Tuesday, 26 April 2011


Today's newspaper reported a 10% fall in cigarette sales - presumably as a result of the 100 yen price hike last October - though at $4.50 a pack US they are still very cheap for a developed country... Changes a foot? More on smoking in another post.  These are photos I took last year before the price rise.
Cigarettes marked with price increases in Sept 2010

That is a big percentage increase, even if they are still relatively cheap.

Hiro's preferred brand of  cancer

Sign up to remind people that prices are going up on 1 Oct.
in other words buy up buy up buy up....
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Monday, 25 April 2011

Great going Japan Rail East

JR East the train company that serves Tokyo and the north)  suffered terribly with the earthquake.  The Shinkansen line was made untrafficable with more than 1000 places that needed repairs, numerous regional lines have been destroyed in parts, and trains lost.

The Morioka-Akita and Morioka-Shin Aomori lines were restored within a fortnight, the line to Fukushima opened perhaps 10 days ago, today the line from Fukushima to Sendai was reopened.    At this stage, on the Shinkanen line, it is just the Sendai Ichinoseki part that needs to be fixed.  It will reopen on the 29 April.   Progress is also being made on the local lines to the coast - though the damage here is much more serious in parts with bridges washed away.  For all the complaint about Japan being inefficient with disaster response, I think the JR effort here is really remarkable.   There were problems with the electricity supply today, and trains were delayed, nonetheless it's pretty remarkable.

Hiro's cousin is getting married in Hachinohe (on the map below), during Golden Week.  It was affected by the tsunami though there were only handful of casualties.  Despite the restored train links,  I suspect the motor bike rather than the train is going to win out for transportation up there....
Tohokushinkansen Map
JR have put posters up in the railways station both explaining and apologizing for the inconvenience, and in the  past few days, posters for cherry blossoms in eastern Tohoku have also gone up.
At JR stations Tohoku destinations - Hirosaki (Aomori) and
Kakunodate (Akita) posters have returned.   It's a heart warming sight.

With one heart lets ganbarou (try our hardest)

Posters about reconnecting the train lines in Tohoku.

Friday, 22 April 2011

A protest from the park

During the week people have been handing out fliers outside the university about a protest against TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co. who run the nuclear plant in Fukushima) and the use of nuclear power that was scheduled for today.  The protests were convened by Zengakuren and started at Hosei university in Ichigaya (with an agenda aside from nuclear energy), and moved to  Hibiya Park.  Zengakuren has "tainted" past  on account of its involvement with student protests in the late 60s - the police have long memories...  I don't usually go protests that are ANTI... being  FOR  something seems a lot more constructive .... nonetheless I went in to have a look.  

Part of the reason I wanted to take a look was because there has been rumblings that Japanese media and NHK in particular are censoring the protests by not including them in news reports.  I wanted to see for myself what the situation was. 

Being  overly bourgeois, or just a product of the 1990s university system where at the time there didn't seem a whole lot to be protesting about, my only experience of large scale student protests was in Xuzhou, China in 1999 when  the US  bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia (Yugoslavia) (and was grounded by the university there as a result.....)   In Xuzhou the protests were orderly and on a phenomenal scale - tens of thousands of students marched - genuinely outraged by the bombing, but the protests were sanctioned by the government. 

Today was a rag tag bunch of students carrying professionally made anti nuke banners.  There were a few signs that identified where students were from - Tohoku University, Hiroshima, Okayama.... in total there would not have been many more than 100 protesters.  The police outnumbered protesters by 4:1 and over all perhaps as much as 8:1.

Tulips in Hibiya Park
Setting out from Hibiya Park

Lots of people in suits seem to be taking an interest.... hmmm
more likely to be undercover police than people strolling in the
park after lunch.

Police buses, the police - with the yellow and white stripes
greatly outnumbered protesters.

More police buses

Police standing by as the protesters pass by - more police
here than there were protesters.

Spot the protester...

The extent of police presence troubles me.... the uyoku (right wingers)  are permitted to drive around in black vans being intolerant - particularly of Russia and China.  So long as they don't park outside the target embassies to spout their bile they are permitted to  go along as they like it seems, this is a democratic country with free speech after all.... no?.... The level of police presence today seems very intimadatory not to mention unnecessary - if there is such a surplus - why aren't they doing shifts on the Sanriku....

From what I can see though, despite the situation in Fukushima, I suspect most people in Tokyo would opt for nuclear power over no aircon.... I am not quite sure why public interest is so low, police presence no doubts help contain any rage.

Also posted at http://wisteriaisland.blogspot.com/2011/04/protest-from-park-reposted.html  

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Easter is tricky in Japan

This year my delightful little sister sent me some Easter eggs.
Despite the commercialisation of Christmas and the the conspicuous celebration of Halloween and St Valentines Day, Easter doesn't register on the radar here at all.  I guess it's more unambiguously religious and difficult to conceptualize in a country that doesn't really see the world with monotheistic eyes. Monotheists make up about 2% of the population in Japan - (most are Christian some Muslims and a small smattering of Jews).

The symbolism of Easter eggs and an easter bunny and how they connect is also difficult to grasp.
Last night I had a  conversation along these lines with Hiro - who was being quite sincere.

"Why do you have easter eggs at Easter?" 
It's a sign of spring and new life to celebrate Jesus rising from the dead.
"But Jesus wasn't a chook..."

No, it's just a symbol of new life. 
But it should be a chicken then not an egg.

But the easter bunny delivers them.

"Why does a bunny deliver eggs,  bunnies don't lay eggs..."

Fair enough... whatever....

Nonetheless, you have to wait till Sunday to eat them anyway.....

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Twenty percent...

To cope with the power shortages in Kanto politicians and industry are desperately searching for options that will cut consumption - increasing supply is a longer term problem -somehow I don't think there will be many towns putting their hands up for a new nuclear reactor....

So far there have been a number of ideas tossed around:  industry taking turns for days off  - meaning for example something likethe car industry takes Mon & Tues as their days off, the construction industry takes Wed as its day off etc;  restricting operating hours of vending machines; switching over to LED lighting in retail; not using aircons or raising the temperature of aircon in the summer etc

Households have been asked to reduce by 20%....
It's not so easy...
Hiro is adamant we should.
I am adamant it's not really possible....
We don't have aircon, or a clothes drier (nor to most Japanese households), I watch almost no TV, I almost never blow dry my hair, we have gas hot water...

Ideas so far:
- put the heater away - DONE! - earlier than most years - even though it's gas, it still uses electricity for the fan.
- unplug the wireless router when we are out .... POSSIBLE...the worry with this is the phone goes through it so have to remember to plug it in.
- reduce computer usage.... hmmm NOT LIKELY....
- limit baking things in the oven.... um... that would be overstating my cooking capablities... I WISH....
- no ironing... Hiro has vetoed that but agrees that as he is much more efficient at doing it, he can continue ironing his own shirts. WIN WIN COMPROMISE :)
- turn off the lights  - can try to pay more attention to this. TRYING TO
- switch to incandescent lights - true to Japanese decor standards we mostly have fluorescent lights already... LITTLE SCOPE

At this rate I don't see us making it to 20%....

No Staknovites here....

Monday, 18 April 2011

Till next year...

The last of the sakura are falling... till next year.... time for azaleas....

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Being constructive

The international hysteria induced by the 7 ranking of the reactors in Fukushima seems to have moved on to other pressing affairs such as the upcoming royal wedding…
A couple of days ago, in  a refreshing sign that national govt. policy is being a bit more constructive than the Tokyo Governor. (Governor Ishihara not only has been urging people restrain from economic activity, he also attributed the earthquake to divine punishment for Japan's selfishness....)

 PM Kan has started urging people to spend, to buy Tohoku goods to help affected areas. NHK news was running with the same theme last night –recalling that after the Hanshin earthquake centred on Kobe, the people of Kobe appreciated that Osaka people kept spending to rebuild the economy.  I turned on the TV to check the size & location of an aftershock this morning and there was a story  about a  farmers markets in NE Tokyo specializing in goods from Fukushima and surrounds (the goods have passed radiation tests).  Vegies were a bit cheaper than usual & selling out. NHK was interviewing people saying they are motivated by wanting to help farmers in the area - none confessed to being there just for the cheap vegies, though perhaps that was a factor too...

As far as I know (which may not be much) Japan doesn’t really have much history of “Buy Japan” campaigns that are designed to boost the domestic economy .  Buy Japan labels are displayed prominently, but as a mark of quality (much like product of Australia, it is a by line for this doesn’t come from China), rather than from a sense that buying it will have local benefits.      Yesterday in the supermarket, there was Ibaraki spinach with ‘ganbarou nippon’  sticker. (Ganbaru, ganbatte, ganbarou, ganbatteimasu  is not the easiest word to translate – it is often translated  - badly – as fight, but it’s a word to inspire, cheer and motivate – often against the odds.)   People were buying the spinach. I was pleasantly surprised.  Now how to use up the bag of  Ibaraki green capsicum (green pepper for the Americans), tomatoes, and eggplant  I have in the fridge....  I can feel a ratatouille coming on...

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The end of the blossoms

Cherry blossoms are short lived.  Blossoms in Tokyo have passed the mankai (full bloom) stage and are waning.  The petals on the Shakuji gawa signal the end of the sakura, which is followed by the azalea season.
Sakura along the canal at Iidabashi
Sakura on the Shakuji River - best focus on
the petals and not the concrete river banks...
The green leaves emerging through the blossoms - past their
peak by Japanese standards, but this is the stage I like best
Sakura outside my apartment

The end of the season

It's not really catacylsmic

From afar Japan is probably looking rather cataclysmic. The 7.4 tremor on the weekend has been followed by a series of aftershocks including a 7.1 and a 6.1 last night and then a 6.3 this morning.  This morning's quake was centred in Chiba, close to Tokyo.  For people closer to the epicentre of the original quake the aftershocks are terribly stressful.  NHK had the cameras rolling yesterday at an evacuation centre and children in particular were so traumatised.
But in Tokyo they are becoming integrated into the fabric of the day, and usually aren't particularly troubling.  This morning's was at 8.08 though, peak time on the subway, and Hiro was on the train. All lines were halted to ascertain safety before resuming normal service.   It seems as though there is a policy to have the trains proceed to the next station.  Fortunately his train was stopped only for a few minutes & they had the doors open at the station.   For me, probably the greatest fear of commuting is being stuck in an over crowded train needing to go to the loo...  

The Sydney Morning Herald, yet again demonstrates its tabloid credentials, opening with a strong suggestiong that a fire at the Fukushima plan has caused the upgrading of the severity of the damage:

Japan has raised the severity level of its nuclear crisis to seven to put it on a par with the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago as engineers battled a fire at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

It has been upgraded, but not because of anything new, not because things are getting worse, but as a retrospective analysis of the situation.   Unlike Chernobyl, there are multiple reactors in Fukushima. 

Also unlike Chernobyl, irradiated food is being withdrawn from the food chain - with what seems to be strict & transparent testing.  (Though Madeline has explained it to me I still puzzle that food irradiation for sterilization is permissible in so many jurisdictions internationally...) 

In the last couple of days the evacuation area has been increased to include areas where radiation levels are high.  But Japanese govt. exclusion zone is still much smaller than the exclusion zone foreign govts are working with.  Realistically though, locating people from the 80km radius would mean evacuating 2 million people....If the radiation levels aren't high, I can see the logic for not applying the 80km zone.

This is a picture that was in the NY Times a few weeks back explaining the evacuation zones as they stood at the time.


Monday, 11 April 2011

Out on Thursday

On Thurs I was out & about in the cherry blossoms - local, in Yotsuya by the canal & at Inokashira Park in Kichijoji with Bryn. Bryn is at the Yokota Airbase, the largest US airbase in the Pacific.  It's been a busy place in the past month - the US has been very generous with assistance to the Japanese earthquake and a lot of aid planes came in via Yokota.

Near the canal at Yotsuya

Inokashira Park Kichijoji

Inokashira Park, Kichijoji

The pub with no beer... or supermarket at least...

At the same time as natto, fermented beans, gradually begins returning to the shelves - limit one pack per customer - beer seems to be in short supply.  Apparently there were beer factories damaged in the earthquake.... though there are many beer factories across Japan.  It doesn't seem to be restricted to a particular brand.  Perhaps the warm days has also lead to higher consumption with hanami parties... I'm sure I'll survive.

(for anyone unfamiliar with the enviable depth and breadth of Australian culture...this is a youtube link to Slim Dusty's Pub with no beer)


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Maybe things are returning to normal here

People were drunk and loud at hanami  tonight.

There was a jinshin jikko (human accident) on the trains last night.


Classes start tomorrow.....

Life seems to be returning to normal.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Magnitude 7.4

We have just had another aftershock which felt quite big in Tokyo.  It came about 15 seconds after the earthquake warning on our mobile phones. At magnitude 7.4 (initially it was listed as 7.1) and 6+ on the Japanese scale - it felt big enough to be an earthquake in its own right.  There are tsunami warnings & cautions.
Earthquake Information (Information on seismic intensity at each site)

Issued at 23:37 JST 07 Apr 2011  Occurred at (JST) 23:32 07 Apr 2011
Latitude 38.2N (degree) Longitude  142.0E  Depth 40 km Magnitude 7.4  Region Name Miyagi-ken Oki


A positive side effect?

Today I realised that since the earthquake I haven't seen a single train stoppage due to  'jinshin jiko' - human accident (which is usually a suicide).

Perhaps the value of life has increased? Perhaps people can see their own situation juxtaposed against other people's misery?  Perhaps the 'gambare nippon' - do your best Japan - adds are having some effect? Maybe it's just people don't want to further 'inconvenience' and already inconvenienced population....

At any rate - it's good.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011


The current situation has started me thinking about electricity. It's not something I have ever given a lot of thought to. When I was little, I found it odd that Mrs Collins, who used to baby sit us on occasion, used to have a near obsessive compulsion with turning out any lights that weren't being used. I thought at the time that if I am going back in there soon, what is the point of turning it off... And after uni my sister Madeline & I opted for 25% green power - it cost a bit more but we felt very ecologically responsible. In Tokyo we don't have aircon - much to the disbelief of almost anyone I know - but that's more to do with me not liking aircon than with concerted efforts to be ecological. There is no green power option here. Tokyo, and actually all modern cities, have developed in the post war era with the assumption that electricity is available. Trains, high rises, traffic lights, shopping malls, banking systems, airports, hospitals, ordering systems, refridgeration, street lights... ad infinitum

Where I grew up in Aus, electrical storms still cause power outages and people & shops can make do for a few hours with out too much inconvenience. But without electricty a city like Tokyo doesn't just lose aesthetic appeal with a black out, it can't function.  I was talking to a friend the other day whose bath has no taps - without electricity you can't fill it. A lot of people have toilets with electric flush. I learned the other day that if we have a blackout our toilet isn't going to work because the water needs to be pumped up from down stairs - no tank on the roof.  As part of the 'barrier free' efforts,  escalators have been replacing stairs.  At a station nearby, the newly installed escalator is now roped off ... The city is built on people commuting long distances.  Without the trains people can't travel in. Without a cold chain there is no meat or dairy.

At the same time as Tokyo consumes so much energy, it produces very little. The city has grown with the assumption that there will be cheap electricity produced in the regions at no social or environmental cost to residents. Only eleven percent of Tokyo's energy is produced in Tokyo.  And of Tokyo's energy consumption, a staggeringly tiny 0.7% only  is renewable.  Of the new buildings around here none I can think of has solar panels -even though Tokyo is a very sunny place - especially in winter.  As far as I know it is not possible for individuals to produce energy that goes back into the grid.  Geothermal production is negligible despite it being such a volcanic place - apparently part of the reason for this is that onsen (hot spring) businesses worry that it will damage the water supply.

Imagination is needed.  Can a city like Tokyo re-cast itself to need minimal energy? Not entirely I suspect - though it can certainly do better.  More realistically how can Tokyo, and Japan as a whole, find ways to produce energy safely and cleanly?   I don't think the regions, like Fukushima,  are going to keep tolerating being the dumping grounds for Tokyo's energy needs indefinitely.  And nor should they.

I have been reliably informed - see Heidi's comment below - that it is indeed possible to sell electricity back into the grid. I am not sure whether there are incentives to install solar power, but I hope the new Tokyo Met. Govt. apartment blocks going up near here will have them installed.... I hope that a legacy of the current disaster is more effort put into clean, sustainable energy...

From wikipedia
For more detail on Tokyo's energy ideas - disappointing in the lack of specifics.

The escalator that was formerly a staircase - now roped off

With a roped off escalator, the exit has become quite narrow.

Christmas lights on Omotesando  looking much like the
Charleston parties of the twenties might have looked like to people in the
dole queues of the Depression.....
A travelator bridge to Harumi is also looking rather excessive
three storied car parks need electricity - what to do in a blackout! 

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Sakura in Shinjuku

Endeavouring to make the most of the short time left of the holidays, I met a friend yesterday and went to Shinjuku Gyoen. It's arguably the best place for cherry blossoms in Tokyo. More relaxed and peaceful than Ueno, less morbidly gothic than Aoyama and Yanaka cemetries, less dusty than Asukayama, and more varied than Inokashira, I can see merit in the claim.  It has a botanical garden function as well and there are signs and information cards informing the variety of names of  plants.  A day with Mrs Higuchi is always refreshing - aside from being a really nice person and good fun, she's the only person in Japan not related to Hiro that has sufficient patience to weather my Japanese!
A peach with different colour blossoms
Painting the blossoms

NTT Docomo Tower from Shinjuku Gyoen
So pretty
A weeping cherry
The same weeping cherry

A little earthquake damage
Flowers under the trees
A more nature like part of the garden

Sunday, 3 April 2011

A further gripe to the gripe

I have just received a notice from the university that the welcome party  for the beginning of the new year - where new teachers have an opportunity to meet current staff -  is cancelled in view of the current situation.  

How in heaven's name walking around for a year not knowing who anyone is expresses solidarity with earthquake victims I have no idea.

Hanami season

It was a perfect spring day in Tokyo. We took advantage of the warmth & sunshine to wander around Ueno Park - with  a secondary motive of popping into Ameyoko for some coconut milk, palm sugar and tapioca.  Tokyo Metropolitan Government's request that people refrain from engaging in hanami -  picnics under the cherry blossoms - as a mark of respect to the earthquake victims seemed to have had some effect. The numbers in Ueno were definitely down, and it was remarkably quiet and peaceful.  Not really sombre, but not the loud parties that are often associated with Hanami. And electricity rationing means no evening light up of the cherry blossoms in the evening time.

Cherry blossoms have perhaps unique poignancy in Japanese culture -fleeting beauty symbolic of the transience of life.  It's a deep association that I understand but is not ingrained in my psyche the way it seems to be among Japanese.  Walking through Ueno Park Hiro remarked that despite the tsunami,  the cherry blossoms bloom, and like the people swept away by the tsunami, nature will also sweep away the blossoms: the fragility and impermanence of life...

Despite this, I can't agree with the Met. Govts. request to refrain from hanami.  For basic mental health, some sense of normal needs re-establishing.  Ueno Park had plenty of people who seem to agree. The economy is already reeling with blackouts and the effect on manufacturing, the massive drop in tourists - esp. tours from China and Korea. It doesn't mean forgetting about Tohoku, and actually with a positive spirit people are better able to help Tohoku.  It just doesn't seem constructive to take enjoyment from life merely as a symbol of solidarity.  It's a cultural difference. Hiro, puzzled at my consternation, was surprised when I said, in response to his question,  that NZ would be more likely to turn St Patrick's day into earthquake fundraising than they would cancel celebrations across New Zealand.

All that said though, I am not sure a visitor to Japan would notice the difference.  It is safe, the aftershocks are becoming smaller and fewer, there is food, people are out and about, there are people doing hanami.  Daily life is conducting itself pretty much as usual.  

This is an article that gives a much more expanded explanation of cherry blossoms, earthquakes and mortality.

Sakura at Ueno Park
Ueno park sakura

Ueno Park sakura

Ueno Park 

Dressing up for hanami
The cats were drawing more attention than the sakura

Thinner crowds

Manhole cover in Ueno Park
Posters celebrating the return of pandas to Ueno Zoo.
The last one died in 2008 - their unveiling was postponed
two weeks to the first of April due to the earthquake.  

On the first day of opening, they brought in people
from evacuation centres in Tokyo to visit the zoo.