Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Tuesday 30 March

Views of Okazaki

Katsushika Hokusai's 'Tokaido Okazaki Yahagi no hashi' (The Yahagi Bridge at Okazaki on the Tokaido Road), from the series 'Shokoku meikyo kiran' (Rare Views of Famous Bridges in All the Provinces) (circa 1830-1844). I think I this is what I saw today in Obuse.

Not to be confused, as I did in the first attempt at this post, with Hiroshige's 'Okazaki. Tenshin-no Hashi' (1834, from '53 Stations of the Tokaido' series).

Shopping at Hard Off

It's just a second-hand electronics store. Nothing to get excited over.
Monday 29 March

Lost but not forgotten

Behind Nagano’s great Zenkoji temple, and off the tourist paths, a ‘Memorial to Undelivered Mail’:

This memorial is dedicated to lost letters. There are approximately 1.8 million pieces of undeliverable mail in Japan annually. Postal workers dedicated this monument in 1971 for the relief of mail’s spirit.

View from the local train, Naoetsu - Nagano

Happy Shop v Baby Plaza

In Takaoka I pass the neighbouring ‘Happy Shop’ and ‘Baby Plaza’ stores, which are going head to head (side by side) for seasonal business. These have changed their stock in the run-up to the next big occasion, which is Boys’ Festival, held on 5th May.

Both are currently selling ‘satsuki ningyo’, expensive sets of ‘gokatsu’ samurai-knight-in-armour pieces ( http://www.goshiki-japan.com/culture_art/cul_02_2.html ), as well as ‘koinobori’ ('carp steamers' - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koinobori ). (Later during these holidays, I see - within walking distance of Oosaka castle - a full street of at least twenty such competing shops, the largest showpiece versions of these sets commanding prices of around £2000.)

Girls’ Festival (‘hina matsuri’ - http://japanese.about.com/library/weekly/aa022501a.html ) is held on 3rd March in most parts of Japan. On that day, families with daughters display ‘hina-ningyo’, sets of dolls arranged on a five or seven-tiered stand.

Hina-ningyo at Snow's house, early March

In and around Takayama, where hina-matsuri does not take place until 3rd April because of the late coming of Spring to the area, the displays are only now being set up.

Since Boys’ Festival, unlike Girl's Festival, is a national holiday, it is also more inclusively known as ‘Children’s Festival’ (‘kodomo no hi’ - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children's_Day_(Japan) ).

Maybe there are tomboys (‘otenba’) who would rather have a samurai set than a hina-ningyo. Too bad for them: in Japan, you are a boy or a girl, a samurai or a princess.
Friday 26 March
'Into The Corridor of Culture’s Grove'

Shortly after 1.00 pm, the slow Kaetsuno bus from Ainokura, which today I share with other passengers, rolls into Takaoka. First impressions are of a city that has fallen on hard times. The shops seem closed. Is it a national holiday? (I wouldn’t know.) The city feels dark and it’s not just the weather. Perhaps other cities with the same long sheltered arcades stretching out from stations, like Aomori in the north or Kochi in Shikoku, cities that I have seen only in summer, also look just as miserable coming out of winter.

At JR Takaoka, school girls hang out around the Mcdonalds and I get an aggressive look from a stranger - rare here in Japan – just outside the main concourse. I think of Hounslow. The immediate challenge is to navigate my way successfully via the maze of dim, concrete tunnels beneath the station, a miniature Montreal ‘underground village’ of empty restaurants and clothes stores with names like ‘Bleu Bleu’, to the other side, where I have booked a room at the ultra-cheap Super Hotel, whose signs I can see but cannot reach. I keep going round in circles, below and above ground.

At least this brings me to Takaoka’s tourist information office. It always seems that the cities least frequented by tourists, or with the least to offer, pull out the stops to publicise their monuments - however ‘C list’ they may be - and supply the glossiest maps and pamphlets. The one I am given here hails Takaoka as “The Corridor of Culture’s Grove”, quite some billing to live up to. (Whatever it means.)

Not that Takaoka is devoid of sights. It has two notable ones, one of which is a listed ‘National Treasure’. The absence of visitors suggests their existence is not widely known. I didn't know of them either, not having intended to visit until a few days before. Then I hit on Takaoka as an ideal overnight stop, allowing me to cover the subsequent onward journey to Nagano on one day of my bargain ‘Seishun 18 kippu’ rail pass rather than splitting it into two. (Seishun 18 ticket: five days’ free travel on slow, non-reservable, local trains only.)

It snowed throughout the previous day and night at Ainokura, a small settlement above a steep-sided valley, where I had been staying in a traditional 350-year old gassho-zukuri, a house structure unique to the Shirakowa-Go region named after its hands-in-prayer-shaped roof, the upper floors of which were traditionally used in silkworm rearing. The snow had fallen so deep that it had covered a large stone in front of the gassho marked, according to my tourist map, by the ‘footprints of a long-nosed goblin’. A constant procession of lorries had been working throughout the daylight to carry away the snow and keep paths around these structures open to visitors.

Some stand-out memories of the last few days: as the only passenger in an aging wooden-floored bus from Otamachi, the principal city of Shirakowa-Go, to Ainokura, I had been treated to an impromptu tour by the kind driver, who gave me a largely incomprehensible running commentary of the journey in Japanese and stopped en route to allow me a glimpse of other gassho settlements and the green river at the foot of the valley. The snow. (As I move in and out of the Japanese Alps, I am dipping in and out of seasons). And being woken up at two-hourly intervals during the night by the electric heater (kanji instructions only) playing a bleepy ‘Love Me Tender’.

The approach to Takaoka’s first great cultural monument is – no surprise - undramatic. The short walk takes me past more arcades of empty shops. Turning the corner, there is the daibutsu, identified by Takaoka's inhabitants as the symbol of their city and historically considered to be one of Japan's 3 Great Buddhas along with those in Nara (which I have seen) and Kamakura (which I have not - but hope to soon).

(Why do tourist rankings always focus on top threes? Japan officially has Three Great Views and Three Great Gardens. Monuments of a kind always seem to be numbered, like Olympic winners, 1-2-3 or to form Triangles (think Rajasthan); rarely are there four or do they form a ‘square’. The next best, biggest, tallest outside that group is likely to be forgotten. So where and which is the fourth-placed Buddha, I wonder, and is it as under-visited as number three? )

[A couple of days later, in Matsumoto, I learn that that its castle is one of four listed as national treasures, which puts paid to that 'theory'.]

I walk around, get close up, see a few Bosch-esque pictures in the circular hall beneath the statue. There are a handful of other visitors but the sprinkling of souvenir and coffee shops around me remain empty. Perhaps the tour buses have already passed through.

The same rather forlorn atmosphere surrounds the approach to the second must-see monument, this one designated as a National Treasure. The approach to Zuiryuji is equally unremarkable, taking me along a slippery tiled path at the centre of a residential street. (I later read in Nagano that one should not approach Buddhist temples from the middle of the path.) At its end, however, I enter a beautifully preserved, peaceful, cloistered Zen Buddhist temple complex. (Was that the corridor? Is this the grove?) It deserves more than the few visitors it has drawn today.

Returning to the hotel, I pass the Pachinko Toyama salon. It has its own dedicated entrance from the station tunnel and it calls itself an ‘entertainment museum’ so I take it at its word and have a look. Inside, it's vast, and there's an army of attendants. The first real signs of (hypnotised) life in this city; the pulse of Takaoka.

Harvest festivals of Takayama and Hida-Furukawa

The 19th and 20th April are the highlight of the seasonal calendar in Hida-Furukawa. This is when ‘Naked’ Festival takes place. Despite the name, it’s no more ‘naked’ in fact than, say, Sumo wrestling, but I would like to witness it in the flesh, so to speak.

A little earlier, on 14th and 15th April, nearby Takayama celebrates its own Spring festival. For those like me who are visiting at other times, both towns have excellent, informative visitor centres, with models and - in Takayama’s case - actual festival floats on display, some dating back to the sixteenth century. In little Hida-Furukawa, one can even view the spectacle through 3-D glasses. (How Mark Kermode ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/markkermode/2009/12/come_in_number_3d_your_time_is.html ) would be pleased .)

At Takayama’s ‘Sanno Matsuri’ and Autumn ‘Hachiman Matsuri’ festivals, the locals say prayers and give thanks, respectively, for a good harvest. Over those two occasions, 21 large festival floats are paraded through the city.

In Hida-Furukawa, there are fewer floats but it’s wilder. On the evening of the first day, a tall wooden tower holding a big drum beaten by two young men in sarashi (a stomach band made from bleached cotton) is paraded around town. Young men from the same block wait in groups on street corners, holding long wooden beams with drums, before rushing out and charging the tower when it arrives. These groups then fight for their block’s honour. The fierce ‘battle’ to reach the main float which ensues is the highlight of the festival. Once they’re in the big scrum, there’s no escape from the crush. A world away from Ise but still Shinto.

At both festivals, there are artful puppet displays above the floats, so ingenious that they don’t even look like puppet displays, as the parts detach and are operated by as many as eight people. This one ('Shakkyotai'), for example, sounds a little like a scene from ‘Alien’: “Due to a question of morality the play was prohibited in 1892 because during the exotic woman’s dance, a lion comes out from her mid-section, and this action was thought too obscene to play in those days.” (Now that’s an impressive puppet.)

Outside festival time, most of the floats are held in distinctive storehouses with white garage-like doors, which can be seen around town.

Having watched the videos, the public faces of both festivals are predominantly male. I asked the very helpful female attendant at Hida-Furukawa’s visitor centre about the role of women on these occasions. “We prepare the food”, she said.
Tuesday 23 March

Is anyone home ?

From my hotel window, I can see a big golden roof in the hills above Takayama. If I hadn’t read my guide book, I would guess this is the town’s main tourist draw. (I’m a sucker for scale.) But it’s not on bus routes, receives only the briefest of mentions on tourist literature. What the hell is it?

It’s a ten-minute walk downhill from Takayama’s excellent Hida no Sato village, from where it looks immense, so I go take a look.

Turns out that this is the HQ and ‘World Shrine’ of Sukyo Mahikari. A typical sect / cult depending on your perspective: banned in some countries, a registered charity in others; lifting at will from the world religions which it claims to supersede; a desire to unite but itself driven to schism by internecine succession battles; picked apart for its nonsense and hypocrisy on the websites of those converts who managed to escape.

The leaflet I pick up tells me that followers of Sukyo Mahikari practise ‘purification by divine light’ (“the revival of a practice performed by Buddha and Jesus”) and even extend its application to farming methods. Their World Shrine “is the source of divine light for the world”. It is, I am informed, “a second Noah’s Ark”.

I enter the cherry-topped complex (that red thing is actually 'Munadama, Symbol of the Presence of God' according to the pamphlet) via ‘The Gate of Hoshu’ ('Golden Arches' was already trademarked) . There are Swastikas on the columns (I mean 'Towers of Light'). Bling minarets. And the place is empty. This is no living, breathing Auroville.

It all feels a lot like walking around a stadium on a non-match day – immense parking bays and huge washrooms and, literally, I’m the lone visitor. OK, I’m outnumbered by the two whitecloaked curators (or are they acolytes?) but that’s all. As David Vine might say, it’s not a Mecca for tourists. My guess is that it has never even been half-full. (No photographic evidence of congregations or services, neither at the building itself nor on-line.)

Why did they choose the town of Takayama, located in the Japanese Alps, for a location? Perhaps it's just harder to escape from here once you've taken the trouble to arrive.

The 'Great Hall of Worship', where I wish I were allowed to take photos, is peaceful. Red velvety floor and a long aquamarine blue fish tank which runs the full length of the immense front altar, well above head height. Above that, behind a screen, an immense golden ark in a garden of Eden. It feels both luxurious and tacky, and clearly its founders / designers / furnishers can reasonably be accused of bypassing good taste in achieving it. If the villain in a James Bond film were to come from a religious cult, the producers could rent this place as a set. Then it might fill up. It even has a ‘balcony for the Spiritual Leader'. (There is also an International Conference Room and Lecture Hall.)

I leave somehow impressed by this grandiose monstrosity. Someone has had to pay for it though: most likely it was built on the subscriptions of the international brainwashed. An experience similar to visiting a Ceascescu vanity project in Bucharest, yet this place has pretensions to holiness to go with the founder's megalomania.

Until today, the most absurd building I had seen in Japan was the ‘UFO Museum’ in Fukui, an imposing but kitsch extraterrestrial Millennium Dome, in a sleepy town on the Noto Hanto without any notable UFO history.

But the World Shrine, where I sense there is equally little chance of a Second Coming, has the edge.
Saturday 20 March

Sunny with a chance of oysters

From an observation platform overlooking Ise Bay, Toba, Snow and I are having a unashamedly modern Japanese tourist experience. The three female ‘ama’ drivers ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ama_divers ) dressed in white suits wave at us from the boat and we wave back, then one by one disappear under the water before bringing up shells, which they place in barrels floating on the surface. Ama only dive for tourists these days; when they used to dive for pearls, they did so only in loincloths. Fair enough; there are children in the audience.

We then visit an impressive museum which plots the chronology of Mikimoto’s life ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikimoto_K%C5%8Dkichi ), set against the course of Japanese history. It also exhibits a sea cucumber, I seem to recall.

Mikimoto’s story has me thinking of the outstanding animated film ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’, which I saw on the plane on New Year’s Eve. (Single-minded inventor doubted by his community neglects family business and pursues his dream; through the highs and lows he becomes the local hero, putting his home town on the map.)

Raised within a poor family, we learn that Mikimoto, gambling his funds and reputation on a new method for cultivating pearls, was ridiculed by doubters and beset by costly failures which placed his family at financial risk. Taught a lesson by the ‘red tides’ which killed off his oysters and almost drove him to ruin, he went on to successfully produce the first cultured pearl, just before tragedy struck and his wife died young. Mikimoto later travelled to America where he met his idol, Edison, and spread the Mikimoto name to major cities throughout the world, where his shops remain today.

A genuinely fascinating life story, even if it – following some Internet research (my sad addiction) - the suspicion lingers that the role of other scientists in his success is understated.

Films have been made of much less interesting lives.

Hopelessly devoted to doughnuts?

Saturday 20 March

Throughout the previous week, morning television - for which I have changed channels since my earlier Invisible Touch post - has been engaging in blatant product placement for the launch of a Krispy Kreme doughnuts ‘restaurant’ (if that’s what it is), the first from this chain to open outside Tokyo. It is located in Nagoya JR railway station. Conveniently, the presenters have some of their sickly, calorific products in the studio. They go through the routine motions of live-on-air tasting (cue more predictable “oishii”s) and sledgehammer home to the waking masses the news of the imminent opening with drawn-out references to the event, as clearly and recurrently as if it were a tsunami warning.

Not that Krispy Kreme needs any more publicity by the Saturday, when I travel to Nagoya, from where Snow and I will take the train together to the Shinto shrines of Ise. The sweet-toothed, fad-seeking masses are queueing around the block and beyond.

(I see all of this having been waiting at the silver (‘gin’) clock, at the wrong end of the station. In fact, Snow had asked me to wait at the gold (‘kin’) clock on the opposite side. Moral of the story: know your きんs from your ぎんs, with the certainty of a Japanese Olympic figure skater.)

I later read reports estimating their waiting time at four hours, which means they could have travelled by shinkansen to Tokyo, where there is already a Krispy Kreme, and back, just as quickly. Could it be that the thrill is to be found in being among the first to sample this particular brand here in Nagoya?

Donald Richie ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Richie ) once likened the pachinko parlour experience to Zen meditation. I wonder: is there a ritualistic quality to this pilgrimage too? They could always elect to put off their visit until the queues disappear. But, no, there is a new shrine in town and this is about more than eating. All it takes it patience.

The failure of so many to find something better to do on a Saturday strikes me as shallow, yet harmless. (I am aware that many would hold the same opinion about my afternoons at Arsenal Football Club, where I still hold a season ticket.) I’d understand better if they were queueing for something which is here for a limited time only - a Boy Band book signing, an audience with a Great Leader (etc etc) – but this fastfood is going nowhere and will, once the novelty has faded, live up to that label. Members of a church congregation could no doubt expect to hear this kind of activity denounced as symptomatic of some underlying emptiness or spiritual malaise in modern life.

Which reminds me of a comment I read on two fellow Yamasa students’ blog the other day. Both are members of a reasonably large group of American Christian missionaries studying in Okazaki, learning Japanese whilst setting up a church in Nagoya and, like me, fairly new to the country. To quote them ( http://thefareastforus.wordpress.com/ ), admittedly before explaining the context, “hope is dismal in this place”.

Which place?” I am inclined to ask.

The post takes national suicide statistics – unarguably a cause for some serious soul-searching among Japanese - as the exclusive barometer of hopelessness.

- “..2009 is the 12th consecutive year in which more than 30,000 people have taken their own lives.”

- “Every day nearly 100 people take their own lives, at a rate of almost one every 15 minutes.”

- “in today’s Japan one is roughly five times as likely to die by one’s own hand as to be killed in a traffic accident.”

We have come a long way from the Krispy Kreme queue, for now, but that’s quite a weighty conclusion to reach based on such a limited measure. One can associate Japan with a number of depressing phenomena (think http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori ) but ... hopeless? It doesn’t feel that way.

There are possible alternative gauges of ‘hopelessness’ which, when applied, put a different complexion on things. Take size of prison populations, for example. America's is the largest in the world: 7.3 million Americans - that’s one in every 31, and one in 11 African, adults - are either in jail or prison or on parole or probation ( http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1529685/us_prison_population_is_the_largest.html ). Or drug addiction figures, which go hand in hand with those stats. As to the barometer used in the post, even if five times as many - that’s 30,000 - Japanese die predictably at their own hand as on their country’s roads, what does the fact that even more (40,000) Americans – around six or seven times as many as in Japan - die unpredictably in crashes every year tell us? ( http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,146212,00.html - I even get to link Fox News!). A little pessimism can be a positive force too. And the higher incidence of a particular cause of death in any given country may result from a range of cultural factors; to explain it as symptomatic of ‘the status of hope’ there is easy, or convenient. It may just be that the Japanese are realists, less prone to delusion (as Dawkins might say). Yet they can approach life with optimism: notwithstanding the shocking suicide rate, they have the highest life expectancy of any country in the world (take your pick of sources). And don’t most of us hope for health and longevity?

Even allowing for different notions of ‘hope’ (essentially a question of belief), is it possible, or reasonable, to reach such a conclusion about a country knowing – i.e. having experienced - so little of it and its people? For now, we are little more than tourists. I'd like to think that we’re here less for what we bring than for what we hope to discover.

And if ‘the Japanese’ – sorry, that generalisation again - don’t have ‘faith’ as most would understand it, must we assume that they don't have ‘hope’? Depends on what one is hoping for, I suppose. But if there is no hope, why do over half of households have butsudan shrines in their homes, where they say prayers and leave offerings? Why do over two million go to Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo, and countless more to other shrines such as Ise, to see in each New Year? And for the Buddhist festival of Obon, held in summer, why do families unite in remembrance of their ancestors, visit and clean their graves? Does it matter that they’re expecting nothing in return? No, I’d say it makes their traditions more special. (No Pascalian wagers here.) I don’t feel much of this in my country. They are hoping to keep something alive.

Sunday 21 March

So here we are today at Ise, the most important shrines in Shinto ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/beliefs/religion.shtml ), rebuilt and - along with their spirits - renewed every twenty years. They are visited by six million Japanese every year.

In Shinto, there are no official sacred scriptures, no specific moral commandments. Arguably it’s not really a religion at all, yet it carries weight. (“Shinto has reverted to its more traditional position as a folk religion which is culturally ingrained, rather than enforced. In any case, Shinto and its values continue to be an impor)tant component of the Japanese cultural mindset.” ( http://www.search.com/reference/Shinto )) Most Japanese observe Buddhist rituals too - again, arguably, not a religion. Consequently, at many other sites, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines can be found side-by-side, and visits to them are unlikely to be considered separate experiences.

The English-language pamphlet given to me by the Tourist Information people describes how “since ancient times, the Japanese people have lived in accordance with nature. All over Japan, there are consecrated rocks and evergreen trees in which kami (deity) reside, as well as sanctuaries (generally called jinja) in which kami are enshrined [..]. Kami are worshipped in matsuri which include ceremonial occasions as well as festivals in [sic] the local life”. I suspect that few Japanese would claim to believe literally in the presence of such spirits, if asked. Few even would ask themselves that question. Yet they feel a connection at these places.

(Three days later, I will visit Hida No Sato folk village in Takayama, in which a number of traditional wooden houses, some rescued from the site of a dam construction project, are preserved. At the entrance, there is a plaque with similar wording: “…. Japan’s economy has caused us to think too little about the more important spiritual side of life. We now realise that we should pay more attention to the cultural heritage our ancestors have built up…the quiet atmosphere of this place gives you a restful and peaceful feeling. Here, all things are harmonised well with nature”.)

Shinto has many shrines: over 100,000. Yet at Ise, where the crowds are big and the queues long, one cannot even enter the most important ones, which remain hidden behind walls. In some religions, this would defeat the object but here the act of visiting seems to matter most.

Snow buys omamori lucky charms ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omamori) for her parents and sister - and, it turns out later, for me too. Just like the shrines, and the spirits which inhabit them, there are different charms for different things. Inquisitive though she may be about what the future holds, she probably just wants to bring some more colour to the experience, as well as show her family that here she has remembered them, on her return. She doesn’t take it too seriously, no more than the fortune cards we buy from a vending machine later, and it’s the thought that matters.

We reach the great shrine of Naiku, where a large crowd forms a wide slow-moving queue up the steps ahead of us. Many are dressed in suits, the equivalent of ‘Sunday best’. At an Indian temple or an English football match, one might fear a crush or stampede. But not here. And no red baton men, where - for once - you might think they’d be needed. Restraint and forebearance, values of Shinto, very much in evidence. The joining and participating. Here, waiting for the spectacle is a part of the spectacle.

Without the crowds, I doubt it would be the same. Just as one might say at Nagoya Station.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Eco, Friendly

Cut the crap, please

Taken inside Ueda JR station, travelling back to Nagano from Bessho Onsen:

Great name for a curry restaurant.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Norse Mythology and the Japanese Buffet
Over the last few days, I have been living it up Viking-style. Very orderly and polite Viking style, mind you (rape and pillage were off the menu).

First of all, last Friday, we rounded off the Yamasa term with an 90-minute ‘all you can eat’ lunch amongst teachers and classmates. This was my first dining experience at the busy, noisy バイキング (‘Viking’) chain restaurant in Okazaki.

The following weekend, I had the opportunity to sample a ‘Viking’ breakfast and dinner at excellent hotel restaurants in Toba and Matoya Bay respectively.

On each occasion, to my Japanese hosts, a meal described as ‘Viking’ was self-explanatory. To me, less so. The Japanese already have their own equivalent ( たべほうだい ) for ‘all you can eat’ (‘tabe’ – to eat; ‘houdai’ – as much as you would like ), and the word ‘buffet’ does exist in katakana (ビュッフェ), so just how did this neologism come to pass?

The answer comes courtesy of an answer provided by the New York Times ( http://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/26/news/26iht-vikcon.html, a link to which I found at http://forum.gaijinpot.com/showthread.php?p=657784). The etymological root appears to have grown from the decision of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, to open a ‘Viking Restaurant’ serving buffet-style lunches and dinners (as well as the linguistic floodgates) in 1958. And the name has since become omnipresent throughout Japan, with its self-service eateries piling in behind the generonym in much the same way that our parents came to refer to vacuum cleaners as ‘hoovers’.

(Nagano Viking.)

No surprise, then, that the swanky Imperial’s restaurant is no longer called Viking.

To the expatriate, it’s mildly tickling that this ill-fitting brand name has since snowballed in the public consciousness. Buffet meals do not figure in anyone's popular image of Vikings (there were certainly none at the Yorvik museum, York, England); ‘smorgasbord’ cuisine only dates from the late 19th century, and nothing I have eaten on these three occasions remotely resembled it. But the connection has been established, so now I understand and recognise the Viking experience. And this evening, as dinnertime approaches, truly I could eat a Norse.

Counting the scars:
I spy with my little eye .. something ending with ‘Slot’

[Note to reader: if you have never played inane counting games to pass the time on holiday, you are advised to skip this post.]

On most train journeys here, it isn’t long until you see the same old generic landmarks. Niche theme-based game centres with odd names, often incongruously located in the middle of residential districts. Shiny white Las Vegas-style ‘churches’, perfect venues for an off-the-peg secular Japanese wedding. Pachinko parlours. These sights consistently punctuate the window view of virtually every journey I make, whether by shinkansen or the slow, local trains I am taking this week.

(This is not a church.)

(This may or may not be a church.)

(This is a 'Wedding village'.)

(This is a Pachinko parlour.)

The near-certainty that you will see examples of these buildings, combined with the unpredictability of exactly when (unless you have fully memorised, from cover to cover, the detailed maps contained in my only published work, ‘Japanese Railways (JR) Fun for All Family’, available in Hikari, Kodama and Nozomi versions from all good Japanese bookstores) that will happen, opens up a whole new world of excitement when travelling in competitive company.

So, if you are a looking for a high-scoring, keep-you-on-your-toes game to pass or kill the time, you could do worse than challenge your neighbour to a game of ‘I Spy Pachinko Slot' ‘penalties’. (This assumes your neighbour is known to you.) It works as follows: keep a look-out and - remember, this is Japan - whisper ‘Slot’ every time you see one, scoring a point for each new sighting. In a first-to-five-successful-spots game, it’s likely you’d have a winner within - I estimate conservatively - an hour of beginning most shinkansen journeys.

An alternative take on this potentially classic pastime is to count sightings of an installation no less iconic of contemporary Japan: the golf driving range. As the BBC reported in 2001, “once upon a time, Japan was golf crazy. Barely a week went by without a course, or one of the huge, netting-shrouded five-storey driving ranges which dominated Japanese suburban skylines, opening somewhere in the country” ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/1735709.stm ). How many of these remain open in today’s tougher economic climate, I do not know. But you will still see them at regular intervals from any train line, and often in the places you might least expect them. (This includes the middle of built-up cities; I was rather surprised to stumble upon one whilst walking in the heart of Shinjuku, within 24 hours of my first visit to Tokyo in 2008.) It’s a quicker game than ISPSP (see above), and a window seat affords such an advantage that its occupant should agree to start with a handicap of, say, two, spots if he (for once I'll add '/ she') has any sense of fair play.

Finally, if you don’t want to limit yourself to trains, or wish to expand the contest to last the full duration of your holidays, then why not throw down the gauntlet to your partner and take them on at ‘Big Wheel’. The rules are again the same, yet without the pachinko halls or golf ranges, of course. As the Japan Times has reported, “Ferris wheels seem to pop up everywhere: on top of lone mountains in the countryside, at ski areas, at boat marinas, and even on the tops of department stores” ( http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20091031cz.html ). That may sound like an exaggeration but I assure you: it is not. In virtually every Japanese city, you’ll find big wheels, jutting out from department stores and railway stations. They blot beauty spots too, such as this otherwise possibly-once-scenic spot at Kanzanji Spa, Hamanako Lake, which I visited a few weeks ago.

And only, yesterday, heading by train out of Gifu into the foothills of the Japanese Alps, look what I saw: -

(For once, this is my own photo.)

So yes, in Japan, there's a market for Big Wheels in the middle of nowhere too.

As well as in the busiest of cities....


(Not-so-busy Kobe.)

This is a game that can run and run for weeks, with points scored out of the blue leading to long, frumpy silences and carefully negotiated truces, agreed in the hope of preserving mutually amicable and attentive holiday behaviour for an evening or even a day. That’s until the rush for the shuttle bus window seat and last-minute scanning of the horizon en route to the airport, in a bid to draw level before returning home.

Yes, the spark may have gone out of your relationship, but the holiday ended with the sweet taste of victory.