Monkeys: snow edition

Snow monkeys!  I’ve been waiting to see them for the whole 3.75 years I’ve been in Japan.  It was worth the wait.

The “snow monkeys” are actually Japanese Macaque, famous for spending a good amount of their spare time in natural hot springs.  I believe there is a statutory requirement that any traveloge about Japan feature them, so likely you know what I’m talking about.  Interestingly, ask Japanese people about them, and chances are they won’t have heard of them at all.  For some reason, it’s chiefly foreigners who have this fascination.

The place to see these monkeys is Jikokutani (Hell Valley) in Nagano prefecture.  It was a very cold day in Hell Valley indeed:

When you get through the entrance and into the park proper, you’re instantly in the thick of a troop of 200 monkeys.  They live in a complex social hierarchy, having a strict pecking order…

Look, you can learn about how fascinating the Macaque monkeys are on Wikipedia.  It really is a delight, though, to be able to walk right into the middle of their society and have them go about their business, seemingly oblivious to all the foreigners with DSLR camera roaming around.  There are some highly complex simian interactions going on, obvious even to the least David Attenborough-like of us.

If you ever go there, some advice.  The monkeys are wild, but co-exist with the gawking humans around them extremely well. They ignore you for the most part, but don’t make eye contact too much – they’ll start hissing and generally being grumpy.  Strangely, they don’t seem to mind flashes.  If I was aggressively strobed by amateur photographers while trying to take a bath, I know I’d be one angry monkey. I tried to refrain from using flash in the following photos.

The next photo is what happens if you’re standing next to someone getting a little closer than a monkey likes it.  Not photographable: loud shrieking.

A highly recommended experience. The more snow, the more monkeys you’ll see in the hot spring, so time your trip well!


I got lost but I have an excuse

Once a week, I go to Japanese school for a two hour evening lesson. Recently, my school informed me that they were consolidating their two schools into one single building, not far from where the old one was.  They gave me a map.

In theory, finding the new location should have been pretty easy.  However, what you’ve forgotten, as always, is the Japanese street addressing system.

The Japanese street addressing system

Firstly, Tokyo is a city that organically, chaotically formed.  There’s not much zoning. A hairdresser may be below an English school, which is below an apartment.  There’s nothing regular about the street layout in many places, with hidden lanes and streets at jaunty angles everywhere.

Secondly, the street number system is entirely logical or entirely illogical, depending on how you look at it.  Apart from arterial roads, most streets don’t have names.  An address will be the suburb plus a number, for example “Shinkuku 8-1-4”.  Shinjuku is the suburb, where the 8-1-4 means district 8, block 1, building 4.  Buildings aren’t numbered according to street position but build age (the oldest building is number 1 etc).  So, good luck guessing which building is the fifth oldest on the block.

For computers, this is fine.  For humans – not so much, especially as you really can’t rely on these numbers appearing anywhere in the physical world to tell you where you are.  There are sometimes vague maps on a signboard, but very few street signs.

So, how do you find a place you want to go to in Japan?  You either print out a map beforehand, look it up on your cellphone (online navigation has been popular for much longer in Japan than other places) or get verbal directions.  “Get off at Shinjuku station and you’ll see a department store.  Walk through it and leave from exit number five.  You’ll see a Family Mart convenience store.  Turn left there and it’s the building three doors down with a carpark out the front.”

Not many people own cars in Tokyo, but the train system is fantastic.  So, the normal procedure is for the person who knows where they’re going to meet everyone at the train station and lead the way.

Back to school

In the case of my school, they provided a mud map to the new location.  It was something along the lines of “Go down a street with lots of bars until you hit a Family Mart convenience store.  Turn right until you cross a bridge.  Take a left and a right and you’ll see the school’s sign.”  Although the school has a street address, people tend not to use it.  At least the street with lots of bars should be easy to spot:

Unfortunately, on the first day I was to attend the new school, I couldn’t find the map.  “I know, I’ll go to  their web site and print one off!”.  Unfortunately, the web site hadn’t been updated, and led to the school’s old location which I also hadn’t visited.

Even more unfortunately, the old site involved going down another street with lots of bars, past a Family Mart (they’re everywhere), across a bridge… to the middle of nowhere.  I called the school.

“Hi, I followed the directions on the map, but I’m obviously not there.”
“Oh, where are you?”
“I’m standing in front of a Bic Camera store.”
“There’s a Bic Camera store in Takadanobaba??”

This is when I knew things had gone badly.

Continuing to try and follow the outdated map, I eventually found the school – locked up with all the lights out.  Another phone call.  “Excuse me, do you happen to all be sitting in the dark with the doors locked?”

I retraced my steps back to the station where a nice lady from the school had kindly offered to meet me.  I was shamefacedly escorted to school only one hour late for my two hour lesson.

Consolation prize: the street leading up to the school’s new venue is full of students on the turps having a great time.  It’s a really lively place compared to the previous, more sterile, corporate area.  Here’s the experience of walking along the drag down to my school, full of bars, hostess clubs, mobile phone shops and convenience stores:

The man who (really) loved trains

Rattling along on my daily commute, the announcement would come over the PA, as it did every day: “Tsugi no eki: chikatetsu hakubutsukan mae” (next station: the Subway Museum).  I’ve walked past it countless times.  It’s an unimpressive squat, beige building, wedged underneath the subway line itself.  In the several years I’ve lived in this area, I’ve never bother to go – how interesting could a museum about trains be, anyhow?

(Source: Wikipedia)

So, let me just say that contrary to my expectations, the museum was really quite impressive.  I can recommend it if you happen to be out this way.  But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about a certain young fellow and his hat.  Let’s call him Taro-san.

One of the centrepieces of the museum is a full-sized subway simulator.  I would imagine that actual train drivers practice on something very similar to this.  It comprises of an entirely authentic front section of a subway train, which moves around to simulate accelerating and breaking.  A kindly looking elderly staffer in a green blazer would explain to the (mostly) dads and their sons how to operate the throttle and break, and to watch the speedometer.  In front of the simulator was an enormous, high definition screen showing the driver’s view as you moved between two Tokyo stations.


Standing in front of the simulator on this day, there were about five people lined up, but Taro-san was the one who really attracted attention.  Probably in his mid-twenties with a stooped, short frame, he wore a train driver’s hat festooned with subway-related pins and badges.  He completed his ensemble with white gloves, a green-ish jumper, beige slacks, and white trainers.  And, inevitably, glasses – not the stylish kind, either.  Sitting beside him on the desk was a small, soft attache case with a Tokyo Metro logo on it, the same kind I’d seen actual train drivers carrying as they come off shift.  Two of his friends were with him, dressed similarly, but he was clearly the leader of this weekend train crew.

He was patiently lined up with his friends, with the look of someone on well-trodden, comfortable ground. They might as have been wearing leather jackets and hanging out by the pinball machines at the local pizzeria, given the nonchalant vibe radiating from them.  Whereas most of the visitors received a polite welcome and their instructions as their climbed the simulator’s steps, the gentleman with the green blazer stood aside wordlessly as our be-hatted and gloved subject bounded up the stairs come his turn.  It seemed obvious that this routine had been carried out many times before.

Once sitting in the simulator seat, he affected a different bearing altogether, became a different beast.  His shoulders went back, his chest out, his spine stiffening as he operated on auto-pilot, opening his attache case and laying timetables and documents swiftly and precisely in their appropriate places on the train console.

Checking the wall of dials and gauges, he smartly brought his gloved hand up to the brim of his hat in a pointing motion, perfectly mimicking the protocol of Tokyo subway drivers.  Bringing his hand down in a crisp salute, he looked back out the window of the simulator, doing a safety check.  With everything set, I saw him mouth a radio command for departure, and he let the breaks go and throttled up.

Looking on from the sidelines, I was riveted.  What kind of person spends their weekends in a train museum, lining up again and again to pretend to drive a train?  I mean, sure, I’ve been accused of having a few obsessive hobbies from time to time, but – train driving?

I was temporarily a little depressed for Taro-san.  Apparently the competition to become a Tokyo subway employee, let alone a driver, is quite fierce, involving entrance examinations matching you against a large number of other hopefuls.  There’s even a word for people who love trains – densha okaku – train geeks.  I imagined poor Taro-san missing the exam cut more than a few times, having to console himself with lining up with the tourists to experience his dreams two simulated minutes at a time.

When he got off the simulator though, his friends gathered around as they went to the back of the queue to line up again.  They smiled and talked excitedly about trains, waiting for their next chance to become a train driver for just a few moments.

And then it struck me.  As I was standing on, looking at these guys with pity for being obsessed with a hobby outside the mainstream, you know what?  They’d discovered something they loved to do.  The amount of passion they put into what they were doing, the precision, the as-close-as-they-could-get authenticity, made me think of them passing the time at university or working in a convenience shop by day, waiting for the weekend when they could be a train driver again, just for a little while.

I’m sure Taro-san will get his wish eventually – I don’t think you could ever repress that kind of passion and zeal.

The guy just loves trains.

A mountain somewhere… near Tokyo

Someone told me that there was a prediction for snow in Tokyo this weekend, with the bleakness knob getting turned up to 11 today.  To try and delude myself from the fact that I’m sitting in my poorly insulated apartment on a wintery night, I decided to reminisce about the summer that was.  The summer that was much warmer.

One of the adventures last summer was climbing Mt Takao, not too far out of Tokyo.  It’s very picturesque, with ancient cedar forests and temples, shrines and statues dotted throughout.  You can do it in just a few hours if you’re fit, and despite that, it should give your calves a fairly decent workout on the steep ascent.

The fellow below is cooking dango, coated in a soy syrup and made from rice pounded into a rubbery consistency (similar to mochi).  Mochi is often eaten at New Year’s and is slightly infamous for being the cause of a few choking fatalities each year.  So, it’s a pretty extreme snack, is what I’m saying.

I don’t know exactly what the masks below are, but I would guess they are oni, demons in Japanese folklore.  There’s a saying in Japanese, “Oni with an iron club”, which means you are invincible, powerful or the like. So, rather than being evil, it means you are kind of a bad ass.

A kind lady at work called me this one day to encourage me as I was struggling through a conversation.  I didn’t know the expression and so could only surmise that she was calling me a devil.  Unaware of the heinous act I had apparently committed, I was left more confused than normal (and that’s saying a lot).

Shrines on mountains don’t clean themselves:

After all this, it turns out that looking at photos of warm locations doesn’t actually make you warmer, just as I feared.  The light at the end of the tunnel, though, is some time back in Australia for Christmas – from 0 degrees to 30 overnight.

That technology allows us to do this is brilliant.  It will be great to be home, and I’m looking forward to melting as I step foot off the plane.

It’s okay to geek out now and then

For the fans of Japanese animation out there, you might like these coin lockers advertising the Neon Genesis Evangelion movie that came earlier this year.  You can (or at least, could) find this in Akihabara, technology paradise, where coin lockers are in plentiful supply for all those giant robot figurines you’ve been “investing” in.

I’ve also just realised that besides now, the sum total of my manga and anime-related postings is only one other time!   You’d almost wonder which country I was actually in.

The Yamato

If you ever go to Hiroshima, there’s one often overlooked place nearby called Kure.  It’s about half an hour by train and a nice half day trip.

Kure is most famous for being the naval base where the Yamato, the one-time flagship of Japan’s navy during World War II, was built.  Today, the Yamato Museum commemorates the ship itself as well as a lot of the naval history of Kure.

The central feature of the museum is an enormous 1:10 scale model of the Yamato.  The original ship was the crown jewel of the Japanese navy and packed a massive amount of firepower, one of the largest battleships ever built.  It didn’t see nearly as much combat action as might be  expected for the sizable amount of resources devoted to its construction, and it was sunk near Okinawa near the end of the war without having made much of an impact.

Yamato Museum, Kure

The attention to detail in this model is really something:

Yamato Museum, Kure

There are also a selection of other large exhibits around the museum.  One of the most sobering this this one, a Kaiten human torpedo.  These were employed in desperation by the Japanese navy in the later stages of the war, and were designed for a single, doomed pilot to steer their explosive payload into an enemy ship.  Talking to a co-worker about this, he said that most of these torpedoes were gunned down before reaching their target, making the waste of life mind-bogglingly senseless.

Next to this suicide torpedo are the pictures of a couple of its 18 year old pilots.  Standing in front of its narrow dimensions, you can’t help but imagine the horror of these boys of being sealed into a dark, metal tube, sailing off on a one-way trip to their certain deaths, whether colliding with an enemy ship, destroyed before reaching their objective, or just failing to get there altogether.  Thinking about modern day school boys you see on the train every day horsing around with their friends being forced to lay down their lives in such a horrific way leaves a lasting impression.

Yamato Museum, Kure

The plane you can see here is of course the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter.  At the back is a two-man midget sub along with a selection of shells.

Yamato Museum, Kure

Nearby the museum is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Museum, with its main attraction, the submarine Akishio:

Yamato Museum, Kure

Yamato Museum, Kure

If you ever end up visiting Hiroshima, have an afternoon to spare and have even a passing interest in history, a trip to Kure and the Yamato Museum should be on your list of things to do.  It’s an educational, if grim, experience, but if you’re visiting Hiroshima, that’s probably why you’re there, after all.