Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Third time (uses) a charm

One of the best known of Kyoto's many temples is that of Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. The temple is covered with gold leaf and is actually a 1955 replica of the 15th century structure. The original was destroyed by a Buddhist priest in 1950 who was so enraptured by the beauty of the building that he felt it would be exquisite if he burnt it down.

We rambled round the gardens surrounding the temple until we approached the pot of fortunes. I eyed the pieces of paper warily and then moved to a small gift shop close by. This store sold a manner of temple-related merchandise, including charms for attributes such as good luck, exam success, health and fertility. Feeling "good luck" was perhaps more than I could hope for given past experiences, I opted for the more modest charm "against bad luck". Tucking the sealed orange cloth case nearly inside my bag, I dropped my 100 yen into the box and gingerly selected a fortune.

Your fortune: Very good

You owe what you are to your ancestors. Remember this and be kind to others, and you'll be more prosperous and happier even if it were stormy elsewhere. 

Wish: Respect others, and it will soon be realised.
Expected visitor: No problem. He or she will come very soon.
Missing thing: Try and find it. It's easy to find.
Travel: Any direction will do.
Business: All right.
Study: Don't make yourself spoilt.
Speculation: But now, and you make a big profit
Game and match: Take it easy, and you'll win
Love: Do not hesitate. Be positive.
Removal: It's all right, but take your time.
Childbirth: Don't be afraid. Everything goes well.
Illness: Be faithful and you'll get it over.
Marriage proposal: Take your time, and it will be settled as you wish.


Okay, so there's a few cases of "Jap-lish" in there and I honestly can't say I like the sound of "removal" but hey! I think we have an actual good fortune (^.^). Hurray for temple charms! I'm particularly keen on the marriage proposal prediction: "It will be settled as you wish". Sounds like I can still head for the life of random play and debauchery if I so desire! Perhaps I should make that my wish...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Boy from Osaka

"We will not want to be in France long. It might be too hot."

A casual comment that conjures up a variety of images, all of them incorrect and some downright unclean. (In defense of the thoughts that initially sprung to my mind, I'd like to say that my friends have exposed me to way too much Hetalia dojinshi [1].)

Unclean thoughts were perhaps doubly inappropriate given that I was in a public bath. Not a traditional onsen this time (although the lack of clothes was a common feature), but Osaka's "Spa World". In this bath experience, there are two separate floors of hot tubs, one European themed and the second Asian. They alternate gender monthly, with September seeing the women having access to the European section.

We began in Rome, an elegant marble-esque pot with centurion statues rearing above us. Next, we moved on to Atlantis in a blue under-water themed room with an aquarium containing blow fish (not to be casually nibbled on) and Nemo clown fish. From there, we dipped into an ice pool, covered ourselves in mud and then salt before sinking into Spain's outdoor pool with a waterfall crashing over us. Finally we moved onto France which was ... as you might have gathered ... too hot to linger in for long.

Appropriately, there was no British themed bath. Can you imagine the Brits in a naked public bathing room once the Romans has left? No, clearly neither could Spa World.

[1]: Hetalia doujinshi is fan-made manga (normally x-rated) of the popular Japanese anime series in which stereotyped characters represent the different countries.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

An unfortunate series of event

In the temple grounds of Sanjusangen-do, Kyoto, amongst the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity, I paid 100 yen to have a second attempt at a good fortune. I pulled the slip of paper from the pile and unraveled it to see "VERY GOOD" printed in large letters on one side. Hurray! Clearly, my tying of the other bad fortune to the stands worked well. I turned to read the details....

HEALTH: Lack of sleep may be the cause of a car accident. Be careful!
WORK: Be cautious when making contracts.
MONEY: Borrowing and lending money is to be done with the greatest possible care.
EXAMS: OK, as long as there is enough effort.
LOVE: Arrange things before someone interupt.
JOURNEY: Not good.
FINDING YOU SOUL MATE: He/she will not come
CONSTRUCTION/HOME: Wait for a good opportunity.
LOST ITEM: Unlikely to be found.

.... O.O This is the "very good" option?! Still, on the upside, at least I don't have to wonder whether it's worth waiting around for my soul mate (who, in the last fortune I had, was destined to "show up after a long while"). They ain't showing, so I can go and do something else. Like, see more temples.

Our next stop was the large Kiyomizu Temple which had a whole section devoted to love. I didn't bother with fortunes there. I felt the message was clear enough (~.^)

Incidentally, the 1001 Buddhist deity statues? Yeah, not an exaggeration. Really 1001. All the same, yet strangely all slightly different...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Water gate

The partially submerged Torii (gate) to the Itsukushima Shrine is one of the most popular guide book images of Japan. Commonly referred to as Miyajima, the shrine is dedicated to the three daughters of Amaterasu, the sun goddess from whom legend claims the Imperial Household of Japan is descended from. The daughters are goddesses of the sea, hence the snuggling up to the waterfront concept of Miyajima. The present shrine dates from the mid-16th century, but sits on the same site as buildings extending back to the 6th century, due to the Japanese perchance for rebuilding rather than preserving. (It is possible that the extensive use of wood as a building material makes this a more practical step than for the stone-based European constructions).

Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, Miyajima is a beautiful place to visit. The shrine is located on an island just outside Hiroshima and is reached by ferry boat. The small town is host to a large group of tame deer which have become rather too accustomed to being fed by enraptured tourists. The sign in the square implores visitors to not "tease or touch" the deer, rather suggesting a dangerous deer-tourist hybrid might have arisen through inappropriate liaisons.

Aside from the shrine (for which this is one of hundreds of identical photos I could not resist taking), you can take a cable car up the mountain to enjoy views, shrines and ... monkeys. These red faced, red bottomed numbers are not into waiting for a tourist to offer a tasty snack, but will simply help themselves, prompting the cable car company to provide free lockers for people's belongings.

Assuming you escape the wildlife, a walk along the mountain will take you to the shrine where the Kiezu-no-hi (the eternal flame) has been burning for 1200 years. It is from this fire that the pilot light for the "Flame of Peace" in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was lit.

Back in Hiroshima, I am staying at a JHoppers hostel which is rather like being a student again but with a build-your-own futon that I had to construct from the pile of blankets and mattresses in my room. It was quite exciting.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A beginner's guide to kanji

Of the three different writing systems used in Japanese, the most complex is the use of the Chinese characters known as kanji. Rather than a phonetic script, kanji characters represent concepts that are strung together to produce the larger meaning.

In many cases, the origin of the form of the kanji character can be seen from its meaning. For instance "木" is the kanji for tree and the shape is reminiscent of that object. Likewise, river (川), mountain (山), fire (火) and sun (日) all have obvious origins (Astronomers in particular will relate to the kanji for sun, since it is similar to the solar symbol ⊙ ... especially if you were making it on an old digital panel~).

Placing kanji characters along side each other can then lead to more complex meanings. An appropriate example for this week would be 火山, fire mountain or volcano.

Similarly, more complex kanji can be formed by combining characters (either in their full or an abbreviated form) into a single one. For instance, the combination of two of the characters for tree, 林, means "forest".

See? Simple, logical easy! Let's try some others...

If we take the kanji for "car" (車) and combine it with that for "fun" (楽), we get 轢 ... meaning "run over"!

Alternatively, add "grass" (草) to the top of "fun"(楽) and you get 薬; meaning "drugs"!

Never let it be said the Japanese do not have a sense of humour.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great balls of fire

Sakurajima (literally "Cherry blossom island") is just off the coast of Kagoshima on Japan's south-western island of Kyuushu. It has a population of around 7,000 and is famous for both its (extremely large) radish and (extremely small) mandarins.... oh, and the active volcano that dominates the skyline by the same name.

Sakurajima is somewhat of a misnomer since it now sits on a peninsula due to the erupted lava flow in 1914 bridging the gap to the mainland and Kagoshima. Since 1955, minor eruptions have become frequent, regularly dousing the island and city in volcanic ash. Last year there were around 80 eruptions. So far in 2009, there have been over 380 ... and oddly everyone seems ok with this....

Regular evacuation drills are performed in the event of a serious eruption and there are shelters scattered around that resemble concrete cylinders where people can hide from falling debris. That aside, this ain't where I'm planning my retirement home. Still, a visit to the observation station half way up is fair game. The volcano was coughing smoke when we arrived, suggesting recent activity and it erupted again while we were there. I caught a nifty video of the action in case anyone thinks I totally photo-shopped the above print.

I am considering distributing the fictional account of the city of Pompeii to the locals.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Flower festival

In the small town of Koma, just outside Tokyo, the start of autumn marks the annual flower festival where visitors flood in to view the spectacular river bank fields of red spider lilies or higanbana. Although this was on a local scale, such season-marking events are common in Japan where the spring cherry blossom viewing (hanami) and autumn leaf viewing (momijigari) are major calendar landmarks.

The weather was perfect, a sentiment with which half of Tokyo apparently agreed, making the ratio between flowers to people rather close to a 1:1. Still, since the Japanese patience puts the British ability to queue to shame, this was hardly an issue.

While almost all spider lilies are red, an occasional white one pops up which is invariably marked by a hive of visitors wielding cameras, determined to immortalise this freak of nature in the midst of its red Borg clones. I imagine it's rather like being a celebrity.

At the end of the river bank path, a set of stalls selling green tea, nibbles and pictures of spider lilies on towels and postcards were set up to tempt the awe struck viewers. Meanwhile kids paddled in the river beneath a sign warning them that a Japanese water demon would devour them if they didn't take care. I watched optimistically, but no such luck.

A second anomaly Koma boasts is the existence of a vegetarian restaurant. Vegetarian-ism and vegan-ism is very uncommon in Japan which can be an issue for foreign visitors. Fish and indeed chicken is frequently not considered 'meat' when serving customers who desire such things. This particular restaurant was not run by Japanese people but was extremely good and overflowing with the day's out-of-towners.

I finished the day with a purple sweet potato ice cream. Mmm, ecstasy.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Unfortunate fortunes

If, on your tours of temples in Japan, you find yourself entirely out of prayer requests for the gods, an alternative to keep your hands busy is to have your fortune read. While this is a common feature at Buddhist Temples, it is rather less common for the resulting fortune to be in English. Holding your future in your hands but not being able to understand it might be deeply significant, but unsatisfactory.

An exception to this is Senso-ji in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, the oldest temple in the city. Place a 100 yen coin (~ $1) in a box and you get to select a stick with a number written on it. Playing match-the-Kanji leads you to a drawer from which you take the top sheet of paper with your fortune written on it. My fortune read as follows:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Although you do your best and sincerity to others, it's useless just like burning incense in the sky. Even if it may be a small loyalty, a good deed prevents causing damage. You will spend a long, hard time working on many useless things.

* Your wishes will not be realised. * A sick person will recover but after a little while. * Making a trip will not be good. * Building a house and removal are both half fortunate. * Marriage or employment should be stopped. * The lost article will not be found. * The person you are waiting for will show up after a long while.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Well, what do you know? Fortunes are not random chance at all and it seems the god who handed this one to me had definitely read my thesis. While I rather liked the sound of "employment should be stopped", I admit the rest was somewhat less appealing. I therefore performed the required act of tying the bad fortune (without ripping it) to the rack close by which was supposed to negate the effect of the prediction. I'll let you know how that one goes....

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Japanese folklore tells a tale of an old woman finding a peach floating down the river which turns out to contain a boy whom they name Momotaro (Momo meaning peach and Taro being a popular boy's name, often associated with the first son of a family). Amusing though this story is, it wasn't until I actually saw a Japanese peach that I realised it was entirely plausible. They are huge! Never mind one boy, this could be the Japanese equivalent of the Trojan Horse, concealing an entire army within its fruity interior.  

The fruit above does not really do the subject justice. While it is mutantly large, I have seen bigger peaches that are the same colour of apricots. It does indeed sit in its own little padded jacket, due to an obsessive compulsive complex the Japanese seem to have in regard to wrapping up fruit.

Next to the peach you will see my newest find of an ash-gray ice cream. I have not in fact dropped this milky delight on the path up Mt Fuji to allow it is grow a gravel coating, it is the true shade of a sesame seed flavour ice cream. It is also quite delicious.

A final note on food is a comment on the abundance of raw eggs. It seems entirely normal here to crack an uncooked egg onto your noodles or use it to make an eggy dip for your meat. I'm pretty confident that in the west this is an utter no-no due to salmonella poisoning. Is this an ingenious way to keep the population down? Or are Japanese eggs too high tech to have such a poison in them? Did in fact neither chicken nor the egg come first but a machine to detect bacteria in shells? One can only ponder.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Drop pots

Sooner or later, people who partake in human habits such as food with me will learn that even with the most delicious of meals there is a finite probability that I will have a hideous reaction and have to dash directly to the bathroom; do not pass go, do not collect £200.

On one such charming occasion recently, I had been eating at a favourite noodle bar and had to walk, jog then sprint back to the observatory, calling apologies to my friends. I tumbled into the canteen building and over to the restrooms, before half crawling through a cubicle door and ....

... oh thanks Japan. NOW you choose not to give me a sophisticated lavatory experience but a hole in the ground.

Somewhere up above, I swear there was laughter.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Butler service

Ever wondered what it would be like to be a prominent aristocrat with a plethora of servants waiting on your every whim? In the land of Gundam suits and cat ears, truly anything is possible and last week I paid a visit to the Swallowtail butler cafe in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district.

The concept is that of an elegant coffee house where you are waited on by attractive young men in black-tie attire who attend to your every (coffee-related) whim. While similar establishments exist, including maid cafes, such is the popularity of Swallowtail that reservations have to be made weeks in advance for specific time slots. The exception to this is if you can jump on a cancelled reservation which appear with a couple of days notice. This latter technique (supported by a friend with excellent Japanese) was what we opted for and we deigned to take tea and cakes at our time slot of 11 am.

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the cafe perhaps because they spoil the ambiance or maybe because it adds to the mystery of the place.  The inside of the cafe resembles an manor house styled dining room with small tables, generously spaced surrounded by high-backed padded wooden chairs. The menu consists of a large variety of teas, delicate finger sandwiches, quiches and pastries. Jen's selection arrived on a three-tiered platter whereas mine was an artfully arranged single plate.

The butlers moved around the room, pouring your tea, moving each plate in front of you (in the case of Jen's three-part situation) and escorting you to and from the restrooms (actually that was a little much, but the idea was great!). Upon making your reservation, you could select a phrase in which the butlers would bow you out with, such as "your carriage awaits". I know we selected a random choice for this, but forget which option we were waved away with!

After this, we went manga shopping whereupon I promptly wished we could have retained a butler to carry my bag.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The Ghibli Museaum in Mitaka, Tokyo is a centre dedicated to the Japanese anime produced by Studio Ghibli. Some of the most famous and beautiful anime films have come from Ghibli, including "My Neighbour Totoro", "Kiki's delivery service", "Howl's moving castle" & "Spirited away". The museum is immensely popular, so much so it is necessary to reserve tickets in advance but it is totally worth this effort.

The museum building is an adventure in itself, with winding metal staircases, stained glass windows featuring characters from the animes and a roof garden with a life-size sculpture of the robot from "Castle in the Sky". Cubby holes and low-roofed passages make this a great hands-on experience for children ... or at least they were probably the ones the designers had in mind rather than the adult Brit who managed to squish herself into pretty much all of them.

On the ground floor, a movie theatre showed a short Ghibli-made film and a second exhibit described the process of animation. This was one of my favourite parts in the museum. The room showed different techniques for animation, starting with physically moving models, then onto flip books and zoetropes (which I made in school!) before showing the effects of strobe lighting. The last one of these was demonstrated with a large wheel of models all in slightly different positions. The wheel started to spin fast, resulting in the figures blurring before your eyes until the strobe lighting was turned on. The wheel then appeared to stop and the models on it moved instead, jumping and skipping on the spot. It was truly incredible, even to someone familiar with the principals of animation.

Upstairs, displays showed further details in the making of anime, including a box that held almost 200,000 sheets of paper; the amount used in the making of a single movie. Overlooked tasks were highlighted, such as the work needed to make grass blow in the wind and scrap books of collected photographs showing water pumps and gabled roofs that are later included in the background sets.

On the topmost floor, the shop proved to be a dangerous place. I emerged with a large Totoro. May have to throw out lab books to accommodate it in my luggage.

Unfinished business

Standing at 3,776 m (12,388 ft), Mount Fuji or Fuji-san is the highest mountain in Japan and possibly the country's most famous icon (yes, even more than "Hello Kitty", can you believe?). Its perfect cone shape and flattened volcanic top makes it distinct from all the rugged mountain peaks surrounding it and about 180,000 people make this climb during the summer months each year.

The saying goes that you are wise to climb Fuji-san once, but a fool to climb it twice. I confess to thinking that such a saying did not bode well for the enjoyment of the experience. However, it clearly had to be done!

The traditional way to hike this route is to take a bus up to the 5th station at the half-way mark (2,300 m) and then climb up to the 8th station at around 3,200 m. At that point you wait until it is the middle of the night and then ascend the remaining 500 m to see daybreak at the summit. My friend and I decided to embrace conformity and the masses and signed on for a tour trip to do exactly this.

Even at the beginning of September, the very tail end of the season, the climb is a popular one and there were forty people on our tour bus and we were far from alone. 5th station is strongly reminiscent of a skiing village, with a handful of chalet-type buildings providing food, postcards and amenities clustered around a central square. From here, gate posts mark the entrance to the official climbing routes.

We set off from 5th station at around 11 am, having stayed for an hour adjusting to the altitude. As all good tourists, we purchased wooden sticks that served the duel nature of being a walking aid and a souvenir for which major check points en-route offered a branding service to mark off your altitude achievements.

The first part of the climb was easy going on wide trail routes but somewhat uninspiring. Clouds masked the view and the ground underfoot was gray volcanic rock. Maintenance work added caterpillar trucks and in many places, concrete structures had been placed to protect against falling rock and help preserve the path from the thousands of tourists traipsing along its length.

Upon reaching the 7th station (2,700 m), all this changed. Glancing behind me, I was greeted with a view that soared over the clouds, dwarfing even the other neighbouring mountain tops. It was suddenly easy to see why Fuji-san is considered a Holy Mountain; you genuinely feel you might be approaching the gods themselves. The climb also increased in difficulty. Between the 7th and 8th stations, the route became a rocky scramble where making like a wolf and using all four limbs became the way forward. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful so the rock under foot (and hand) was dry and sturdy.

While I normally would have balked at the prospect of walking in a large group, there were several advantages: The first was knowing you had the correct route. Balancing my stick between thumb and forefinger while I groped for a handhold might have had me in doubts that this really was the way to go if I'd been alone. The second was the easy pace our guide set, with multiple stopping points that allowed rest and water. Left to my own devices, I would probably have zoomed off faster and then paid for it later. Unfortunately, these breaks were not enough to prevent my friend getting altitude sickness and even the cans of oxygen we had scooped up at 5th station did not relieve the problem. I actually felt very well, which proves such things are just dumb luck.

The 8th stations at 3,200 m consists of a long bunk house with a small attached shop. Into this our group piled, as did many others as the evening went on. It was now between 3:30 - 4 pm and we were to stay put until 3 am before heading for the summit to watch the dawn at 5:30 am. Rest was recommended and beds in the form of huge long bunks were provided. Roughly ten people slept top and bottom in each bed which was .... cozy! Blankets were all shared, so there was no obvious space to mark out as your own, you just had to snuggle up with your best buddies that you almost certainly met for the first time 1000 m below.

Food, in the form of curry and rice, was provided and we were given strict warnings that the next stretch was going to be tough. At night the temperatures drop to below freezing, so waiting for people is not an option; we should therefore think carefully about whether we feel able to continue up to the summit. Sadly, I had to admit at this point that it did not look good for us. My friend had gone a nasty sour milk colour and I didn't like our chances of being reunited if I left her to head down alone come daybreak. We had until 3 am to decide, but I was bracing myself for knowing the summit was out of our reach this time.

By 2 am the whole question became academic; it had started to rain at 8th base which became snow further up, making the route impassable. We all had to head down at 5:30 am.

The gray mist prevented us seeing any kind of decent sunrise, but after 12 hours in a cramped bunk house I was just glad to be moving! Once on the path, the sun brightened and the rain lifted to a light drizzle allowing us to enjoy the view.

Hurray for sunshine!

An exclamation cut somewhat short by a ferocious gust of wind that knocked me clean off my feet. But there, it would have been boring if there were no challenges going down.

On the way back to Tokyo, our bus stopped at an onsen where we could strip off (all) our walking gear and soak in the hot springs. Closing my eyes in the hot water, I admitted it was a great shame not to have reached the summit of Fuji-san. Clearly, this was a sign I had to return to Japan and try again.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's all about the climb

Tomorrow, I wake at the crack of dawn and head off to conquer the highest peak in Japan; Mount Fuji.

This traditional night-time hike to see dawn break over the Land of the Rising Sun is said to be a not-to-miss adventure that everyone is glad they did .... in retrospect.

The actual act is supposed to be god awful.

My hope in posting this is that I'll be too embarrassed to return and admit I shacked up at a raman noodle bar at 8th base and never made the top.

Wish me luck. I may be some time.

A fishy business

In a country whose predominant food source is fish, it is perhaps no wonder that one of the main attractions is to visit Tsukiji Central Fish Market. The largest in the world, about 2246 tonnes of fish is unloaded fresh from the docks to be sold and auctioned here every day.

A visit to see this phenomenon requires an early start. The market closes completely at 1 pm, most of the action is done by 8 am and if you want to see the auctions (where it is not unheard of for a single tuna can fetch 20 million yen) you have to be there well before 5 am. Not being naturally the earliest of risers, myself and a friend set our alarm for 6 am and arrived sometime after 7 am.

While the outer market is easily found from the subway stop, finding the real heart of the fish market was not as obvious as we had hoped. In spite of this being a major tourist attraction, it is primarily a place of business and you have to walk through a chaos of trucks shuffling boxes to reach the right area. We were temporarily stymied before we tried the age-old technique of following other gaijin (foreigners) which, after avoiding being run over and looks of irritation that would have been shouted curses in any other country, let us tumble into the right area. All things considered, it is perhaps not surprising that tourists were once banned from visiting here; frankly, we were a damn nuisance (^.^).

The fish market itself is a vast collection of closely packed stalls with containers displaying fresh fish and seafood in hundreds of varieties. Tuna, octopus, crab, lobster, eel, shrimp, blowfish, squid, hundreds-of-things-I-couldn't-identify-but-would-try-given-half-the-chance were stacked to overflowing and cut up before our eyes. Some of the fish were so big the plastic used to transport the carcasses away in resembled body bags at a scene of a crime.

After taking our fill of the sights, we moved to the next traditional step in this trip of having a sushi breakfast. Restaurants close to the fish market do a thriving business in selling the extremely fresh fish to hungry visitors and we queued for about half an hour before getting a seat at the small bar. The sushi was incredible and we had a selection placed in front of us that was made from fish that was almost certainly alive and splashing only a few hours previously.

Yes; stupidly early but yes; stupidly worth it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Someone's calling ...

Since Japan's mobile phone network is too sophisticated to support neolithic western phones, I got myself a prepaid keitai (cell phone). By the time I decided that loosing all my friends at Shinjuku station was becoming wearing, I was only in Japan for another three months, so I opted for the cheapest phone available. This was a $50 samsung phone that (unlike the toilets) looks innocuous enough; a totally basic handset.

"So, what's your email address?"

Not the first question I was used to getting upon waving a new phone at somebody. I mean, I was all for it, I dislike making calls too, but sometimes having someone's number is useful.... no?

It transpires that all Japanese phones have their own email address. It's not that UK/American phones cannot also check your email, but it is an add-on feature that has a fairly hefty price tag associated with it. In Japan, however, you automatically get a number and email address and I can send and receive unlimited email for 300 Yen a month. That's $3, folks. I assume this is possible because the more sophisticated network allows significantly greater data traffic, so it's no problem for everyone to be emailing continuously. As a result, although my phone does SMS messages, it's an almost unused feature because people simply email texts.

In addition, my incredibly basic handset also displays exciting graphics when it gets an email (the text rolls along the screen and exclamation marks bounce out at you - yay for bounces!), has an infrared port to exchange numbers with someone, can do music and video and operates in both English and Japanese. I do miss predictive text, but typing in Japanese is fun.

The complete obsession Japanese have with their phones has led to two other phenomenon: Firstly, unlike in New York where the subway is the land of the dead, the underground stations in Japan all have reception. Secondly, everyone gets charms to hang off their phone on a hook that a wrist strap might go. Gift shops at temples and tourist sights inevitably sell a selection of these charms for people to collect. Currently, I have two "Hello Kitty" charms (that famous symbol of Japan), one from Gujo-Hachiman where the mouthless cat is performing the traditional steps from the Bon Dance festival and a second from Hakone where the cat is submerged in one of the black-shelled eggs cooked in the naturally sulfurous water there. I also have a small pot of gold from Hokkaido (the northern island in Japan) that a friend bought back for me.

It is also common to personalise your phone with rub-on stickers. Phone shops carry a wide range of designs to suit every taste. I chose a black cat with extra paw prints to walk around the phone's edge.

Riches, kitties, paw-prints and emails all on one $50 device. Calls are rather irrelevant really.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Come here often?

In addition to earthquakes and typhoons, Japan also enjoys being volcanically active. As compensation for the fact that you may be swept away at any moment by a steaming river of burning lava, the country is dotted with hot springs or onsens and bathing in them is a central part of Japanese culture.

My first experience of a Japanese onsen was (and I quote) a "hot springs amusement park" in Hakone, just outside Tokyo. The description, while crude, is rather accurate since the baths were divided into two sections: the "amusement park" section and the traditional baths. In the former, there were a series of medium sized public hot pools that took on a variety of flavours. You could bath in red wine, green tea, sake, charcoal, salt or (rather unpleasantly after the hot water) iced candy. In each case, the baths contained diluted forms of their theme and at certain hours were topped up with their main product. We saw a huge wine bottle being tipped into the red wine bath but just missed seeing the coffee added to the one next door.

After dipping ourselves in all available ingredients, we moved to the traditional section of the baths. These were relaxing, low lit areas with a number of plain hot baths both inside and out.

You were also entirely naked.

In fact, I expected to feel far less comfortable than I did. These traditional onsen are single sex and since they are the most common kind in Japan, no one makes a big deal about the lack of a bathing suit. In Japanese culture, such places are supposed to be ideal for breaking down class barriers, since you could be bathing next to a business executive or a truck driver, there is no way to know.

Upon entering the onsen, you shower and carry a small hand towel (almost completely useless for women, incidentally, since we have two disconnected areas one would ideally like to cover) which you place on your head (or somehow out of the water) when you enter the bath.

Tatoos are also completed banned at onsen, so unless you can cover it up, you can't bath if you've got ink. A friend mentioned to me that this is likely due to the affiliation between tattoos and the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

Naturally, being Japan, even a naked bath has to contain a level of futuristic technology. In this case, it was in the form of wrist bands which open your locker with one swipe near its detector, lock it again with another and can be used to buy food, drink (apparently milk is the way to go after the baths), massages, fish-that-eat-your-feet and so on, while you are in the onsen. Afterward, you drop the wristband into a machine which detects how much you owe and provides you with an exit card to swipe on your way out.

Who'd have guessed even a naked bath in a naturally heated pool could be upgraded?

Friday, September 4, 2009

The end of civilization

Unfortunately, the world is about to be destroyed by giant robots. Well, really, it was only a matter of time. Naturally, they started in Japan. I took photos (hey, I'm a serious tourist, doncha know?).

The official story for the gigantic earth-destroying mechanical monster standing in Odaiba (location of all terrible things, such as that 'Hello Kitty' Ferris wheel) claims it's a monument marking 30 years of the Japanese anime, Gundam. Rather like unfolded transformers, these robots are actually suits which contain a human pilot, enabling him to go out and fight .... really big shit.

The model was really rather large and every hour dry ice poured out around its feet and jet pack, the eyes lit up and the head turned. You could also walk underneath it (because I know you all wanted that image; apparently no gundam children for you).

Supposedly, it was also possible to buy a small model of the model that was a model of the anime... my head hurts.