Halloween in Japan


Halloween has only recently become a cultural phenomenal in Japan. Masses of young adults have started to dress in costume and party the night away, to the confusion of many onlookers. On Saturday night in Hiroshima there were numerous “cosplay” competitions, culminating in a parade through Hondori shopping arcade. Meanwhile at school, I’ve been informing the students on Halloween as a part of “English culture” though no-one seems particularly interested, me included. Like the many people I’ve overheard discussing the meaning behind the festival, I can’t help but feel that it’s completely meaningless and just for corporations’ pockets.

My Halloween memories aren’t of real note. To be brutally honest, my family and I never really celebrated it. As a child, I never went trick or treating because I didn’t see the point. If I wanted sweets I would ask Mum, whose answer would always be “No!”. Anyway, we’d carve a pumpkin, give chocolates to the few children that came knocking on the door and maybe watch a “scary” film on TV. But we never went anywhere near the extent that some Brits and Americans go to. When I went to university we’d hit the bars and clubs in stupid outfits, but that was about it. The common image of Halloween was never of its historical/ religious origins, but of children, sweets, pumpkins and company profit margins.

Here in Japan, it’s suddenly become a recognised event that has prompted stores to put up Halloween decorations amongst the early Christmas ones. Company brands like Pocky, Kit Kat and Starbucks offer “limited edition” goods based on the festival, usually pumpkin related. However the concept of trick or treating has and will likely never catch on, unless it’s in predetermined and organised events. The thought of children knocking on strangers’ doors in a country known for its conservative values and sometimes disturbing attitude towards children, isn’t a reassuring one. Instead, young adults have started to indulge in the enjoyable side of Halloween.

I spoke with one of my teachers about it all. Last year, her family were invited to the Iwakuni US Marine Corps Air Station’s festivities. Her children liked it so much that she’s been drafted into organising a small-scale version for her street. She’s been emailing neighbours, sending letters and instructions to friends in order to coax them into participating. My mother would never do anything like that! When asking other teachers, they seemed to be under the impression that Halloween was just an opportunity for companies to make more money from selling costumes and goods.

Speaking of costumes, Don Quixote, a store in Japan that practically sells everything, is the go-to place to buy Halloween stuff. Walking through their temporary “Halloween Section”, you’ll find the usual fake blood, prop and decorations. But one thing you’ll notice is that most of it is aimed towards an adult audience. The usual outfits are there; Where’s Wally?, Mario and Cinderella. But then you entire racks dedicated to the raunchy, “sexy” versions of innocent Disney characters, nurses, dominatrixes and school girls. It’s all rather uncomfortable and very off-putting.

It’s clear that Japan’s youth uses Halloween as an opportunity to dress up in something fun, and party. But I still don’t get Halloween’s purpose. I understand the historical nature of it all, but it’s current cultural form is one that is bewildering and utterly pointless. If it’s to scare people, then the barrage of news story and stuff online that we watch is far more scarier than the £10 costume someone made. If it’s for the sole purpose of acquiring chocolate, isn’t that the point every holiday (Easter/ Christmas). I guess it’s more for the kids. It’s a time when children can pretend to be their favourite monster and roam the streets causing mischief without feeling out of place. Yet here in Japan, it’s just an excuse to dress like a zombie and drink too much. So for now, I’ll watch John Carpenter’s The Thing or Halloween, gorge on my girlfriend’s homemade pumpkin pie and lay on the couch. Happy Halloween? 

Experiencing Earthquakes in Japan


Last Friday afternoon, the western part of Japan experienced an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 6.6 on the Richter Scale. The quake didn’t cause much damage and there wasn’t any loss of life, but it certainly made for an exciting couple of minutes. Since moving to Hatsukaichi this year, I’ve had been fortunate to have endured two of them. The other was the one in Kumamoto Prefecture earlier this year, that made global news. Maybe it’s a warning sign from the gods. Anyway, I’m not one that falls into a frantic state of panic, so while the teachers and students quickly hid under their desks, I remained in my chair and amazed at what was going on. It never occurred to me that there was a possibility of the school being swallowed into the pits of hell. It was an entertaining interlude to an pretty ordinary afternoon.

Of course being British, the concept of an earthquake is one that I’ve only studied. My geography lessons in secondary school followed case studies of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and San Francisco’s in 1989 to explain the impact of natural disasters. That’s not to suggest that England doesn’t suffer the odd shake, but nothing of the magnitude felt in Japan or in California. I recall once getting ready for school in the morning, when my mother asked if I had felt the earthquake the previous evening. I blankly stared, trying to determine if it was a genuine question. When I did get to school it was the only thing anyone was talking about. So it’s fair to say that I’m still a newbie when it comes to earthquakes, aside from what I’ve read in book.

Unbeknownst to me, Japan rarely acknowledges the magnitude scale. Instead it uses the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale (similar to the Meracalli scale), which designates a ranking based on intensity rather than size. The highest rank is a 7 which involves the ground cracking, the countries infrastructure grinding to a halt and the arrival of Godzilla. Last week’s earthquake measured around 3 or 4 here in the Hiroshima area, whilst it was 6 nearer the epicentre. My experience was limited to shaking clocks and the odd files or books falling from shelves, the work of a poltergeist. 

With the precarious geographical and meteorological nature of Japan, the country is well-prepared for most disasters. It’s a nation that has been learning from its past tragedies and developing new technologies and methodology towards them. For example; earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides will immediately activate an alarm system that is sounded through everyone’s mobile phones. It’s a nifty system, though it’s all in Japanese which was slightly worrying the first time. Gas is mostly supplied to housing via stand-alone tanks instead of dedicated gas pipes. Skyscrapers and other buildings, like my schools, have structural reinforcements and measures that mitigate the likelihood of collapse after a sudden jolt.However the abundance of overhead power lines doesn’t strike a sense of safety if a serious earthquake was to occur.  It’s all very efficient, co-ordinated and reassuring (except for the power lines). 

The day after the quake, Japan continued as though nothing had happened. Earthquakes occur on a regular basis, so you just get used to them. Mind you, the screaming/ panic never really wanes. In fact, if you check the “Earthquake Information” tab of the Japanese Meteorological Office, there’s bound to have been one just a couple of minutes ago. Exciting stuff.

Autumn Has Arrived

This past weekend I volunteered to participate in the local akimatsuri (Autumn festival) at a nearby temple. Alongside some other fellow foreigners (mainly from Thailand, China and Vietnam), we carried and shuffled around with a mikoshi on our shoulders. Meanwhile elderly people “sang” the latest pop tunes to give thanks to the gods and usher in the new season. Autumn, or Fall, has finally arrived here in Japan to my delight. It’s my favourite time of the year, not simply because the temperature is manageable, but because another beautiful side of Japan is revealed. The Japanese maple (momiji) leaves change from the greens of Spring and Summer, to the browns, reds and oranges of the new season. At the same time, the rice fields turn vibrant shades of yellow right before the harvest starts. Closeup camera-shots of hands brushing against rice and wheat in fields of gold come heavily to mind. Even the unfortunate haze that plagues the scenic landscapes dissipates due to the cold breeze and fresher conditions. Now when I travel to work, I can clearly see across the bay and see Miyajima from the train.

That being said, the temperature has turned perfect. While Japanese people start to complain about “being too cold” and “missing summer”, I saunter along comfortably with a smug look on my face. The temperature is a manageable 20°C, which is still pretty mild by British standards. Of course with any sudden drop, Japan determines that the heating systems in public transport and retail establishments needs to be set on high power. Sogo Department Store in Hiroshima is by far the worst culprit. Therefore choosing clothing becomes a challenge of foresight and awareness. You don’t want too many layers, so I usually stick to three (jacket, hoodie and t-shirt) until the winter months. My unfortunate, but occasionally useful, thick layer of body hair offers sufficient insulation to constitute another layer just in case.

Of course, Autumn and Winter are the seasons associated with “comfort eating”. The ice-cream and cold soba season is over, and in comes sukiyaki and warm soba. I tend to indulge in my sweet tooth during this time with Japanese sweet potatoes and zenzei (sweet bean soup). In conbinis (convenience stores), warm cans/ plastic bottles of coffee and tea can be bought alongside oden, and hand warmers. The selection at vending machines starts to include warm coffee, tea and even soup. Meanwhile restaurants start to serve tea instead of iced water, alongside toasty hand towels.

The season also sees many Japanese people taking advantage of three-day weekends to visit the likes of Nara and Kyoto. My girlfriend and I are travelling to Kyoto during the month of November. We’ll be in the middle of an annual migration as people flock there every year to see the famed autumnal colours and traditional aesthetics. While Tokyo is the hectic, metropolitan heart of Japan, Kyoto is the other, symbolised by tradition and serenity. The combination of historical temples and shrines with the maple trees and fallen leaves, is quintessentially Japanese. Kiyomizu-dera is lit up by night illuminations, while Kinkaku-ji and Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji are surrounded by the autumn foliage making it a photographer’s dream. Yes, it’s fair to say that Autumn in Kyoto is a special sight to see. But for now, it’s time to dust off the kettle and break out the Yorkshire Tea I’ve been saving from my last trip home. Put the shorts and summer clothes into their storage space, and put on the hoodie. I will enjoy it while it lasts.

Japan and the “SUPER TYPHOON!”

Typhoon Chaba starts to hit Japan

It’s a stereotype, but a genuine observation that British people love to comment on the weather. In fact, talking about the weather is probably the easiest way to start a conversation with anyone. We even ask the students “How’s the weather?” every single class, even though nobody gives a flying toss. Yes, here in Japan it’s no different. My daily conversations with the Japanese teachers often begins with “The weather’s really nice today” or “It’s too humid and hot”. I guess it’s a subject that everyone can make a simple observation no matter your level of Japanese or English comprehension.

Today was slightly different from the usual remarks as “Super Typhoon” Chaba landed on Japan’s mainland. During the months of August, September and October, Japan and the rest of East Asia are bombarded by tropical storms and typhoons spawning from the Pacific Ocean. As a British person, heavy rain, strong winds and grey clouds are a formality that we’ve simply adapted to, not that watching the BBC news or reading the Daily Mail would suggest. So when it comes to typhoons, earthquakes, landslides and heavy snowfall, it’s all a bit foreign to me. But I’ve managed to survive so far. I think that’s in part to Japan’s well-organised and efficient coverage, warning and response systems. For example, I occasionally get the local alarm/P.A system screaming about the impeding doom that awaits us from earthquakes, typhoons and the Autumn festival taking place on the weekend. There’s even a detailed log of all the tropical storms on the “2016 Pacific Typhoon” wikipage.

Of course like the Daily Mail and the BBC, “extreme” weather is the source of 24/7 news courage. Back home, reporters standing in the rain, or in a puddle, or at the bottom of some slippery stairs have been deemed to be genuine journalism. It’s exactly the same story in Japan. Flashy graphics, holograms and cute, cartoon mascots attempt to inform the populace about the dangers and horrors of 60mph winds. Television studios have also implemented sidebars that give live updates on the typhoon during their scheduled programming. Watching a period, samurai drama with dramatic pictures of flying debris and the words “SUPER TYPHOON” plastered on the side, is quite a sight. The worst has to be the miserable reporters standing outside the studio offices in Tokyo, while light drizzle starts to fall. Meanwhile the typhoon lies wait in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Utterly pointless, and further showcases Tokyo’s omnipresence in everything Japanese related.

Of course, with aggressive winds and heavy downpours, schools are required to take precautions and inform their students and parents of possible closures or safety implementations. I work in  what happens to be the toughest educational district on the planet. Here the bosses are not ones to close their doors for some mere “Super Typhoon” or three metres of snowfall. The sight of a student battling against the elements is seen as a sign of determination, strength and maturity, instead of the health and safety nightmare it would be back home. I myself don’t have the sheer determination and willpower to wade through flooded streets and dodge oncoming debris just to get to work. Understandably, neither do the teachers or students. This morning, the majority of the teaching staff were expecting a day off, only to find themselves at school at 7:30 preparing lessons. Meanwhile the students gazed out the windows, analysing every detail of the weather and wind speed. Some of them enquired about the possibility of closing school early due to the distressing nature of the clouds. The school principal wasn’t having any of it, and we were amusingly ordered to close the curtains.

In the end, it turned out that with all the super-computers and digital simulations, the Japanese Meteorological Agency incorrectly predicted the typhoon’s path. Thus the “Super Typhoon” didn’t really affect the Hiroshima area. At 2:00pm, it’s predicted arrival, it had turned into a cloudy and slightly breezy day. In fact, I’m currently finishing this blog post on the train, and the weather is warm, mid-twenties, and the sun is shining. “Bloody weather.”

Update: Unfortunately news has broken of storm-related casualties in South Korea.

It’s The Small Things: Pubs

During my first year in Japan, it became clear that I really missed the “pub culture” of home. That’s not to suggest that I’m a heavy drinker. On the contrary, since graduating from university my alcohol intake has drastically decreased. Even more so since I moved to Japan. Instead, I miss pubs as a place to meet friends, play darts, watch sports, and drink a couple of pints. Pubs are one of the most historically important, and iconic institutions of British culture, history and way of life. Famous writers, events, and figures have emerged from their walls. They’re such a quintessentially and intrinsically British thing that whenever I mention my nationality, most Japanese people understand the concept of one.

During my three years at university, my friends and I would go to our “local” three or four times a week, drink beer, chat about random things and watch the football. My clubbing days lasted a year and a half at most. After that I just couldn’t stand the atmosphere, music and the clientele. I just didn’t see the point. To dance? To shag girls? To drink? Yeah, while other students chugged cheap vodka from bottles and lay comatose on the dance-floor, we’d move from one pub to the next, “sampling” ales, talking about nonsense and going to our local Turkish eatery at the end of a night. That was always a solid night out. After finishing university, I used to go drinking with my dad and his friends. And after a Sunday shift at work, I’d go to the pub with my workmates to watch the football and attempt to throw darts. In fact, some of my fondest memories have occurred in pubs, which may seem rather underwhelming.

Sure Japan has “Pubs”; Irish/ English versions with flags, pictures of the queen and leprechauns, and serving Guinness and Bass (the first foreign beer to be sold in Japan). Like any cheap imitation, they lack the certain atmosphere and charm that those back home have. Everything feels fake, they’re always playing crappy music too loud, and a pint of anything costs the equivalent of seven British pounds (so….London prices). The Japanese equivalent would probably be an izakaya. Essentially an establishment where office workers and businessmen drink, smoke and chat about their wives, while indulging in Asahi SuperDry and a variety of fried goods. After which, said wives complain about their lateness and them wasting money. I can definitely see the comparison, but it’s a different style of culture.

I guess I’ve grown into a bit of a snob when it comes to pubs. I probably take after my father in that regard. He avoids chains such as Wetherspoons, preferring more local establishments where the choice of drink isn’t reduced to Fosters and Strongbow. He’s fortunate to now live in York, where there’s a decent pub on nearly every street. Lucky him. But this genetic “pub snobbery” has definitely influenced my reaction to Japan’s attempts at “British Pub Culture”. Maybe I should but my criticisms and cynicism behind, and give them another go.

My university local “Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem” in Nottingham