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/

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Welcome to the Jungle

The Okinawan and Me

The Bug Catcher from the Pokemon Games…

Yakushima is a sub-tropical rainforest clinging to a volcanic island, with 10 times the rainfall of the rainiest place in the UK. The ferry is eerie and empty; we sit in the corner booth of a deserted coffee shop. The ofuro is empty, the noodle bar closed. We lie on the deck in the sunshine and read David Copperfield, hoping to see a whale and muttering about how little wildlife there is compared to the Scottish islands. Towards the end of our quiet voyage, we are disturbed by a portly fellow from Okinawa. A wide-brimmed hat sat on top of his heavily tanned head, and jiggled slightly when he spoke, which together with his slightly bottom-heavy appearance, gave the faint impression of one of those toy clowns that you can’t push over. He had helped us out at the ferry ticket booth back in Kagoshima, so we got up and he pointed out to us the outline of Yakushima against a thin sea mist. While the island draws closer, we chat, and find that the Okinawan is an entomologist at Ryukyu University, tracking the spread of an invasive ant species through the Southern Islands. Promptly, he disappears, and returns with a textbook on ants and a small jar of formaldehyde (in a breast pocket) containing the species in question. Soon, the nearer ridges of the island darken, whilst the valleys remain steeped in mist. It’s a little bit like the opening island shots in any of the Jurassic Park Films.

SONY DSCWe ask the Okinawan about what is essentially an American occupation of Okinawa, and he is reasonably balanced, disliking the noise and crime that they bring, but aware that around half of the island’s economy is based around the US military. The Americana that has followed them to Okinawa (drive-ins, malls, and diners) apparently draws tourists from the Japanese mainland. We ask what he would recommend seeing in Okinawa, and he recommends staying away from the bases and seeing the less spoiled North, where you can see remnants of the Ryukyu kingdom. There is a street that he warns about visiting repeatedly, explaining that it is nice during the daytime but that there are regularly guns fired by US servicemen at night, without telling us what town it’s in. He tells us that with all the construction for the military bases their reefs were destroyed. I feel a strange mix of anger and shame when I hear that.

SONY DSC

We arrive in blazing sunshine, hire camping gear, and take a bus to the island interior. A winding mountain road lifts us further away from the coast, and we are the only people on the bus. Outside we see gnarled Cryptomeria, occasional explosions of cherry blossom, and the radioactive green of new beech leaves. The forest suddenly envelopes the road; we see sika deer and Japanese macaques at the side of the road, and right on cue the national park sign. We begin hiking through the jungle, which is fairly dense but has astonishingly maintained plank footpaths. Even here the Japanese have beat back the wilderness. Despite my initial instinctive scorn at this ‘mollycoddling’, I was soon thankful for it, as hiking in a jungle is insanely tiring. 4km is quite tough, rather than a stroll. We take a detour to see Yayoi sugi, an ancient Japanese cedar. The sugis are given names if they are over 2000 years old, and there are around 100 named sugis on Yakushima (plus doubtless some undiscovered ones). It is amazing to look at a living thing that was here, waiting, in this exact spot, while Rome rose and fell. That they have stood here, indifferent, through all the triviality and gore of human history. That they were 1000 or so when Genghis Khan sent the Middle East back to the dark ages (it never really recovered). Their forms are twisted, their bark is sagging, and their trunks are mostly hollow. Their gnarled, dead white limbs poke up out of the forest, like broken fingers. Finally I understand what bonsai are trying to imitate. The ancients.

SONY DSC

SONY DSCWe walk through streams and trees, and startle a deer before reaching the mountain hut where we are staying. The only other inhabitant is a crouched Japanese man, stoking up an illegal fire and rubbing his hands together. We dine on stale garlic bread, bananas, and peanuts, then sleep, serenaded by our companion’s sonorous snores. At 6am we are awoken by keen hikers, eat yoghurt with muesli, and begin waterproofing: it is raining domestic mammals out there. The forests of Yakushima are almost monochrome; everywhere is green. Bornean rainforest feels almost like a cathedral, with a high ceiling, huge straight pillars, and a drab understory of logs/pews. The trees in Yakushima are gnarled, twisted, and low. The higher light levels and high humidity allows moss to cover absolutely everything. Boulders and roots alike are felted with emerald green, until it becomes unusual to see the grey of stone, or the brown of wood. Wood itself does not seem to be quite solid. It behaves like a viscous organic sludge, rippling in every direction, and dripping off the huge rocks that litter the mountainsides. You can almost see the forest sliding chaotically down the hill, branches colliding in slow motion. Princess Mononoke was set here, and Yakushima has the same timeless feel, and used to have the logging.

SONY DSC

Kodama

Manic Fear

Manic Fear

Rain in a rainforest is a completely different creature. It begins suddenly, and gets so hard that the air becomes a strange grey with the amount of water falling through it. You have to laugh as it sort of pours down over you, and fills the air with loud low hiss. The saying in Yakushima is that it rains 35 days a month. We have brought umbrellas (hiking in the rain with an umbrella is strangely comforting, I promise), and weave them awkwardly through the tight forest, very thankful that our faces are dry. A tattered and soggy map is lying in the mud, which we pocket. Soon the path has turned into a small river, but we are headed upwards so think that we will be safe up there. Three-quarters of the way up, the lightening starts. Thunder booms through the thick air, huge and hollow. It is the loudest storm of my life. We stride onwards, faces lit periodically white, counting the delay between light and sound. The noise and speed of the thunder increases, until I feel like we’re in ‘nam. A signpost to Taikoiwa rock points left, and we head for the viewpoint. The gradient is enormous, and it is dark, like early night, at 9am. There is an animalistic joy in struggling, scared, through the forest. We put our umbrellas down at the rock, and I walk out to see thick air and flashes and the ghosts of ridges in the distance and the sudden realisation that I am the highest thing in a very wide radius. One photo for posterity and I run back, terrified.

The View fomr the Lightening Rock

The View fomr the Lightening Rock

There is a tremendous sound, a high jagged ripping sound that is devastated by the thunderclap, which seems to shake up from below. We plunge back through the forest, descending with the water, and wondering how far you need to be from a tree that’s struck by lightning.

Rogue Flower

Rogue Flower

Rain

Rain

Walking along the lower trail, we see a thin Japanese man in a bandana and a purple wind breaker haring towards us. After making the snap judgement that he doesn’t still think that the war is on, we stay put and he tells us pantingly (in Japanese) that he has lost his map. Me and Lune exchange glances, and we give him the fragments of his map back, as well as a new one (we brought spares). He thanks us and we munch peanuts to give him a bit of a head start, to avoid that awkward side by side race-but-not-a-race feeling. Presently, he returns, and tells us that he is scared, and asks if he can come with us. You probably have to live in Japan for a little bit to understand quite how unusual this is. Imagine a British person walking up to you in the middle of the countryside and asking (to walk with you, but let’s exaggerate) move in with you. We say that we are scared too, and agree, exchanging peanuts as a sign of our bond. The stream alongside is now a roaring river, and the rain keeps on falling, while the sky keeps splitting. We see a boulder the size of a house with a small hollow beneath it, and crouch in there, feeling safe for the first time in a while. Our new companion, Tsubasu-san, is on holiday, and works in a bagel shop in Tokyo. Our voices are thin and excited as the world outside rages, and I feel safe with tonnes of damp grey stone above me. A return to the hut is discussed, as the path looks like it may be impassable further on, but we wait a while and the rain starts to slow. Emerging, we descend clumsily through the still heavy rain, and see two guys heading in the opposite direction. I assume they couldn’t get through, but they have come from our destination and this encourages us to carry on. By this point, Tsubasu-san has distinguished himself as a singularly fast and maladroit hiker, who must lead the group. We are happy to follow through the puddles and branches, pointing out the pink electrical tape that marks the trail the couple of times he tries to lead us into the uncharted jungle. We both blocked out this section of the hike a little, but I do remember that it was a miserable trudge.

Water

Water

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

Train Rides and Suicides

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

A Different Train

A Different Train

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

Unrelated Geometry

Unrelated Geometry

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

Grid

Grid

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

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

Pikachu Board

Pikachu Board

Yukatas!

Yukatas!

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

The Day with Nice (r) Weather

The Day with Nice (r) Weather

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

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

Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo Marathon

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

Go Pikachu, I Choose You!

Go Pikachu, I Choose You!

Nasu-San!!

Nasu-San!!

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

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

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

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

Sumo and Spa Towns

Taiko Tower

Taiko Tower

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

Flab and Flexibility

Flab and Flexibility

Stretching Off

Stretching Off

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

SONY DSC

Stadium

Stadium

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

Hakuho Wins a Bout

Hakuho Wins a Bout

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

Snowy Mountains

Snowy Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pro Skier

Pro Skier

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

Kanji, Can't She?

Kanji, Can’t She?

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

Zoom Zoom Zoom

Zoom Zoom Zoom

New Year

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

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

…yummy…

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

They got wood

They got wood

deer god!

deer god!

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

Brothers in charms

Brothers in charms

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

Paradise here I come

Paradise here I come

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

too bright!

too bright!

A wild tanuki appeared!

A wild tanuki appeared!

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

Fuji-san

Fuji-san

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

More Fuji

More Fuji

All the people....

All the people….

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

oh brother

oh brother

Catching up at Christmas

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

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

My first new lens

My first new lens

Turret Car

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

Poor Eels

Poor Eels

Woodblock Tuna

Woodblock Tuna

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

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

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

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

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

SONY DSC

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

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

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

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

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

Shinkansen!

Shinkansen!

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

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

Pick me! Pick me!

Pick me! Pick me!

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

SONY DSC

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

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

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