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Japan 2012

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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.

Technology.

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

Kainan

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

Quiet day

Komal and I discussed research further this morning. He asked me to put together a simple plan of what I want to do, and also possible interviews in the UK and Japan. I then closed myself in the hotel room until cabin fever started setting in later in the afternoon. I went for a wander to the mall on the other side of the station.

I might have to indulge in some tights and leg warmers before leaving: they have some pretty cool ones here! I also went down to the supermarket on the ground floor of the mall and found loads of tofu! Much better selection than in the UK, where there’s pretty much just one choice. I also managed to use the self-checkout despite all the instructions being in Japanese!

Komal and I went to a cheap cafe around the corner for supper, and that was pretty much the excitement of the day.

Bowing

It’s a big deal in Japan. Pretty sure I’ll come back to the UK and bow to everyone there too! You bow when you meet someone, when you say goodbye, when you say thank you, and many other times in between. Generally, when the Japanese person you’re communicating with bows, you bow in return! And you have to make a bit of an effort, not just a nod of the head. The train conductor even walks into the carriage, thanks you for travelling with them, and bows before checking tickets.And the girl pushing the refreshments trolley. It’s kinda nice though: just another sign of the politeness of the Japanese people.

Which many of us could learn from, especially hospitality and retail staff (me included). When you walk into a cafe here, all the staff welcome you, bow and thank you for your (potential) custom. Similar when you walk into shops. In fact, you don’t even have to walk in: just pass by.

Japan 2012

Moving hotels and Discussing research

Checked out of the hotel at 11am because Komal and I are moving to a cheaper hotel for the week. We sat in the foyer waiting for Hideyuki for two hours! He was very apologetic. But I won’t get those two hours back, in which I felt like I got the entire history of internal politics in the disasters department of Northumbria!

We went over to the new hotel to drop bags off, then took the train one stop to a Nepalese restaurant. I think Komal enjoyed the food and being able to speak Nepalese! Apparently there are quite a few thousand Nepalese in this part of Japan, but a lot are here illegally.

Back at the hotel around 4pm and we checked in: not as nice as the first hotel but it’s clean and got everything we need. Komal and I went for a coffee to discuss my research project. He started by asking what I wanted to look at, which confused me since I presented on that and we had just discussed with Hideyuki at lunch. I got the impression that he thought I had no idea what I was doing. But I think he was just confirming and repeating what had already been said. Although he did ask some questions about how I plan to analyse my data, which I’m a bit useless on.

Spent the rest of the evening trying to get my aims, objectives, methodology and methods sorted. Feeling a bit better about it after that: like there is a bit of direction. But I won’t get any interviews done this week (which makes me wonder why I had to stay another week) and will need to come back in July, assuming I can get funding.

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.

Bikes.

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

International Study Tour Day 3: Kamikatsu

We had a much more relaxed start to the day today: breakfast at 7.45am and no educational stuff until 9.30am, which meant we had enough time to go for a walk and see orange trees, bamboo plants, and a random shrine or two in the countryside around the hotel. It was pitch black when we got here last night, so we were able to see just how remote this place is this morning. There is the hotel we’re in, what looks like another hotel across the river, and the village to one side of us. And wooded mountains on every side.

Our first seminar of the day was in the hotel, from the president of Irodori, Mr Tomoji Yokoishi. Irodori is a group that was set up to help people in rural areas make a living. From climbing trees and collecting leaves. Seriously. One person has made 200,000 yen in one day. That’s £2,000. One woman was still climbing trees until she was 95. The concept is that high-end restaurants like to decorate food with leaves of the season, and Kamikatsu is surrounded by the leaves that are in demand. Irodori has helped mostly older people set up a farmers’ cooperative to take advantage of this, and they are reaping the rewards.We got to visit the warehouse that the cooperative paid for, and saw some of the farmers delivering their leaves.

Back to the hotel for lunch, and then to Kamikatsu Zero Waste project on our way back. This rural area has never had household rubbish collections, but the zero waste facility has been set up essentially as a skip, but with a huge emphasis on recycling. People can bring their stuff and sort it into various boxes, and for those residents who are not very mobile, volunteers do household collections every couple of months. There is also a bric-a-brac shop, but you don’t pay for what you take: just note down the weight. Kamikatsu aims to be zero waste by 2020.

Then the long drive back to Takatsuki. Really long. Slept for most of it. We went out for dinner to a Thai and Bali restaurant because a few people were getting fed up of the choice of fish or raw fish. It was probably my least favourite meal so far and it was quite an expensive night. But up to this point I hadn’t paid for anything so I didn’t really mind.

We asked Hideyuki to translate a tattoo Shaun got when he was 15 because he liked the look of it. The look on his face made us think it must have said something like paedophile, but it says “blood and guts”. It was funny to him because the “blood and guts = courage” analogy doesn’t really translate, so in Japanese it kinda means sickness.

Hideyuki’s students – affectionately termed “the boys” by Neill – were quite taken with Chris’s muscles, so he treated them to a big bear hug before they left, lifting them a few feet off the ground.

The “chin chin” conversation was going on on the other table, so I told Shaun, Liv and Marion what it meant. We decided it would be funny to say “chin chin” instead of “kanpai” on the next round, and received shocked looks from Komal and the 3 Japanese people. Komal asked Hideyuki to explain to us what it meant, and I think he was slightly confused when we said we knew exactly what we were saying!

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.