Monday, November 24, 2008

"Friendly Advice & an Empty Field"

On Friday, I went to an (early for the season) end-of-the-year party in Akasaka. The food and drink were good, irritations few and far between, and basically a great time was had by all (except one guy who had too much to drink, and had slipped into the "Uuu... can I hang on... uuuuu" zone). I was hoping to convince him to go home, but he was more interested in staying with the group for more fun. A perfectly understandable and good motivation, but generally a mistake under those circumstances. (I'll have to ask about what happened after I went home!).

I actually had the good sense to leave the "Let's keep going all night - all weekend - forevermore!" die-hards before reaching a "I should have left earlier..." point of regret, and sensibly left for home in time to catch my last trains. However, as I sat down on the last of the set of four trains I needed to take that evening, I relaxed, thinking I had completed the journey (big mistake!). I fell asleep and woke up a couple of stations past where I wanted to get off. Getting off, I walked across the platform, intending to take a train back in the other direction, but a station employee told me there were no more trains headed in that direction. (Tokyo shuts its entire train system down each and every night - except on December 31st - for... maintenance I suppose.)

No trains to get home on... time to wear my shoes down! I was rather irritated with myself and the situation as I began my long walk (on top of everything, I had to pay extra for that part of the train journey I hadn't wanted to take), but then (after walking for about 90 minutes) I began to enjoy the clear, cool (cold, but not too cold) night air. After getting instructions from a friendly man keeping guard over a crossing as workmen did some work on the nearby railway (the railways are kept in very good condition here, by the way), my mood improved still more and then I found myself positively and throughly enjoying walking through a field away from houses and lights - with the stars above visible as they rarely are in over-lit and often smoggy Tokyo (the air tends to be clearer in the winter).

I suppose you might be wondering about the idea of walking through fields in Tokyo! I live away from the center of Tokyo, so there are some, but not many. I considered myself fortunate for the experience of walking through an open field. I get very tired of always walking about on asphalt or concrete, in canyons of buildings, and of in being in sealed-box buildings. It's very rare to experience a wide-open sky in this city.... (That said, I certainly don't want to live outside! I just want a little more fresh air than I usually get!)

Why not a taxi? Basically, I'm allergic to taxi drivers! I've been cheated in the US, Hong Kong, Australia, and in Japan. About seven out of ten rides have been unpleasant. The usual problem has been drivers taking a round-about route, but I've also been overcharged, with the driver saying there was an extra luggage charge (in both Hong Kong and Australia, when I didn't have that much luggage anyway). A couple of times in Japan the driver blatantly ignored my direct requests and made sure that he ran the meter up. A couple of examples would be in order:

One time I said (using the local language, mind you) "Stop here please" and the driver - the dirty rotten scoundrel - kept driving past where I wanted to get off saying "I can get you closer". As soon as the meter jumped up, then he stopped, I (very unhappily) paid the extra fee and then had to walk back to where the driver had refused to stop!

Another time, I was running late for a friend's wedding and I took a taxi from the station to make up time. Not only did the driver pretend to not know the streets at all, but when I (looking at my map) was giving him directions, as we neared the destination, I said (using the local language of course) "Turn left here", and the dirty bugger turned right! Turning left would have gotten me to the wedding just in time, but by turning right, the scoundrel driver was able to take a long detour that made me late. Naturally my story about why I was late was not believed. "The taxi drivers here are wonderful and honest - they would never do such a thing." Yeah, sure, right....

But the clearest example I had was a weekly trip I took out to a factory in Tatebayashi, which is in Gunma Prefecture, just over the border with Saitama; a one hour trip out of Tokyo by Ryomo Express train on the Tobu-Isesaki Line (I had thought it was spelled/pronounced "Isezaki", but there are more Google hits for "Isesaki", so I guess that's the correct way). Over a period of about six months, I went out there once a week, and took a taxi from the station to the same factory each time. Tatebayashi is a smallish city (by Japan's standards anyway), with a population of about 80,000. In Tokyo, there's always the possibility that a driver really doesn't know the streets in a particular area well, since the city is so vast (less of an excuse now with electronic navigation), but in a city of 80,000, that's not very likely. It's highly probably that the taxi drivers there know the city like the back of their hands (better maybe, who studies the back of their own hands anyway?).

So what happened? Well, in a spirit of anthropology (and since my company was paying the taxi fare), I just sat back and observed what the drivers did each week when I gave them the name of the well-known factory I was going to. The first time out, I sat back and watched the scenery go by outside as I took in Tatebayashi for the first time. Arriving at the factory, I thought it was a little expensive, but I just figured that the factory was far away from the station. On subsequent trips, I began to wonder why the price was never the same, but just put it down to traffic conditions. Then - about the sixth or seventh trip out - I suddenly found myself with an honest taxi driver who - zip!-zip!-zip! - took me directly to the factory in the shortest distance and time. The fare was about 30-40 percent cheaper and I arrived quite a bit sooner than usual.

From that point forward, I watched the drivers more closely, and - more often than not I'm afraid - they were not taking the most direct, least crowded, or fastest route to the factory. (I could have battled them each and every time, but I wanted to see what they would do.) One time was funny, because this driver had taken me on one of the detours, but it was a slightly less lengthy detour than usual, and the meter was just on the verge of jumping up when we stopped in front of the factory. I could sense his disappointment as he looked at the meter that was just about to give him some (dishonestly earned) extra income, but didn't. He reluctantly hit the stop button on the meter and I gleefully thought "Serves you right, you dishonest bugger you! You wasted time and fuel, and all to very little avail!" (Thinking back on this, I realize that he was likely confident the meter had already changed, as he didn't look at it until we were sitting there in front of the factory, and then what's he going to do? I guess he could have said "Look, I took a special detour to cheat you out of some extra money, but the meter hasn't climbed much beyond the honest price yet, so let's do a few loops in the parking lot here until it jumps into the next range. You don't mind if I steal some more of your money, do you?"

The lingering question is whether this despicable behavior and lack of morals of many taxi drivers is equally dispersed among their unfortunate passengers... but that's a stupid question. Of course it isn't! If you're going to cheat someone, you pick people who are cheat-able! Doing that to a savvy local of Tatebayashi could generate some serious trouble for them. After all, it is illegal to steal people's money dishonestly.

On the flip side of this issue of course, are the people who cheat taxi drivers. Jumping out without paying, throwing up in the back seat, saying unpleasant things, doing unpleasant things, etc. I don't envy the job taxi drivers have, along with the different kinds of nonsense they have to put up with, but that's still not an excuse to victimize innocent people. Getting "revenge" on innocent people is not getting revenge at all, but rather perpetuating the crime. (It's a fearsome thing the way things can snowball.)

A question the reader may have, is how could that happen with me going out there so often? The answer is that if the weekly business I had out there had been more frequent, or went on longer than six months (there may only be 80,000 people in Tatebayashi, but the city still has a large number of taxis, so I kept getting different drivers each time), the drivers would have begun recognizing me and then behaving more honestly. They would have to, otherwise I would have begun getting angry and combative, not to mention that the company paying the taxi fare for me would have begun to get angry and started making complaining phone calls to the taxi company (and if the problem persisted), to the police, the newspapers, etc. The taxi drivers probably (incorrectly) took me for a one-time visitor from overseas (people would come from overseas to visit that factory from time-to-time), and thought it was a safe crime to commit.

So there you have it. Sorry for my long rant against dishonest taxi drivers, but now that I've explained in some detail why I'm allergic to them, if I need to explain again in the future, I can just dig up this text again and won't have to spend time explaining it.

This is another advantage to having an extensive train system, by the way: you can completely shun taxis (save riding somewhere past the nightly shutdown point). In fact, I don't think I've been in a taxi for a few years now. The last time was when one of my train lines caused me to miss the last connection due to some problem with the trains, so they gave out taxi vouchers to the people who had missed their connections. They first determined which stations people were going to, and then grouped them together, giving them a voucher to that specific station. You can bet the taxi drivers didn't even consider trying to rip off the railroads, who know very well what it should cost and are more than willing to fight about it (from a position of power no less).

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Visiting the Tokyo Motor Show in 1991"

Watching a video I took of my trip out to the Chiba convention center Makuhari Messe in October 1991, the number of changes between then and now is striking in some ways. If you rent a historical CD of documentary footage taken decades ago, you expect things to be different and it just seems natural that a different era had people wearing funny clothes ("Ha-ha! Look at those people in those ridiculous clothes! And they don't even realize how silly they look! Ha-ha!"), but when you take a video of modern life, today, right now, you have the current situation in hand to show people living in different parts of the world how things are where you are, currently.

So.... when you put that video in a box in your closet, let 17 years pass, and then have another look, you know it's not going to look modern any more, but the degree and depth of changes in the video can be a bit shocking. Having been through all the time between then and now, one day at a time, it's disconcerting to see how nearly everything has changed. ("Wait a minute... when did that change so much anyway? I've been here the whole time... how could this happen without noticing it?").

And with that preamble out of the way, let's have a look at some of the things that have changed in Tokyo since this video was taken (comments preceded by the time where a comment topic appears):

00:01 - A few things right from the start in the first second of the video: Women wearing long hair and long skirts. Not exactly non-existent now, but there was a fashion trend back then with very long skirts and very long hair. That's definitely changed.

Painted trains. There are still some trains on the Seibu line like in the video with that same paint scheme, but new trains are nearly always some combination of unpainted steel and aluminum, with a colored stripe along the side.

00:05 - Old type train station. This specific station - Hibarigaoka Station (on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line) has been completely rebuilt (although those narrow stairs leading to the station are still basically the same). The old stations were practical. They often used old rails as a construction material (which makes sense - rails are I-beams after all) and were typically open on the sides, so they were cold in the winter, but nice in other seasons since you could look out on the world from them easily. New stations typically force you to look through glass, and while they are larger and have higher ceilings, they sometimes feel more confining somehow.

00:07 - Manually punched tickets. The ticket gates of Tokyo train stations were just beginning to go automatic in 1991. Some other cities in Japan (Nagoya for one I think) had already gone automatic, but the vastness and complexity of Tokyo's train system made it much more difficult to automate.

00:10 - A view through an open window at the old roofs over the two platforms at Hibarigaoka Station. There is now Plexiglas there that keeps out cold wind in the winter, but I liked being able to look through clear free air before. The Plexiglas isn't kept clean and there's that early 21st century claustrophobic sealed-in-a-box feeling that ruins atmosphere and photos.

00:25 - It's hard to see, but if you look closely, you can see what look like square steel boxes on the roof of the train that is passed over. These are air intakes for openable vents on the inside. Trains used to always have these - a way of getting ventilation inside when the windows are closed (for rainy weather, etc.). On new trains, they've stopped making these and made most of the windows unopenable. There are some improvements to the new trains, but doing away with the roof vents was a very bad idea I think. In the past, there have been many times when I was stuck as a sardine in the middle of the train, unable to reach the windows (which were nearly all openable before), but the stuffy uncomfortable atmosphere was easily remedied by reaching up and opening one of the roof vents. But alas, now they are gone from new trains, and in a similar situation, I just stand there suffering, with no way of alleviating the bad situation. Admittedly, they do seem to make a point of running the circulation system more, but mostly that is just recirculating the same air - better than nothing, but the vents for outside air were a vastly superior idea.

00:41 - That "Bee!!-Bee!!-Bee!!-Bee!!-Bee!!" ("Hurry!-Hurry!-Hurry!) sound used to be used at all the JR (formerly JNR) stations, but they've since changed over to using melodies instead, using a different melody for each station. This change corresponded with signs saying "Don't run for the train!", flex-time, and a less industrial approach to life in general.

00:47 - Painted trains - you see less and less of them as they are replaced with stainless steel and aluminum ones.

00:52 - A real live human being making the announcement that the train is arriving at Tokyo Station, not a recording. Also, the announcement is in Japanese only, without a secondary English announcement. If the announcement is always the same anyway, then why not use a recording? Because after you've heard the very same recording for about 20,000 times (if you travel ten stops on a line, you'll hear it twenty times a day for a round-trip - they only change the station name part of the recording, otherwise there is only one recording), you start to go insane! People need variety! Also, while the Japanese announcement isn't too bad, the English one is really irritating! It's too loud, too slow, robotic like, and just... horrible! And what's the point? Shinjuku is Shinjuku, Yotsuya is Yotsuya, Ochanomizu is Ochanomizu.... so in Japanese: "Tsugi no eki wa, Shinjuku desu" and in English: "The next station is Shinjuku" - either way, the important part of that: "Shinjuku" is the same, so torturing commuters with a myopically spoken "The next station is..." is really uncalled for. Not only could tourists catch the station name within the Japanese, but there are displays over the doors in both English and Japanese. JR - please - drop those horrible English announcements on the commuter lines, they are unneeded, unwanted, unpleasant, and unnecessary.

01:07 - This passageway over to the Keiyo Line was new at the time. In fact, the Makuhari Messe conversion center was new at the time as well. The Tokyo Motor Show used to be held at the Harumi convention grounds.

01:58 - Tokyo Disneyland. At the time this was taken, there were a lot of amusement parks in Japan, but since then, I've seen news reports about one after another of them going bankrupt. Through it all - good times and bad - Tokyo Disneyland is crowded with expensive ticket holders, day after day, year after year, rain, shine, and in hot and cold weather. I've talked to people who go there several times a year, year after year! And people actually fly in from foreign countries (in Asia primarily) to go there! It's amazingly successful....

02:16 - Chiba would qualify as a bed town, in that most of the people living in these houses and apartments travel into Tokyo to work. It's the same with Saitama and (to a lessor extent due to Yokohama) Kanagawa. The only thing that's changed here, is that they have since built a lot of luxury high-rise apartment towers in central Tokyo, and people who can afford to live in them, are happy to escape the purgatory of the morning crush-rush sardine-run trains.

02:18 - The big green netted box is most likely a golf driving range. Those are scattered about the city - providing golfers without the time or money to visit a real golf course, someplace to practice their swings by hitting real golf balls (as opposed to the people I've seen practicing in their yards or in parks with sponge or light plastic balls).

03:25 - Crowds of people heading for the Tokyo Motor Show. The shows are always crowded, but the last couple I've been to seem to have been a little less crowded than they used to be - like this time in 1991.

04:20 - I'm not even exactly sure what it is that makes these two women look so retro - but they seem quite different from women their age in the year 2008. It's probably some combination of hair color (so many women dye their hair now, that black hair is actually unusual), eyebrows (it's common to more radically thin them now), eye size (it seems that a lot of women are having their eyes surgically enlarged now - a terrible mistake I think, as the women here look much better with their original eyes), clothes, attitude, radio waves, etc.

05:07 - It's a strange thing about mini-skirts. You didn't actually see so many of them in 1991, but when you did, they were often really short. Mini-skirts tend to be a little longer now, but they're everywhere! The biggest change is that high school girls used to be required to have skirts that went below their knees and to not wear make up, but then a few private schools started allowing mini-skirt uniforms and now a majority of high school girls are marching around Tokyo in mini-skirt uniforms and many of them also have thick layers of paint on their faces (in their prime physically, why they think they need to hide their face is a mystery).

05:10 - Definitely a retro look from a 2008 perspective. Three things stand out as reasons - 1) existence of eyebrows, 2) black hair, and 3) that hat!

05:41 - Live narration about the cars. They used to have the models (the human models I mean) memorize long and complicated presentation speeches about the cars, but the last time I went, more often they just played recordings and had the models walk around in front of the cars, acting like... models! I did see one presentation just like in the old days though, with the model flawlessly (seemingly anyway, I didn't see the script!) giving a long presentation about the car's technical details.

05:58 - Four-wheel steering was a big deal at that time. It seems to be have been completely abandoned. Have you heard of any current production cars having four-wheel steering?

07:21 - Large crowds around the Ferrari cars....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Hibarigaoka, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, & Shinjuku - October 1991"

Another look back at 1991 - mainly just detail changes in fashion and trains (train carriages since retired), but the scene at the Tokyo Central Post Office shows how it was before e-mail - when people still used stamps for letters, and since they needed to use stamps, they had much more interest in obtaining good-looking ones to use. (If you only send a rare occasional letter, the detail of the stamp design doesn't seem so important).

When the post office released it's special regional stamps, they were sold only in the region being featured at the time, and at the Central Tokyo Post Office, so large numbers of people in Tokyo would go there and buy tremendous amounts of them, particularly businesses and collectors. Businesses simply because it looked better to send letters with interesting stamps, and collectors for obvious reasons. In-between the volume buyers were individuals such as myself buying just a sheet or two.

Here's the link:

Note that there is a bit of traveling about to other places in there, with the post office scenes in the middle.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"A Stroll Around Electric Shibuya"

There are many aspects to Shibuya, from upscale department stores to kawaii shops, to restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, Yoyogi Park... and in fact all the way over to Southern Terrace by the south exit of Shinjuku Station (even most locals don't realize that as soon as they cross the street after coming out of the south exit of Shinjuku Station, they are in Shibuya).

So, if I'd given the idea of video-recording it a lot of thought, I either would have set aside a lot of time to try to cover all angles, or I would have agonized over which aspects of the area were most wanting to be covered. As it was, I just let my feet run on auto-pilot for an hour or so, from the Hachiko side of Shibuya Station, and they naturally followed the path of the former river (maybe still down there under the street somewhere in a pipe), and then took a turn here and there as seemed appropriate.

Why is "kawaii" in Shibuya? The other side of the Yamanote Line (Ueno-Tokyo-Shinbashi-Shinagawa) is more professional/business oriented, with the Ikebukuro-Takadanobaba-Shinjuku-Shibuya stretch heavier with students, and Shibuya with (seemingly - I haven't actually studied the exact demographics of this) having the most high school students. Sooo.... Shibuya is probably the world capital of kawaii. That said and out of the way - if you look at the passersby in this video by master videographer LHS:

- there are also businesspeople, etc. in the scene, but the majority of the crowd are probably in their twenties.

There should be much more to say, but after living with Shibuya for over 24 years, it just feels like part of the local scene (which it is), so I'm having a hard time getting into the frame of mind of seeing it as something novel - even though it has never ceased to intrigue....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, November 02, 2008

"More Music on the Streets Worldwide? - Sounds Good to Me!"

Just when I was beginning to think that Japan was becoming exceptionally musical and wondering if it was peculiar to Japan, I have begun receiving e-mails from e-pals in other countries (incidentally, one pronunciation of good in Japanese is "ee", so e-pals sounds like "good pals" in Japanese), saying that they're seeing the same thing in other cities (Ikebukuro, etc.) and in other countries, so I guess it's a world-wide phenomenon. These comments are from a friend who visited Italy a couple of years ago:

Just read your story on streets musicians of Shinjuku.

That's really too bad for them. Guys on the bottom always get the lumps. However, don't blame the cops. I'm sure they had official complaints from nightclubs and businesses. Nightclubs want people to come inside and spend money, and some businesses see such things as a neighborhood problem, attracting rowdiness. Imagine trying to sleep. But, I'll bet those musicians will find another place to perform.

During my tour of Italy a couple of years ago, we witnessed unlicensed street vendors in every major city creating problems for licensed stores, and police who were constantly chasing the low-overhead vendors from one street to another.

However, in vast St Mark Square of Venus, small street orchestras (in tuxedos) were set up in front of restaurants with outdoor tables. I saw three such orchestras playing beautiful music, a delight to all but the dullest of hoodlums. The idea was to lure people to sit at tables and spend money, but mostly people would stand just close enough to be entertained, listen to one orchestra for a while and then drift over to another, listening and standing was free, while sitting at a table would cost you. Historic and romantic St. Mark Square, night time sea air, and lovely music created a wonderful memory. The street musicians in Shinjuku just haven't found the right location yet.

Regarding "Imagine trying to sleep." - This may be why Shinjuku is such a popular place for street musicians - there are no residences around the south exit side of Shinjuku Station (where most of them play) that I'm aware of, so there shouldn't be any sleep-related complaints. The idea that area nightclubs might not like the idea of free music getting in the way of their selling it hadn't occurred to me, but that seems plausible enough. After writing that the police were chasing the musicians off the street, I went back another day, and there were several bands out playing again - including several with advertisements for local clubs! They played a few songs behind boards saying that they would be playing live at such-and-such a club on such-and-such a date, and a few were selling tickets to these places in addition to the usual CD's.

"Coming into Gotanda Station on the Yamanote Line, etc. (October 2008)"

Another train video - looking out the window of the Yamanote Line. My video camera doesn't handle wind very well, so the sound is shockingly bad, but the images might be sort of interesting. The video is on YouTube here:

Sore dewa,

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon