Tattoos in Japan

From the BBC:

Thai police have arrested a Japanese yakuza boss on the run for 15 years after pictures of his tattoos went viral on Facebook.

Shigeharu Shirai is accused of murdering a gang rival in 2003.

The photographs of the 74-year old fugitive’s elaborate yakuza tattoos were taken by a local person in Thailand unaware of his identity.

The mafia-like yakuza gangs have been part of Japanese society for centuries and have an estimated 60,000 members.

I expect things have changed and tattoos are now more common among Japan’s non-criminal class, but there was a time when one was almost exclusively linked to the other. I discovered when I was in Japan that most swimming pools or saunas in hotels have a sign saying “No Tattoos”, and it took me a while to figure out this is a polite way of saying “No Yakuza”, presumably because ordinary Japanese don’t want to find themselves mixing with a bunch of organised criminals.

What Australian hipsters, or indeed British engineers with ill-advised tattoos, do when they turn up on ski holidays I don’t know. Perhaps they’ve amended their policy to overlook a Southern Cross neck tattoo or tramp stamp, but would still eject anyone with the full t-shirt.


Grisly Murders in Japan

This is a couple of weeks old now, but it serves as a reminder that Japan’s underbelly is seedy indeed:

Japanese police have found nine mutilated bodies hidden in containers with their heads cut off and flesh stripped in a suburban Tokyo flat, media reported Tuesday.

Tokyo police have arrested 27-year-old Takahiro Shiraishi who reportedly confessed to hacking the flesh off the bodies and throwing it out with the trash, then sprinkling cat litter over the remains in an effort to cover up the evidence.

According to local media, Shiraishi told police he had chopped up the bodies in a bathroom, while a saw was found in his room.

For some reason, I have always remembered the name of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year old British woman who went missing while working as a hostess in a bar in Tokyo in 2000. Two years later, an extremely wealthy and well-connected businessman named Joji Obara was charged with her rape and murder after this discovery:

On February 9, 2001, Blackman’s dismembered body was found, buried in a shallow grave under a bathtub in a seaside cave at Miura, Kanagawa, about 30 miles south of Tokyo, just a few hundred metres from Obara’s apartment. The body had been cut into eight pieces. Her head had been shaved and encased in concrete.

Obara was acquitted of murdering Blackman after a trial in 2007; however, he was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of eight rapes and the rape and murder of a 21-year old Australian model. A timeline of events can be seen here.

I remembered the case because Blackman’s father effectively had to travel to Japan and do the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance himself, having found the local police all rather uninterested. The Japanese pointed out that Blackman was working illegally, and if her father had any remarks to make about his daughter working as a semi-prostitute in Tokyo he kept them to himself, but his efforts made the news in the UK and Tony Blair got personally involved. When Obara was finally arrested, they discovered:

His collection of pornographic videos, 4,000 to 5,000 of which were recovered by police, led police to believe that Obara may have raped anywhere from 150 to 400 women. A recreational drug user, he was reported to have an obsession with western women and developed a sex fetish for molesting unconscious women (to whom he had administered drugs to render them unconscious), targeting both Japanese and Western women. Police found over 200 sex videos showing Obara molesting women in this manner, sometimes wearing a face mask, and they reported that his extensive journals made reference to “conquer play”, a euphemism describing his sexual assaults on women who he wrote were “only good for sex” and on whom he sought revenge, “revenge on the world” drugging them with chloroform.

My guess at the time was that this man’s behaviour was well-known and the police had received numerous complaints, but due to his wealth and status in Japanese society, particularly his Yakuza connections, they simply declined to investigate or move to prosecute.

I don’t think it’s any great secret that beneath Japan’s ultra-polite and organised society there lies a very nasty element centred around weird sex and violence. When I was in Tokyo the first time I observed:

There seems to be some schoolgirl fetish thing going on in Japan. Okay, all the actual schoolgirls were dressed in short tartan skirts and knee-socks, but so were the women handing out flyers on the streets and the girls on more than a few advertising posters. It seemed to be a recurring theme.

If you think Russians like their female popstars young, take a look at Japan. I saw a poster advertising some top Japanese star’s latest single.  She looked about 12.

And the second time:

We also wandered into a sex shop which suggested that perhaps all is not well in the gloomier corners of Japanese society. Eerie dolls of what looked to be 12 year old schoolgirls, umpteen devices combining latex, gels, and mysterious liquids into which male members can be poked for sexual pleasure, machinery for men and women which made me wonder where they recruit the designers from, and an impressive selection of DVDs through which ran the common theme of the action being slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, forced. Then there were the pornographic comic books which lined shelves in their thousands, many of which depicted various bodily fluids deposited by what must have been a firehose rather than a human being. Very strange indeed, but seemingly no less popular for being so.

And if alleged sexism in computer games was enough to upset the SJWs and launch Gamergate, consider what I wrote in 2010 about Japanese computer games:

If you want a computer game filled with wanton violence, buy an American one.  If you want a computer game filled with wanton violence and a healthy dose of child porn, buy a Japanese one.

The legislation also applies to dating-simulation video-games, in which the goal is a graphic sexual conquest. One, RapeLay, lets players choose their victims, of any age.

I loved Japan for the two short trips I was there, but this latest story of the nine mutilated bodies serves as a reminder that beneath the surface all is not as well as it seems.

I just hope Andy in Japan didn’t order his Gyoza from this guy.


Bridges to Sakhalin Island

This story has popped up every year or two since I can remember:

An epic 8,400 mile railway route will link London to Tokyo in an ambitious project proposed by the Russian government.

Vladimir Putin’s officials are currently in serious talks with Japan about constructing a 28-mile bridge to enable trains to cross the sea.

Serious talks? I’d love to get hold of the Russian version this is based on.

The blueprint for the project, once mooted by Stalin

Projects which have been mooted for seventy years rarely come to fruition. The glaring exception was the Channel Tunnel, on which early efforts were made in the 19th century.

You can guess why I’m interested in this, can’t you?

Russian’s vice premier Igor Shuvalov said: ‘We are seriously offering our Japanese partners to consider the construction of a mixed road and railway passage from Hokkaido to southern part of Sakhalin.’

Sakhalin is Russia’s largest island – and it would take a 28-mile bridge or tunnel to link to Hokkaido in northern Japan, which is connected to the country’s super-efficient rail network.

Shivalov said: ‘We are close to starting our part of the job.’

Hmmm. Technically it’s probably feasible, although that straight line from Sakhalin to the mainland looks as though it was done by an intern at the Daily Mail. Why you’d build a bridge at an angle like that I don’t know, starting from some random spot along the coast of south-west Sakhalin. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever in that area other than a few decrepit and largely abandoned towns that were once fishing collectives. I know this because I’ve been there and took some photos, so you can see for yourselves. It would be far more sensible to take the line up to the midpoint where the mainland is closer and put the bridge there; I suspect the word “proposed” in that part of the drawing is somewhat misleading.

But even if this is technically possible, as an economic prospect it’s laughable. If the Japanese want to get to Europe they can fly and, with their being short, leg-room isn’t a concern even on long-haul flights. Why on earth would they choose to go by train which would take anywhere between one and two weeks? Okay, there is a certain romanticism still attached to the Trans-Siberian railway and die-hard travellers still take it and enjoy it. I never did it, but I have spent 3 days and 2 nights on a train between Moscow and some snowfield near Nizhnekamsk in Tatarstan and let me tell you, the novelty is gone an hour or so into the second day. The biggest problem by far is that Russia, when viewed from the train, is mind-numbingly boring for 90% of any given journey. I’ve done a fair few trips on Russian and Ukrainian trains and mostly I remember vast snowfields the size of France and as flat as a billiard-table stretching out of sight in all directions. And for some confounded reason they line the damned tracks with birch trees so you couldn’t see anything anyway. On Sakhalin we had mountains to look at (through gaps in the brown sludge that adheres to the windows) and it was nice enough for a few minutes, but hardly something you’d pay very much to do. As the Daily Mail says with a certain tongue in cheek:

Passengers would be able to marvel at the snow-capped mountains in Siberia before discovering the stark and deserted countryside of Russia for bulk of the trip.

Uh-huh. Of all the people I knew in Russia, just one did the Trans-Siberian from Khabarovsk to Moscow: a Dutch girl who was mad as a hatter and would later go on to build schools in Zimbabwe using her hands. She loved this sort of stuff, but I doubt many others would.

As a freight route it would be equally useless. The population of Sakhalin is around 200-250k people; the biggest population centre is Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with 174,203 people according to Wikipedia. This hardly represents an enormous, untapped consumer market just waiting to be opened up. Some Russians might appreciated being able to nip to Japan for the weekend by train, but it’s hard to see why any Japanese would go the other way except for a few who like to shoot bears and the fewer still who like to get yelled at by staff in restaurants. What about the connection to the mainland? Well, back in the construction boom I was sending men and materials from Sakhalin to De Kastri and they’d take the overnight ferry from Kholmsk to some absolute shithole of a port on the mainland whose name I forget. The ferry was some stinking thing from the Soviet era and most people opted to sleep in their vehicles. Anyone not lugging scaffolding around took the plane. In short, nobody is very much interested in going between Sakhalin and the eastern mainland unless by plane, and even then it’s not many. With sea freight costs being what they are, the idea of taking goods halfway around the world by train, or sending them from one wasteland to another, doesn’t make much economic sense.

A bridge between the Russian mainland and Sakhalin has been costed at around £4 billion, while a link to Japan is likely to be more expensive.

The scheme was unveiled at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum hosted in Vladivostok by Putin.

I bet Putin wasn’t around when this scheme was unveiled. This is a PR stunt for some company or technical college, nothing more. Well done to the Daily Mail for covering it, though.


Japanese Computer Games

I remember a few years back a violent video game hit the shelves (it might have been one of the early Grand Theft Autos) and there was much handwringing amongst British parents, or rather, a gaggle of rent-a-gobs who can be relied upon to find outrage in practically anything from mobile phone masts to the salt content of a cup-a-soup.  One article I read suggested the UK was importing American violence and gun culture via video games and proceeded to ramble on about the failings of the US, etc. etc.  Yawn.

It was one of the comments on the article which caught my attention, and I paraphrase from memory:

If you want a computer game filled with wanton violence, buy an American one.  If you want a computer game filled with wanton violence and a healthy dose of child porn, buy a Japanese one.

I laughed at that.  I played Final Fantasy VII, one of the finest video games ever developed, throughout my entire 2nd year of university (which goes a long way to explaining my results that year, i.e. Heat Transfer & Fluid Mechanics = 26%. Oh dear.)  Anyway, this game is not – nor are any of its successors – short of violence (albeit there is much less than in modern games, but this is probably more a factor of the improvement in graphics engines since 1997 when FF7 was released), but I did happen to notice that all the female characters looked like children with big doe-eyes, childish expressions, and massive (I reckon!) digitally enhanced breasts.  Not that there was any overt sexual content in FF7, but Tifa, one of the lead female characters, looked like this:

True, she looks similar to our very own Lara Croft, but in the game where she was allegedly 20 she acted like she was about 15.  When she wasn’t kicking the shit out of monsters, that is. The violent computer games in the west generally leave out any sexual content, in Japan it is almost a defining feature.

There’s nothing wrong with the depiction of the girls in FF7 of course, but if you’re looking for something disturbing in the world of video gaming then your attentions are probably better focussed on Japan than anywhere else, as this Economist article makes clear:

The legislation also applies to dating-simulation video-games, in which the goal is a graphic sexual conquest. One, RapeLay, lets players choose their victims, of any age.

Bloody hell!  That puts Niko Bellic rampaging around Liberty City in perspective.

See also my comments here from when I visited Japan:

We also wandered into a sex shop which suggested that perhaps all is not well in the gloomier corners of Japanese society. Eerie dolls of what looked to be 12 year old schoolgirls, umpteen devices combining latex, gels, and mysterious liquids into which male members can be poked for sexual pleasure, machinery for men and women which made me wonder where they recruit the designers from, and an impressive selection of DVDs through which ran the common theme of the action being slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, forced. Then there were the pornographic comic books which lined shelves in their thousands, many of which depicted various bodily fluids deposited by what must have been a firehose rather than a human being. Very strange indeed, but seemingly no less popular for being so.

All is not well, indeed.


A Trip to Japan

I’m now back in Sakhalin, a mere 90km from Japan at the closest point, but one might as well be on the moon and the other on Saturn as far as proximity has resulted in similarity.

I went to Japan with an Australian, German, and a Brit who were all experienced snowboarders intent on doing off-piste powder boarding whilst trying to avoid being buried in an avalanche. For my part, I was intent on learning how to ski whilst trying to avoid breaking any limbs or looking like a complete twit. With the exception of that last one, it was a successful trip for all of us.

Regular readers will remember that I had been to Japan last July for a visa run, and thought pretty highly of it, and so I had high expectations of this trip. I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as we got off the aeroplane at Narita airport, one of my friends pointed out that Japan always seems overstaffed: everywhere you look, there are people in impeccable uniforms – always uniforms – standing about helping you out. Even the customs official with dazzling white gloves checking your bags for contraband has the manner of a tour guide. More uniformed people help you towards an enormous door maked “Exit” which opens on its own anyway. Contrast this with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where exiting the airport from the baggage area takes you through a set of double doors each no more than two feet wide, one of which is always locked shut, which open inwards into the crowd of people trying to pass through, after which you go down a flight of twelve concrete steps. Who the hell designs an airport entrance which involves a flight of steps?

The overstaffed comment stuck with me. On our first day in Tokyo we witnessed six beaming uniforms blocking the pavement while a car reversed out from a building, just an ordinary office block. Later, when it had started raining, each man pulled on an identical set of white wellies and a transparent raincoat. In Niseko, watching a front-end loader clearing huge piles of snow on a public road was a flagman in blue livery with a white helmet, a whistle, and a flashing baton who signalled for the driver to stop every time a pedestrian walked nearby, nodding and smiling at anyone who walked past. Roadworks in Japan are accompanied by a whole load of regularly arranged flashing cones and a workforce which looks as though they are interested in getting the job done and minimising inconvenience to traffic, one of whom is a flagman decked out in a white helmet and reflective clothing who actually watches the traffic. The road crews in Sakhalin look like escaped prisoners and the flagman loses interest to the point that he idly waves you through into the path of a speeding Isuzu lorry coming the other way. What struck me about the work ethic in Japan – and I am prepared to believe this is only appearances which belie a different reality – was that even those doing what would normally be classed as menial jobs seemed to be carried out with professionalism and dedication without the stigma which accompanies such work in the west. There are thousands of middle-aged or even elderly men doing menial work in Japan who seem more enthusiastic and take more pride in their work than people in middle management in the UK. Clearly this is a cultural thing whereby any work is viewed as more noble than doing nothing, even if the work is menial; and if a job needs doing, even a menial job, then it should be carried out to perfection. It struck me as a form of welfare. Rather than taking the UK approach of paying a couple of million able-bodied people to sit about doing nothing whilst countless menial tasks go undone, the Japanese culture allows people to carry out useful (if not strictly necessary) tasks without the stigma associated with doing a rubbish job. In terms of appearance, a visitor to Japan comes away amazed at how clean and orderly the place is and how professional the people are. A visitor to the UK comes away wondering why the nation which conquered the developing world is so eager to adopt its appearance.

Tokyo was a lot of fun. Having arrived in Narita and got ourselves on the super-comfortable bus with loads of baggage space and unbelievably helpful driver (who loaded our bags for us) which took us to our hotel followed by the obligatory arrival beer or three, we headed off to some acting school where we learned to samurai sword fight for 3 hours. We were (thankfully) only using wooden swords, and the beers beforehand were not a good idea, and the instructors couldn’t really speak English, and the little Japanese instructor looked more than capable of chopping us in half with a sword while sipping tea on a veranda, but it was heaps of fun and even though we are probably not going to be called upon to work as samurai warriors any time soon, we did manage to pull off some semi-cool looking moves (accompanied by the obligatory “Japanese” war cry gleaned from war movies) and even took part in a role play where we kill one of the instructors. This was an acting school after all.

A Samurai warrior defeats a brigand

The Samurai warrior turns on the brigand’s camera crew

Nothing is more natural to a visitor in Tokyo who has had 3 hours of samurai sword instruction than going to get ratarsed until the early hours, so as the forces of nature demanded of us, we did that. We headed for the Golden Gai district which is made up of hundreds of tiny bars, some no larger than 2m x 4m, and proceeded from one to another, drinking a beer in each one, adhering to a rule that we must go down any dark, dingy alley we came across.

Listen love, I’ve told you already, I’m engaged, all right?

It was fun, with some of the small bars showing plentiful character which some say Tokyo lacks, although we did find ourselves paying extortionate prices for even a single drink and half the time a cover charge was piled on top. Unsensibly for four expats with over 20 years of overseas experience amongst us, we happily told one barman who, when he was figuring out what to charge us and asked the question, that we had never been here before and had no idea how the system worked. Unsurprisingly we got fleeced.

Anyone know how much this is gonna cost?

Gradually the beer turned into soju (which I always thought was a Korean drink), and then to potato soju foisted on us by a couple of very friendly young Japanese men who we stumbled across in a bar. I was more comfortable on the soju, even if made from potatoes, than endless pitchers of (excellent) Sapporo beer, but our poor German friend is hopeless on spirits (but drinks beer in 5-day sessions) and ended up drunkenly claiming he could moonwalk which the Japanese really, really wanted to witness. They did, we did, we all laughed. We stopped laughing when one of the Japanese pulled out his mobile phone, flipped it open, rotated the screen through 90-degrees to show how he could watch Japanese TV on widescreen anywhere in the country. We showed him how ours could send text messages and take grainy photos, and talked about this thing called fire we discovered last month.

Okay, we’ve met some incredibly drunk westerners. Now what?

I was pretty hammered at this stage and so am somewhat reliant on others’ testimony for what happened, but it seems the Japanese were in two minds whether to go home for some much-needed sleep (they were working the next day, and it was already 1am) or to take us to a Japanese restaurant. They chose the latter, and walked us along what seemed like a quarter of the Tokyo marathon route towards the restaurant. Along the way we were continually harassed by African men trying to entice us into various strip joints with dubious promises of the best girls in Tokyo. This took all of us by complete surprise, and after a while it became seriously annoying as the men were most insistent and would follow us for miles. I pretended I was a Russian who knew no English and they left me alone, but it was still a pain. I’m surprised the Japanese put up with it, I can’t believe many visitors are left with anything but a negative impression after coming into contact with these men, who number in the hundreds. I wonder if they do the job because the Japanese for whatever reason find it difficult to do themselves? Certainly, when we were in Sapporo I noticed the Japanese men trying to flog us similar services were far less animated, almost embarrassed. And thankfully, there appear to be areas where touting for strip clubs is forbidden; walking down one street, the chap following us stopped abruptly as though a line were drawn in the road, and from thereon we could walk in peace.

So we ended up in a restaurant with our two Japanese friends who could not speak much English, which mattered not one jot to us or them, and we sat on the floor with our shoes lying somewhere near the door as beer after beer and plate after plate arrived at our table for the next couple of hours. I have no idea what was said by whom or to whom, but I do remember that when the bill came it was the same price as we’d paid for 4 drinks in the Golden Gai and we had a bit of a hard time trying to get our friends to let us pay for it. We ended up splitting it 50:50 or 60:40 or everyone throwing in random notes until the waiter left satisfied, and we spilled onto the road back-slapping and thanking and went our separate ways sometime around 3am. I forget what the plan was, but we somehow ended up in a minute bar somewhere containing a counter and four stools which was so narrow that when your belly was against the counter your back was six inches from the wall.

Look! We’re the only ones in here!

D’you think he knows we’re not from around here?

The barman was a lively fellow, which was just as well considering the state of his clientele, and kept us plied with drinks and put up with what must have been inane conversation until somewhere near 4am when we fell out onto the road, which could be done by leaning back on your stool, dodged the Cameroonian at the end of the road who promised us women and, erm, more women and took a taxi home. I guess we’ll never know if the barman believed the story from two of our number that they were producers of pornographic movies, but he seemed to as somebody woke up in the morning with a piece of paper with a few phone numbers scrawled on it. Numbers, I hasten to add, that went unrung.

One of these two is a porn king

There’s nothing quite like shopping for electronics in Tokyo, and for a few hours the next day that’s what we did. It’s fun, because you get to look at the stuff we’ll be using in our homes in the west in 10 years time. The cutting edge technology we see in the UK has probably been in Japan since 1986. More importantly, you could find lying on shelves any accessory for Canon cameras which exists. I struggled in vain in Singapore and Manila to find certain accessories for my SLR and video camera, but in the giant electronics store in Tokyo the lady flicked through the catalogue and pulled it off the shelf behind her without wrinkling a brow. We also wandered into a sex shop which suggested that perhaps all is not well in the gloomier corners of Japanese society. Eerie dolls of what looked to be 12 year old schoolgirls, umpteen devices combining latex, gels, and mysterious liquids into which male members can be poked for sexual pleasure, machinery for men and women which made me wonder where they recruit the designers from, and an impressive selection of DVDs through which ran the common theme of the action being slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, forced. Then there were the pornographic comic books which lined shelves in their thousands, many of which depicted various bodily fluids deposited by what must have been a firehose rather than a human being. Very strange indeed, but seemingly no less popular for being so.

One highlight of our two-day adventure in Tokyo was going to the Tokyo Dome City theme park and riding the Thunder Dolphin roller coaster. Tokyo is a big city containing some monster buildings, and it is somewhat disconcerting when hungover to look around you on the steep ascent at the start of the ride to see the whole city spread out aroud you, large towers beneath you, and notice that you are still only three-quarters the way up. If there are any Japanese wondering who those four foreigners were whimpering in the rearmost car during the ascent and blubbering near the top that they’d changed their minds and wanted to get off, it was us. It was a seriously good ride.

We flew from Tokyo Haneda airport to Sapporo on a 1-hour ANA commuter flight, which turned out to be a Boeing 747. With efficiency unrivalled anywhere else in the world the plane was filled from the boarding gate within fifteen minutes flat and emptied at the other end in ten. Even small planes in the UK take half an hour to fill what with dunderheads unable to find their seat and trying to fit 3-foot bags into a 2-foot space. And in Japan they don’t have some archaic system of physically tearing off boarding passes before you board, you simply flash a bar code past a reader and on you go.

Our first three days skiing were spent in the resport of Rusutsu, where I donned my newly purchased skiing gear and found myself an instructor, a 54-year old called Mori who used to be in the Japanese airforce. I asked him when he first learned to ski, but alas he couldn’t remember. His earliest memory was him skiing to school when he was 3 or 4, so it must have been before then. By contrast, I had had a couple of 2-hour ski lessons on Gornii Vozdukh the week before I went where I had mastered the snowplough (provided it wasn’t too steep and I wasn’t expected to turn right). My lesson in how to mount a ski-lift was delivered in the time between the thing whacking my legs and the bar coming down and whacking my head, and my first attempt at dismounting saw me skidding along the floor on my arse and a further two or three minutes to get back up onto my skis, all of which amused my companions somewhat. By the time Mori had finished with me he had me good enough to go down any of the red runs in the resort (which I did the next day), and was making something between parallel turns and a snowplough (more of one than the other depending on which direction I was trying to turn in). My speed down the slope was somewhere between snail and glacial, my body position put my chin between my skis, and my arms flailed like a grain thresher but I was able to get down the slopes without falling over. My friends, whose cruelty knows no bounds, chided me for not making enough effort in falling over and christened me Sonic Boom.

Erm, I found these lying about. Anyone know what they are for?

By the time we got to Niseko for the final five days skiing and I’d taken another couple of hours instruction from an Aussie, I was going a bit faster and able to come down the steeper slopes doing parallel turns, which is about where I wanted to be in terms of skiing by the end of the holiday. Niseko was a nice enough place but ludicrously expensive; for example, we were charged $3 each for some raw cabbage leaves and mustard which was a compulsory purchase when you sit down in one of the bars, so we took an opportunity one night to go to Kutchan, the small town just along the road by bus, where the prices were a third what they were in the ski resort and even though I don’t particularly like sushi I thought this is the place to eat a pile of it if I’m ever going to. So I did, and it was not at all bad. The skiing was a bit hit and miss, largely due to a monster hangover which wrote me off for the first day and the final day saw strong winds close all the lifts and the snow turned into slush. During our stay the place was half empty and many buildings stood unoccupied, perhaps a sign of the economic crisis. If they want to retain the numbers for next year, they’re going to have to examine their prices. Another thing I liked about skiing was that afterwards you could go and get drunk and act like a lout, only it isn’t called getting drunk and acting like a lout. Instead it gets called aprés ski, and is therefore far more sophisticated.

All in all, it was a a great trip and a huge thanks are due to the two Japanese gentlemen who took us out in Tokyo, as well as the dozens of Japanese who helped us out when we were struggling with something or other, from locating the right bus to dismounting a ski-lift.

Before I finish, some public apologies are due to various people. Jan would like to apologise to a certain barmaid for asking in all seriousness whether she was from Niseko or another part of Japan (she was from New Zealand); Nick would like to apologise to whomever has to pay for the serviceable parts of the toilets in the places we stayed; I would like to apologise to my three companions who had to share a chalet with me (they know what for); Mark would like to apologise to the Japanese Department of Health, Sanitation, and the Environment for leaving his ski socks outside and thus being responsible for the extinction of at least two indigenous species; Nick and I would like to apologise to Mark for his being unable to make any move whatsoever on the pretty Japanese girl in Splash bar (those purple wellies would have looked good beside your bed); I feel an apology is necessary to two wonderful young ladies from Queensland whom I mistakenly said lacked class; Jan would like to apologise to his entire nation for being the most untidy, disorganised German ever to have entered a ski chalet; and we would all like to apologise to the next residents of the Ronde Lodge in Niseko who must surely be due some discount.

Finally, I hope the Australian who gave an unprovoked Nazi salute to Jan and Mark when they were wearing their lederhosen gets a damned good kicking, sooner rather than later.


Thoughts on Japan

I’m now back in Sakhalin, new visa in hand, once again impressed by the speed with which a Russian embassy can process a visa if you pony up enough cash.  Some further thoughts on Japan are below.

The Japanese have toll-booths on certain roads, one of which runs between Narita Airport and Tokyo city.  Two little red-and-white striped barriers block the roadway between the toll-booths, which open automatically at great speed once a detector of some sort reads some device on the car and deducts the charge.  The barriers have to open at great speed because drivers approach them at great speed as if they weren’t even there.  First time I went through one, I thought my driver had gone all kamikaze on me, before the barriers whipped up a split second before the bumper would have smashed them to pieces.  I’m guessing the system doesn’t run on Windows software.  A Toyota Camry heading towards the barriers at 100mph.  Blue screen comes up.  Not pretty.

There were some nifty gadgets in the hotel room.  One was a toilet which did all the cleaning, washing, and scrubbing of your nether regions for you.  A little control pad attached to the toilet kept everything under control.  Another was the curtains which opened and closed at the touch of a button beside the bed.  You could lie in bed watching TV with a full view of the Tokyo skyline, then close the curtains and go to sleep without moving more than your arm.  In the morning, you can check the weather (hot and humid) before you get out of bed.  I liked that.

There seems to be some schoolgirl fetish thing going on in Japan.  Okay, all the actual schoolgirls were dressed in short tartan skirts and knee-socks, but so were the women handing out flyers on the streets and the girls on more than a few advertising posters.  It seemed to be a recurring theme.

If you think Russians like their female popstars young, take a look at Japan.  I saw a poster advertising some top Japanese star’s latest single.  She looked about 12.

I wandered into what looked to be a games arcade, hoping to check out some fancy video games we can expect to see in the west in 15 years.  I found it full of people in their forties and fifties playing some bizarre game which consisted of putting steel ball bearings – which they kept beside them by the thousand in baskets – into a machine.  It looked like some vertical version of bagatelle.

Odd, day-glo cartoon characters are not used in Japan only to advertise kids’ stuff, such as odd, day-glo cartoon toys.  They are used to advertise seemingly everything, including stuff which exists firnly within the realms of the adult world.  Bank loans, for example.

There were lots of weird kiosks about, full of slot machines which I could not for the life of me figure out what they were dispensing.  My best guess is comics.

I went into the BIC Camera Centre on the day some latest mobile phone launched.  One would have thought Miss Japan was there putting out for anyone who wanted her.

The Japanese use their own, stunningly logical system of shoe sizes.  Rather than use random numbers like 38 or 7.5, they state their shoe sizes in centimetres.  Sadly for me, most Japanese feet don’t grow beyond size 28.

Going to the sports section of a department store presents you with a mass of golfing equipment and nothing else.  The outfits Japanese women choose to play golf in look as though they were created by Walt Disney.  Enormous – and I mean enormous – netted structures stand around the city.  These are driving ranges.  Golf is big in Japan.

The Tokyo Metro is brilliant.  I have ridden the four main ones in the world – London, Tokyo, New York, and Moscow – and found the Japanese one to be by far the best, although they don’t have bronze sculptures of partisan fighters planning an attack on German invaders.  London’s is by far the worst.

The sheer quantity of electronic stuff on sale in Electronic City in the Chiyoda district is staggering.  You go into a shop, spend a while looking around, then realise there are another 6 floors.  I don’t think there is anything you couldn’t find there.  Except for maybe anything made by Samsung or LG.  I saw Sony LCD TVs the size of whiteboards.

Apart from when it is really busy with people, Tokyo is very pleasant to walk around.  There are signposts all over the place, pedestrian crossings everywhere, and everything is spotlessly clean.  If it weren’t so expensvie, it would be a great place for a short holiday.

The policeman outside the Russian embassy greets passers by with a cheery grin and a hello.  Try finding that in any other country.

I liked Japan. If I got offered a year or two of work there, I’d jump at the chance.


An Afternoon in Tokyo

I have spent most of today wandering around Tokyo in a state of utter confusion and hopelessness.  And I haven’t even got to the Russian embassy yet.  But even taking this into consideration, I am enjoying myself.

The biggest problem is similar to the one I had in Korea a few years ago, which is a complete inability to distinguish a bank from a brewery and a bar from a bus stop.  Everything is labelled but, oddly enough, in Japanese.  I can’t decipher a single character.  At least in Korea I had half a chance with being able to recognise the logos.  I’ve written before about the importance of logos and when you find yourself in a world without many you recognise (a 60-storey skyscraper with Hitachi on the top isn’t helpful), identification of goods and services is pretty damned difficult.  I suspect had Naomi Klein lived in Japan for a year, she’d have ditched her most famous work halfway through the introduction as she bit into an imported Mars Bar.  So most of this afternoon I spent looking for an ATM which spoke English.  There didn’t seem to be any banks which I recognised except for Citibank, whose ATM was as much use as a slot machine.  The few Japanese banks I came across had ATMs with no English instructions, and most didn’t even display the Visa sign.  Even the ATMs of the Bank of Dolinsk (Dolinsk is a set of trees with a house between them north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) carry the Visa sign.  I needed a load of cash (only cash, of course) to pay for my visa tomorrow, and I was beginning to panic.  Eventually I found what was described as an “international ATM” in a post office beside my hotel, which coughed up some dough after a bit of poking around with the buttons.  I can’t say I didn’t enjoy wandering around the Ginza district of Tokyo all day, and I particularly liked seeing the population of a small country cross those diagonal zebra crossings when the little green man comes on, but I fear that never before has Tokyo seen anyone looking more gormless on its streets than I did this afternoon.  I should take this opportunity to thank the Aussie fella for giving me directions when he found me hopelessly cross-referencing two pocket maps with a huge tourist one on the street, to absolutely no avail whatsoever.

My hotel, the Imperial Hotel, is superb.  Which is of no surprise whatsoever, as this is Japan we are talking about.  Being a good metre taller than the average Japanese, the receptionist obviously thought I was more comfortable at lofty elevations and put me on the top level some 31 floors above the pavement.  The view from my room is spectacular, and I’ll post some photos when I get back.  The room – one of over 1,000 – is excellent, with everything in perfect working order and the bathroom containing white fluffy bathrobes, the one and only sign of a decent hotel.  Had I bothered to bring my laptop, I could enjoy complimentary super high-speed broadband in my room, but as it happens I have to use super high-speed broadband in the business centre which contains a dozen top-notch computers, none of which have a worn out mouse and a keybaord missing a couple of keys, which I can use free of charge.  When it comes to running hotels, the Japanese – along with the Koreans – have got the rest of the world licked.

I didn’t fancy paying $85 for a buffet dinner though.  Tokyo isn’t cheap. So I went for a wander along a narrow street alongside the elevated railway near the hotel and found a place which sold some dishes I recognised, photos of which were on display outside.  They were Korean dishes, which I know from living amongst 30,000 ethnic Koreans on Sakhalin and alongside a wife who spent 3 years in Taegu, on offer in what I took to be a rough-and-ready Japanese restaurant.  So I went in with white face, round eyes, hairy arms, and full of ignorance, where in this regard I was in the company of myself only.  Nobody spoke English, which made it all the more fun, and by the time I had ordered my food and had drunk the neck off a bottle of Asahi Dry I realised I was in a rough-and-ready Korean restaurant and there wasn’t a Japanese person in the whole damned place.  Keeping “they-all-look-the-bloody-same-to-me’ mumblings to a minimum I kicked back, ate my food, took in the surroundings, and enjoyed my beer and myself.  Problem is, I don’t know a single Japanese dish and, now you mention it, I don’t know a single thing about Japan other than crude stereotypes involving sumo wrestlers, karaoke, and samurai swords.  But I do know I like Japan, and the service is impeccable and the people unfailingly polite, even if they do turn out to be a load of Koreans.

I’ll see what I can find tomorrow.