Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Big Smoke

Over the weekend I swapped the crisp, clear air of the Hiroshima countryside for the smog, grime and filth of the nation's capital. When in Tokyo, you feel that breathing may actually be detrimental to your health. Pores become clogged, fingernails gather dirt at an alarming rate, and you feel as if you're a 60-a-day Benson & Hedges man.

But I love visiting the capital. From the Hiroshima countryside it is a journey of 414 miles by air. It takes just over an hour but it is as close to time travel as I have experienced. The countryside you leave behind is, without doubt, still marooned somewhere in the 20th century - arrive in Tokyo and you find yourself firmly in the 21st. You leave as an exotic curiosity to all those around you, and arrive as anonymous as any other face in the crowd.

On a Tokyo trip, I can play at being a tourist - an oft-forgotten luxury in a country in which I have spent almost half my life. On my last trip I visited Yasukuni Shrine at dusk. In the half-light it is as powerfully atmospheric and eerie as it is controversial. This time I was taken to Tokyo's Twin Towers, otherwise known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings.

Planned in the "financial bubble", and completed after it had burst, rumour has it that the buildings' electricity bills alone are bleeding the city dry. Just looking up at the South Tower is enough to make a hick from the country dizzy. Look down and, well, the whole world starts spinning.

The views from the 45th floor are wonderful and I highly recommend a trip.

It is another world in Tokyo - inhabited by a completely different race of people. Tokyo is more than two hundred times larger than the small country town in which I live. Tokyo is neon, noise and bustle. Miyoshi has the odd patch of neon, I guess; for noise we have to make do with the primordial screeching of rogue cats on heat. But bustle? We don't go in for that in any shape or form.

Not many Tokyoites would want to spend too much time here, what with the restaurant choices being limited to ramen or ramen. But many of the locals don't care too much for the big smoke either - one young woman, born and bred here in the sticks, said she wouldn't give the time of day to any man from Tokyo, "They all speak funny and they're so effeminate. Give me a real Hiroshima man anyday."

In Tokyo, I feel like a country bumpkin chewing on his stem of straw. I stare around me at the throngs of people, stare upwards at shiny buildings that go on for ever, and just stare. In Tokyo, the shoe is on the other foot. I do the staring, and nobody pays a blind bit of notice to me. It's great for a change.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Roads to nowhere

Driving with three locals through the countryside the other day, it was interesting to listen to their conversation.

At ease in each other’s company, they would talk about local matters, often triggered by something seen from the car window - the new athletic stadium that we passed, the newly-opened road, and a rather forlorn looking housing estate with the majority of plots standing empty.

The stadium could only be half glimpsed from the road. It looked rather magnificent, though we couldn’t see the track itself. The driver said the track hadn’t actually been built yet. Unfortunately, the stands had been positioned so badly that it was now impossible to make the track big enough to reach the desired proportions.

I was gobsmacked. The "magnificent" new athletic stadium would therefore be downgraded in the national classifying system, presumably only attracting meets that incorporate the 83 metre sprint, the not-very-long jump, and the hop, skip and err, that's it.

The new road is a beauty. It looks smooth and shiny. Its tarmac surface glistens like the sheen of sweat on an Olympic sprinter. It cuts a swathe through the trees to … to … well, to nowhere really. It is deserted. “Anybody know why that road was built?” asks the guy in the front passenger seat. “It’s a carbon-copy of the one just down the road. I don't understand.”

The housing estate has some colourful, but somewhat plastic-looking, homes.

The houses themselves look welcoming, but the area around them does not. The estate has been there for several years now. Large signboards shout the message that the empty plots (plus the mandatory colourful, but somewhat plastic-looking, house) can be purchased for roughly 25 million yen (125,000 pounds) – and each house has its own hot spring thrown in for good measure.

But nobody's rushing to splash the cash, not even for the soothing forty degree waters, and the empty plots remain empty.

In his well-written tale of doom, Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, Alex Kerr laments what has happened to the land in Japan. It makes for depressing reading if you are planning to stay and live in Japan (Kerr has left). I recommend it if you too have left Japan.

If you are still here and value your Japanese friends or family, then the book can be the cause of much heartache.

Japanese spouses or friends quite rightly get a bit pissed off when cross-examined: Why are all the mountains planted with industrial cedar? Why are all the riverbanks enmeshed in concrete? Why is there no town planning? Why are old buildings, historical sights, and beautiful vistas not adequately protected? Why, indeed, are there so many beautiful roads to nowhere?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Golf in the hills

There are roughly 2500 golf courses in Japan. The photo shows a playing partner negotiating the snow at the 148 yard 4th of one of them.

For the last five years, an average of a hundred courses have gone bankrupt every year. I asked the local maths teacher if this course had suffered the same fate. He laughed and answered, "Several times."

One of the previous owners had done prison time for his part in the financial shenanigans and he is attached to one of the more unsavoury elements of Japanese society. Lots of golf courses are connected with the yakuza - after all, golf clubs involve real estate, construction, and finance ... the holy trinity of the organised crime world.

Golf club memberships in Japan can be bought and sold in much the same way as stocks and shares. At their peak fifteen or so years ago, memberships at exclusive clubs cost several hundred million yen. Now they are worth just a fraction. My playing partners all had their fingers burnt, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Golf takes a long time in Japan. We teed off at about 10am and the winning putt was holed at just before 5pm. That's far too long, but I was the only one in our foursome who thought so. It was fun though.

We stopped for lunch at the halfway point, and drank some beer and sake to ward off the cold, which meant the tee shots on the back nine were a little wayward.

The course had no escalators, no train rides to take players from green to clubhouse, and our golf buggy wasn't even remote controlled - we had to drive ourselves. The shame of it.

The financial cloud that hangs over many courses has a wonderfully thick silver lining for the average Joe - my round of golf cost me just 5000 yen (about 25 quid), a sum that was almost unthinkable a few years ago.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Commute (2) red-hatted Ojizosama

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Tense, nervous headache ... exams are upon us

Reach for your medication – it’s silly season again. Entrance exams are around the corner, and entrance exams are big news, big business, and big bother.

Last year, the news was all about burgeoning sales of Kit-Kats. By eating these evil, waist-expanding chocolate bars, good luck was sure to come your way. Why? Because in local parlance the beloved two-fingered bar is rendered “kitto katsu”. And in Japanese, this means something akin to “You are sure to win”.

Digression warning: All foreigners have their own favourite stories of Japanese pronunciation of English. Mine is the story of the man in an English class who revealed he'd had "cockrash" at the weekend. The English teacher, astounded, asked him to repeat himself. He insisted he'd had "cockrash". The teacher then advised him that in North America it was better to use the term "jock itch", and, turning to the class, asked them all to repeat after her - "jock itch". She was met with a large chorus of very satisfying "jock itch". Only later did she realise that the student had been in a car crash.

This year's big news is about the introduction of an English listening element to the university entrance exam. This morning’s NHK news featured a special section all about this and we were treated to some interesting pronunciation. The presenters "did their best" to show how it should be done by both greeting us, and signing off, in English. The words were fine, but the sounds were not.

I have a feeling this was deliberate. I’d wager that the hosts’ English is pretty close to top notch. To work for NHK, you must have had to score well in entrance exams, as well as be pretty bright. Why the faux-awkward pronunciation? Who knows? Harmony? Not wanting to put off too many viewers? Another trite reason?

The NHK show introduced a new electronic gadget to help students negotiate their new hurdle – the need to actually understand spoken English. Some sort of glorified tape recorder I think. No price was mentioned, but the new entrance exam was described as a great business opportunity. And boy is business booming when it comes to entrance exams.

Take cram schools as an example. They run on “entrance examination” fuel. There are reportedly fifty thousand or so cram schools in the country and it is a ten trillion yen business. Ten trillion yen! The mind boggles.

Here's another. Rumour has it that some popular Japanese universities make as much as thirty-five million dollars from their entrance exams. Not yen, not lira, but thirty-five million bucks.

So exams are big news and big business, and for the students and their parents they are obviously big bother.

But spare a thought for those that make the exams. They are sworn to secrecy, are reduced to speaking in hushed tones, and creep around surreptitiously in small groups with collars raised. They glance nervously over their shoulders which sag with their heavy burden. These poor creatures have spent a large amount of the year in clandestine meetings dotting i's and crossing t's. They then change their minds, deciding to cross the i's and dot the t's. Next they argue over whether the changes made in the last meeting should be reversed. This continues ad nauseam.

Why is the burden so great for these modern day heroes?

Well, precisely because the entrance exams are big news, big business and big bother.

The single biggest crime that can be committed at this time of year is to dot your t's when it should have been your i's. If mistakes are found in entrance exam questions then the world knows about it. There is uproar, and the press, the bean-counters and the students' parents want to know why - they want their pound of flesh. The perpetrators of this heinous crime are duly hung and drawn by their employers, before being wheeled out for the ritual quartering by the waiting media.

Spare a thought for whoever is next for the dreaded drop, disembowlment, and chop.

And all in public too!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Tondo time

Early January sees communities all over Japan setting fire to pyramids of bamboo. Neighbours gather and build the bonfire, and then New Year decorations, children's calligraphy, and hopes and wishes for the year are attached to the structure.

Then the whole thing is set ablaze.

The heat is intense and sake is heated in the hollowed out branches of bamboo. Sparks fly. Burn holes appear in clothing.

Mochi (rice cakes) are squeezed into the split ends of thin bamboo branches and roasted over the embers. More sake is drunk from cups fashioned from the bamboo itself.

Then the feast begins. Coals from the tondo fire are moved into a series of barbeques. Hands get burnt.

This year my family ate roasted wild boar caught by the locals. An old guy of few words remarked drily, "It should taste good - it ate enough of my rice before we caught it!"

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Land of Milk and Honey

Don’t listen to foreign blokes who’ve had too much imo shochu, (or tequila) when you’ve had a Glenlivet or two yourself. If you do, you’ll find out the following:

(1) the whereabouts of the fabled “Land of Milk and Honey” (not Israel, but apparently somewhere in Hesaka, in the East of Hiroshima)

(2) a vast array of Australian cultural terminology

(3) more home truths than you bargained for


(4) that you are the proud owner of an expensive flat-screen TV of surprisingly ample proportions

Most of the Western ex-pats in Japan tend to find themselves drinking or eating in enclaves – some more than others. I was once asked in a job interview in Kyoto, by a fearsome Korean woman, why it was that all Westerners needed to hang out together rather than to assimilate into the Japanese lifestyle as she had done. The question caught me off-guard and I think I replied that I felt I had assimilated pretty well and spent a lot of time with Japanese friends.

This answer was, of course, not entirely true, as I now know the whereabouts of the “Land of Milk and Honey”, a vast array of Australian cultural terminology, home truths aplenty, and I also have a magical Sharp Aquos flat-screen TV arriving tomorrow. Ahhh, bliss!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Commute (1) A cold and frosty morning

What the kids are reading in the Japanese countryside - manga vs the fantasy novel

We don't get too many pygmies out here in the hills surrounding Miyoshi - the odd wild boar, a few raccoon dogs, plenty of snakes and even the occasional bear-sighting, but no pygmies to date. Yet it was pygmies that woke my daughter last night, leading us to exchange beds at around midnight.

After freezing the soles of my feet on our wooden (is it really wood? ... but it's so thin) flooring, I picked my way across the fantasy novel-strewn floor of my daughter's bedroom and found the warm haven of a recently vacated bed. I turned off the light and was assailed by a galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars. It took me by surprise. I turned on the light and had a closer look around my daughter's room. Fantasy novels everywhere.

The fantasy novels are not to blame for the pygmies - that was a re-run of an old Ally McBeal episode that she caught a few minutes of - but her world is populated by strange creatures and peoples created by the authors of the books she reads. She used to read a lot of manga, all the rage overseas now - but manga is old hat in our neck of the woods. What she and a lot of her fellow Japanese sixth grade classmates are really into are fantasy novels.

Don't get me wrong, manga is still extremely popular, but top of the lending list at the local library (an oasis of sophistication in a down-to-earth country town) is a fantasy novel series. And here's the thing - you would think that with all the expertise that goes into creating manga-worlds that these fantasy novels would be the preserve of Japanese authors, but that's not the case. The top of the favourites list in our corner of Miyoshi are works translated into Japanese from the pens of Emily Rodda from Australia, Darren Shan (a 33 year-old Londoner), Kai Meyer (a German), Dianne Wynn Jones and Philip Pullman (the UK writers), and Christopher Paolini (an absurdly young American).

The manga is of course the perfect book for the ancient Japanese art of "tachiyomi". The word basically means to stand and read. In bookstores all over the country, you can find lines of people reading manga from cover to cover, thereby saving them the trouble of forking out their hard-earned yen. Reading a manga does not take all day. However, my daughter has taken the art of "tachiyomi" to new levels.

Last Saturday she read the final installment of the latest fantasy series "tachiyomi" style in the local bookstore. While she was reading I went off to do some of my own fantasizing over the flat screen TVs. Forty minutes later I returned to find her on page 85. After buying the groceries and the beer she was nearly halfway. I went home and left my wife with her. An hour or so later I called up to find out that she was still standing strong and on page 270. "Not long to go, come and get us." I did and was met by a red-eyed, blinking child with aching feet and a mind full of dragons.

Manga versus the fantasy novel. It is a tough one to call. Recent trends see manga as a growing export and the fantasy novel a growing import. My daughter says that manga are good but she prefers to read about "dragons and stuff" and apparently Japanese authors don't seem to write about them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Snow ... a test post

This is a picture of the snowfall in the foothills of Miyoshi, in the Bihoku area of Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. I took it from an upstairs window two weeks ago. Snow in Japan is big news both here and abroad.

Trawling the world's press to see how it reports on all things Japan-related is a habit of mine. Often quirky and stereotypical, you'll usually find news on stunning new toilet-technologies, or feats of work-related stamina, or solo adventurers camping in the craters of active volcanoes. However, the latest Japan news from England centres on the more serious effects of the large snowfall on the Japan Sea side of the country. I even had an email from a friend in Wales asking if I was under four metres of snow. I'm not.

I checked out the BBC website yesterday for Japan related news and most of the reporting about the snow problems appeared sane and well balanced, certainly compared to some of the English language news sources here in Japan. Many of these tended to be of the tragic-yet-dramatic variety - "Elderly Woman Trapped in Heavy Snow Freezes to Death" (this was alongside the snappy headlines "Man Stabbed Parents Because They Wouldn't Drink His Miso Soup" and "Pin-up Queen Finds Range Of Emotions While Playing Robot").

The BBC had a slideshow of "snowfall in Japan" pictures. It can be seen here:

I suppose I was not altogether surprised to see the first slide showing Mt. Fuji and the second a geisha - a clear reminder to all English readers that this was Japan and not Bolton that we were talking about. The more prosaic pictures are in slides three, four and five. They tell their own story. Some people up north are having a really tough time.

Here in the foothills in Bihoku we had our fair share of snow and did our fair share of shovelling. Biceps are bulging in our neighbourhood. The snow came before Christmas, and despite having none since the turn of the year, it seems to have no intention of leaving us.