Monday, January 14, 2008

Out of Tokyo by car

Japan has an excellent public transportation system, and most visitors only use trains, subway or bus. However, driving is often the most convenient way to reach remote areas. Some places are only served by uncomfortable, infrequent and expensive buses. A week-end from Tokyo to the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島), Mount-Fuji (富士山), the Southern Alps (南アルプス) or Nikko (日光) is more convenient by Car, as is a visit to Okinawa island (沖縄).
A trip for two people is often slightly less expensive by car. Rental is straightforward. French people can drive with a simple translation of their license in Japanese for up to a year. British or US citizens may use an international driving license for a short-stay. Long-term residents will however need a Japanese license. Many rent-a-car companies are available, the biggest networks being probably Nissan Rent-a-Car and Toyota Rent-a-Car. Renting a small car is not that expensive, at around 14000 Yens (85 Euros) for a week-end. Most cars have are fitted with an automatic gearbox and a satellite transportation system (カーナビ). This device is, since more than 5 years ago, an essential device in this country where streets have no names. Just input a phone number, an address, or an hotel name, and you will be guided by the shortest path. You can also try to use a trip calculation site, but you may get in a big trouble if you get lost.
Even if you are a long term resident in a major Japanese city, it is probably advisable to rent a car from time to time than to buy your own. Cars are not that expensive in Japan. A small Toyota, the "Porte" will set you back around 1.4MY 8500 Euros. However, you need to own or rent a garage or a slot in a car park. This can cost up to 40.000 Yens per month (240 Euros) in a residential area of Tokyo like Meguro-Ku (目黒). In a business district like Akasaka (赤坂), prices go up to 60.000 Yens per month (360 Euros). While driving, you cannot just stop your car on the roadside, but you will find parking lots wherever you may need it. The most sophisticated ones will put your car on a giant steel tray, and move it automatically in a giant warehouse. Even in the countryside, you will often have to pay to park, especially in tourist areas. Downtown parks are affordable, with a rate of up to 600 Yens (3.5 Euros) per hour.
You will probably leave Tokyo through the Tomei motorway (東名高速道路) linking Tokyo (東京) to Nagoya (名古屋). It is the gateway to Hakone (箱根) region, Mount Fuji (富士山) and Izu (伊豆). You can drive up to the speed of 100 km.h, the maximum allowed in Japan. Even if the motorway fees are expensive (around 24 Yens - 0.14 Euros per kilometer), it is not a wise idea to save a few yens and drive on the regular road. In urban areas between Tokyo and Osaka, you could litteraly drive hundreds of kilometers on crowded roads with a traffic light every 300 meters. Even when leaving cities, narrow roads and steep curves mean you will rarely drive faster than 40 km.h. The speed limit on trunk roads is anyways 60 km.h. Narrow roads in the cities are sometimes even slower, with no space to pass another car, unless you park in between the phone poles. Do not be surprised if your satellite system says you need 3 hours to reach you goal 100 km away. In the countryside roads, you should beware of "gaijin traps" that line the roads. Those concrete ditches are wide enough for a car tire to fall in.
Driving in Japan is sometimes annoying, but can also be pleasant. Japanese people have excellent driving manners, even if they do not have the reflexes of European drivers. Tokyo elevated motorways (Shuto 首都) pass through the most picturesque areas of Tokyo. Seen from the street, those endless bridges are not always appreciated, even if they are definitely part of the Tokyo experience now. For a 700 Yens (4 Euro) fee, you get a tour of Tokyo seen from above at the exhilarating speed of 60km.h, if you are a law abiding (or speed camera fearing) citizen. Before the deployment of those devices, the motorways were used for illegal races during the night. Those races, and the hashiriya (走り屋) organizing them, are now the stuff of legend, probably embellished to sell the related video-games, action movies and mangas (the famous Wangan midnight, first published en 1992). Even more futuristic, the Tokyo Bay aqualine (東京湾アクアライン) links Kawasaki (川崎) and the Boso peninsula (房総半島) on the other side of Tokyo Bay (東京湾). The motorway first goes through a 10 kilometers tunnel 60 meters under the sea, before reaching the surface on the man-made "Kisarazu" island. From there, you get an impressive view on the Tokyo Bay from Kawasaki Harbor to Chiba factories. This being Japan, you can of course buy the local character (Umi-Hotaru海ほたる) as a stuffed animal or a cake. Before considering moving in Chiba, you should think about the 3000Y fee that puts-off many drivers. Even at this rate, the building costs will only be recouped 50 years from now.
The Japanese countryside also makes for very pleasant drives, especially when trees are in full bloom, or during the autumn. You can discover small mountainside hamlets, terraced rice paddies, temples and endless forests. You will discover pristine beaches and cliffs in the Izu peninsula, sometimes nori drying in the wide, or a small fishing town. You will reach the wildest parts of Japan, precisely the ones not deserved by public transport. But the most pleasant part of driving in Japan is probably the feeling of being, at last, a free and autonomous adult. You do not need anymore someone to tell you that the doors of the train will soon close, or to worry about the schedule of the last train. You should enjoy this feeling while you are in remote areas. When you come back, you may get stuck in the infamous Sunday night traffic jams, especially on the Chuo motorway (中央高速道路). It is common to spend 4 hours to drive the 120 kilometers from Kofu (甲府) to Tokyo (東京).
If the police can sometimes forget minor speeding committed by a foreigner, drunk driving will be severely punished. The alcohol limit is very low, at 0.15 mg against 0.40 mg in France or in the UK. You can reach the limit with a single beer, and get up to a 1MY (6000 Euros) fine and 5 years in prison. The Japanese law punishes the driver and other passengers of the car in the same way when the driver is caught driving drunk, as it considers other passengers are also responsible.

Toyota Rent-a-car (トヨタ レンタカー) (Japanese only)
Nissan Rent-a-car (日産 レンタカー) (Japanese only)
Nippon Rent-a-car (ニッポンレンタカー) (Japanese only)
Orix (Japanese only)
ToCoo! Travel (English spoken)

Internet maps
Yahoo Map :
Mapion :

Trip calculation
Wangan Midnight (湾岸MIDNIGHT): published by Kodansha (講談社), first published in 1993 (ISBN-13: 978-4063233728), episode 25 published on 2007 June 8th.
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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tenant in Japan

Japan was famous in the Eighties for the sky-high price of its real estate. It was often said at that time that the 3.4 of the imperial palace in the center of Tokyo had more value than the whole Californian real estate. More serious statistics were showing than the value of the Japanese land was four times higher than the one of the United States, although the area was 100 times smaller and the population only half. Prices in Tokyo are more reasonable today. They are comparable to, and often lower, than prices of comparable metropolises. Japanese real estate is however very specific in some respect.
Japanese properties fall into three categories: detached houses (一戸建て)????, "apartments" (Apatoアパート) and manshions (アパート). In large cities, there are many houses, even in the expensive place, but they are built on very small plots, usually entirely built with no garden left. Your host remembers visiting a 2-storey house of 45 sq.m, built on a 25 sq.m plot. The space between this house and the following one was around 20 cms. The structure of these houses is often made of wood, or a light metal reinforcement, with very shallow foundations. They are the most dangerous in the event of earthquake. More luxurious houses are sometimes built in reinforced concrete, and are safer.

Apartments are collective houses with a light metal or timber structure. They are usually 1 or 2 storey high, and are split in several individual flats. The least refined ones often look like modular offices on construction sites, with basic dirt premises. European people usually find it sad to live in such a building, which seems close to a shantytown. However, apart from the weak soundproofing, these apartments, often recently built, offer a better living conditions than some old wet and squalid European buildings.
Manshions are concrete flats, sometimes built in an eccentric style. They have most of the time 4 to 8 floors, but since ten years ago, high-rise apartments of more than 10 floors are also built. Contrary to most European buildings, the staircase is on the outside of the building, and access to the apartment is from the outside. An individual apartment is reached by an external terrace. The walls are most of the time covered with false tiling made of fiberglass, a distinct Japanese feature. One often says that these coatings are design to last around 20 years, then, they will age very quickly.
Whether for an apartment, a house, or a "manshion", the plan is expressed by a combination of the following signs:
  • a figure indicating the number of "rooms". Those can be covered with wood flooring or tatami mat, and can be used as living room, office or sleeping room;
  • LD (living room dining): to indicate that the apartment has a large room (20 sq.m or more) that can house at the same time a dining table and a sofa corner;
  • D (dining): to indicate that the apartment has a dining room;
  • S: to indicate a small size (around 5 sq.m) room that can be used as a cloakroom.
  • K: to indicate that the apartment has a kitchen. It has generally a small size (3 to 5 sq.m)
A 40 sq.m apartment of 2DK layout can thus be used in a sleeping room, a living room, a kitchen and a dining room. An apartment of the same size with a 1LDK layout offers, in addition of the sleeping room, a large room used as both living and dining room.
To rent a place, you may have to dish-out around 6-months worth of rent when you move in:
  • 2 months of "reikin" (礼金) or a gift to the landlord. This sum is supposed to compensate for the cleaning of the apartment. Very often, the walls are repainted and the tatami mats are changed before you move
  • 2 months of refundable deposit (shikikin敷金), from which any damage to the propery will be deduced when you leave. Without having caused any damage, your host was deduced around 80,000Y (500 Euros) from his guarantee for the small wear and tear in the flat
  • 1 month of commission (tesuryo手数料) to the estate agency;
  • the first rent
Renting a flat often requires a guarantor (hoshonin保証人). He or she will guarantee the payment of your rent if you fail to do so. Japanese often requests this service from a family member. Foreigners working in Tokyo often ask their company to act as a guarantor. Landlords are sometimes reticent, because it is more difficult for them to compel a company to pay in case the tenant is late. The more simple solution for a foreigner, but also the most delicate is to require his boss, or the head of human resources of the company, to be a guarantor on a purely individual basis. When looking for a guarantor, you should remind this is a very big commitment in Japan, and there is no miracle solution.
Rent are often on par with major European or Amercan metropolises. They vary with location. As an example, we will travel around the Chuo line (中央線) which goes through Central Tokyo from Tokyo station (東京) to Shinjuku (新宿) before heading east to the endless Tokyo suburvs until it reaches Takao (新宿) 53 kilometers further, at the foot of the mountains.
From Tokyo to Shinjuku, the rents stay around 220,000 Yens (1400 Euro) per month for a 50m2 flat. However, there are few properties on offer, as Tokyo center mainly consists of ministries, offices and shops. As soon as we reach the suburbs, the price falls to approximately 150.000 Yens (950 Euro), and remains constant until Musashi-Koganei (武蔵小金井), 20 kilometers east of Shinjuku. The price is a little higher in Kichijoji (吉祥寺), a popular area with direct trains to Tokyo two main stations. Further, the price falls to 80.000 Yens (500 Euros) in Nishi-Hachioji (西八王寺) 37 kilometers from Shinjuku. Properties offered in the most remote suburbs are often older. .
In the same area, prices also vary according to the distance from the closest train station. Japanese people try to reduce commute time as much as possible. Thus, 10 additional minutes of walk to reach the nearest station can significantly reduce the price of an apartment. An 50 sq.m flat in the peaceful suburb of Gakugei-Daigaku (学芸大学) (10 minutes of from Shibuya 渋谷dans a major hub in central Tokyo), rent is 165,000 Yens (1030 €) in the vicinity of the station, but 150,000 Yens (930 Euros), 10% less, for an equivalent property located 15 minutes by foot from the station.
Prices also vary with the age of the building. This is the common Japanese leaning for new products, which make them buy a new car or mobile phone much earlier than in the West. But living in a recent apartment is also a guarantee of safety, as earthquake-proof construction standards improved with time (main updates in 1924, 1950, 1980, 1998). Close to the station of Gakugei-Daigaku, a 40m² property will rent for 110000 Yens (690 Euro) for a 40 years old building, 135,000 Yens (850 Euros) for a 15 years old building , and 155,000 Yens (960 Euro) for a 5 year old building.
Real Estate agencies (不動産屋さん) usually offer an excellent service. The market is sometimes favorable to the tenants. Certain areas of Tokyo have started to depopulate. Meguro ward had a population of 300,000 inhabitants in the Sixties, but only 240,000 now. There are many vacant flats, especially in older buildings, or in an inconvenient location further from the station.
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Beautiful islands in the south of Japan

The Yaeyama archipelago (八重山) lies at the south-western end of the Japan archipelago, 200 kilometers off the shore of Taiwan. The travel hub is the airport of Ishigaki (石垣). The nearby 40000 inhabitants town is a miniature of present Japanese civilization. You can find a new and questionable airport in construction, an rusting shopping street, an "eikaiwa" (英会話English Conversation school), drink vending machines at every street corner and snacks (スナックhostess bar). If you wander in the streets, you may even find a typical Okinawan house, or a few Goya plants scattered amonst the usual Japanese concrete buildings. We are indeed in Okinawa (沖縄), but it is not enough to justify the 3 hours flight from Tokyo.
You will have to leave the city to really discover this superb archipelago. The most pleasant is probably to board a boat and sail to nearby islands. Taketomi-jima (竹富島) is a small sandy flat island inhabited since the 11th century. 300 inhabitants live on 6th (a little bit more that 2 times the size of London City). A population of around 1000 were living on the island in the 18th century. To fight overpopulation, the authorities forced some villagers on several occasions to emigrate to the Island of Ishigaki close towards the villages to Yara (1734, 1738) and Tomizaki (1771). The island was spared by the giant tsunami which devastated the archipelago in 1771, undoubtedly the major historical event of this isolated place. Until 1976, and the installation of an underwater drain, drinking water was limited to some sacred wells. That only made it possible to grow some vegetables, and the inhabitants used to sail to nearby islands to work in rice paddies there. Today, the main crops are sweet potato and cane sugar.
The village and its traditional houses are remarkably weel-preserved. This is thanks to the energetic action of the inhabitants. They voted in 1986 a charter preserving the island at the top of the Japanese real-estate bubble. Only houses respecting the traditional style can be built, windows and other modern objects should be hidden. It is also compulsory to clean the premises of properties every morning, and it is forbidden to walk in swimming suit in the village. The houses are all in the typical Okinawan style of the early 20th century. Their roofs are covered with red tiles and clay pointing. Properties are surrounded by coral stone walls. The entry is barred by a wall at the back of the entrance, the "hinpun" (ヒンプン). It protects the house against bad spirits and especially from the wind. The typhoons can indeed be very violent in the area. The houses are made up of a main building, the fuhya(フーヤ), and an annex being used as kitchen, the "Tohra" (トウラ).
The streets of the city are covered with sand to make it possible to see better dangerous snakes at night. You can get along in the island by cow carts or by bike. The cow cart business is probably a major contributor to the island economy. The island is surrounded by superb beaches. You can swim in limpid water, surrounded by namakos (sea slug), and tropical fish. The beaches are lined by trees which protect the shallow layer of arable land of the island.
A little further from Ishigaki, the wild island of Iriomote (西表島) is the only Japanese territory covered by jungle. Endemic malaria until the 1950s slowed down its development. During the battles at Okinawa at the end of second world war, inhabitants of the archipelago took shelters in the forests. The small harbor has a remote atmosphere, and the road does not go round the whole island. The village of Funauki (舟浮き) is only accessible by boat. Iriomote is a small continent of 289, with two navigable rivers, hills, paddy fields in lowlands, valleys and 2000 inhabitants. River estuaries shelter mangrove forests. These trees live with the feet in the shallow water of the tropical shores and estuaries. It is an outstanding ecosystem, the most productive of planet. The plants can filter sea water, retain pollution, and prevent the erosion of the shore.
A boat trip on the Urauchi river (浦内川), a miniature Amazon, will bring you close to the mangrove, and at the heart of the rainforest. After 8 kilometers on the river, you can walk half an hour to reach the "Mariyudu" falls (マリユード滝). It is unlikely you will see the famous « Iriomote cat » (西表山猫), a specy unique to the island. However, you will certainly cross the path of giant Ishigaki lizards (イシガキトカゲ) and typical jungle trees covered with lianas. The bravest hikers may cross the islands through a 20 kilometers path in the jungle. Registration with the local police is mandatory.
You may also go for a pleasant walk around Shirahama (白浜), a deserted port in a superb bay, and the end of the road. Rumor has it that an hermit homeless is living in the island which faces the pier.The onsen (hot-spring) of the island, the only one of Okinawa will offer some well-being. The establishment proposes the usual hot baths for men and women where people are naked, and also a common swimming pool where a bathing suit is required. Rides in cow carts to the small islet of yubu (由布島) are famous. The vehicle is able to cross the very shallow water between the "continent" and this small island where a dozen people are living. After a hurricane in 1969, almost all the inhabitants left to resettle on Iriomote, and only a couple of old people remained. To encourage inhabitants to return, they worked hard to plant flowers and make the life on the island more pleasant. Those stories usually stuck a cord in Japanese heart, and this anecdote became famous.
All the islands of the archipelago have superb diving sites, where you can often explore the superb coral and colored fish who live there with only adiving mask and a tuba. The main island of Ishigaki also has great beaches, especially the famous Kabira bay (川平湾). It is a protected site, so swimming is forbidden, but it is a great place for a walk. After a hard day of sightseeing and sea sports, traditional Okinawan food will bring you back to life. Goya chample (ごやチャンプル), stir-fried goya, chicken, and tofu, is recommended for the tired gourmet traveller, who does not mind bitterness. You can try the very tasty local beef (ishigakigyu石垣牛) in barbecue restaurants (yakiniku 焼肉 5000 Yens per person).
Access to Ishigaki
  • direct flights from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, Frequent flights from Naha with connecting flights from most Japanese cities (ANA and JAL).
Access to Taketomi
  • fast boats from the seaport of Ishigaki: A boat departs every 30 Minutes from 7.30 to 17.00. The trip is 10 minutes long, and two companies provide the service: Anei Kanko and Yaeyama Kanko Ferry. Around 500 Yens for a one-way ticket
Access to Iriomote
  • fast boats from the seaport of Ishigaki to Uehara (the most practical port to go to Urauchi river). There are 9 boats per day and the first one leaves Ishigaki at 7.00. The last boat leaves Iriomote at 17.30 (Anei Kankou and Yaeyama Kanko Ferry). If the wind is too strong, the boat will go to the port of Ohara, and a shuttle bus will bring you back to Uehara.
  • With five buses per day and two taxis for the whole island, travel should be planned carefully, but most pensions offer a shuttle service.
Anaei Kanko (安栄観光)
Yaeyama Kanko Ferry (八重山観光フェリー)
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Christmas and the New Year in Japan

The Christmas holiday season often start with a "meeting to forget the year" (bonenkai忘年会). This is a serious drinking session between colleagues or friends in a Japanese bar (izakaya居酒屋). The aim is to solve all the troubles of year in alcohol. Japanese people do that seriously, as the strong beer smell in the last subways at this period of the year shows. Bunch of friends, sport club, office colleagues, head of section’s party, head of department’s party, suppliers party, customers party, a social Japanese will attend a dozen such evenings during December.
But December is not only the month of employees sinking in alcohol. It is also the month of illuminations. Often set-up by department stores, they bring some cheerfulness to grey cities. They sometimes reach a grand scale, as in the Millenario show, attended by 200.000 people everyday. They wait for several hours to go through an illuminated street of central Tokyo. Once under the lights, it is of course forbidden to stop because people behind are waiting to take the turn. Security guards strictly enforce the rule.
In December, Japanese also write Greeting Cards (nengajo 年賀状). The custom is to send them to their close family and friends, but also to customers, suppliers and all social relations. The cards are very simple, with a small drawing representing the animal of the year (the rat in 2008, the cow in 2009). Long stories are not necessary, since these cards just mean the sender is still alive, and still cares about the receiver. It is common to send or receive several hundreds cards, pre-printed cards are acceptable. Rubber stamps are sold in department store with the common greeting messages. However, elegant people will hand-write their greeting cards with a calligraphy brush. These cards all are equipped with a number of lottery, and will be distributed exactly on January first by the Japanese post office, which just recruits temporary workers on this occasion.
Christmas Day does not have any religious meaning in Japan,except for the very small Christian community. It is not even a major event, and not a bank holiday. However, people eat Christmas cake that day. Chicken is “de rigueur”, the result of 30 years of marketing from the fast-food chain KFC. Fried Chicken should be ordered several weeks in advance to receive them hot at dinner time on Christmas eve. On December 15th in 2007, according to the KFC site, it was already impossible to book fried chicken for slots after 4pm. Young couple have a romantic date. This starts in an elegant restaurant, and ends in an hotel room that was also booked several months in advance. The day is as sad for singles as Valentine’s day in the west. Maybe a sign of the economic crisis, it was still possible to book a smart hotel room in Tokyo for Christmas night on mid-december 2008.
During the last days of the year, it is common to listen to the 9th symphony of Beethoven, especially the “Ode to Joy”, sometimes sung by large choral. The traditional celebrations start on the New Year's Day (shougatsu, 正月). In the old Chinese lunar calendar used until 1873, the New Year's Day often took place at the beginning of February, right before the beginning of spring. The majority of the city dwellers return to their home town during the last days of December, and large cities are almost empty. Trains are overcrowded and Japanese motorways become a huge solid traffic jam.

Before new year’s eve, Japanese families usually clean the house in order to properly welcome the new Year. It is the Daisoji (大掃除). Your host in this blog happens to be quite tall, and was often asked to clean the windows and the top of furnitures. New years eve is often spent with family. A strong audience watches the variety program "Kohaku Uta Gassen" (紅白歌合戦). Two teams of singers perform a song contest: the reds (women) and the white (men). 58th edition of the program is held in 2007. It is a little bit past its prime, but still the most popular variety show in Japan.
Around midnight, the bravest people go to the Buddhist temple to strike one of the 108 gong that welcome the new year. There are several explanations for the number 108, but the following one is probably most interesting. There are six parts of the body through which one can feel the world through: eyes (眼), ears (耳), nose (鼻), the tongue (舌), guts (身) and the heart(意). This should be multiplied by 3 because the feelings can be pleasant (好), unpleasant (悪) or indifferent (平). That should be multiplied by 2 as the feelings can be pure (浄) or impure (染). This makes for a total of 36 that is then multiplied by 3 to take into account the former life (前世), the current life (今世), and the future life (来世). As This example shows, understanding buddhism is no small undertaking.
A dish of soba (buckwheats spaghettis) is also eaten on the evening of the 31. One eats them hoping that his life will be as long as the shape of these pastas. While in the temple, it is also common to drink sweet hot sake(甘酒), especially welcome during this cold night.

The great family event takes place on January 1st. People gather to eat New Year's food (osechi ryori, 御節料理). This is prepared in advance and elegantly laid out in lacquered boxes. In the past, it was taboo to cook during the first 3 days of the year. This custom is a blessing for the house wife as she can fully enjoy the party.
Food vary from region to region, but it often has a meaning of good omen. Black beans (kuromame, 黒豆) shoud bring good health as "bean" has the same pronunciation as health in Japanese. Cured sardines (tazukuri, 田作り) represent an abundant harvest, as sardines were formerly use to fertilize the rice paddies. Herring egg (kazunoko, 数の子) promise a year fertile, with many babies born, their pronunciation in Japanese meaning "many children". Fish cakes (kamaboko, 蒲鉾) remind by their shape and their color (white and red) the raising sun. People eats also sea-bream (Tai, 鯛) because the sound is related to the word "medetai", considered good omen. Mochi, a rice paste, is also eaten on that day.
Mochi (餅) is considered as an offering to the Gods. Japanese people eat it in a soup called zoni (雑煮) to thank the gods for the harvests of the previous year, and to prey for next year to be as good. The recipe of the "zoni" differs from region to region. Basically, the pieces of mochi are square and are roasted in the east of Japan (Tokyo東京, Sendai 仙台, Aomori 青森) because it is the custom of Edo, old Tokyo. They are round and boiled in the west of Japan (Kyoto 京都, Osaka 大阪,Hiroshima 広島and Fukuoka 福岡) following the fashion in Kyoto. The soup is based on fish stock (sumashiすまし) in the east of Japan and Kyushu (九州) the island at the extreme west of Japan. Miso (味噌) is used in Kansai (関西), especially in Kyoto. Azuki (小豆) soup is drank in Hiroshima region (center-west of Japan).
Mochis are also used as a decoration (kagami mochi 鏡餅). It is made of two balls of mochi one over the other with a bitter orange (daidai 橙), whose meaning is “several generations”, and should bring a long lineage of descendants. Other New Year decorations associate the pine (its evergreen foliage symbolizes permanence), and bamboo (which folds but does not break, and means strength). Arrangements using these plants are placed in the entrance of the house (kadomatsu 門松 meaning pine of the entrance) to invite gods to visit the house. People also often places a rope with papers folded in zigzag (shimenawa注連縄) to decorates the door of the house, temples and even cars.
Japanese offers gifts only to the small children. For older ones, money, called "the coins of the year" (o-toshi-dama お年玉) is wrapped in an elegant envelope. Japanese families have few children, and so children receive many gifts from parents, aunts and grandparents. It is not uncommon for a young child to receive several hundred euros of New Year's gifts. Older people often resent this, as they were brought in families with more children, and thus did not receive that much. On the first of January or following days, Japanese pays the first visit of the year to the temple (hatsumode, 初詣). They also go to their neighbor house, offering cakes or small gifts (onenga, お年賀).
On the 2nd or 3rd of January, everyone goes back home, causing record traffic jams and completely saturating public transport. The working year then starts with a series of parties with friends and colleagues to welcome the New Year in alcohol and dignity. That is called Shinnenkai (新年会), and is repeated several times between groups of friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers. The loop is then closed, and the holiday season is wrapped-up in alcohol, just the way it begun a month before.
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The pension mess wil not be solved before Spring 2008

More original than the teenage district of Shibuya (渋谷), or the geek paradise of Akihabara (秋葉原), Sugamo (巣鴨), close to the station of the same name on the Yamanote (山手) line, is the district for old people in Tokyo. It is a refreshing place when one had enough of trendy and youthful Tokyo. In the main street, sembei (煎餅rice crackers) stores and daifuku (大福japanese sweets) stalls alternate with grandmother clothing outlets. This is a lively street, but the rusting buildings show this is not a wealthy place.
For these humble old people, the announcement by the government last May of the loss of 65 million retirement files was a shock. More exactly, 65 million files, representing the contributions and retirement entitlements, are "orphan" and cannot be related to their beneficiaries. Thus certain old people do not receive the whole pension they are entitled to. To correct this, they must sometimes show documents several decades old.
The root cause of this huge mistake is the late modernization of the Japanese administration in this field. France assigned to each individual a single number identifying as of the creation of the social security in 1945 and proceeded to the computerization of the files in 1970. In the US, a unique number was created in 1936. In Japan, these two steps were accomplished only in 1997. Before this date, all the files were identified by the family name, the given name, the birthday and birthplace. This is error-prone because of the risks of homonymy, and kanjis transcription error, which are numerous because Kanjis can have several pronunciations). In addition, a new file is created for the same individual every time he or she changes jobs, further increasing the risk of confusion. Finally, Some paper files were lost or became unreadable. During the computerization in 1997, those files were incorrectly treated, or just forgotten.
The issue was covered-up by the administration and the government party (自民党Liberal Democrat Party) until it was raised again at the beginning of May 2007 by the opposition (民主党democratic party) during a debate in the Japanese parliament. It immediately became a nation-wide scandal. This was a major cause of the defeat of the government party in the election of the Upper House on July 29th , 2007 and the resignation of the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on September 12th , 2007. During the election campaign, the government claimed it would identify all the orphan files before the end of March. The files thus identified would be assigned to their owner, and they would have seen their pension entitlement restored.
On December 12th 2007, the government announced that 19 million files would not be recovered because people died, changed name following a marriage, or had their name incorrectly spelled. Those people will have to actively claim their pension entitlement. The Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe refused to apologize. He considered that the pledge made during the election campaign did not bind the government, and only expressed their will to take every possible step to solve the problem. the opposition asked for the resignation of the minister , he has kept his job for now.
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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Hikes outside Tokyo

Major train stations in Tokyo are surrounded by a cluster of hotels, office buildings and department stores, with sometimes an elevated motorway in the middle. Board in the early morning a commuter train in Tokyo, and, after a few minutes, you are in the endless Japanese suburbs: small houses built shoulder to shoulder, gardens, parking lots, commercial streets surrounding the train stations, and, a larger number of high-rise apartments. The first 30 minutes of the train are the daily commutes of the million people living in Tokyo suburbs, but it would be a shame to stop there. Stay in the train a little longer, and you reach the mountains which surround the Kanto plain. Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, small villages dot narrow valleys surrounded by forest: old houses, sometimes a small store, aged farmers who plant crops in the smallest fields gained on the mountains.
The hike often starts with a short walk in the valley through fields and rice paddies, and the crossing of a creek. Then, after entering the forest, the path becomes stiffer. Sometimes, the forest starts with a thicket of bamboo whispering in the wind. You may find a wasabi field (Japanese horse-radish) with water running through, an isolated temple or a small house. After an intense climb, the path reaches the peak of the mountain, from where you often enjoy a clear view on the nearby valleys. During the colder months, you may see snow-covered Mount-Fuji on the horizon.
You then walk on the crest of the mountain during a few minutes or hours on a flat path. At the most beautiful places, a group of over-equipped aged hikers eat a hot meal. At some point, you go down again in the valley by another stiff path to reach another train station. Trains may be infrequent, so you may wait for half an hour the next train. It is wise to bring a book with you.
The pleasures of hiking vary with the season. In Spring, plum and cherry blossoms are dotting the mountains. Japanese forest is also spectacular in autumn. In winter, surrounding mountains are often snow-covered. You may see Mount-Fuji in all three seasons by clear weather. In summer, the atmosphere is wet, but the mist often makes for superb shades of green.
Here is the closest hike from downtown Tokyo. Starting from Shunjuku (新宿) station on the Keio line (京王) , a “Jun-Tokkyu" (準特急) train brings you in 53 minutes to Takaosanguchi (高尾山口) station . It is also possible to board a train heading for Hachioji (八王子) and to transfer at Kitano (八王子). The station is located in a small outmoded tourist village, Mount Takao (高尾山) is not anymore the popular destination it was thirty years ago. After the station exit, you will turn right to reach the departure of the cable car. The small path called "Inari Course" (稲荷山コース) starting on the left before the cable car is the most pleasant. It climbs by a crest in the forest, and offers good sights on the surrounding valleys. Climb the path to the top, always following the direction of Mount Takao (高尾山). The 90 minutes climb in the forest ends with a long staircase. Numerous hikers are resting in the clearing of the top of the mountain. If time is clear, you can have beautiful sights of Mount-Fuji at a terrace just below the summit.

The descent by the road (path number 1 -1号路) is more comfortable. After a few minutes, you may take the pleasant path on the right in direction of Mount Takao temple (高尾山楽王院). The small path starting just below the temple will bring you back to the valley. The road there (path No 6 -6号路) will lead you back to the departure of the cable car through a very narrow valley. After Three or four hours in the forest, you are back to civilization.
Mount Takao is the most accessible hike in the surroundings of Tokyo, and undoubtedly the only one possible in a half day, but there are countless other wilder and more interesting walks. An English book will provide you with numerous daily hikes in the Kanto region. It is probably the most useful investment when you move in Tokyo.
Day Walks near Tokyo par Walters, Gary D. ISBN 4770016204, published by Kodansha International
You must wear hiking shoes, which are compulsory in the stiff paths on the sides of the mountains. The author of this page is familiar with the Alps and Canadian Rocky Mountains, but was surprised by the stiffness of the Japanese paths, even on the side of mountains not exceeding 1000m. You should also buy drinks and food before leaving, because you may find no shops in mountain villages. A bottle of green tea and some "O Nigiri" rice balls will give a Japanese flavour to your hike. It is also advisable to consult the weather forecast before leaving, and stay home in the event of rain, snow or thunderstorm. A map, even a basic one, is essential. The services offered by Yahoo Japan can be sufficient in both cases. It is important to know both the pronunciation and the Japanese writing (kanjis) of the major landmarks in your hike. The signposts are generally written only in Japanese, and you may wish to ask Japanese hikers for your way. It is better not to go alone, or at least to tell a friend about your itinerary, so that he can call emergency services if you got wounded and did not come back. However, there are hikers on the paths in any season, and it is very uncommon to be alone.
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Introducing Japan with three numbers

A story on Japan can start with a post card: a geisha, traditional artist, with her hear on her mobile phone, or the shinkansen bullet train speeding in front of the famous « Mount-Fuji » volcano with cherry blossoms in the front. However, those images do not represent the real life of this archipelago. New-York is not only the Statue of Liberty, and even, the statue of Liberty is not so important for New-York, except of course for the company managing the ferries to get there.
We should rather start by looking at a map, and draw from Paris (or London for the matter) and Tokyo two circles each : Here is the list of countries falling in those circles :
  • less than 1000km from Tokyo : South Korea, Russia (Siberia)
  • less than 1000km from Paris : Ireland, UK, Spain, Portugal, Italia, Slavenia, Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Liechtensteinm Luxemburg
  • less than 3000km fron Tokyo : North-Korea, Mongolia, China (Continental, Taiwan, Hong-Kong), Philippines, Saipan, Guam
  • less than 3000 km from Paris : Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, The Azores, Morocco, The Sahara Western, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Malta, Chad, Egypt, Sudan, Israel & Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldavie, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Bielorussia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia
Starting from Paris, a 3000 kilometers travel will lead you to Chad, the Azores, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Georgia, in Iceland, Sweden, or in any of sixty other countries with a wide range of customs. Only Ten countries are within the same range from Tokyo. China is of course the main neighbour. Only South Korea and Russian Siberia are really close. The limited choice of short holidays suggested abroad by the Japanese travel agencies is depressing. It is difficult to escape from Guam, Saipan, Seoul, Peijing or Hong-Kong, and perhaps for the most seasoned travelers will go to the Philippines. This relative isolation is more important than the lack of choice for a romantic week-end with a loved-one. Japan is also a dead-end, the north-eastern end of hospitable Asia, and the last outspot before the Pacific Ocean or Siberia. It was thus never invaded before the American occupation of 1945, despite a Mongolian attempt in the 13th century. Before the modern era, foreign influences were limited and essentially Chinese and Korean.
These islands are isolated, but also over-populated. Japan area is similar to the UK. But with forests and abrupt mountains cover two thirds of the archipelago. One hundred and thirty million inhabitants must thus live, work and feed themselves on a limited space. The following table compares the density of population, i.e. the number of inhabitants by usable square kilometer, for Japan and its larger cities, compared with the west.
Thus, on average, Japan (1200 inhabitants per usable square kilometre) is slightly more populated than Paris metropolitan area (900), and much more than Switzerland (364) or Belgium (407), which are considered very urbanized countries in Europe. In comparison, the Metropolitan France (159) and the United States (41) are just empty. Japan is thus an over-populated country, where the land is a luxury. Such a place must be well organized to make this promiscuity bearable. However, its cities are not the most densely populated. Tokyo concentrates 13000 inhabitants with a square kilometre, which is a little more than Lyon (10000), but much less than Paris (20000), or Manhattan (26000). The height of buildings explains these differences. It is difficult to build high-rise in a country with frequent earthquakes. Japanese also often rather own a house because than a condo. In a country where an old house is also dangerous, only the land is will keep its value. Rather than a 10 floor condo surrounded of a garden, the wanderer in Japan streets more often meets tens of houses each built on a ground of 40 m2, leaving 20 cms between the wall of their house and that of the neighbor.
Land is for sure a luxury in Japon, but comparisons in standard of living with the West is difficult. Japanese often find that European drive old cars. They are often surprised by the difficulty to find designers clothes in a minor town in America. Westerners are impressed by luxury clothing shops in Japan, but find lodging in Japan small and decayed. Specialists give the following results:
Japan’s standard of living is approximately 20% lower than that of the richest countries, like Switzerland, Hong-Kong and the United States. On the other hand, it is comparable with France, or Germany. It is not a poor and backward country, as is too often believed by the expats living in their luxury corporate condos in ceter Tokyo. Neither is it this unique Asian miracle to fear, despite of some spectacular success story, an example of which is more and more, for lack of another choice, Toyota. The reasons of this half-success come easily to mind. Land scarcity and a difficult geography will transform a motorway in a continuous and expensive succession of bridges and tunnels. Foreigners in Tokyo also point some Japanese inefficiencies, from ATM closed on week-ends, to over-qualified women who quit their job at 30 to have children, or to people raising flags all day in front of roadworks. All this will seem terribly backward to them until they come back to their homeland, and find many such annoying details about their home country.
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