Wednesday, 12 February 2014

What I like about Japan

So here I am at the familiar point where I am getting ready to return to the 19th century and live in a society crawling with dreadful customer service like lice on a street beggar in London of 1782. Convoluted image I know but if you work on it then you will find a very disturbing graphic has just been placed in your subconscious.

Every time from now on that you are being told by your bank, broadband supplier, energy company etc., that they will sort the problem out (after you have been holding on for 20 minutes on a premium rate 0845 number) you will see, in your mind's eye, that beggar scratching himself to death and realise that you will have to phone again within 24 hours, repeat everything you have just said and still be told the same old sorry story; I will have it solved by tomorrow.

So I thought I would just tell you all why I love Japan, love being here and feel like I am living in a civilised society in the 21st century. Obviously I needed some reference points so I have just been out in the last hour shooting some snaps locally.

One of the things I love is that Japan has steadfastly refused to let multi-national supermarket chains into their economy in any meaningful way.  Tescos have all but given up trying. The result is that local economies and local high streets still survive. OK, in the consumer market at the moment there is a lot of moaning about the fact that VAT (or its Japanese equivalent) has just been hoisted to the mind boggling rate of 8%. People are really not happy about that, they preferred the less than 3% rate but grudgingly (very) accept that with a growing elderly population taxes had to rise.

I love the nursery schools, they are everywhere. I am not sure about the economics, I don't know if everyone can afford them but they are great. What I love more than anything else is watching as three members of staff take up to 24 2 and 3 year old kids for a walk to the local park.

Each member of staff will have 8 kids, all of them holding hands in a sort of big chain. The member of staff leads and the kids stretch out in a circle behind each of the staff member's outstretched hands. Moving slowly, all remaining together, every child doing as they are told, it is beautiful to see. I would love to photograph this but obviously that is problematic for very good reasons. But trust me, it makes your heart melt to see it.

I love the fact that people are a priority. Here we have a fully fledged OB and a taxi driving patiently along behind. Is anyone ramming their fist on the horn? Is anyone having a coronary? Is there any shouting or abuse? No, absolutely not. And even when Japanese people use their horn it is a more gentle reminder than an aggressive scream.

I love that old plastic bottles become windmills. Everywhere they plant food you can see this but I am not sure why they have done it here on an inner city street of Tokyo. Maybe to scare off the crows.

There is something about this phenomenon which speaks volumes about Japanese people.

For me this is about resourcefulness, creativity and environmental concern. These are not high blown ideals in Japanese society, they are just benchmark standards. Take rubbish collection. Before I left the UK the dustman failed to collect my domestic waste rubbish bin. As this is collected once every two weeks it contained all of my Christmas material, chicken bones and other sorts of food stuff residues. I phoned the council.

Now I had my bin out at midnight before the morning collection in the same place as it always is. But it wasn't emptied. OK, so we all make mistakes and previously, when this had happened, I phoned the council and they came the same afternoon and emptied it.

When I spoke to them this time, they told me that policy had changed. They no longer emptied on the same day unless they had made the same mistake within the last three months. What they did was send plastic bags through the post so you could then use them to fill up your new set of waste, place them beside the bin two weeks later (when the next collection is due) and the bin men, hopefully, will collect the whole lot.

I told them that I was actually away for five weeks before I could receive bags or whatever and that the waste would be rotting in the bin as a public health hazard. I pointed out that if the same mistake had been made in the last three months, rather than six months in our case, then they could collect the bin, consequently their decision on this was not about whether or not they could collect the bin but whether they were able to "breach" management policy.

They said they could not help me and suggested I unloaded my bin, placed it all in plastic bags, loaded it into my car and drove to the nearest council dump. I asked them if, considering they had not done the job my taxes paid for, they were willing to pay me for my time and effort covering their mistake.

They said NO.

I spoke to my councillor. He spoke to the department and he then told me nothing could be done. So my Christmas waste is rotting in my bin at my house right now, mid February, and when I get home I will find plastic bags have been posted through my door.

Here we have waste collections everyday. Well everyday except Sunday. Re-cycling is mandatory and sophisticated. An absolute joy to see. The local taxes are less than we pay at home. Did I tell you I love being in Japan?

I love Japan because being hardcore is not restricted to spotty youths. You may hear people say that being Japanese means you have to surrender individuality, not actually true. What you have to surrender if you are Japanese is being scruffy and anti-social.

What I love about Japan is the way people wait until the green man shows before they cross at traffic lights; even if there is no traffic in sight.

What I love about Japan is that there are OB's everywhere. These ancient and venerable dragons wander around free ranging rather than sitting inside. Before anyone says about temperature, well it has been freezing here today and in summer it is too hot and sweaty for a normal person to move more than four feet. Of course an OB is not a normal person and such extremes of weather do not effect her in any way.

So if you are standing waiting for the green man to flash and allow you to cross you just wait even if the road is clear. You do this not because it is the rules but because it is the right thing to do. If everyone just crossed then there would be chaos and besides, "Are you not patient enough to wait?".

Besides anything, whilst there are few CCTV cameras there are actually OB's everywhere and they are much more dangerous to civil liberty. Perhaps now she has moved up the street she wont see the woman cross. Believe that and you wont survive long here. If that woman crosses the OB will whip out an i-phone, take a snap and then be on the phone trying to identify the transgressor before she makes it to the other side.

Besides waiting for the green man, another thing I love about Japan is mothers transporting their kids around on bikes.

They have protective covers for their kids, helmets and it is a common sight to see one at the back and one at the front. Equally as common is to see the kid at the back, one on a cross bar mounted seat and the shopping in the front basket.
Superb carbon conscious transport efficiency.

I also love the fact that the urban roads are lined with trees. And, as you can see in this photo, people and shop keepers put their own pot plants out on the street as well. Do they get stolen? Do they get smashed? Go on, have a guess at the answer.

Not just trees though, lovely mature shrubs and bushes also adorn the byways.

And the trees very often, more often than not, carry their taxonomy in Japanese and English. I love that.

And in a side street of inner city Tokyo you can see a bike parked up with the shopping in its baskets. The owner is off buying Soy sauce in the Soy sauce shop but has been careful to lock the bike as everyone does.

I love Japan because they have protected their markets from global capitalism. They have not allowed agro-chemical farming industries to develop but supported intensive growing by local people through a restriction of the maximum amount of agricultural land it is possible for one person to own. This means that local produce is strong and traditional methods still survive in a very sophisticated and techno-savy market.

This image above is of the green tea shop. One key product, traditional production from small growers and a viable business in inner city Tokyo.

And next to the green tea shop we have the foundations laid for a six storey block of apartments (ground floor will be a retail unit). No space is to small for development and the skills and practices of Japanese home production put the UK to absolute shame.

Amidst all of this commerce, amidst all of this development and in the heart of this society, there is always a place for tradition and the role of the spiritual within communities.

In Japan their connection with their national identity is non-negotiable, this is not something which can be sold to benefit multi-national profits. The glue for this bonding lies in the ritual and spiritual calender, the mythology of Japan which is a living, breathing entity of thought and action within their society.

If you are going to develop land then it is not at all uncommon to call in spiritual advice. Feng Shui isn't just a part of architectural practice here, it is an accepted wealth management consideration. Here we see a block of apartments built within the last 7 years and space is made for a shrine in order to ensure financial success.

We know this is about financial success because it is a fox shrine, an animal associated with the preservation of good fortune and wealth. The placing and positioning of this shrine would have been advised by Shinto priests when the plans were being drawn up. A fop to tradition? Certainly not, everytime I am here I check to see if the shrine is being maintained and it is, clearly on a regular basis.

Everywhere you look you will see shrines and other ornaments of a healthy mythological structure. In London, the local yobs would smash it up within days.

Of course I could go on and on about why I love Japan. Believe me, I am just scratching the surface here at the moment. I began this trip and my "Japan Postcards" by criticising Lord Patten for his comment that Japan is not as different as it or others would like it to be. I gave the BBC correspondent, Rupert Wingnut-Glaze, a roasting for producing an article about the increase in bikes in Tokyo and I objected to the fact that most "commentators" write their pieces from the security of the business class lounge or in gated middle class ghettos which contain the global corporate elite.

I think Japan is different and it is a difference not only worth celebrating but worthy of respect; something the condescending white European media hack confuses with patronisation.

I love Japan not just because the toilet seat rises as I open the door. I love Japan not just because the toilet fragrances itself before I get through the door. I love Japan for more than a warm toilet seat, for more than a toilet which self cleans. I love Japan for the ingenuity behind the design, not just the design of the toilet seat but of society. I love Japan because you can buy this toilet and have it installed for £3000.

I checked it out thoroughly. In Britain this same model of toilet costs £11,500 without installation costs.

If you are a member of the House of Lords then I suppose you can afford to deal with this blatant rip off and sit down to write a piece about how Japan isn't really that different to anywhere else. I'll be back in a few days, really, really looking forward to being in the 19th century again.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Tokyo Snow Dealt with in an Orderly Fashion.

Well it really snowed hard Friday/Saturday, what was called a Ninja Cloud on the weather forecast sneaked in over the bay and dropped chaos onto the streets. The snow was cold and deep and just kept coming and coming. Finally by Sunday morning, early, it stopped and that was the moment the action really started.

From inside of the houses an army of people appeared wrapped in all sorts of specialist cold weather gear. Each had a shovel or a scoop and they set to work clearing the streets. By lunchtime there were clear paths everywhere.

I have to say that I was impressed, greatly impressed. This was a community action led by an unspoken understanding that it is everyone's duty to clear the snow in front of their houses. A Japanese way of doing things.

Every side street, every alley, all with clear paths for everyone's safety. All done within a matter of hours after the snow stopped falling. If you look at these pictures you will see these are really quite big piles of snow, this took a lot of moving. At the heart of this effort were the old bitches of Tokyo (OB's).

I want to make this very, very clear, OB is a term of great affection and deep respect and not to be confused with some pejorative intention. These are women who are over 75, many of them are in their late eighties and nineties. These are women not to be messed with, better to go and slap a wounded Cape Buffalo on the testicles; you will stand more of a chance of surviving than you would if you tangled with an OB. The word bitch is used much more in the New York Feminist sense, meaning a woman who takes no shit whatsoever.

They can be seen all over Tokyo and when they need the snow moved it gets moved. No argument. Unfortunately I was a little slow off the mark and was embarrassed by our own HMiL, who had swept down the landing and two flights of external stairs, which had been five inches deep with snow, before I had realised she was outside and had a chance to get my shoes on. Obviously by the time I joined her and told her to go inside she gave me a full broadside saying something along the lines of, "Don't you tell me what to do, I've been clearing snow since I was a child. Who do you think you are to tell me to go inside, where have you been, sitting in there drinking tea instead of doing a proper job and happy to let a vulnerable old lady clear snow...." etc., etc., etc..

Severely chastised I managed with only slight injury to get her back inside whilst I finished the job off. The OB's run Tokyo really, the men here know better than to back chat the senior matriarch in the family. They do it by applying a rigorous set of standards and they communicate any transgression, quickly and efficiently to the relative matriarch of the transgressor.

Our own HMiL has a sophisticated telephone system, as they all do, which would make a commercial call centre look like morse code tappers in a telegraph office. This is why Japan has very few cctv cameras. Why spend money on such systems when the OB's of Japan are on the case in seconds?

"What's that you say, a son-in-law not paying proper respect to his mother-in-law." A loud sigh. "We will need to do something about that."

Having then ascertained that the transgressor works in a bank the OB's combine to put pressure on the management with threats to withdraw their savings if the young man is not made aware his promotion prospects are limited unless he treats his mother-in-law with respect.

"What's that you say, you saw him in the street in scruffy clothes. His shoes had not been polished. Oh the shame of it. Don't worry Kako-san, a word with his wife is all that is needed."

Mother-in-law phones her daughter and gives her hell for allowing her man out not properly dressed. Man arrives home to get all sorts of verbal abuse from his honourable wife because he was spotted without properly polished shoes.

"I've had that OB on the phone to me all afternoon. What were you thinking of?"

No, nothing moves in Tokyo without an OB spotting it. Nothing except the snow that is, that gets moved double quick or your life can really turn ugly very quickly.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Why Japan suffers from lazy journalism.

This morning I was sitting by a river watching the tombi gather in the trees on the other bank. The sun wasn't up as it was no more than 7.30 am and the fact I was naked didn't really matter in the chill of an early February dawn because I was sat in a bubbling hot onsen bath. In such moments, when travelling in Japan, my attachment to my own culture and place of origin is ephemeral at best. Deep in the mountain fastness of Aichi prefecture, where whole communities live within the ancient ways of rivers carved between mountains, in places where the horizon is a cliff pinned into place by trees growing on impossible precipice, there it is possible to loose everything but the moment.

Wrapped in the warmth of the mountain's tears, held close against the cold by the volcanic springs, beyond this heated sanctuary the crisp coldness of the day unfolds and all the filth of western life is sluiced from your soul. Below the golden river flows and sparkles in the imagination with the fresh, clean thoughts that mountain waters inspire. I sat with my memories of the night before, I sat alone in that morning haze but surrounded by friends newly met.

Here is a heartland in which the blood of Japan flows, an ancient landscape overlain with the human history of a culture which inhales it's past with every breath. This is the land where Oda Nobunaga came and forged the foundations from which the Tokagowa Shogunate would ultimately emerge. Ieyasu was conceived in these mountains by parents attending the holy mountain looking to be blessed with a male heir. I sat in my onsen bath but didn't have to wait for the bird to sing because the tombi were screeing to each other in the trees opposite.

To know Japan, I mean to know Japan as a foreigner, you have to do more than spend time in this place. Listen to the words, "to spend" time. There is the issue, as though you could spend, as though time is a currency, as though time has a value which can be bought in dollars or sterling. Here is our crime within our own common usage of language. Here is the corruption of value through the endless commodification of existence for the purpose of corporate profits. If we buy Japan we sell humanity.

Pressure is coming to bear on this precious cultural soul. A British politician recently called for the Japanese to cease their protectionism and open their economy to international business. Amusing isn't it, a bought and paid for agent for corporate interest masquerading as a democratic representative in a country sold, lock, stock and barrel, to corporate interest, almost demanding on the surrender of "being Japanese" so that this country can be raped like we have been.

If you are British then you will understand why the word "raped" is actually applicable. You understand it when you pay your energy bills, you understand it when you look for customer service from your media suppliers, your banks or your welfare system. You understand it whenever you try to place your consumer rights before the interests of shareholder profits. In the UK it is the shareholder and their profits which is of paramount importance. This is why we have large scale agricultural industries rather than farming. Something Japan rejects totally.

So when, on our return, we stop at a motorway service station we eat well and we eat comparatively cheaply. We eat locally sourced produce, as well as more national fare, but most importantly what we eat is healthy and nutritious. These last two images show you our meals only six hours ago. Personally, I had fried fish in a light batter, a fried potato croquette and a tuna croquette (presented on a metal grill on the plate so that excess oil drains), a salad, a soup, a bowl of rice, a bowl of vegetables, some pickled vegetables and various freshly made sauces. With unlimited green tea the price was £4.80.

We were returning from two days away from Tokyo. We spent those days in a somewhat perfect space for us, we were happy, we were relaxed, we were content. On the Saturday evening we went to the local village ritual for the forthcoming spring. An event where the oni, the Japanese spirits, are prevailed upon to bring blessings and good luck to all in the community. Everyone was there and I was, as usual the only foreigner. I didn't see a BBC correspondent, I didn't see an American businessman and I certainly didn't see anyone else but Japanese people (just as it was when we made mochi in central Tokyo). What I did see was young and old re-affirming their cultural heritage in the performance of their mythological rites.

We sold our souls a long time ago. Let's be thankful that the Japanese have not sold theirs.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Death by Mochi

Mochi (?) is Japanese rice cake made of mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice. The rice is pounded into paste and molded into the desired shape. In Japan it is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki.[1] While also eaten year-round, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year and is commonly sold and eaten during that time.

There are many "experts" on Japan, some are good, some are bad as in most things. In a recent article by Chris Patten (Lord Patten ) about the book by David Pilling, Bending Adversity; Japan and the Art of Survival, Patten concludes in part that Pilling demonstrates,  "This is another example of Japan not being as dissimilar from the rest of the world as it and others regularly assert.".

Obviously I am not as insightful as the former Conservative Party chairman, previously Governor of Hong Kong, currently Chancellor of the University of Oxford and Chairman of the BBC Trust, but I do have to disagree with this fashion for dismantling notions of Japanese exceptionality.

Perhaps David Pilling when the Financial Times correspondent on Japan walked about the streets and mixed in with Japanese society at that level. Maybe he didn't find himself domiciled in gated ex-pat zones along with other media personelle, global business executives and diplomats. There is no reason whatsoever that he wouldn't have given up a business meeting at the Tokyo Hilton or an evening at an Embassy trade reception in order to mix with old ladies in an obscure street market, dance at a summer festival or pound rice in a back street of an unfashionable suburb.

None of these activities would particularly provide specific insight to someone who writes primarily about the global economy and Japan's role within it. Equally there is no earthly reason why Chris Patten would need to do any of these things in order to authenticate his insights on Japanese culture. In the global economy and global diplomacy all players wear suits and ties, sit in the back of expensive cars and travel together in business class as a minimum. In such things Japan is clearly no different to the rest of the world and not at all dissimilar.

As one person said in the comments section of a Guardian review of the book, "Great another patronising look at the quirky Japanese, i've [sic] not seen that before." 

All of which leads me to a story about Japan which took place on the 12th January 2014 (yesterday). I had been invited out to mochitsuki, the pounding of rice to make one of the great favourites of Japanese people, mochi, a sticky mess of compounded rice flavoured with all sorts of subtleties.

My hosts were So and Fumi Kohiyama, the patrons of a local sake bar I frequent when in Mushashi Koyama. They met me at the front of our home here and we walked down the back streets until we came to a road which had been blocked off to traffic for the purpose of making mochi.

                                               Fumi and So Kohiyama

This event was organised by a group of local people and would be recognised by us as a small street party. A superb old boiler for steaming the rice stood proudly amidst trestle tables and a team of mostly men (isn't it always the way when fire and engineering are present, you can't get the boys off of the toys!) cleaned and washed the special mochi rice, with a special wooden scoop slipping the "portion" into one of the truly magnificent giant wooden pestles carved out of a tree trunk.

The rice is in the wooden trays which after about 30 minutes of steaming are removed from the bottom, fresh trays of rice being added at the top. There is a lifting mechanism to raise up the trays so that the one at the bottom can be slipped out.

The rice once in the pestle is pushed together and mashed using two great wooden hammers. This first stage takes a few minutes before the rice is then ready for a proper pounding. Once it is a sticky mass then one person pounds the rice as another deftly folds the sticky mass over and gets his hand out before the downward blow.

Alongside the other pestle is filled with water which is added in very small amounts to the mixture to keep it fluid and clean. Whilst all of this is going on a variety of men with huge bottles of sake ensure that everyone gets a truly good fill of the spirit of the day (all without a till in sight). Beer was also available, as were trays of fried chicken and once the only foreigner there had been spotted there seemed to be a need to ensure he got to taste every possible option in the extensive sake range.

So, filled with sake I took my turn at smashing the mochi with a large hammer. I say this because I would like to observe several health and safety issues. No doubt there were enough breaches in this event to send British H&S Trolls into furious meltdown. People smoking cigarettes, drinking strong alcohol amongst food preparation in a back street with an old boiler being fired up from a large gas cannister. Kids running about everywhere whilst people on bikes just cycled through the small crowd without any obvious use of brakes.

As fast as the mochi came out of the pestles a team of women folded and pulled it into cakes and then added different flavours and toppings which were then served out in plastic trays to a very excited audience. This was just another day when the Japanese people could simply be Japanese, nothing exceptional about that. Young and old were there, the old enthusiastic for their mochi and the young learning the festival and its small rituals and once again reinforcing their identity.

As I have mentioned health and safety, an area the Japanese are pre-eminent in when it suits them, I have to mention the 1200 dead so far this new year from eating mochi. That's 1200 dead just in Tokyo. You see because mochi is very sticky every year there is a death toll amongst the elderly from eating too much too quickly and choking to death. Every year hundreds die from eating mochi at new year. 

I can just see our H&S Trolls banning this confection from nursing homes for the elderly because of the risk. No chance of that happening in Japan. Mochi is mochi and death is death, both are inevitable. But that is no different to us is it, there is nothing dissimilar in this approach.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Onsen, Japan's quiet treasure.


 The Onsen, volcanic hot spring spa, is a pleasure of which I can never tire. If you need to remember who you are and what your life is really about then the onsen is one of the places where you can take a weary soul. However it is important for me that the journey is to a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel, rather than something which panders towards the needs of the outsider, the tourist hoard. 

Our favourite ryokan is near Nagano, not far from the ski resort Shiga Kogen. What makes this place special, and we have been here at least once every year for the last six years, is that it has a balance between all the elements of Japanese hostelry in which tradition is maintained alongside a gentle innovation that makes this ryokan very accessible for the non-Japanese traveller. The main innovation is in the food, always a problematic area for those unfamiliar with the cuisine. Here the chef combines the traditional Japanese with the skills he learnt training in Italy. In a subtle blend the menu delights the senses with a masterful display of the art of presentation and flavour.

Sleeping in the Japanese style of futons on tatami mat floor may not appeal to some travellers so best they go somewhere else; Disneyland perhaps! For us it is an absolute delight and having taken to this kind of sleeping arrangement we fail to understand the attraction of sleeping in "beds" which feel akin to trying to rest in a rowing boat. The tatami mat floor provides a firm yet springy base, the futon a shallow draught mattress and the comfort and quality of sleep is unimpeachable. True, it may take a little getting used to and if you are one of life's moaners, someone who can find a problem where others see a delight, then again, go and get your photo taken with Mickey Mouse.

The room is spacious and separated into three areas. There is a toilet, sink and refrigerator in a separate space and a small private tub into which the hot volcanic spring water flows. At one end the sliding doors lead out into a pristine Japanese zen garden, at the other end there is a wooden verandah which overlooks the forest and mountainside.

On returning from your evening meal you will find your futons all laid out in your room. Perhaps a cigarette is to be enjoyed with Honourable Uncle (HU), maybe a glass of beer on the verandah, but after an hour or so it is time then to go down to the onsen baths and just luxuriate in hot water.

A view back into the room from the verandah with the forest reflecting on the glass. Every room in the Ryokan has a similar layout and the facilities within each are identical. There is only one standard and that is "superb". Each room is positioned to provide a view of the local natural beauty.

Everywhere there are examples of a fine art of decoration and even my own presence is unable to detract from the beauty of the place.

Your meals are in your own private dining room. As you can see in the image below these are found down a long corridor. To the left of HU you can see sliding doors and behind these is a dining room.

Our dining room is right at the end of the hallway but has the benefit of a view out into the garden and world beyond. This is where we eat our evening meal and the morning's breakfast.

The meals are served at the table by the ladies in pristine kimonos. Manners are impeccable and the traditional rituals of serving food are observed. The dishes keep coming and it seems more like a banquet than a "hotel supper".

This is my favourite ryokan and in all our years here and travels around others we have yet to find one which  can compete on quality, service, ambience, facility and price. The image below gives you an available "cheap hotel" in London for a price way above the cost of staying at this ryokan (meals included). Actually I find it not just embarrassing but humiliating to even think of the way we rape the wallets of travellers to London without a shred of quality or hint of customer service and value. Our consumer society is a shameful exploitation of common humanity by the soulless bean counters which are the parasites of the world. This is not to say that Japan is devoid of consumer exploitation or bean counters but within their society there remains a sense of duty in providing service and places of quality and value are much easier to find than in the consumer slaughterhouse which is the UK.