraru wohtah

Word of the week: Wakarimasen (I don’t understand)

Kanji of the week: A double, because together they’re neat and poetic

Tsuji, meaning moon, or gatsu, meaning month

Taiyou, for sun, or nichi, for day

Product of the week: ANTI CAT MATS

Don’t Cat, Just Don’t

Amazing Views, Asakusa, and Raw Eggs for Breakfast

The weather after a typhoon is usually very clear, and the sky is blue this morning. I realize I have left my electric toothbrush charger in the UK. At work I immediately head up to the ninth floor to see Fuji-san. He is, of course, splendid, and his peak rises above the distant clouds. Work is empty as most people got a day off for helping at the open day. I leave early: the sky is so clear that it would be madness of near-Spartan proportions not to go to Landmark tower, the tallest building in Yokohama. It’s soon clear that even with Japan’s public transport I won’t make it in time for sunset, but I comfort myself with the thought of the city lights by night. It has the fastest lift in Japan up to the top floor, with a top speed of 750m/minute. The guide recites a perfectly timed talk about the tower as my ears pop uncomfortably, and in 40 seconds we reach the observation deck. As we emerge I gasp.

Wheel Nice

There’s something profound about seeing a landscape completely subverted by man. The Tokyo conurbation is the largest metropolis on earth. Cities stretch out towards the horizon in every direction. Even the ocean is fractured by huge suspension bridges spanning the bay. It is difficult to accept that this huge, impossibly complex, mesmerically complex, concrete land was built by man. Angles and lines and planes and polyhedra weave in and out of each other, frozen in frenzy, refracting and colliding and collapsing while stilled. Buildings are softly lit pale green and deep amber by fluorescent lights in that diffuse way that makes air look empty. Think the LA sky shots in Collateral. The ember of the city light makes the sea appear black by contrast, except where the full moon throws a silver-orange streak towards us. The landscape coruscates incessantly. Cars blinking into view, beacons throbbing on skyscapers, the tail lights of planes, all pulsing endlessly. A million beating hearts. It is achingly beautiful and mind-boggling and depressing all at once.

Man

The observation deck is lit, which is frustrating for photos. The music perfectly complements the view: relaxed, melancholic trip-hop, reminiscent of Portishead, fills the air with whines and empty echoes. My portable tripod (courtesy of Lune) comes in handy, but I have to zoom in on the landscape to avoid reflections. I’m wondering what gear you’d need for really great photos from here, whereupon three locals produce heavy tripods and large canvas lens guards to block the reflections. At least I know for next time. There is an expensive bar up here, and I’m almost tempted by a coffee looking out on the glow. Back on the ground I take a photo of a ferris wheel and an old boat in a drydock, together with the moon. It’s a wonderful place for pictures; (almost) all you have to do is turn up.

MM21 Drydock

Cueball is Polish, very cheerful,  and moved to our floor yesterday. He is a bioinformatician working at RIKEN like me, so I offer to show him the way to work (feeling like quite an old hand). He calls bioinformatics black biology, lab work white biology, and the rest green. One of his friends dyed his labcoat black as a graduation present. We get the train and chat about Japan, Denmark, and New York, where he graduated and worked respectively. Like me, he finds the banking system in Japan is remarkably backwards considering how advanced the rest of the country is. Of course, this may just be because they’ve decided not to let banks run amok.

This week I received a letter written entirely in kanji. New scripts are daunting, even when phonetic – like the hiragana or katakana, but symbolic scripts are whole different kettle of undiscovered fish. I feel like a young boy looking up at a huge unconquerable mountain, still trying to figure out how to go about climbing. It’s actually quite illogical to be so disquieted (in my case at least) by not being able to read something. With my Japanese at a very low level, it’s certain I would be able to understand almost none of it. But somehow it’s comforting to be able to read a text, even if it’s as sensical to you as Finnegan’s Wake. I think maybe it’s something to do with how we view reading. Reading is a very human skill, and the keystone of humanity’s collective knowledge, which is what makes us so powerful. I feel embarrassed, neutered, and less human without it. Though learning symbols is good fun. All I can make out on the letter is 49, 000¥. All in all (probably) not good news.

Food

Miruku Kuremas

In the hyaku yen shoppu I found my new snack, Miruku Kuremus (milk creams). They are discs of a substance that tastes of cinnamon grahams, flecked with a white icing which is presumably meant to resemble cream. It doesn’t. The next morning I have run out of bananas, so try a traditional Japanese breakfast, called tamago kake gohan (egg sauce over rice), or tamago bukkake gohan (egg sauce splashed over rice). I prefer the first name. To make it you will need 1 steaming hot portion of rice, a teaspoon of soy sauce, and 2 raw eggs. Take your ingredients, mix them all together vigourously with chopsticks, and dig in. My first impression was mainly of disgust at the slick sliminess of the raw egg, but after a few mouthfuls it began to taste OK. Possibly not worth a bout of salmonella. However, talking about my tamago kake gohan (or TKG, to young people ) over lunch, I find out that salmonella is essentially absent in Japan, and consequently have TKG much more for breakfast. I tried onigiri (rice balls) for the first time, but found that the nori it was wrapped in tasted a little fishy for my liking. Soon I will make some myself, perhaps without the seaweed (don’t tell anyone or I may get deported).

Weekend

After last week’s scheduling debacle (I turned up for a festival a week late), I made sure that I was hyperpunctual on Saturday. Sakura House were holding a free tour of Asakusa, followed by a sushi party. A quick jog and some quicker trains got me to the meeting point early. Regrettably, it was a week early, and I wandered away dazed, scratching my head, and wondering if a 21 year old can suffer from Alzheimers. The tour was meant to be of Senso-Ji, one of Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temples, so I head there anyway. A daylight zombie stumbles past, jabbering frantically, with black lines of dried blood or noodle juice around his contorting mouth. The road leading to the temple is long, thin, and sticky with sugar and sweat. More like tourist flypaper than trap. Fake autumnal Acer leaves glint in the bright sunlight, and I watch a man making temple-shaped cakes by piping two different dough mixes into a mould, then places the mould into a coal fire. It seems very rustic, and the next stall responds with a steam-powered cake making machine, churning out similar treats in plastic packaging, which looks stolen from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Thundergate (not a scandal involving Thor)

A huge blood red gate, the Kaminarimon, guards the entrance to the temple plaza, and a huge paper lantern painted black and red, hangs from the transom. The lantern represents Fujin and Raijin, the Shinto gods of thunder and lightning. Two straw sandals weighing 2.5 tons each hang either side of the arch. The temple grounds are a sort of religious amusement park, just as busy, and filled with small Buddhist and Shinto shrines and relics that are dotted around petite gardens. The Japanese typically follow a syncretism of Buddhism and Shinto, illustrating a tolerance most Western religions lack. The whole area is soundtracked with the clinking of coins. Every shrine has a collection box, and people pay before bowing their heads. The main temple, Senso Ji, was built to the Edo style, with the archetypical red paint and curving roofs that make them look like capsized boats to me. Inside there are goddesses and dragons on the ceiling, a huge golden structure which holds an image too sacred to be seen, and ranks of bowing people. Coins arc over their heads to fall loudly into a 3 metre square collecting table. A jogger comes up the steps and bows whilst bouncing. Some twanging Americans walk past a no entry sign. In front of the temple there is a fountain with dragon heads spouting water topped with a bronze samurai. People use tin cups on sticks to take water, wash their hand, then use this hand to transfer water to their mouth. The drinkers just outnumber the photographers.

Senso Ji

Poor Minnie

A large cauldron filled with ash holds incense bundles and consequently belches out fragrant blue smoke into the bright midday sun. The ash is from thousands of previous sticks. Foundations of past fires. Worshippers come near to waft and rub the smoke over their bodies. Little kids get excited, peek over the cauldron edge, and are sent spluttering and blinking by a wave of smoke. Asakusa seems to be a well-preserved little corner of Tokyo, with traditional wood fronted low buildings which house people, dusty grocery stores, and smokey izakaya with all manner of charred fish on show. The strange thing is that almost nothing in this district is more than 50 years old. The main shrines all date from the 50s and 60s, reconstructed above the ashes. This entire section of the city burned in what was probably the largest civilian slaughter in human history, Operation Meetinghouse. A general trying to get results and retain control of a long range B29 bomber squadron switched from precision strikes on manufacturing centres to the incineration of the residential areas surrounding them. The traditional paper and wood homes caught well, and the shrieking firestorm burnt through 16 square miles of city with a population density of 103,000 people per square mile. The Tokyo police official casualty report of 125,000 was probably far too low. I didn’t know about this until three days ago, and felt guilty. The other huge bombings (Dresden, Hiroshima, Coventry, Hamburg, etc. etc. etc.) are infamous, but I had never heard about Tokyo. Destroyed not by cutting edge technology and relativity, but fire. Mindless primeval fire. The incense seems more poignant now.

My first attempt to join a Judo club was thwarted because they didn’t accept foreigners, but a Brazilian workmate, Pele, told me that he trains at a Budokan (martial arts centre) in northern Yokohama. On the way I finish The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is well written and warming, with some social commentary to boot. Reassuringly, it seems kids haven’t changed much in the past 150 years. The Budokan is evocative. It has a pebble garden outside: small stones raked into concentric circles and multi-layered waves, passing and surrounding large rocks. After bowing on entry, you change your shoes for sandals, and walk pass multiple large halls filled with mats and often small armies practising in unison. I take a wrong turn and stumble across Kyudo (Japanese archery), where about 15 people in traditional dress with enormous bows are firing across a dark garden courtyard into illuminated targets on the far side. The Judo dojo is a shade smaller than a football pitch, and peopled by about 50 black belts. It’s going to be a long night. Thankfully, the senseis are very friendly, and most speak a little English. To cut a long story short, over the next two hours I gained a lot of knowledge, lost a lot of skin, and hit the deck repeatedly. They are invariably impressively skilful, and twice I have the surreal experience of hitting the floor before realizing that my opponent has made an attack. Character-forming stuff.

Fried Chickenisha

Eureka texts to invite me to Octoberfest in Yokohama on Sunday afternoon, and after assessing my depressing financial situation I decide to go. She is with a group of other Oxford students on the Japanese course (they live in Japan for a year), and a couple of Japanese students who were learning English in Oxford last year. Most seem to have jobs to do with translation (or international communications, to use the proper title), and are a friendly bunch. Yokohama Octoberfest takes place on a pier between two European style redbrick buildings, which are now used as exhibition spaces, in a large marque filled with drunks, novelty hats, and currywurst.

Punk beats down on bollard

A squatting man in a fishing hat munches on a whole chicken, and a baby cries from its father’s arm, who is more concerned about downing his pint. Japanese girls are dressed as whatever the politically correct term for German wenches is, and some of the men have Lederhosen. Long tables are stuffed, and singing breaks out regularly. A bandstand in the middle hosts dancers and bands periodically. The beer is imported from Germany, and the MOST EXPENSIVE BEER OF MY LIFE (a steal at £13). It’s remarkably easy to limit myself to one. We sit on the pavement by the sea, and comment on the refreshing space and air. There is a harp-albatross statue and bollards to vault nearby.

Everyone needs an Albatross Harp

Import of the Week: hedo raito (headlight)   Similarity of the Week: KFC and McDonalds are still everywhere   Difference of the Week: EVERYONE GETS CHRISTMAS DINNER FROM KFC!! In literally one of the greatest things ever to happen (in the pantheon alongside the making of The Core and Foreigner) KFC ran an ad campaign in the 70s to promote KFC for christmas. Now 24th of December is by far KFC’s busiest day in Japan, with people queuing outside and making reservations! 

Product of the Week: When a boy at church, I used to try and make my communion grape last as long as possible, by skinning it then eating the flesh. I didn’t dare to dream someone would sell these ready-made. Bird of the Week: Eurasian Bittern, not a bad spot in central Tokyo

Bihru o onegai shimasu

 

(A beer please)

24/09/2012

The mornings are getting harder once more. Kome to banana (to means and) for breakfast, and S. I try to deposit money into my bank account using the family mart ATM, but cannot read Japanese. I need money in my account to buy a plane ticket to see S, and I’d like to do it today. At lunch there is tofu burger with sesame ketchup, which is absolutely delicious. Natto is a Japanese dish made using fermented soybeans, and is an acquired taste. The table is delighted that I’m trying it, and A takes a photo of my first bite to send around the office. It is almost like marmite but with a bitter, almost chemical aftertaste. It’s not awful, but not delicious either. The most unpleasant thing about eating natto are the mucosal strands that stretch out like lines of noxious mozzarella with every movement. As I eat, these are blown across me towards M, and I worry that I am causing serious offence. Eventually I work out that sucking the ohashi during a mouthful stops the strands. The use of ohashi is governed by an enormous number of rules, and I worry that I am breaking several… After research I can’t find a rule against sucking sticks, but I found that it is a serious offence to pour soy onto rice, a common habit of mine thus far.

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Room with a View

The view from our building in RIKEN is fantastic. A road leads the eye between industrial buildings overrun with vegetation to the docklands, which are covered in enormous red cranes, gargantuous and alien. Amongst them thin grey chimneys pump fumes, and the grey of mountains is visible on the horizon. Today the light is perfect, and golden, so I pull out my camera and rue leaving my memory card at home. The bus home is cramped, but silent except for the sounds of the engine and the squeaking of handstraps. It is dark by six here. We stop at lights, and a boy outside seems to be practicing his golf swing in a parking space, with one space between him and the wall. I look for a ball, but it seems to be absent, and the bus pulls away on his backswing.

The seven eleven ATM is navigable without knowledge of Japanese (though it is in Japanese mostly), and my yen are safe. The next 3 hours are spent filled with frustration and worry, as I try to book flights with my Japanese card, fail, and in desperation further deepen my overdraft in England. Cooking with Indian S we talk about many things. He asks about the physique of British people (many are fat S), and I ask about arranged marriage. His son is 9 months old, and I make him laugh by saying he’s missing the tricky part. He tells me that the baby comes onto Skype and mashes the keyboard, smiling deeply. We share tea and chocolate biscuits, and the chirpy B joins in.

25/09/2012

The phone alarm only wakes me on snooze today; I foolishly left it in the ‘manner’ mode intended for work and public transport-it is rude to talk on the phone on trains or buses. It is considered perfectly acceptable to sleep or watch TV or text. Japanese phones typically have a camera and a TV function, and I couldn’t find one for less than £70. They use phone E-mail instead of text, for a flat rate of £3 per month. The shower is engaged, and luckily I have only done 30 press-ups (an inauspicious start to my new exercise regime) by the time I realise this. Water slicks the fluffy hairs down.

Dinner was interesting. Not the food (reheated beansprouts and peppers, seeing as you asked), but the conversation. S was arguing that a marriage cannot be truly happy unless both participants are from the some culture, or at least the same continent. My liberal sensibilities are rankled slightly but N disagrees very strongly and says so. My opinion is asked and I say that I think that it depends on the culture, with some being neophilic or neophobic, and some being particularly compatible (or not). I think that there is not an absolute barrier, but S correctly makes the point that there may be misunderstandings, and perhaps social stigma (as in India, which I verify with S), which would make a successful marriage less likely. We all agree to disagree (S thinking that love can’t find a way, N thinking that it always can, and me saying myeeehh from the fence). The best thing about living in this shared accommodation is the variety of people you meet, and consequently the variety of opinions you encounter in conversation. You cannot test your beliefs unless they are challenged.

26/09/2012

The afternoon is spent reading an extended document is gibberish legalese, with gems such as: If the prohibited article falls under the proviso set forward in paragraph seven subparagraph four, then the form AP3 (appendix 3.2) should be completed and sent to the relevant minister. I nearly finish it, but at 5:10 the PA comes on to announce: “The management reminds employees that they should leave work on time, unless participating in a critical project”, at which point most people leave the building. Busy bees. The sunset is reasonable, so I head down to the Tsurumi river to take some photos. On the way, a security guard (with the white gloves of all security staff in Japan) smiles, and proceeds in front of me. At intervals he points at doors, and initially I think he is try to direct me to me destination (I must look lost). Soon I realise that he is also pointing at windows too, and continues once I branch off from him. Possibly checking exit points? The bus back is as packed as a bento lunch box, and I resolve to wait for the next one, but the driver beckons me on and I half-sit in the lap of an elderly Japanese gentleman, trying hard not to bump him too hard.

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Tsurumi at Sunset

27/09/12

Lunch is very tasty, with sushi rice wrapped in tofu and deep fried, which has the consistency of a chocolate éclair but tastes sweet and wholesome. B was holidaying in Belgium and Italy, where he visited a wedding. My mind is filled with memories of the godfather as he describes the banquet (shortened to 6 courses instead of the traditional 16) and dancing. Someone played a joke on the Belgium entourage by telling them it was Italian tradition to take something from the wedding when you leave, whether it is a chair, tablecloth, or bottle of wine. Once drunk, the Belgiums realised that they were not taking part in the local customs, so promptly stripped ten tablecloths and walked out of the venue. The security guard was a little bemused, and soon had his hands full of apologies and crumpled tablecloth. S, a colleague, is getting married in November, so will be making important decisions at the weekend. Japanese weddings can be traditional or Western. Some people even have both on the same day, with a costume change between ceremonies. S is having a Western wedding (sadly, I missed most of the details of a traditional one), and it sounds as if K (the boss) will be giving a speech. She also gave a speech at A’s wedding (6 months after they met), which makes me think that perhaps this is a Japanese custom, to be praised by your boss at your wedding. It would fit the psyche I think. We tease S about honeymoon options then get back to work.

At the end of the day I notice that the light is golden. The West end of the ninth floor has an excellent view. The rippled grey, now fringed in gold, of the Tsurumi river runs perpendicular to the viewer, and on the other side is Yokohama. Dark docks and red cranes give way to tower blocks, a wind turbine, and MM21, Yokohama’s response to the spires of Tokyo. Behind is a short plain which leads to a mountain range. Today there is huge shadow visible, pale with sunlight and distance, behind this range. Its left hand side curves lazily up into the clouds. It is as if a god has placed his own mountain to compete with the human ones surrounding it. Fuji-san. The preceding peaks are not just dwarfed, but obliterated, mentally dismissed as mere foothills. Fuji-san simply looks too huge to be real, like a template cut out and pasted onto the horizon. I can only see the lower left corner. I will climb it.

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Fuji’s Flank (In the Distance)

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Yummy

At the bus stop a man who had joined our conversation at lunch asks if I want to go to a Brazilian bar. F is a Mexican who works in NMR and has been here just under three years. At the other end we meet J, a Brazilian-born Japanese man who moved here two years ago, who has very impressive ginger sideburns. The bar is small but homely and J evidently knows the landlady very well, chatting away in a bizarre mixture of Spanish and Japanese. Me and J drink beer, which has ice in the bottom of the glass. It is a large piece of ice, and small shards elevate intermittently, spiralling upwards through the bubbles. The food is delicious, and I feel guilty because they order a number of vegetarian dishes (there aren’t many Brazilian meat free dishes). Palmito (palm hearts soaked in vinegar) is particularly tasty, and J offers to show me where to buy it. I feel embarrassed when we leave as there are no ATMs nearby and F tells me that it’s his treat. On the way back to the bus stop, J points out my palmito shop. It has a bright yellow sign and the most repulsive tagline on earth. Tucano: Discount World Meat.

28/09/12

After work me and T (from the lab next door) return to language class. It’s similar to last week, but S (Filipino) brings some oreos for everyone, which is kind of him. There are far too many, so during our individual discussions each pair has a pack to chew through. My partner is a woman of about 50, and is delighted by the cookies. Every time she eats one she says “oishi!” (delicious), then opens her mouth a small amount and touches the cookie to her tongue. Then she turns around, puts the entire thing in her mouth, and turns back, grinning and chewing. Maybe it’s a custom.

At the base of the escalator awaits C, B, T (German from a PHB lab) and an African guy with a Japanese wife who lives in Fukuoka. I’ve forgotten his name. We head to my first Izakaya. Izakaya are Japanese bars which serve cheap beer and small food dishes, and are popular with pretty much everyone from what I can gather. Typically, they are traditionally decorated, a bit dingy, and have lots of hollows and rooms to hide away in. We are going to a chain Izakaya, which on the downside is starkly lit, airy, and about as traditional as Tesco’s sushi. On the upside, it is very cheap. Some drunk girls head in before us and one of them hurts her foot by opening the door into it, hard. On the tables there are stands for ipad like devices, with which you can order beer, spirits, and food.  Very convenient and not handing over money at the bar probably makes you drink more. The food is unhealthy but good, deep fried mochi sprinkled with cheese being my favourite

29/09/2012

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Riken Mascots

RIKEN’s open day is much like that of a university: busy, and covered with helpful signs and flashy demonstrations which convey little about daily life at the institute. It is a lot of fun however, and I do lots of activities aimed below my age group, including decorating a bag with leaves. There are thousands of people here, and I’m amazed at how engaged the public are, little kids wander around with helium (tut tut) balloons with ATGC printed on them. Some people from the office are in, and I snap Tetsuya whilst he helps a young girl. He snaps me in response while I’m plating out Antirrhinum seeds on agar for fun. The NMR ring was interesting, and I wished that I could have read the signs. Being Japan, there are two mascots outside, one a crocodile (later I find that this is a symbol of Tsurumi), and one a man with a large wedge of cheese for a head (?).

The sight of cheese (albeit on a sweating man’s head) sets off heavy dairy cravings. I haven’t had any for two weeks. Now however, my body is demanding cheese, so I take the bus to Tsurumi station and buy a cheese bun. Then go to a bakery. The items look similar to western bakery items, except burgers are sold there, as well as baguettes filled with noodles. You pick up a tray and tongs, then bring your selection to the till. My selection is another large bun filled with cheese. It’s good.

Later I’m invited to Yokohama to watch Arsenal Vs Chelsea in Yokohama, so meet T and B at Yokohama station, which is another sprawling station that feels like a department store. We head to the Hub, a pub, and on the way I see what I think is my first Yakuza. He’s snappily dressed with his hair gelled back (as is their style), and walking down the middle of the road as if he owns the town, which he may well do. The hub is wood panelled and busy, with smoke thick in the air. It is filled with Gaijin and a few Japanese people. I am reminded of a dockside inn from the middle ages, stuffed with grizzled sea dogs far from home. Although in place of sea dogs there are English teachers, businessmen, and muscular tattooed black men form the nearby US naval base.  We drink and chat through the football, and afterwards C arrives, leading to more drinking. We talk to a Japanese singer songwriter who has been sitting alone and demolishing spirits for the past hour. She lived in America for five year and apparently feels more comfortable speaking English, but has a paper crane tattooed on her arm. She lives with her parents and writes music for corporations, but is adamant that they are not jingles. I suppose if I supported my artistic endeavours by writing pieces I didn’t believe in I wouldn’t want them called jingles either.

The last train home is at 00:40, and we pile on cheerfully, along with the drunks and dishevelled businessmen (often one and the same). It turns out the last train home terminates before my stop, so I have a 3km run or expensive taxi home. At 1am I study the street map outside Kamata station and set off. It’s a simple route down a main road, but the road is long. Time seems to be slowing and speeding as I sweat through my clothes. The roads are almost empty, as are the 24 hour Konbinis, and the streetlamps seem to stretch on forever. Streets either side are straight and stretch out into inky darkness. Eventually I reach Omori, from an unexpected direction, and jump thankfully into bed.

30/09/2012

I sleep through my alarm, probably due to my late night exertions, and call S. Sakura House (the company I rent from) has invited its residents to carry a float in a Mikoshi Matsuri, a festival which transports a Shinto god. Japan has myriad matsuris, although I’m yet to see one. The penis based fertility of Kawasaki is firmly in my diary. It’s too late for the morning session, so I make a large brunch and set off. The Yamonote line is the most important in Tokyo, and encircles the centre of the metropolis. It is packed tightly enough for me to write letters whilst standing up, as the swaying of the train is buffered by about a hundred people. It dawns on me that I don’t know exactly how to get to Hatagaya, as the stop isn’t on the JR map (Tokyo has two public train systems, each more complex than the tube, the JR and the subway), just that it is near Shinjuku. I disembark at Shibuya on a whim to look for information. The connection is at Shinjuku, and soon I am entering the Keio line, a normal train line which has five grades of train (special express, express, limited, etc) stopping at different combinations of stations. There is a local train heading in the right direction, and the schematic shows that local trains both do and do not go to Hatagaya. I have five minutes to get there, and the train’s stops are only displayed in kanji, so I panic and get on. The doors shut and the train whizzes past Hatagaya without stopping. I’m now 15 minutes late and waiting for a train back to Hatagaya, having learnt the kanji for it. Once at Hatagaya, my directions are hastily written and unhelpful. After a long walk and 30 minutes I arrive at the Sakura Hotel reception, apologize for my tardiness and ask where the matsuri is. One week ago, as it happens.

Hatagaya is not featured in my guidebook, but in the name of exploration and stress relief I wander around aimlessly, getting a feel for the place. The main street is perpetually gloomy as train lines above occlude the sky, despite all the bright signs and flashing lights jostling the eye. It seems to me that in Tokyo the area around stations is invariably bustling, bright, with perpetual traffic. A few hundred yards away from these nexuses however, and you could be in some small provincial town. A tree lined avenue leads me to a backstreet, made up of rickety houses with traditional decorations. I take a photo of a wooden blind and a red token, then move on quickly as the wizened man behind me walks past and unlocks the door. In the distance I can see a tall green net, and can think of nothing to explain it but the tropical bird enclosures of zoos. The street along one side of it contains houses, and garden shrines, including the beautiful Buddhist one pictured. There is a strange percussive sound in the air. I round the corner expecting hornbills, and am surprised by an urban driving range and business men smashing balls into the air only to have them stopped by a net. This walk is now enjoyable; the air is filled with possibilities. It seems that anything could lie behind every corner, and little gems wink out at me. A sausage dog lying exhausted in the sun. Children finger painting under a tarpaulin. Vegetables growing out the dark earth of an unused plot. Another shrine, with red curving gates rubs shoulders with a multi-storey car park. I return to the station rested, and buy cheese and egg on toast from a bakery.

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Hatagaya Football

Next are Shinjuku Goen (gardens), the largest in Tokyo. It has a European and a Japanese area, and I head for the latter, passing redwoods and a couple being photographed in the dappled afternoon light. The municipal tower is ever present amongst and above the trees. I see a Japanese giant hornet for the first time: it looks like a cherry chapstick with wings and a large sting. It is refreshing to see something constructed to an aesthetic ideal to which you are not accustomed. I feel the same looking across this garden as I did within the Arabic architecture of the Alhambra. The garden seems to flow, with curved lake edges, gently undulating grass, and no flat land. Large Koi gasp around the lake, dorsal fins leaving trails in the water, and bridges ferry couples over water and under willow. The number of Acers suggests it will be even more beautiful when autumn shows. Walking alongside the lake leads to a teahouse in the centre of it, accessible by bridges and nestled in trees. Looks expensive. I sit and read briefly, then feel the wind rising. A typhoon is coming tonight, and I need to get home before the trains are stopped by it, so I get going. The rain seems to be following me, arriving at stations momentarily after the train, and soon I’m back in my room with barely a wet hair to show for it, as the wind begins to howl.

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Teahouse

Kanji of the Week:     Mori, meaning and looking like a forest.

Similarity of the Week: Everyone still stands still on the left of escalators.

Difference of the Week: Many escalators are activated by pressure pads to save power

Bird of the Week: The charming varied tit

p.s. Apologies for the length, next week WILL be shorter….