Train Rides and Suicides

The first 4 paragraphs of this are not particularly cheery, so be warned (or skip them).

A Different Train

A Different Train

Today our train killed someone. There was a horn blast and a juddering as the emergency brakes kicked in. We were one carriage from the front but there was no sound, no clunk, which I had always imagined when thinking about trains hitting people. Up until this point it hadn’t really registered that I’d thought of it. The front two carriages came to a rest at the platform of Oimachi station. Everyone continued to look tired and bored; the girl opposite was still gurning, asleep, with her head lolling at 90 degrees. A couple of minutes passed with hurried PA announcements and the thin hope that we’d stopped in time. I and two gaijin colleagues sat quietly, waiting. We knew, but didn’t want to say it out loud. Reluctantly I asked N-san to translate what was going on: “an accident”. People on the platform began crowding towards the front of the train, and some on the train did likewise. A teenage baseball team in matching blue tracksuits began to point from the platform at something underneath us. Others peered too, hands pressed to mouths, iPhones up. It was uncomfortable to think about what could be beneath us. A body? An arm? A splatter of blood on the silver train? Sirens wailed and coalesced. A fireman in powder blue overalls ran past trailing yellow tape with kanji.

Unrelated Geometry

Unrelated Geometry

Soon they opened the doors of the front carriage and we began filing out. There was a black shoulder bag on the floor of the platform just outside the doors. My mind raced to sketch out the lonely salaryman stereotype that couldn’t bear another Monday. The truth is I don’t know who died, if they were male or female, old or young. Hell, it might have actually been an accident. But it probably wasn’t. I don’t know what horrors lay under carriage two, or what the corpse they dragged out looked like. What does a train do to a human? The imagination provides when the eyes lack. We didn’t want to see, but there were plenty who did. A crowd were arced around the front of the train, while fireman carried a silver ladder and an orange stretcher towards it. Too many people were watching. On the street above the tracks was an unbroken line of black silhouettes, dotted with facemasks, looking down on the scene. “Drawn by the dread of it” jumps out from a poem in my English GCSE. The lights on the train shut off.

Grid

Grid

We are quiet and inane and unsure of what to do, standing on the platform well back from the crowd. The rescuers unfold a white sheet and a large green plastic screen, and we head upstairs to avoid what so many are waiting to see. A train delivers more spectators to the opposite platform, and doesn’t leave the station. We need to get the next train on this line, and I feel guilty for thinking about how to get home. Overly sweet vending machine coffee is comforting, and B-san asks why the hell don’t they evacuate the platform. Good point. We wait upstairs, not really talking. There doesn’t seem to be much to say, and talking about other things feels like a slight. A-san needs to get to Yokohama to meet a phoneless friend, so grabs a rice ball and heads back down to get on the train heading in the opposite direction. Shortly after, a member of staff blocks people from going down to the platform, at last, and needs answer a large number of questions before people heading downstairs accept this. His snatches of Japanese reveal that the platform is closed so the police can take photos, rather than because someone has died.

The escalator re-opens and we descend to see our train rolling forward, lights on once more. It becomes clear that many people stayed sat on the train to wait out the ‘delay’. This confuses me because I assume the train has to be taken out of service. The train stops once completely in the station, I assume to let out those who wanted to sit on the train… but then people begin getting on again, as the firemen hold up the yellow tape. We look at each other, dumbstruck, and walk parallel to the train for a few carriages (ignoring those peering at the newly cleared track at the site of the collision), before I suggest getting on. It feels wrong to duck under that tape and get back on the same train. The door closes, and the train continues just as before. The PA tells us that the train will be terminating early, and I think good. The rate of suicide in Japan is pretty high, but dropped below 30,000 per year in 2012. 2,000 a year die in front of trains. I’m not going to say what I think about suicide other than it makes me angry.

Pikachu Board

Pikachu Board

Yukatas!

Yukatas!

Before this horrible experience we had the laboratory ski trip to Manza, another ski resort close to a volcano with sulphurous springs. Our hotel seemed to be straight out of a horror film, and designed by someone with very little understanding of, well, anything. Each floor was offset from its neighbours, seemingly by a random distance in a random direction each time. As a result, you had to go up and across on almost every floor (rather than going straight up to floor six, for example) to get to the next one. Architectural grumbles aside, the accommodation was reasonable and the food extremely good. A buffet for breakfast and dinner, and choice. It was only when I became quite stressed at having to pick between six or seven vegetarian options that I realized I hadn’t actually chosen what to eat (except when cooking), for about six months! Imagine the kingdom of heaven but with less religious fundamentalists and more coffee.

The Day with Nice (r) Weather

The Day with Nice (r) Weather

SONY DSCThe ski area was small but fine for a quick weekend, and the snow was perfectly powdered. Sadly the weather was turned up to 11, as Spinal Tap might say. Being of sound body and doubtful mind I assumed it would just be fine to turn up without goggles or sunglasses. Needless to say, after an hour or so of -18, a howling wind, and a snowstorm, I felt pretty grim. What I do need to say is that MY EYES FROZE SHUT. Repeatedly. Sort of like conjunctivitis but less yucky and more brrr. Also slightly more dangerous whilst skiing at high speeds. My eyes would water in the wind and then suddenly wouldn’t open any more. I’d reach up and tug the little chunks off my eyelashes, then see again (briefly). In a very short amount of time I decided to swallow my pride, cough up my yen, and buy some shades…

Every time I visit an onsen (hot spring) I like it more. There’s something very evocative about thick steam, rays of afternoon light, and shambling naked men. The rotemburo (outside onsen)at our hotel  was particularly good, as you could sit toasty whilst your hair froze and your face got windburn. I incorrectly assumed the balcony to this outside bath was out of public view, promptly heard the giggles of some teenage girls,  and began walking much faster. A small boy slipped whilst getting in and grabbed my manhood to steady himself. I sat there, ashamed, feeling like the negative of a catholic priest. He didn’t even look at me afterwards! The shame! Onsen water doesn’t run hot enough. Ahem.

Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo Marathon

The weather brightened up on Sunday morning, half an hour before we had to leave, giving us some great views and making the slumps of snow on the trees glisten. The conditions were perfect, and I was sad to leave, and even sadder by the end of the journey home…

Go Pikachu, I Choose You!

Go Pikachu, I Choose You!

Nasu-San!!

Nasu-San!!

This weekend I watched a huge pulsating sweaty multi-coloured worm writhing and thrashing through the streets of Tokyo. No, I didn’t watch any number of Japanese films. It was the Tokyo marathon, and I went to see the poor bastards soaking through their lycra. I want to do a marathon soon, for the record. The streets were lined with spectators yelling “gambatte” (struggle on). There was a strangely (or appropriately, I guess) martial feel to the whole thing. Tens of thousands of people, endlessly stretching out in both directions, just sweating and panting and scraping onwards towards their goal. There was a large number of pikachus, a small number of AKB48, and one man who rather brilliantly decided to dress as an aubergine. The streets rang out with “nasu-san” as he ran by. Well done that man.

Oh, I nearly forgot. Saw this in a cafe a few weeks back. Just sat by his owner. Both minding there own business. The highs and lows of Tokyo…

CAT UNDER A BLANKET IN A CAFE IN A FLORAL SHIRT READING ABOUT DINOSAURSSSSSS

CAT UNDER A BLANKET IN A CAFE IN A FLORAL SHIRT READING ABOUT DINOSAURSSSSSS

Sumo and Spa Towns

Taiko Tower

Taiko Tower

Watching sumo is like watching cargo trains crash, except the trains are made of flesh and covered with silk nappies rather than industrial waterproof paint. It is a rather unusual choice of national sport, being rather more religious than most sports, slightly more violent than a small number of religions, and far less popular than baseball. Nevertheless, it’s something you have to see whilst in Japan. As a result, me and Lune are stood, rubbing our hands and stamping our feet, at 7 30am on a Saturday morning, waiting for the cheap seats to go on sale. A taiko drummer in a tragically thin yukata pounds out a rhythm from the top of a wooden tower in honour of the coming fights. The arena is a huge rhombus balanced on its point, with the ring (dohyo) at the base, the back row of seating at its wide waist, and a seemingly needless void above that. We snacked and slept on the back row, which wasn’t as far from the ring as I’d feared. The half of the seating closest to the ring is made up of boxes, with tea and cushions for kneeling, the rest are comfortable folding seats, like those in an old theatre.

Flab and Flexibility

Flab and Flexibility

Stretching Off

Stretching Off

Bouts begin with the fighters (rikishi), climbing up onto the raised clay podium which contains the ring. This clay is dried and looks about as soft as concrete. The referee, dressed in a ceremonial kimono in the style of the Kamakura period, holds a spread fan in front of him and announces the fighters from each corner (East and West) in a wailing song, somewhat like a call to prayer. The rikishi stomp (to drive out spirits) in the corners: those who are slightly built manage to swing their legs up into the splits, while the largest fighters only manage to swing bent legs up to knee height. In higher divisions the fighters spread salt over the ring to purify it, returning multiple times in order to psyche out their opponents. This pre-match period can take up to four minutes, far longer than any bout. When ready, the wrestlers face each other, and raise and lower their fists to the ground. When all four fists are touching the ground, the bout begins, so there is an advantage to be gained by tricking your opponent. The fists swing slowly, flutter, then punch the ground.

SONY DSC

Stadium

Stadium

The wrestlers explode forwards and upwards, meeting with a slap then wrenching, driving, and slapping some more. Most bouts are done in about ten seconds, and often end with a fighter hitting the clay hard or being ejected from the platform entirely. In this case those kneeling in the front rows have to move fast or suffer embarrassing eulogies at their funerals. The most common techniques, slapping, driving and thrusting, are very common, but there are occasional moments of balletic grace that stand out. My favourite was a small rikishi who was having his right elbow forced under his body, twisting his torso clockwise. When he was about to be flipped round, his right knee bent, dropping his weight, and his right arm snapped straight, delivering a karate chop to his opponents left foot, and knocking him splay-legged to the floor. There was also amusement when wrestlers showed individuality. A second division fighter beat his chest and roared at the crowd, whilst another grabbed a huge handful of salt, and the crowd began cheering louder and louder in anticipation, cheering wildly as he unleashed a white wave across the ring and the spectators. The yokozuna (top rank) Haramafuji performed a slow motion press-up on his fists to great acclaim. He also won the tournament that day (the second last one). We had notice throughout the day that the hugest sumo were too slow and too weak (relatively speaking) to be effective, which is a little surprising given the stereotype. Haramafuji is also the lightest fighter in the top division, at a feather-like 120kgs…

Hakuho Wins a Bout

Hakuho Wins a Bout

Kusatsu is a typical alpine town that seems lost, dropped in Japan rather than Switzerland. Log cabins with snowy sloping roves jostle with those ugly multi-storey hotels which spring up everywhere. Ski-hire shops are still manned by smoking youths with long hair and low trousers. It was popularized by a German who was impressed by the quality of the hot springs, hence the continental influence. My boss (K, just like in MIB) has a holiday home in the mountains nearby, and kindly invited me and Lune to visit just after new year. We took a coach from Tokyo station and had candied sweet potatoes for lunch, which are delicious but a bit too sweet. Winding north on the mountain roads we could see an alien green river below and freakishly steep slopes above. Skeletal trees were somehow managing to keep hold, but the snow couldn’t settle on such steep ground, leaving the hills bristling and lightly dusted with white. Kusatsu is a spa town which produces copious amounts of boiling water, courtesy of the huge volcano nearby. We were reassured to hear that the last major eruption was only 30 years ago. In Yudanaka the sides of the streets had spa water running underneath them to prevent the footpaths freezing, but here there is enough hot water to de-ice all the roads in town, all year round, plus fill over 100 onsen. It also has the first ‘singing road’ that I have ever experienced: strips cut into the road at variable distances produce the town anthem if you drive at the speed limit. The sound was strangely haunting, and reminded me of an echoing organ.

Snowy Mountains

Snowy Mountains

The water emerges in the centre of town at about 99 degrees, belches steam, and runs down wooden boxes which are used to extract sulphur to sell as bath salts. People took photos in front of the backlit steam, while a community minded chap held a silvered reflector for all the people having their photo taken. Onsen are immensely popular in Japan. To illustrate, here is a conversation I had with a (Japanese) friend in Shinjuku a few months back:

‘What do you recommend that I do while in Japan?’

‘You should do onsen! Very Japanese, very relaxing’

‘Cool, and where should I go in Japan?’

‘You should go to Beppu, it has very many onsen’

‘OK, and what do you like doing in your spare time?’

‘ahhh, my favourite is onsen’ *grins*’

So Lune and I headed off to the onsen to bathe with K and her family. Sexes are segregated, so K2 and I (K’s husband) sat outside in a sulphurous pool with our heads cool and our bodies too hot. The locals sit silently, eyes closed, with towels on their heads, folded into neat squares. The water is pH 2, so if you feel a nibbling on your skin you should get out and shower. This is what being dissolved feels like. Although unnerving, the chemical exfoliation leaves you with pleasantly smooth skin.

Their house is a fusion of Japan and European alpine, with a tall pine living room/kitchen, with tatami bedrooms leading off it. We entertained ourselves by playing Uno and Othello with their kids. I was beaten about 10 times in a row by their adorable five year old son. There’s something humbling about taking a minute and careful thought over each move, only to have your opponent briefly stop running around/making faces/playing, glance at the board, and make the move you should have blocked. Later, we saw their daughter practicing Karuta. In this game you must identify one of 100 poems as they are read out, and grab the corresponding card faster than your opponent. Those without formidable memories need not apply.

The temperature was around -15 the first night, so we woke up with ice inside the windows and no water; the pipes had frozen. Thankfully the plumber came to sort it out that day. The view from their balcony is brilliant, with crumpled forest stretching down to a wide plain, above which stands the slightly ominous volcano.

Pro Skier

Pro Skier

Lune learnt to ski very rapidly, and had done a stretch of red by the end of her first morning, albeit mainly due to the design of the park. She rapidly picked up the most essential element of skiing: a fervent hatred of snowboarders. Soon enough, the stuttering scrape of an incoming board stimulated hunched shoulders, bunched fists, and a hiss of “douches”. There is only so much you can teach a Scot, so by the end of the day tempers were frayed slightly, and I was compelled to use a more distant teaching approach…

Kanji, Can't She?

Kanji, Can’t She?

K suggested we paint a new year kanji, which is similar to making a resolution except it’s much prettier and stays on your wall (if not in your mind) all year. Lune chose ‘flight’, while I went for ‘power movement’ (exercise). The lovely kanji kit made me nervous about making mistakes, but I enjoyed the painting, felt very Japanese, and ended up with a good souvenir. We then went sledging on the nearby golf course, laughing and falling and running up hills. All too soon we were getting the bus back and thinking about work the next day. I think I’ve written enough this week, but next week there will be a picture of a cat reading a dinosaur book. I promise.

Zoom Zoom Zoom

Zoom Zoom Zoom

New Year

The oldest pagoda in Japan and the oldest wooden building on earth

The oldest pagoda in Japan and the oldest wooden building on earth

…yummy…

Nara is a city with a remarkable affinity for impressive wood. No, I’m not harking back to last week’s Herman Melville. It contains both the world’s oldest and largest wooden buildings. The oldest is a 7th century hall at the temple complex of Horyu-ji, reached via a train and a pleasant walk through the suburbs (parrots in cages by a school was the highlight) which is inexplicably slated by the guidebooks. A corner shop had horribly mould persimmons, but the rest was pleasantly Japanese, wooden walls and curving roof tiles. The temple smelt of history, and briefly beef tacos, as we snacked on one of Japan’s many unusual Dorito flavours. I started to wonder how many days in a row people had worshipped there. My mental maths started to produce difficult (large) numbers, so I gave up and ran my hands over the human polished beams instead. A friendly monk with good English pointed out a famous Kannon statue with 1000 arms, which looked like feathers as they were so fine and so thick.

They got wood

They got wood

deer god!

deer god!

Todai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world, although it is only two thirds of its original width. It is guarded by man-eating Sika deer, which are sacred as they are the messengers of Shinto gods. Numerous stalls sell ‘deer crackers’, and the result of this practice is packs of deer which mercilessly hunt down people with any food item. Lune enjoyed tempting them closer by rustling an empty chocolate wrapper.

Brothers in charms

Brothers in charms

My dad befriended one and they stood side by side, atop steps, looking down at the chaos their respective species were wreaking. Needless to say, Todai-ji itself is huge, with a bulk hard to appreciate even in person. The scale of the place only really becomes apparent upon seeing what’s stored inside: the largest bronze Buddha on earth. It is 16m tall, weighs 500 tonnes, and bankrupt the Japanese economy when it was first cast in 750 AD (not to mention using all the bronze).SONY DSC The hall comfortably fits this giant, as well as a few smaller golden statues of a paltry 7m or so. One pillar has a small hole through which crawling books your place in paradise. Me, Lune and my little brother got through (just before the prop of a Japanese rugby team got stuck), and I happily abandoned religion from that point onwards. Later we found out the hole is the size of the buddha’s nostril.

Paradise here I come

Paradise here I come

One night and a couple of shinkansen rides later, we were driving around a dreary town as the rain poured down, wondering where the hell Fuji-san was. The car trip through the mountains was evocative, with fog rolling above and the huge concrete pillars of highways lancing past us into the valley floors. Eventually, during a late lunch of tea and large slices of cake we found the man who’s house we were renting, in the café he owns. Yoshi is a memorable man, for his personification of the mid-life crisis, his bizarre sexism, and his sumptuous red puffer jacket. Yoshi lived in Tokyo for the boom years, working as an engineer, and moved away to Yamanaka-ko. He then ‘taught himself’ architecture and built the house we were staying in (we were reassured to hear). He has a mane of sandy grey hair and collects classic cars. The Garden Shed was the name of our new home, but it was beautiful and palatial by Japanese standards; I now think of a flat the size of my two front rooms in the UK as enormous. There was a great sound system, which reminded me of how good music sounds when not coming from tinny laptop speakers, as well as shelves filled with Yoshi’s car regalia, including trophies he had won racing at classic car races. He was very talkative to everyone except Lune, who he never spoke to and never asked the name of, despite asking everyone else in turn…

too bright!

too bright!

A wild tanuki appeared!

A wild tanuki appeared!

Advancing to Fuji-san under cloud cover had the advantage of waking up and seeing it swaggering above the horizon. Everyone was gasping with awe (including me) and I felt a strange sense of pride. We were by the shore of Yamanaka-ko, one of the five lakes which ring Fuji’s Northern slope. Climbing a ridge, after eventually finding the footpath thanks to an Australian expat with a golden retriever, gave us a brilliant few of the full mountain, although the dynamic range was a bit high for cameras. In the afternoon we finally found a good viewpoint, and even our first Tanuki (Japanese racoon). Tanuki can mean racoon or badger, depending on where you are in Japan, but the guidebooks plump for badger. There are Tanuki statues outside a large number of shops, which look like paedophilic bears (wide grins and wide balls), and bear no resemblance to badgers. They do however, (sort of) look like these Japanese racoons. Mystery solved.

Fuji-san

Fuji-san

New year (oshogatsu) is celebrated in Japan by visiting a buddhist temple at midnight, and listening to a bell ringing out 108 times. Each ring signifies one of the human sins in Buddhism. We visited an impressive temple, Fujiyoshida Sengen, in the evening, locked deep in tall conifers, but it was too chilly to wait for the new year (we arrived at 7 or so). A five-hundred year old Sugi tree has hunched, bubbled bark and a thin coat of woven grass. We usher in the new year with a glass of whiskey and Sydney’s fireworks on youtube, It is a far cry from the party I usually go to in Edinburgh (which starts with too much rum and ends, bleary eyed, in the dim light of the morning, wandering around with the rest of the shambling dead), but I go to sleep content nonetheless.

More Fuji

More Fuji

All the people....

All the people….

All too soon we are wishing my family goodbye, and I feel a shadow of the wrenching I felt on leaving the UK. It hurts less now that I have friends, things to do, and a life here. Hatsumode is the first visit to a Shinto shrine of the new year, so me and Lune headed to Meinji-Jingu on the 2nd, not really sure what to expect. I expected it to be busy, but didn’t know at the time that 3.5 million people visit this shrine in the first 3 days of the year. We queued for a very long time. I expected some kind of service, but in the shrine everyone slowly shuffled forward, bowed their heads, said a quiet prayer, dropped a coin, and walked out. We bought fortunes (omikuji), which you tie to trees or wires around the temple if they predict bad luck. The kanji was as indecipherable as ever, so we planned on getting my boss to translate it later that week. Soon we would be headed into the mountains….

oh brother

oh brother

Catching up at Christmas

Do not fear. The cultural impoverishment of our age is drawing to a close. I’m back to the blog. In the past month I’ve been spending most of my time fretting over what to do with my life, writing PhD applications, and feverishly checking them for a spelling mistake Word has not deigned to pick up. Then there were some interviews to prepare for. What I didn’t prepare for was my internet failing 3 minutes into my first interview, resulting in the rest of the interview being a 40 minute international phone call. Explaining the diagrams on the example paper was tricky (no, they changed the interview structure rather than made me suffer that).

The experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past month or so will be sprinkled lightly over future posts to avoid me having to write a novella this week. I recently finished Moby Dick (then the Hunger Games for something lighter, shoot me), which is very enjoyable tale of adventure and obsession (after a slow start). It is fascinating for both answering many questions you never knew you had about 19th century whaling, and for its ubiquitous and potent homo-eroticism, which seems to be present for no other reason than to give you small bouts of giggles whilst reading on buses. Apologies to my snoozing fellow commuters. I also visited the world’s busiest fish market, Tsukiji, and so will describe it in my attempt at an imitation of Herman Melville.

My first new lens

My first new lens

Turret Car

Call me Ishmael. There comes a time in the hearts of most men, upon reaching a certain age, when they suffer a heartfelt yearning for the unknown. To extirpate this ailment, I left without notice at daybreak with a heavy heart and a light pack, and get on a train. The pink flesh of dawn rattles before me as I stare outwards with eyes glazed and bleary. Soon I am perambulating wearily towards Tsukiji. A woman picks up a half-smoked cigarette from the street with chopsticks and lights it. I walk on in broken step, dodging the swarm of turret cars, manned by savages in bandanas, which buzz around the market site. Holding my breath and a nosegay, avoiding a trolley of heads, which substitute for Cerberus, I step hesitantly into the floor.

Poor Eels

Poor Eels

Woodblock Tuna

Woodblock Tuna

Everywhere is noise, blood, and the senseless twitches of dying things. Octopus tentacles clutch upwards, like a final salute to the kraken, before freezing at the – crunch – of a heavy cleaver, and then writhe anew in death. Eels gasp for breath in the blood of their broodmates. Tuna, with sheen of frost and hollow eyes, are sliced like so many logs at the band saw. Oh! For the gentle sights of a charnel house, for the purity of Gomorrah. Never before have the eyes of man been besmirched as within this temple of gore. The labourers, nay, evince pity rather than disgust, for such torturous work can only torture the souls of those who perform it. Sisyphus, in his daily toil, never had to push so vile a load as this. The arcane tongues of the east battle the omnipresent flopping, chopping, sawing until all that remains is the cacophony of hell itself. I long for Queequeg’s manly embrace, for his stolid arms to cover my ears, his musk to fill my nostrils. When it occurs to me that I could be capturing sweet, pearlescent sperm on the nearest whaler, I turn tail. Polystyrene chasms, dripping ice and scales, wend and warp before me, labyrinthine and endless. Handsome smoking sailors moodily puff as I stagger on towards redemption. As Jesus emerged from the desert, so did I from Tsukiji; sweating, tired, and with few designs on returning.

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

Now that I’ve eliminated most of my readership, I can get on with writing normally about recent happenings (difficult beginning, like Moby Dick). Thankfully, my family decided to come out to Japan for Christmas, so I was very happy to see them and avoid a possibly quite lonely Christmas day (just me and Lune). Their plane arrived at 5am, and to welcome/punish them I took them straight to the aforementioned Tsukiji (after meeting them late by accidentally sleeping in, possibly due to an end of the world party at Pele’s the night before). It was dismal weather and we were happy to get into a sushi bar and out of the rain. The menu choice for veggies (me, Lune and my sister) was limited but present, and I think the carnivores enjoyed the freshest fish in Tokyo. Sushi bars feel a little austere, mainly because the chef stands above you, silently, watching you eat. Especially as a westerner new to the etiquette of sushi (not to mention my family’s colossal ineptitude with chopsticks) this can be a little off-putting. He was very kind, and even lifted out one of his live shrimps when he saw us gawping at it). After a quick soak in the blood of the market, it was time to move on.

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

We changed plans due to weather and headed to the National museum at Ueno, which is filled with a huge variety of Japanese antiques, highlights were the samurai armour and the zen paintings. This all passed the family by as jet-lag was beginning to take hold; me and Lune found various members of the family slumbering on different horizontal surfaces throughout the museum. They needed pepping up, so for lunch I took them to my favourite okonomiyaki (thick unhealthy cabbage omelettes with various fillings that you cook at your table by hot plate) place in Harujuku. Having found this place by chance while lost, I had thought it was my secret gem of Harujuku, but sadly everyone very soon found it recommended in their guidebooks (it’s Sakuratei in case anyone’s in Tokyo). This place also warmed us up with gas fire under the table. My little brother created the okonomiyaki equivalent of the Sistine chapel, and we moved on. Finally to the Tokyo metropolitan building, with free views of Tokyo at sunset (Fuji was resplendent but my camera died), where my sister broke and began sleeping on the floor. People shot her concerned glances as they passed.

SONY DSC

The emperor’s birthday is the 23rd of December, and is one of only two days per year when you can enter the inner grounds of the imperial palace. The outer grounds are lovely gardens, so I thought this would be a good and fairly unique experience for them. After a reasonable queue and two security checks, we shuffled past plain clothes agents with earpieces into the grounds. First we squeezed up to a long line of desks to sign the emperor’s birthday card, and then strolled on to enjoy the…exit? Immediately we found we were back out of the inner grounds, and seemingly the only views permitted are a small avenue of trees, then the large square of tarmac for signing the card. A bit of an anti-climax, but we went to the main grounds afterwards to give them their Japanese garden/castle wall fix.

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Guiding your family around a foreign country is sort of like having kids, except they aren’t cute and you can’t solve every problem by producing a drumstick lolly. It was good for mine and Lune’s Japanese to act as their interpreters throughout, but at times their expectations were a little above what we Japanese noobs could handle. The highlights were comments from my dad to the tune of

“so we’re not going to try and translate this kanji then?”

No, we are not. There are thousands of kanji. We (especially me) know very few of them. You cannot translate them by looking harder like Simba at a storm cloud. NOTE: I am very glad that my family came.

Shinkansen!

Shinkansen!

We headed to Yudanaka, an onsen (hot spring) town North-West of Tokyo via shinkansen, the speed of which wowed my family. Not quite as much as the rotating train seats, but nearly. The second train was a private rail company who had had the excellent idea (although it is in the Hunger Games as well) of putting a panoramic wraparound window at the front of the train with the drivers sitting up top. We wound our way slowly into the hills, through suburbs, orchards, and increasingly white rice fields. The Japanese hotel (a ryokan) which we stayed at was lovely. Rooms contained rice mats, sliding paper doors, and yukatas (light Japanese kimonos). I was proud that we were the only family sporting them at breakfast. Upon arrival the proprietor suggested we drop everything and head to the onsen for sunset. We (just) got over our English prudishness, piled into a car, and whizzed at breakneck speed across the valley.

Soon we were naked, gently broiling in the manner of lobsters, and looking out at the twinkling electric lights below. We had missed the sunset but the view was good enough. The nakedness wasn’t really apparent due to the billowing clouds of water vapour rolling up off the hot water. The men’s half made me think of gorillas in the mist. Sitting in a volcanic spring as your hair freezes and snow wafts down from above is a pleasure similar to the feeling you get when listening to rain hiss on a tent roof from the safety of your sleeping bag. A Japanese man was obviously sick of his tent, so jumped out the pool and rolled in the snow, shouting and laughing. He returned quickly. Me and my brother had a cold shower afterwards, because I thought it was a custom. It’s not.

Pick me! Pick me!

Pick me! Pick me!

The main attraction of Yudanaka is its Japanese macaques, the northernmost primates in the world (excluding us of course).They scamper about the snow, looking exceedingly cute, as monkeys tend to when they’re not snatching your lunch. Thankfully these ones had the charming habit of ignoring humans completely, letting you get close without worrying for your safety. I felt sorry for a monkey who was being repeatedly flashed (camera) by a Japanese man with and exceedingly long (camera) lens. The adorable epicentre of this park is the onsen where the monkeys go to warm up. David Attenborough did a feature on the pools once, and if I remember correctly the position one holds in a pool is decided by the highness of your birth (just like the UK then). However, the pool tourists are allowed to visit is artificially maintained, so that may not apply. There was one very large and angry male who went ballistic at a baby monkey who presumably, in the parlance of Carlisle, ‘looked at him funny’. It made a wonderful Christmas morning. On the snowy walk back through the conifers me and my brother tried to use snowballs to dislodge snow from the trees onto our parents.

SONY DSC

Christmas dinner was a Chinese, where the staff were very nice, but didn’t quite understand vegetarians. We assured them that tomato ketchup was fine. In the next few days me and Lune went back to the monkeys (I wanted to take more photos), we caught up with the family at a Hokusai museum (who created that Japanese print with the waves, and perhaps more importantly the pokemon Ho-oh) to find my brother sleeping again, and drunk lots at a sake brewery. Next was a quick stop in Matsumoto to admire the castle, then onwards to Kyoto, except for my sister who left to go to a new year’s party at this point. I hope it was good. I’ll talk about my autumn trip to Kyoto more in a future post. This time we saw Kinkakuji, which has a pavilion covered in gold, and Sajusangendo, which has 1000 life-size Buddha statues from the 12th century, again painted in gold. Kyoto has a wide variety of unbelievably good things to see, but we were pressed for time. Izakaya (sort of like an Asian tapas bar) are quintessentially Japanese, so we had dinner at one. The waiter said “chotto sumimasen, gaijin desu” as we entered to the only other customer, who was steaming like an onsen. This translates as “sorry, it’s foreigners”.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

I have more from this trip, but will leave it for next week as the post is LOOOOONG enough already. I recently bought Shogun 2: Total War so currently enjoy sipping sake whilst conquering Japan in the evenings.

 

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