Flaming Volcanoes and Corduroy

Last week me and Lune took a week’s holiday around the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu., We deviated from our itinerary numerous times (making this my most spontaneous holiday ever), and met enough weird and wonderful Japanese people to populate a number of post-modern novels. Our route was convoluted and recursive, so I’ll organize geographically rather than chronologically (just so you know).

Aso: The largest caldera in the world. Formed 300,000 years ago by the collapse of an enormous, erupting volcano, the crator is 20km wide, with an almost perfectly flat bottom and extremely steep walls. It’s as if someone has pressed the cap from an enormous beer bottle into the earth. Rather ruining this comparison are the remnants of the volcano, 5 volcanically active mountains which lie in the middle of the crater. The fertile soil of the basin floor is covered in rice farms and pasture, and small towns look delicately up at their potential destruction. We stayed in a lovely hostel with kotatsu, futons, sliding doors, and a dim common room filled with low tables. There we met a motley crew of Japanese guys, about half and half staff and holiday makers. My Japanese is poor, and feels even more so next to Lune, but I could understand a surprising amount of conversation, albeit without contributing much beyond agreements and simple statements. The owner folded 12 small coloured paper squares into small basket shapes, then painstakingly arranged them into a 3D cube with cut vertices. He then told Lune to hit it, which produced an explosion of paper, which then floated gently down the ground. Who knew origami could be both gangster and fun? The owner then played a youtube video (the universal language) of some enormous scrub fires in the Aso caldera, and said excitedly, ashita (tomorrow)!

Origami Explosion!

Origami Explosion!

The Iron Prime-Minister

The Iron Prime-Minister

The plan to visit the pretty gorge of Takachiho conflicted with this, and we were wondering what would be the best thing to do, leaning towards the one-off experience of watching people who live beneath volcanos setting them on fire. Payback perhaps.  Our funniest new friend was a short ultramarathon runner with turn up jeans and a brilliant grin, who was pulling a sickie (unheard of in Japan) to watch the burning, and translated his name as ‘the iron prime minister’. Hearing our dilemma, he asked how long we were in Japan:

About one year

What is your one year, compared to 1300 years of history? *smiling gleefully* Sooooooo… catch a cold shimasu

Volcanoes at Sunrise

Volcanoes at Sunrise

That settled it. At 6 15 we piled sleepily into a jeep and chatted about musical taste whilst driving to a viewpoint to watch the sunrise. Earnest Japanese guy, as we called him, looked earnestly out at the landscape in a brown corduroy suit. We took photos and were extremely grateful to the guy driving, who had brought tea. The view was from the edge of the basin, looking inwards at the lumpy volcanic ridge, which looks just like a man lying down. If you’re lucky the crater holds mist from the night before, so you can see mountains jutting out of a bowl of porridge. We weren’t lucky, but the view was impressive nonetheless. PA systems are very popular in Japan, but it was a surreal experience to hear good morning piped across the crater from megaphones at 6 30 am. Driving back cords boy told us that he was a North Korean scholar, and travelled to many soviet bloc countries searching for documents about their relationship with North Korea. We were interested to hear that North Korea was the advanced, modern half of Korea 30 or so years ago. The movement of missiles to the North Korean coast is a little worrying, hopefully they lack advanced ballistic missiles, as I think Japan comes a close second to South Korea in terms of animosity. Fingers crossed.

The Road

The Road

A konbini breakfast, then we got in another van with the hostel owner’s mate, and set out towards the edge of the crater. Suddenly, everyone excitedly began pointing out plumes of smoke, ahead, behind, everywhere. Soon it was like driving through hell, infernos on distant hillsides and the never-ending smell of smoke. The overcast sky was smudged and dirty. We stopped on a hillock beside some serious photographers or rich people with serious cameras, and jogged towards the flames. Over the road there was the roar of flame, and motorcyclists chugged past looking as cool as its possible to do with a wall of flame behind you.

Cooooooooool

Cooooooooool

Tall Walls

Tall Walls

Kumamoto: Castles and karashi renkon were the things which took most of our time here. Kumamoto-jo, the castle, is enormous and sprawling and looks utterly impregnable. The Satsuma rebellion effectively broke against its walls, like waves on a beach, and rolled back South. The walls are Japanese style, made of irregular rocks fitted together perfectly into a sheer curving wall, which just passes vertical at the tops. There are about 3 layers of tall walls, studded with guardtowers, gates, and murder holes. Cherry trees and paths fill the space between walls. You can feel the history when walking up towards the keep on giant stone steps with the walls looming above on all sides. The keep is reconstructed because it was burnt in the rebellion. At night we go to take photos and see kids shooting complex long exposures in front of it (glowstick trails, flash lighting the foreground, and the castle in the back).

Joy

Joy

Karashi renkon is a speciality food of the region, and consists of a lotus root in which the holes have been filled with a mix of miso and mustard, deep fried in a spiced batter. When I was 12 or so I dragged my family around Barcalona in search of (inexplicably difficult to find) churros for about two days, and my search for karashi renkon was similarly fervent (sorry Lune). Cords boy made a chance appearance during our lengthy search. In my opinion, it was worth it. We sat in a restaurant with beautifully carved dark wood panels, beside two businessmen who were drinking their cigarettes and sipping their whiskey, and I entered gastronomic paradise. The umami of the batter, followed by the soft crunch of lotus, the sweet flash of miso, and the gently burning mustard aftertaste. It was worth trailing around half the city for, in my opinion at least…

Kumamoto-Jo

Kumamoto-Jo

Kagoshima: Immediately on leaving the bus, I saw a stall selling deep fried renkon and bought some for lunch. My first bite informed me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore: it was filled with fish. The Southern port city of Kagoshima is warm, wet, and the streets are paved with ash. Ever-present on the skyline is the looming outline of sakurajima, a huge and extremely active volcano that erupts around thrice daily. It used to be an island on the other side of the bay, but in 1914 it had the largest eruption in 20th century Japan, and the lava flows formed an isthmus to the mainland. We took a bus to a town nearby, Ibusuki, planning to have a sand onsen – you are buried in hot sand, caused by geothermally heated water flowing to the sea through the beach. The bus took longer than expected and I ended up grumpily stomping down the main street, sweating profusely, and muttering about how much I wanted to be buried in hot sand. There was a queue, which meant we didn’t have time to use the commercial sand onsen, but Lune dug in the sand nearby and we had a street onsen to heat our feet.

Cheap Onsen!

Cheap Onsen!

Returning to Kagoshima we were distressed to find that our ferry to Yakushima had been cancelled. I went to ask ferry staff if their boats were headed to Yakushima, whilst Lune rang the tourist information centre. Rather worried about where we would sleep, I returned to find that Lune had booked us into a hostel at the base of Sakurajima in a hostel owned by a hippie and an Okinawan musician. Hero. We took the £1.50 ferry to Sakurajima and had a relaxing onsen, which was far too hot, leading to me sitting for extended periods of time in the cool pool to recover. An old man with crinkled skin floated face up in the hot pool for a very long time, with his toes hooked onto the side to keep him in place. Top class bathing. Moon Garam Masala (our hostel) faced onto a carpark, had a portaloo, and was filled with posters of hippie gatherings and driftwood. The TV played home video of gatherings in the past. Two topless Japanese men drummed intensely in the hills. The female hippy had a weathered face and was very friendly. Kindly, she had offered to cook a vegetarian meal for us, and so we enjoyed locally picked seaweed tempura, seaweed salad, and carrots. It was delicious, and it was interesting to chat with her and the slightly gruff musician, who told stories with excellent impressions. Lune baulked (understandably) at the small fish floating in her miso soup; I had thankfully downed mine without looking at it. We went to sleep in a bunk bed with an aloof Korean sleeping on the floor. At dawn we woke and took the ferry back to Kagoshima, with the sun rising above the volcano, to head to Yakushima. Sadly we didn’t get to see it erupt, but for a great photo of it, try http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130311.html.

Life in the Shadow of Death

Life in the Shadow of Death

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.

 

Amazing Views, Asakusa, and Raw Eggs for Breakfast

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

Wheel Nice

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

Man

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

MM21 Drydock

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

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

Food

Miruku Kuremas

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

Weekend

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

Thundergate (not a scandal involving Thor)

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

Senso Ji

Poor Minnie

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

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

Fried Chickenisha

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

Punk beats down on bollard

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

Everyone needs an Albatross Harp

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

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