Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Dark Side of Japanese Trains

Johan over at Lost in Japan writes to remind us that not all is sweetness and light on Tokyo trains:

The last two mornings have been like a visit to commuter hell. Actually, yesterday was not that bad, but today’s train ride was every bit as fun as being dragged by wild horses and chased by an angry Irish mob (no offence to any Irish people) at the same time. When I came down to the platform all I could see was an endless sea of people. It was almost impossible to even reach the platform, because the lines reached up the stairs from the ticket gates.

I've had to deal with that a time or two myself, actually. Luckily, it's not often, as the hours I work (3:30 to 9:30, most days) mean I board the train at low periods, but there have been the occasional times when I have to get somewhere early, or when I go drinking and have to catch the Last Train Home. Especially in the latter instance, the crowds trying to cram themelves into the train are something to see. Like a vastly powerful, but very well-mannered force of nature.

(last post on this topic for a while, promise!)

Trains, Public vs. Private

The whole transit strike thing in T.O. gives me an excuse to mention something I've been observing for a while, namely, how much better the trains are here.

In Canada, almost every large train company - and every public transportation system - is a government monopoly. Inside city limits, the business plan (if you can call it that) is to charge a flat rate for a lift anywhere inside the city. This is a great deal for commuters, because it keeps their visible costs low, but it ends up screwing over everyone who doesn't live there because their taxes inevitably end up bailing out that public transportation. Not only can it not turn a profit, it can't even break even.

This was the model in Japan up until the early 90s. Most of the trains were run by JR (Japanese Railroads), which became famous here for inefficiency, laziness, high prices, etc. When the bubble burst, any patience people had for JR vanished, and the entire thing was privatized. JR itself still survives - under its old name, no less - but as a private entity. Although there are other train lines (in Tokyo, the Keio and Odakyu lines, whose names translate as 'King Capital' and, mysteriously, 'Little Rice Field Fast'), JR remains the biggest, most expensive to use, and least efficient. There isn't really competition, except in very specific circumstances, due to the inherent economics of railways. Railways really are a natural monopoly, in that if you want to get a train somewhere you generally only have one choice; but Japan's experience shows pretty clearly that it doesn't follow that it should, thus, be a 'public' entity. The easiest way to see that? The business plan.

In Japan, when you take a train anywhere, you pay by distance. This makes the visible costs higher, but it also means that no tax money is required to support their public transportation, which I imagine (though lack the data and training to prove) keeps total actual costs significantly lower. At the very least, it means some hapless fisherman in Hokkaido isn't subsidizing the lifestyle of a Tokyo salariman (or, for that matter, a filthy gaijin such as myself.)

Unions and Strikes

So I hear those unfortunate chuckleheads in the Toronto Transit Commission's union have decided to go on strike, this bringing the city to a standstill (at least for those too poor for cars), all over something just as trivial as the strike perpetrated by the New York transit workers not too long ago. There are a lot of things I could say about this (the phrases 'selfish assholes', 'overpaid bureaucrats', 'cancer on society' and 'criminal' spring to mind) but they're sort've outside the scope of this blog.

It's interesting to compare unions here and there, though. Western unions tend to be for the working classes and occasionally the skilled trades; while there are plenty of professional associations catering to white color workers, they're certainly not unions. The common office worker is almost never unionized.

In Japan, on the other hand, professionals, such as engineers, generally are unionized but - at least according the Japanese union bosses I've talked to at school - the working class usually isn't. These Japanese 'unions' seem a lot like associations: while they might to collective salary negotiations, they don't, as a general rule, strike.

And that seems to be the major difference: the Japanese (unlike, ohhh, say, the French) don't throw a temper tantrum and refuse to work just because every aspect of their dental plan isn't entirely satisfactory. They understand the idea of consensus, of negotiation, of meeting the other party halfway and not expecting to get every little thing you want. This isn't just a union thing, it's a very deeply rooted cultural thing. And, to be honest, it can be a little infuriating at times ... but at least the trains are run well.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Golden Week Vacation Day 3: Osaka Castle

Okay, so it took me long enough to get this up here .... I confess, I'm lazy. So sue me! (Actually I just discovered netvibes.com last Monday, which sort of sucked up a lot of time.)

Anyhow, there were a number of other things I did, but none of them really blogworthy, except for this: seeing Osaka castle.

Osaka castle was built between 1583 and 1598 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the three warlords responsible for uniting Japan (the others being Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.) As you can see from the picture, it's much prettier to look at than most British castles, having quite a few decorative flourishes (British castles being generally entirely functional in appearance.) It's seen quite a bit of action over the centuries, including being the epicenter of one of Japan's largest internecine conflicts, the Siege of Osaka.

The most striking thing about the castle was how new-looking it all was. By this, I don't mean it had all been restored to a period-accurate appearance: I mean the entire castle had been comprehensively renovated. Carpeted floors. Fluorescent lights. Chickenwire around the upper walkway. There was even an elevator shaft (!!!) unceremoniously bolted to the outside of the building. Once you're inside, you might as well be in a museum almost anywhere else in the world; there's not a single visual clue that you're in one of Japan's oldest castles.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Golden Week Vacation Day 2: The Bloody Temple

We woke up late, checking out at the last possible minute. The rabuho had one helluva comy bed. Breakfast was an onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed) from a konbini (convenience store.)

Our first stop was the Bloody Temple (Hosen-in), one of Kyoto's lesser-known shrines. We paid for admission, which included a quick tour ... really much more useful for my girlfriend than for me, as the tour didn't come in English (I was the only gaijin there, after all, so I'm not complaining.) She tried to translate some of it, but I shushed her when it became obvious that she was missing out on a lot of it, and concentrated on looking around me. The temple included a dozen very old sliding-door paintings, including elephants, demons or guardians (I think), and some very fractal looking trees. I'd have pictures, but no one else was taking any so I assumed it probably wasn't allowed (the Japanese not being particularly shy about taking pictures anywhere it's not specifically prohibited.)

The temple gets its name from its famous Bloody Ceiling, reclaimed from the floor of a Tokugawa-era castle where several hundred Samurai, surrounded and about to be over-run, committed seppuku en masse. In English, this means they carved open their own viscera with their swords, disembowelling themselves and dying in possibly the most painful way possible. The floor soaked up so much blood that, to this day, the ceiling from which it was made has a very obvious reddish tint; body-prints, and even a hand-print, are quite apparent.

Being a Westerner, I was very curious as to why, exactly, the samurai committed seppuku. I'm sure they must have had a good reason - something to do with the shame of imminent defeat I imagine - but for the life of me I can't see why they'd do it before the battle. After all, if there's several hundred of you, and you're sitting in a castle, surely you're much more militarily valuable fighting to the last man (and thus taking a good number of the opposition with you, usually about a 3-to-1 ratio in a situation like that, where you're fighting from a defensible position.) So I'm sure I must be missing something here. Sadly I've been unable to find anything online to explain the story, so I'm left wondering ... if anyone reads this and has any idea, please, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Golden Week Vacation Day 1: Shinkansen and Kyoto

I woke up early-ish, say about 9:00, did my morning necessaries and chugged a Red Bull on the way to the station (I'm not used to waking up before 11:00, most days, so the strong stimulus of an energy drink was necessary.) At about 10:00 I met my girlfriend in Machida, then continued on to Shin-Yokohama where we caught the Shinkansen (or, as Westerners who haven't been to Japan call it, the Bullet Train.) We had about an hour to kill before our train left, most of which we spent getting lunch (bento boxes) and (trying to) take pictures of passing trains. God-damn but they're fast ... exactly how fast I found out when my girlfriend prodded me into asking a station-staff (in Japanese) how fast they went (something like, Shinkansen wo, dochira hayai desu ka?) Once he got over his initial shock at a foreigner asking him something in his own language, he replied that it went about 270 km/h.

Our seats were worlds away from the usual cattle-packing of JR trains; it was more like sitting on an airplane (as was only fitting, given the airplane-esque fare of 14,000 yen for a two-hour trip.) I spent the first part of the trip admiring the landscape as it zoomed by, at one point getting a decent view of Mount Fuji in the distance (though sadly, no good pictures.) After an hour or so, the morning Red Bull wearing off and the rolling green mountains flattening into industrial wasteland, the train's steady motion lulled me to sleep ... something that always seems to happen when I'm travelling.

When I woke up, about 1:00 or so, we were in Kyoto. Outside the station we met up with my girlfriend's sister; they immediately began conferring in Japanese - I caught maybe one word in ten - and then turned to me to ask if I was willing to walk to the first shrine, as there was a long line-up for the bus. Of course, I replied, walking was fine. Good excercise and all that, plus a good way to see the city, and I wanted to stretch my legs after two hours on a train.

Kyoto's a much smaller city than Tokyo, in terms of population, area, even building size (it turns out Kyoto has a law restricting the height of buildings to six or seven stories, in order to preserve it's old-time touristy appeal.) Traditionally, it's served a very different function in Japanese life from Tokyo: where Tokyo is the centre of political power, Kyoto is Japan's spiritural capital. It's a city of Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, museums and koi ponds; artists, craftsmen, priests and monks. The closest Western analogue I can think of is Rome, in that most of Kyoto's population seem to make their living off of tourists drawn to the city for religious reasons, and have had centuries to perfect the art of separating tourists from their money by offering them trinkets, food, lodgings, and tours, all only marginally affordable. If I had to pick four words to describe Kyoto, they would be quiet, beautiful, old, and expensive.

After walking for about an hour or so, my girlfriend was getting a bit of a blister so we made a pit-stop at a drug store for some gel bandaids. While I waited outside with her sister, I saw my first passing caravan of real honest-to-God Japanese rightwingers: three, maybe four vehicles, including one almighty big truck, all loaded down with stern-faced men wearing beige or black jumpsuits complete with Nazi-esque armbands, and a megaphone blaring out propaganda. Basically a bunch of chuckleheads who blame all of Japan's problems on foreigners and pine after the glorious days of the pre-War era dictatorship. I'm sure they intended to be very intimidating, but really I thought they were just kind of funny, sort of like, "Ah, ain't that cute! They hate me for the color of my skin!"

We reached our first temple (or shrine, not sure which to be honest) maybe half an hour later, just a small little place were we nipped in to get some takoyaki (octopus fried in some kind of batter, which you pick up, or really attempt to pick up, with a single tootpick. Difficult to eat but quite tasty.) My girlfriend's sister explained something about the temple's guardians that I immediately began to notice everywhere: the one on the right went "Aaaa!", while the one on the left went, "Unnnn!" That is to say, the lips of one were sculpted into something of a yell, while the lips of the other were made to look as though it was growling.

The next place we went to was really the day's chief attraction, a temple called Kiyomizu, or Spring Water.
The temple features a tall tower on the outskirts, visible from quite a distance; in order to get close to it you have to go through what seems like a mile of souveneir shops, selling everything from expensive hand-crafted tea sets and imitation katanas, to cheap plastic 'good luck' cats and keychains (I almost purchased a door-hanging, but was yanked out by my companions who pointed out that the temple closed at 6:00, and it was already 4:30.)

In addition to the tower, the temple contains an ancient Noh theatre stage, one essentially built on the side of a cliff, supported by hundreds of pillars. It sags visibly, but I assume it's entirely safe. The whole complex overlooks Kyoto, giving a quite beautiful view of the city. There was also, as at all temples and shrines, a very beautiful garden to walk through, consisting of trees, ferns, rocks, streams and waterfalls, rather than flowers.

After all that walking about, we were quite tired, and in a mood for food. I was warned in advance that Kyoto food (being descended from the diet of monks - with all the weird dietary restrictions that commonly entails - and the cuisine of rich folk, who care more that their food is priced out of the reach of commoners than that it tastes good) is notable chiefly for being both nasty and expensive, but happily we found a place that was only the latter.

When we'd finished our long meal, my girlfriend and I bade her sister farewell, and found our way to a nearby love hotel, or rabuho, an entirely Japanese innovation whose hospitality is specifically targeted at amorous couples. We decided to go for the love hotel because, a) it was cheaper, b) you don't need a reservation (because they don't allow them) and, c) I'd never been to one before. I won't go into the details of all the various amenities on offer at such establishments; I'll only say that it was every bit as swank as a very decent western hotel, and if anyone imports that particular business model into the West they may well make a killing.

We Love Pinks

Anyone who knows anything about the Church of the SubGenius ought to get a kick out of this:

Taken outside Hachioji Station, quite close to my house. A testament to my stunning powers of observation that I only noticed this recently after living here almost a year.

Golden Week

So it's the last day of my Golden Week vacation (Golden Week is sort of like march break, a five-day long weekend that pretty much everyone in the country gets), and while I spent far too much of it watching all 34 episodes of Battlestar Galactica, I also took three days to visit the Kansai region, better known to the outside world as Kyoto and Osaka.

I've got a lot to post, so I'll break the trip up into 3 posts, one per day. I'll put some of the pics I took in the posts, but if you want to see the rest then please, take a look at 1+White=100's Flickr page (I just spent the past half hour or so organizing all those photos, which is why I say 'please look'. Hate to think all that effort had been wasted.)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Battlestar Galactica

I think this might be the ultimate compliment to Battlestar Galactica (not the old one, of course, but the new version ... which I've been uncontrollably watching for the past week or so in lieu of getting any actual work done.) I showed it to my girlfriend Saturday night - starting with the miniseries - and although she admitted to only being able to catch about 30% of what they were saying (there's a lot of technical or military jargon) she still found the series every bit as addictive as I have.

And now, I'm going to go back and watch more.