Modesty in advertising

I’m so tired of “extreme” soft drinks. So much attitude and so much fuss over fizzy water. So it’s so refreshing to see:

Yes, Coolish, the kinda-cool ice drink.  No promises of quenched thirst here. Just the promise of a moderately tepid drink that could possibly give you moderately increased social standing. Finally, a drink I can believe in.

Shibuya: you are almost certainly not hip enough to be there

If you had to pick one of the places in Tokyo that the beautiful young things hang out, top of the list would be Shibuya:

The first time you arrive in Shibuya at night, you figure that the makers of Blade Runner must have cut them a significant cheque for “inspiration rendered” at some point. The immediate visual assault is an incredible blitz rendered in neon and billboard, towering over from all sides. Seven-story high video screens blasting garish ads squarely targeted at the two-second-sound bite generation. The latest hot J-pop band. Movies about to be released (Ocean’s 13, at the moment). Crazy animations about…. things.

The utter incomprehensibility of it all only adds to the appeal, and heightens the bustling, rapid tempo that dominates. “Bustling” doesn’t even do it justice – for instance, it hosts the busiest pedestrian intersection at the world. Here it is from a safe distance, mid-wave:

And a less safe distance. There’s a road under there somewhere:

Probably as fascinating as the surrounds are the people who meet there.  Dressed up to the nines, or dressed down in an effortlessly casual way that took hours of careful preparation, their thumbs working overtime on their keitais emailing their friends.  You can observe whole cross-sections of Japanese youth culture, all in one convenient place.

There’s a very famous statue of a dog called Hachiko in Shibuya.  It really is quite a touching story, but I’ll let you read it for yourself.  Perversely, everyone who meets anyone else in Shibuya agrees to meet near the Hachiko statue so they can find each other.  I’ll leave it to you to work out the problem there.

Really, it is an incredible place that is among the best examples of modern Japan’s pace and intensity.  Visit at dusk to watch the ongoing competition between the splendor of a lovely sunset and a sizable chunk of Tokyo’s electricity grid.

Japanese politics – the movie

For most of the time since I’ve arrived in Japan, I’ve been fascinated by the election process. Politics are generally interesting, but politics in Japan have some fairly unique features. Finally, some of my questions are answered!

Campaign is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Japanese electoral process. Most of the documentary is presented in a very unobtrusive manner, with no commentary from the director. It’s hard to know if it was skillfully edited to do so, but the whole story left me just a little bit more sorry for the state of the democratic process. Although it’s about the Japanese political process, no doubt many of the lessons can be applied to many countries.

The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan decide to put up a Mr. Yamauchi as their candidate in a council by-election (he’s on the poster above). Yamauchi runs a coin and stamp collecting shop, and is by most accounts, just a little odd. He has absolutely no experience in politics. He did, however, go to the right university, has a pipe dream to be Prime Minister, and looks nice in a suit.

So, the massive machine of the LDP swings in behind him, organising posters, appearances at events and a loudspeaker car. Amazingly (or not), none of the candidates run on any real policy, other than to “pursue the reforms”. In fact, the main tactic employed is blanket name-brand coverage. Say your name as many times as possible to as many people as possible. One senior campaign adviser to Yamauchi solemnly observes that he should aim to say his name once every three seconds, and to “bow to everyone, even telegraph poles”. So, Yamauchi swings into action, hitting the streets by foot and touring in one of the infamous vans fitted with loudspeakers that begin bleating their repetitive messages at 8am on the dot. On a personal note, even Yamauchi wonders whether the announcements will annoy people at such an early hour. I can answer that. Yes. Yes, they do.

For Yamauchi, this is really like boot camp. Although he’s the candidate, he’s at the bottom of the food chain. His senior, seasoned campaigner advisors constantly berate him for his manner, his bowing technique, that he doesn’t shake hands correctly, or that he’s late for events. He’s always made to be keenly aware of the debt he owes his party for helping him, and to return favours in the future when they are due.

Ultimately, he is a somewhat pitiable figure. He has to put up with a lot to achieve his goal, which he uniformly absorbs without comment. Perhaps the most telling moment is when the Prime Minister of Japan at the time, Koizumi, makes a personal appearance to promote Yamauchi as the LDP’s candidate in the by-election. However, Yamauchi is not deemed important enough to actually appear on the platform with the Prime Minister – he has to be content with standing below the more senior party officials where no-one can see him, frantically waving his hands to the crowd. He was, however, very excited to shake Koizumi’s hand as he briefly walked past, and personally pledge to “push the reforms”.

Perhaps the most sobering point of all was how aware the participants were of the many farcical aspects of the election process. However, no-one has the motivation to change them once they themselves are absorbed into the insulated political world.

Campaign is in Japanese with English subtitles – recommended for anyone interested in politics or Japanese culture.

See the trailer

I will dance on your grave in an especially stylish manner

Four and a half months, and finally, my first ninja sighting:

Rather than being those common-as-muck, deadly kind of ninjas, these guys were rumored to be from the ultra-secret Johnny Young Talent Time school:

They mixed together martial arts moves, dance moves, flips and weapon together in a kind of slickly choreographed martial arts dance.  I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a light-hearted tribute, but these guys seemed very serious about their craft, and they were certainly very athletic.

The ninja leader seemed to be having a few problems, though.  First, his plastic nunchucks broke mid-moonwalk and launched high into the air, leaving him frantically searching, spinning wildly in a most un-ninja-like manner. Later on, he stacked it during a tricky flip, grazing his side on the asphalt.  It looked rather painful.  Or it might have been for any ordinary man.

Still, for my first run-in with ninjas, they were slightly less deadly and far less invisible than I had been lead to believe.

That afternoon, I also got a pamphlet about the well-known Ninja restaurant in Tokyo.  Perhaps I will go there to continue my studies of ancient Japan.

I hear they do magic tricks after dessert, too.

Konnichiwa guvnah, I’m the Artful Dodger, I am

I bet you had no idea that Japan was quite so Dickensian as this:

Yes, gruel! Sweet, nourishing gruel! The Simpsons and Oliver Twist had perhaps ruined gruel for me forever, or so I thought. I just couldn’t say no to cow giblets, though.

If you had to compare it to something, it’s like a watery risotto:

This restaurant is in Yokohama’s massive Chinatown. It’s so good, it’s where all the other chefs in the area go to start the day right with a helping of breakfast gruel. And I know why – they really do serve up the tastiest bowl of gruel I have ever eaten.

Sadly, any Oliver Twist fantasies were short lived, despite my best efforts. I pitifully asked for some more gruel with moon-like, pleading eyes, feebly cupping my empty bowl in trembling hands. Before I even had the chance to get to my lip-quivering finale, I had a huge, piping hot bowl of fresh gruel cheerfully placed in front of me. I paid for it using my credit card.

No appreciation for the classics, I tell you.

What is the sound of one stick thwacking? Loud.

Early on a balmy summer Sunday morning, I went to Kamakura with some friends, about one hour south-west of Tokyo by train. Kamakura is a very popular place for Tokyo residents to go and visit. As well as some nice sea-side areas, it harks back to a more traditional time in Japan. One of the things it has in this theme is a rather large Zen temple.

The reason a small group of us were there was for what you’d call the equivalent of Zen Sunday morning mass. It begins with chanting a Zen mantra for fifteen minutes – almost hypnotic in the early morning heat – and then a sermon. I couldn’t understand very much of it, but most of it talked about Obon, a Buddhist festival celebrating the spirits of one’s ancestors. But that wasn’t really why I came. The main course was… Zen meditation.

Now, you might be familiar with basic breathing meditation – sitting tranquilly, closing one’s eyes, focusing on only the breath and emptying the mind. A few of the little details in Zen mediation are slightly different. The first difference is that you keep your eyes open, though staring at nothing in particular. This makes things a little more difficult, particularly when you’re in a very interesting-looking temple, with about one hundred other people.

The second difference is that there’s a monk quietly patrolling through the meditators with a five-foot long lump of timber. Every minute or so, he uses it to give a meditator a solid hiding.

True. Meditators who are looking a little drowsy or losing focus are favoured with a stern paddling. In this case, though, contrary to what I’ve heard elsewhere, you actually had to ask for your paddling. This isn’t like your headmaster rapping you across the knuckles at school, though.

As the patrolling monk passes, you put your hands together to petition him. He bows to you. You bow to him. You lean forward, crossing your arms and exposing your back. He assumes the paddling position. He lightly places the paddle across your back to target it. And then…

I was expecting this to be something like a symbolic love tap. In reality, it’s a fairly full-blooded hit – two staccato blows in rapid succession – that echoes around every corner of the temple. Two on the left side, two on the right. The hit-ee then thanks the monk with a polite bow. Problem solved – now they have something to think about.

I had believed that Zen meditation was designed to empty the mind of trivial matters. It did this to some extent, in that my trivial matters were now replaced with a recurring thought of “Holy ****, how hard did he just hit that guy?”.

So, did I get the full Zen shellacking experience? Happily or unhappily, no. It turned out that I passed on the one opportunity I would end up having. My friend volunteered though, I was sitting next to him. As the paddle comes down, the sound is wince-inducing, like you just belly-flopped a particularly thick side of beef onto hot concrete from five stories up. Of course, the paddle is fairly flat, so it’s also engineered to make a particularly meaty thwack against one’s back without permanent damage.

Amazingly, not one of the meditators made a sound after this happened. Although I was assured that it was painful enough, my friend said the residual effects were gone in about 36 hours.

I wish I had photos I could show you, but see, there was this guy walking around with a big lump of wood that he wasn’t shy about using. Actually, the monk seemed like a friendly enough guy, and I guess he was well qualified to deliver some very direct focus, no doubt being the frequent recipient of the same.

So, I haven’t really had the full Zen experience. It really does take some practice – just sitting there motionless and cross-legged for the forty minutes is painful enough. Now if only they perhaps had some way to get my mind off my circulatory-deprived legs…

We gotta a great big convoy, ain’t she a worrying sight

Today, I got my first sighting of the famous black-ish vans of one of the Japanese nationalist groups:

Now, I don’t know too much about these groups other than the small amount I’ve read, but they’re usually ultra-right-wing, and often favour a return to Japan’s imperial era, serving under the Emperor. Post-World War II, Japan has a largely pacifist policy with heavy influence from the United States. I understand that the Nationalists are not big fans of this. By most accounts, they are not a group you would want to mess with, and have historically resorted to intimidation against ideological foes.

These guys were hard to miss. The blaring imperial-sounding music is the first giveaway. Follow that up with the long line of twelve weathered-looking, uniformly painted buses and vans fitted with megaphones and flags, and they stand out a bit. I didn’t find out a lot of detail about this particular group, other than that they were likely out today to mark the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

In spite of the deafening waves of marching music bouncing off the downtown buildings, most of the people around me didn’t bat an eyelid as the procession passed. I’m not sure what to compare them to exactly, but they seem to be a fixture around here, at least.