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Japan 2012


Komal and I had breakfast together yesterday and both of us were a little taken aback when two guys walked in and ordered beer. Before 9am.

Today I went for breakfast alone at 8.30am. As I was arriving, a group of 4 people chatted to me as they were leaving, and the lady apologised for their behaviour, because they were drunk. One of the guys told me that he owned a gay bar in town, and I got the impression that hadn’t long finished work.It was quiet when they left. Until I noticed the two guys sat at the counter were snoring.

Spent the morning in the hotel with Komal, putting together an article for the website about the event. I have also told Hideyuki that I’m happy to administrate the website, so I had a brainstorm about changes to make to it.

Komal and I went to Kansai University around 1pm, but Komal had to post something to Tokyo first. Two people who don’t speak Japanese in a Japanese Post Office, where none of the signs are translated, attempting to get a large envelope for the parcel and do everything correctly. You have to describe what is in the parcel for air mail. It was a plaque of Northumbria University. They had no idea what we were talking about, but tried to check somehow. I had visions of them checking Google Translate, coming up with the Japanese for ‘dental plaque’ and having no idea what we were talking about.

Anyway, it worked. Parcel sent. And off we went to the university. I think we were more of an annoyance to Hideyuki than anything else, because we didn’t really need to see him and we made him late for a faculty meeting. But, he has set up a meeting with a community organisation in Kyoto for Friday.


I imagine most people know the Japanese like their technology, but I just wanted to mention a couple of great things I saw yesterday. The first was a ‘bike conveyor’. These are narrow strips located next to steps on footbridges that are activated automatically on contact. So you walk up the steps and just hold your bike while it goes up the conveyor! And on the other side there is a ‘bike slope’.

The second is the seats on the Limited Express train. These trains have seats in pairs, similar to UK trains. But. All the seats can be turned around! So everyone can face the direction of travel, or you can turn seats to face each other if you’re in a group. An incredibly simple idea.

Japan 2012


Much better day today. Despite waiting ages for Hideyuki in the hotel. Anyway, when he eventually arrived, we all went over to Kansai University. Hideyuki had some work to do, so me and Komal sat in a classroom and were very studious. Hideyuki joined us after his work and I presented what I did yesterday for him to comment on and make suggestions.

Around 1pm we left for Kainan, where Hideyuki is working with other universities, the local government and a school on tsunami preparation and evacuation. Kainan is quite far from Takatsuki, so it took us almost 2 hours on the limited express train. The area Hideyuki is working in is at an elevation of 2 metres. They had a tsunami in 1946 which reached about 6 metres, and are basically expecting their next tsunami soon. They were working on 6 metres again, but the Tohoku tsunami worried them a bit: 40 metres is quite a bit higher than 6 metres!

Komal and I followed Hideyuki to a meeting in the school which was essentially a debrief from an evacuation drill in November. About 2,000 of the 5,000 residents participated, and the school is involved because students are taking part in the evacuation plans and procedures. This is quite a big deal because children are usually seen as vulnerable victims in disasters.We also went to another meeting at the Disaster Management Centre, which involved everyone at the school meeting, except the school staff. Both meetings were in Japanese, but Hideyuki has scribbled English translations on the handout for me!

The government people also took us on a bit of a tour of the town. We visited an evacuation point at 10 metres elevation, down a street which could barely fit a Mini: bit of an issue if an earthquake topples the buildings on either side before a tsunami hits! Also, the only thing they have at the site is solar lighting. No shelter or water points. The Disaster Management Centre also doubles up as an evacuation centre, but again, they’re a bit concerned that it won’t be enough after Tohoku. We were also shown the entrance to the marina and port. There has been some work done on building a tsunami barrier. Unfortunately a permanent barrier has obvious effects on the local economy. So they considered a barrier that could be raised following a tsunami warning. But, in the event of a tsunami wave crashing into the barrier, it would then hit a part of the city on the opposite side of the inlet. Difficult decisions to be made.

The second meeting went on so long that we were pushing our luck to catch our train, or wait an hour until the next one. So Komal, Hideyuki and I ran into the station, through the barrier (we already had tickets), up two escalators, and along the platform, just in the nick of time.

We got back to Takatsuki around 8pm and went to Watami for dinner, the same restaurant as Friday night. Good food, but I had to scrape fish paper off my food again!!

Japan 2012

And then there were three

A thoroughly boring day. Met Komal and Andrea at breakfast and said I wanted to catch up on work while they went shopping. Basically spent the entire day in the hotel room but didn’t feel like I accomplished that much. Decided I should probably get some fresh air around 5pm so went for a walk to Starbucks. And paid £4 for a normal size coffee. The exchange rate is really bad for tourists at the moment.

Met Komal, Andrea and Hideyuki for a meeting at 6.30, then we went to a canteen style restaurant next door. Hideyuki complemented me on my “very Japanese” style eating when I picked up my rice bowl. Shortly followed by Komal leaving his chopsticks standing up in his food (big no-no – means ‘death’).

Said goodbye to Andrea because she is leaving in the early hours, and went to bed.

Quiet day, so a chance to write about some other ‘Japan’ stuff.


They’re everywhere. Push bikes and scooters. On the road, the pavements, at road crossings, travelling in whichever direction they want. It was a bit strange at first, being so used to bike not being allowed on pavements, but I’m kinda used to it now. The bike riders do a pretty good job at avoiding pedestrians, and even when you do get in their way (like I did last night), they don’t shout like they would in the UK! There are so many bikes that there are car parks for them (or bike parks if you prefer). And they’re piled up outside shops. And none of them are locked.

The great thing is watching the Japanese riding along dead casual, one hand on the handlebar, one hand holding their umbrella.

Man riding a bike and holding an umbrella. Skills.
Japan 2012

“The worst that can happen is we end up on the other side of the road”

Today the Gaijins almost brought Japan to a standstill. Well, a Brazilian one in particular. Andrea held up the shuttle bus from the hotel by 5 minutes, then the train to Kyoto was late, and much later, Komal and Bernard’s meeting ran over. Coincidence? I think not!

Late trains in Japan

Most of the group are leaving early tomorrow morning, but Chris and Liv are flying so early that they’re getting a hotel near the airport tonight. But before all that, we have a meeting in Kyoto University and then tourist stuff in Kyoto.

We took the train to Kyoto and then a local one along Nara line to Obaku (Shaun took this opportunity to take a lovely photo of me sleeping standing up) to meet Dr Norio Okada, who is quite important in disaster management; and apparently I’m going to a lecture by him next week.

So after meeting him, Komal and Bernard went off to Nagoya by bullet train, and the rest of us got a sightseeing bus pass for Kyoto. We only had a couple of hours so decided to get off at the Ryoanji Temple and if we split up, meet back at the station at 6.15pm.

We did indeed split up. Andrea, Liv, Shaun and I whizzed around Ryoanji and headed to Kinkakuji. It was a bit of a shame because everyone else there was clearly sitting and contemplating the simplicity of the rock garden, and we just took a few quick snaps and left. In typical Japanese tourist style (except they don’t do it here!).

It took longer to walk to the Kinkakuji than I expected and I was getting a bit concerned that we’d taken a wrong turning, but we got there. Then stood outside wondering if it was worth going in, because it was already 3.45pm. Eventually decided to go in and very glad we did, because it was awesome. Essentially it is a golden temple built next to a lake, and it’s very pretty. There is also a coin toss thing: we didn’t know the purpose of it, but I got my coin in! (and apparently it’s for good luck). Andrea and Shaun also got the chance to have a photo taken with a lady in a kimono. She was also a tourist, but stopped by quite a few people wanting photos.

Kinkakuji Golden Temple

Andrea then went off by herself and Liv, Shaun and I boarded the most packed bus in the world. They don’t seem to do doubledeckers here, and there aren’t many seats either: just lots and lots of hoops to hold. And you get on using the door in the middle of the bus, then leave using the front door and pay then. Anyway, pretty uncomfortable.

We got off the bus at the station and went into the underground shopping mall looking for tourist tat. The only souvenir shop we found was quite expensive, so we went into the ground floor of the Sky Tower building which was much more reasonably priced.

Shaun went off looking for gifts and Liv and I got a coffee in Starbucks by pointing to what we wanted. Much easier than learning another language! (Helps that the menu is in English though). We left at 6pm to go back to the station to meet the others. We chose to go the underground route, not sure if it was the mall or just underground to the station. Either way we were pretty sure we would get to where we wanted, with me saying: “the worst that can happen is we end up on the other side of the road”.

Ahem. No idea how we managed it, but we seemed to go all the way under the station and out on the other side. Anyway, it was a street we didn’t recognise and we couldn’t see anything we recognised, and all signage was useless (even those in English). Getting a bit worried as we continued to walk and still didn’t see anything we recognised.Eventually I recognised one part of the station from earlier that day and we got back to the front of the station. Still not sure how we ended up one storey above ground level though.

I’ve since checked what we did: underground at 5, straight down, and back up by the beige building at the bottom.
And to give you an idea of the enormity of Kyoto Station: Sky Tower at the top; under 5 lanes of the bus station, 10 regular rail platforms, 2 bullet train platforms; and out at the mall at the bottom. Stepped outside somewhere near the Sushi Bar, realised we were in the wrong place, walked back up past Kintetsu Railway and Isetan, and out by Hotel Granvia.

The others were there already, but no sign of Hideyuki (who had hotel details for Liv and Chris), Komal and Bernard. Liv and Chris waited a while but were worried about missing the super rapid train, so we said we’d text them the details.

Then we waited. Hideyuki arrived around 6.50pm and told us Komal and Bernard would be late so we shouldn’t wait. We headed back to Takatsuki to find somewhere nice and cheap for dinner. This was the first group meal where we sat on chairs on didn’t take our shoes off!

Komal and Bernard were at the hotel when we got back. Me and Andrea said goodbye to everyone and off to bed after quite a manic day.

Japan 2012

Kobe and Awaji, or Fish Potato

And so the inevitable suffering after the night before. Chris was pretty certain he was still drunk at breakfast. I felt OK then, but got worse as the day went on.

We took the shuttle to the station and got a train to Nagata, Kobe. We started our day at Nagata Fire Station, then wandered around Kobe streets affected by the 1995 earthquake, and then to a school practicing disaster stuff. The kids were fascinated by Chris (tall, big, ginger) and Bernard (black).

Then our Japanese firemen left us and went to the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution. Hideyuki wasn’t with us today, but two of his students met us to look after us for the rest of the day. There was a big event about disaster risk reduction (DRR) marking the anniversary of the earthquake. We hung around for a while, met someone really important for a few seconds (and we have no idea why), then got some desperately needed lunch. We spent about an hour in the museum, which was very interesting but it was disappointing that more wasn’t in English, and that we only had an hour. It was still easy to see the effects from the photos and videos, and apparently there is an audio guide: it just wasn’t available today.

We moved on to the Nojima Fault Preservation Museum on Awaji Island. The museum and Hokudancho Earthquake Memorial Park are built around a preserved bit of the Nojima fault, where you can see various points of bifurcation. There is also a house built on the fault line which has been preserved in its “broken” state. There are lots of facts about Japan’s seismic activity and also an “earthquake experience room” which mimics the intensity of the Kobe 1995 earthquake, while you sit on a sofa or at the dining table.

We then had a 3-hour bus ride to Kamikatsu village on Shikoku Island. It is a traditional Japanese hotel (called a ryokan): sliding doors, futons, kimonos. And toilet shoes.

We were a bit late so we basically checked in, dropped bags off and went for our feast. There was an enormous amount of food, and I’m pretty sure I had more than everyone else. Too much to finish. I had something that looked a lot like fish, even though they said it wasn’t. Hideyuki was joining us but hadn’t arrived yet, and his students were struggling to tell us what this stuff was. They said potato, but we all had a hard time believing it. When Hideyuki arrived he confirmed it was in fact potato:  a traditional Japanese dish of mashed potato which is then squashed into blocks or something! Still, tasted a bit weird.


So the reason we went to Kobe today was because it was the anniversary of the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. It hit at 5.46am and measured 7.2. The epicentre was only 16km underground and 20km away on Awaji Island. Kobe was the closest densely populated area. In total over 6,000 people died, about 300,000 lost their homes, and it caused about $100 billion damages. The central and local authorities were seen to have dealt badly with it, and it has led to most of the disaster education in Japan today. Along with the damage caused by the seismic activity (like falling buildings, roads and railways), over 100 fires began (and I mean big fires). The people of Japan and Kobe especially are still greatly affected by this earthquake, and I imagine even more so after last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

On the anniversary, people put candles out in streets where people died, school children practice disaster techniques like first aid, and the whole city is dedicated to disaster awareness.

Anyway, I advise you to check out photos and videos of the earthquake to see just how bad it was. Here is a small selection. You can also search for “Kobe earthquake” on YouTube.

Japan 2012

International Study Tour Day 1, or Auto Face Focus

Official start of the conference today. Started with a 6am phone call from Komal telling me to be at breakfast at 7.30am. Which we had already been told the night before…

We took the shuttle bus from the hotel to the station and walked in what was probably not the most direct route to Kansai University. Very plush building: Shaun, Liv and I were very jealous of it compared to Ellison Building in Northumbria. Not that Ellison Building is that bad: just looking a bit worn.

Disappointingly very few Japanese people came to see us present, but we still had a chance to present our research (or lack thereof). Despite the fact that I have no findings as yet, I didn’t feel that it went that badly.

We had lunch after the postgraduate presentations. I was presented with a basket of salad sandwiches.

In the afternoon, David Cope (Director of Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) did an informal presentation; then Neill and Chris from the Fire Service presented, and then a postgraduate from Kansai. Finally Bernard and Hideyuki led a participatory workshop; after which we were all feeling quite tired!

We had long enough at the hotel to change and freshen up, before going to a restaurant on the 15th floor of a building next to City Hall. It was really really nice, and free drinks for the first 90 minutes. We got small glasses to go with our beer, so we had no idea how much we drank, but it led to concepts like “auto face focus” (the feature on cameras that automatically locates and focuses on faces; not it’s real name but sounds funny when said in a Japanese accent).

A few people left early and the stragglers were asked to leave around 9pm. Not because we’d done anything wrong: restaurants just seem to shut early here. There was still a full bottle of beer left which we didn’t want to leave, so Shaun hid it in his coat pocket. But he still had to put his shoes on with a few of the staff hanging around. Cue me putting on his trainers and attempting to tie the laces while both of us were wetting ourselves and no one else had a clue what was going on.

We decided to get some more beers and “cheap sake” in the 7-11 on the way back to the hotel (apparently we hadn’t had enough!). Once again I was Shaun’s bitch, getting beer out of the fridge because he couldn’t bend down.

Six of us congregated in Marion’s room for drinks and giggles. The sake didn’t go down too well (we’re pretty sure the shop assistant lied when we asked if it was sake) but everything else did, and Chris even had to get more beer. The night eventually ended around 1.30am, but not before fun misheard comments like “where are your trousers pet?” (“where’s your trouser press?”) and “where’s your winkie?” (“where’s your room key?”).

Japan 2012

Arriving in Japan, or Fish Paper

The not-so-great view from my hotel room

We arrived in Kansai Airport 10am but had to hang around until 11.30am because Neill’s plane was delayed (Neill is Assistant Chief of Northumberland Fire & Rescue). Once he arrived we took the train to Takatsuki Kyoto Hotel, which took about 2 hours!

One thing that seemed apparent from the train is that Sunday is laundry day. Most apartments (ranging from 2-storey to many-storey buildings) have balconies, and almost all had clothes rails on. We travelled through Rinku town and it was interesting to see agriculture in the middle of an urban area: fields and fields of cabbages in amongst loads of houses.

There is hardly any space between houses. They don’t seem to do terraces like the UK, but there are really narrow gaps between buildings, and very little outside space (usually just room for one car).

So we reached the hotel around 2pm and decided to meet in the foyer around 6pm to go for food. I wanted to work on my presentation, so showered and sat in front of my laptop. And then the tiredness hit me. I climbed into bed and next thing I knew it was 5.45pm.

We went to a mostly fish restaurant for dinner, where me meal began with a tofu salad topped with bonito, or “fish paper” as it became known to us. Thankfully the rest of my meal was a bit more veggie friendly and didn’t involve scraping fish paper aside!

We left around 8.30pm: a few of us went back to the hotel while the rest tried to find the Newcastle game in a bar. I tried to get a bit more work done on my presentation before crashing out.

Electric toilets

Big thing over here. Some offer bidet facilities. Some make water sounds to disguise your own sounds. Some flush when you first sit down. But the best have heated seats. A bit unusual I know, but it is really nice to have a heated seat on a very cold day!

And any electric toilets are a welcome alternative to traditional Japanese toilets, which are holes in the ground.

One irritating thing about public toilets though: the tap water to wash your hands is freezing cold, and they don’t supply paper towels or dryers because Japanese people carry their own towels. So unless you’re prepared, you leave with a warm bum but cold hands.

Japan 2012

Leaving for Japan

So off to Cardiff to get my flight to Japan. I think Komal assumed Cardiff would be my nearest airport because it is in Wales like me. I don’t think I’ll bother telling him that Liverpool, Manchester, East Midlands, Leeds and Birmingham are all closer; and Cardiff is only slightly closer to home than Newcastle.

The reason.

Me, Liv and Shaun were all asked if we wanted to go to Japan as part of a study tour, with the intention of doing research for our dissertations for the MSc Disaster Management & Sustainable Development. It is being funded and all we have to do is come up with some research comparing the UK and Japan. Shaun didn’t have to because he was already well on his way with his dissertation. There was also going to be a UK conference in September which we would attend and write up the conference proceedings to. Originally we were going to Japan in June, but the UK Foreign Office wouldn’t clear insurance in Fukushima because of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. Then we were going at the end of July, but Hideyuki (our Japanese contact) got pneumonia. By this time Shaun was basically finished and Liv had settled on doing her work on South Korea, which she visited in June and July. Komal said he would arrange for me to go in September, after the UK conference.

As exciting as the trip would be, I looked forward to it less when I found out I would be going alone.

So we got to the UK conference. I missed most of the first day because Mum got married that weekend and I was so tired I overslept. To be fair, I was trying to get up at 3am to start driving at 4am. And Liv couldn’t afford the train ticket, so Shaun frantically made notes on the conference and took audio recordings for the first day. I arrived after lunch and took over the notes for the final session. I then made notes on the next two days, when we visited Tyne & Wear Fire & Rescue HQ, a Community Fire Station, SafetyWorks, and Newcastle City Council. On the third day we travelled to London for a meeting in Cabinet Office. So we put all the notes together and we are now published. Huzzah!

During this conference I found out that Shaun and everyone else would be visiting Japan in January for a study tour. So I told Komal that I would be happy to wait until then, and that would give me time to do background reading and stuff.

So that’s where we’re up to. I’m on the study tour with everyone else, and then staying a week longer to do interviews and research for my dissertation. The students have to do presentations on their research on Monday morning. I have an interview with a Japanese MP and also senior policymakers. Nervous? Me?

Shame I didn’t use all that time between September and now to do more reading. Or more relevant reading at least.