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One thing you need to understand about Japan. Foreigners are officially not welcome. You are allowed to come, preferably as a tourist with plenty of money, but only if you promise to go away again after you’ve spent it.

You also have to fill in a form saying you have no criminal record whatsoever, and you aren’t bringing any explosives, ‘obscene material’ or other nasty foreign influences, like a cold, flu or a temperature. Everyone who manages to be squeaky clean enough to actually reach the immigration desk will be filmed on arrival, then have to wait in a very long queue while the three officials go through their papers with laborious slowness, have to give their address in Japan, and their home address and occupation, have their fingerprints taken, will be photographed, again, so they can be traced on CCTV cameras wherever they go, and then grudgingly allowed into the country.

Having been satisfied that I’m not going to sully the purity of Japan, or at least that if I do they can catch me, the Immigration Department finally lets us through to Japan proper.

We catch a bus from Fukuoka airport to the main railway station. Tip for travellers: on Japanese buses you get on at the back, and take your ticket. Then at the end of your journey you show the driver your ticket, which has the number of your stop, then you pay the fare. This is fine if you know (and haven’t forgotten) that you have to take a ticket as you get on.

At the station we catch a Shinkansen, aka ‘bullet train.’ The ambience of the new Shinkansen is far better than the earlier types, which seemed to have been made out of plastic and had all the ambience of a school cafeteria. The ‘Sakura’ (‘Cherry blossom’) class train we catch has a wood panelled interior and masses of space, with an aisle you could waltz down, and immense seats with legroom fit for a giraffe. After ten hours in a flying sardine we are overcome by the comfort and promptly fall asleep.

Not quite a ‘live’ blog of our journey to Japan…

0810: Chaos. Nothing new there. Shuttle bags downstairs.
0815: 2 friends arrive with cars to ferry us to the airport. We’re really making up for out greener-than-thou lifestyle today.
0830: Arrive at the airport. The storm in the night hasn’t shifted the mugginess.
0835: Find check in desk. There’s a new system: you have to print your own boarding card, this makes queue shorter and check in therefore faster. After ten minutes wrestling with computer, we print the cards. Go to check bags in.
0850: Reach front of long queue. Some confusion as we are booked to Nagoya but we’re getting off at Fukuoka, one stopover earlier. Much explanation. Queue grows even longer.
0900: Through security gate. Supervisor is father of Eldest son’s school friend. Place wallet, keys, belt, laptop etc, on machine and go through detector. Set off alarm. This time it is foil from a blister pack of paracetamol.
1048: Boarding for Amsterdam flight.
1105: Safety talk. Between the hangars I can see our village 5km away.
1115: Take off. Fly directly over a house where I worked. Now I know why they wanted thicker windows.
1200: Approaching Amsterdam. Fly directly over Rotterdam and the ferry to Hull.
1230: Land, trundle through airport to terminal, walk to other end of terminal for plane to Fukuoka.
1240: Passport control. When they realise Beautiful Wife is with me they pull the whole family into the ‘European’ line. Passport officer practices Japanese.
1330: Announcement: “If you want to, you can come through for boarding. Of course, you don’t have Otherwise you can stay here, no problem.” Through very strict and somewhat invasive security control.
1335: Realise we left our emergency calorie supply of chocolate and Muesli bars in the lounge. Back to lounge.
1336: Middle son waves bag at me from inside secure area. Go through very strict and somewhat invasive security control again.
1415: Board flight to Japan.
1420: Find seats.
1421: In wrong seats. Move.
1445: Plane starts taxiing
1505: Take off. 10 hours to Fukuoka.
1516: Headphones handed out. Everyone switches on their at-seat video system, which promptly crashes.
1530: Passenger in front puts chair in full recline.
1619: Lunch. Video system comes back online.
1734: Japanese immigration forms handed out.
1915: Drinks. Not terribly exciting but half way through a ten hour flight you take all the entertainment you can get.
2050: Go to the WC. See note above re: entertainment.
2100: still waiting outside. Wonder why people take so long. Decide I don’t really want to know.
2105: Person in toilet finally finished. Into WC.
2106: Out of WC.
2110: Ice cream. Much excitement.
2130: Actually fall asleep. This makes a change from the norm of being wide awake until touchdown then blearg for the next day.
2330: Breakfast. Crossing the Chinese coast.
0100: “Prepare for landing”
0128: Final Approach.
0130: Land.
0140: Out of plane. It’s 0840 and blisteringly hot. Head for the low grade unpleasantness that is Japanese immigration.

This is our local bike shop in Japan. There is a door in there somewhere. We managed to get about a metre inside but we couldn’t get the bikes in because it was even more messy inside. (click the picture for a bigger version)

This is how the shop has looked for the last ten years I’ve known it. I suspect some of the bikes were there all the time. It’s still open and selling and repairing bicycles so they must be doing something right. I suspect it’s to do with relationships in their community.

It may also be good service: they made a full checkup on two bikes and replaced two inner tubes and one tyre in a couple of hours. I guess this is normal when people use bikes for transport: it’s only places where most of the population use them for fun that we can get away with taking a day or three to make repairs.

So we were in Yokohama and went to Chinatown for lunch. This is where our problems began. We were due to catch a Shinkansen to our next appointment in just over an hour, and half of Yokohama had apparently just come to Chinatown. With their friends. And their friends families.

We went for a small restaurant, which turned out to be a mistake. After half an hour passed and only two very small bowls had found their way to our table we asked to cancel our order. This threw the staff into a turmoil and they spent several minutes working out the bill.

Once outside no-one knew where the station was. Unfortunately they didn’t tell us this but tried to give us directions. After negotiationg a zone of delivery entrances and bars with names like ‘Club Hammer’ we were directed around a corner. Where we found a ship.

Now we were in trouble. The Shinkansen we had booked was due to leave in half an hour from the other end of a metro that had apparently vanished.

We decided to risk instinct, followed a street where we thought the metro should be and five minutes later we wandered into the station entrance. Hooray. As we got down to rail level, the train left. Not so hooray.

On the next train. We crossed the city, then changed for the metro to the Shinkansen. The machine wouldn’t take our ticket. Went to ticket office. Our ticket wasn’t valid to this station. Would have been handy to know this sooner. Bought a new ticket. Through machine, changed train. To Shinkansen station, through the barrier and up the stairs as the Shinkansen came in. Our coach was number 16. At the other end of the platform, naturally. We ran past station staff, several grannies, an entire baseball team with cheerleaders, half the businessmen of Yokkaichi* and one small dog, and counted our boys into coach sixteen as the doors closed.

Next time we’re going to try and get local help, and hopefully a bike.

*The half not in Chinatown

My goodness, but Japan does have a lot of rules. We’ve been given instructions on how to wait for a train: “Stand opposite this notice in threes”, (difficult as there were five of us) and public behaviour: “No smoking while walking along the street. this applies to visitors as well.” Our local playaground has fifteen prohibitions.

Last week we went to visit the Ninomaru Palace in Kyoto. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many instructions.

Now I appreciate that as the building was built in 1603 and has qualified as a UNESCO site, the authorities probably don’t want it to be trampled underfoot by the great unwashed, but still. Entering the building required negotiationg a way around a sign saying: “No photographs allowed; No food allowed; Do not run; No-one under the influence of alcohol is allowed to enter.”

Sign number two was a few steps further on: “No photography. No Sketching.” and as an afterthought “This is the nightingale floor, so called because it makes the sound of a nightingale when walked upon.”* Ten metres later came the cryptic. “No scribbling here.” So we didn’t. At least I don’t think we did.

And so it went on:

“Main reception room. One of 33 rooms in the building. No photo and no sketching.”

On the outer wall: “Keep doors closed. Fire exit. Do not open.”

“First and second grand rooms. No photography, no sketching”

“Visiting feudal lords [mannequins] No photography. Do not touch the barrier. Bodyguards room behind tasselled panels.”

“This was the Shoguns private residence. Please follow the route this way. No pictures.”

“No photography, no sketching”

“This is the fourth grand room. This room contains a carving of peacocks made from a single piece of wood eleven metres long and thirty-five centimetres thick. The room was used to store the shoguns weapons. No photography or sketching.”

“Imperial messenger room. No photography, no sketching.”

You get the idea. Leaving the building was especially carefully regulated: “This exit for groups; This exit for wheelchairs only”; right next to that sign: “This entrance for wheelchairs only” then “Exit for individuals” and “Please move with the group that was organised by the guides of the castle”. They had even added another “No scribbling here” for good measure.

On the way out -while waiting for the attendant to confiscate someone’s’ camera- I spotted an information panel up in the rafters, and learned the castle was built by Ieyasu Tokugawa after finishing the process of taking power from the Emperor and unifying it under the Tokugawa family, that the Tokugawa family ruled Japan until 1867, and that the palace itself was built as a form of social control in architecture, so that the newly subjugated vassals and population would do as they were told.

This explained a lot.

* Apparently it was to stop assassins.

We’re packaging some of the lighter bulky items to post if we don’t need them at home within a week. Cue conversations like this:

“Can you stick this tape on the box for me?”
“Here?”
“Yes there.”
“Okay.”
“Not there, here.”
“Where?”
“Over there:”
“Oh, here?”

Are we the only people who have this happen? Please say no.

Meanwhile the weather outside is getting worse and Nagoya airport has all but closed down*. If typhoon talas doesn’t hurry up and get out of the way, we may have an extra day to package things up.

*Although they’re saying nothing on their website unless you dig through to the departure boards.

Thanks to the kindness of several people who read this, you will no longer have to put up with unbroken rambling: From now on there will be rambling and photographs, so many thanks to those who contributed to the sick camera repair fund. Everyone wanted to stay anonymous but you know who you are.

Unfortunately the plan to repair the old camera came to naught: the little electronics store we hoped would resurrect it closed last year so we had to go to a big box store out in the strip malls. On the other hand, we did get a very good compact for a fairly low price, as Japan is still a bit ahead in the world of consumer electronics.

To begin with, a picture of my borrowed three speed bike. I am always amazed how quickly it is possible to get around with three speeds when there are no hills.

Unrelated question: A couple of people report that the comment form keeps dissapearing. Have other people had this problem? (If the comment option isn’t available there should be a contact form in the sidebar. Keep scrolling, it’s down there somewhere.)

UPDATE: It sems the comment form is there, but right at the bottom of the page for some reason. Thanks to Zweiradler for noticing this…

Typhoon Talas seems to be coming this way.

No-one here seems to be very worried about this: usually a few typhoons come by every year. In theory it will reach us on Friday, and by Sunday -when we are due to go back to Germany- it will have cleared off further north.

So far it’s been a bit more windy and rainy than normal.

People in Tokyo are being told to stock up on essentials but it should pass north-west of here. This is not entirely certain of course, as Typhoons twist back and forth like a driver talking on a cell phone, so it may yet come our way.

I don’t think I’ll go out in it. Does that make me a fair weather cyclist?

Beautiful wfe asked me to drive her across town to see a friend last night. I hadn’t driven a car in months until we came to Japan, but I figured that we’d be okay: the roads are pretty empty when it isn’t a rush hour, we have low speed limits locally and the car is a small compact. Even better, it’s an automatic: what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for example, I could get in and discover that I left the lights on last time I used it so the battery is dead as a doornail and the car won’t start.

It turns out petrol prices aren’t the only thing you forget to check when you use a bike all the time.

If it was a manual I’d have tried push starting the thing, but how do you get a dead automatic car to start?*

*I appreciate that this marks me as a helpless twerp in car culture, but there we go.

Still on the reader suggestions* for themes about Japan, The Big Smile (German link, but with lovely pictures) suggested a topic:

…the earthquake and what traces it left. Traces in the outer world (buildings, nature, etc.) and in the people living in Japan.

There are collection boxes everywhere -around the shops, in railway stations, even in the airport.

In my in-laws house the ‘emergency packs’ -which every family should have for each person- have been checked and restocked, and have been moved from under the stairs to a more accessible location by the front door.

A big supermarket in town has a big display showing emergency packs and signs saying “Be prepared”. It also has a big map purporting to show the extent of the flooding ‘If the same thing happened here’.

A disaster is good for sales after all.

I thought the economic downturn and increasing petrol prices after the disasters would have got more people walking or cycling.

This does not seem to be the case.

Possibly this is because we are so far away from the disaster itself: we aren’t supplied by the oil refineries that were destroyed, energy is still cheap, and the local power stations are still working, so people carry on as normal.

A friend who took two trucks of aid to the North-East found the local Red Cross were bogged down in red tape, and the army stopped delivering one hot meal a day to the refugee centre -in fact now the government are suggesting people should stop volunteering to help, because the people in the area should “rise up” and rebuild. They’ve no money, infrastructure, fuel, transport or materials, but they should just get on with it and sort themselves out.

She gets the impression the government is giving up.

Television studios are running the occasional story about rebuilding. The media is rarely critical of the government -not as they are in Europe anyway- so this isn’t covered as we would expect it to be. Most media stories look like ‘feel good’ pieces about companies restarting or children getting back to school.

The strange thing about all this is that if we’d stayed on the train in Tokyo it would have carried us through the area about thirty minutes later.  And yet everywhere else it’s pretty well business as usual. Even the nuclear lobby has hardly been affected by the Fukushima explosion. They have the support of the government, the opposition and the trade unions: they are still calling the tune.

Or at least most of the time: there were plans to build a nuclear power station on the coast about twenty kilometres away from where I am now.

Fukushima nailed that one, thank goodness.

*Does anyone else have an idea for a blog post about Japan? I’ve still got a week.

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