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Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.

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Adachi-ku, Tokyo
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Expat: Live From Japan
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Books what I have read to me help me understand Japan: AA Gill is away

I consider myself something of a “reader” and I’m interested in the pages being turned by others so to this end I’m going to try and put together a small series of posts about books that I’ve read about Japan in order to have prepared for and / or help me to better understand Japan (or at least get some other perspectives on living and travelling here). However, despite a fondness for a bit of a read, as will soon become abundantly clear, I’m no literary critic so please forgive me as I try and fumble through my opinions on the following texts, the first of which is "AA Gill is away", by AA Gill.  Oh, and the grammatical error in the title of this post was made with purpose.AA Gill (Adrian Anthony) was a British writer who, during his peak was probably one of the most widely read columnists in the land with his critiques in the Sunday Times sparking laughter, anger, emphatic agreement and equally emphatic opposition. AA Gill didn’t hide his opinion and when he wrote it down he amplified it tenfold. Whether you agree with him or not, what can’t be disputed is the unique way he handled the English language. So unique in fact, that Gill himself admitted to at times just making words up. Personally, he was a great influence on me. I love the way he makes scholarly prose accessible like a tabloid newspaper. And he really is laugh out loud funny. Technically that “is” should be a “was”. Gill died in December 2016 after suffering from what he described as “the full English” of cancer.“AA Gill is away” is actually a collection of travel articles written by Gill. The book was first published in the U.K. in 2002 by Cassell & Co. I have a paperback edition published by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks in 2005. I bought it from the books section that used to be on the top floor of the Tower Records in Shibuya. I wasn’t looking for it, back then I was a fan of anything “travel” and was also drawn to it by its simple black cover. (A reflection of Gill’s humor, perhaps?)Among the articles in “AA Gill is away” is one entitled “Mad in Japan” written about a trip to Tokyo Gill took in September 2001.In "Mad in Japan", after an initial, and unusually gentle, comparison between the Japanese and the British (island nations and all the rest of it) Gill launches into his typically brutal observations bringing regular readers back to familiar territory. Of the Japanese, “ … after ten minutes in the land of the rising sun, you realize the Japs are off the map, out of the game, on another planet. It’s not that they’re aliens, but they are the people that aliens might be if they’d learnt Human by correspondence course … “.  Of course, one can’t make such extraordinary claims without backing them up. (Although how many of us have been guilty of the occasional lapse into lazy “weird Japan” social media contributions?). And back them up he does, in his own way. Falling victim to Gill’s vicious pen are the toilets (“... twenty-first-century bogs and thirteenth-century bog roll.”), and the plastic food displays (“Only a Japanese person could see a plate of propylene curry and say: “Yum, I’ll have that.”). But these can really be taken or left behind, they are of little importance. What Gill gets his teeth into are the people and Japanese society as a whole;“How come Japan has such commercial success but still manages to be a socially weird disaster? Because, have no doubts, they’re not happy.”.I think until I had read this line, I’d never really thought of a nation’s populace being collectively unhappy. I mean, we see nations at war on the TV and are shown lots of images of people looking unhappy (to say the least, and very understandable) but one always has the feeling of hope, that this will end, that things will get better. Gill seems to be saying of the Japanese that they are an unhappy collective by default, or nature even. The key reason for this he thinks is religion. He’s critical of Shinto for lacking “the most rudimentary theology” and that oft used turn of phrase about the Japanese being born Shinto, married Christian and buried Buddhist, Gill states has the consequence of the Japanese believing “everything and nothing”. I’d have to agree here. I’m not religious myself but this pic n mix approach to theology, from a distance, looks like playful habit, like putting out a mince pie for Santa’s reindeer at Christmas, rather than getting to the crux of anything spiritual. Not that I see anything wrong with this and nor would I cite it as causing the Japanese be miserable (which I don’t think they are).One wonders how Gill would see the role of religion (or lack thereof) in Japanese society now at time when increasingly vocal atheist intellectuals, lead posthumously by Christopher Hitchens, are proscribing less religion as a cure to the world’s ills (sometimes citing Japan as an example of how good things could be).  Still, it’s a lack of religion, or at least genuine spirituality, that is at the core of Gill’s further biting observations about the Japanese and their society; the lack of individuality where a person’s only self worth comes in the form of a job but that same job existing in a culture of work that is based on a fear of shame.In one of Gill’s more interesting observations about Japan he is informed that there is, “worryingly”, no indigenous word for the female orgasm. “Worryingly” sets the tone for the following passages about Japanese attitudes towards sex, femininity and a male-dominated society. He attacks the vanity of the Japanese male; “Hairdressing, waxing, face-packing, ear-grouting and general pandering and pampering to aesthetic hypochondria are multimillion-yen businesses.” But this pales in comparison to his anger at the treatment of women in Japan which he writes is on display in the “dehumanizing view of women in manga”. Now, anyone who’s kept at least one ear to the news in Japan over the last couple of years will have heard the term “womenomics”, prime minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign to address gender inequality. How this is getting on, I would be lying if I said I knew. There are those who will likely see it as empty promise as there are those who will likely cite success stories. One thing that we can be sure of though, is that womenomics has done nothing to address the distressing treatment of the female characters in manga. If Gill were able to come back to Japan today, 16 years on, he would see little change in the nation’s comic books.  Earlier this month, Japan passed a new law regulating underage schoolgirl dating services which now prohibits girls younger than 18 from being employed by “JK businesses”. (JK - joshi kosei - high school girl). That it’s taken until 2017 for the powers that be in Japan to even “regulate” such a nefarious industry should send a shiver down our spine. Gill made a similar observation in 2001 in what he described as “the violent sexualising of their youth” when talking about the behaviour of younger girls in Japan. The consequence of this, he cites, is that “they consume; they shop with myopic concentration.” And this is true to a certain extent - the Japanese do love a good shop. It had never occurred to me that in a certain demographic of shopper the reason behind it might be so depressing.By the end of Mad in Japan we’re hoping / thinking that maybe Gill might surprise us and say something positive about Japan. He doesn’t. In fact he arguably saves his most brutal observation for last;“You never feel love here. They have obsession, yearning and cold observation - even beauty and devotion - but nothing is done or said with the spontaneous exuberance of love … “.Clearly Gill only spent a short time in Japan (he openly admits in the book’s introduction that he doesn’t stick around) and I’m fairly sure that most people who’ve spent a good bit of time here could categorically show this "lack of love" to be untrue. I know that I can. And anyway, I think I can detect a sense of genuine care and concern in Gill’s words here, although I would speculate that he wouldn’t want to admit to this. Gill thrived on getting his readers wound up and seemed not to care about seeking sympathy or agreement.  “Mad in Japan” is only about twelve pages of a book, but it’s possibly the most unique twelve pages I’ve read about Japan, anywhere. I don’t agree with half of what AA Gill says and I know he’s trying to wind me up, but none of this stops him being laugh out loud funny. All of “AA Gill is away” is a great read. Just take it with a pinch of salt.I’d really like to know what books about Japan you’ve read and if you’ve got any recommendations.

  • Living

Summer BBQ at Kasai Rinkai Koen - meat, veg and human getting grilled

Those of us in the Tokyo area (and elsewhere maybe) have been emphatically reminded over the last few days that summer is here. Temperatures and humidity in Tokyo are now such that even the act of sitting still has taken on the form of something that equates to a “task”. And the bad news is, rumour has it that this summer in Japan is set to be the hottest / sweatiest for a number of years. Brilliant! Now, back home having weather presentable enough to fire up a BBQ is one of life’s finer pleasures. Here in Japan serious questions should be raised about an entire nation dishing out more heat via hot charcoals. In fact Japan’s summer BBQing season could be taken in more ways than one, in so far as it’s not just the purchased meat and veg that is being cooked.  I sent a picture to a mate back home of our BBQ prep yesterday at Tokyo’s Kasai Rinkai Park - bench sheltered from the brutal sun with a bit of a canopy and a well scuffed, grass free patch of baked earth. He responded by saying it looked like I was in Africa. A crass stereotype maybe but a BBQ in Japan’s summer temperatures has the potential to become something of an urban softie way out of their comfort zone type of deal.  (BBQ spot reserved)Actually, Tokyo’s largest park might seem a fine place to enjoy the robust pleasures of grilling meat in the outdoors, being situated as it is along the shores of Tokyo Bay. You can always be sure of a stiff sea breeze at Kasai Rinkai Koen. The problem is, much like a BBQ pit itself, the park’s BBQ zone sits in a kind of dip surrounded on all sides by trees and foliage, perfect for trapping in the heat!Add to this a throng of people, their corresponding grills and a whole load of beer and you’ve a recipe for someone needing an ambulance. In all seriousness, yesterday’s bash with some friends of the partner clocked in at around five hours between 11:00 and 16:00 - the hottest part of the day. This becomes something of an endurance test during which it’s imperative to have some time in the shade and drink that which doesn’t have alcohol in it, at least from time to time.  (The Japanese BBQ grill)Still, a BBQ is a BBQ - a great opportunity to bring people together. Japan does BBQs really well. Yes, the meat lacks a bit of girth and substance. Yes, there will be groups of students where the lads contort into all sorts of shapes as they try to impress girls who’ve turned up to the bush in their finest high heels. And yes, you will be desperate to get back home and have a shower. All of this aside, a BBQ in Japan is somehow a comforting reminder of the warm bosom of home (or maybe it’s just me) and a great way to break the ice with the locals.At one point I did slip out of the party to have wander around the park. In my beer / heat induced haze I confess to having snuck in a ice cream (for medical purposes you understand) and spent most of the time loitering around some kind of photography club consisting of middle-men who seemed to have ‘rented’ some young models (girls) to pose whimsically in front of their massive lenses (not a euphemism - the lenses really were massive).  When I got back to the party someone had broken out a packet of marshmallows to heat up over the dying embers of the BBQ. A touching tribute to me, I was told, as it’s not something they would normally think to do in Japan.Kasai Rinkai Koen ImagesThe BBQ zone at Kasai Rinkai Park comes with all the kit you would need to fire up a BBQ. There are benches and tables, canopies can be rented, toilets are nearby and there are taps/sinks to wash things in. Staff are on hand to help out with recalcitrant charcoals and also to help get things set up. Bring all your food supplies with you though as the park is massive and some distance from the nearest supermarket. Kiosks in the park sell beer at expensive prices and there’s a convenience store by the train station (Kasairinkaikoen - Keiyu Line) which will sell out of items on a busy summer weekend.(Kasai Rinkai Koen BBQ washing situation)

  • Food
  • Tokyo

Annie at The New National Theatre Tokyo

My Golden Week in Japan kicked off in highbrow fashion with a trip to the theater. OK, so a musical production of Annie perhaps doesn’t qualify so well in that regard but it’s certainly an improvement from YouTube or a Tsutaya DVD rental. It had been years since I’d last ventured into a theater, and upon being invited to see this production of Annie at The New National Theatre Tokyo I had flashbacks to childhood trips to see pantomime with my parents and sisters at Christmas. As for the story of Annie, even though I must have seen one of the movie versions a number of times over the years, all I could recall of it were the “Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” chorus and a few bars of ‘Hard Knock Life’, (although that’s largely thanks to Jay Z rather than the original musical). A cursory bit of research for this blog post revealed that Annie goes back to an American comic strip launched in the 1920s, Little Orphan Annie, itself based on a poem written in the late 19th century. Apparently, a musical production of Annie is an annual event in Japan. This year’s ‘Annie’ seems to have something to do with Nippon TV among others, notably furikake maker Marumiya (丸美屋). In fact this is where we got our free tickets from; friends who’d sprinkled enough furikake on their rice over the months that they’d collected the requisite numbers coupons to send off and win a prize (four tickets to Annie, in this case). The freebies continued after the show with Marumiya (丸美屋) goodie bags handed out to all audience members. The New National Theatre Tokyo opened its door to the public in the late 90s. It’s a modern looking structure, all straight edges and sharp corners, decorated outside with minimalist water features. The facility is right outside one of the exits of Hatsudai Station, near Shinjuku. Not that I’d know, but people say it’s a world class facility, and the theater homepage talks of being Japan’s only national theater dedicated to opera, ballet, dance and drama. Our Annie show started at 12:00 pm. I would say nearly half of the audience were yet to enter their teenage years. (The kid sat next to me had breathing that was so nasal I initially thought they’d fallen asleep and were snoring). The production was broken down into two sittings (70 mins / 50 mins) with a 20-min interval. During the interval a small bar/cafe counter sold teas and coffees (400 yen), as well as wine and beer (too early). Profiteroles and ice cream were 500 yen. As for the production itself, well, I’m a musical / theater philistine so am really not the best audience member to pass judgement. Anyway, it was fun. The big song and dance numbers had all the requisite pizzazz and ‘jazz hands’, and the cast could certainly belt out a tune. Despite being in Japanese, the Annie story is simple enough that any language barriers were fairly negligible. Between the main numbers I was struggling a bit, and my bum started to get numb a good 20 mins before the interval. As for the cast, I’m told there are one or two ‘celebs’ in there, but they meant little to me. The part of Miss Hannigan (the drunkard who runs the orphanage) is played by Brazilian / Japanese actress and singer Marcia, and I have to say, she was brilliant, a jittering, wobbling whirl of drunk energy and sex appeal. The show is worth it for her alone. The production has two Annies (as well as two, rotating teams of child cast members, as I guess is required by Japanese law). There are two dogs, also. I don’t know whether our’s was Oz or Munroe. Whichever it was, I’m assuming the barking was improvised rather than scripted. I’m trying to think if there were any noticeable cultural differences between the Japanese musical experience and that from back home, but non jump out. Everyone clapped in the right places, and there was the usual encore to show off, and shower applause on, individual cast members. The Annie production at The New National Theatre Tokyo runs until May 8. Tickets are 8,500 yen (inc. tax). Programs (Japanese) were 2,000 yen. After the Tokyo shows, Annie is touring Japan during the summer … Osaka Umeda Arts Theater: Aug 10 - 15 Sendai Tokyo Electron Hall Miyagi: Aug 19 - 20  Nagoya Aichi Arts Center (Big Hall): Aug 25 - 27  Ueda (Nagano) Ueda Santomyuse: Sept 3 Annie (Japanese): WebsiteNEW NATIONAL THEATRE TOKYO: NNTTMap 

  • Living
  • Tokyo

Yakiniku party for two

The Japanese display a giddy fondness for the 'insert food here party'.  Said gathering might involve but two people and the title food, however, if you call it a party, it's a party.  Although it's really not.  Anyway, what's in name?  And who cares what it is when it involves yakiniku, the theme of tonight's, errrm, 'party'. Off all the things that Japan has 'borrowed' from other countries, be it language, Zen state of mind, medicine, engineering, green tea, English teachers, cheesy weddings ... the Korean form of barbecuing meat has to be my favourite.  It's typically something I'd go out for (there's a Gyu-Kaku near the crib, and a thousand other yakiniku joints near work).  Sometime's of a Saturday night though, you just can't be bothered to go out.  For those times when the lethargy hits then, you want to get yourself a hot plate combo.  Like this ... ... so that you can have yakiniku from the comfort of a sofa.I've used the hot plate for a number of Japanese classics; yakisoba, shabushabu, sukiyaki, and winter-warmer staple, nabe.  All fine dishes, even when subject to these culinary-stunted hands, but all of them pale in comparison to yakiniku.For tonight's 'party' for two, we hit up the local supermarket and walked out with a bumper-size pack of 牛肉バラカルビ / gyu-niku bara karubi  (1280 g for around 500 yen - fairly cheap), 250 g of ホルモン / horumon (intestines and other normally unwanted bits - 200 yen), and some cuts of American 'prime' beef (331 g - 1,000 yen).  If this sounds expensive, it could have been so much more had any of tonight's beef come from Japan. We flavoured the カルビ with a cheap yakiniku sauce before 'BBQing' it, and finished it off with a one-time-serving packet of ジャン(焼肉んのたれ) which I'm told is much fancier.  For the sake of adding a bit of veg to help 'process' the meat, we threw in some cabbage, pumpkin, and mushrooms.  OK, so the hot plate can't really compete with open flames and hot coals, but it does a pretty sterling job nonetheless, and remains a legitimate yakiniku option.  It doesn't half stink out the apartment though!!NB; the volume of meat in today's yakiniku party was just about too much for us to get through comfortably!

  • Food
  • Chiba

Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition, Roppongi Hills , Tokyo

Roppongi Hills has always been a good spot for photo ops, to which the recently opened Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition (マーベル展) adds another. In the grounds that surround the base of the monolithic Mori Tower there’s nearly always a temporary feature of some kind, be it a market, a promotion, flower beds, Christmas trees, or an army of Doraemon. The photo fun continues inside on Hillside 2F, where you can often find small displays, at times purely promotional (fashion brands, chocolates) and at others a mixture of the two, Halloween being a good example of the latter. And if there are no temporary features to snap, there’s always Tokyo Tower.   From Friday the Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition kicked off at Tokyo City View on 52F of the Mori Tower. The exhibit features 200 pieces from the Marvel world with characters past and present on display alongside movie props and costumes. The exhibit promises not only to look at the Marvel characters as heroes, but also as conflicted beings with their own struggles. Staying on the theme of struggle; if you’re struggling with the contents of your wallets, you can cop a free look at some Marvel kit on Hillside 2F. In a small but impressive display you can see large-scale Marvel hero figures of The Hulk and Iron Man scrapping it out, and cabinet displays of a whole host of characters from the Marvel ‘verse. Of course, it’s all a teaser to get you into the real exhibit another 50 floors up, but still, it’s freebie. A Tokyo life hack, if you can stand the phrase. (Staring contest, anyone?)The actual exhibit runs until July 25 Open between 10 am and 10 pm Entrance 1,800 yen Marvel Age of Heroes Exhibition Website: For something similar, I went to Tokyo's first Comic Con back in Dec. 2016.  You can see some pics from that in the post below:Tokyo Comic Con 2016: Cosplay and kit in images

  • Living
  • Tokyo

Atago Shrine can keep its stairway to promotion, I like the peace and quiet at the bottom.

There’s a sequence in the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation, in which Scarlett Johansson drifts around some of the temples and shrines there. The camera rarely takes its focus off her and there are few people in the background. The light is kind of dusky and the song by Air that guides us through the sequence completes the feeling of her (and thus the viewer) being alone. I’ve always liked this section of the film but I’ve always been sceptical about it, too; one could possibly feel lonely in Kyoto, but it would be hard to find yourself as nearly alone as Scarlett Johansson does at the city’s big temples and shrines. The marquee attractions of Kyoto are many things, but a place to seek solace probably isn’t one of them. I’ve always wanted that kind of moment though. Amidst the madness of Tokyo, where I live, that kind of quiet in the surrounds of ancient Japan isn’t immediately obvious. You have to seek it out. But how would you know where to look? I certainly didn’t and although I got myself that moment, I wasn’t looking for it. Especially not at Atago Shrine (愛宕神社 Atago Jinja) near Toranomon Hills. Atago Shrine commands a certain presence in Tokyo; it sits on the highest natural hill in all of Tokyo’s 23 wards (a somewhat laughable 26 m), and has an old stone staircase that is a steep lung buster. Shrines are nothing without their legends. Atago Shrine’s bash at spiritual marketing tells us that if we give those stairs a climb we’ll be successful in our careers. I gave it a go. These legs felt far from successful after the climb, but we’ll see how the career gets on. At the top, the shrine displays the usual fixtures and fittings. Between trees in the small grounds skyscrapers and fancy apartment complexes loom. Befitting of its claim to hand out promotions, Atago wasn’t short on visitors. (Promotion!)(Demotion!)It’s just south of Atago, down the hill, that you can perhaps find yourself a quiet moment. A very quiet one, like I did. In the grounds of Seisho-ji, a Buddhist temple that was so quiet I wasn’t sure I should have been there (and so quiet it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, or not one that I could find). Whether or not I was out of bounds poking around, it turns out I don’t care. It was a rare pleasure having a place like this all to myself. Pottering around the nooks and crannies, the expansive courtyards, annex buildings, and gardens with no sign of anyone around I did what I’ve come to do all too rarely in this city; spent more than just a few minutes without plugging into some kind of portable device, checking for messages, drinking coffee, smoking, ogling some lurid signage, or thinking about work. I recommend it to others. During the Lost In Translation sequence, there’s a moment when the camera draws away from Johansson to focus on a small wedding procession. It’s another part of the sequence that troubles. I know we’re supposed to look at that and think how beautiful, exotic, and simple it is. How Japanese it is. But I have a hard time doing so. I’ve been here for a while now and that kind of misty-eyed nostalgia about those ‘Japanese’ moments I find hard to come by. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time of late on that bloody Atago stairway. So, it came as a surprise to get it back for a while. Note; I suppose I could look into finding out more about Seisho-ji, and maybe one day I will. For now though, I’m happy enough with my experience of it thus far. Around Atago Shrine ...Around  Seisho-ji ... 

  • Living
  • Tokyo

Cold, wet, and windy Kujukuri. Feels like home!

If I can help it, I refrain from the checking the surf forecast for the weekend until some time on Friday. I do this out of fear. If it turns out that there will be no surfing over the weekend, I’d rather not know about it until later. The prospect of work without the reward of surf is more than I can be bothered to bare.    Sometimes you just have to go and give it a try though, even when wind charts are telling you to spend your Sunday morning in bed. It’s a daft form of denial I suppose, especially when it’s going to drag you out of bed at 4 am and into the cold and wet dark. Still, one of my favorite things about getting up for a surf is stealing out of the city on empty highways with a good CD playing in the car. It’s one of the few times I listen to music through speakers. There are indicators I look out for on route to the beach in Chiba which give me some idea of what the ocean will be like. The first is a river seeping into Tokyo Bay. From the bridge I check the surface of the water; if it’s glassy, that’s a good sign. Today it was a little bumpy, but not really giving too much away. Of course, it’s not until you actually lay eyes on the ocean that you know if you’re going to be surfing or not. There is, however, one more advanced indicator that is rarely off; the old geezer that attends to the car park by the beach. This morning he greeted me, “Daijoubu kai?”. A kind of eyebrow raised, Are you alright?. Not a good sign (we still can’t see the ocean at this point). Then he nailed the coffin shut, “Ki wo tsukete ne!”.  Take care, alright!.  Now, he only ever says that when the ocean is rougher than a hangover. So there and then I knew that the surf was likely a no go. (Don't know what he's looking so happy about!)This morning I probably should have turned around immediately and headed for home. I decided to hike around for a bit and get soaking wet, instead. This kind of weather reminds me of home though (even after plenty of years in Japan, it still isn’t home) and it felt nice to be out in it. The scruffy desolation of a Japanese beach outside of season and in grotty weather also has the look and feel of mid-winter seaside resorts back home. In the end, despite getting soaked to the bone, I enjoyed snapping some pics of beach (sorry, this is the Fudodo area of Kujukurihama, by the way). I took these with my pretty out-of-date iPhone (Are they ever in?) and played around with some filters when I got back. Kujukurihama, Chiba on a foul Sunday morning then: (Wind swept)(I snapped this as I was racing back to the car to save from getting any more wet)(The other side of the road that runs parallel to the beach; houses that look like they've seen better days)

  • Living
  • Chiba

Why are there no Japanese surfers on the Championship Tour?

In the summer of 2015 Hiroto Ohhara (大原 洋人) became the first Japanese surfer to win the U.S. Open of Surfing held at Huntington Beach, California. To put this into some kind of perspective, it’s a sporting achievement akin to, and as unlikely as, Leicester City winning the Premier League (only with far less money involved). In front of Huntington Beach’s arena sized crowds (some of the largest in surfing) Ohhara saw off a field in 2015 that, as always, was full to the brim with the usual mob of Australian, American, and Brazilian surfers, all seasoned competitors, tour veterans, and heavy wave chargers. In that victory Ohhara jumped from No. 81 to No.13 on the World Qualification Series tour and thus was in spitting distance of qualifying for surfing’s elite tour for 2016. He would have been the first Japanese surfer to do so. His amazing win and his name barely made a ripple here in Japan. Ultimately he didn’t make the elite tour in 2016 and now in 2017, Japan is still waiting for representation on surfing’s top tour, the recently name-changed World Surf League Championship Tour.(Surfer, unknown, Huntington Beach, California)I’m writing this now because the above-mentioned tour recently wrapped up the first of event of the year at Australia’s storied Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast. It’s a sports event that likely had plenty of Japanese among the spectators given their penchant for study breaks and surf in that part of the world. But there were no Japanese competitors (men or women) for them to cheer on and I want to contemplate why this might be so?Why even ask?There are plenty of nations that aren’t dining at surfing’s top competitive table (nearly all of them, in fact). A cursory glance at the ‘Top 34’ reveals a blur of Australia, America, Hawaii, and Brazil. The one’s that stand out do so exactly because they are not part of that triumvirate; France, South Africa, Portugal, Tahiti (French Polynesia), and Italy (yes, Italy). So why should Japan appear on this list?Well, it may come as a surprise, but in industry terms, outside of those countries that dominate competitive surfing and the surf industry as a whole, surfing in Japan is likely at the upper echelons of any list of ‘the best of the rest’.  I’m just looking at my The World Stormrider Guide for some numbers. It lists Japan as having some 200,000 ‘waveriders’ (compare that to Australia - 1 million, America - 800,000, Brazil - 500,000). This was in 2004 (when the book was published) but if you’ve ever been to Shonan on a warm weekend, you’ll come away thinking 200,000 is a conservative estimate at best! Surfing is popular in Japan, and it’s understandable; Japan loves a hobby, especially all the kit that comes with it, and plenty of people here have the expendable income to get involved. On top of this, much of the population of Japan has relatively easy access to the surf. And the industry is acutely aware of this."... it might further raise the eyebrows to know that the country has a pretty rich history of hosting elite tour events."If it came as a surprise to hear that surfing is popular in Japan then it might further raise the eyebrows to know that the country has a pretty rich history of hosting elite tour events. History being the key word here. In fact, on what was formerly known as the ASP World Tour, the beaches of Chiba were a regular fixture. I was lucky enough to have been ‘in country’ to catch the tail end of these fixtures at the 2005 Quicksilver Pro in Hebara. That year saw surfing legends Andy Irons and Kelly Slater in a final that would spark what surfing often refers to as one of the greatest rivalries in sport. It was an amazing final held in great waves, but even an epic showdown between the two in front of a large local crowd wasn’t enough to keep Japan its place in the future of the sports elite competition calendar.  "What chance or right of a Japanese surfer getting on a tour that doesn’t even come to these shores?"It wasn’t long after 2005 that the ASP changed the elite tour format to what it called the ‘dream tour’; a concept that would forgo the crowds and a pandering to sales / numbers in favor of putting the best surfers on the planet on said planet’s best waves, regardless how remote they may be. That fewer spectators would make it to the events was of little concern given that these things were now streamed live on the Internet to armchair surfers around the world (something that TV was unable to do for the industry). A combination of the best surfers on the best waves sounds good, but for surfing in Japan, it was a blow to the credibility, and it also meant that Japanese surfers would miss out on the wildcard spots given to locals at each event (in this respect there have Japanese surfers at least making cameos on the elite tour). There’s an undermining mentality here, too; What chance or right of a Japanese surfer getting on a tour that doesn’t even come to these shores?(Image: tonko43 Flickr)Japan has crap wavesThis would seem to be a safe argument to make. Japanese surfers don’t make it to the top because they haven’t grown up in the right waves. It’s true to a certain degree. Few would argue that Japan is a world class surfing destination although there are plenty of waves here. Good ones, too. But with warmer waters, cheaper prices, and easier communication available on this side of the globe (I’m thinking Australia and Indonesia), why would the holidaying surfer bother with Japan?  The quality of wave argument is further undermined when we look at Kelly Slater, the Michael Jordan of surfing, and one of the most successful athletes of all time. 11 times World Champion Slater was schooled in the breaks of Florida which, temperature and abundance of sharks aside, are probably comparable to Japan in terms of power and quality. In fact, Florida has produced a whole bunch of word class surfers, and it’s often cited that growing up in such waves makes a surfer hungrier and better able to get the most out of conditions that aren’t always ideal. So why can’t the same be said of Japanese surfers?Is it the money?Maybe it’s an issue of funding? Perhaps surfers in Japan aren’t afforded the support from organisations or sponsors that surfers in say, Australia, are getting? Make no mistake, getting to the top of this industry requires a lot of travel and simply doing well in contests won’t come close to picking up the airfare tab. No, a surfing talent needs financial backing, and few people are willing to invest in something that has no record of bringing a financial return. Ohhara may have won one of the biggest contests in surfing but people with stuff to sell remain unlikely to be able to do it through his name power. On top of which, what the surf industry is selling is a lifestyle. An unobtainable one for most, but one that panders to dreams of the simple and slow life; of beaches and waves, padding about in sand wearing board shorts and bikinis. Of casting aside the rat race race in favor of a simple home, a garden, and epic waves. All images that are hard to find over here, especially when you consider the backdrop to many surf spots in Japan as being heavy industry and unwanted land.(Huntington Beach crowds, 2010.  Image: YoTuT Flickr)MentalityI’m clutching at straws here but I’m wondering if there’s a mental aspect to this. Have you ever felt that people over here are quick to assume an overly humble position on their supposed lack of expertise or ability to do something? I’m being vague because I can’t pinpoint a specific example, and there are plenty of things in which the Japanese have an almost jingoistic sense of pride; food, for example. But with something like surfing it falls into that category of, Well, they do that much better somewhere else, and we’ll never get to be as good, so that’s the end of that. Maybe it’s an overbearing sense of futility that is holding the nation’s surfers back.Awareness"... in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the industry’s money-makers probably soiled themselves with joy."Awareness is a double-edged sword for surfing. Those that make money from it, of course, can’t get enough. Those that do it for fun, take to awareness with all the enthusiasm of a Monday morning. Make no mistake though, Japan is about to become far more aware of surfing. And the same for the world of surf’s potential in Japan. When the decision was made to include the sport in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the industry’s money-makers probably soiled themselves with joy. ‘Imagine the sales!!’. Whether not the waves turn up for the 2020 Olympics is for others to have sleepless nights about (and they will), but you can bet your favorite board the event will spark a new generation of surf enthusiast here in Japan, as well as give some of the local pros a chance to rub shoulders with the best. A successful event and a decent showing from ‘Team Japan’ could well result in better funding Japanese surfers in their bid to reach the top.  How close are they?The World Qualification Series is a bit like surfing’s J2. It’s a dog fight around the globe to scrape and scrape for enough points to qualify for the elite Championship Tour. The World Surf League’s homepage ranks the surfers on the 2016 ‘qualification’ tour. I’m looking at it now, and can see some 1239 athletes listed on the mens side. If I haven’t missed anyone out, I can see Ohhara as the highest ranked Japanese surfer for 2016 at No. 78. He’s followed by Shun Murakami at No. 92 and Hiroto Arai at No. 98. On the women’s side, we can find Reika Noro at No. 48, Nao Omura at No. 51, and Ren Hashimoto at No. 64, all out of 391 athletes ranked for 2016. So the women seem to be faring much better than the men. Actually, these are pretty impressive numbers in the global context, but given that the men's’ elite tour has room for only 34 and the women's’ only 18, there is still some way to go for the Japanese surfers.(In my happy place!  Although this isn't actually me.)Again, why?"... participation from Japan’s elite amongst the world’s elite would add credibility to my own status as ‘surfer in Japan’"I suppose that Japan has become my ‘second team’ in many sporting disciplines, and although surfing doesn’t really lend itself to sporting patriotism (it is, ultimately, a very solo and personal pursuit), it’s nice to see the people around you do well. Far more than this though, participation from Japan’s elite amongst the world’s elite would add credibility to my own status as ‘surfer in Japan’. It’s pathetically shallow, I know, but I can’t help myself. For years now I’ve been saddled with an image of someone who’s spent their entire life behind a desk, rather than a well travelled surfer. And yes, this bothers me! The eyebrows raised in surprise that I’ve spent anytime in the ocean wilds, the blanks looks at the idea of Japan have a surf scene (and that I might be a part of it), were once a source of self-deprecating jokes, but have now become a mild irritation. Perhaps having Japanese surfers dine at the sport’s top tables will add a bit of credence, however limp, to my own fragile belief that I am a surfer in country that, to some degree, is known for having surf.If you're interested in surfing in Japan (beyond questions about why Japanese surfers don't compete in the Championship Tour) maybe this would be a good place to start with my posts about surfing:An Introduction To Surfing In Japan

  • Living

Ground raw beef on rice - Tokachi gyu-toro flake don

We ate this dish in a tiny place somewhere on the backstreets of Tokyo.  It was one of two items on the lunch menu.  The item we had intended to eat, a kind of lamb-don dish (grilled lamb on rice) had sold out.  The menu was written in Japanese only and it was one of those situations you often have over here where you feel the pressure to order and do so without knowing what it is you're ordering.  In this case, it turned out to be the dish in the images; 十勝牛トロフレーク丼 / Tokachi gyu-toro flake don.  Essentially ground raw beef on rice.  The Japanese have a taste for all things raw, but beef hit the headlines a few years ago over here after diners had died from eating raw beef dishes in cheap yaki niku joints in other parts of Japan.  Is 1,300 yen cheap?  Because that's what we paid for this.  I had thought that the above incidents had lead to bans on serving raw beef in restaurants in Japan, but given that our Tokachi gyu-toro flake don was being served without a seeming second thought, maybe the bans are restricted to certain dishes (or maybe the proximity to warm qualifies it as cooked of a kind).  Anyway, my friend and I were the only diners left in the restaurant so it would have been awkward to leave full dishes behind.Taste wise, these things are rarely as bad as one fears.  With warm rice and oily meat 'flakes' the overall effect of this dish was buttery smooth, warm, and with that dull tang of raw meet (the 'tang' part might just be a mental thing of eating something that for year's you'd been told would kill you).  Anyway, it was fine in the taste regard.  And you get a raw egg, incase things aren't raw enough for you.I had to look up the Tokachi part; apparently Tokachi is a 'sub-prefecture' of Hokkaido Prefecture in the North of Japan.  I also learned that the dish 'Tokachi Gyu-toro Don' (the 'flake' part is absent) was entered into the 4th Japan Local Bowl Dish Competition held in Tokyo in 2012.  I don't know how it ranked, or even if it was that kind of competition.   I won't be eating it again unless circumstances dictate otherwise.  Not out of a great fear or because it tasted particularly bad.  I just wasn't taken by it that much. 

  • Food

Counting the cost of surfing in Japan

One of the worst things about being a surfer in Japan, or any nation for that matter, are those days when there's no surf. Even worse than this are those days when close study of swell, wind, and weather charts tells you that they'll be no surf of a Saturday morning so you wake up late. But then you flip on the webcam out of curiosity only to find that there is, in fact, surf! It sounds petty (and it is) but it's enough to make a surfer weep.  So it is this Saturday morning that I find myself making matters worse by doing a bit of surf kit itinerary check and reflecting on how much it costs to go surfing in Japan.The timing isn't completely arbitrary. Last month I picked up a new wetsuit to get me through Japan's winter surf. After a session last weekend during which I could no longer feel the tips of my fingers and a case of 'ice cream' head that made it a bit tricky to focus, I promptly went out and bought gloves and a hood/cap. I was hoping to give them a run out today. Anyway, I'll add this to some of the other surfing bells and whistles that make up my surfing in Japan kit and wince at how much all of this has cost me. Starting from the top ... Wetsuit cap/hood I picked this up from a Murasaki Sports in Shin-Ochanomizu. They seemed to be having a 20%-off sale on a lot of their surf clobber (maybe a January sales thing). This is a 'large' size cap/hood from TABIE REVO (no idea). It's 3mm and has an extended neck that can tuck into the wetsuit. I felt like a complete plonker trying it on but it slipped on like a favorite sock and certainly feels warm. It's a little tight on the jaw but hopfully that'll prevent the teeth from chattering. Cost: 3,680 yen (with tax) Gloves Same store, same brand. 'Large' size. Black with a rather loud purple lining. These are 3mm. I recon I've got pretty winter resistant hands. I never wear gloves in day-to-day-life so I'm confident that I won't need to step up to 5 mm. Cost: 3,440 yen (with tax) *Surfing in Japan hack: I got 2,000 yen off the above due to points aquired from the purchase of the wetsuit below. Wetsuit I picked this up in December from a store called The Suns, again in Shin-Ochanomizu. The Suns has some sort of relationship with Murasaki Sports and they'll give you a point card that you can use in both. I'm not one for shopping around, it bores me stupid. I went in, said I had a budget of around 50,000 yen and was looking for something that could keep me surfing in January, maybe February, and then back again in March, in the central/north Chiba breaks. The kind worker picked out this Super Freak by O'NEILL. It's 5 mm on the legs and body. 3 mm on the arms. I love it! It's really easy to paddle in, gives me at least an hour of super warmth before things start to get a little chilly, and is nice and easy to slip on. The same can't be said about getting it off at the end though. Also, at 3 mm, the arms aren't the warmest. Still, I'm really happy with it. Cost: around 52,000 yen (with tax) Booties I don't know why we have to call them 'booties' instead of just 'boots'. Mixed feelings about these booties from Feel. I've had them for a few years now though. They start off warm but they don't half let a lot of water in. I can feel them weighing me down at the back end of a session. They're a nightmare to take off once you get back to the car. I have to 'peel' in stages which is the last thing you want to be doing when your freezing to death. Cost: It was a long time ago, but I think around 5,000 yen The stick I got this from a large secondhand store near the beach in Chiba (not one of the 'OFF' chain). It's a 6,2; a great all-round board for this part of Japan. It cost 15,000 yen. I've not idea how old it is but it works like a dream. Along with my smartphone (depressing, but yes), laptop, and electric blanket, it's one of my most valued possessions. The picture was taken in Bali (but I wish Chiba looked like that). Cost: 15,000 yen Leash The old one snapped last month. Just old age as, luckily, the waves that day were little tiddlers. I got this leash/leg rope from a local store here in Urayasu, Chiba. It's by CREATURES OF LEISURE. It's a 'standard' thickness and 2 m in length. I like the 'quick release' pully thing and the bright blue color. Cost: 5,000 yen Board bag A trip to Bali on an LCC airline forced me into buying a new, more streamline, board bag. I detailed that in a post here. The bag is from TRANSPORTER. It's light and slim and can only handle one board. I got it from The Suns. Cost: 7,000 yen Kit bag This was a gift, and I love it. It's got a water proof and insulated lining. The showers at my regular surf spot are cold so I can fill up some bottles with hot water and in this thing they'll still be nice and warm when I'm out after a session. Cost: It was a gift so rude to ask. Anyway, this is years old now but I found similar items online for around 5,000 yen Trinkets Key holder - can't remember and given the above costs, negligible Hot gel - 2,000 yen Board wax - 280 yen I've started so I might as well carry on with this cost of surfing in Japan business. Travel costs I'm about a 45 min drive from my regular break. I use one toll road/highway which costs me 880 yen (with an ETC card) one way. I'm not exactly sure but the buzzy little 'k car' Daihatsu that I drive requires about 4,000 yen to fill the tank with gas and I can squeeze four beach trips out of that. Parking is 500 yen (at the beach). While a lot of my Japanese surfer counterparts are lighting up pre-surf cigarettes I'm trying to give this spindly frame of mine all the help in the water it can get. Every morning before setting out I buy two packs of energy gel (weider ENERGY IN), a 4-stick pack of Calorie Mate, and packet of biscuits, all from the local Family Mart. This comes in at around 600 yen. On the way back I make a stop at a highway service station to ditch the rubbish and down a can of vending machine coffee (130 yen - it's a highway service stop after all). The cost of surfing in Japan: Budget summary Kit Wetsuit cap/hood  3,680 yenGloves3,440 yenWetsuit52,000 yenBooties5,000 yenThe stick15,000 yenBoard bag7,000 yenLeash5,000 yenKit bag5,000 yenTrinkets3,000 yen (est)Point card discount- 2,000 yenTotal: 97,120 yenTravel ...Highway tolls1,760 yenGas1,000 yenParking500 yenSnacks and coffee730 yenTotal: 3,990 yenOver the course of year, maybe I average four surfs a month and two bars of wax (summer / winter) Total: 191,520 yen Absent from this list are ... a very old, and thinner, wetsuit: 30,000 yen board shorts (they're redundant right now and are packed away somewhere): 7,000 yen the first board I bought in Japan (which I no longer use): 30,000 yen a car (not necessarily an essential for surfing in Japan, but this is more than likely going to be the case): not saying - this will make my eyes water I had though that doing this cost of surfing itinerary check was going to make me puke but the totals are actually not as high as I feared. Don't get me wrong, I could be buying a couple of flight tickets home to see the family with this, and around 4,000 yen for a surf session seems high. However, one could easily drink 4,000 yen away weekly in weekend drinks (which I rarely do). No, for me, surfing in Japan is emphatically worth it. In fact, I'm not sure I could put a real price on it. Well, no, I probably have a limit but I'm not sure where that is and given that work prevents me from surfing on weekdays, I'm unlikely to find it right now. Anyway, I hope this has helped any prospective surfers in Japan get an idea of how much it costs and what kind of surf gear you can get over here with what kind of money. More of my surfing in Japan stuff ... An Introduction To Surfing In JapanThe Best Surf Shops in Tokyo

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  • Fuji Q Highlands

    The best theme park in Japan

    Yes, Disneyland and Disney Sea in Tokyo may have the better attention to detail and more places to eat but when it comes to roller coaster and thrill, Fuji Q Highland wins hands down in my opinion.  When I visited (a few years ago) the park was a little scruffy around the edges but the roller coasters more than made up for it.  And it's right, slap band in front of the mountain.Where Fuji Q does fall down when compared to places like Disneyland or somewhere like Universal Studios is in terms of access.  The park is quite a long way from major urban areas so getting here can take a good chunk out of your day, or leave you facing the prospect of a slog back home when all you want to do is relax in front of the TV.Still, the best theme park in Japan in my opinion.

  • Little Venice in Tokyo

    Interesting little spot in an even more interesting part of Tokyo

    Jiyugaoka must be one of the nicest neighbourhoods in Tokyo.  This 'Little Venice' area is just a couple of minute's walk north of Jiyugaoka Station, going up a bit of a hill, it's on your left off of the road.It's a very small area but is quite pretty, although coming here expecting the Grand Canal will only lead to disappointment.  The collection of businesses here is a bit random - there's an expensive leather goods store (COCOMEISTER) and a pet store (Loasis) where I think you might be able to set and have a coffee with the pets in tow.I think a lot of people come here for a quick look around and to have their photo taken in the "Venice in Tokyo'.  Worth a quick look if you're in the area but I don't think "Little Venice" stands up to repeat visits, besides which there's much more going on in Jiyugaoka.

  • Takeshita Street

    Great fun or a nightmare depending on your mood

    I agree with the previous review; unless you're a bit of a specialist shopper for "Harajuku" styles (or you want to eat the crepes) Takeshita Dori is going to be more about the atmosphere and the chance to sample some Japanese pop culture.  Outside of the specialist stuff, there's little reason to come here for daily-life shopping, although as I remember there is (or was) a pretty large 100 yen store. On a personal note, there's a Murasaki Sports about halfway down Takeshita Dori as well as another branch just across the road from the street entrance / exit as you're heading towards Omotesando.You don't necessarily need to limit yourself to the main thoroughfare with Takeshita - there are one or two little side streets to explore.The reason I said about this place potentially being a nightmare is if you come here on a weekend / holiday and you aren't in the mood for crowds or slow moving people or which this street is full of, and if you try to rush, you'll only get more annoyed.  Better to avoid the place all together if you're in that kind of mood.Otherwise, this is a great place to explore if you haven't already and should probably be on most Tokyo itineraries.  

  • Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

    Classy park with lots of space but a bit formal

    I've been to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden on a number of occasions.  Undoubtedly, it's a very nice park to look at and is well kept.  In fact, it seems odd that a park like this should be located in Shinjuku.  It doesn't really reflect the atmosphere of this part of Tokyo.I think Shinjuku Gyoen would be a nice place to go on a date, or bring along visiting elderly parents to Japan (like I did).  It's very civilised in that way.The 200 yen entrance fee seems a bit snobbish for me.  I feel like a park is somewhere that shouldn't have an entrance fee.  Still, maintaining the manicured condition of this place must take some doing, so I understand the need for the extra money.Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden isn't really place to mess around, and play sport.  Better to go somewhere else in Tokyo for that.  I've been here during the cherry blossom though, and it was pretty chaotic.  If you want to get your own picture of Japanese people feverishly taking pictures of petals, this is a good place for that.A nice place for a one-time visit or a special occasion, but as a regular, go-to park in Tokyo, look for somewhere else, that's free.

  • Cascade Cafe Ana Intercontinental Hotel Tokyo

    Great hotel lunch buffet in central Tokyo

    When you do an Internet search, something along the lines of 'lunch buffet ana intercontinental tokyo', the top search comes out with a title the prefix of which reads 'Best Buffet in Tokyo'.  A bold claim indeed, still having once spent a night at the ANA Intercontinental I wouldn't have been surprised to find that the hotel staff know how to lay on a good spread.Lunch buffets at the Intercontinental are served in the 2nd floor Cascade Cafe in the main lobby of the hotel.  It's a pretty grand setting for a spot of lunch.  Presumably 'cascade' comes from the designer 'waterfalls' that occupy the center of the lobby.  A grand piano and cello sit on a elevated stage at the top of a sweeping set of stairs, and the floors of the hotel rise up around you.  Cascade Cafe itself is all subdued tones (greys, beiges, browns), the table seating is comfortable (there are some booths), and there is an army of staff flying around like cabin attendants.The weekend lunch buffet is listed as 3,980 yen, but this is without tax and service charge.  Throw in a soft drink and it comes out as 5,000 yen on the nose.  It's a about 500 yen cheaper on weekdays.  The food is mostly Western; pizzas, roast beef, burgers, roast / steamed vegetables, breads and cheeses, stews, pastas, and paella.  Of course, there are the staple salads (but we're not here for them, are we?), and there was a smattering of Indian influence with chicken tikka, and some form of curry.  Desserts at these things are usually a bit of a let down, but the buffet at the Intercontinental did a pretty sterling job here.  If you're a fan of macaroons, then this buffet is a must.  You can stuff yourself silly with the things in a number of different flavours, and the way they are laid out and decorated will remind you of the time you watched 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' as a kid.  The soft cream here comes highly recommended (although I didn't try it), and I was a fan of the touch of having jars of the Jelly Beans from which you could scoop out handfuls.  There are also three or four chocolate (and other sauce) fountains that kids will love, as well as jelly, panna cotta, pudding (the Japanese kind), cakes, and little tarts. Teas and coffees at the Intercontinental lunch buffet are all you can drink but you have to order them from the wait staff.  As I understand it, you can bring your own bottles of wine, if you wish.The lunch buffet is for 90 mins.  There are two seatings; 11:30 am and 1:30 pm.  We were at the 1:30 sitting.  People starting waiting in line around 15 - 10 mins before hand.  Reservations are a must, I would think.  We made ours the evening before after finding that our first choices for a hotel buffet lunch in Tokyo were all booked up (a lot of these places require reservations before 5 pm the day before).  Anyway, the Cascade Cafe is a nice setting for a good hotel lunch buffet in Tokyo, the food is very nice, the desserts particularly good, and the whole vibe pleasant and friendly (although you can sense the tension of people waiting to be seated so as they can maximise their time at the buffet).  Ultimately though, this buffet luncher will never learn that I don't really have the stomach to get the best value for money out of these things (I was starting to labor after the second plate, before even getting onto the dessert). The ANA Intercontinental Hotel Tokyo is central but not really in a happening part of town.  It's in the Akasaka area and the quiet Ark Hills is next door.  We accessed it from Tameike-sanno Station on the Ginza Line.  From the hotel it's also possible to walk to places like Roppongi, and Toranomon (good for getting that lunch through the system).

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