The art of street covers

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I often look down when I’m walking.  I don’t know whether it’s a function of above average height – it’s a fair way down there for me – or whether some hidden force seems to place obstacles in my path.  Either way, I prefer not to take my eyes off the ground for too long for fear that I might trip up.  Or worse, step into a pile of faeces.

Up until the time when multi-focals entered my life, I could get away with dipping my eyes downwards and know that they would adjust their focus automatically.  Presbyopia put an end to all that.  Now I incline my head as well as my eyes in order to survive the hazards of street and footpath travel.

There is not much to recommend looking down at Sydney roads and footpaths.  In fact,  if  you were to ask me to describe the sewer cover in the street outside my house – an object I have crossed both on foot and in the car probably more than a thousand times – I’d be hard pressed to describe its features to you, other than it is dark grey in colour.  I think.

But in Japan my visual circumstances unwittingly opened up a new interest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed: the beauty of the street and footpath.  Looking down suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

So what could be attractive about millions of kilometres of bitumen?  Quite a bit.  And this is yet another example of how Japan takes a universal concept and turns it into something special.

At home, street covers appear standard, mundane and forgettable.  Their primary purpose is to hide the waste that flows beneath them.  In Japan, however, they are neither standard nor mundane.  And you will never forget them.

The Japanese street covers of today are a relatively new addition to the urban fabric.  They were, however, a by-product of a separate, larger initiative: the desire to standardise the Japanese sewer system in the 1980’s.

The overhaul of the system was agreed to by municipalities on condition that each got its own custom designed sewer cover.

These custom designed covers became important to cities and towns because they presented an opportunity for them to turn a normally ordinary part of a town into something that could showcase local attractions, festivals, crafts, flora and fauna, even tell a story.[1]

All of Japan’s custom sewer and associated street covers are forged in the Nagashima Foundry, the second largest in Japan.  The foundry has made 6,000 different patterns and a carved wooden prototype of each design is saved in a central library.[2]

It wasn’t until we reached Kyoto – the fourth leg of our trip – that I really started noticing the detail in the street covers.  It was as if some subliminal reinforcement had been working on my consciousness and it needed a few days to take hold, to awaken my senses to the quirky art of the covers.

After that I could hardly take my eyes off the ground.  Here’s why.

A street cover in Nara.

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Takamatsu, famous for (the remnants of) its castle by the sea.

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Matsue, another town famous for its castle and its surrounding garden.

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Pagoda and blossom motif, Osaka.

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Okayama.

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Nagasaki drain cover.

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The beauty of these objects tends to overshadow their primary purpose, that is, to keep a lid on waste.  They have attracted the attention of numerous photographers far more competent than me and are the subject of a book by Remo Camerota, appropriately titled “Drainspotting”.

Looking down will never be the same for me again.

 

© 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.

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Shinkansen spotting

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Shinkansen 700 series, Tokyo Station

It didn’t take long for me to become seduced by shinkansen, Japan’s version of high-speed rail.  In fact, I couldn’t have been happier with our hotel in Hiroshima, located directly above the railway station and providing an unobstructed view of shinkansen movements below.

The name shinkansen means “new trunk line”.  These trains run on a dedicated standard gauge track which was purpose-built for the service, powered by an overhead electricity supply.  The trains operate at speeds of up to 300km per hour, using tunnels and viaducts to cut through and over obstacles rather than around them.[1]  They take about three and a half minutes to slow down before stopping.

The reason for building a high-speed rail network in Japan was increasing congestion in the densely populated Tokyo-Osaka corridor, where some 45 million people were living immediately after World War 2.

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Shinkansen O series (Osaka Railway Museum)

The first shinkansen service – indeed the first high-speed rail service in the world – opened on 1 October 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

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The closest I’ll ever come to sitting in the driver’s compartment of a shinkansen (O series, Osaka Railway Museum)

The service became an instant success and has since been extended throughout Honshu and the northern part of Kyushu, with plans underway to link to Hokkaido.   As of November 2010, 4.9 billion people had travelled on these trains.[2]

The service is one of the most reliable in the world, with departures and arrivals occurring within 6 seconds of scheduled times.

As with so many things in Japan, there are certain protocols and rules that go along with travelling on a shinkansen.

The first is lining up in the correct place.

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The signs on the platform show the length of train and where your carriage will stop in relation to the location of your pre-booked seat (if you have one).  This is where you join the queue.  And when the train stops, the door of your carriage will open at that very spot on the platform marked by the sign.

According to Japan Rail regulations, each traveller is allowed to bring up to two pieces of luggage (excluding small bags), with each piece not weighing more than 30kg and not measuring more than 250cm in width and depth, with length not exceeding 200cm.  If anything, this allowance seems more generous than I observed the capacity of the overhead space to be able to accommodate.  Once this fills up, the alternative is a small space behind the last row of seats where bags can and do pile up quickly..

Fortunately, common sense – and several planned stops – dictated that we travelled light.  We learned our lesson well all those years ago dragging 60kg of luggage on and off European trains.

Good manners are de rigeur and include refraining from stowing your luggage in the aisles, talking quietly, reclining your seat gently so as not to inconvenience the person behind you, and setting your mobile phone to silent mode.  You can SMS, email and web surf to your heart’s content.  You will probably lose signal in a tunnel, of course.

When you think of it, none of the above protocols is exactly onerous and it makes for a much more pleasant trip for everyone.

So what is the shinkansen experience like?  Well, it’s fast.  Very fast.  And very smooth.  The only time you might notice a slight “adjustment” is when another shinkansen passes alongside.  Even entering and exiting tunnels is seamless.

Seats in ordinary class are generally in 3X2 configuration, comfortable and with plenty of leg room.  A smiling woman pushes a food cart up and down the aisle; we were not tempted by the offer, but were more intrigued with her uniform which would easily have passed muster on Tokyo’s Takeshite-Dori of a Sunday morning.

The trains are squeaky clean, both on the inside and outside.  The exteriors are blissfully clear of graffiti, one of the defining characteristics of Sydney trains.  Maybe the shinkansen travel too fast and don’t stop long enough for any latent Japanese graffiti artists to point a spray can at them?

Upcoming destinations and announcements are repeated in English, so there is no excuse to overstay your stop, even though it’s often tempting to do so.  On the other hand, because Shinkansen work so closely to their scheduled times, you will miss your train if you’re late.

However, there is always the next one.

You may only have to wait as long as five minutes.

 

© 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.

Where can I get a coffee?

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Australian city dwellers tend to take their coffee very seriously.  We have a robust coffee culture with countless caffeine holes in the city and suburbs, where competition and quality is generally high, and brand loyalty is hard-earned.  If a barista burns the beans just once, we’ll move on to the next place.  And we don’t care how good the chocolate brownies are because it’s all about the coffee.

So how would Japan – a country perceived as having an obsession with drinking tea and sake – rate on a coffee drinker’s index of satisfaction?  Would it evoke the words of Edward VII (1841-1910) who is reputed to have said that he could tell when he’d crossed the frontier into Germany because the coffee was so bad?

A first time visitor might be surprised to learn that Japan is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world.  And this didn’t happen overnight.

Dutch traders first introduced coffee about 400 years ago, but it wasn’t until the port of Kobe opened to trade in 1868 that coffee became widely available.  It did not take long to become fashionable with Tokyo’s first kissaten – or coffee shop – opening in 1888.  By the 1930’s there were 3,000 in the city and 160,000 nationally by the 1960’s.[1]

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Like so many things in Japan, operators have taken the best from the West and put their own stamp on it.  In addition to one’s regular brew, you will also find vending machines and convenience stores dispensing bottled, canned and instant coffees.

On our first morning in Japan, as we stepped out of our Shinjuku hotel in search of breakfast, we were confronted by something like this:

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Where Starbucks failed to gain a foothold in Australia, the opposite is the case in Japan where the locals have enthusiastically embraced the concept.  1,000 stores now operate nationally and the Shibuya outlet in Tokyo is alleged to be the highest grossing store in the world.

But we didn’t care to celebrate our first breakfast in Japan with a frappucino.

After fossicking around the streets and laneways east of Shinjuku station, we found a Segafredo outlet.  This offered a passably good cappuccino with an admirable head of froth, albeit it minus the dusting of chocolate we take for granted in Australia.  And from our window seats, we were treated to a spot of light entertainment as representatives of the city traffic department painstakingly measured up how far a parked truck had exceeded its legally allotted space before towing it away.

2013-05-02 12.10.18Our experience of the coffee chains was as variable as the chains are numerous.  No matter how often we asked – admittedly in English or by pointing – we could never get coffee from Vie de France, a Japanese owned French bakery, served in anything other than a cardboard container. Yet Japanese diners seemed to get theirs in porcelain.

The local Tully chain, with its white sandwiches and lukewarm coffees, offered all but one beverage in a cardboard cup.  So I ordered the espresso, something I would never do at home because I don’t like espresso.

Family run coffee shops can also be a hit and miss affair.  Our venture into a charming looking Asakusa coffee shop renewed our acquaintance with a substance we’d long forgotten.  I began by asking for a cappuccino and M a flat white.  These were politely declined and we were directed to the single coffee offer on the menu.  At 300 yen a piece, we expected at least filter coffee.  The whistling of a kettle on the counter should have been a dead giveaway, but it wasn’t until the coffees arrived at our table and we’d taken the first sip, that we realised what we were drinking: instant.

By contrast, some of our best coffee drinking experiences were at what we would have thought of as unlikely places.  I can’t readily think of a Sydney train station where I would choose to sit down and enjoy a “cap”, but there are many such places at Japanese stations and some of them serve exceptionally fine coffee.  At Namba station in Osaka, we were introduced to the Kiefel brew.  Kiefel has been in business for the last 50 years so clearly they are doing something right.  And while M’s black coffee was a tad on the dear side at 500 yen, it was worth every drop.

The station at Hakata – a stop more visited in order to change trains than as a point of disembarkation – yielded a fine coffee shop where the coffee was splendid and the smokers were tucked away in a sealed bunker, far from the aroma of roasting coffee beans.

I’m sure that Edward VII would have been satisfied.

 

© 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.