Sunday, 28 May 2023

Samurai Japan and Japan's Most Popular Sport: Baseball!

The start of May featured the Golden Week holiday - a series of consecutive holidays giving Japanese the rare chance to take a block of time off to travel or return to one's hometown - and the weather was absolutely gorgeous! Many Japanese enjoy cycling and hiking during Golden Week - the picture shows a stunning view of Mount Fuji from Oyama, Kanagawa, a sacred mountain not too far from Tokyo billed as one of the great spots to hike in eastern Japan. Resting at home afterwards - I like to put a hammock out on the balcony - there is one sound during the months of March to October that personifies the Japanese summer, perhaps even more then the buzzing cicadas - the crack of bat hitting ball. Indeed, a key and eagerly watched event of the summer is the National High School Baseball Championships (Natsu Koshien=甲子園) the largest scale amateur sport event in Japan which culminates in a two-week final tournament in August.

As a Brit I'm pretty clueless about baseball - I didn't even realise there was a UK team until recently - but I did attend one game in Japan (in Fukuoka) and was quite taken aback by all the organised chanting and dancing. There was also a mass release of rocket ballons at some point in the game - and beer sellers wandering around with giant kegs on their back! My American friends tell me that Japanese baseball actually differs from the US version, with a smaller ball, playing field, and strike zone plus a twelve or fifteen inning limit in which draws are allowed - though that doesn't mean a whole lot to this baseball ignorant Brit to be honest! Although a relatively new sport, it has become a part of the Japanese psyche and is pretty much the unofficial national pastime in terms of popularity. It was introduced in 1872 by an American and the professional league was establised in 1936; today there are two leagues of six teams. The picture shows the monument of the birth of baseball in Japan at Gakushi Kaikan, Tokyo.

While baseball remains the most popular sport both to watch live or on TV (see here), in terms of participation the number of people in Japan playing soccer (7.5m) recently edged above the baseball playing population (7.3m). This may change following "Samurai" Japan's recent victory in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March which saw Japan become world number one with a dramatic 3-2 victory over America in the final. In Japan, this game recorded 42.4% household viewership rating (視聴率), astonishing given that the game started at 8am on Wednesday here! The quarter-final between Japan and Italy was actually the highest-rated game in WBC history at an incredible 48.7%, meaning the game was watched by almost half the population. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (野球殿堂博物館) at Tokyo Dome is currently holding a special exhibition to mark Japan's triumph and soccer-loving BritishProf went to check it out. The sacrifices one makes as a blog writer!

The museum is rather small but packed full of mementos of previous WBC games, including signed baseballs, winner's medals, and Ohtani's jersey from this year's victory (pictured). Unfortunately, the actual trophy was doing the rounds of Japan's baseball grounds when I visited. There is also a lot of information on the birth and development of baseball in Japan and of course a huge room featuring all those who have been elevated to the hall of fame (including quite a number of non-Japanese).

And so back to the hammock - and the hypnotising thump of bat on ball and cheers of the crowd carrying on the wind. It's incredible I can hear the chants and songs from so far away; below is a video clip from a National High School Baseball Championship game showing just how frenzied a Japanese baseball crowd can get! In the meantime, if there are any sports lovers among you, especially baseball enthusiasts, do please drop me a note in the COMMENTS! (Used under Creative Commons Attribution license. Credit to @chibasportsouendan, direct video link here.)

Sunday, 30 April 2023

Japan's Hidden Fish Paradise - with Fantastic Views of Mount Fuji to Boot!

Japan does not generally feature much in the UK media, and if it does the focus is typically on something exotic or wacky, but recently the UK papers have been full of articles on "Sushi Terrorism" following online videos of customers at conveyor belt (kaiten) sushi chains engaging in various unhygienic behaviour such as licking communal soy sauce bottles. While labelling it "terrorism" seems a bit of a stretch - the Japanese media generally used the word itazura meaning mischievous, naughty, or engaging in practical jokes - the behaviour did cause shockwaves in a country which prides itself on cleanliness and also loves its fish. On that note, I thought I'd focus this month's post on the subject of seafood.

What fish are eaten in Japan and UK? Brits tend to be rather conservative when it comes to fish, and 80% of all seafood eaten in the UK is one of the "Big five":  cod, salmon, haddock, tuna, and prawns. On the other hand, the most popular fish in Japan were salmon (sake/shake), tuna (maguro), pacific saury (sanma), mackerel (saba), and yellowtail (buri). As hinted at before, Japanese eat a broader variety of fish - there is a strong awarness of what fish are currently in season - and eat it at different times of day too, prepared in different ways (grilled salmon at breakfast for example). 84.3% of Japanese say they eat fish at least once a week, with only 1.9% saying they do not eat seafood at all. In contrast, only a third of Brits eat fish weekly, with 12% saying they never eat it - with the younger generation even less likely to eat fish. Who said Fish and Chips was the national dish?!?

For tourists looking to get a taste of a Japanese fish market, the typical destination is Tsukiji (see also my blog post here), though this (partly) relocated to Toyosu in 2018, including the famous early morning tuna auction (you can view this from the observation deck - if you're lucky enough to get a ticket through the lottery system!). However, if you want a more tourist-free local spot - and a chance to see a real live fish market without any ticket lottery - I'd recommend Numazu Port, located at the northwestern end of the Izu Peninsula (about an hour's drive from Atami covered in last month's blog!). Numazu is full of restaurants offering kaisendon (海鮮丼) or fish bowl, various kinds of raw fish (sashimi) piled on a bed of rice - a mountain of DHA delight!

Aside from fish there are a number of other interesting things to see and do in Numazu, not least great views of Mount Fuji on clear days. At the top of Numazu Port Observatory Watergate (沼津港大型展望水門), which also functions as an anti-tsunami barrier, there is a great observation deck and I was lucky enough to catch some good views of Fuji-san, which show the snow beginning to melt. The guide in the tower also allowed me to use a picture she had taken in November on a particularly clear day - thank-you! There is a also a rather interesting statue in the park, a memorial to Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara who issued visas to save Polish Jews fleeing from the Nazi's in 1940. It has been estimated that around 100,000 people are alive today as a consequence of Chiune's actions.

Two views of Mount Fuji (March left and November right) taken from the observation deck at Numazu

Click to see on amazon

Finally, let me introduce my favourite snack - eel bones! Loyal blog followers may already know that eel or unagi is one of my favourite dishes: as I wrote here, unagi is a stamina-boosting food that is a particularly popular way to beat summer heat fatigue. Whereas the bones on unagi are always removed before serving in restaurants, the bones themselves can be deep-fried and flavoured (typically with soy sauce, wasabi, or just salt) and make a super moreish crunchy snack, one that is full of calcium and vitamins A, B2, D, and E! Definitely recommended, especially as tsumami (side-dish) with beer or sake or as a heathy oyatsu (snack) for children. If you can't get hold of eel bones where you are, then you'll just have to make do with salivating over the all-you-can-eat sashimi restaurant "Osakana [fish] Paradise" captured in the video below. Enjoy - and do let me know about your fish eating habits, preferences, and recommendations in the COMMENTS!

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Atami: Japan Seaside Resort and Hot-Spring Mecca

Temperatures are rising and it feels like spring has come at last - with Tokyo cherry blossoms officially reaching full bloom on the 22nd, change is definitely in the air. Speaking of change, on the 13th, Japan belatedly eased its long-standing recommendation to wear a mask and is now officially leaving it up to personal choice (kojin handan=個人判断). Nevertheless, most people are still taking a wait-and-see approach and continue to wear masks while checking out what others are doing - a nice illustration of how peer pressure still rules in Japanese society. 

The seasonal and social change makes it a good time to travel, and I took the chance to visit the popular tourist spot of Atami on the Izu Peninsula, a seaside (and, in the past, honeymoon) resort less than an hour west of Tokyo on the bullet train. Atami (熱海)literally means "hot sea" which refers to the famous onsen hot-spring baths dotted in the many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in the surrounding volcanic hills. Living up to its name, the weary traveller is greeted with a public hot spring footbath (ashiyu=足湯) on leaving the station, somewhat oddly named the "Ieyasu Hot Water Footbath" to mark 400 years since Tokugawa Ieyasu - first shōgun and one of the great unifiers of Japan - visited Atami.

Truth be told, there's not actually much to see or do in Atami apart from soak in the hot springs and eat seafood - in fact, Atami is now more of a commuter hub for Tokyo than a tourist spot. However, we did take a trip to tiny Hatsushima Island (see video from the 30-minute ferry ride below) which ironically has a lot more to do! There is one notable monument in Atami though, located by a pine tree overlooking the artificial beach, and that is a statue of a man, wearing traditional wooden geta sandals, kicking a Japanese woman on the ground, who is holding her arm up in self-defence.

Apparently, the statue depicts a scene, set on Atami Sun Beach, from a serialized novel called Konjiki Yasha (The Golden Demon=金色夜叉) written by Koyo Ozaki, a leading literary figure of the Meiji Era. The novel's themes are the loss of humanity, social responsibility, and love in the face of money. The scene depicts a "climatic farewell", in which the heroine, O-Miya, has just revealed to her lover, the student Kan'ichi, that she has accepted a proposal of marriage from a rich banker's son, swayed by the gift of a diamond ring. No doubt aware of the problematic nature of the image, the plaque justifies it as follows: "The statue, which depicts the most symbolic scene full of love and sorrow of the two who have grown apart, faithfully reflects the original story. In no way does it condone or promote acts of violence. We would be very pleased if you could read through the novel and consider the pair's emotions, as well as the social conditions of the time." Nevertheless, in these days of statues being torn down, and after a pandemic which saw domestic violence consultations reach record levels and female suicide spike in Japan, one can only wonder about the kind of message that such a statue sends to all those visiting this "honeymoon" resort. Do put your thoughts on this and recommendations for your favourite travel spots in the COMMENTS please!

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Brain Training Japanese-style: Flash Arithmetic and the Soroban (Japanese abacus)

Local evacuation site in case of earthquake
We've had some pretty cold days and even some snow - unusual for Tokyo - since I last wrote, and temperatures are very much up and down at the moment. News-wise there's been a lot of sympathy for the victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, due both to Japan's own experience (the March 2011 Tohoku quake was the strongest in Japan's recorded history and the 4th biggest worldwide) and its close historical affinity with Turkey. Last month, the high court ruled that the Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) executives could not have predicted the massive tsunami that led to the Fukushima nuclear facility meltdown, even though a 2002 government report had actually estimated even higher waves. Government scientists tend to be very accurate with their numbers; the latest calculations give a 70% chance of a mega quake hitting Tokyo before 2050. 

Speaking of calculations, Japanese have long come near the top in mathematics in international rankings (PISA rankings here). For those wondering why countries like Japan, Korea, and China perform so well in maths, you need look no further than the humble abacus, called soroban (そろばん)in Japanese. Walking through the neighbourhood the other day, I spotted a sign board outside a house advertising soroban tutoring. The key sales pitch was the way abacus-style mental arithmetic (anzan=暗算, literally "dark calculation") promotes brain development and mental agility by stimulating both left (language) and right (visual) sides of the brain. Indeed, those proficient in the soroban become able to complete mental arithmetic remarkably quickly in the their head by visualising an imaginary abacus. There are even "flash" mental arithmetic competitions in which competitors instantly add, subtract, multiply, or divide numbers of 1 to 3 digits that flash on a screen (video here - check out the speed of the guy around the one minute mark!). It is no surprise that in the mental calculation world championship - held every two years in Germany - Japan has consistently featured in the top three. And these guys are fast: a famous contest between a Japanese soroban user and an American calculator user in 1946 resulted in the abacus scoring a "decisive victory" and beating the machine in both speed and accuracy in everything but multiplication.

Derived from the Chinese suanpan, the soroban has been used in Japanese schools for some 500 years, though with the spread of electronic calculators it is no longer a compulsory subject (it still remains common in elementary schools as a way to visualise and grasp basic mathematical concepts). As the picture shows, the modern soroban - which interestingly is the same as the roman abacus - has four "earth" beads below the "reckoning bar" (these are the "ones") and one "heavenly" bead above (the "fives"). Moving a bead towards the bar turns it "on", allowing each rod to represent a number from 0-9. The numbers of rods varies from 13 and 17 to 23 or even 27 (longer soroban enable more complicated calculations incorporating several different numbers at the same time). Below is a video of my wife, who was trained to use the soroban in a bank to confirm the day's transactions, adding the numbers from 1 to 10 (totaling 55) and then adding two 4-digit numbers. If you want to try it out yourself, no need to buy one: there are loads of drill books as well as various apps which allow you to practice on a phone or tablet (check out soroboard=そろボード in Japanese and Soroban Training in English - there is also a wonderful video of kids using sorotouch=そろタッチ here). A great way to keep the brain active - let me know what you think in the COMMENTS!

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Pounding Mochi, Hitting Wives, and Tossing Husbands: Violent New Year Traditions in Japan

Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu (明けましておめでとうございます) - Happy New year - to my readers from a very chilly Japan! We're going through a once-in-a-decade cold spell  as I speak, so now may be a good time to take those New Year Decorations - which typically start coming down on January 7th - to the local shrine to be burned before a big bonfire. This is known as dondo-yaki (どんど焼き), a practice that supposedly "releases" the gods which the decorations have been housing over the new year period. Another common new year decoration, the ubiquitous kagami-mochi (two glutinous rice-cakes stacked on top of each other) are traditionally opened and eaten on January 11th in what is known as kagami-biraki (鏡開き). As you can see from the picture, these are typically topped with a tangerine, referred to as a daidai which is actually the colour orange in native Japanese (the repetition of the syllables supposedly points to the continuation of generations over the changing years).

As I explained in an earlier post, the name kagami-mochi comes from its shape: the copper mirrors or kagami used in the Muromachi period were round like a mochi. The kagami-mochi is thus two round lumps of rice cake (mochi) with the smaller one placed on top of the bigger one (representing the past year and the year to come). Kagami-biraki - literally "opening (breaking open) the mirror" - festivals are held all over Japan around January 11th, with the most famous being the annual New Year event held at the Nippon Budokan hall in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Here kagami-biraki involves donning Samurai armour (yoroi), the ritualistic breaking of large mochi offering (as featured on the poster), and taking to the battlefield. It also includes a ceremonial sake toast (sankon no gi) which is no surprise since kagami-biraki also refers to the traditional breaking of a sake casket at weddings.

While most people buy their New Year mochi decorations ready-made from the supermarket (made of plastic with a small rice-cake inside), some people do still make mochi themselves in a process which requires the glutinous rice to be strenuously kneaded. Traditionally, this is done in a wooden or stone mortar (usu) with a heavy wooden mallet in a process known as mochitsuki which is often carried out as a community or neighbourhood event. Pounding the mochi two hundred or so times gives it a smooth, shiny and whiter appearance. More importantly, it is soft enough to eat, though being rather bland itself it is usually consumed with toppings like natto (fermented soy beans), walnut paste, roasted soy-bean flour (kinako), and/or soy sauce (pictured).  

Koshōgatsu (Little New Year) on January 15th - a nod to the old lunar calendar - bookends the New Year period, and usually marks the last day for disposing of decorations. Although many Japanese are unfamiliar with Koshōgatsu, some rural communities still pray for a good harvest and eat azuki-bean rice porridge (小豆粥) on this day. One of the most disturbing Koshōgatsu traditions was that of hitting newly-wed brides on the backside with a sacred wooden pole or broom to ensure their fertility, a practice known variously as yome(no shiri)tataki (嫁[の尻]たたき) or yome-iwai (嫁祝い), literally "hitting the daughter-in-law's bottom" or "celebrating the daughter-in-law." Thankfully, this pretty awful "tradition" was banned in the post-war period, though a modern, ostensibly pain-free, version involving children gently "stroking" the newly-wed's bottom with small brooms is still going (see here). In contrast, one tradition that remains largely unchanged, at least in Niigata, is muko-nage (婿投げ) or "son-in-law throwing" in which a newly-wed groom is thrown down a snowy slope in the general direction of his new wife (see here). Not sure if that does much for fertility but with the plummeting birthrate, I suppose anything is worth a try. And on that note, let me ask you what your favourite (unorthodox) Japanese traditions or festivals are - answers in the COMMENTS please!

Friday, 30 December 2022

Love in the Time of Corona: The Best Japanese City for Romance

Local temple with pair of kadomatsu New Year decorations out front

The year is drawing to close, and Japanese people are typically wishing each other all the best for the coming year using the phrase yoi otoshi o (よいお年を). Post-Christmas, people have been hanging New Year decorations (such as that pictured) on their doors and pairs of pine and bamboo kadomatsu decorations are often placed either side of gates and entrances. While pandemic-wise things are slowly returning to normal in Japan - masks remain practically obligatory though outside the home - other events have made this a tough year for many, not least financially as many families struggle with rising food and utility prices. With this in mind, I thought I would focus on something we definitely need more of in this topsy-turvy world - love.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to spend time in Osaka for a conference and visited a couple of spots which suggest that Japan's second city - OK by population actually third - is actually the best place in Japan for romance. This may seem a stretch to those that live there: Osaka is undoubtedly a friendly place with great food and entertainment, and (astonishingly) came in 2nd place in the 2021 Global Liveability Index, but even locals would hesitate to call it a love hot-spot. So let me introduce two places that persuaded me otherwise.

The first is the Umeda Sky Building  (梅田スカイビル) located in the north part of the city, a short walk from both Osaka and Umeda Stations. While not particularly tall, it is the architecture that makes it stand out, two separate buildings connected on the 40th floor with a circular "floating garden" observation deck (Kūchū Teien Observatory=空中庭園展望台) and joined with two aerial escalators that seem to hang in the air (don't look down!). Umeda Sky Building was actually chosen as one of the top 20 buildings around the world in a 2008 article in The Times (PDF here). In terms of romance, the sparkling cityscape itself is mesmerising and at night is packed with couples; you can even buy a heart-shaped padlock, engrave your names, and fix it to the "Fence of Vows" where it will apparently stay forever!

The second reason for nominating Osaka as the city of love is the delightful Tsuyu no Tenjinja (露の天神社) Shrine popularly called Ohatsu Tenjin (お初天神). The popular name refers to the geisha Ohatsu who apparently committed a double suicide with her lover Tokubei at the shrine in 1703, a story which was popularised in the bunraku puppet play The Love Suicides of Sonezaki  (曾根崎心中). The play was so popular that it sparked a spate of love suicides and was eventually banned by the bakufu; today, however, the shrine has become a "sacred place for lovers" (恋人の聖地) where couples visit to pray for eternal love and also where singles can pray for romance to come their way. Heart-shaped ema (絵馬), small wooden plaques on which wishes are written, are hung up all over the shrine, which also features manga-style and stone life-size images of Ohatsu and Tokubei, fortune papers (omikuji) tied to giant hearts, a tunnel decorated with wind-chimes, and a large multi-coloured frog (?). Check out the video below and see if you can spot all these things - and perhaps add a COMMENT about your favourite shrine or temple in Japan. In the meantime, it only remains for me to wish you yoi o toshi o and pray that 2023 brings you - and people all over the world - lots of love!

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Japanese Autumn Sunsets, Falling Foliage, and Red Dragonflies

I have to apologise in advance - university entrance exams and student theses have combined to bury me in work so a short post this month! Anyway, after a cold spell a couple of weeks back, the nice autumn weather has returned. We've still rarely had to put the heating on: the sun being lower in the sky heats up the apartment in the daytime! It really is a lovely season with gloriously coloured leaves falling like confetti, spectacular sunsets (pictured), and delicious fruit: we received a box of La France pears from Yamagata last week and persimmon (kaki) the week before, known as the Queen of Fruits and the Divine Fruit of Autumn respectively.

The other morning, while standing on the balcony, a red dragonfly (tombo or, in old Japanese, akitsu) - a symbol of strength, good fortune, and happiness - landed on the railing right beside me. Whereas in England the dragonfly is often dismissed as just another insect, here in Japan it has a special place in Japanese hearts; Japanese are very fond of the critter with its large compound eyes and two pairs of beautifully latticed transparent wings and children even try to catch them using various clever techniques. As a fast predatory insect that apparently never gives up it is also known as katsumushi (winning insect) and appeared on samurai armour as a symbol of determinedness and victory. In fact, Japan itself was even once called Dragonfly Island (Akitsu-shima) because of its shape! The insect has inspired generations of poets: in haiku poetry, the dragonfly is a season keyword (kigo=季語) for autumn, capturing the essence of the season, as seen in the following stanza by Scott King: "The red dragonfly; a small amount of sunset; trapped in its wings"

As mentioned earlier, another spectacular feature of the season are the changing colour of the leaves, fondly known as kōyō (紅葉) in Japanese which includes both the red/orange Japanese maple and the yellow Ginkgo trees. Much like cherry blossom-viewing, Japanese take this very seriously and will travel for miles to visit a nice spot. One of the most popular places in Tokyo central in both spring and autumn has traditionally been the Imperial Palace grounds and a few days ago (November 26th) Inui Street was opened to the public for autumn foliage viewing through December 4th (here). I don't have time to even travel that far at the moment, but fortunately my university has some spectacular maples and other trees in magnificent shades of red, orange, and green. Almost makes it worth going into work - almost! What does autumn mean to you? Let us know in the COMMENTS!

Thank-you to David for the amazing pictures!

Sunday, 30 October 2022

Visiting Yokohama (2): Red Shoes and Red Flags in Chinatown

This week temperatures have suddenly plummeted to something like mid-November to early December levels and the pleasant autumn weather I wrote about in the last post has turned unseasonably chilly, though the skies remain royally blue. The leaves too are beginning to change colour, what the Japanese call kōyō (紅葉). In Yokohama Chinatown - which I mention at the end of this post - Chinese lanterns are being set up shaped like dragons and mystical phoenix-like "fenghuang" birds to celebrate the Chinese new year from Tuesday through to February (see here). 2022 is most definitely edging towards its end.

View of Yokohama Bay from Yamashita Park, with Osanbashi Hall on the right and the sail-shaped Intercontinental Yokohama Grand Hotel in the background, just beyond the famous red-brick warehouses (covered in the previous post)

One of the things I like about living in abroad is the way it fosters a sense of curiosity about your surroundings, an inquisitiveness about things around you that often disappears in your home country when you grow up. Interestingly, curiosity is the foundation of mindfulness: observing, being non-judgemental, and, most importantly, slowing down. Perhaps living in a foreign country is good for your mental health?!? A good example of Japan piquing my curiosity came during my recent trip to Yokohama when, walking towards Yamashita Park, I noticed images of red shoes on the pavement slabs. Arriving at the park, I then discovered a statue called "The Girl with Red Shoes". What on earth was this all about?

The base of the statue reads "A Little Girl with Red Shoes on" (赤い靴はいてた女の子) and the shoes themselves shine after being rubbed (for luck?) by countless numbers of passers-by. Next to the statue are the words to a children's nursery rhyme, set in the Port of Yokohama, which it says was first performed in 1921:

A Young Girl Wearing Red Shoes was taken away by a foreigner (ijin=異人)

She rode on a ship from Yokohama Port, taken away by the foreigner

I suppose her eyes have now turned blue living in that foreigner's country

Every time I see red shoes, I think of her; everytime I encounter (au=逢う)a foreigner, I think of her

This is all rather disturbing as it seems to depict a young girl being kidnapped by a foreigner! The word ijin, literally "different person", was used up to the end of the Meiji Period to describe those from outside Japan. Further digging reveals it may have been based on a (partially) true story, the story of a girl, Kimi, whose parents asked an American missionary to adopt her and take her to America but who actually died of tuberculosis in an orphanage before she could go. However, others argue that most of the story is a fabrication and that the poem/song was in fact a metaphor for the demise of socialism in Japan (see here for a rather lengthy discussion). This got me thinking about the symbolism of red shoes: as a child of the 80's my first thought was of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" which uses red shoes as a symbol of western civilization and colonial control. Indeed, Louis XIV was said to have used fashion - the wearing of red heels - as a form of social control, the colour representing absolute power. Then again there is Hans Christian Andersen's 1845 fairytale "The Red Shoes" about temptation. But I digress. The point is that small observations can trigger an exciting chain of thought!

This post was supposed to be about Yokohama's Chinatown, the 160-year-old 500㎡ district crowded with some 250 Chinese restaurants and shops, including second-hand clothes shops and kitchen stores, but it looks like I've run out of time and space! Needless to say, it's definitely somewhere you should visit, if only for the incredible food; right now, Taiwanese fried chicken and Beijing-style candied strawberries seem to be the big thing. As I mentioned last time, this year China and Japan are celebrating 50 years since the start of diplomatic relations in 1972 and given the poor state of relations it was encouraging to see both Japanese and Chinese flags being waved together during the recent October 1st celebrations to mark the National Day of China. Check out the lion and dragon dances in the video below and, as always, don't forget to add a COMMENT if anything in this month's blog has piqued your interest!

Sunday, 2 October 2022

Visiting Yokohama (1) : Autumn in Japan's Most Cosmopolitan Port City

Autumn approaches and temperatures vary wildly here in Japan. A couple of weeks ago a cool front made things decidedly chilly, but this weekend has been a perfect 29℃, with a nice autumn breeze and none of the horrible summer humidity. This unseasonal heat doesn't match the calendar: today (October 1st) is traditionally called koromo-gae, the day for changing your wardrobe from summer to winter clothing! Typhoons have hit almost weekly recently, bringing torrential rains and much damage down south. It is the season of crickets (suzumushi) chirping quietly (replacing the intense buzz of the summer cicadas) and also the period when the stunning Red Spider Lily (higanbana) blooms briefly. The change in the season is also reflected in the food available - Japanese are much more conscious about seasonal foods than the British - and the supermarket is full of autumn staples: matsutake mushrooms, chestnuts (kuri), Pacific saury (sanma =秋刀魚 - the fish name itself contains the kanji for autumn!), sweet potato, pumpkin, and persimmons (kaki), the "divine fruit" of autumn. 

In the university at least, autumn is also the season of non-stop work, known evocatively as jitensha-sōgyō (自転車操業), literally "bicycle operations" based on the analogy that if one stops pedaling (working) even for a minute you'll fall off! But on the other hand, it is a beautiful season to be out and about and a little rest is definitely needed so at the risk of falling irrevocably behind on the work I took a short one-night break in Yokohama. Yokohama is Japan's second largest city - bigger than Osaka - and is found just south of Tokyo, on Tokyo Bay. The cosmopolitan port city is a tourist mecca, an economic, cultural, and high-tech industrial hub famous for its Chinatown, museums, (amusement) parks, and shopping. The most visible landmark is undoubtedly the Cosmo Clock 21 100m high Ferris wheel in Yokohama Cosmoworld which even boasts two transparent "see-through" gondolas (and a view of Mount Fuji if you're lucky!). The night-time illuminations are not to be missed!

We decided to try out the Intercontinental Yokohama Grand, located on a pier and famous for its spectacular views over the bay. The hotel itself is shaped like a sleek yacht under sail (or a segment of a tangerine?) and is a short walk from Minato Mirai Station. The cosmopolitan feel and sense of history are everywhere, no surprise given that Yokohama was the first gateway to trade with the west: Commodore Perry landed here, with a fleet of warships, in 1854 to present US demands for a trade agreement, persuading the Japanese government to end its national seclusion policy and sign what were known as the "unequal treaties". Still wanting to limit contact between Japanese and Western "barbarians", the new port was built near the tiny isolated then-village of Yokohama. The original trading port was a two-pier wharf known as Zō-no-hana (elephant's trunk), named so because of its shape, and the wharf remains to this day. Later, state-of-the-art warehouses built from red brick sprang up, the red-brick (hardly ever used to construct houses in Japan) a symbol of the international nature of Yokohama. Red brick is synonymous with the "foreign"; indeed, I remember visiting an elementary school in rural Japan once and the first question I was asked was whether I lived in a red-brick house!

One of the famous red-brick warehouses (赤レンガ倉庫) with the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the 2nd tallest building in Japan, visible in the background

There's so much more to write about Yokohama, so I'm going to leave it here for now and continue next time. In particular, I'm going to focus on Chinatown, perfect timing give the two countries are now celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations! In the meantime, why not leave a COMMENT - which would you prefer, a mountain view (Mount Fuji) or a sea view (Tokyo Bay)?

Sunday, 28 August 2022

Bullet Train: Burapi, Ekiben, and the Seven Minute Miracle

After almost four rather lovely weeks in the UK, BritishProf was back "home" - after holding my breath to see whether the PCR test, the requirement for re-entry, would be negative. Landing at Narita was like jumping into some kind of time-slip: while the UK has very much forgotten about COVID-19, here in Japan it was the worst it has ever been and I had to quickly get back into mask-mode. For example, breakfast in my Narita hotel involved temperature taking, hand-sanitising, surgical gloves (!), and a Perspex screen. Signs implored guests to avoid talking during breakfast, a rule which most of the Japanese (but few of the non-Japanese) followed as far as I could observe. After almost a month of living as if Corona no longer existed, it was very much down to earth with a bang.

During my time in England, I used the train a lot and was pleasantly surprised at how much things had improved with e-tickets, platform markings, and even trains arriving and leaving (more or less) on time! On the down side, there were a series of train strikes, unheard of in Japan, which I managed to work around. While regular trains were greatly improved, there is still nothing in the UK like the ultra-punctual high-speed Japanese bullet-train (shinkansen in Japanese) which has the remarkable record of never having had a single fatality or injury in over 50 years of running. Indeed, the excellent novel by Kotaro Isaka called Maria Beetle (マリアビートル) is set on the bullet train and the plot relies very much on exact arrival and departure times at stations!

In fact, Isaka's book has now become a (mediocre) Hollywood extravaganza called "Bullet Train" starring Brad Pitt which is due to open on September 1st here in Japan. Burapi (as he is affectionately known in Japanese!) was here last week to promote the film and after participating in a yakuyoke (厄除) traditional ceremony to ward off bad luck, rode a special red-carpet decorated shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto with the cast and director (see here for more). Since I was heading to Osaka to speak at a conference - and had been given tickets to ride the (hopefully assassin free) shinkansen - I thought it would be timely and topical to do a post about the train. My trip was to be a short two-and-a-half-hour trip from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka on the fastest train (called Nozomi which means hope or desire) but the shinkansen tracks run all the way from Hokkaido to Kagoshima in Kyushu (see here for a report by someone who did the full 11.5 hour almost 2100km/1300m journey in a single day!).

Before getting on the bullet-train one thing you absolutely have to do is to buy an ekiben (駅弁), a very reasonably price boxed lunch (bentō=弁当)bought at a station (eki=駅) which contains a variety of small local delicacies. The Japanese take their ekiben very seriously - there is even an ekiben Grand Prix Contest held every year (see here for the most recent winner). So armed with my ekiben and two tickets - as well as the usual jōshaken (basic fare ticket) you also need a special tokkyūken (express ticket) to ride the shinkansen - I queued up in the designated spot to grab my unreserved seat (reserved seats are available but you have to pay more - personally, I've never needed to book except at the busiest times like New Year).

Inside the shinkansen is spacious, with plenty of leg-room, free Wi-Fi, and trolley service (though you should definitely buy your ekiben and drinks in the station - much cheaper with a lot more choice). Top-tip - if you're travelling from Tokyo to Osaka sit on the right and if the weather is good, you might be lucky enough to see Mount Fuji in all its glory - a quite breathtaking sight! The journey is remarkably smooth and bump-free, quite incredible considering the Nozomi's top speed is 285kmh (178mph)! Unfortunately, tourists using the Japan Rail Pass cannot use the Nozomi - instead you'll have to settle for the slower Hikari or the much slower Kodama. Another plus - the bullet train apparently has the lowest emissions per passenger of any mode of transport (apart from walking or cycling)! One final notable thing about the bullet-train is its cleanliness - the cleaners are famous for jumping on and cleaning in only seven minutes meaning train turnover is very quick (see here for a video on the "seven-minute miracle"). I'll finish with my own short video of the Nozomi leaving Tokyo Station and then a clip of it leaving Shin-Osaka Station after changing drivers - note the previous driver staying to check that it departs safely. COMMENTS, as always, are very welcome!

Thursday, 28 July 2022

ABritishProfinJapan - in Britain! FIVE Differences between the UK and Japan

Summer holidays have arrived and after three years of staying in Japan during the pandemic I was more than ready for a trip back home to the UK. Tokyo had been incredibly hot in June - we had the shortest rainy season ever - and with the prospect of another scorching Japanese summer I was looking forward to escaping the heat in Blighty. Unfortunately, my plans were scuppered by a UK heatwave which saw temperatures exceed 40℃ for the first time ever. Which leads to difference number ONE: most houses in the UK have no aircon - the same word is used in Japanese too! - and train services become patchy as the tracks buckle. In contrast, everyone has an aircon (エアコン) in Japan and train services remain unaffected!

A SECOND difference is obviously the COVID-19 situation. My British friends were amazed when I said I'd never done a lateral flow (antigen) test before (another difference: these test kits were given out free in the UK, though in the latest 7th wave the Tokyo government has finally started distributing kits for free). When I left Japan on July 12th, the 7th wave was just beginning and by July 22nd new cases had almost hit 200,000. Compare that to the UK which had a minuscule 738 new cases on the same day! Of course, this can be partly explained by the fact that most people in the UK have already caught COVID - the Guardian estimated that only 15% of people in the UK have never had COVID (compared to less than 10% in Japan who HAVE had COVID!). Basically, the UK has returned to normal and despite posters on public transport advising that "face coverings should be worn", BritishProf was the only person masking up! Well, me and the odd Asian tourist anyway.

Staying on the subject of public transport, both London (Oyster) and Tokyo (Pasmo/Suica) have contactless IC travel cards that can be used on trains and buses. The THIRD difference, however, is that the scope and span of the cards are quite different: whereas Pasmo/Suica can be used throughout Japan (Japan has a very centralised government), the Oyster card is limited to London only, with different regions using different cards (my favourite is the aptly named Mussel card in Cornwall). Pasmo can also be used in convenience stores, coin lockers, and even to buy drinks from vending machines. Super convenient! Conversely, the UK is far more advanced in terms of contactless (wireless) payment. Indeed, in contrast to Japan, where cash remains king, London was almost cashless in many places - even the ice-cream vans didn't accept my cash!

Moving onto something completely different, as an avid dog-walker, I enjoyed taking my friends' dogs to the park in the UK - and noticing some of the differences with Japan (now we get to number FOUR). In the first place, given that most Japanese live in small apartments without a garden, dogs tend to be small and light (our apartment building insists we carry our dog when within the building grounds and sets the max weight at 10kg). It comes as no surprise then that the most popular dog breeds in Japan are the Toy Poodle and the Chihuahua compared with the Labrador Retriever in the UK. In fact, dogs are treated more like children in Japan, and are dressed up and groomed to within an inch of their life. This means that many dog owners in Japan don't even take their dogs out for a walk and even those that do never let them off the lead (only a few areas in fact allow this, mainly enclosed "dog-runs" which you have to pay for). I've been so long in Japan, that it's always a shock to see that dogs are let free to run in parks and forests in the UK (except for areas where dogs must be kept on a short lead). I was also surprised at the £1000 (¥165,000) fine for not cleaning up after your dog - as well as the fact that it's OK to deposit the poop in a bin before going home (in Japan poop has to be brought back home and flushed down the loo).

Finally, talking of dog walkers, having a dog is an excuse in both countries to chat with strangers. However, whereas in England it is quite common for walkers to greet strangers with a friendly hello and comment about the weather, Japanese typically don't greet or make small talk with strangers. This (FIFTH) difference is most visible in shops. In the UK, customers will almost always greet cashiers and shop staff and chat while paying for their shopping. In contrast, in Japan there is a clear hierarchical gap between customer and staff and the words used by shopkeepers are strictly scripted and painfully polite (stores will often have manuals containing set phrases). For example, walking into a shop you will invariably be greeted with the phrase irrashaimase ( ) which means "welcome" but demands no response. Indeed, it is perfectly normal - and not considered at all rude - for a customer to shop without saying a word. BritishProf's early attempts to say konnichiwa, "how are you" (genki desuka), and "this please" only served to traumatise every shopkeeper he encountered.

Well that's my FIVE differences, but there are surely many more - let me know what you think in the COMMENTS! In the meantime, while looking at differences can be entertaining it is important to note that there are also plenty of similarities between the two island-nations: one of those is the stunning beauty of the natural environment, especially the coastlines.