Archive for January, 2011

High-Tech Tokyo

January 18, 2011

One day last December I attended a renku, or linked poetry, session held at a teahouse within the grounds of Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo. Originally the property of a Tokugawa Shogun, the park is now surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers in what is known as the Shiodome area of town.


The park is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, yet located right in the middle of it. Even within the park itself it is possible to escape the 21st century even further by stepping off its wide gravel avenues and through a small gate into a modest garden. Here is the teahouse known as Hobaitei, a one-story structure with three tatami rooms separated by sliding screens, a kitchen for making tea or coffee and for washing up, and restrooms. The only furniture is a low table and some cushions to sit on. Groups like the one I joined that afternoon can rent the house for a few hours at reasonable rates and write poetry together.


The sun was pouring in through the glass windows of the sliding doors that overlooked the garden, warming the room and deepening the sweet scent of straw emanating from the mats on the floor. We sat there and composed poetry undisturbed for three hours, while the world outside rushed by.


After leaving the park, we headed for Caretta, a new shopping complex where we planned to have an evening meal. I’ll let the PR folks down at Caretta speak for themselves:


Caretta Shiodome, a town for adults looking for a place to dine, become stylish, and enjoy culture in a relaxing atmosphere. This 21st century skyscraper consists of four distinctive zones, each providing large-scale international facilities where people can meet and communicate with each other. Why don’t you indulge in a comfortable space and leisurely pace at Caretta, a world totally secluded from that of business where speed is everything. []


Passing a crowd gathering in the plaza in front of the entrance to Caretta, we stopped to see what was going on, and got swept up in the excitement of waiting for an elaborate Christmas illumination display to be lit up. In the plaza was a tangled-looking arrangement of wires, making it look like a war zone. Above and around us were the walls of towering skyscrapers, and running through them on its elevated track was the Yurikamome (Seagull), an automated train line that operates from nearby Shinbashi Station out to the landfill areas of Tokyo Bay.


The crowd grew thicker and thicker, and young men whose job was apparently to keep us under control, called out through bull-horns, telling us to keep away from the walls and leave room for people to pass. On the dot of 5 PM the show began. The rolls of barbed wire suddenly became dazzling spectacles of pulsing white and blue lights. Music blasted forth—not “Silent Night” or any other recognizable Christmas tune, but the theme music to the most recent NHK television drama. Bubbles were released and floated up into the night. Clouds of steam filled the air. Green laser beams came shooting out of somewhere and bounced in green dots off the surrounding walls. The top of a white plastic-looking cone structure periodically turned red and emitted smoke. A voice excitedly and loudly narrated a story, but all I understood of it was that it had nothing to do with Christmas.


We went inside to the restaurant and had dinner overlooking the show, apparently “enjoying culture in a relaxing atmosphere.” But frankly, if you want “a world totally secluded from that of business where speed is everything,” I’d avoid Caretta. I’d go straight back to the Hobaitei teahouse and its doorway into the previous century.



Christmas Demo

January 15, 2011

On December 18, 2010 I went to Harajuku to attend a Christmas concert at the Tokyo Union Church.  I was a little wary of passing through the station because it was “illumination” time on Omotesando, the long tree-lined avenue that leads from the station up to Aoyama Street.  It is these trees that were decorated with Christmas lights.  Several years ago I had inadvertently planned to meet someone for coffee in Harajuku on the very day that the trees were first lit up.  When we left the coffee shop to go back to the station, we got caught up in a mob of “illumination-seekers,” a crowd around the station so dense that not only could we not move independently within it but, I found out too late, we could not even leave it to go somewhere else less crowded.  Fighting against panic, I was pushed and shoved and jostled and squeezed all the way into the station and onto the train, an experience I do not want to go through again.

It seems I was not the only one fed up with the crowds, for in the following years neighborhood associations in the Harajuku and Omotesando areas decided to put the illumination display on hold.  The illumination seekers created too much trash; the cost of the lights and electricity bill were too high; and the lights were damaging the trees.  This past December, however, they decided to have the display again, this time using more energy-efficient, tree-friendly light bulbs.  So I wondered what lay in store as the train pulled into Harajuku Station on a twilit Saturday afternoon.

It was indeed crowded, but I found everything highly organized.  Men in official-looking gear were barking orders as we got off the train and climbed the stairs to the exit, keeping people who were exiting to the left and people who were coming in to the right.  As long as we kept moving in our appointed line, we could flow smoothly through the ticket gates and out of the station.

Looking toward Harajuku Station

Just one wave in the oncoming tide

I immediately climbed the pedestrian bridge that led to the other side of Omotesando, hoping to avoid the mob on the street level below, but here too were men barking orders through bullhorns:  “Keep moving along!”  Below was a sea of Japanese flags.  This time I had inadvertently run into a protest march.

It was a demonstration organized by the Ganbare Nihon! National Action Committee, or Stick to your guns, Japan! National Action Committee.  (According to our translation staff, this organization has no official English version of their name, but our office dictionary translates ganbare as “Hold out!” or “Stick to it!” or “Show your nerve!”)

This group was formed in February, 2010 for the purpose of “arousing the people to patriotic action,” according to Wikipedia.   Since the incident in September when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard vessel in waters around the Senkaku Isles, they have been holding similar protest marches around town, with several thousand participants, calling for Japan to stand up firmly to China.  I knew about these previous marches only because they had been reported on an on-line alternative news site; there had been not a peep about them on NHK news or in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.  But this was my first real look at them.

For years, right-wing protests have taken the form of ominous-looking black sound trucks speeding through town blaring ultra-nationalist invective interspersed with an ear-splitting rendition of the “Ride of the Valkyries”—or something equally histrionic—through loud-speakers set on their roofs alongside a fluttering national flag.  What I saw below me, apart from the waving flags, was completely different.

Rather than ominous black, the protest was painted in bright cheerful red, white and green.  Participants held not only flags but bunches of blue, white and yellow balloons, creating a festive atmosphere.  There was even one fellow dressed in a Santa Claus suit.  Rather than dour-faced old men hidden inside sound trucks, the marchers looked like they came from all walks of life.  There were families with little kids, housewives, working people, students, men and women of all ages.

“Overthrow the DPJ Cabinet!”

I descended to street level and headed toward the church, pushing my way through the crowds milling about on the sidewalk, and all the while keeping an eye on the passing protest, which kept on coming in waves from the direction of Aoyama Street, heading toward Shibuya.  While I saw a few placards declaiming about the Senkaku Isles, I started to notice other messages as well:  “Overthrow the ‘Ultra-Left’ Kan Administration!” “Denounce desecration of the Imperial Household!” “Dissolve the Lower House at once!” “Crypto-Communist Cabinet!” “Why Doesn’t the Media Report on our Demonstrations?” and even one seemingly English sign: the incongruous “NO WE KAN!”

Wikipedia‘s article on this group describes them as “conservative.” Their slogan is “Grass (common people) Rising Abruptly” (as opposed to describing themselves as a “grass-roots” organization).  They are opposed to voting rights for foreign residents, call for the dissolution of NHK, and want the Japanese government to stand firm against China’s attempts to claim the Senkaku Isles as its own territory.

Although they have taken clear stands against certain things, it is not clear what they favor in a positive way.  I got the impression of a lot of disaffected people finding an outlet for their frustrations in an acceptable and supportive group setting.  While it is true that the mass media ignores them, perhaps this snub is a blessing for them for it allows the movement to operate under the radar, so to speak; to grow and spread while other people are looking the other way.  Yet they do bear watching in the event that their cuddly exterior hides from view a darker purpose, which has yet to coalesce and come boiling to the surface when least expected.

Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to Men

The lights were pretty, but Christmas music beckoned further down the road.  I pushed my way through the crowds and arrived at the concert just in time.  Inside the church, a different kind of festive atmosphere prevailed.  “Silent Night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright,” the choir sang as further waves of protesters passed by its doors.  Outside the moon was keeping watch.










NO WE KAN! What could this mean?  Transformational grammarians might gnash their teeth over this one, but if we look at it not as English or as anything created by grammatical rules, it might begin to make sense.  Think of it more as a collage of images, whose purpose is a political statement.  Begin with a little historical background:  The Obama campaign’s use of the slogan “Yes We Can!” during the 2008 presidential election.  These words caught on and resonated here, giving people a sense of hope and possibility.  Then the Democratic Party of Japan swept away or seemed to the old guard Liberal Democrats and installed Yukio Hatoyama as the new leader of Japan.  But President Obama turned his back on him and his plans for change which did not jibe with the American military agenda.  In comes his replacement, Naoto Kan, whose name coincides somewhat with the last word in the Obama phrase.  So now it’s “Yes We Kan!”  Except Kan can’t either.  So people fed up with both parties get together and start saying “no” to Kan and the DPJ.  In other words, “no” to the whole “Yes We Can!” dream that government cannot really deliver on.  This negation is achieved in a linguistic collage by changing the “yes” to “no,” but keeping the affirmative form of “can” in the image “Kan.”  It’s not meant to make sense grammatically.  Don’t even try.

Off the Beaten Path: Tokyo Aqua Line

January 10, 2011

On a brilliant morning in early December, I joined a leaf-viewing party which went by chartered bus to the Boso Peninsula in Chiba.  After departing Tokyo Station, the bus swooped southward on the elevated Shuto Expressway till it reached Kawasaki, at the edge of Tokyo Bay.  Here it entered a tunnel that took us down under the Bay, emerging about halfway across and about 10 minutes later onto an artificially constructed island called  Umi Hotaru (Firefly of the Sea).  Whether coming or going, whether in a private car or chartered bus, you stop and park here at the “island” to refresh yourself and admire the view.

How to describe this thoroughly functional structure which in every way belies its charming name?  The closest thing I can think of is the South Station bus terminal in Boston, with its curving, rising exit ramps and row after row of parking slots for the buses.
Our bus pulled into its slot, and we got off and made our way across the busy lot to an enormous structure resembling a multi-level parking garage.  Inside this, besides hordes of people including tons of children running around, were enormous public restrooms, the largest I have ever seen in Japan, the long rows of stalls replicating the rows of parking slots for the buses waiting outside.
After using the restrooms, we ascended by escalator five stories to the roof, passing on our way layers and layers of souvenir shops, game centers, Starbucks, and noodle restaurants.  Out on the roof we found the bay busy with ships all around us and the sky busy with air traffic overhead.
In one direction was Chiba, shrouded in haze from the smokestacks of the steel factories that line its Tokyo Bay shore.

In the other direction was the Tokyo from which we had just come, and beyond it Mt. Fuji’s white cone rising above the bank of smog.

On the return trip to Tokyo, we again stopped to rest at Firefly of the Sea, but this time the sun had just set behind Mt. Fuji, and the lights of Tokyo were twinkling like Christmas decorations on the far shore.