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


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.



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


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.



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.







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

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.


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.


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).


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

Thundergate (not a scandal involving Thor)

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

Senso Ji

Poor Minnie

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

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

Fried Chickenisha

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

Punk beats down on bollard

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

Everyone needs an Albatross Harp

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

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

Bihru o onegai shimasu


(A beer please)


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


Room with a View

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

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


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

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


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


Tsurumi at Sunset


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

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


Fuji’s Flank (In the Distance)



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


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

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



Riken Mascots

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

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

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

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


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

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


Hatagaya Football

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



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

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

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

Bird of the Week: The charming varied tit

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