Tuesday, 23 March 2010

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.

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