Were the Atomic Bombings War Crimes?

Humanity entered the atomic age with two huge bangs and a multitude of whimpers.

I’m going to write about whether the atomic bombs should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visiting Hiroshima (see last week’s post) was an extremely upsetting and thought provoking experience. The question that keeps coming back as you wander amongst the twisted paraphernalia is obvious and insistent. Was it the right thing to do?

Hiroshima Before (target bridge at top right)

Hiroshima Before (target bridge at top right)

Obviously, this is an emotive and controversial topic, so I’ll take a little time to explain what the post is trying to address. The question of whether or not the only two atomic bombs ever used in war should have been dropped effectively consists of two questions, given the uniqueness of the event. The first one, or this post’s version of the Hard problem, is whether or not the use of nuclear weapons is ever justified. The second (which, irritatingly enough is also extremely difficult) is whether the use of these atomic bombs in this specific set of circumstances was justified. The Hard problem I will not attempt to answer in any definite way. It seems that the level of moral justification for using nuclear weapons can vary depending on the situation. Extremely contrived sets of circumstances can be dreamt up in which not using nuclear weapons is morally wrong, for example. Practically speaking, I would suggest that the most justifiable use would be against a concentration of military might in which all combatants are volunteers and intending to commit destruction on a similar or larger scale. The least defensible use, of course, would be against a large, concentrated civilian population.

Hiroshima Afterwards

Hiroshima Afterwards

The Hard and the Easy problems become more and more similar as the use of atomic weapons becomes more justified. i.e. The question of whether or not the most justifiable use of nuclear weapons is  morally correct is equivalent to asking whether any use of these weapons is correct. A very justifiable instance would be the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort in order to avert an even more horrible eventuality. However, we only need to address the Easy problem, as I will explain.

In the case of the war between Japan and the allies in 1945 there was certainly a horrible eventuality to be avoided: the invasion of mainland Japan. Given the ferocity of fighting on the pacific islands, and the enforced mass suicides of both soldiers and civilians on the Okinawan islands, it is likely that an invasion of Kyushu by the USA would have been disastrous. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Japanese troops were present in Kyushu by July 1945, and the civilian population had also been provided with antiquated weapons to fight the invaders. Large scale suicide plane and boat attacks were planned, with around 10,000 planes earmarked for Kamikaze use. Assuming the American forces did gain a beachhead; they would have faced fierce resistance in difficult terrain, and probably would have followed waves of mass suicides (likely forced) as they progressed inland. The Japanese plan was to force an armistice by making invasion of the home islands unfeasibly costly. The Americans manufactured 500,000 purple hearts (bestowed upon injured servicemen) in anticipation of the landings, and these are still in plentiful supply today. The invasion of mainland Japan would have been a nightmare, so it is probably reasonable to assume that the use of nuclear weapons did prevent an even larger disaster.

Nagasaki Before

Nagasaki Before

The narrative that I was subtly taught as I grew up was that the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was tragic but ultimately unavoidable. A necessary evil. Collateral damage. The story goes that the Goodies needed to defeat Japan, but that the Japanese military was so, well, insane, that a mainland invasion would have killed millions. The only option was to regrettably, reluctantly, drop the bomb (s).

Nagasaki Afterwards

Nagasaki Afterwards

To be justified these atomic bombs had to be a last resort. A desperate move when all other reasonable efforts to get the Japanese to surrender had failed. This, as explained below, was not the case. The moment you accept that the USA had other options is the moment you realise that the bombings were wrong.

There is a chilling, clinical feeling you get when reading about the decision to drop the bombs. The notes of the interim committee read  “Mr. Byrnes recommended and the Committee agreed, that the Secretary of War should be advised that, while recognizing that the final selection of the target was essentially a military decision, the present view of the Committee was that the bomb be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning.”. Truman’s diary later read that they should bomb a purely military target, but the actual order to use atomic bombs on Japan included no mention of sparing civilians or hitting military structures, only cities. The military drew up a list of Japanese cities. They removed those with less than three square miles of continuous urban area (read: civilians). I let out a snort unintentionally when reading this. How silly of me. How could anyone not want to explode the first nuclear weapon used in war in the middle of a large city. This was to be a demonstration of force. They removed from the list cities which had been heavily bombed already, such as Tokyo and Osaka. It’s worth mentioning that the firebombing of Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000, and probably many more (both sides had their reasons to downplay the damage). On the 9th of March 16 square miles of Tokyo, with a population of 1.6 million, was burnt in one night. Bombing a city in which many civilians had evacuated or were dead already would not demonstrate the full power of the weapon. The last city off the shortlist was Kyoto, as the secretary of war had been there for his honeymoon.

The cities on the shortlist were then deliberately excluded from bombings to ensure the maximum number of civilians remained in these cities. Practice runs on cities with similar geography were organised, dropping a single large bomb from high altitude. These were called pumpkins. Then atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The combined death toll was over 200,000, and over 95% of the victims were civilians.

The Blast over Nagasaki

The Blast over Nagasaki

The “last resort” narrative is a comforting story which essentially removes allied responsibility, and turns the guilt and moral abhorrence of civilian slaughter into something that was, all in all, the Right Thing to Do. This is simply not the case. The crucial thing that could and should have been done, at no great financial or military cost to the USA, was to try harder to elicit surrender from Japan. Here is a list of approaches for trying to do this, and their costs:

1)      Tell Japan You Have Nukes

Japan was not warned that the USA had developed an atomic bomb and was planning to use it on civilian population centres. It is thought to have been referenced obliquely as the alternative to surrender in the Potsdam Declaration: “prompt and utter destruction” (the Potsdam Declaration was a demand for Japan’s surrender issued after the first nuclear bomb test). They could have attached pictures and scientific recordings from the Trinity bomb test.

Cost: Nothing. If Japan had not surrendered they could have moved more civilians from city centres, which would decrease the output of any war plants staffed by civilians and the civilian casualties by any later strikes on city centres. Being aware you are about to be nuked is somewhat like being aware you are about to be hit by a train. You can prepare a little, but it’s still going to hurt. A lot.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

2)      Show Japan You Have Nukes

There was no public demonstration of an atomic bomb on an unpopulated or depopulated area. This was suggested by the prescient Frank report (written by nuclear physicists), which argued for a public demonstration of the atomic bomb’s power, and predicted the nuclear arms race that followed the surprise use of the bombs. This could have been done by inviting Japanese diplomats to a demonstration in the pacific, or by just detonating one in a depopulated area of Japan, preferably with a large audience. The middle of Tokyo bay, for example, or over the top of mount Fuji (OK, I just think that would make an emblematic picture). Leaflet dropping campaigns could have then warned the Japanese people that the same would occur to a city within a week unless the government surrendered.

Cost: Probably a week at most. Assuming the demonstration bomb was dropped on the 6th, and it still took two bombs for the Japanese to surrender, it would have been August 19th by the time the third bomb (and second bomb over a city) exploded.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki

3)      Tell Japan that Russia is Going to Declare War on them

Russia stated that they would enter the war in the Far East three months after the end of the war in Europe at the Yalta conference. Japan and Russia had been engaged in an uneasy truce, until April 5th 1945 when Russia notified Japan that they would not be renewing the pact, but that they would respect it until April 1946. They followed what they had agreed at the Yalta conference, and invaded Manchuria on the 9th of August (the day the second atomic bomb was dropped).

Cost: The most costly option. Increased defensesin Manchuria would have increased Russian casualties, although not greatly given the superiority in strength and numbers of the Russian armed forces.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

4)      Actually Try Hard to Get Japan to Surrender

This is what stunned me the most. This is something that really makes no sense within the Western narrative. The Emperor of Japan was the head of the state, military, and revered as a deity. The allies knew that promising the continuation of imperial rule was seen as essential by the Japanese government. Allied documents detail their knowledge that the Potsdam Declaration would have a much higher chance of success if they offered the carrot of imperial rule. It initially contained an article offering this, but it was removed on the recommendation of James Byrne (he’s the charming man from earlier who suggested dropping the bombs on a civilian population without warning). The Japanese government therefore ignored the declaration.

The emperor had authorised the use of chemical weapons on the Chinese hundreds of times, and knew about a large number of atrocities committed by the Japanese military. So the allies’ not promising continued imperial rule seems reasonable, if very narrow-sighted, as they could then prosecute the emperor for war crimes. After the atom bombs were dropped, and Manchuria invaded by Russia, the Japanese government responded that they were prepared to accept the Potsdam Declaration, but even then only if the emperor was preserved. This was responded to by the allies ambiguously. Eventually Japan surrendered, despite a coup determined to prevent it. The punchline to all this is what happened immediately after Japan surrendered: the imperial family were preserved, actively protected from being implicated in war crimes, and allowed to rule Japan. The question is when you know there is a huge block stopping a country from surrendering, why would you ignore it, kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and then remove the block anyway?

Cost: Nothing. The imperial family were preserved anyway. Maybe a slight poll drop for the democrats.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki

5)      Make them an Offer they can’t Refuse

I like to imagine a world in which the Potsdam declaration stated: we have nuclear weapons, Russia will declare war on you within a month, and if you surrender the imperial family will be preserved. Three weeks later the first atomic bomb is dropped in the middle of Tokyo bay, at an altitude of 1500m to minimize damage. Leaflets are dropped across the country explaining that surrender is required within one week and that the imperial family will be preserved, or an atomic bomb will be detonated over a Japanese city.

I would bet everything on them accepting that offer. What do you think?

So, I’ve come to the unhappy and uncomfortable conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII was an unjustified war crime (by all legal definitions since the end of the 19th century). The USA (and Russia, Israel, China) aren’t signed up to the current statute for war crimes, but I would argue that a war crime remains a war crime, even if you choose not to recognize that fact.

Common counterarguments and their weaknesses:

The Japanese were not going to surrender without something as shocking as the atomic bombs

Firstly, just because you think this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try as hard as you can to get them to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. Secondly, the Japanese had made numerous approaches about surrendering before the atomic bomb tests (link below). The president of the USA was aware of these approaches, and knew that their key requests were the preservation of the imperial line and avoidance of the term “unconditional surrender”. The most serious of these approaches was the Japanese foreign minister’s attempts to persuade Russia to receive Prince Konoye, who would present their peace agreement. Russia was attempting to delay Japanese surrender to strengthen their position in the Far East.

At this stage in the war, the Japanese war machine was broken. Their navy was barely functional, their cities were in ruins, and food was running out. They were not yet defeated, but could not mount any effective attacks against the USA, and could only hope to achieve concessions by making the invasion of mainland Japan too costly. For the record, when people tell you that 100 million people would have died in the invasion, it’s bullshit. This comes from a quote from the fanatical Japanese war journal of the imperial headquarters. If you believe that all 100,000,000 inhabitants of Japan would have committed suicide rather than lost the war, you are suffering from a mixture of ignorance and racism. I am sure that a small minority of fanatics would have chosen suicide, that a larger minority would have been forced into suicide, and that the rest would have lived, because people like living, and Japanese people are people too. A third of Okinawa’s civilian population was forced to commit suicide, and a far larger proportion would have escaped on mainland Japan due to the much smaller ratio of troops to civilians and the far more expansive geography.

This is all very well to say in hindsight, but wasn’t it a very, well, difficult decision at the time?

Yes, it was a difficult decision. If it had been made by a frontline GI who had spent a year in the hell of the pacific war, I would completely understand why the bombings went ahead (although still not agree with them). These decisions were difficult, but they were made by very intelligent people provided with extremely good intelligence and far removed from the horrors of war. They felt pressure to remain popular to the American public, and to prove the value of the hugely expensive Manhattan project. The influential James Byrne made clear on numerous occasions that he felt the bombs would also intimidate Russia, and stop them “getting in on the kill” too much. These are not good enough reasons to massacre innocent people. James Byrne was probably wrong as well. The shock of the atomic bombs ensured that both India and Russia had started nuclear weapons programmes by the end of 1945 (the British already had theirs).

The Civilians were not Innocent, as they had not Rebelled against the Japanese Government

Human history is a sad chorus of the fact that most people will allow remarkable atrocities to be committed in their name provided that they are relatively comfortable and have something to lose. Those who defected from Japanese military rule should be praised for their bravery, but those who remained with their families whilst powerful men played war games should not have been punished for it.

The American People Deserved Revenge for Pearl Harbour

Firstly, no. Secondly, Tokyo was revenge enough. Thirdly, the American people (to their credit) had rejected the use of chemical and biological weapons on the Japanese people during WWII, even if their use would hasten the end of the war. They were not consulted about the third type of WMD.

Is there any Point in Dragging all this up Now?

Yes. Truth is a very important thing, and it seems to be becoming increasingly rare. Our children will have even less chance of avoiding the mistakes of history if they are not aware of them. Most importantly, over 200,000 hibakushas (blast victims) are still alive today. It would be the most beautiful thing in the world if one of them could live to hear an apology.

The Gate of Hell, Nagasaki

The Gate to Hell, Nagasaki

Links:

Photos of the bomb sites http://www.allworldwars.com/Photographs-of-the-atomic-bombings-of-Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki.html

Official bombing order (not mentioning military targets or minimizing civilian casualties): http://www.dannen.com/decision/handy.html

The people who decided to drop the bomb without warning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interim_Committee

CIA report on Japanese peace approaches: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol9no3/html/v09i3a06p_0001.htm

Timeline to bomb drops: http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/timeline/timeline_page.php?year=1945

Good for further info: http://www.doug-long.com/

The Jungle. Pt. 2

 

The Logging Railroad

The Logging Railroad

Eventually we reach the old logging railway line, and the rain stops, so we eat bananas and grin happily, then plod on. The going is much easier, and the railway line is appallingly romantic, thin guage and wending through ancient forest, with moss covered stone on one side and steep forested slopes on the other. Deer graze the slopes, and the large river parallel to the track is coursing itself jaggedly into off-white. The rails fork at one point, and one leads into a high but short rock corridor, at the end of which stands an alien blue and strangely tall tent.It is a toilet station, in which you can use your ‘toilet bags’ on a fold out seat, then take your waste with you. We give it a miss. At the end of the line (always wanted to say that) we take a trail back into the woods. Shortly we reach a grove reminiscent of the Californian redwoods, where the trees are massive and the canopy is tall. Before us is Wilson’s stump, felled in the 16th century, and 32m in circumference. The tree it suggests is too huge to contemplate, and photos do not do it justice, but within the rotted stump you can fit 10 tatami (about 6ft by 3ft), and there is a small shrine. It must have taken them days to cut it down.

Wilson's Stump

Wilson’s Stump

Tsubasu-san!

Tsubasu-san!

Next is a long section of log ladders upwards, which Subasu-san flys up, while I become more and more worried about my low level of fitness. Eventually the gradient levels out, we pass odd flat wooden beds (for tents, we discovered later), and shortly reach Jomon-sugi. Jomon-sugi has a 16m circumference, has a volume of 300m3, and is thought to be the oldest sugi of them all. Its tree rings lead back 2,170 years, but its core has long since rotted. It is lessened a little bit by the extensive wooden viewing platform, which is empty when we arrive, but we gawp nonetheless. It is almost like a pilgrimage, travelling to all through the jungle to all these ancient trees. We soon reach the next hut, a simple concrete cube, and eat nuts with crackers for lunch. Subasu-san tries to persuade us to press on in order to climb the highest peak (Miyanoura Dake) on the island, but given the time of our return ferry and the unpredictability of the weather we reluctantly decline. We exchange contact details, and Subasu-san says goodbye with the neologism “mata facebook!” (until facebook), and strides out, munching a hunk of gammon.

Tsubasu-san and Jomon Sugi

Tsubasu-san and Jomon Sugi

Wood Wave

Wood Wave

I’m not really sure what happened next, but we were wet and cold and spent the next 16 hours lying in sleeping bags… At nightfall, the hut began to fill up, and we were on the upper floor, which only had two other people – some extremely loud middle aged women who rudely told us to move our bags to make room, despite the fact their equipment was covering about half the hut. The rain and night wore on, and still new travellers came in out of the night, finding their way with head torches. Every new arrival took a place on the lower floor, and it sounds like there is an army down there. At 9, another 6 or so troop in and start making nabe (hotpot) and drinking beer. This is amazing for two reasons: that they have been hiking through the dark for so long, and that they have been lugging several kilos of beer through the jungle for just this moment. Eventually, two more join the upper floor, and, on heading outside to find water, I see that the bottom floor now looks like a refugee camp. Scraps of newpaper, the stench of sweat, boots all over the floor. There are 11 people trying to sleep in the space we are finding quite cramped with 6. I neglect to point this out to them. Outside, I can see a number of brightly coloured tents across the hillside, which with torches on throw out a diffuse glow, which makes the lot of them look like ornamental lanterns. There is no obvious tap, so I head to the toilet, and find some large barrels behind it. Aha! I think, a rainwater trap, there is even a bucket on a long pole to scoop it out with. I undo the clasps happily and prize the lid off to find…faeces. Gallons and gallons of faeces. I cram the lid back down and decide to be thirsty until the morning.

Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever

We leave the hut at 6 30 the next morning, last except for the two crones. People here are serious about hiking. The way down is much easier and the sun is beating down, warming our skins pleasantly in the crisp morning air. We pass a tremendous number of pensioners heading up the trail, very near the top, at around 7, and wonder how on earth they got here. Slept in tents on the forest floor? Hardcores! This makes us feel a little less adventurous, and we feel even more cowed upon seeing some kids happily walking up the railway tracks. There are many guided tours, one guide keeps yelling “Kodama!” at us and brandishing the a toy of the jiggly headed tree spirits (Kodama) from Princess Mononoke. Another is dressed as a samurai, katana at the waist and a majestic moustache above his smile. We return to Taiko rock, to this time find beautiful, empty air, and a huge ridge facing us across the valley. The great weather and the sight of Miyanoura Dake gives us a pang of regret, and I eventually content myself with taking photos, upon which my camera runs out of battery. Sigh.

The Last Photo...

The Last Photo…

Descending to the coast, we look forward to sleeping in a tent on soft grass rather than on hard wood, as well as an onsen soak. Kusugawa onsen is a little run down, but apparently in the summer you can watch fireflies whilst you soak. Dinner is at a nearby Indian restaurant, where I have one of the best curries of my life (possibly related to living off biscuits and nuts for the previous 48 hours), and we are pestered (a first in Japan) by a man who wants to give us a tour the next day. We obfuscate like true British people, and later decide we’ll do fine on our own. In the morning, we head for another onsen, which is only usable at low tide, being in a tidal pool by the sea. We get off at the wrong bus stop, realize that we don’t have time to get to the onsen and the ferry anymore, then sulk.

Sulking in Onaida

Sulking in Onaida

Ferry+Rain

Ferry+Rain

The ferry back is a little busier, and just before we leave the skies open once more. The bedraggled and slightly creepy proprietor of our campsite is waiting for new arrivals (this is the only place in Japan I have seen, albeit very polite, touting), and soon ensnares a young woman. We get on the boat to find the same woman, apparently she has experienced the fury of Yakushima’s weather and given it up as a bad job. Back in Kagoshima, we walk up to the viewpoint, past a statue of Saigo Takamori. Saigo Takamori lead the Satsuma rebellion in 1877, which failed to take Kumamoto castle and was quashed by a huge imperial army. Saigo Takamori committed (or was helped to commit) seppuku rather than surrender, and the remaining scraps of his samurai charged downhill into the guns. His embodiment of the bushido (warrior) spirit made him enormously popular in Japan, and he was pardoned just 12 years later. At the viewpoint we see the volcano leering over the city, and meet a very kind middle aged woman, who invites us to her house, after asserting somewhat circularly “I wish there was no war, war is bad, if there was no war then people would not have to fight, so there should be no war”. In the car we find that she taught English for many years, including to blind people (apparently the braille alphabet is used in Japan as well), and greatly enjoys meeting foreigners. She explains this stems from an enjoyable holiday she had when young in America, and to pay them back decided to be as welcoming as possible to everyone visiting Japan. We like her a lot.

Kagoshima and Sakurajima

Kagoshima and Sakurajima

Tasty Tsukemono (pickles)

Tasty Tsukemono (pickles)

Her house is on a hill and has a great view of Sakurajima, the volcano. We are introduced to her husband, a retired headteacher who is suffering from a racking cough. Despite insisting that we have had lunch, our host whips up a delicious selection of tsukemono (pickles), as well as a preserved persimmon which reminds me of a date. We enjoy talking together, exchange addresses, and look at the hundred dolls which decorate their house. The dolls are in pairs (husband and wife), and are present because it is hinamatsuri (doll’s festival), where dolls are set out to capture bad spirits. They are left out for a month, and should be taken down before April the 4th (in Kagoshima) to avoid bad luck. Kagoshima celebrates it a month later than elsewhere in Japan. We need to get our bus, so quickly try on simple kimonos, say goodbyes, and head to the station. We feel better about humanity for the experience. Thank you, kind couple!

Our Kind Hosts

Our Kind Hosts

 

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

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