Kyoto and Nara Trip 2014

While my father was visiting Japan last month we took a trip to Kyoto and Nara. It was nice to just wander around at our own pace, enjoy the ambiance and snap a few photos. We visited some place that I have been before and a few new ones. Kyoto is a great place to just explore, and unlike most Japanese cities it is quite friendly to navigate, having those fancy named streets laid out in square blocks 😉 I do look forward to going back again sometime, perhaps in the spring or the fall.

Hakusan Shrine Nerima Festival 2013

Hakusan Shrine FestivalIt is August here in Japan and that means that it is now festival season. There are many types of festivals, some for religious reason, some for sporting events and others just to blow fireworks up. Not really being one for large crowds of packed sweaty trains, I tend to avoid most of the big festivals in Tokyo but I still enjoy seeing the lights and other arrangements made to liven things up. Last night while Yoko and I wandered towards home we noticed that one of the local shrines, Hakusan Shrine Nerima (練馬区の白山神社) was just shutting down for the night. I liked having a chance to just enjoy the beautiful lanterns in peace.

Little Rebellion: Japan’s love of Mamachari

2011-12-02 at 08-20-08
1. A utility bike for getting around, about as disposable as an umbrella.
2. A traffic hazard in the hands of the unskilled or reckless.
3. A vehicle for little rebellion.

My experience with mamachari goes back to 1999 during my first visit to Japan. I was living in Osaka, a city famous for its bad drivers and traffic accidents. On the morning after I arrived I was walking down a sidewalk when suddenly an old lady burst into the road from an alley without warning, slowing or even looking back. Putting her life in her hands she had pulled into the road on her bicycle and swerved into traffic without so much as a glance to see if there were cars or pedestrians, trusting that her luck would last and she would get to the store another day. At first I thought this was unusual coming from a relatively orderly bike-friendly city in Canada but alas, I saw he same type of situation repeated daily. Walking down the sidewalk hearing the constant ding-ding of a bike bell demanding I get out of the way. I could not accept that I should always have to wait for bikes to pass, it just didn’t seem right!

After asking around, it turned out that from what I could find out it wasn’t right. Riding on the sidewalk in disregard of pedestrians is as illegal here as it is in my hometown in Canada. Feeling rebellious, I took to wearing overhead headphones when walking so I could politely ignore the bells that I couldn’t hear but the paranoia that something was coming up behind me wouldn’t go away. Being a relatively fast walker I am entirely unaccustomed to people coming up behind me on a regular basis and rarely have had to watch my back. After being hit by from behind by several bikes riding on the sidewalk and even one scooter head on coming off the road my feeling of injustice solidified.

Living here in Tokyo has not made me feel any better about bikes, and if anything people’s bike manners here are worse. They ride on the sidewalk, dodge from the road to the sidewalk to the road randomly, wobble, ring bells and park wherever they like. Places there are bike lanes specifically to allow both cyclists and pedestrians to co-exist are so crowded with illegally parked bikes that people ride on the pedestrian side, ringing their bells and expecting pedestrians to jump out of the way. For me, being a cyclist who rides on the road and generally follows traffic laws, it can be fairly hard to take. A woman riding a bike with 3 kids on it in traffic while texting on her phone, only the youngest baby wearing an oversized helmet loose on the back of its head. And again the next day. It is a wonder more people don’t die.

But wait, they do! Recently in Japan there has been a push to actually enforce the traffic code in regards to bikes which, as it turns out, does not allow any but small children and the very elderly to ride on the sidewalk. It seems that Japan has a much higher number of bicycle related deaths than other countries that have clearly enforced traffic laws and bikes are commonly ridden. In fact, the number of bike related deaths has been increasing at a good pace. So what has been the result of the push by the police? Now there are a bunch of wobbly people on the road and no one dares use a bell when they ride on the sidewalk. It seems more like a band-aid than a cure. I don’t think there will be a significant reduction in deaths until helmets laws and rider education/punishment are enacted.

As for the little rebellion: People will park bikes anywhere they like, even beside or on “No Bike Parking” signs. You can see several hundred bikes in a row along a fence that says “No Bikes” or in a bicycle riding lane. I am kind of torn between seeing it as petty rebellion or simply bad manners. When I have seen conflicts over it it has always been quit amusing, with people coming up with excuses like “but it would take over 10 minutes to walk to the station”, “I am only going to leave it here for a few minutes” or my personal favorite “but I have parked here for years and never had a problem!” when you can clearly see the no bike parking sign has been there for several years as well.

To put things in a bit of perspective there are some really bad cyclists in my home town in Canada too. My favorite example from Canada is a “conversation” I witnessed between a cyclist on the sidewalk late on a Saturday night and a police officer:

Police officer: “Please get off the bike”
Cyclist (a bit drunk): “But why, I am just trying to get home”
Police officer: “Are you aware that it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk?”
Cyclist (thinking as fast as possible): “But officer, I thought it would be worse to ride on the road without lights, and someone stole my helmet. Besides, I’ve had a few drinks and thought it would be safer to ride home on the sidewalk since drinking and driving on the road is illegal.”
Police officer: “So your excuse for riding on the sidewalk is that you have no lights, no helmet and are drunk so it would be the lesser of evils?”

….and on it went. It was good Saturday night entertainment.

My point is that there are reckless, inconsiderate people on bikes everywhere, but nowhere in a developed country have I seen it as common as here in Japan. The strange thing is that bike laws are generally for the sake of reducing deaths and serious injury. Why fight them, even as a little rebellion?

I would argue that most people here in Japan use their bikes in entirely illegal ways: they will ride a bike illegally on the sidewalk where they illegally park it, rinse and repeat. Obviously people’s love of mamachari overrides their love of lawfulness: rebellion!

Japan’s “Progress” in the Fight Against Smoking

2011-07-30 at 10-14-33With the 50% government stake in Japan Tobacco it is not really surprising that the fight against cigarettes is not being handled very efficiently at a national level, but allowing products to clearly condition children towards cigarettes these days is a bit much. I took this photo two days ago so these are still around. In many city wards in Tokyo as well as other parts of Japan smoking has been banned in public places, so I was a little bit surprised to see this about one block from an amusement park, a major movie theatre and a Toys-R-Us in a ward that has banned smoking. I know that similar products have been sold in North America but I have not seen them for a very long time, and the caption which roughly reads “Really?! If you blow it smokes like a real cigarette!” written in a manner that any elementary school kid can read is a bit much these days.

New Summer Shoes: A Bigger Deal Than One Might Think

I got a new pair of summer shoes this week and although that might not seem blog-worthy, when you are living in Japan, are 190cm tall and wear size 13’s (31cm) it really is a big deal. Last time I was out of the country it was still winter/spring so I bought a new pair of shoes for casual use: a really nice pair of Adidas skate shoes on sale from the online store. But that was during cool weather when a slightly heavier shoe was a nice thing. Enter summer, early July and already into the 35C plus daily weather for several weeks now. Those skate shoes are no longer something that I can comfortably wear all day, nor have my Cons survived the heavy use all spring. Time to head down to the store and buy some new shoes? If only it were so easy.

It turns out that although there were plenty of shoes around my size this winter in Japan surprisingly enough this trend did not continue into summer. In fact, I can still buy fall/winter casual hiking shoes in my size but if I want something designed for temperatures over 20C I am out of luck at most retailers. I can also buy imported leather dress shoes, golf shoes, tennis shoes, track shoes or marathon runners on occasion with a bit of searching. None of these really suit my summer style nor are actually that good for walking around the city in the summer on the hot asphalt. In Japan men’s shoe sizes end at about 28-29cm (about size 10), so the top of the range here is close to the average in North America. Socks here generally range from 25-27cm (about size 8.5 or 9) on average, so socks are generally out for me too. If only I were more average.

Checking online I discovered that I can order custom Adidas or Nike shoes in a reasonable range of sizes from Japan and I can even customize them to my liking! This sounded great until I checked and found that the expected delivery dates were in 4 weeks or so, half way through the summer. Buying shoes this way will be great for the future but I need shoes roundabout now.

Off to Harajuku I go, making a run to the Nike Harajuku flagship store. Surely they must have something I can buy! I finally managed to find a staff member who wasn’t wasting time hitting on girls who weren’t looking to buy shoes and asked about shoes in my size. It turns out they had one pair of shoes in one colour in my size in store! Yay! I bought them like they were the last pair of shoes in the world and I am now the proud owner of a pair of red, white and black Nike Free Run+ 2 barefoot style running shoes. I am finding them very comfortable and light. Just what I needed for summer. If not for these barefoot runners I might have really been barefoot!

Japan: No Longer a Haven for Wrongful Child Abduction?

Well, it has finally happened. Japan has decided to move towards signing onto the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and follow the 80 or so other countries that have decided to try to stop wrongful child abduction. The motion still has to pass through parliament, but that could come by the end of this year. This has been an issue for a long time and hundreds of children have been wrongfully abducted to Japan primarily by Japanese mothers. As Japan has a history of staying out of custody matters internally this situation has not been surprising but has caused serious emotional pain for many parents left behind without their children or any access to them for the rest of their lives.

Part of the official reason for Japan’s reluctance to sign onto the convention has been that such an agreement would prevent Japanese women who are married to foreigners from escaping abusive relationships but the convention does require the child’s safety and interests to be considered when and if custody is arranged:

The Convention seeks to protect children from the harmful effects of their wrongful removal or retention across international borders, which can be a tragedy for all concerned. The Convention further establishes procedures to ensure the prompt return of children to the State of their habitual residence when wrongfully removed or retained, and secures protection for rights of access of both parents to their children. Under the Convention, a State is not bound to order the return of a child if it is established that there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.

-Quoted from

To date there have been several hundred abductions of children by Japanese nationals that appear to fall under the convention. Custody cases get difficult enough when both parents are from the same nation and have equal de facto and de jure rights to child custody. If one has the ability to simply cross a border and is able to ignore the other parents custody rights and the laws of the countries of the child’s primary citizenship how tempted is that parent going to be to do so? Shouldn’t some legal attempt be possible by the parent who loses their child to show wrongful abduction and have some custody or visitation rights? If there has been no abuse then why should a Japanese parent have the special privilege of arbitrarily deciding that the child in question should never see its other natural parent? In cases where the Japanese spouse is abusive to the children, should there be no way for the foreign parent to protect their child/children? These are all hard questions, and are made harder still by children’s involvement in the equation. Even as Japan signs onto this pact it will still be a long road for those who have already wrongfully lost children, and an even longer road for those who have had children in Japan with Japanese spouses and been cut off unjustly. For those unlucky parents, as their children were born in Japan and lived there at the time of separation, there may never be a solution or peace.

Related articles by the press:

1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction:

Grocery Shopping Without the Panic

10:00 and the local grocery store is open. Time to put my well developed strategy into place. Side door into the store, straight for dairy, juice, on to pasta sauce, dark chocolate and last of all vegetables. As I hustle through the store and make a b-line for the dairy aisle I notice something strange. The dairy aisle is actually full of dairy. All of the usual suspects are gathered: milk (of all kinds), yogurt and cheese. I get a bit suspicious as this is the first time in almost a month that it has all been there. I rush on to the pasta aisle and what do I find? Jars of imported tomato sauce exactly where they are supposed to be with bags of pasta nestled on a shelf nearby. Feeling lucky I head over to the snack aisle and there are boxes and boxes of 72% cocoa dark chocolate, perfect for my afternoon tea time! I casually saunter over to the vegetable section and behold, all of the vegetables in their usual places. I am so surprised by the ease of shopping that I even forget to look for fruit juice. I make my purchases and head upstairs for the final check of the day. No less than 9 kinds of toilet paper on fully stocked shelves! It has been a good day indeed!

It looks like things are getting back to normal here in Tokyo and I have mixed feelings about that. Of course, I appreciate it when my life is a bit easier but there is a layer of unease at the changes. The skeptic in me feels that the more normal things get here the higher the chance gets that people will forget how bad it still is up in Tohoku. The optimist would say that it is possible that when people here are better off they will become even more generous in their help of people in need up north.

I am leaning toward cautious optimism.

Who Will the People of Japan Vote For?

As the dust settles and people are taking stock of the physical, financial, political and emotional damage here in Japan they will have another hard question: Who to vote for?

In this circumstance I almost feel relief to be a foreigner with no political rights here. There will be no choice for me, but unfortunately there will be a very hard choice for Japanese voters. It is not a choice many people who live in other developed democratic countries are unfamiliar with. In my own Canada it is an issue at this moment, and has often been a problem on both provincial and national levels. Do you vote for the party whose long-term mismanagement developed the root issue, or do you vote for the party that failed to reform institutions in a timely fashion? In Japan, more so than in a lot of other countries, there has been a very obvious disaster that has made the issue very concrete and even more public, throwing it on the international stage.

First, a bit of background that might muddy the waters. The previous political party in power was the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主党) or the LDP as they are commonly referred to. They were in power for almost 54 years from 1955 to 2009, and it can easily be argued that they have had a strong effect on the direction Japan has developed and faded away. During their tenure Japan rose from a very damaged state to lead the world financially, and then fell into a recession lasting more than 20 years. Although there was great prosperity here for many years, in the background it seems that there were a lot of issues that went relatively unseen. One of the most relevant of these now is the mismanagement of the national pension, but it also appears that there were a lot of issues with oversight of privately run public utilities as well, such as the now infamous TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Looking back through the history between the government and TEPCO it can be seen that there was a strong tendency to look the other way when it came to safety, and to trust in TEPCO to maintain their nuclear assets as well as prepare for disasters. There is documentation going back to at least 2002 showing that TEPCO had not been living up to this trust, and little by little more issues have come to light, but there has been little government intervention or regulation of the companies nuclear power plants.

Now move to 2009, and the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党), also called the DPJ, takes over and seems to have issues with weak leadership (not that the string of LDP PM’s since the turn of this century had showed much different). Not only are they saddled with all of the previous issues from the long recession, they are looking at a global recession as well. Things remain pretty much the status quo, and seemingly the time they have been in has been too short and turbulent to do much more than damage control. Recovering a country that has been in recession for 20 years, has a rapidly aging population compounded with a tendency against immigration and a failing pension system would take time for the strongest of governments. That the DPJ do not appear to be the strongest of governments is relevant but as the recovery will have to be long-term and no parties are currently showing such strength it might be a relative problem. That they did not get around to cleaning up the energy industry is not really surprising but for the party it might have been a very misfortunate oversight. During the DPJ’s tenure it seems to have been business as usual at TEPCO, a pattern established well before the DPJ took power, but with one very new consequence.

On March 11th, 2011 at approximately 2:46pm one of the worst earthquakes in a century hits off the coast of Tohoku, causing sizable seismic damage but is then followed by a very large tsunami that comes ashore several places along the coast. One of the places it hits hard is Fukushima Dai-Ichi, a TEPCO run generation 2 power plant that was established in the 1970’s. Not having prepared for a tsunami of that magnitude the coastal reactor is swamped with seawater, damaging the building as well as flooding the backup safety generators which were set close to the ground, relying on a seawall to divert tsunamis. The failure of main power, as well as backups, throws Japan into the middle of the second worse nuclear disaster in world history. While TEPCO appears to be very reluctant to give information on the crisis, the government is forced to relate only the details provided by a reticent TEPCO to the public, giving them the appearance of weakness and causing public ire. They blame the DPJ, and in particular Naoto Kan (the current prime minister), for the lack of control of the situation and for a lack of ability to prod TEPCO and Japan’s various emergency forces into action.

But can this really all be set in the laps of the DPJ, or would the LDP, who managed Japan for the 54 years preceding the DPJ and who set most of the policy contributing to the current nuclear crisis, also be at least partially responsible? That is the question voters will be faced with when they vote in the next election, and it is a very hard one to face. The political alternatives to the DPJ and the LDP are even smaller parties, many of which have strong right-wing leanings that might not be appropriate in the current financial and social climate.

I do not envy the Japanese voters.

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Sir Winston Churchill

British politician (1874 – 1965)