The world of (Japanese) work

We perceive Japan as a nation of hard-working people who have successfully taken the best ideas of the Western world, engineered their features into new products which they have sold back to the West.

As I survey the trappings of my existence, I see a Canon camera, Sony television, Toshiba travelling lap top, and a Honda motor car (yes, my Honda Accord Euro was made in Japan, not in Thailand, China or the US).

If I can sum up in three words what my Japanese-made items represent to me, they would be ‘performance’, ‘value for money’ and ‘reliability’.  I imagine that my products would have been made by workers steeped in the culture of ‘Just in time’, a system of production that does away with storage of unused inventory, and ‘Kanban’, a demand-driven scheduling system that delivers signals to replenish components required at a particular point along the production chain.

Yes, Japan has been terribly clever over the past several decades.  But at what cost?

Apparently, some employees work so hard that they have died on or from the job.  Examples include a worker who died from a heart attack at the age of 34, having worked a 110 hour week.  Another was a bus driver who had worked more than 3,000 hours in a year without a day off in the 15 days before had a fatal stroke at 37.  A third was a 22-year-old nurse who died of a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty five times a month. Just 22 years old.

If ‘karoshi’ or ‘death by overwork’ had become a social problem by the 1980’s, then so had ‘karojisatu’, or suicide resulting from overwork and stress.  In the period 1997 to 2011, compensated cases of karoshi and karojisatsu rose from 47 to 121 and from two to 66, respectively.  Long work hours, heavy workloads, lack of job control, routine and repetitive tasks, interpersonal conflicts, inadequate rewards, employment insecurity, and organizational problems were some of the underlying causes of workers having taken their lives.

The phenomenon of worker suicide has spawned a game of the same name.  At each of the fifty stages of the game, players are presented with a new challenge, the final stage involving a fight with the boss.  The goal of each level of play is – you guessed it – to self-destruct.  And make sure that you have fun while killing yourself.

Japan is not taking the problem of overwork and worker suicide lightly.  Some measures to combat their effects include:

• Reducing working hours and overwork.
• Providing adequate medical support and treatment of work-related stress.
• Encouraging dialogue between workers and management to implement healthy and efficient work practices and places.

Such measures, however, take a while to gain traction.  In the interim, what does the Japanese worker do to manage the effects of working too hard?


Having a snooze is the obvious solution.  And what better place to do that than on a train?

As I travelled the Tokyo metro, I noticed that most of my somnolent companions were in the seated position although I did catch a few grabbing a bit of shuteye while standing up.  I have read that some workers will resort to sleeping on train floors, but am a bit sceptical about this; there is little enough floor space available on a peak hour train for standing, let alone lying down.

Of course, there is nothing remarkable about falling asleep on a commuter train.  I have given in to the Sandman on Sydney’s City Rail network on more than one occasion, usually as a result of the twin effects of the train’s rhythm and the amount of alcohol imbibed during a long lunch.  My state of slumber has occurred after lunch time and usually towards evening.  And that’s where I found an interesting variation in Japan: many workers slip into slumber during the morning peak.

Plausible explanations abound for this state of early morning drowsiness: a young child unable to sleep through the night, a late night on the town, the cumulative effect of a weeks’ worth of hour-long commutes, overheated trains.

But is it enough to power-nap on the train?  Apparently not.

Being asleep at work and, by extension, on trains, is a statement about how hard a person works and is a measure of respect for that person.  There is no shame in falling asleep at work.  This is the mark of an employee who works so hard that they have no time to sleep at home and must therefore sleep at work.  It is both Legitimate and Good. There is even a word for being asleep at work, ‘inemuri’, which means ‘sleeping while present’. And it comes with a set of rules:

• The (sleeping) worker must sit up and look engaged, ready to wake up at any moment and do something useful.
• If you’re the boss, sleeping at work is a sign of confidence as it shows that the company can’t do without you.

Sleeping at work is not a practice that is exclusive to Japan.  A couple of weeks ago, my husband remarked that he’d passed an employee in another section of the office who was fast asleep at his desk at lunch time.  I too have succumbed while at work.

My first job out of university was as a town planning assistant at a large Cape Town local authority.  My desk was partly obscured by a floor to ceiling partition, visible only to a couple of other employees who had cause to pass my space en route to theirs.

My lunchtime ritual involved a half hour walk around a few city blocks followed by a quick snack of my pre-packed lunch and a  half-hour nap on the floor behind my desk, my body contorted to minimise detection and with half an ear on alert for a superior’s footfall.

I wasn’t the only one.  The only reason I knew about my co-conspirator in sleep was because his feet protruded from under the table he used as camouflage.

Unlike our Japanese counterparts, there was no way that we would have dared fallen asleep sitting at our desks.  That would have been to invite firm rebuke for napping on company time, irrespective of how much or, in our cases, how little work we had to do.  And while dozing on the job wasn’t a sackable offence (the  only way to guarantee that fate was to be caught with one’s hand in the till), it wasn’t something that was going to help ones’ campaign to climb the corporate ladder either.

If anyone saw us, they never said anything.

But I always wondered why I never got that promotion I applied for.


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And would you like wrapping with that?


Where gift wrapping in the West appears to be a random affair, rules and customs govern the way a product is wrapped in Japan.

Colour and style of wrapping determine the symbolism of the contents.  For example, red connotes strong positive emotions whereas pink, orange and red and white together suggest happiness.  Paradoxically, white is a common colour for brides… well as at funerals.  One of my favourite colours, purple, is indicative of privilege, wealth and nobility.

An odd number of pleats in wrapping symbolises joy, while combining two different materials reflects the yin-yang that represent the interconnected and interdependent forces of the natural world.  Asymmetry is common and is considered more visually appealing in Japanese culture.

There are two main gift wrapping techniques:

  • Tsutsumi or Origata, and
  •  Furoshiki.

The first method almost exclusively uses paper to wrap packages.  The paper – which can be handmade – is never cut, but pleated, folded and tied.  It may be simple or complex, but in all cases results in something beautiful to behold.

The aim of this method of wrapping is not to hide the gift, but to enhance its shape and hint at the contents.  For example, high quality tea leaves are often given as a present in Japan.  When wrapping black tea, red paper inserted in a slit on the top of the package, then overlaid with a film, provides a glimpse into what is inside the package.

Paper wrapping, however, has its downside.

In 1992, Japanese urban residents threw away roughly 37.6 million tonnes of garbage or more than 1.1 kg per head per day, a large part of which was generated by an excessive amount of wrapping.  It’s not hard to understand where this is coming from.  As an example, gift cartons of biscuits may be individually wrapped inside their boxes, tucked in corrugated papers inside a plastic bag in a tin or box, covered with wrapping paper and then presented in a shopping bag.  Basic grocery items like fruits, even single carrots, often come individually wrapped in cellophane.

Furoshiki (which means ‘bath spread’) is a technique of wrapping a gift with fabric.  It dates back to feudal times – late 12th to early 17th Century – when this style was used for carrying clothes to the bathhouse.  Merchants adopted the style to carry, protect and enhance the appearance of gifts and today furoshiki is popular for birthdays, weddings or everyday shopping.

Due to its flexibility, furoshiki is suited to various shapes and sizes of packages.  And because it is cloth based, it can be recycled for future use.  This attribute has made it very popular with the Japanese Ministry of Environment which has been keen to find creative ways of tackling the mountains of waste arising from used wrapping.

The magnitude of the problem – and the opportunity to solve it – are demonstrated thus: using a furoshiki instead of a 10-gram polyethylene plastic bag prevents 61 grams of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, making the reusable furoshiki a winner in the battle against climate change.  Apart from its wrapping function, furoshiki cloths also have decorative qualities and can be used as wall hangings or cushion covers.

Notwithstanding these laudable attributes, furoshiki wrapping is not yet a common sight in Japan.  However, it appears to be gaining some traction with younger people for whom both environmental and fashion considerations are important.[1]

At various points along the way, we put the passion for gift wrapping to the test.

Beneath this wrapping lies a humble packet of sweets.IMG_3961

The contents of this pretty plastic bag….


……include a small foil sachet of bouillon, a metal container into which the bouillon can be decanted and the vendor’s business card.


I don’t often walk past the chocolate counter without at least eyeballing the display.  This box of chocolates was wrapped in a single sheet of paper with several folds, secured with a piece of sticky tape…..


…..then dropped into this carry bag.


All this wrapping for a $5 box of chocolates??  Is it really worth it?  Do the chocolates, packet of sweets and bouillon taste any different for having been presented in this way?

While green shoots may be appearing in the bid to drive down environmental waste from wrappings, from our brief observations Japan still has a long way to go.


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Basement delights

When I saw the basement food hall of the Bon Marche department store in Paris 10 years ago, I thought that I had died and gone to heaven.  If a temple to food existed, then surely this was it.

Turns out, I haven’t seen anything yet.

Cut to the end of our morning visit to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.  After we’ve finished gorging ourselves on the visual feast of seafood, we wander back towards the Ginza.  Our path of travel takes us right to the front door of the Mitsukoshi department store, one of the Ginza’s most glamorous stores.

We take the escalators to the clothing and accessories floors.  M – like a few other men I know – has a relatively low tolerance threshold for inspecting fashion items so I suggest that we might both be happier in the basement.

He agrees without hesitation.





The displays are mesmerizing.

The only thing that stops me from taking more shots of the food offer is an advancing store attendant who politely, but very firmly, asks that I desist.  So I do.  I don’t want a scene in one of the Ginza’s finest stores.  Or risk public humiliation for a few souvenir photos.

Of course, there are many other basement food halls in Tokyo as well as elsewhere in Japan.  And while I am chastened by my experience of having been ticked off as a food papparazza in Mitsukoshi, I can still inspect – and buy – the wares.

This sight greets us across the tracks of Shinjuku station every morning.

Takashimaya has its origins in early nineteenth century Japan, when the first shop to sell kimonos opened in Kyoto.  Today, Takashimaya is one of the largest department store chains worldwide.  In addition to its Japanese stores, it has a presence in Singapore and Taiwan.  For six days, we become two of its regular customers.  Its name rolls off my tongue as if spoken by a local.

The Shinjuku store is no mean affair at 15 floors.  It has everything you’d expect from an upmarket department store, including three restaurant floors.

And a basement food hall.

We’ve read in the Lonely Planet Guide that a good time to stock up on some of the freshest and most affordable sashimi is after 6 p.m. when prices are slashed and the crowds start to dissipate.  Sashimi is not the only item that is discounted; we also find salads, chicken and pork skewers, and various other prepared foods at up to 30% off the regular price.




A sample of our discount take away dinners from Takashimaya.  Note the little ice packs that are included with every food purchase to ensure maximum freshness between store and home.

After only a few days in Japan, we start to have cheese cravings.  Dairy is not a natural feature of the Japanese diet, but you can get cheese at the department stores, even if some of it is rather on the expensive side.  We do not find any discounted cheese.  Ever.


A red cheddar from the bottom end of the price range.


This one is a little dearer and has been bought, together with a baguette, for breakfast on the onward journey to Yudanaka the following day.

Unfortunately, we forget to take it out of the fridge before checking out.  As we await our shinkansen at Tokyo station, we mourn our loss and the prospect of a depleted breakfast.

From hereon in, we switch to locally made yogurt.  It tastes good and is healthier, cheaper and more versatile.

Best of all, it’s still dairy.


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Museums and musical interludes

I suspect that most visitors to Matsumoto spend a few hours hiking up and down its five tiered Castle then head out of town.  Some of them probably don’t even spend the night there.

With two nights in town, we had the luxury of time.

A visit to the Matsumoto Castle Museum added to our already burgeoning knowledge of mediaeval weapons of mass destruction.

Is this a cattle prod or something intended to deter the enemy?  Or both?


I am reliably informed that the character of Darth Vader revealed itself to George Lucas when he saw this display.


It wasn’t long after we arrived in Matsumoto that I started hearing things.

I can chart my first singing pedestrian crossing experience to an otherwise unremarkable intersection one block back from our hotel.  The example here is from Kyoto, but the tune is exactly the same as the one I heard in Matsumoto.  Apparently one can see – hear? – them in Tokyo as well.

This is a Sydney equivalent [1].

I’m sure it works just fine and has saved many a visually impaired person from almost certain death or serious injury.  However, did its designers have to make it sound so….well…..pedestrian?

Much as they need all the help they can get, this post is not a pitch for making Sydney’s pedestrian crossings easier on the ear.

The next instalment of my favourite Australian designed products from the 1980s continues on with the transport theme.

The pedestrian button, found at a pedestrian crossing near you, was designed in 1984. But it is really the product of research and development done in the 1970s in response to public pressure on government.

In 1967 a member of the public asked the NSW Department of Main Roads (DMR), now the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA), to introduce pedestrian traffic signals he could hear. At a city crossing, the RTA installed some bells and buzzers on both sides. Blind pedestrians were meant to cross when the buzzing sound replaced the ringing. Unfortunately they found that when the bells broke down they sounded like buzzers, which could cause deadly confusion in blind pedestrians.

The next version, installed in 1976, had a two-rhythm buzzer and included a vibrating panel to touch, because many vision-impaired people also have some loss of hearing. This new device was developed by acoustic and vibration engineers Louis A Challis and Associates. It had two different signals for ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’, and the sound level was automatically lowered in response to background noise, reducing annoyance to people living near a crossing.

In the early 1980s Sydney consultants Nielsen Design Associates were asked to redesign the device to make it vandal-resistant. The new unit was made from cast aluminium with vandal-proof fixings. The large magnetic button (tested to withstand millions of pushes) is easy to find and push. A Braille arrow on the vibrating plate indicates the direction to cross. Listen to the different ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk’ sounds here.

More than 25 years later, the pedestrian button is still working well, and has been used in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, South Africa and the USA.

– See more at:


The clock on this building’s exterior is the largest pendulum clock in Japan.  Its host is the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum which has over 300 other timepieces spread across three levels.

Chikazo Honda – not to be confused with Soichiro Honda who founded the motor cycle and car company bearing the Honda name – donated his collection of old Western and Japanese timepieces in 1974.  The collection initially found a home in the Matsumoto City Museum.  As it grew with the contribution of other clocks, the search for new premises began.  In September, 2002, the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum opened its doors to the public.

The collection includes clocks from Japan, Europe, England and America, dating from mediaeval to modern times.  A third of them are working.

Fascinating as the clocks are, the highlight of the museum has nothing to do with time at all.  Almost obscured in a corner of the top floor is a collection of old gramophones.  At scheduled times, you can hear them play.  And as luck would have it, our visit coincides with the 11 a.m. “performance”.


We settle into a sofa in front of the cabinet.

An attendant emerges, unlocks the glass cabinet and opens up one of the gramophones.  He studies our profile for a couple of minutes then removes three records from their sleeves. He gives a brief introduction to each piece in Japanese.  We recognise the names Finlandia, Chopin and Strauss, and little else.  The last piece, much to M’s delight, is The Blue Danube Waltz.

After 15 minutes of listening to the seventy eights scratching away, the gramophone is closed and the cabinet locked.  The attendant disappears with a bow.

We wander down the street filled with music.  But we’re not done yet.  As we walk back to our hotel, the singing pedestrian crossing is in front of us.


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[1]               The YouTube videos of footage in Kyoto and Sydney are courtesy of MickeyTheFixer (9 July 2006) and MissChristina (2 April 2013).

A pile of junk or a global treasure?

We had booked our flights to Japan almost nine months in advance.

It was only thanks to our alert travel agent, Daisuke Mizukoshi, of Pitt Travel in Sydney, that we discovered that our original itinerary would have meant travelling during one of the busiest times of the year: Golden Week.

Dai advised us to reconsider our travel plans to avoid the two weekends of Golden Week.  That was unless we were happy to stand for hours on trains.  We were not.

As we watched Kyoto fill up with visitors two days before the start of the first weekend, we were relieved to know that we would soon be in Nagasaki.  Even if it meant spending the day getting there, using two shinkansens and a local train for the last leg to Nagasaki.

For most visitors, Nagasaki is synonymous with the dropping of the second – and much larger – atomic bomb on a Japanese city on 9 August 1945.  And while one cannot visit Nagasaki without looking in on the affected sites and memorials to the devastation wreaked by the dropping of Fat Man, there is much more to this city and its environs than reminders of World War Two.

For much of its history, Nagasaki was Japan’s only link to the outside world, playing a significant role in Japan’s development as a modern nation.  Europeans began settling in the area from the mid sixteenth century and by 1570, Nagasaki was an active trading port with first Portuguese, then Dutch traders and finally British entrepreneurs making their mark.  Luckily, much of this European influence survived the atomic blast and evidence of its presence can be seen in the reclaimed island of Dejima and the restored buildings of the Dutch Slope.

But fine as these European accented treasures of the past are, it is on a rather more unusual piece of potential heritage that I wish to focus.  And you can find it on an island in the East China Sea about 40 minutes by boat from Nagasaki.


Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, is thus named for its outline when viewed from a distance.

The island’s real name is Hashima and its primary purpose was to harvest coal from underground mines.

The Hashima mine commenced operations in 1887 and closed in 1974. By 1916, the island’s population had reached 3,000 and the first of many reinforced concrete apartment blocks was built to address the shortage of housing space as well as to withstand cyclone damage.

Larger concrete apartment buildings followed suit, resulting in 30 such structures being crammed on the island.

Wartime demand for coal saw production peak at 410,000 tons in 1941.  The war effort was assisted by the forced participation of Korean and Chinese labourers, many of whom died as a result of harsh conditions and insufficient rations.  By the close of World War Two, 1,300 labourers had died on the island, some in mining related accidents and others from illnesses related to exhaustion and malnutrition.

After the war, production continued apace forging the tools for Japan’s recovery and later on the munitions required for the Korean War.

At its peak in 1959, the island was home to a community of over 5,000 people, living at densities of 835 people per hectare.  To put this in some context, Australia’s most densely populated suburb, Pyrmont, contained 139 persons per hectare in June 2012.

Jostling for space among Hashima’s high-rise apartments were all the activities associated with urban living: schools, kindergarten, gym, movie theatre, pinball parlour, restaurants and bars, supermarkets and other retail shops, hospital, sports grounds, Buddhist and Shinto temples.  Even a brothel.

The quality and size of living quarters – provided free of charge, along with electricity and water – mirrored the status of occupants.

Single miners and employees of sub-contracting companies lived in older, one-roomed apartments of less than 10 square metres, with a window, door and entrance foyer.  Occupants shared communal kitchen and bathroom facilities.  Married workers fared slightly better; they were allocated two rooms, but still with shared amenities.  High ranking office personnel and teachers could enjoy two bedroom apartments with kitchens and flush toilets.  The mine manager had the pick of the crop: a wood constructed residence with wide open views.

Some things weren’t available on Hashima.  Motor cars were non-existent, nor were they missed.  However, the absence of soil worked against the development of a sustainable food supply, with the resident community having to depend heavily on the outside world for food and other staples.

A hard-fought campaign to grow fresh produce on the island resulted in the importing of soil from the mainland in 1963 for rooftop gardens.  These not only gave residents fresh vegetables and flowers, but a semblance of “green space”.

The pleasure of being able to source locally grown produce, however, was short-lived.

As petrol replaced coal as an energy source in Japan in the 1960’s, coal mines began closing down throughout the country.  Hashima’s mine closed in January 1974 and the last resident left in April of that year.

This is what the island looks like today.  If you’ve seen the movie, Skyfall, these images will be familiar to you.













A steady trickle of journalists started arriving in 2005 and the ensuing media exposure culminated in the opening up of Hashima – or Gunkanjima, as it is billed in the tourist material – to visitation in 2009.  Due to the dangerous condition of the island’s buildings – several of which have collapsed – visitors are restricted to a specially constructed walkway and viewing area where oen corner of the island can be inspected.

Apart from its Skyfall credentials, Hashima has featured in various documentaries such as the History Channel’s Life After People and the 3D production, Forgotten Planet, which discussed the island’s current state, history and unauthorized photo shoots by urban explorers.  It has been a magnet for photographers and a unique setting for commercials.

In 2013, Google sent an employee to the island with a Street View backpack to capture its condition in panoramic 360-degree views and allow users to take a virtual walk across the island from the safety of their desktop.

It was with some curiosity that I learned of a proposal to designate Hashima as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Yes, indeed.  A non-profit organisation, “The Way to World Heritage Gunkanjima” has nominated the island as one of the “Modern Industrial Heritage sites in Kyushi and Yamaguchi”.  The organisation is represented by a former island resident, Doutoko Sakamoto.

While the nomination is inching up the ladder of approvals and is currently on the Tentative List, Korea has objected on the grounds of ill-treatment of its citizens during World War Two.

But is Battleship Island really worthy of such high level order recognition?

The nomination for a World Heritage Listing was made under the following cultural criteria:

  • (ii) “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  • (iii) “bears a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • (iv) “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”

While the intent of these criteria is open to interpretation – could UNESCO not have chosen a simpler form of expression? – the general thrust of criteria (ii) and (iii) seems satisfied.

It is criterion (iv) that troubles me a little.

What constitutes “outstanding”?  Is it the appearance of the built form?  Its quality?  Functionality?  How it shaped its inhabitants’ way of life?  All of these things?

If this building is representative of apartment dwellings in their operational phase, then the test for architectural merit seems unlikely to be met.

50 years of abandonment and exposure to the elements have done little to retain whatever quality the buildings may once have had.

Designed well before the advent of energy efficiency ratings, the number of open windows and what appear to be retro-fitted air-conditioning units attest to uncomfortable living conditions in summer.  No doubt the reverse situation applied in winter, especially for those apartments which lacked direct sunlight access.

The highest living densities ever recorded in Japan must have tested neighbour relations to the limit, with up to five people sharing in a single room.

“Outstanding” it was not.

Yet despite its ruinous state, Hashima remains an endlessly and eerily fascinating place.  As I watched the tour guide rattle through the history of the island in the gentle breeze of an early summer, I wondered what it must have been like when the buildings were alive with people and the atmosphere buzzing with activity.

Several months on, I still carry memories of the desolate landscape and the scarred buildings.  Yes, Hashima certainly made an impression, even if not for all the reasons cited in the World Heritage bid.

It remains to be seen how the good adjudicators at UNESCO will handle this World Heritage nomination.

Watch this space.


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Much of the history of Hashima is drawn from “Hashima: the ghost island” by Brian Burke-Gaffney 2002

A market on steroids

Sydney prides itself on its fish market, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.  It’s a great place for Sydneysiders to buy fresh fish, as well as for tourists to ogle at and sample the diverse seafood offer.

But the honour of largest wholesale fish market in the world belong’s to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, located on a small strip of reclaimed land between Ginza and the waterfront. A few facts:

  • Five million pounds of seafood, worth about US$28 million, is sold in the fish market each day.
  • The market covers more than 23 hectares and contains more than 1,500 stalls.
  • 60,000 people work at the market, using more than 32,000 vehicles including trucks, vans, hand carts, bicycles, wagons and forklifts.
  • The highest ever price for a sushi grade bluefin tuna was US$173,600 for a 444 pound fish in January 2001.

There are a few things you can do at the market.

One is to visit the tuna auction which kicks off at 5.25 a.m. but is strictly limited to 120 visitors per day on a first come, first served basis.

If you prefer not to get up with the sparrows and take a punt on getting a slot to view the auction, you can enjoy a leisurely seafood breakfast at one of the many restaurants in the alleyways that adjoin the fish market.

These alleyways are chock full of shops selling seafood, cooking utensils, fruit, veg and various other oddments.




There are several restaurants to choose from, most of them catering to no more than 20 persons.  A queue outside is a good sign, although the one we select – which has no queue – is almost full so it must be good.


It’s a simple affair with half a dozen tables and modest decor.


But when it comes to the food, the chef delivers.  Sashimi with caviar and a single prawn, mounted on a bed of rice, accompanied by a dab of wasabi and dipping sauce.  Included is a bowl of miso with a crab claw floating in it.  A bottomless mug of tea washes it all down.  The sashimi is the freshest and best we’ve tasted ever.  The miso isn’t that bad either, but removing the meat from the crab claw was never meant to be done with chopsticks.

Suitably fortified, we head off in the direction of the fish market.


Due to a lack of signage – or maybe our inability to read Japanese – we inadvertently divert through the fruit and veggie market which, of itself, is worth a look for the exotic, in-season strawberries.

To get to the wholesale area of the fish market, we run the gauntlet of trucks, forklifts and other vehicles that operate outside the market.  Safely inside, we are blown away by the sheer scale of the place.

Six to eight rows of goods laden aisles, each at least 100 metres long, vendors slicing, dicing, packing and selling.  Tuna, salmon, prawns, squid, mussels the size of a human fist, eel, roe, it’s all there.  Plus stuff we’ve never seen before.  My camera shutter is in overdrive.















By 9.30 a.m. it’s starting to wind down and half an hour later, it’s all over.

Until tomorrow.


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Too hot to handle?

Sashimi is almost invariably paired with a dab of wasabi, derived from a cabbage type plant with a thick green root that, when rendered to a paste, tastes like horseradish.  Adding the right amount of wasabi can lift the delicate flavour of the sashimi to heady heights without overpowering it.  Too much and the net result is a fireball in one’s mouth.

Our Sydney travel agent had suggested that, while in Japan, we should look out for wasabi ice cream.  He was unspecific about where to get it and we assumed that it would be widely available throughout the country.  It isn’t.

In our multi-stop visit to Japan, there was only one place where we would encounter wasabi ice cream, the Daiō Wasabi Farm at Azumino, a short train ride from Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.


To set the tone for our trip to Daiō, we start with some wasabi flavoured soba noodles at a tiny joint near Matsumoto station, where the proprietor is chef, waiter and dish pig all rolled into one.  At A$5 per head, this turns out to be one of the best food buys of our entire trip.

Duly fortified, we board the local train for Hotaka, the closest point to Azumino.  About half an hour later, we’re at Hotaka station where the “rent a bicycle” touts are waiting.  What?  In Japan?  These gentlemen, however, are unlike the touts we’ve previously encountered in places like Bali, where the pressure to buy can be so intense that you give in out of sheer exhaustion.  Unlike their Balinese counterparts, our Japanese rental bike operators are here merely to make us aware of one of the nicest – not to mention cost-effective – ways to get from the station to the wasabi farm.  We agree and after a few quick instructions in the “rules of the road” which, in this case, include the footpath, we are off and pedalling.

It’s all slightly downhill to Daiō.  What goes down must, at some stage come up, but I try not to think of that right now.

Inside the farm there are wasabi plants at various stages of growth as far as the eye can see.



More mature plants…


As we’ve come to expect in Japan, the blend of produce, ornamental decoration and garden planting combine to provide a picture of exquisite beauty.  There is even the odd remnant spray of cherry blossom.


But we haven’t come here only for the visual experience.  We want to taste the product.

There is a hint of the sub-zero temperatures that will hit with a vengeance the following day, bringing snowfalls to the region.  We can feel the cold working its way up from the soles of our feet and, never mind that we’ve had lunch, we need something hot to put in our bellies.


The deep-fried wasabi croquettes land on a stomach still trying to digest lunch.  The promise of thermal heat delivers, but the taste of wasabi is barely perceptible.  And one would really have been enough between us.


As we wipe our sticky fingers clean of wasabi fry, we catch sight of the ice cream shop.  Time for an ice cream chaser.


The taste is delicate with just a hint of wasabi.  Rather mild, if anything, somewhat bland.

As our two-hour limit on the bike rental approaches, it’s time to say goodbye to Daiō.  M has chosen the “scenic” route back to the station which follows meandering streams through landscaped farmlands.  It also has two hills, neither of which I can surmount, even in low gear.  Pedal power gives way to foot power until we return to level ground.  The upside of all this exercise is that by the time we reach the station, the croquette induced indigestion seems to have disappeared.

On reflection, Daiō is one of those places where arriving with modest expectations may have served us better.  It is undeniably a tourist destination and I suspect that the food offer is deliberately pitched to less adventurous taste buds.

Those for whom wasabi unleashed may be just a bit too hot to handle.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Torii, torii, torii!

You will not travel far in Japan before seeing a torii, a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine.

They first appeared in Japan over a thousand years ago, the oldest existing stone torii having been built in the 12th century and belonging to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture.

Torii were traditionally made from wood or stone, but these days you will also find them made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate torii in gratitude to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. [1]

Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of torii, each bearing the donor’s name.This is the best place to get your fix of torii.

Left or right?   It doesn’t really matter.IMG_3884A bit of stone thrown in for diversity.IMG_3896

Komainu are a pair of guardian dogs or lions often found on each side of a shrine’s entrance.  In the case of the Inari Shrines, they are foxes (see picture below) rather than dogs.IMG_3894One of many torii gates at the World Heritage Listed site at Nikko.IMG_3249A timber torii at Nikko.IMG_3253This one in a Tokyo park seems purely for decoration.IMG_3301A utilitarian torii in central Matsumoto, overshadowed by the ugliest edifice in the town.IMG_3590

A modern take on the torii gate?  The Mitsubishi shipbuilding shrineyard in Nagasaki.IMG_4199

One of the three top rated scenic views – and possibly the most photographed torii gate in the world? – in Japan.  Itsukushima Shrine is another World Heritage Listed site built over water and its associated torii gate appears to be floating on the water at high tide.  It is less than an hour’s train and ferry commute from Hiroshima.IMG_4272


Lining up to take a photo of the torii.  As one does in Japan.  IMG_4277

Be patient, your turn will come.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Big brother is not watching you

I regard Sydney as a reasonably safe place.  In public I do tend to keep my handbag either tucked under my arm, or with its contents well hidden from view, but that’s about as much as I feel compelled to do to protect my belongings.

It doesn’t surprise me to see that my city ranks number 12 on a list of the top 15 safest cities in the world.  It surprises me even less that Tokyo is number one on this list.

Japan is well-known for its high level of safety and low levels of crime, making it an attractive destination especially for those travelling alone or with children.  Violent crimes and murders are rare and terrorist acts almost unheard of.  Respect for human rights is high and stringent laws prohibit the possession of firearms.

The 2010 Global Peace Index (GPI) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) ranked Japan as the third safest place in the world, behind New Zealand and Iceland, countries with much smaller populations than Japan.

In addition to a superior level of safety and security, the general honesty in Japanese society is evident from the number and type of items handed in at Lost and Found counters in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  In 2008, more than two million items were handed in, among which were umbrellas, clothing, wallets, ID cards and mobile phones.  The amount of cash among the lost property totaled 2.7 billion yen. [1]

We had barely left the airport terminal before evidence of this honesty manifested itself.  When handing over a banknote for a purchase in any other country, one can expect rounding to occur, usually in an upwards direction, before receiving one’s change.  Japan is not like that.  Expect not only to receive change, but to receive the exact amount down to the last yen.  Your wallet will soon be at risk of bursting with an accumulation of unwanted coin.

This environment seems to have fostered a relaxed attitude in locals towards personal safety and the security of their possessions.  In one of the busiest stations in the world, Shinjuku, we regularly travelled on the escalators behind people whose wallets were hanging out of their back pockets or whose backpacks were open for all to inspect the contents within.

And it didn’t stop there.


These bags on a suburban train remained unattended for a full five minutes while their owner was occupied in the toilet.  In some parts of the world, we would have hastily made for the other end of the train or, worse, tried to force a door and take our chances by hurling ourselves from the train before it blew up.  Of course, no such thing was going to happen here.  And the only people paying any attention to the bags were us.


Another example of temporary “bag abandonment”, this time in Starbucks at Matsumoto Station.  Again, the owners had disappeared either to relieve themselves or order a coffee.  Their possessions didn’t warrant a second glance.  Other than from us.


The tasting room of a saké brewery in Yudanaka, the bottles lined up on the counter for a self-administered free tasting.  We could drink as much as we wanted of the available range.  And we did.  The sales person was discreetly occupied in another room, available only when we were ready to make a purchase.  Even the expensive stuff in the cabinet was unsecured.

There is a down side to coming from one of the safest countries in the world, however.  When Japanese travel abroad, their lack of situational awareness can make them easy targets.

In the first few months of 2013, 10 Japanese died in an Algerian hostage crisis, three Japanese tourists were killed in February in a vehicle and knife attack in Guam, while two weeks later, four Japanese were among 19 tourists who died in a balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

An article in (the Japanese) Weekly Playboy of 25 March 2013 warned against taking anything for granted abroad and cautioned travellers to hide their wallets and credit cards, and above all to stifle their sympathy for animals and children who could potentially cause them harm.

Whatever happens to Japanese travellers abroad – and I don’t doubt that they’re savvy enough to become street smart – there is nowhere I’ve been in all my years of travel where the level of safety is anywhere near that found in Japan.

Well, to be fair…..perhaps New Zealand.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Weekly writing challenge: mind the gap – should this castle be listed as a World Heritage Site?


The town of Matsumoto, gateway to the Japanese Alps, is defined by its castle.

One of four castles designated as National Treasures, Matsumoto Castle – also known as “Crow Castle” for its contrasting black and white appearance – is the oldest surviving wooden castle in Japan.


What sets this castle apart from others in Japan is that it is built on flat land rather than on a mountain or between rivers.  Its lack of natural defences is reflected in its original layout: important buildings and structures were protected by three different rings of fortifications and three moats.

Construction of the present castle commenced in the 1580’s and the three turreted donjon, comprising the central building and towers, was completed shortly before the turn of the century.

The original surface area of the moats equalled 140,000 square meters.  The inner moat at the foot of the donjon, which for the most part retains its original shape, has a width of 58 meters at its widest place – a distance deemed just out of reach of attackers’ cannon fire – and a depth of 3.2 meters at the deepest point.

Within the area enclosed by the inner moat – the First Circle – were the main castle and four connected buildings, separated from the Second Circle by a Kuromon – or Black – Gate at the south-east.

Inside the U-shaped Second Circle were the palaces – including the residence of the Lord of Matsumoto and his government headquarters – a garden, rice granary and various storehouses.  The front gate to this enclosure was a third double-gated square with Taiko-mon, or Drum Tower Gate, facing to the east side.

The Second and Third Circles were reserved for important samurai officials while lower ranking samurai lived outside the enclosure in the town itself.

The Third Circle was surrounded by a 2.2 kilometre moat.  Four entrances were set up at the fringe of the Third Circle, each bearing umadashi (horse stands) to ensure a strict defence of the enclosure.[1]

Between 1600 and 1868, a series of feudal lords controlled the castle.  The advent of the Meiji Restoration period in 1868 ushered in major change in Japan and almost brought down Matsumoto Castle with it.  Tokyo replaced Kyoto as the nation’s capital and the power of feudal lords came to an end with restoration of the emperor’s power.  Feudal lands were returned to the emperor and in 1869, the last feudal lord of Matsumoto Castle – Toda Mitsuhisa – turned over authority for the main castle complex, First Circle and most of the Second Circle to the Imperial Court in Tokyo.

Due to a shortage of funds, the new imperial government had decided to demolish the castles and sell off the lumber and fittings.  By December 1871, various structures of the outer circles of Matsumoto Castle including keeps, gates and walls were destroyed and the donjon complex sold.  It was only due to the actions of a local conservationist that the entire complex was not lost forever.  In 1878 Ichikawa Ryozo and the local community purchased the castle before the imperial wrecking ball could wreak any further havoc.

But Matsumoto Castle’s troubles weren’t over.  With insufficient funds to carry out maintenance, the main donjon began to tilt dangerously in the early twentieth century.  A local benefactor, Kobayashi Unari, saved the day by raising enough funds to restore it.  The castle managed to survive World War II and was declared a national treasure in 1952.  It has never seen active service. [2]


Google Maps

The castle we know today is a smaller version of the original complex.

While the inner moat remains intact, the third and most of the second moats have since been filled in and developed.  The remaining surface area of the moats has reduced to 30,000 square metres, one fifth of its original extent.  Within the area enclosed by the first moat, the castle survives, but the palaces have disappeared, their footprint barely noticeable in the garden forecourt to the castle


Notwithstanding the paring away of its outer parts, the castle remains the single most important reason for visiting Matsumoto, a towering presence that dominates the landscape.  It is a functional, yet beautiful example of a feudal era Japanese castle, faithfully restored to the way it was in the early 1600’s.


Passing through the first floor one marvels at the massive pillars made of hemlock, cypress and pine, floorboards milled to widths unimaginable in this age of cost-cutting and no doubt several times as thick.


The second floor has largely been turned over to a museum of weaponry.  Some of the tools of war would be familiar to European eyes including a matchlock musket, copied from a Portuguese original that fell into the hands of a feudal lord.

The windowless third floor was unknown to enemies outside and a useful place to keep warriors safe during times of battle.


The fourth floor was where the castle’s lord stayed in times of emergency and the fifth used for tactical meetings by the military officers.


The top floor was designed as a watchtower and requires careful negotiation of very steep steps.  A god named nijuroku ya shin (god of 26 nights) has a dedication in the center of the ceiling to protect Matsumoto Castle.[3] 



As one moves through the various floors of the castle, every opening affords spectacular views of the town below and the mountains in the distance, through trees dappled with cherry blossom if you’re lucky enough – as we were – to visit in March or April.  These openings also let in blasts of cold air, making one ponder what it must have been like for the samurai inside.  This was, and still is, a castle with no creature comforts and if you’re going to make it all the way to the top level, you will have to climb the stairs the way the lords and the samurai did all those centuries ago.  Matsumoto Castle’s authenticity is beyond question.

Which brings us to the central question of this post: should the castle be classified as a World Heritage Site?

The city fathers certainly think so and apparently have mounted their case for its inclusion.  Unfortunately, according to our English-speaking guide, a major stumbling block is the incompleteness of the second moat.  Before the case for inclusion can go ahead, the missing part of this moat needs to be reinstated.


Google Maps

Matsumoto Castle is located about a 15 minute walk across the centre business district of town to Matsumoto Station.  While the castle is well located to tourism, the area is also very well suited to inner city living.



The portion of the second moat that was filled in and developed is currently occupied by somewhere between 60 and 100 dwellings, possibly more.  The housing is modest and while I was unable to confirm from our guide the economic circumstances of its occupants, I would hazard a guess that at least some of them are not well off and would benefit from living close to facilities and services in the town centre.

For the longer term residents among them, bonds of friendship and support are likely to have developed over the years, helping to forge community cohesion and create social capital.  The latter could take the form of knowing where to shop, how to find services, where to find work, even down to helping a neighbour to change a light bulb.

Reinstatement of the second moat would mean demolishing these houses and moving the residents elsewhere.  Whither exactly, our guide didn’t know, but I would find it hard to imagine that they could be relocated en masse to another inner city location.  The lack of available land is likely, at the very least, to prevent this from happening.

Irrespective of where they end up – and 80% of residents have accepted the compensation package offered – it is more likely than not that this community would be dispersed.

Average household size in Japan in 2010 was 2.42.  Assuming that, say, 100 houses are to be demolished, this equates to the relocation of 242 persons.

In a town of around a quarter million people, that represents 0.001%.  Doesn’t seem like many.

Or does it?

You decide.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.