Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Autumn must nearly be here

Last night in the local supermarket the feature display was Kirin beer with an autumn design of Japanese maple leaves - special autumn brew.....  It still feels like summer, but I guess autumn must be on the way.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Air con -

Air con, air con, air con.

To have or not to have.... what a dilemma

Recently NHK has been shaking it's head about social inequity citing  'lack of airconditiong' as a reason why people have been dying from heat stroke.   Uuuhhhh.....  
It's a bit unimaginative to conclude the reason for dying of heatstroke is lack of aircon in the home - nevermind the windows, drinking water, fans, water spray bottles, light clothing  etc.    The logic doesn't really follow & I suspect they must have shares in Tokyo Denki (electricity)....

We don't have aircon;  we use a fan.  People are invariably shocked when I say as much...."but how can you survive?"  Um... I just do...

When I sat down to write this, I challenged myself to see if I could come up with 10 clearly different reasons for not having aircon.... Let's see....

1.  It makes me feel clammy - cold on the inside but my skin sweats - like it's messing with my internal body thermometre.

2. It blocks my nose.

3. It dries my skin

4. I. have an admittedly unscientific belief that being in air con makes one aircon dependent.  If you're accustomed to the heat it doesn't affect you as much.

5. I enjoy the breeze that comes in through the windows.

6. It's cheaper  (contrary to most people's assumption, this is not the main motivator).

7. Having an aircon backing onto the balcony might make the clothes dry faster but it makes the balcony too  hot to sit on.

8.Tokyo has a horrific heat island problem and aircon is seriously exacerbating it.  (More on that ilater)

9. It allows me to be a self righteous curmudgeon with other people's wasted energy.

10. It assuages my conscience come winter when the heater in on permanently :)

Easily done!

All of that said though,  I was sorry not have had it last week when Lily & family visited.  It would have made for more comfortable sleeping.

Back to point 8.  The heat island effect will be the subject of a new post.

A little bit of India in Japan

Tying on the rakhi
Last Tuesday was the Indian festival of Raksha Bandhan, and since Lily,  her boys, and her nephew visiting from Canada, were in town, Tokyo was the place  to celebrate.   Raksha is a mostly northern Indian, mostly Sikh and Hindu celebration that celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters.  Brothers pledge to protect and care for their sisters and give and give them a gift.  Sisters tie a rahki  (thread) around their brother's wrist and feed them sweets.  If there is no sibling or relative  of the opposite sex,  it is quite legitimate for someone else to take the role, or take the role on behalf of someone absent.    Since Lily's family, including the boys' female cousin is in Canada, Lily asked me to be her proxy and tie the bands arond the boys' wrists. What an honour!

Even though the custom probably has its origins in deeply entrenched patriarchy it has evolved into joyous festival that celebrates family bonds. The boys were beaming and  looked so handsome in their Indian finery;  it's a really warm occasion that  imparts knowledge and pride in their Indian heritage.

As befitting the occasion, we lunched at a nearby Indian- Nepalese restaurant.   While not the swankiest Indian in Tokyo with its new  white and blue hibiscus tablecloths,  it suited well - cozy, friendly, convenient, with better than acceptable food.

Happy Raksha !

The pictures here are ones that Lily took.

Celebrating Raksha - entrees - the salad here is pure Japanese

Friday, 27 August 2010

Train manners (again)

JR  manners sign
A picture dedicated to my dear friend Lily, who has been staying with me in Tokyo this week.   The picture made me chuckle, as it's exactly what happens.   It's quite disappointing how many *non priority people* use priority seats. Outside priority seats it's survival of the fittest.  With a 1,3 and 6 year old - none of whom can reach the over head straps to stop them falling over if the train lurches -  Lily is far more deserving of a seat than most of the people who can be found in the priority seats....  I think only once in three days did anyone offer a seat to her, and that was a nice lady who let her boys take the front seat on the Yurikamome monorail. 

A rude man
The kind of person who sits in the priority seats can be seen in the picture on the right  -  a man who after physically pushing me out of the way to slide into the seat (regular seats not priority) on my way home this evening,  would no doubt  have been content to sit, pretend to sleep and   'think of excuses' had a person bent over with a walking stick stood in front of him.     One of my other friends in Tokyo was carrying her just two year old and asked someone in the priority seats if they wouldn't mind standing  - and was met with  expletives in otherwise impeccable American English..... from a mid 20s, well dressed Japanese woman. (Admittedly extremely unusual.)

The Baby Badge
Sometimes it's tricky though.  I'm quite happy to give up my seat (easy to be generous in this respect when I am rarely on the train for more than 25 mins)  and have few compunctions about suggesting to someone else that they stand for a fellow traveller who obviously  needs a seat, (some times to Hiro's embarrassed dismay....)   but less obviously pregnant people are tricky.  I got a death glare a while back  from someone, whom I presume was unfortunately proportioned rather than pregnant as I had assumed...  That has prompted me to sit on trains and ruminate on whether it is worse to insult the person in front of me by  misjudging them as pregnant, or worse to not give up my seat for her....  Fortunately the railways issue a baby badge (above) that alerts people to the fact the person wearing the badge (usually attached to their bag) is pregnant.  How effective it is in persuading people to give up a seat?  Probably not very when I see people burrow into their mobile phone while  Lily trys to balance three little people ....
All that said though we had fun on the trains - checking out the Shinkansen zipping past, watching the speedometre in the drivers carriages, doing chin ups on the over head straps ;)  With one adult, it would have been a lot less fun.

Monday, 23 August 2010

A typical breakfast

Breakfast from back left
Tofu with grated ginger,
Grated daikon,
Dipping Sauce (one on the opposite side as well)
Okra & tomatoes sauted with ponzu (citrus vinegar of sorts), basil, salt & pepper.
Miso eggplant
Chopped shallots
Chopped cucumbers
Somen noodles

Today's breakfast, a breakfast typical of our place, not of Japan.  Breakfast has evolved this way on account  of Hiro's late nights.  Neither of us feel like eating when he gets home after eleven ,   so breakfast has become the main meal with the most vegies and most nutrition.     This is a very quick meal.  

  • Tofu... 'scooped it out of the punnet' - (20 seconds including time to grate ginger),   
  • grate daikon - (perhaps a minute),  
  • dipping sauce - for summer dipping sauce I buy it ready made  and dilute with water /ice (30 seconds),  
  • okra & tomatoes (6-7 mins including chopping time) I made this last night though,  
  • miso eggplant (6-7 mins including chopping time), 
  • chopped cucumber (1 minute),  
  • somen noodles are boiled for 1 minute.  
  • shallots (1-2 minutes chopping) done last night.

Quick, easy and uses minimal heat in the kitchen.

Just a note (to placate my mother)  we do eat meat, not every day, but in a similar style of it being one of a number of dishes.  

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Some summer images

Rice in Tochigi getting close to harvest time

Sendai Tanabata Star Festival decorations in Shibuya
(even though Tanabata is usually celebrated on 7 July, in Sendai it's celebrated in early August.)

I think every Japanese home has a ceramic pig holder for mosquito coils.... why exactly... I'm not sure

Summer flowers in the mountains of Nagano
The Japan Alps of Nagano in summer - much of the year this road can't be traversed 

Fishing for goldfish at a summer festival. Goldfish are a traditional symbol of summer.

Pickled cucumber on sticks.  A summer treat.

Girls in  yukata - light and made of cotton yukata are perfect summer wear.

The tinkle of windchimes is said to make people feel cool.

An auspicious sign for older drivers?

Elderly driver sign to be changed to 4-leaf clover
Bending to the wishes of older drivers,  Japan has revised its  koreisha  mark,  which identifies 'older' drivers.  In 1997, Japan  introduced a system whereby drivers over 70 were asked to voluntarily display a mark on their car, much like a learner driver,  "in case their age affected their driving".   Drivers over 75 are theoretically obliged to display it.   In Australia, where at least among some people the mantra 'never ask a lady her age or her weight', prevails,  the very idea of publicly announcing one's age would be enough to cause great indignation, if not apoplexy.

In Japan, where people unashamedly ask people's age (to determine who is older and more senior in the relationship), the issue has not been about displaying the mark, but about the design of the mark.   The mark on the left - an autumn leaf - was the original design.  But the teardrop-esque shape was considered reminiscent of dying autumn leaf .... and resented by people in and approaching the 70+ age bracket.  The new design on the right is supposed to be a stylised four leaf clover that incorporates the letter S (for senior).... I hope it's auspicious, though no doubt the S = Senior will be lost on the majority of Japanese who are supposed to be displaying it.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Much has changed in 65 years

Yesterday (Sun 15th) commemoration services were held to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War Two.   The biggest is held at the Budokan in Kita no Maru park in Tokyo and is attended by the Emperor, PM, various politicians, government officials and  family members of former soldiers.   It's a solemn day with pledges all round (including from the Emperor)  that Japan is committed to peace and  war must not happen again.

In keeping with the spirit, as a conciliatory gesture, Prime Minister Kan declined to pay respects at the controversial Yasukuni shrine (more on that another time) *,  a  gesture  no doubt appreciated in China and Korea, where the stubborn visits of PM Koizumi in the mid 90s created a great deal of angst and escalated tensions. (see picture below)

Protests against Yasukuni visits in Hong Kong

 "Shame on Japanese Militarism"  1.

 The war commemoration followed Kan's  apology to Korea,  issued  the week before,  on the 100th anniversary of Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula.    It was the first time for Japan to apologise to Korea specifically, as well as the first time to acknowledge it was a  'forcible'  annexation.  The comments seem to be a reflection of his true beliefs more than engagement in realpolitik.   Much has changed in East Asia since the occupation of Korea and even the most right wing xenophobe would be prudent to  move with the times.

Japan, China, Manchuria, with co-operation
there will be great peace on earth (China
on the RHS, Manchuria on the LHS).

When Japan occupied  Korea and then Manchuria, arguably it was doing nothing different to what other colonial powers were doing at the time.   Actually, I raised an eyebrow last night at a 1932 news reel of Lord Lytton (the man charged by the League of Nations with investigating Japanese occupation of Manchuria)  speaking sternly about how Manchurians didn't want the Japanese ruling them  - I guess the irony  of British India and the 1930 Salt March was lost on him... but I digressed to a soap box....**

Japan in the 40s embraced the rhetoric of the 'Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere'.   The picture on the right typifies the sentiment - happy China & happy Manchuria relying on responsible and noble Japan to lead them forward. 'The co-operation of Japan, China and Manchuria brings great peace to the world'.  In South East Asia the Japanese Imperial Forces boasted that they were liberating SEA from the yoke of European colonialism.   There was no question that anyone but Japan, the benevolent, would be in charge.

Japan 'liberating' South East Asia
The idea of an Asian prosperity sphere has never really gone away, even after the end of the War.

Walking around Tokyo these days, more than ever it feels that the idea of a genuine  Asian co-prosperity sphere is actually emerging, one that has co-dependence rather that exploitation as its core.

Mainland Chinese tourist sightseeing bus in Ginza
Restrictions on Mainland Chinese tourists have been relaxed, leading to an 80% increase in their numbers over the past year.  The last few times I have been to Ginza, the department stores  particular seem to have more Mandarin speakers shopping than Japanese and bus loads of tourists are coming and going.  Apparently the fact that designer labels in Japan are genuine, rather than fakes is a major drawcard.  All major shops that take credit cards are now accepting the Chinese Union Pay card.   Shops and hotels are starting to have Mandarin speaking staff.
Chinese tourists are moving beyond the cities to onsens. ski fields and historical. & religious sites.
The university where I teach is one of many that have started to offer  Mandarin as one of its second foreign languages.

Daikokuya Okachimachi with Union Pay
The economic relationship of even 5 years ago has shifted quite dramatically with Japan now providing services to Chinese consumers.  Chinese firms have also started to buy into Japanese companies, Yamada electronics a notable example.  There are more  skilled  Chinese workers in Japanese companies, and Chinese students (also Korean and SEAn) make a sizable part of the part time work force.

The changing situation has the potential to be good for both sides. Last week, to the dismay of many - particularly on the right,  it was announced that China has overtaken Japan as the world's second biggest economy, a logical development since China has close to ten times the population.  PM Kan makes a refreshing change from some of his belligerent predecessors, one can hope that goodwill can extend through out the region for better political relations to accompany changing economics.   One can also hope that closer contact will have the potential to stop Japan slipping further into economic malaise.
Union Pay - the Chinese credit card

Picture 1.  Anti Japan protests in HK following Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni  "Shame on Japanese Militarism"
2. With the cooperation of Japan, China and Manchuria, there can be great peace on earth. (the flags are imperial China and Manchuria, Japan in the centre)
3.  Mighty Japan liberating SEA.***http://www.seasite.niu.edu/crossroads/aneher/warinsea_slbs.htm

* I'll write more about Yasukuni at some point in the future.  But in short, it's a Shinto Shrine in central Tokyo where the souls of all soldiers who died fighting for Japan are enshrined (whether or not they want to be).  This includes war criminals who were specifically enshrined in ceremonies in 1959 and 1978.
**  I am not a  Japanese right winger in disguise as a foreigner, but I still find this quite ironic.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Ryuokyo - a tokyo day trip

Yesterday the sun was shining brightly, the motor bike was beckoning and we headed north.  There was no fixed plan, just a rough map that a friend had drawn of a scenic mountain road near Nikko in Tochigi prefecture.  It was a pretty road  winding up through forests and rice fields from Fubasami to Kiyotaki. There wasn't much in the way of places to stop along the way, and we ended up following signs through Nikko to Kinugawa Onsen, a place I have been curious about since Japan Rail and Tobu began joint services there serveral years ago.
Kinugawa Onsen town itself was thoroughy unremarkable, though it would have been beautiful once.  Oversized  ferro-concrete apartment blocks that have been built to accommodate large groups of sightseers who want an onsen (hot spring) experience close to public transport dominated the landscape, laying waste to the nature that originally made the destination appealing.   The Japanese bubble has long passed and several o buildings seemed to have been abandoned, leaving the town with a rather tired and forlorn atmosphere.  The tourist centre there did have good information though.  We picked up a pamphlet for Ryuokyo, a place neither of us had heard of, but the pictures looked good :)   And so we headed on.

Ryuokyo looked like the pick of the pamphlets: a ravine, waterfalls, sheer cliffs, nature trails, forest, an endangered frog preservation area.     It is a couple of stops north of Kinugawa Onsen on the Yagan Minami Aizu Railway line (change at Shin Fujiwara), though we continued by bike.   For a Sunday  in summer, there were few sightseers, though I imagine in autumn the spectacular colours would bring armies of leaf watchers.  The sightseers who were there almost all walked down the steps to the see the first waterfall, and then promptly returned to the point of origin, without traversing  the nature trails.   All the more peaceful for us!    
 After some consideration we opted to follow a loop path that took about 45 minutes rather than walk the full length of the nature trail (est. 3 hours).  The longer walk had appeal, but the trains back only run every hour, and waiting for 50 min for a train had no appeal...

The terrain was similar to Shosenkyo, which we visited in April, though unlike Shosenkyo where the walking trail is by the edge of the gorge, the nature trails were up to 10 metres back from the edge, making the forest rather than the ravine the attraction.   But it was definitely worth seeing, and made for a very pleasant day trip from Tokyo.

Ryuokyo station  on the  Yagan Aizu Kinugawa Line

The fare table at Ryuokyu station - only in Japanese but it shows the prices and where the Kinugawa-Aizu line joins up with other lines.
A map of the nature trails


The waterfall that most sightseers seem to come to see.

On the nature path

The walking path by the gorge has a lot of steps and walking boards to minimize the impact of human traffic.

The gorge


Monday, 9 August 2010

Rather public public toilets

I've opted not to think about the rationale for the design of the public toilets below....

A public toilet from the footpath near Shinanomachi (Tokyo)

Taken from the foot path in Kanda (near Tokyo station)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

what a pity, what bad luck, what great luck

On Sat we arrived later than anticipated, in a massive downpour, totally drenched.
(Who ever told me the Japanese Meteorological Agency don't get it wrong was blinded by parochialism).
In order to park on the base original registration documents were required.
(Bryn had asked what was needed and wasn't given that piece of information.)
Most bikies carry photocopies rather than originals - and as the downpour demonstrated, it seems quite reasonable. So the only alternative was to park off base. 

No problem - 1000Y/ 12 hours.  3000 Y max, not so bad.


Arriving back there on Sun, I read the fine print.
1000/12hrs Mon-Fri.  Weekend charges were something like 200y/20 mins. We put in the ticket.... OUCH!!! more than 12,000 yen!!!!  140$ or so.  OUCH!!

We figured "you get that", lesson learned on not using public transport in Tokyo, and put in a 10,000 Y note.
It spat it out, I put it in, it spat it out, I put it in, it spat it out.
A battle of wills.
Hiro took a look and read the sign - 10000 notes couldn't be used.
(A sign I could have read if I had tried.)
I didn't get that piece of info and tried again.
The card got stuck.
I pressed all the buttons to get it to spit out.
It didn't.  The next car drove up, put in it's card.
He paid his, but our card was gone.
No way to pay.
He asked if we wanted to exit with him.
I gratefully said yes please.

The ticket was gone.  What else could we do?  We drove off.

Hiro must have been watching too many police chase criminals reality TV shows....
About 4km down the road conscience got the better of him.... 
Unwilling to be hauled up as a criminal for something with no criminal intent,  the only option was to return.   I called the help line number of the car park.  I explained what had happened.  I didn't tell them how much it was - but they didn't ask either.
I said we were out of the car park but hadn't paid, that the machine had taken our ticket.

Perhaps he was shocked by the honesty, perhaps it was because it was close to closing time, perhaps because it was a bike (and apparently wasn't actually meant to be in there), perhaps he found my Japanese too excruciating,  but he kindly said.  

'Don't worry, just go home.'

A perfect weekend :) 

A weekend out of Japan in Japan

Tuesday, the first Tues of the month, non burnable rubbish day.   A stockpile to take down stairs. Since non burnables shifted to 1st & 3rd Tuesdays only, it can be hard to keep track.  Curry rice for breakfast & several half written blog entries to either finish or trash.

The weekend just passed was like no other weekend I have had in Japan.
Bryn, a US friend of Lily whom I had met several times previously,  the Yamashitas from Niigata, the Fukases from Nagano and  Gina and her family from  eastern Tokyo, and us  to her place for the weekend.  She lives on the Yokota airbase, one of about 50 wholly US,  military installations in Japan.  The issue of  US bases in Japan is complex, and although there is vocal opposition to the bases in Okinawa, you don't hear it much in Tokyo. Although the original purpose was to keep Japanese militarism and threats of communism in check, the role of the US has evolved in being a counter balance to the heavily militarised Chinese as well as a presence to deter North Korean aggression.

The base is the main US air base in Asia and is huge. Totally self contained  it has its own school, hospital, supermarket, department store, banks, PO, American style restaurants,  you name it, it's there. Furthermore, everyone speaks English and  I can really understand why some military personnel never go off base.

It was so not Japan!  We needed to present out passports and foreign registration and be issued with an on base day pass.  The registration office had a long list of foreign nationals who are not permitted on the base.  It was no surprise to see Somalia, Afghanistan, &Cuba on the list,  but the rationale for excluding nationals of key allies such as  Singapore, Taiwan and France puzzled me.

Bryn was a total trooper, despite everyone arriving at different times, and us arriving significantly later than I had calculated (and thoroughly drenched from thunderstorm that didn't appear in the weather forecast),  she checked everyone in, ferried people here and there, dealt with bureaucratic dramas about parking, organised for people to be in places where they could be occupied while waiting for us stragglers to arrive and all the while  remained totally unflustered and in remarkably good humour.  I would have been tearing my hair out.

Hiro and I went straight back to Bryn's  place to change into dry clothes before going on an expedition to the all American supermarket.... The supermarket goods are flown in directly to the base from the US,  not unlike the Berlin blockade really. The goods are tax exempt and meat and dairy in particular were astonishingly cheap - ricotta was about 1/5 of the price that you can get it in international supermarkets here (it's not stocked in ordinary supermarkets).

 Bryn, who epitomises what remains Dad's most vivid memory of being in America - warmth  and hospitality- had made extraordinary preparations:  a canopy, jumping castle and monster size grill - perfectly suited to the monster size pork ribs!    The Japanese men excelled themselves cooking, and with vegies straight from  Heather and Ken's vegie patch in Nagano, drinks from the local bottlo,  and  the superb company, how could have been anything but a good night!  Being able to just chill with such good company is a real treat.

Bryn's place is big enough to feed and sleep everyone. No need to watch for the last train, think about  two hour time limited restaurants, worry about the weather,  deciding on a central meeting point convenient for all,  thinking about somewhere that is child friendly, anxiety about disturbing neighbours. Going to the park or a restaurant, isn't the same as being able to have people over.

We went out for brunch on base the next morning.  The volume and variety of food was staggering.  Roast pork, roast beef, roast turkey, roast duck, anything that usually goes with a roast - potoatoes, gravy, vegies, even rice,    salads, antipasto, pasta, fruit, cereals, toast, omelettes, bacon, sausages, ham, eggs, wedges, pancakes,  pastries, cakes, icecream and and and and....  I really hope they have a good system for the left overs!

One of the most striking aspects of the base is how incredibly racially mixed it is.  It wouldn't matter what race or mix of races you were there, no-one would look twice.  As Bryn said, people in the military go all over the world so it's quite natural that spouses come from various places.   It's actually not very often I get to meet the husband of friends married to Japanese men.   And it was ironic that  it was Bryn who was able to bring people together.  Something about Japanese culture makes it normal for partners to have his and her friends, much like his and her toothbrushes.  Quite different from western countries.  It's even rarer for Hiro.  Hiro has met Masahiko several times and is always impressed by how sweet and involved he is with the boys, and he made the same  remark about Ken.  It's quite different from his experience of growing up in Japan, and very good for him to see.

It was a terrific weekend.  Thanks so much Bryn  & Ethan (and all).  Hope to see you all again before  long. :)