Good-bye Rabbit, Hello Dragon

Only one month to go, and the Year of the Dragon will be upon us. Shogatsu, the transition from one year to the next, is undoubtedly Japan’s biggest holiday period. Here are a few things you can expect:

A BLIZZARD OF POSTCARDS

While most Anglophone Westerners will soon be filling out stacks and stacks of Christmas cards to mail to friends, relatives, and acquaintances, the majority of Japanese will be doing something very similar with nengajo — New Year greeting cards. In years past I have done both nengajo and Christmas cards, and I am here to tell you that nengajo are better. Here’s why:

First, they’re cheaper. A nengajo is the size and shape of an ordinary post card. They don’t require envelopes and cost less in postage than Christmas cards do. Also, you can buy nengajo with the postage printed right on them so you don’t even have to lick a stamp. Best of all — at least according to a certain friend of mine — is that there’s nowhere to insert a form letter.

Second, they come in more variety. Nengajo themes change annually on a twelve-year cycle. That’s because each year in Japan is related to an animal of the Chinese zodiac. For example, 2000 is the Year of the Dragon, so everyone will be sending out dragon-themed cards this year. Last year was the Year of the Rabbit, so the available nengajo were adorned with cartoon rabbits, watercolor rabbits, woodblock print rabbits, and photographed rabbits. Because 1998 was the Year of the Tiger, I saw one nengajo on which a tiger in running shorts was handing off a relay baton to a similarly dressed rabbit. So, the rabbit may also come back for a curtain call this year, but all of the nengajo I’ve seen so far feature only dragons.

Another source of variety is the fact that although most people buy their nengajo at stores, a large minority makes their own. (This is true with Christmas cards, too, but I think it is more common with nengajo.) A postcard may not sound like much of an artistic canvas, but people do make the most of it. Some draw their own designs, others carve their own printing blocks, and many show off their calligraphy. Family photos are not unusual, especially if there has been a new baby during the year. A small number of families even have their kids do the designing

Third, nengajo can make you rich. The Japanese post office runs a lottery every year based on the serial numbers of pre-stamped cards. The winning numbers are published in every newspaper during the first week of the year. The only prize I’ve ever won was a booklet of commemorative stamps from the last Year of the Horse, but that was thrill enough.

One of the few drawbacks, however, is that regardless of how early the cards are mailed, the post office saves them all up to deliver in bulk precisely on January 1st. So, if someone mails you one and you forgot to send one to them, you will have no time to cover up. You’ ll just have to send them one late. Another potential pitfall is that families inmourning should not be sent nengajo. But just in case you didn’t realize that the mother-in-law of a casual acquaintance had died during the year, mourning families usually send out their own black-bordered postcards in early December to ask you not to send any nengajo, and to explain why you won’t be getting one from them.

OSECHI-RYORI

Almost every worthwhile holiday on earth is associated with its own special foods, and New Year in Japan is no exception. Soba is especially popular because the long noodles remind people of long life. Eating soba during the holidays therefore supposedly increases your chances of surviving the coming year.

More distinctive than soba is osechi-ryori, or “New Year Cuisine.” This “dish” is actually a three-day supply of food served in a stack of lacquer boxes. It includes numerous small servings of many different items, each carefully prepared and pleasing to the eye. Like soba, most of them have some symbolic value. For example, golden candied chestnuts express a wish for wealth — or at least a more prosperous year than last.

Most osechi items are dried, pickled, candied, or otherwise preserved. In this way, the box can be left unrefrigerated in a household’s living room for several days for everyone to nosh on. With mom freed from her usual kitchen duties, the whole family can spend a few days together at home in an atmosphere of complete relaxation.

Of course, preparing the osechi in the first place was a huge project in itself for the traditional Japanese mother, and it required culinary skills that are no longer common. For this reason many families these days enjoy commercially prepared osechi. It has to be ordered in advance and can sometimes be quite expensive, but at least it fulfills its intended purpose.

THE ONE-EYED LIMBLESS WISH-GRANTER

The start of a new year is always a good time to reflect on what you want to achieve in the next chapter of life, which is why Americans like myself make (and break) so many New Year resolutions. Japanese with wishes to fulfill often invoke a higher power … in the form of a roly-poly egg-shaped doll.

His name is Daruma, and centuries ago he was a Buddhist monk who spent so much time absorbed in meditation that his arms and legs were said to have melted away. His eyes are very round, very white, and very large. They occupy most of his face, which in turn occupies the upper half of the ovoid dolls that represent him. The lower half is usually covered with red and white stripes. He’s basically just a giant head.

People often buy Daruma dolls at the beginning of some big project, or at the beginning of the year. When making their wish, people paint a black pupil in one of the doll’s empty eyes. When the wish is granted or success is achieved, they paint in the other eye. Until then he remains half-blind.

Kita-in temple in Kawagoe, Saitama is famous for its annual Daruma festival during the first week of the year. People from far and wide come to turn in their old Darumas and buy new ones. The old ones are burned in a bonfire, along with a variety of last year’s other good-luck charms. I went to the festival one year in the company of a bilingual friend to interview random strangers who were dropping off their old dolls. What had they wished for? Did they get it?

Almost everyone had wished for the exact same thing:

“Happiness for my family.” Only a few had asked for something more specific, such as that their adult children would finally get married or that their family would have a safe vacation in Hawaii. With only one exception, everyone said that they were satisfied with the results. The single dissatisfied party was a woman who complained that the Daruma had failed to bring her luck because a fire had destroyed half of her house. But who knows? Without the Daruma, maybe the other half would have burned down, too!

RELIGIOUS FOR A DAY

I can predict with a high degree of certainty that nearly every man, woman, and child in the entire Japanese archipelago is going to visit at least one shrine or temple during the first week of 2000. I can predict with nearly equal certainty that very few of them will be back again before 2001. This is a little ironic because the practice of visiting a temple or shrine at this time of year is called “hatsumoude,” which means ” FIRST temple visit.”

Christian churches usually save their most elaborate services for the high-attendance days of Christmas and Easter, but shrines are the same at Shogatsu as they are the rest of the year. At temples the only added frill is that the bell is tolled 88 times around midnight on New Year’s Eve. Each reverberating tone is meant to drive off one of the 88 evils that are said to beset mankind. The typical temple bell is a bronze object the size of a phone booth. When struck with a stout log, the result is a divine din.

Other than that, it’s the usual drill. You approach, you toss some coins in the offertory box, you clap your hands together, you bow your head for a moment of silent prayer. You leave. Normally the whole procedure takes less than two minutes.

If this takes considerably longer at Shogatsu — hours, in other words — it is only because of the crowds. When I paid a visit to Hikawa Shrine in Omiya, Saitama two years ago, there were about 30 police officers on hand for crowd control. This probably worked out to one policeman for every 1,000 visitors.

A crowd that large tends to be slow-moving and tightly packed. It’s not easy to drop your coins right into the collection box, so a lot of people just hurl a fistful of change in its general direction when they think they are within seven or eight meters of it. The temples and shrines try to provide larger targets by rigging up temporary lumber-and-canvas baskets the size of small cars, but people in the front ranks of the crowd feel an intermittent hail of coins bouncing off of their heads and shoulders.

One of my Japanese friends told me what I hope is an exaggerated story about his impious brother. The brother wore a sweatshirt to hatsumoude, pushed its hood back, and then stood for a long time at the front of the crowd in a pose of intense prayer. By the time he left his hood was bulging with money.

I hope that you enjoy your New Year holidays however you observe them, but this is one form of celebration that I don’t recommend. Aside from that bit of advice, you’re on your own!

Happy New Year.

Kotoshi mo Dozo Yoroshiku.

APPENDIX: Animal Years, 1901-2020 by Tom Baker
1901 Ox –1961
1902 Tiger 1962
1903 Rabbit 1963
1904 Dragon 1964
1905 Snake 1965
1906 Horse 1966
1907 Sheep 1967
1908 Monkey 1968
1909 Rooster 1969
1910 Dog 1970
1911 Pig 1971
1912 Rat 1972
1913 Ox 1973
1914 Tiger 1974
1915 Rabbit 1975
1916 Dragon 1976
1917 Snake 1977
1918 Horse 1978
1919 Sheep 1979
1920 Monkey 1980
1921 Rooster 1981
1922 Dog 1982
1923 Pig 1983
1924 Rat 1984
1925 Ox 1985
1926 Tiger 1986
1927 Rabbit 1987
1928 Dragon 1988
1929 Snake 1989
1930 Horse 1990
1931 Sheep 1991
1932 Monkey 1992
1933 Rooster 1993
1934 Dog 1994
1935 Pig 1995
1936 Rat 1996
1937 Ox 1997
1938 Tiger 1998
1939 Rabbit 1999
1940 Dragon 2000
1941 Snake 2001
1942 Horse 2002
1943 Sheep 2003
1944 Monkey 2004
1945 Rooster 2005
1946 Dog 2006
1947 Pig 2007
1948 Rat 2008
1949 Ox 2009
1950 Tiger 2010
1951 Rabbit 2011
1952 Dragon 2012
1953 Snake 2013
1954 Horse 2014
1955 Sheep 2015
1956 Monkey 2016
1957 Rooster 2017
1958 Dog 2018
1959 Pig 2019
1960 Rat 2020

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


THEY CAME, THEY SAW, THEY WROTE Five Books on Japan

“Words have been coming into English from Japanese since at least 1600,” said Peter Gilliver.

“When travelers brought back tales of ‘samurai’ and ‘katana’ swords,
thosewords entered our literature and therefore our language.”

Gilliver, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was trying to explain why a book of that title contains so many Japanese words. Give it a moment’s thought and you could probably list a dozen of them yourself. Karate. Bonsai. Kimono. Sushi. Origami. Zen. There are even less obvious ones like Honcho and Tycoon, along with some that are downright obscure, like Skosh or Magatama. There are even a few English words that have their roots in Japanese words that in turn have their roots in English words, such as Walkman, Pokemon (“POcKEt MONster”), and Karaoke. (The “-oke” is short for “orchestra.”)

Considering that international travel is so much easier now than it was in the 1600s, the flow of Japanese words into English can only increase. More and more travelers are bringing back more and more tales, and a lot of them are writing books. Here are a few recent examples, ranging from the erudite to the zany:

Bruce Feiler’s LEARNING TO BOW

Feiler is an American journalist who spent a year on the JET Program (or something very similar) as an assistant English teacher at a junior high school in Sano, Tochigi-ken. Though he clearly devoted a lot of time to research, Feiler writes only about topics with which he has had direct personal experience. Naturally, most of his stories revolve around his school, but since education holds a much more central place in Japan than it does in the West, this is not as limiting as it might sound. Also, his year in Japan included attempts at dating and even a short hospital stay, so a fairly complete picture of the community in which he lived does gradually emerge. His book is neatly organized and clearly written, reporting hundreds of well-chosen details of everyday life with gentle humor. If you want to know how the average person lives in a medium-sized Japanese city of the 1990′ s, then this book is an excellent place to learn.

T.R. Reid’s CONFUCIUS LIVES NEXT DOOR

Much has been written about the ” Japanese economic miracle” or the broader ” Asian economic miracle” in recent decades. Reid’ s book focuses on what he considers to be a second and more significant miracle — the ” Asian social miracle.”
In his own words:
Asians have built modern industrial societies characterized by the safest streets, the best schools, and the most stable families in the world… [T]hey manage to maintain minimal levels of violent crime, property crime, and drug use, along with egalitarian distribution of wealth and opportunity and a sense of civility and harmony that you can feel when you walk down the street…
All of which raises an obvious question: how’d they do it? In a phrase, Reid replies, by adhering to the ancient Asian values first taught by Confucius 2,500 years ago. This answer is likely to annoy the many Westerners who think — as I did before reading this book — that Confucianism is mainly about conformity, obedience, and control. This view exists in part because of the suave Asian dictators who insist to the West that they are giving their people the exact form of “Asian values” government that they need and want (even if they have to toss their Asian critics in jail to maintain it). The dictators declare that Confucianism is all about respect for authority, regardless of where it comes from.
Reid maintains that Confucian respect is a two-way street. The government must earn the respect of the people by showing the people respect. The most important job of a ruler, according to Confucius, is that of a moral teacher. Furthermore, this teaching must be done primarily by example. ” [C]orruption in high places,” writes Reid, “is a total perversion of true Confucianism.”
And just what are the values the government should be teaching? According to Reid, they are ” concern for the group, close family ties, a deep commitment to education, and a sense of shame [or guilt] that acts as a guard against wrongful conduct. [Also] social harmony and a sense of loyalty.”
None of these values is particularly alien to the West. In fact, a very early Confucian named Mencius (who might be likened to St. Paul in that he was the most revered scholar among the immediate disciples of his master) foreshadowed Thomas Jefferson when he wrote that the people had every right to overthrow and replace any ruler who failed in his duty to govern benevolently. ” The consent of the people is the will of Heaven,” he wrote. ” The will of Heaven is not immutable.”

If Eastern and Western values are so alike, then why has the East achieved social success when, by some measures, the West has not? He concludes that it is because they have done a better job of passing their values on, and of reinforcing them throughout life.
Though Reid’ s book is about East Asia generally, most of his specific examples come from Japan, where he lived for a number of years as the Washington Post’ s chief Tokyo correspondent. One specific example of how Confucian values are passed on in Japan is the Nyu-Sha-Shiki, or annual company-entering ceremony for new employees who are fresh out of high school or university. Nearly all companies have these ceremonies, which drive home to the new hires that they are now members of a something larger than themselves, and to impress them with their new responsibilities.
Reid thinks that the US (his country and mine) should have something like that, too. After all, he points out, taking on one’ s first full-time job as an adult is a significant turning point in life, and it society should place some value on it. It would be salutary for the new people to be told, ” You’ re one of us now, and we’ re counting on you.”
It’ s a charming idea, but one reason that this ceremony packs a punch in Japan is that two-way respect mentioned earlier. Not only do Japanese employees promise to be loyal to the company, but at the same the company promises to be loyal to them. According to other parts of the book, for example, the lengths to which Asian companies will go to avoid layoffs is truly extraordinary, at least by US standards. Unless Western companies are willing to make the same commitments (and sacrifices) for their employees, a Westernized Nyu-Sha-Shiki would probably be greeted with eye-rolling and snickers by most of the participants.
Reid’ s admiration for ” Confucian capitalism” is obvious, understandable, and even a little contagious. It’ s tempting to agree when he suggests that Western companies adopt certain Eastern ways, but from a practical viewpoint it is hard to imagine just how such a transformation would take place. Reid offers not even a vague transition scenario, and indeed it is hard to imagine one. As a description this book is marvelous, but as a prescription it is more than a little wistful.
Still, this is the first book I’ ve ever read that increased my knowledge of business and philosophy in equal measure. Furthermore, it has a lot of interesting Japan anecdotes, including the amazing story of how a company that was the leading builder of icebreaker ships transformed itself into something completely different. It is definitely worthwhile reading.
And by the way, a special thanks to reader Shoma Nandi Ramaswamy, who first brought this book to my attention.

David Mura’s TURNING JAPANESE

This disappointing book had an alluring premise. According to the dust jacket, the author is a Japanese-American who visited Japan for the first time on a voyage of self-discovery. David Mura is an academic who applied for a year-in-Japan fellowship more or less on a whim. He reminds his readers again and again — and he has to remind them since it doesn’ t show in his writing — that he is a professional poet. Considering himself to be an ” artist” and having no clear objectives, he decided to take up the study of butoh, a grotesque form of modern dance that is often deliberately ugly and which is considered to be obscure and uninteresting even by most Japanese. It doesn’ t seem to have done him much good.
His awareness of the role ethnicity plays in his identity — allegedly the focus of the book — manifests itself primarily through feelings of sexual inadequacy. He seems obsessed by the stereotypical notion that Japanese men have small penises and that Japanese women have small breasts. He prattles on and on about his anger and shame ad nauseum without ever revealing how he dealt with those feelings — or even if he tried to. Perhaps he just enjoys feeling sorry for himself.
By the end of the book, Mura understands himself (and Japan) no better than he did at the start, and readers understand Japan (and butoh) no better than they did at the start. After spending an aimless and disappointing year in Japan, he came home and wrote an aimless and disappointing book about it.
Not recommended.

David Suzuki and Keibo Oba’s THE JAPAN WE NEVER KNEW

This book had many themes, one of them similar to that of ” Turning Japanese” : a Westerner of Japanese descent exploring himself and the country at the same time. Happily, ” The Japan We Never Knew” handles the topic more adeptly. In the introduction, Suzuki writes, ” While my physical features reflect my ancestry, the mind behind the face feels completely Canadian. So who are these people who look so much like me and my family and yet become completely alien the minute we attempt to communicate?” A page later he writes that his first visit to Japan ” had a huge impact on my life. I gained an insight into how much my identity in Canada was caught up in being physically different. In Japan, surrounded by people who looked just like me, I suddenly felt as if I had disappeared.”
Co-author Keibo Oba approaches the theme from another direction. He’ s a Japanese anthropologist who learned only in adulthood that he is ” really”
half-Korean. However, the book is not narrowly focused on their own experiences. Instead, as Oba writes in the epilogue, it is an attempt to ” challenge [the] image of the Japanese monolith, a people all conforming to a single identity.”
Ironically, if all of the people they interviewed lived in North America, they could still be lumped under the single identity of ” liberal activists.” Everyone they met and interviewed has built a life around anti-war, environmental, or minority issues. Nearly all of them are more notable for their unconventional biographies than for their actual achievements.
Still, a collection of unconventional biographies can be an eye-opening read. However, it would have been much more enlightening if the authors have provided a bit more background about their various subjects. For example, an Okinawan man who burned the Japanese flag in public says, ” Sixty-five lawyers from as far away as Osaka and Tokyo have volunteered to defend me.” Since his story up until that point has been framed largely in terms of Okinawa-vs-the-mainland (a very real divide), it would seem that large numbers of mainland lawyers feel strongly about the Okinawan cause. In fact, though, the flag is a bone of contention all over Japan, and for a lot of different reasons that have little to do with Okinawan identity.
Another area in which more background would have helped is in the chapter in which Suzuki and Oba meet a natural farmer. ” Natural farming” might sound like organic farming, but it is even more radically passive. The two styles are contrasted several times, but neither the authors nor their subject explain that ” organic farming” means one thing in North America and quite another in Japan.
About a year ago I noticed that virtually every ” family restaurant” in Japan uses the word ” organic” at least once on its menu. Denny’ s features an ” organic tofu salad,” for example, and Jonathan’s claims that all of its rice is “organic.” Nationwide, these two chains alone would require a huge organic crop, and that didn’ t seem consistent with the Japan I saw around me. I happened to be acquainted with an organic spinach farmer at the time, so I asked him what organic farming was all about in this country. ” I grow my crops naturally,” he said, ” without fertilizers.” ” Or pesticides,” I added. He chuckled at my naivet・ ” Of course I use pesticides.”

To me, then, the chapter on ” natural farming,” with its many references to ” organic farming,” had a considerably different meaning than it would to a reader with a purely North American perspective. Defining the basic terms would have been helpful.
At other times, the interview subjects say things that the authors probably should have clarified, challenged, or explored, but didn’ t. For example, when an anti-militarist told them that ” education is managed and run by those who make weapons,” the statement made it into the book on its own. There was no accompanying note to say whether it was true or even to explain what it means. The same interviewee complained that the practice of assigning grades in school encourages children to gamble. That one really left me scratching my head.
On the whole, ” The Japan We Never Knew” is a mixed bag of insight and flakiness. It is adequate as a supplement to other reading, but if you have time for only one book on Japan this shouldn’ t be this it.

Dave Barry’s DAVE BARRY DOES JAPAN

This is one proves the wisdom of the saying ” Don’ t judge a book by its cover.” The jacket photo of the author flanked by two pseudo-geisha is truly embarrassing, especially since they’ re all performing a palms-together, fingertips-up gesture of greeting that I’ ve seen in Japan exactly once (from a Sri Lankan restaurateur). What makes this photo particularly painful for me is that it is a reminder of the time that Bill Clinton used this gesture to welcome Emperor Akihito to the White House just before serving him a dish of marzipan sushi. (And as Barry himself might add, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.) Fortunately, what you will find inside this book is every bit as irreverent as the cover, but far more accurate, and often screamingly hilarious. Do not read this book in a quiet place. It has taken me years to learn as much about Japan as Barry observed in three week, but then he’ s a mad genius and there simply is no explaining such people.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


TWO CUBIC METERS OF MALE SPACE :Capsule Hotels and Other Impediments to Female Success

It used to be that the uniform of a Tokyo policewoman consisted of a jacket, a shirt, a hat, and a skirt. This summer it was announced that they now have the option of wearing pants. Why? According to the Daily Yomiuri, it is because the female police officers of the future “may be” required to chase criminals.

May be? What are they supposed to do if they see a criminal now?

SHALL WE TRY FOR FIVE?

Earlier this year I saw a puzzling headline in my morning newspaper. At first glance it didn’t even look like news: “Fourth Female Mayor Elected.”
The fourth female mayor of what? I read on out of mild curiosity as to which Japanese city had elected four different women as its mayor. The story was about some obscure burg in western Japan that I had never heard of, and the woman in question was not its fourth mayor, but its first. However, she was the fourth female mayor in ALL OF JAPAN. Ever.
I never cease to be amazed.

MOSTLY MEN

In terms of opportunity, Japan is a man’s country. The opportunity to arrest criminals, the opportunity to run a government, the opportunity to control a corporation, and the opportunity to urinate in the street are all male privileges — although it is the last that is most commonly acted upon by the rank and file. If a guy wants to be on top while living in a non-theocracy, he can’t do much better than Japan.

Or can he? It has been argued, and with a fair degree of reason, that a sexist social system is as harmful to men as it is to women. It is predominantly men who spend hours of their day, and years of their lives, packed like sardines into long-haul commuter trains. It is predominantly men who miss out on seeing their children grow up because they are never at home. It is predominantly men who are literally warehoused like surplus merchandise in “capsule hotels” after they work too late into the night. It is predominantly men who die of karoshi and job-stress suicide.

The flip side of sexism is that when one gender is belittled, the other is overburdened. But even this flip side has a flip side. Those capsule hotels, for instance. I’ve spent the night in two of them, and I was surprised to find that they were both actually nice places.

SLEEPING IN A BOX

The price of a night in a capsule hotel seems to average about 3500 yen (33 dollars or 31 euros) — not bad for a night’s lodging in a big city. Customers pay at the counter on their way in and receive a towel, a locker key, and a yukata or set of pajamas. After securing their wallets, briefcases, or other valuables in the locker, it’s time to take a bath.

Though I can’t say if it’s typical, the New Leisure Center capsule hotel near Akabane station (in northeastern Tokyo) has an excellent bath. There are several different tubs with water of varying temperatures, and the coldest of them is fed by a large dragon’s head carved from granite. The water in the largest bath is a vibrant lime-green (infused with what, I don’t know) and a stone nymph sits on an island in its center. There’s a large sauna with a television in the wall, and the services of a legitimate masseuse are available for an additional fee.

The bath at the Capsule Inn near the east exit of Kawagoe station (in Saitama) is less spectacular. There are two tubs, hot and cold, and a TV-equipped sauna. One drawback of this bath is that the floor is made of a slick black stone that is treacherous when wet — which is always. It’s difficult to truly unwind when just walking across the room entails the risk of a slip and a skull fracture.

The baths at both places are connected to lavish dressing rooms. Long rows of marble sinks — probably fake marble — face wall-to-wall mirrors. Each sink has a chair, a hair dryer, and bottles of hair spray and hair tonic. Off to one side is an eerily glowing ultraviolet cabinet where shelves of hairbrushes and combs are supposedly sterilized continuously. Complimentary disposable razors and toothbrushes are also provided. This is truly the place for the lodger who shows up with nothing.

Finally, it is time to retire to a capsule. Here is where things get spartan. There are usually two tiers of capsules, and I prefer to take one on the top because I like the idea of climbing a ladder to go to bed. Each capsule is one meter high, one meter wide, and two meters long. A small mattress covers the entire floor. A radio, alarm clock, and reading light are set into the wall. A small TV is suspended from the ceiling. A blanket and a pillow are folded up at one end, and that’s it. There’s nothing else.

Not even a door. At first this omission surprised me. From the outside, a bank of capsules looks like a wall of microwave ovens, and I expected them to have doors that swung open in the same way. After climbing inside and seeing that the capsules are molded from one solid piece of plastic or fiberglass, I realized that a capsule with a door would probably suffocate its occupant. Both places had little curtains or blinds to provide visual privacy, but you’re probably out of luck if you neighbors snore.

Both of my capsules were surprisingly comfortable, and I slept like a baby. At the Capsule Inn I woke up like a baby, too, and spent a leisurely morning watching the Teletubbies on my little TV.

For me, even the second time, staying in a capsule hotel was a pleasant novelty. However, if I had a family waiting at home and had to stay there fairly often, the thrill would wear off in a hurry. Still, if you’re a Japanese company employee who is consumed by ambition, it’s nice to know that such places are available. They make it possible to work loads of overtime, and to do plenty of after-hours politicking while drinking with the boys. If you want to make it to the top, you’ll stay in a few capsule hotels on the way up.

ONE QUARTER OF ONE PERCENT

Few women make it to the top.
The Daily Yomiuri recently reported that there are 40,111 executives in publicly traded Japanese companies, and that just 99 of them are women. (The term “executive” was not defined.) This works out to 0.25 percent, a negligible improvement over the 0.19 figure of two years ago. Of those 99 women, nearly a third were the founders of their own companies, or the family members of founders. In other words, these women had the gumption create jobs for themselves, but they are not people who were promoted because someone else recognized their value. Of the remainder, an undisclosed number were lawyers or accountants who actually worked as independent contractors for the companies that listed them.

Thus, it would be only the slightest exaggeration to say that Japanese companies never promote women to the highest positions.

Both of the capsule hotels I stayed in were all-male, and at one of them I saw a group of men who were apparently co-workers lounging in their yukatas, chatting and smoking long into the night. If these men had a female colleague, she probably had gone home immediately after rinsing out the office coffee pot. I wondered if this kind of situation — along with who knows how many other social structures — might have something to do with women’s failure to thrive in the Japanese corporate world. If a woman wanted to work very late, she would have nowhere to stay after the trains stopped running. If the boss had to assign an overtime project, would he give it to her? If the boss had to promote someone, wouldn’t he first consider the hard-working guys he’d gotten chummy with over a long history of late-night drinks?

When I asked a handful of Japanese people if there were capsule hotels that admitted women, I did hear about one — but only one. The more typical response boiled down to something like “Of course not. Why would there be?”

This goes a long towards explaining the feminine brain drain that Japan has unconcernedly suffered from for years. Talented Japanese women who study overseas often decide not to come home. A woman couldn’t work herself to death in this country even if she wanted to.

And that’s just not fair

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


CASUALTIES OF MT. FUJI

There’s an old rumor about a scene of panic that took place in the Akasaka State Guest House one morning about twenty years ago. Secret Service agents raced from room to room frantically searching for the American President, who had disappeared while on an official visit to Japan. Perhaps affected by jet lag, Jimmy Carter had woken early and given his guards the slip in order to go on a solitary jog through the streets of Tokyo.

Though this story can not be confirmed, it is possible to find concrete evidence of Carter’s foolhardiness in Japan. A cement hut near the top of Mt. Fuji has a framed Jimmy Carter autograph on the wall. It’s frightening to think that a man who once had his finger on the nuclear button was crazy enough to have pitted himself that horrible mountain.

If you want to see it for yourself, all you have to do is climb Mt. Fuji.

MALICIOUS BEAUTY

The words “all you have to do” are highly misleading, but the illusion of ease is part of Fuji’s mystique. Countless people injure or humiliate themselves every year because of the myth that climbing Fuji is a breeze.

The mountain can be seen from nearly everywhere on the Kanto Plain, including Tokyo, Yokohama, and even humble Kawagoe. I personally have seen Fuji on a clear day from as far away as Chiba City, even though Tokyo Bay, the city of Tokyo, and a number of smaller peaks occupy the intervening 130 kilometers. Pollution usually keeps Fuji hidden, but it must have been an everyday presence in the days of cleaner air. It appears to be very close, when in fact it is just very big.

Another deceptive aspect of Fuji is its shape. From a distance, it is a perfectly smooth and gently sloping cone that has been immortalized in countless artworks. Close up, though, it is just a big old nasty volcano.

Also, Fuji is the only mountain with its own propaganda brigade. There’s a persistent myth, repeated in countless travel books, that Fuji can be climbed in about five hours. The more brazen of these publications even describe diminutive grandmothers with dried-apple faces who achieve the summit with a spring in their step.

The “ideal” climb, everyone says, is made at night. This way, the barely-winded climbers on top of Mt. Fuji can be among the first in Japan to see the following day’s sunrise as it emerges from the Pacific.

STARTING AT THE BOTTOM

The first time I fell for this line was ten years ago, when I was young and strong and foolish. With very little advance planning, I just took a train to Fujiyoshida — the town nearest the base of Mt. Fuji — and set out on foot. Only later did I realize that the five-hour figure I had heard so much about applied to travelers who took a bus halfway up the mountain and then began to walk. I left Fujiyoshida Station at 4:00 PM, intending to arrive at the top around 9:00 that night so I could get plenty of sleep before viewing the legendary sunrise the next day.

As it happened, I didn’t reach the summit until 6:00 AM, two hours after sunrise and fourteen hours after I began my climb. I missed the sunrise because I was on the north-northwest slope of the mountain at the time. However, the thin air at 3776 meters above sea level brought me as close to the sun as I ever care to be. I got such a ferocious sunburn that one of my Japanese acquaintances later remarked in all sincerity that he had never seen a human being of that color before.

Still, I had made it. My bragging rights were secure, and they would be safe as long as I remembered the Japanese proverb that everyone should climb Mt. Fuji once but only a fool does it twice.

DOING IT TWICE

This summer I found myself to be ten years older, fifteen kilograms heavier, and every bit as foolish as I was in 1989. So, when a friend asked me if I’d climb Mt. Fuji with him, I agreed to do it. After all, I thought, I had learned from my mistakes the first time, and this time we could do it right. For one thing, viewing the Fuji sunrise was out of the question. I could stay up all night or I could climb the tallest mountain in Japan, but I was not about to attempt both feats simultaneously at the creaky old age of 32.

Taking the Fujikyu bus seemed like the best way to start. It leaves from a terminal in Shinjuku, Tokyo (just outside of the west exit of the train station) and goes directly to Gogome, or the Fifth Station, halfway up the mountain. The drive is just under three hours long. Taking the day’s first bus at 7:45 AM would have us climbing before noon. We’d have enough daylight left to make the five hour climb and then come back down in time for dinner in Tokyo.

As high as it is, the Fifth Station is still just below the tree line. It probably took us an hour just to clear the trees, in part because the path away from Gogome is mostly horizontal and actually descends at first. The Sixth Station, Rokugome, is only slightly higher than Gogome. This reinforces the illusion that climbing Mt. Fuji is going to be easy.

At the Sixth Station, we met a beagle wearing socks. This was to protect the pads of her paws from the abrasive volcanic gravel. Her owner told us that the beagle had climbed as far as the Eighth Station. Hey, if a goofy little dog could make it that far, then two healthy guys like us were going to have no problem.

From there, the path begins to zigzag lazily up the mountain. At this altitude it is no longer a trail through the woods but rather a broad gravel lane held in place by retaining walls. It is only moderately steep. This part of the climb can be a little tedious, but it’s not rough.

Somewhere above the Seventh Station conditions begin to change. The straight-aways between switchbacks become shorter and less straight. There’s less gravel and more rocks. There’s less walking and more climbing. The summit is still very far away. In other words, the trail begins to get difficult just as most people are beginning to feel tired.

It was here that we encountered an angry-looking woman heading downhill against the flow of traffic. (Most of the paths on Mt. Fuji are officially one-way.) She was followed a moment later by her embarrassed-looking husband or boyfriend. When he caught up with her on a ledge below us, the two of them were backlit by the sun and silhouetted against a misty view of the smaller mountains around us. They would have made a beautifully romantic scene if not for the fact that she had her arms stubbornly folded and her head tucked between her shoulders and his pose looked imploring. It wasn’t hard to guess whose idea this climb had been, and who had had enough of it. As we left them behind, their conversation didn’t sound happy.

Fuji had claimed its first casualties of the day.

THE SEASONS CHANGE WITH THE HOURS

One thing I had learned on my first climb was to dress lightly and to carry additional layers of clothing in a backpack. What had been a warm summer day below the treeline felt like late autumn now, and the landscape was becoming appropriately more desolate. The rocks that we had to clamber over were getting larger and larger, and in some places the path through them consisted of little more than a chain or some spray-painted arrows. At this point, a cloud suddenly enveloped the mountain, and us with it.

Now it was winter. For the next two hours we were very cold and very wet, and I wished I had thought to bring gloves. Still, we were better off than the next Fuji casualty we witnessed. Although he at least had the good fortune to be dressed in rainproof climbing gear, the poor man was vomiting large amounts of ramen onto the trail while a friend patted him sympathetically on the back.

The five-hour mark came and went. With visibility down to a few meters, we had no idea how far we were from the top. There were no altitude markers for the last few hundred vertical meters. The climb got steeper, and the rocks became larger and more jumbled. We were exhausted. We were soaked by freezing rain. We seriously considered turning back, but having come this far we couldn’t do it. We decided to climb for another ten minutes and then decide. Ten minutes later, we decided to try another ten minutes.

After climbing for six hours, we finally made it.

At the summit, we found a small concrete building where a man was heating canned drinks in a pot of water over a gas flame. I bought one just to hold it against my right hand, which had frozen into a claw. (I’d kept my left hand in my pocket.) After about ten minutes I could move my fingers again, though stiffly.

The drink I chose was amazake, a thick white beverage made from sweet sake dregs that is often served to children. Containing carbohydrates, sugar, and trace amounts of alcohol (about one percent), it was just what I needed.

THE DESCENT

By now we were well behind schedule. As before, the five-hour prediction had proven false. We realized that dinner in Tokyo was out of the question, but we thought we could make up for some lost time going downhill.

Wrong again!

Most of the descent is made along dozens of identical switchbacks. You walk for about two minutes, turn around, and walk for two minutes in the other direction. Every turn looks exactly the same as the one before it. This goes on and on for hours until you think that you must be caught in some sort of spatial anomaly straight out of Star Trek.

Unfortunately, time continues to pass even while space misbehaves. We learned this when the sun went down while we were still halfway up the mountain without flashlights. The darker it got, the slower we walked. The path is very uneven and rocky, and a sprained ankle would not have been the most enjoyable experience to have on the side of a large cold mountain at night. I began to think that it was going to take us the whole night to get down.

Just as it got completely dark, we were rescued by an old Japanese man with a flashlight. It was slow going with the three of us trying to walk in the beam of one small light, but without his help we wouldn’t have made it down until daybreak. Along the way, we met a woman who really had sprained her ankle, and who was making painfully slow progress by leaning on the shoulder of a man who was much smaller than she. Luckily, an official rescue squad arrived a few minutes after we met her, and we left her in their hands.

The Fuji casualties were continuing to mount.

When we reached Gogome sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 PM, the place was nearly deserted. The souvenir shops had closed and the last bus back to Shinjuku station had already left. The old man who had guided us this far seemed unconcerned at this state of affairs because it was his intention to keep on walking. It was from him that I learned the secret of those dried-apple grannies. Old people who climb Mt. Fuji are able to do it because they first went up when they were young — and have been doing so every year ever since.

My friend and I, however, were too tired to accompany him the rest of the way. Instead, we caught the last bus of the night to the town of Kawaguchi-ko and took a train from there to the town of Otsuki, which is as far as we could go before the rail system shut down for the night. At this point we had the choice of sleeping in the street or paying for a hotel room. After what we had been through, the idea of soft beds and a shower was very appealing.

On the bus, we met an American high school teacher who was leading students on a class trip, and who had taken two of them on a side excursion to Mt. Fuji. The class was staying in Yokohama, which has a clear and tempting view of the famous mountain. It looked so close and so easy. The teacher had lost one student — an athlete who raced ahead — and the other student didn’t seem very happy about the prospect of sharing a hotel room with him. (I can’t say I blame her.) It would have been best for all concerned if he had chosen to spring for two separate rooms for the sake of her peace of mind and his good name. Instead, the two of them chose to spend the night in the street.

THE TOTAL DAMAGE

So, in the course of a single day, Mt. Fuji ruined a romance, a lunch, an ankle, and probably a career. And that’s just the part I witnessed. I guess I’m lucky to have escaped with only a sunburn and a limp, both of which disappeared in a few days.

To sum up my Fuji-climbing advice….

Don’t.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


SHRINE OF THE WARRIOR ACCOUNTANT and other Yokohama sights

Poor, poor Yokohama. The city is forever in the shadow of larger and more famous Tokyo, which is barely 30 km to the north. Every time Yokohama makes an international name for itself — or is about to — cruel fate wipes everything away. Presently, though, the city appears to be on an upswing, and a visitor there can see Japan’s tallest building and largest Chinatown. There are also quirkier attractions such as a feline art gallery and the world’s only interactive ramen museum.

BOOM AND DOOM

Foreigners began trickling in after Matthew Perry’s visit in 1853, and poured in after the new Meiji government declared Yokohama an official foreign port in 1869. By the turn of the century, it was one of the busiest ports on earth, and its growth had included Japan’s first bakery (1860), first public toilets (1871), and first railroad (to Tokyo in 1872). It was a national showplace.

However, that all came to an end with the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which in Yokohama alone killed 20,000 people and destroyed 60,000 buildings.

But Yokohama didn’t give up. Over the next twenty years it rebuilt itself as a major industrial zone.

However, that all came to an end in World War Two. Approximately half of the city was destroyed, much of it during a single air raid in 1945 that involved 700 B-29 bombers.1 But Yokohama didn’t give up. It again rebuilt itself on the strength of its port.

However, that all came to an end over the next several decades, with the rise of international air travel. Without a major airport of its own, Yokohama’s significance as a cargo-handling center steadily shrank, and its passenger traffic all but disappeared.

But Yokohama didn’t give up. In the 1990s it tried to make a name for itself by erecting the tallest building in all of Japan: the 69-floor Landmark Tower. It is nearly fifty percent taller than the previous record-holder (Tokyo’s 48-floor Metropolitan Government Building) and a lot prettier too.

However, no one outside of Japan noticed, and a number of people inside Japan seem unaware even now. Perhaps this is because Yokohama made its move at the same time that Malaysia was constructing the Petronas Towers, purportedly the tallest buildings on earth.

But Yokohama didn’t give up. When Japan and Korea were named as co-hosts of soccer’s 2002 World Cup, Yokohama made a successful bid to host the final game. The eyes of the entire world are going to be on this neglected city at last.

However, that too may come to an end before it even starts. Last month the Asian delegates to FIFA (soccer’s governing body) walked out of a meeting en masse in order to protest what they see as the unfairly small number of playoff berths set aside for Asian teams, as opposed to the larger numbers for European and South American teams. A FIFA spokesman rather tactlessly condemned the protest as “ungrateful” on the grounds that FIFA had paid the delegates’ hotel bills. If no compromise is reached, the 2002 World Cup could move to London.

But Yokohama hasn’t given up. When I paid a visit last week, I found the main roads and railroad stations cheerfully adorned with World Cup banners. Yokohama ganbatte!

THE RAMEN MUSEUM

I began my visit at Shin-Yokohama station, which is served by the shinkansen (bullet train) as well as the JR Yokohama Line and a municipal subway. Gourmand that I am, my first objective was the Shin-Yokohama Raumen (sic) Museum. It is the only museum on earth devoted to the history and varieties of ramen noodles.

To get there, take the large pedestrian bridge leading out of the bus plaza at the north exit of the station. At the bottom of the steps, proceed straight ahead on a street called Renga-dori and make the first right after Starbucks. Then, make the first left, and you’ll be standing in front of the ramen museum half a block later. If you stay on Renga-dori for another three blocks, you’ll come within sight of the soccer stadium. It can be reached via a grassy park along the banks of a small river. Even if there is no game on, you may want to visit Sports Community Plaza, a public swimming facility beneath the stadium. It includes a water slide and charges 500 yen admission.

The Raumen Museum might have been better named the Ramen Theme Park. Its main attraction is a re-creation of an urban residential area from the year Showa 33 (1959). It is four stories high with a painted sky arching over a collection of real building facades. There is laundry hanging from the windows, crooked TV aerials on the roofs, and nostalgic billboards advertising movies and products of the day. There is also a cast of about twenty actors in period costume, from the local cop to the neighborhood granny, who circulate among the visitors to add further verisimilitude to the time-traveling experience. One of them was 73-year-old “Ryutaro Nemoto,” the proprietor of a candy store. Beneath his gray-dyed hair and wrinkle makeup, I’d guess that he was really about 20. He tried to strike up a conversation with me as I browsed in his shop, but my Japanese wasn’t good enough to get very far. Too bad. It could have been fun.

Most of the buildings house actual ramen shops, each specializing in the ramen of a particular region of Japan. An available English pamphlet explains the distinctions among them. There are seven permanent shops, plus an eighth that changes periodically to showcase the products of real-world ramen joints that the museum management has discovered and approved of. There is also a back alley to explore, which includes an operating shot bar.

The top floor is the one that most closely resembles a conventional museum. It has a display of over 100 ramen bowls of various designs, and hundreds of instant ramen packages from around the world. Many of the flavors represented, such as “Oriental” or “Texas Beef,” are not well-known in Japan. There is also an exhibit about notable ramen shops of the past, complete with several generations of family photos.

The most entertaining aspect of this floor is the continuous videos of old TV commercials. I watched about a dozen of them from the early 1960’s, when mass-produced food was still novel enough that an advertiser could proudly show scratchy black-and-white footage of chicken parts tumbling down an assembly line to the accompaniment of xylophone music. In another ad, construction workers took a break from building a modern highway overpass from concrete beams. As they slurped instant ramen and nodded seriously at one another, a bass-voiced narrator declared, “New men for a new age are eating new food.” A third showed the changing times more sharply when an old man in a kimono was served a bowl of ramen by a daughter in a beehive hairdo.

Admission to the museum is 300 yen, and it is open daily from 11:00 to 11:00. The last admission is an hour before closing time.

GAIJIN GRAVEYARD; CAT HEAVEN

My next stop was the Yamate neighborhood (alias Yokohama Bluff) which can be reached by walking uphill from Ishikawa-cho station on the JR Yokohama Line. This has been a major foreign enclave since the days of the black ships. A number of 19th century foreign diplomats had their residences here because the Japanese government of that time wasn’t comfortable having them any closer to the capital. Today, the neighborhood is still full of Western architecture, including a number of Christian churches.

Most of the residents are Japanese these days, but some of the original foreigners never left. The oldest graves in Yokohama Bluff’s International Cemetery contain members of Perry’s crew. This cemetery has been billed as a tourist attraction in the past, but it is currently off-limits to anyone who isn’t there to visit a specific grave. Fortunately, the graveyard occupies a long and relatively narrow strip of land, and it is possible to read many of the inscriptions over the low fence without actually going in. Now, in the heat of summer, it serves as an unofficial sanctuary for dozens of cats who sunbathe on the monuments.

There’s a speaker with a button located in the corner of a bulletin board at one of the entrances. It looks like it might provide some recorded narration, but in fact it is an intercom to the caretaker’s office. Learn from my embarrassment and leave the poor guy alone.

Incidentally, there’s a beer garden on the lawn of a restaurant directly across from the cemetery’s uphill entrance. It has a view of the Yokohama skyline to the north and Mt. Fuji to the west. It’s a nice place to be at sunset.

A number of the houses in this neighborhood have been converted into museums. The Yamate Museum is devoted to the history of the neighborhood itself, and Toys Club is a three-house collection of antique toys. There’s also the brand-new Yokohama Yamate Tennis Museum on the grounds of a club that claims to be the “Birthplace of Tennis in Japan.” It was founded by British expatriates in 1878, but only much later were Japanese accepted as members. It must have been a slow birth.

The most charming museum in Yamate, as far as I’m concerned, is Yokohama Neko no Bijutsukan, officially translated as the “Art Museum of Cats.” The name says it all. This small but impressive gallery houses Saori Tsuboyama’s eclectic collection of feline-themed art. It ranges from Edo-era prints to abstract metal sculpture. There’s even a sketch of “What’s Michael?” by the manga artist Makoto Kobayashi, who autographed it to Tsuboyama-san. I was given a detailed tour by her nine-year old granddaughter Mariko, a very polite little girl who speaks excellent English. She explained that her grandmother purchased one of the works — a panoramic harbor scene in ink — only after the artist agreed to add a cat to one corner of the picture.

CHINATOWN

Downhill from the Bluff and across the Nakamura River you will find Chuka-gai, or Chinatown. Yokohama has the largest such neighborhood in Japan, and I spent a good portion of my evening searching for a nice dim sum restaurant. There were plenty of them, but I think I’d have had better luck at lunchtime. Something that seems to be constantly available throughout Chinatown is chuka-gashi, or little Chinese cakes. Though their colors and shapes are lovely to behold, chuka-gashi tend to be dry and crumbly and are not especially sweet by Western standards. The rare exceptions are the ones stuffed with candied fruit or nuts.

Chinatown is a rectangle, several blocks on a side. In the southwestern corner I happened upon something that looked like a temple. As is typical, there appeared to be someone in a booth collecting admission. When I approached to pay, the old lady in the booth addressed me in English and said that I was free to look around as much as I liked, but that the interior of the temple was a sacred space. I couldn’t set foot in it unless I burned incense there — and she just happened to be selling incense sticks at 500 yen a bundle.

Since the front wall of the building was nearly nonexistent and I could see as much as I liked without going inside, I declined. The basic design was very much like a Japanese temple except that every available surface had been rendered incredibly ornate with painted or sculpted designs. Even the columns supporting the roof were swarming with small statues of people, animals, and flowers. There were a number of iron pots in which you could burn incense, and I noticed that the people doing so bowed in front of the pots before putting their incense inside. Perhaps it was because I still hadn’t eaten at this point, but I swear that the incense smelled exactly like sweet and spicy tomato sauce. My stomach began to growl irreverently, and I thought it best to leave.

On my way out, I asked to lady in the booth to tell me the name of the temple. It’s called Yokohama Kanteibyou, but she sternly corrected that it was not a temple but a shrine. It was dedicated to the memory of the Emperor Quong, who was born 1,838 years ago. Soon — on August 5th — it would be 1,839 years, and a dance festival was being prepared to celebrate his birthday. Not only was Emperor Quong (my own romanization) a notable warrior, but he introduced a system of accounting to China, and this has made him a favorite of businessmen ever since. She said that the recent economic slump in Japan has led to an increase in shrine attendance.

LANDMARK TOWER … AND MORE

It is a tribute to Yokohamans’ optimism that even in this post-Bubble age they undertook to build the gigantic Landmark Tower, which is at least twice as big as anything else in town. Sakuragi-cho is the nearest train station. There’s a five-story shopping mall built around an atrium at the base of the tower. Architecturally, this mall is much like those in North America or Australia except for one nifty feature — curving escalators. A trip to the 69th-floor observation lounge in the world’s fastest elevator (45 kph going straight up) costs 1000 yen. You can see the Boso and Miura peninsulas, Tokyo Tower, and Mt. Fuji. To get your money’s worth, go just before sunset and watch the city lights come on.

I, however, went there well after dark. The most interesting part of my view was Cosmo World, a small amusement park at the foot of the tower. Its main attraction is the Cosmo Clock, which was the largest Ferris wheel on earth when it was constructed ten years ago. Though it no longer holds the title, it is impressive enough. Based on a visual comparison with nearby buildings, it appears to be a good twenty stories tall.

Alas, I was only in Yokohama for a day, so I didn’t have time to ride it this time. It is one of many things I will have to save for my next visit, such as the Wild Blue Yokohama water park or the nightlife of Noge-cho (also widely but incorrectly known as Sakuragi-cho). In addition, it is possible to go for a dinner cruise in the harbor, and there are two permanently moored ships that are open for tours: the Nippon-maru (a sailing ship) and the Hikawa-maru (a steamship). Yokohama’s Sankeien is said to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. New shopping and dining areas are being added to the waterfront, and there are numerous museums that I missed.

Yokohama probably never will be as famous as Tokyo, but it is not for lack of trying.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.