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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

Catching up at Christmas

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

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

My first new lens

My first new lens

Turret Car

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

Poor Eels

Poor Eels

Woodblock Tuna

Woodblock Tuna

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

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

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

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

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

SONY DSC

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

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

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

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

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

Shinkansen!

Shinkansen!

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

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

Pick me! Pick me!

Pick me! Pick me!

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

SONY DSC

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

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

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

 

Fuji, Falconry, and Kamakura

Mount Fuji is the most iconic peak on earth. The name alone conjures vivid images of a huge mauve cone, topped with snow, in the minds of those who have never seen it. It is not a mountain but the mountain, the platonic ideal of which all others fall short. Like all truly memorable summits, it stands alone, isolated and massive, rather than peeking over the shoulders of others. Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn, Mount Mayon, Fuji-san crowns the lot, and this weekend I went to see it up close.

The Boss

Its outline is ever-present on the approach from Tokyo, and looms larger and larger as the road wends its way through verdant hills. An hour into the journey, we turn off the highway, and I assume we have arrived, for by now the great volcano is so vast that we have to be at its base, surely. After a toilet break, we drive onwards for another hour, my jaw dropping lower as Fuji-san rises ever higher. The autumn colours are just beginning to show through, and the bright red ivy leaves strangling conifer trunks makes it look like the forest is burning. At last, we stop at a viewpoint a few miles away, and finally, we can enjoy it in the open air after so long pressed against windows. Ignoring the teacher`s suggestion that we take photos of it with the carpark in the foreground, myself and a small band of renegades head to the viewpoint 50 metres away, which causes a surprising amount of consternation. On the small mound there are stands of long grass, yellow flowers, and people with cameras. The plain between the mountain and us is sparsely populated with denuded cherry and conifer, which peter out as the altitude increases. The bare slopes are a complex mix of deep gold, dark brown, and faint purple, which intermingle like camouflage paint. It is worth the teacher’s ire. The sides of the mountain rise gradually and symmetrically, slowly increasing in gradient, accelerating upwards, suggesting an asymptote. The curves terminate abruptly, never meeting, either side of the crater. Snow is dusted more liberally onto the North side. It is too perfect, too designed, too beautiful to be real. It fills up the sky.

 

See, I was justified in using “replete”

Our next stop is a bird sanctuary, the front half of which is filled with sad owls in small Perspex boxes gazing morosely out at the cameras. I skip this section to find a flamboyant greenhouse replete with flowers and hanging baskets. The angel trumpet tree has very impressive flowers. I sulk a little because we are inside so close to Fuji, but thankfully we soon head out past the emus, which are being hand fed by some courageous tourists in their enclosure, to a wooded glade with a perfect view of Fuji above. There is a bird of prey demonstration here, and shortly after it begins I have my heart set on a shot of fuji with a raptor`s silhouette. I flick up the shutter speed and manually focus to where I think they`ll fly. The hawk flies too low, the owl (avoiding a goldilocks reference) too low, but the falcon flies just right. I get two shots with it central, one with a lure, and one without. Much to my surprise, I prefer the one with the lure and the rope.

Lucky Shot

Le Gang

We stop for lunch beside a lake encircled by hills and filled with waterskiers. Everyone pitches their food into the middle and feasts with wide smiles. At the end of the meal Japanese toys are produced (I’ve forgotten the name), which you spin by twisting the rope, maintaining its motion by pulling the string outwards when the bob stops spinning.

 

Spinning Class

If you would like an idea of what life is like in Japan, try the following. Imagine you are in a cult, and then add in the cityscapes, futuristic gadgets, and stunning scenery found here. The word cult is almost exclusively used negatively, especially in recent years, but here I use it in the sense of a community bound by common beliefs and actions, which may be viewed as strange by outsiders. This is not to say that all of Japan is one large cult, but rather that aspects of the national psyche produce a predisposition towards ‘cultish’ behaviour. Especially important (in my opinion) is the emphasis of the collective over the individual, which contrasts starkly and often admirably with Western individualism. Perhaps it is time for some examples rather than what could be critiqued as navel gazing…

 

Tsurumi ward provides very cheap Japanese lessons to foreigners, run by volunteers, and this weekend all the classes were invited on a group trip to the base of Fuji-san. This was of course, irresistible, and we turned up bleary-eyed at 7:40am on Nichiyobi (Sunday). Orange ribbons on safety pins were distributed to allow easy identification of wandering gaijin, and soon we were sat comfortably on the seat allocated to us by stickers on the headrests. Think a school trip but with more rules. Seats that folded out into the aisle meant the bus could hold 25% more people than usual. Each of the ten Japanese Senseis gave lengthy speeches as we set off, pausing regularly to stimulate chorused replies and applause. The bus stewardess (seemingly present on all bus tours) then gave another speech, and then tunefully sung a hymn about Mount Fuji. This was rather soothing, until the song sheets were distributed, the dance routines learnt (mainly shoulder thumping and clapping), and we all were exhorted to join in (which we did). Most of the song was a mystery to me, except the line (roughly translated) Fuji-san is the first mountain of Japan. Once into it, the group’s chorus and synchronised movements seemed the most natural thing in the world, as we wound through densely forested hills towards the ever-present snow-capped peak ahead.

 

At the bird sanctuary we had been told to remove our stickers, and when setting off home we found this was to allow those who had been sat at the front to be allocated seats at the back, and vice versa. No mingling of partners, just a question of fairness regarding bus position, apparently. The return journey was similarly filled with entertainments (and half-hourly stops at service stations); we began with a quiz. This was in Japanese, and I only understood the first question, but the sensei nearest to me seemed to misunderstand quizzes somewhat. Whenever a question was asked, she would thrust the microphone towards a student and loudly whisper them the answer. My meiji smarties were the reward for repeating that the 1000 yen note had a picture of Fuji upon it. Once the stewardess was out of questions, she distributed bingo cards, and a TV screen folded down from the roof to call us. Each number was followed by a lengthy instrumental that seemed to have been composed with the sole aim of invoking insanity in the listener. Finally, the first BINGO was greeted with whooping and applause, and a blaring rock riff from the TV crowned the jubilation. A prize was passed back, and the Bingo resumed, I presumed to find second and third place. However, it became clear that the Bingo came would continue, with applause for each additional winner, until everyone on board had won. After an hour my time investment was amply rewarded with a Mickey Mouse ring and ring holder, which now holds pride of place at my desk.  Bingo finally concluded as we hit traffic returning to Tokyo. Karaoke began shortly after.

 

PARROTS IN LOVE

A small part of my salary is automatically deducted each month to continue my membership of the charismatically named “RIKEN Mutual Benefit and Wellness Society”. This week my (female) colleagues told me that a monthly company Yoga session would be taking place after work. Me and Brussels Glasses (Belgian, with glasses and wavy blonde hair) decide to give it a try. We turn up with towels and sweatpants (Brussels Glasses) or shorts (which were in hindsight too short), ready to relax for the next hour.  The hall is tall and airy, and smells strongly of air freshener. The bottom half of the walls are clad in light pine, the upper half has planks rotated in front of a white wall. It reminds me of the sound baffles by motorways. A thin and taut Japanese woman turns puts on a CD full of the tidal sounds, bird song, and directionless music favoured for massage. We follow her lead and hold our hands together in prayer position. The instructions are in Japanese. Everyone closes their eyes, and me and Brussels Glasses steal a smile at each other before taking the plunge. The instructor talks expansively over the music, and I intermittently peak out from between my eyelashes to check everyone else hasn’t moved into the bewildered yak position or similar. Eventually, we open our eyes, and begin slowly bending at the waists, backs arched, arms held in a crucifix. It feels like diving in super slow motion. Next we are made to hold the stress positions outlawed by the British military until my arms and legs are screaming. The instructor periodically calls out instructions (most of which I can understand, thanks to Judo), and yukkuri, meaning slowly. Yoga is a bit harder than we expected; it is a long hour. By the end we are drenched in sweat and my legs shake softly as I try to walk out and thank my tormentor. She sees our sorry state, and says with a smile:

 

“Did nobody tell you? This month it’s power yoga

 

No, I replied, glancing at our giggling co-workers, no they did not.

 

RIKEN’s foundation day was on Monday, and brilliantly was a holiday. After putting on my washing I packed a bag and took the train down to Kamakura, an ex-capital (almost all of Japan was capital at one point or another in its tumultuous history). In 1333 it was lost, and around 7000 Hojo people committed seppuku (a rather unpleasant Japanese hobby). All my T-shirts were in the wash, so I just wore a thin sweatshirt. The weather was unseasonably warm, so by the end of the day I was a borderline biohazard. It’s good that I went alone. Kamakura lies beside the sea, and is filled with temples (65) and shrines (15). Throughout the city steep forested hillocks burst upwards, little islands of nature above the streets. In fact these hillocks are so common that it seems more like both city and jungle patches are islands, rather than one lying within the other. This lends the place a wild and peaceful feel.

Bring on the cherry blossom

The avenue to the main Shinto temple has impressive torii and is clearly designed for cherry blossom; I’ll return in spring. The Shinto temple (Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu) has curved red bridges, prayer flags, and watercolour painters on fold out chairs. There is a gardening competition in 3x3m plots. Mosses and stone dominate, rather than flowers. Numerous sites have bloody stories. Children in traditional dress are common, and later I find that this is an aging ceremony of some form, attended when 3, 7, and 9 (I think). The place is filled with history, and peace and pigeons.

 

 

 

 

 

Kencho-Ji

Next I head to Kencho-Ji, the oldest Zen monastery in Japan. It has been a monastery almost as long as Oxford has been a university. The usual reds are absent here, instead the deep brown of ancient, woodworn beams. People stroke and pat them gently. Whilst taking a photo of a golden gate, I hear a loud manic panting, and glance up to see a Japanese man with the dimensions of an obese polar bear looking down at me. I stammer out Konichiwa, and he nods in response. I realize he wants to get past, and stagger out the way, feeling that in a wide open plaza this wasn’t really necessary. Not that I said anything. Asking for directions at another temple, I get onto a ridge walk to the Daibutsu (giant Buddha). Striding along, munching natto with chopsticks, bamboo overhead, sweating profusely, the world seems anew. After getting lost briefly, I find the bronze Daibutsu, which is extremely impressive, having being cast in the 13th century, 13 metres tall, and weighing 93 tonnes. It moved forward a metre in an historic earthquake. Flowers and incense lie before his huge folded hands. It is getting late, so I grab a green tea ice cream (a bit too sweet and floral), some taco doritoes (delicious) and get the train back home.

Big Bronze Buddha

Amazing Views, Asakusa, and Raw Eggs for Breakfast

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

Wheel Nice

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

Man

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

MM21 Drydock

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

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

Food

Miruku Kuremas

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

Weekend

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

Thundergate (not a scandal involving Thor)

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

Senso Ji

Poor Minnie

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

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

Fried Chickenisha

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

Punk beats down on bollard

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

Everyone needs an Albatross Harp

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

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

Nihon E Yookoso!!

The title of this entry means, predictably, welcome to Japan.

I am sitting in the departures lounge of Heathrow airport with hundreds of people percolating around me and sweat soaking through my T-shirt. A turbaned man with a wonderful moustache is browsing digital cameras. Two Malaysians sitting opposite are examining their newly purchased “Xtreme Magic Sing” Karaoke set. A blonde girl with a short floral skirt and a silver nose ring sways past. Before security I said goodbye to my family for an unspecified time of at least half a year. We aren’t very good at showing emotion, especially I and my dad, but everyone was tearful. My voice was wobbling too much to thank them for all that they’ve done for me. It’s not really something you can send in an Email. A modern day explorer replete with a beige linen suit and a straw hat sits down to read an advert for unlimited broadband. In 19 hours and 35 minutes I will reach Tokyo, my new home, far from everything I leave behind.

The Biggest Passenger Plane in the World

The Airbus A380 is the largest passenger plane in the world, and most resembles an enormous flying beluga whale. Its bulbous nose has a high domed forehead, and its tailfin stretches skyward as if in preparation to dive. From the departure lounge I was slightly disappointed by its size, probably due to the lack of a reference point. This disappointment abates once I calculate that there are approximately 480 passengers on my deck. The plane has two decks, and the idea of a plane which can carry 16 busloads (and baggage) is suitably awingAircraft cabins are like limbo; a timeless placeless space that hangs between destinations. Tiny oval windows and disembodied mood lighting. I gaze upwards through the dry recycled air and watch the ceiling morph through pink, lilac, purple, green. S once told me how she thought the same of motorway service stations, as we nursed coffees at midnight just outside Manchester, which is how I came to think the same way about aircraft. All the seats have their own entertainment system. Something about flying compels me to avoid watching anything thought provoking, and a glance around at the sea of action films and romcoms suggests that most people feel the same. The oriental man beside me strikes up a conversation, and I reply slowly (for he must be Japanese) to tell him that I am heading to Japan, with a large smile (for he must be Japanese). He is, of course, American, and headed for Dubai for two weeks of business and golf in the desert. The flight to Japan is identical, with the addition of unlimited free noodles on demand.

Baggage reclaim is signposted by smiling Japanese women with signs standing behind each conveyor belt. I feel lost as I enter into arrivals with hundreds of Japanese people looking on and pulling luggage around, and after a couple of laps of the hall find my luggage delivery desk, where the man is very kind and wishes me well. Downstairs I take the Narita Express to Shinjuku. The train is spacious, empty and fast. The ticket conductor is mildly affronted that I have sat alone rather than beside a heavy set sweating man who has his bags on my seat, but tells me to stay when I start to get up. Nearing central Tokyo, I crane my neck to watch the buildings stretch ever higher into the slate grey, overcast, dusk, with trims of lurid neon and Kanji characters. It all gets cyberpunk as the alleys get darker and the streets get deeper, intermittent lone cars and grimy windows. Shinjuku station is vast, with platforms stretching out to either side as if looking into an eternity mirror. Two million people pass through here daily. After a half hour walk and a full litre of sweat, I emerge into the hot humid night, and walk to the hotel. It is a western chain, but my room has massage hotlines and erotic pamphlets nonetheless. I feel a little naughty staying there. On the plus side, there is a bum washing toilet, a free robe, and free slippers.

At 8 30 the alarm rings and I shower in a deep rectangular tub, designed to allow (cramped) baths. The hotel has a ¥100 breakfast deal, which sounds economical if not appetising. A corridor from the very conventional hotel lobby leads to a long room with tatami floors and paper walls. Tatami are floor mats, conventionally made out of a rice straw core with a softer coating of rush straw, now often made out of chippings or polystyrene. The tables are low, with a depression underneath for your legs to occupy when you sit on a floor cushion. Two Japanese women are feeding a toddler, and I scan their trays for clues on navigating breakfast.

The miso soup is decidedly fishier than any that I tried in the U.K., with side bowls of nori (seaweed) and spring onions to add as desired. The miso I tried in the UK was hearty and warming, but this is less palatable as I am a vegetarian, and because I do not like the taste of fish. The rice (kome) is sticky and rounded, like risotto rice, as it is Oryza sativa japonica. It comes with pickled gherkins and red cabbage, and okra in a sticky sauce, which I suspect is natto (fermented soybeans). The meal as a whole is mildly unpleasant, although the okra is delicious. I suspect my perception had as much to do with nerves as with the cooking. Towards the end of the meal two Japanese businessmen with very good English strike up a conversation, and ask about property prices in the UK, and my family’s line of work. Upon learning that my parents are vets, the shorter and more weathered of the two tells me that his daughter is sent the pets of Bill Gates to treat, and laughs heartily. I don’t think he was joking.

Sakura House office. I am sweating and tired, but the staff are very nice, and give me a cold tea (ocha) to sip whilst filling in my tenancy agreement. I receive my key and multiple warnings about Earthquakes, and then return to the hive of Shinjuku station.The JR railway company is running a campaign on being a considerate traveller, but sarcastically, so the one I am underneath on the slowly swaying train reads “Please do open your newspaper wide. It will expand your knowledge and reduce space for those around you”. The gentleman opposite takes the advice literally. Soon I am standing in my room for the next year. It has thin board walls, faux wood flooring, and sprinkler pipes across the ceiling. The door is the only site for a poster, as the walls are easily damaged, but I resolve to stick photos along the wooden boards that display clothes pegs.

All the Octopus You can Eat

The next adventure is shopping. Seven Eleven is across the street, and appears to only contain manga, ready meals and condoms. Although an attractive diet, it is expensive, and so I leave with a pen and some paper to look elsewhere. After trying  a similar shop (these are called konbini), I reach a supermarket, subterranean and labyrinthine. Trying to shop on a budget in Japan seems to be a form of product roulette, with some bizarrely cheap items, such as mushrooms, and some typically expensive ones, such as rice. Imported foods are understandably expensive, and I think kome is because Japan is self-sufficient on rice and does not allow cheap imports. Compared to home there is a larger frozen section, filled with fish and cephalopods, more ready meals, and less alcohol. Aubergines are smaller, mushrooms are stranger, and noodles come straight. I buy a pet chilli plant from the shop next door after paying in the supermarket.

Jetlag is a condition rendered doubly irritating by the fact it is both too pervasive too ignore and too mild to whine about. Daytime feels like a waking dream, your body hungover. The plus side of my poor night’s sleep was the knowledge that at 3 30AM the roads are still busy. Queues in the middle of the night, composed mainly of vans and taxis. The second time I wake my room is bright, and there is no alarm. This is worrying, and a glance at my watch confirms my fear: it is 9:05, and I have missed S’s call. Ignoring many lessons about food safety I reheat my kome from the previous night, set at this point to the consistency of Stretch Armstrong, and slice banana into it. Sticky Japanese rice tastes slightly like porridge, so it made a cheap and comforting breakfast.

Kanji=Impossible

Nat and I visit the immigration office together to register our addresses. Nat is tall, 23, with blonde hair and light stubble. He speaks excellent English and German, as well as reasonable Japanese (the result of teaching himself for two years). He has saved for this trip since leaving school, and has enough money to spend a year finding work. His determination and desire astounds me. We agree that kanji is borderline impossible, and that the suggestion that Japan should abolish nuclear power by Yoshihiko Noda (the PM) is ill-conceived given their lack of natural resources and energy intensive lifestyles. Having said that, if anywhere can innovate its way into a low energy, neon-lit future, it’s Japan.

Nat goes to have Ramen at a railway café, and I visit the ¥100 shop (hyaku yen shoppu). A short time in Tokyo leads a person to conclude, however grudgingly, that life is expensive, and that is that. If you are feeling the same way, then the ¥100 shop is your port in the storm. Imagine a Tokyo store in which you can afford every item. Imagine a poundshop which isn’t stocked entirely with useless shit. A mystical world in which anything could lurk in the just next aisle. I wander around, eyes scanning for the next bargain, with a strange, well, spiritual feeling borne of a capitalist life. Rainbow coloured coat-hangers, Tupperware, plant pots and stationary follow me and my broad smile home.

Yummy Egg and Less Yummy Daikon

For dinner, I cook up mini aubergine (nasu), onion, garlic, and what I thought was tofu. It turns out to be a block of what I’d call synthetic egg, and tastes worryingly good… This time, the daikon was diced at the side, but remained stubbornly unappetising. The Indians (Sandy, Reke, and another I’m yet to learn the name of) are cooking impressively elaborate curries, with chappatis cooked on an open hob. Sandy is vegetarian, speaks no Japanese, and works in I.T. He offers to teach me how to make chappatis, and I accept gladly; they look and smell delicious. I’m determined to persevere with an imitation of Japanese cooking, but I can see why the Indians are sticking to their normal cooking. The prospect of work in the morning is mildly worrying, but not extremely, as it all feels like a game rather than reality, I’m not sure why.

4AM this morning, which counts as an improvement. Then 6AM, a panic and a download of a freeware alarm clock. My second watch alarm wakes me at 7 30, and I find the freeware alarm clock was useless as failed to rouse even the computer from its sleep. Everyone at work, except service staff, apparently speak fantastic English, a somewhat unfair consequence of a Western-dominated (for most of its history) scientific literature, but one that is extremely cheering to a lonely gaijin (foreigner/alien). The labs look to be well equipped and spacious, and ordering new equipment is perfectly acceptable according to Christian. Imagine you get to design your own experiments and genetically engineer plants. And you get paid for it! The honeymoon period shall end when the first negative results arrive.

Lunch is communal, and the canteen has a better vegetarian selection than most canteens in the UK. Gyoza dumplings (filled with pork, as it turns out), rice, salad, pickles and the ever disappointing daikon fill me up. The dumplings, of course, are delicious. The water machine also serves green tea. I have the panic filled first day at school moment whilst holding my tray in front of a large packed hall, and thankfully my lab waves me over. We discuss being vegetarian and places to visit around Japan. Kamakura sounds like a nice escape from the city, with views of Fuji.

M is employed to ease the transition to Japan for foreign workers, and provided indispensable directions for me before reaching Tokyo. I finally meet her, and she takes me to get a bank account. The bank is similar to those in Britain, but has door guards, and the sensible ticketed queuing system favoured almost everywhere in Japan. There is a catch-22 that means foreign residents cannot open a bank account without providing a phone number, and cannot buy a phone without first opening a bank account. This is avoided by using someone else’s phone number. The clerk speaks spitfire Japanese at me, with occasional glances at my interpreter, which is a slightly unsettling experience. Once finished the clerk produces a large book of paint colours, with around 40 different shades, with names like charred cherry and mint breeze. I pick grasshopper, and am soon given a bright green bank card. I present my gift of marmalade to M once we are on the train home.

The Way Home from Work

My first weekend! Breakfast call with S, then back to bed with Friday Night Lights, my new TV show. It’s American and gripping, with a slight air of depression that appeals. Exercise has been absent thus far, and so I decide to jog to the local park. It’s small with nice landscaping. A lake surrounded with conifers is split by a curved concrete bridge. There is a grove with short bamboo, and a monument with unpolished granite rising jaggedly out of a square pool. The run takes me past Shinagawa aquarium and a well-attended kids baseball game. The heat is heavy but not unbearable.

On Sunday I meet E (who I have recently found out is interning in Tokyo) at 9 30, so leave my room an hour earlier, expecting a lengthy journey to central Tokyo. It takes 20 minutes. E arrives and we head to the imperial palace in the deluge. Thankfully she has brought along an umbrella from a hyaku yen shoppu (100 yen shop), but my shorts and flip flops are soon soaked. The sky is low and misty; tower blocks become indefinite shadows. Apparently some valuations in the 1980s put the worth of the palaces land above that of all the real estate in California. There is an expanse of grass with a border of Minu trees, which are irregular but have a similar feel to their shape. The walls of black stone rise up sheer from the grass or water, and are constructed of huge rocks piled carefully up. It gives the effect of a honeycomb or a pile of chocolate fingers. Huge green bronze doors keep visitors out of the inner garden, which is opened two days per year. E was here the last time this happened, and a Japanese man gave her two pine cones “for chrismaseru”. There is a running race aroung the grounds, despite the weather, and some of the less serious contestants are wearing ponchos or bobbing along with umbrellas. We chat about Oxford, our summers, and life in Japan. E has studied Japanese so is more at home than me, but my work makes life easier for me by the sound of it.

Rain

Lunch is charged by weight, and we follow the lead of C and T, having met them at 12 in Tokyo station, drenched. There seem to be a few vegetarian options, but most have small bits of meat in, and there is definitely an octopus tentacle in my seaweed. The omelette is delicious. T takes us to Tokyo University. It is the most prestigious in Japan, and one of the only two public ones. In the University A lone archer is practicing Kyudo, hitting a 36cm target from 28m. In Kyudo the target is smaller, but all hits are equal (presumably because in battle one hit is enough). The rain continues to belt down, and we chat under umbrellas, the damp hiss punctuated with dull thuds. T offers to show us the grounds of the University, and we soon stumble across a football game on astroturf marshland. The players are struggling with the sodden ground, and shortly the game finishes. A huddle of miserable players with bowed heads file on for the next match.

Product of the Week

Next we head to the Tokyo metropolitan building on the subway. It has a free observation deck, but our main concern by this point is getting dry. We ascend, as ever, awkwardly in an elevator to the 45th floor, and emerge onto the observation deck to behold…nothing. There is just white light from every window, constant and pure. It seems they’ve changed their stairway for an elevator. On closer inspection, it becomes clear (foggy) that we are up in heavy cloud, and all we can see is the ground directly below is, which is suitably distant. Shortly we decide to go to a pub, and my first week is over. Phew!

Thanks for reading this far if you got here, future posts will likely be short and snappier (hopefully).

Word of the week: Natsubate – The weariness felt in the heat of summer

Imported word of the week: Karifurawa

Kanji of the week:Cha-Tea. Looks kinda like a fence and a mountaintop and a tea plant. If you squint.

Similarity of the week: Barber shops have red and blue poles outside

Difference of the week: Coffee bags – somewhat like a teabag, split along one side and hung on the mug, to allow boiling water to drip through the ground beans and be filtered. Neat.