Dinner Dates with Death

I love Japanese food. Jellyfish, sea urchin, and raw horse. Woody roots and zesty leaves. You name it, I’ve tried it, drawing the line only at blowfish and whale. I even savor natto now and then. Denny’s has the best.

Alas, we live in a fallen world. Beauty has its price, and the beauty of Japanese cuisine is no exception. In the past month I had two of the most dreadful meals of my life. Both of them were life-and-death struggles. Until next month, the weak of stomach should return to the other areas of Kota-sensei’s website. As for the rest of you….


The fish tank at Shoya is easy to overlook. It’s near the door, but doesn’t directly face it. It might draw more attention if it held something really large like a bream, or really unusual like a cat-eyed octopus. Some places have those. But not Shoya. It has only a school of a dozen or so nondescript fish about 20cm long. They’re silver with dark eyes and pointy noses. Their fins sometimes flutter as if they’re getting ready to bolt, but for the most part they just hang in mid-water, going nowhere.

The tank is strictly utilitarian. The front panel is kept clean enough for customers to have a good look at the fish, but the algae on the back has been wiped away only haphazardly, leaving clean streaks on a green background. Bits of fish dung drift and tumble slowly along the glass floor with no colored gravel or plastic shipwrecks to conceal them. The nearest thing to a decoration is a long-handled net which hangs on the back of the tank, in the kitchen. I hope that the fish don’t understand this. If you’re not at the top of the food chain, a chef with a net is always bad news.

I sometimes go to Shoya with friends, and we sit at a table far from the fish. One night, though, I arrived considerably earlier than anyone else found myself seated at a counter facing into the kitchen. I sipped a cold mug of beer and let myself be entertained by the hubbub of six cooks working in a room full of pots and pans and knives and flames. I was right next to the fish tank, and got to see one of the cooks use the net. He was an old man who reminded me of my grandfather. He had to reach up to get his hand over the tank’s rim, but it only took him about three seconds to catch a fish. He held it down on a counter with one hand and reached for a knife with the other. What happened next was out of my line of sight, but I assumed that I knew what was going on. I also assumed that the fish would be very expensive, but I decided that I’d like to try some of that very fresh sashimi for myself some day.

A few nights later, dining with my friends George and Gina, I asked the waiter the price of a fish. It was only 400 yen ($3.30 or 3.18 euros). Cool! I had to try it. After the waiter walked away, George crushed out his cigarette and nonchalantly remarked, “I just hope they kill it first.”


A few minutes later, the waiter reappeared carrying a small wooden bucket filled with crushed ice. On the ice, near the front of the bucket, was a small pyramid of neatly stacked bite-sized morsels of fish meat. White and gleaming, they were set off from the ice by a serrated green shiso leaf that was propped up behind it on a nest of shredded daikon. To one side of the meat was a dollop of wasabi and a dollop of ginger. I could use either one to flavor the soy sauce in which I would dip the meat. To the other side of the meat was another option for sauce flavoring — a small stem covered with buds. These buds could be stripped off and dropped into the sauce just by pulling the stem between two fingers. Their flavor is somewhere between pepper and clove.

Behind all of this, and presumably for decorative purposes, was what was left of the fish itself. It had been gutted and filleted, but the head and tail were still attached by the spine, a little meat, and the dorsal fin. It had been laid out neatly on a long, green, waxy leaf and then curled into the shape of a bass clef, with its tail in the air. A thin wooden skewer held it in place. While I was taking in the elaborate tableau, Gina had zoomed in on the one crucial detail.

“Oh, no!” she gasped. “It’s still alive!”

How could I have missed it? The gill cover was rising and falling, and the fish’s mouth was telescoping out and pulling back, telescoping out and pulling back, desperately reaching for something that wasn’t there. George’s nonchalance disappeared as he and Gina began to shriek, “Kill it! Kill it!”

“How?” I was asking the fish as much as I was asking them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. “Have you got a knife?” We were eating with wooden chopsticks, and those obviously weren’t going to suffice. No one at the table had a knife.

I had a flashback to a time several years ago when I went fishing in a trout-stocked pond in the American countryside. The owner of the land was with me, and the first fish I caught was a “trash fish” that he didn’t want competing with his trout. He took the fish and tossed it into the middle of a nearby dirt road. As I watched it flop around, he casually said that one of his cats would come along and finish it off sooner or later. I didn’t like his attitude at all, but it was his pond and his fish and I was his guest, so I wimped out and said nothing.

As I returned to the pursuit of trout, I remembered a National Geographic article that I had read way back in elementary school. It was about piranhas. There was a tribe somewhere in the Amazon that actually fished for them, wading in and casting nets. A close-up photo of the leg of one tribesman showed two scars the size and color of silver dollars, each one the result of a single piranha bite. A more incredible photo showed a group of them standing in the water, dressed mainly in feathers and mud and carrying nets over their arms. One guy held a piranha in his hands, with his head inclined over it. The caption explained that he was biting the back of its neck to sever its spinal cord, killing it instantly and rendering it safe to handle. This was standard practice among the tribe. It looked like courage to me.

That day at the trout pond, I slowly began to wish that I had done the same thing to the trash fish that was writhing about in the dust. It would have put the little creature out of its misery, and it would have shown the pond owner a thing or two. It might also have made up, somewhat, for a significant failure of nerve I had experienced in my life at that time. But I did nothing.

Now, years later in an izakaya, I was face to face with another gasping fish, and this one was mine. No knife. I had to do something. I picked it up and put my mouth on what would have been the back of its neck if only it had not been filleted. My teeth sank into nothing but soft flesh. No spine. I was suddenly aware that I would feel very embarrassed if this didn’t work. I felt my face growing red from mere anticipation. “My God,” I thought. “What if they think this is some kind of stupid macho posturing?”

I worked my mouth further onto the fish, searching for its spine with my teeth. It was squirming in my hands. “My God,” I thought. “What if this really IS some kind of stupid macho posturing?” Finally I found it, and crushed the bones between my teeth.

I looked up at George and Gina with a sense of relief, holding the fish’s head in one hand and its body in the other. “I had to do that,” I said as calmly as I could.

They didn’t seem to hear me. “It’s still alive!” they wailed in unison. They were right. The head was still gasping horribly. I certainly wasn’t going to eat this thing, and now I was afraid I might lose the food I had already eaten. There was a greasy black string running from the head to the body. I had crushed its vertebrae without severing the nerves. I tried to pull the spinal cord out of the head, but it was too thin and slippery to grip. Finally, I just pinched it in two with my fingernails and placed the head in a bowl.

Where it continued to move. I draped a hand towel over it and George called the waiter to take it away. A few minutes later, the tail — just the tail — began to vibrate. By that time, the three of us had seen too much to be shocked any more. It didn’t look like it was going to stop, so I put a napkin over it. Still later, mellowed by more beer, I decided that if the meat were left uneaten the fish would have died in vain. I prefer my food to be humanely killed, but you can’t undo the past.

The fish was slightly bitter. I guess it had a right to be.


Takadanobaba is a neighborhood in Tokyo where three different rail lines intersect. Waseda University is several blocks away in one direction, and a large Asian immigrant neighborhood is several blocks away in the other. In the place itself, there is nothing of note except for dozens of bars. The name literally means “Takada’s Horse Field,” but this is an old name. Any horse living there now would need an appetite for asphalt. The small river that must have watered the pastures so long ago now runs between two vertical cement walls.

In my travels around Tokyo, I often stop at Takadanobaba to transfer from the underground Tozai line to the elevated Yamanote line. There are dozens of different stairways leading up from underground, and in the middle of May I made a discovery on one of them. On a subterranean landing there was an alcove about the size of a one-bedroom American apartment. This space contained five restaurants. There was one in each corner and one in the center of the room. They were basically lunch counters with limited menus of fast food like noodles, gyoza, or curry. The floor and walls were made of dingy white tile with something dark going on in the cracks. The ceiling was a mess of exposed pipes and wires. The stools along each counter were bolted to the floor, and although most of them were occupied the place was deathly quiet. All of the customers were men eating alone. There were a few university students with backpacks and shocking hair, but most of them seemed to be worn-out commuters, round-shouldered, baggy-eyed, and gray at the temples, eating in grim silence before consigning their tired bodies to the packed trains. The sullen cooks didn’t even bother to say “Irasshaimase” as customers walked in. It’s a greeting that is shouted reflexively by the staff of every other eatery I’ve ever been to.

“Wow,” I thought. “This place has atmosphere.” If you dimmed the lights and threw a little more water on the floor, most of Blade Runner could have been filmed in this room.

The counter in the center of the room was an oval, and the only available stool faced the back of the refrigerator in the cooking area. I had to lean around the refrigerator’s furry coils to get the cook’s attention. I ordered katsu-curry, a standard dish in which a breaded and fried pork cutlet is served on a bed of rice with Japanese curry poured over it. It’s one of my favorites.

The katsu-curry at this place was a disappointment. The cutlet was ridiculously thin. I’m accustomed to being served a substantial piece of meat. My disappointment grew as I began to eat. The meat had a bizarre, spongy texture. The curry itself was thin and had no personality. There was a jar of red pickles available as a condiment, so I used the tongs to pile lots of them on. My stomach felt a bit flippety as I left.

I lost three kilograms in the next three days.

Somewhere in heaven’s ocean a fish is laughing.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


Pick up any travel guidebook on Japan, and you will see temples mentioned on practically every page. Temples are endlessly fascinating.

Talk to any foreign tourist who has spent a week here, and they’re sure to say, “if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all.” Temples are crashingly dull.

Who’s right?

Visitors to Japan tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time in temples partly because they are so clearly “exotic” (especially to the Western eye) and partly because so little else of Japan’s past has been tangibly preserved. Or maybe it’s just because there are so darn many of them. It’s easy to see how people can overdose after a while. If you want to avoid getting “templed out,” there are two things you should do.

First, chose your temples carefully. With so many available, you shouldn’t go out of your way to visit any that don’t have some special distinction. (A short list of my favorites appears at the end of this article.)

Second, know what you are looking at. Here are a ten things to look for at most temples.


ADMISSION. Believe it or not, this is pretty routine at any temple famous enough to be mentioned in a guidebook, and it does not mean that the place is not religiously active. Some temples charge admission only to their most interesting part, such as the collection of rakan (Buddha disciple) statues at Kita-in Temple in Kawagoe. Others charge admission to the temple itself and then again to the interesting parts. For example, at Engagkuji Temple in Kamakura, you have to pay to get in and then pay an extra 100 yen if you want to see the graveyard at the rear of the grounds. At Koutoku-in Temple, also in Kamakura, you have to pay to get in to see the Daibutsu (giant statue of Buddha) and then pay an extra 20 yen if you want to go inside the hollow statue. Some notable temples are free, such as Narita-san in Narita or Asakusa Kannon in Tokyo, but don’t count on it.


I’ve heard two explanations for this. One of them is that evil spirits which crawl, or slither along the ground can’t climb over the beam and thus can’t enter the temple. The other is that since you must consciously step over the beam, it serves as a reminder that you are know moving from the everyday world into a sacred space.


These bear the names of pilgrims who have visited the temple in the past. Some pilgrims used to carry telescoping rods that could be used to place their stickers as high as possible in order to prevent them form being covered up by the stickers of subsequent pilgrims. Most of the stickers you see these days seem very old, which indicates either that leaving one’s mark in this way is a thing of the past, or that there just aren’t as many serious pilgrims as there used to be.


Strictly speaking, this is more likely to be found at a Shinto shrine, but Buddhism and Shinto have coexisted for so long here that they sometimes borrow one another’s accouterments. A metal dragon spits water into a stone basin. There are ladles available with which you may pour water over your hands and rinse out your mouth. Kiyomizudera in Kyoto is an example of a temple with a fountain.


This is not a standard feature, but some temples have a large pot or urn with a small roof over it for the burning of incense. You can buy a bundle of incense sticks at a nearby stand, light it, and stand it upright in the ashes of previous sticks in the urn. Usually there are about a dozen bundles burning at once, which can lead to some significant clouds of smoke. You will often see people sweeping cupped hands through the smoke and directing it onto their bodies. It is said to be helpful if you have an injury or illness.


Most temples, even those that charge admission, can be viewed only from the outside. You may go in if you are going to participate in a special ceremony, but the majority of visitors, including devout Japanese Buddhists, never get beyond the verandah.
They toss some coins into the outdoor wooden offertory box, stand for a moment in silent prayer, and then move on. It is possible to look into the temple buildings even though you can’t go into most of them. You’ll see elaborate statuary and perhaps a few percussion instruments. Of these, my favorite is a kind of bell that resembles a steep-sided metal bowl resting on a pillow. When struck with a wooden mallet, this kid of bell resonates beautifully, and for a very long time.


Those buildings that you can get into often house a larger-than-life kannon statue. Knowledgeable Japanese have described these beings to me in a way that reminds me of Catholic saints. A saint is a person who has achieved moral perfection and moved on to the next world. People still struggling in this world can pray to them for help. A kannon is a person who is perfect enough to achieve nirvana but who has chosen not to in order to stay in touch with people who are still trying to make it in this world. They also receive prayers to intercede in people’s earthly troubles.

Unlike a saint, a kannon has no historical identity. In fact, a kannon has no identity at all, not even gender. Perhaps in counterpoint to the male statues of Buddha himself, kannon are usually portrayed as beings with gracefully feminine physiques. On closer inspection, though, they often turn out to have faint mustaches. The contrasting sexual characteristics are supposed to cancel each other out. They are Everyperson.

Two types of kannon are particularly interesting. One is the many-faced kannon who has an interesting coiffure with several small heads poking out of it. These heads face in every direction. This is the all-seeing kannon, who watches and protects. The other is the many-armed kannon, who has dozens of little arms fanned out on either side. Most of the hands are empty, but many of them hold a variety of tools. This is the all-helping kannon, who can do anything.

Usually, though, kannon have only one head and just two arms. During the period when Christianity was suppressed by the Tokugawa shoguns, many Japanese Catholics kept statues of Mary in rather than crucifixes because Mary could be passed off as a realistic and particularly pretty kannon if the authorities came knocking on the door in the middle of the night.


Jizo is a minor deity whose job it is to escort the souls of the dead from this world to the next. He’s a short, bald guy who is built like a salt shaker. His statues are rarely more than a meter tall. As the “patron saint” of travelers, it is not unusual to see his statue at a crossroads, especially in the countryside. His main responsibility, though, is dead children, since their journey to the other side is likely to be particularly harrowing, and they need all the help they can get.

The parents of dead children often buy a small statue of Jizo to place at the local temple to ask him to take care of their little one. On repeat visits, they may decorate the statue with a bib or a knitted cap. People often leave a gift of a colorful toy pinwheel tucked into the bib strings. As time goes by, the bibs and caps begin to fade and decay in the rain and the sun. Some temples have literally hundreds of little Jizo statues in various states of dress. When a breeze stirs the pinwheels in the rotting bibs, the effect is downright eerie.

It may seem puzzling that there could be so many dead children in a first-world country like Japan, but I can solve that puzzle in one word. Abortion. The politicians who have banned birth control pills in this country for the past thirty years should visit these temples alone and do some long and serious meditating.


Long ago, animal sacrifice was practiced at Shinto shrines, with horses being the first-class item. Because they were pretty expensive and out of the reach of most people, there gradually arose a custom of sacrificing artistic representations of horses instead of the real thing. These were known as “ema” or “picture horses.” At first, ema were large and expensive works of art, but through the centuries they became smaller and cheaper. They also became so popular that they are now used at Buddhist temples as well as Shinto shrines.

Today, the typical ema is a thin wooden board about 15cm wide with a picture of a horse stamped onto it. In addition to the original horse theme, you can also buy ema with the animal of the year on it. Because 1999 is the year of the rabbit, rabbits are more common than horses at most of the temples or shrines you may visit. There are also specialty ema such as the ones sold at Shoin Shrine in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. This shrine is dedicated to Yoshida Shoin, an intellectual who was executed in 1859 because of his attempt to leave Japan and study abroad. The ema there bear a picture of him poring over his books, and they are sold to people who wish to pray for success in their studies.

After purchasing an ema, the petitioner writes his or her prayer on the blank area next to the picture and hangs it up on an outdoor pegboard. That’s all there is to it. Since they are on public display, you can indulge in spiritual voyeurism by reading other people’s prayers.


For a devout Buddhist, it would be a good thing to read and understand all of the sutras. However, some of them are so voluminous that only a monk could possibly find the time to complete the job. Some temples have a shortcut around this problem. They place all of the sutras in a giant cylindrical bookcase. This cylinder revolves on a post that runs from the floor to the ceiling of a small building near the main temple. There are a number of wooden beams projecting from the cylinder at about waist level. Grab a wooden beam and push it ahead of you as you walk around the cylinder. Make one complete rotation with a pure heart and — voila! — you’ve just achieved the moral equivalent of decades of study.
It’s kind of like buying an indulgence, except that it’s free.


When visiting a temple, look up! The roof is often the most beautiful part, and the ends of the rafters can be elaborately decorated. At temples in forests or steep valleys, like Engakuji, the elegant tiles harmonize beautifully with the surrounding greenery. This is at least as nice as anything inside.


NIHONJI in Hamakanaya, Chiba Prefecture: This temple has the most impressive historical Daibutsu in Japan. It is31m tall and 200 years old. Furthermore, there are 1500 statues of Buddha’s disciples (rakan) scattered through the forest on the adjacent mountainside, and they have nearly 1500 different facial expressions. The temple grounds are accessible via a cable car that runs from the town to the mountaintop, which is a treat in itself.

RYOANJI in Kyoto: This is the site of the world’s most famous rock garden, the much-photographed three black boulders in a sea of white gravel. What isn’t so well known is that this garden is just one of many at the temple. Some of the others are larger and more beautiful (and less crowded with tourists).

HASE TEMPLE in Kamakura: This temple has it all. Kannon statues, about a thousand jizo, a sacred cave, ema with prayers in many languages, a hillside cemetery, a revolving sutra museum, and two ornamental ponds, including one shaped like a swastika. There’s also a view of the sea.

NARITA-SAN TEMPLE in Narita, Chiba Prefecture: Like Hase, Narita-san has a little of everything. A plus is that it is far more active than Hase, so you are more likely to see or hear ceremonies in progress or witness a procession of priests in colorful robes. A minus is that many of the buildings are quite new, which distracts from the historical atmosphere. However, it has interesting art and nice gardens including a waterfall. The town is known for eel, so there are good places to eat nearby.

KITA-IN TEMPLE in Kawagoe, Saitama: Admittedly, a big reason for me to include this one is that it’s in the town where I live. But if you happen to be passing through, stop for a look at the 100 rakan statues, indulging one who was sculpted in the act of picking his nose. The best times to visit are during the Daruma Festival in early January or the Kawagoe Festival in late October.
Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

HOLY MACKEREL : No Fishing Allowed in a Prophet’s Hometown

Jesus killed fish.

I mean him no disrespect in pointing it out, but this undeniable fact (see Luke, chapter 5) is useful in comparing Japan with the West. For instance, one of the greatest figures of Japanese religious history, a monk named Nichiren, was strictly against the killing of fish. Happily for the world’s gourmets, most Japanese ignore that particular teaching.

Nichiren lived from 1222 to 1282, but his influence can still be felt today. There are Nichiren monasteries all over Japan, and in a few in other countries as well. A twentieth century offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism called the Sokka Gakkai movement spawned a political party called Komeito that was part of a recent coalition government under Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. Nichiren’s primary religious legacy consists of his determination that the Lotus Sutra represents the true teachings of Buddha. This came at a time when a number of different sutras were circulating in Japan, each claiming to be definitive. It took him twenty years of study to reach the conclusion that he did.

Jesus, on the other hand, mastered the scriptures of his people when he was still a kid (see Luke, chapter 2). Score one for Jesus. Jesus also spoke the famous line about a prophet being without honor in his hometown. This was not true in Nichiren’s case. Score one for Nichiren.

He was born in Awa-Kominato, a small town in what is now Chiba prefecture. The people of Nichiren’s hometown pay him homage by refusing to fish in their small bay, which has a population of bream. There are plenty of fisherman in the town, of course, but they sail beyond the bay before they drop their nets.

Some of the local boatmen make their money off of tourists who come to visit the fish. As the result of Nichiren’s legacy of protection, the happy and grateful bream have become friends of humanity, and the bonds of love and understanding between man and fish have endured through the generations. Visiting tourists delight in feeding sembei (rice crackers) to the plump, contented bream who blush and bat their eyes as they nibble from your hand.

Or so the local tourist pamphlets would have you believe.

I personally visited Kominato several years ago — much more recently than Nichiren — and found it rather disappointing. I and the other tourists in the boat cast our sembei upon the waters and waited for the show to begin. After a few moments, some of the sembei disappeared into brief, swirling ripples, but whatever creature had pulled them under never broke the dark surface. It could have been a mermaid or a minnow. Finally, the captain started up the engine to take the boat back to shore. Most of the sembei were still afloat.

Even if the bream tour is a flop, there are plenty of places in Chiba prefecture where fish and people can interact in a more enjoyable way. The Boso Peninsula, which separates Tokyo Bay from the Pacific Ocean, makes up the bulk of Chiba’s land. There are fishy attractions all around it.

Kamogawa Sea World is located just two stops away from Awa-Kominato on Japan Rail’s Sotobo (outer Boso) Line. Even though Kamogawa is just 60 km (40 miles) from Tokyo, its streets are lined with palm trees thanks to the warming influence of the Japan Current. The town’s main attraction, though, is the Sea World theme park. There, you can watch a killer whale show from an open-air grandstand or from the window of a viewing gallery below water level. There are also performances by trained seals, dolphins, and penguins. As for the exhibits, my favorite is their extensive collection of bizarre crustaceans.

If you’re sensitive about ogling fish that are cooped up in tanks, try Katsuura Kaichu Koen. At this unusual aquarium, you will be the one who is cooped up. The building is in the shape of an inverted lighthouse at the end of a pier, allowing visitors to literally descend to the ocean floor. Cages of bait are anchored near the windows to ensure that your finny friends will swim into view. On the day that I visited, there were a number of zebra-striped fish the size of my hand who stood out from their more nondescript brethren. Of course, its impossible to predict what creatures may appear from moment to moment. If you go, get off the Sotobo train at Uhara, one station away from Katsuura proper.

The northeastern side of the Boso Peninsula is Kujukuri beach, a 55 km (37 mile) swath of sand that interrupts an otherwise rocky coast. Rumor has it that toward the end of World War II the Japanese military expected a Normandy-style invasion here, to be followed by a drive across the Kanto Plain toward Tokyo. Geographically it would have made sense, but fortunately for both sides it never came to pass. These days, Kujukuri is just a low-key resort area, with surf shops, noodle joints, and bed-and-breakfasts scattered along the beach’s considerable length.

Chiba’s easternmost point of land is Choshi, a large fishing town on a rocky cape that juts out into the Pacific just north of Kujukuri. It boasts two different soy sauce breweries plus a historic whitewashed lighthouse that serves as the town’s symbol. I’ve actually been to the top of the lighthouse in the past, but where I most recently caught a glimpse of it was on a can of Choshi-made mackerel curry at supermarket in landlocked Saitama. I like mackerel and I love curry, but the two didn’t compliment each other as well as I had hoped. Live and learn.

Still, if you decide to go to Choshi, be sure to ride their quaint old trolley. You may also want to look into the four-hour whale- and dolphin-watching cruises that leave from Inobusaki Marine Park. Choshi is the very last stop on JR’s Narita Line.

Finally, there’s Kasai Rinkai Koen, which technically is not in Chiba at all — but it is only about 100m over the border in Tokyo. On the shore of Tokyo Bay, this aquarium features a large collection of sharks. It also has not only the mandatory penguins (extremely popular birds in Japan) but puffins as well. The literal and figurative centerpiece is a giant donut-shaped tuna tank where you can stand in the middle and watch dinner swim all around you.

Speaking of dinner, Kasai Rinkai Koen is just a few kilometers from the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. There, or at least in the surrounding neighborhood, you can have fish just the way Jesus liked them.

On a plate.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


Many Japanese I speak to are astonished when I tell them that the English word for tsunami is … tsunami. But English has been a melting-pot language probably ever since the Angles met the Saxons, and Japanese is a very logical source for disaster vocabulary. Any nation whose best-known symbol is a giant volcano is bound to have disasters in abundance.

Mount Fuji hasn’t blown its top since 1708, but the surrounding area, including Tokyo, has grown a lot more crowded since then, and the last eruption was two months long. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other active volcanoes to worry about. Oshima, a volcanic island within sight of Mt. Fuji, erupted violently in 1986. Yukio Mishim’As novel “Spring Snow” includes a passing reference to the red glow from Oshim’As crater as if it were a standard feature of the view from the mainland.

Mt. Aso, in Kyushu, is a major tourist attraction because it is always belching fumes, but sometimes the billowing steam is accompanied by flying rocks. Sudden rock showers killed twelve tourists in 1958, and three more in 1979. The 1979 victims were standing a kilometer away.

Mt. Unzen killed over 14,000 people when it created a tsunami by collapsing into the sea in 1792. A more recent eruption killed 43 people in 1993, including three volcanologists. The most famous victims, though, where a newspaper photographer and the taxi driver he paid to bring him in for a closer look. The driver’s family sued the newspaper, and just last month (March of 1999) the case ended with the court ruling in the newspaper’s favor.

Even where the land is flat, it can still kill you by jumping out from under your feet. The Kobe (Great Hanshin) Earthquake of 1995 claimed 5,000 lives, and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which leveled Tokyo, had a death toll of over 100,000.

As Sakyo Komatsu puts it, the Japanese are “a people subject to more than their fair share of the natural disasters that afflict humanity as a whole.” Komatsu is a man who has given the subject a lot of thought. He’s the author of a novel called “Japan Sinks” — which is about what it would take to top some of the things that have happened in real life. The book was a best-seller in the 1970s and was re-issued in the wake of the cataclysm in Kobe.

People everywhere love disaster stories, which is part of the reason that Leonardo DiCaprio and Celine Deion are so rich today. But only in Japan have I ever seen a video store that has a whole section permanently devoted to disaster films. West Video, just down the street from my apartment, has an area labeled “PANIC” (in both English and katakana). It is subdivided into Ocean Panic, Sky Panic, Dinosaur Panic, SF Panic, and — largest of all — Natural Disaster Panic.

With so much competition, it’s hard to come up with an original and attention-grabbing approach to the subject. This is a problem not only for film-makers but for the public safety authorities as well. Disaster education and awareness undoubtedly save lives, but how can the public be made to listen?

The Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department has found the ideal solution. They make disasters as entertaining as possible.


At the corner of Shinjuku-dori and Gaein Higashi-dori, Just above the Marunouchi Line’s Yotsuya-sanchome Station, there is a fire house. At first it looks like any other fire house you may have seen. The garage doors stand perpetually open, and a row of shiny emergency vehicles wait to race out into traffic at a moment’s notice.

But this fire house is a little different in that it has a ten-story building stuck to its side. This is the Fire Museum, which includes five floors of exhibits that are open to the public. The first thing to greet your eye at the entrance is an 1899 horse-drawn fire engine. It’s a steam pumper in mint condition, with its stout smokestack gleaming and its wooden wheels painted bright red. It looks as if it rolled right out of a Currier and Ives engraving.

Running water was not widely available in 1899, so the pumper includes an intake hose with a wicker basket on the end. The basket would filter out debris when the basket was dropped into a river or well near the site of a fire.

This century-old machine is just one of ten vintage fire vehicles on display. The others range from a rickety wooden forerunner of a hook and ladder to a pair of 1960s fire department helicopters. One of the helicopters is displayed outdoors, hanging slightly over the edge of a fifth-floor balcony. It has a bubble cockpit that seats seven, and visitors are welcome to climb inside. As you gaze at the Shinjuku skyline or glance down at the traffic five floors below, it is possible to get the sensation that you really are flying.

The trucks include a 1929 pumper whose exposed driver’s bench resembles an elegant sofa. Nearby, a 1955 aerial ladder is still leaking motor oil after 44 years. Someone has put a plastic bucket under it to protect the museum’s brick floor. It’s interesting to note that two of the three US-built trucks on display are right-hand drive.

In contrast to the antique vehicles, the informational exhibits are dazzlingly high-tech. Some of them employ moving holographs. Others take the form of video games. On the third floor, a large diorama of a town demonstrates how the fire department and ordinary citizens must cooperate to put out fires.

The diorama tells a story in which a fire breaks out in a private home and the neighbors call in an alarm, but not before the flames have spread to some nearby apartments and trapped a screaming child on a high balcony. The action is depicted by model fire trucks that race among the buildings on a track, dolls that pop up from behind the shrubbery, and video screens on the front of each building that show animated cartoons of what is happening inside. There’s also a narrator who appears from time to time on a large video screen in the sky. The show is so realistically detailed that there are even two men in fire-resistant suits who set up a folding table on the sidewalk — and immediately begin filling out paperwork.

Another diorama, on the fifth floor, depicts a town from the Edo period. The video narrator of this exhibit is a traditional bunraku puppet who sings much of his story to the accompaniment of shamisen and musical wooden blocks. Edo-period firefighting was an especially rough business that consisted of rapidly demolishing buildings in the fire’s path to keep it from spreading to the rest of the town.

Firefighters of the day organized themselves into competing bands who would race to destroy the most buildings in the shortest time. When a group of them arrived at a doomed house, they would claim it by planting their standard on the roof. The standard, called a matoi, was not a flag but a geometrical sculpture such as a cube, a sphere, or interlocking rings. It was held aloft on a pole that was decorated with streaming ribbons that would show wind direction.

A large number of matoi are on display at the museum, along with firemen’s uniforms from the Edo era to the present. Many of the uniforms seem more ornamental than practical, covered with tassels and fine embroidery. From 1880 until 1945, the Tokyo Fire Department uniform included a sword.

Some of the more modern tools on display include a hand-held circular saw that can slice through a steel door. It sends out such a shower of sparks that the man using it must have a partner hose him down throughout the procedure. There’s also an object resembling Blackbeard’s pistol that can shoot a rope to the top of a building. One surprising item was a mechanical CPR piston that looks like it wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Even in such a well-stocked museum, there may come a time when the visitor is tired of merely looking. In that case, the Tokyo Fire Department runs safety awareness facilities a various locations where you can test your reaction to simulated disasters. There are smoke-filled mazes and earthquake simulation rooms, as well as a vibrating 3-D theater. There is even a rain room where those who are so inclined can be pelted with water driven by typhoon-force winds.

In a country where disasters so often strike unexpectedly, it’s nice to know that you can also have a disaster whenever you want one.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


Although not known to welcome them with open arms, Japan is a magnet for immigrants. Just in my own neighborhood there are several French-speaking Africans and a Chinese woman who runs her own bar. The Brazilian population of Japan is large enough that it is possible to buy newspapers in Portuguese at some of the Kiosks in Tokyo’s gigantic Shinjuku Station. Even suburban Kawagoe has its own Brazilian grocery store.

Some of these people are here legally, but some are not. Last month a boatload of illegal Chinese immigrants made news when they were intercepted in broad daylight just off the tourist island of Enoshima, not far from Tokyo Bay. Many more slip in undetected.

Freedom and relative wealth are probably the two most common goals, although some take one at the expense of the other. Vincent (which, like all the names in this story, is not his real one) is a Burmese civil engineer who works as a waiter in Tokyo. He complains that he can’t find a job in his field of expertise because the Japanese are prejudiced against other Asians. On the other hand, he is afraid to go home because Burma has controlled by a military dictatorship for more than a decade.

Vincent told me that he plans to go home next year because democracy will have been restored to Burma by then. I don’t know of anyone else who thinks so. Vincent has been here for five years.


Some stories have a happier ending. Tina is an American who first developed an interest in Japan when she had a Japanese pen-pal in high school. She spent her first summer of college in Nara on a Youth For Understanding exchange program. It was such a good experience that when the summer ended she changed her major to International Relations. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1987, she came to Japan on the JET Program.
The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program is a system by which the Japanese government hires native speakers of various languages to work as assistant language teachers for one year in public school classrooms. In 1987, Tina began working as an English teacher in Chiba. She came to realize that one year was going to be “too short to appreciate the experience” so she decided to stay for at least two years before returning to the United States for graduate school. But then she met Kenji, also an English teacher. They began dating, but she wanted him to be under no illusions about her long-term plans to return to America. She told him “quite clearly” that she didn’t believe in international marriage for a number of reasons. Luckily, he was not deterred. Tina and Kenji recently celebrated their 8th wedding anniversary.

“Obviously,” she says today, “I changed my mind.”

Tina is now in her 12th year as a resident of Japan. She describes the experience in overwhelmingly positive terms. She has a “great” husband, a “good” job, and a variety of Japanese and foreign friends. She and Kenji have a nice house and garden and their Japanese neighbors have fully accepted her. Tina describes Chiba as a good place to live in Japan because it has many government and commercial resources for foreigners. The one slight drawback she mentions is “occasional run-ins with in-laws, especially about religion [and] privacy, but nothing too bad.” This kind of thing happens in most families, and since her elder brother recently married a Japanese as well, she has someone with whom she can compare notes.
Tin’As Japanese life is basically pretty nice.


Getting married is at least one part of Tin’As experience that Dariush would like to emulate. He’s in Japan illegally, and finding a Japanese wife is the only way he will be able to get a valid visa. Tall, handsome, athletic, and amiable, Dariush looks like he should have no trouble in this department. He’s easy to believe when he says that Japanese women often approach him in Roppongi bars.

The trouble is, they approach because they think he’s an American, and they want to practice their English. Dariush is from Iran, and he does speak some English although he is not fluent. The women quickly lose interest once they realize this, and the fact that Dariush IS fluent in Japanese is not enough to save him. Another problem for him is the very negative stereotype of Iranians that most Japanese seem to hold.
Dariush loves his native country, but he is not happy with its government. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. In that conflict, he says, Iranian leaders were constantly exhorting “Islam! Islam! Islam!” Dariush shakes his head and insists that the war in fact had nothing to do with Islam.

Upon his return to civilian life, he tried to get a job as a truck mechanic. He had an interview with the manager of a garage, and thinks that he did a pretty good job of establishing his expert knowledge of truck engines. When that part of the interview was over, the garage manager reached into his desk, took out a copy of the Koran, and began to quiz Dariush on specific verses. His disenchantment was now complete, and he decided to leave Iran.
But for where? Dariush chose Japan for at least two reasons. One is that Iranians going to the West often find it difficult to get permission to leave the country. The government is more lenient with citizens who wish to travel in the non-Western world. The second reason was that he had a friend in Japan who already had a job and said he could get Dariush one too. And he did.

The job was killing chickens in a rural Japanese poultry plant. He hated it. Realizing that he would never find a better job until he could speak Japanese, he devoted every spare moment to study. Eventually he went from being someone who could just label chicken parts in Japanese to someone who could carry on a real discussion.
Finally he had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of Mr. Tanaka, a businessman in the automotive industry. He was able to use his mechanical skills at last and now describes Tanaka as a surrogate father. Tanaka supplied him with an Alien Registration Card that is good enough to pass muster with the local police, but which probably wouldn’t fool the more practiced eye of an immigration official. He doesn’t want to risk finding out.

After five years in Japan, Dariush is now fluent in Japanese and is the manager of the shop where he works. In his free time, he has mastered certain Japanese cultural arts to such a degree that he now actually teaches them to classes of Japanese. It would be an excellent life if not for the precariousness of it all. And so, his quest for a Japanese wife continues. For Dariush, having come this far, there is no Plan B.


Japan, like Germany or the American Southwest, is a free and prosperous land adjacent to a large region of discontent. Thousands of people settle in each of those places every year. You’ve just met three of those who came to Japan.
One is hiding out from terror at home. One is building a better life for himself
And one was just passing through when she happened to fall in love. Migration has always been a prime ingredient in the drama of human life, and there is more of it going on in Japan than anyone, including the Japanese, can ever know.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.