Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

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Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

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The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

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After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

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By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015  

Hiroshima Seventy Years On

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The Ōta River divides into two, then three, then six and empties into the Inland Sea. It segments the city into islets. Historic trams clatter over the bridges. A cobbled path follows the course of the river under the shade of cherry trees which erupt into blossom in late March. In the park, nearby, there is a classical castle, originally built in pine in the 1590’s and rebuilt in concrete in the 1950’s. The original was destroyed seventy years ago today, along with five square miles of the city.

One plane, one bomb, at least 70,000 dead at a stroke, at least the same number again of the after-effects; 70% of Hiroshima flattened.

The ruins of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall have been left as they were at the end of that terrible day, the steelwork of the dome crumpled inwards, the outer wings collapsed, the stonework gouged and pitted. It is often said to have survived because the A-bomb exploded directly above it, but it actually exploded over a hospital 500 feet away and obliterated that. When Dr Shima, who had been out of town, came back to Hiroshima, the only traces he found were the bones of his patients and an implement he had bought before the War, in America.

The area around it, a bustling densely-packed neighbourhood at 8am on 6 August 1945, a wasteland by 8.15, has been turned into a memorial park. What is now the information centre was then a fuel distribution point, where the luckiest man in Hiroshima worked. Just as Colonel Tibbets was lining up Enola Gay for its bombing run, Eizō Nomura popped down to the basement for documents. Everyone else in the building was immolated. He lived on into his eighties.

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Academics and journalists, hawks and doves, conservatives and radicals have been debating the bombing for seventy years; they will be debating it for seventy more. Was it morally wrong? Was it a war crime? But was it any worse than fire-bombing? Was it justified by Japan’s own conduct? Was the only alternative a hard-fought invasion in which the Allies alone would have lost a million men? But was the War not won already by then? Had Japan not already offered terms of surrender? Was it less about ending that war as forestalling the next one? Was it done pour encourager les autres?

But few on any side of the argument stop to consider what the bombing actually meant, beyond the big numbers. The Peace Museum tells the human stories with dignity. Spectacles, wristwatches, school uniforms, a lunch box, a tricycle, melted tiles and fused bottles anchor the dreadful stories in real people’s lives. The 70,000 dead, not just a statistic but a pile of carbonised bodies: women, children, elderly people, Korean forced labourers, Allied POW’s. The countless more who survived, but with the most horrific injuries.

Across the park, a flame has burned since 1964. It will burn until the last nuclear weapon is destroyed. It will burn for a long time yet.

The nine nuclear states now have, between them, enough weaponry to end the world at the push of a button. It is improbable that any government would make a reasoned decision to launch an attack. But nuclear states have been led by presidents who were frequently drunk. One is currently led by a ruthless and erratic dictator. Mitterand and Carter each left the nuclear codes in suits which they sent to the dry cleaners; Reagan and Clinton mislaid them. Bombs have been dropped accidentally, although mercifully did not explode. There were several occasions in the Cold War when computer errors, warning shots and all too realistic war games suggested an incoming attack and the caution or quick-thinking of one individual was all that prevented a nuclear war being started by mistake.

On every other page of the comments book at the Hiroshima Peace Museum are two words which must surely come into the head of most who visit: never again.

© Richard Senior 2015

Osaka’s Brave New World

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It was early morning. A drunk old woman puffed on a cigar and shouted at nobody. Men with straggly beards and beaten up clothes were curled up asleep on the pavement. One cuddled an empty bottle of shōchū.

The adult cinema, the blowfish restaurants and the cheap clothes stores were yet to open. They might have closed for good. But the lanterns were already – or still – illuminated at the casual kushikatsu places, selling deep-fried things on skewers. Forlorn-faced maneki neko cats waved limply to customers who did not come. Lights pulsated on the facades of the pachinko parlours; the music inside was amped-up to festival volume.

Shinsekai, it says on the signs: New World. Half was modelled on Paris, half on Coney island. What could go wrong? It was meant to show the world how forward-looking Osaka was when it was laid out in the early twentieth century and everything Western was fashionable. There was even a version of the Eiffel Tower. They called it Tsūtenkaku: the tower reaching to heaven. An ‘aerial tramway’ connected it to a Luna Park. There were Billiken statues copied from the United States. They are supposed to bring good luck.

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But the amusement park closed in 1925. Tsūtenkaku was torn down in the War, although another was built in the Fifties. The New World grew old. There was no longer anything fashionable about it. If it suggested Paris, it was the Paris of the shabby streets around the Gare du Nord.

The entire area is squashed with small, cheap eating houses,” says the Japan National Tourist Organisation with what is presumably meant as positive spin. Shinsekai became the seediest quarter of Osaka. It was – by reputation – the most dangerous place in Japan. That is all relative, though. If Shinsekai were in London or New York, wealthy professionals would happily live there, and walk home late at night.

Everyone has heard the stories about salarymen who were made redundant in the slump of the 1990’s but kept on dressing up in their suits every morning and taking an early train to jobs they no longer had. To admit to their families and friends that they were out of work would have been too great a loss of face. Some, instead, moved to Shinsekai, where they could live in penurious anonymity. The rough sleepers with the straggly beards might well be the ambitious middle managers of twenty years ago.

It is, indeed, a New World.

© Richard Senior

Keeping it Capsule

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An alley led through to the cheaper restaurants, a few hostess bars and the capsule hotel I was looking for.

I took my shoes off at the door and put them in a locker. There was a sign with a tattooed man crossed out. It technically meant what it said: that you were not allowed in if you had tattoos, but what it really meant was that you were not allowed in if you were a gangster. The yakuza famously have full-body tattoos.

I filled out a form at the desk and paid, and they handed me a pair of pyjamas, a towel and a plastic wristband with a locker key folded inside. It looked like something the courts would impose on you for a minor criminal offence.

Capsule hotels are aimed at salarymen who have got too drunk at corporate events to find their way home, or would not be let in by their wives if they did. But they are used, much like hostels, by anyone who wants a cheap place to sleep in the city. The other guests were all Japanese, and sober; but it was still a bit early.

There was a vending machine in the lobby with everything a guest might need in the morning: toothbrush and toothpaste, shaving kit, clean underwear and headache tablets. The inside of the lift was papered with flyers for food – to soak up the drink – coffee – to sober you up – laundry – in case you had made a mess down the front of your suit – and massages – in case you could not make it to the hostess bars round the corner.

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On the upper floors, there were beer vending machines and rows of desks with power sockets and partitions, so that sozzled salarymen could set up their laptops and bash out emails they might suddenly remember in the morning, with a stab of panic, as they open their eyes experimentally and start to work out where, why and how.

I changed into the pyjamas, which were made of brown corduroy and reminded me of the jacket my middle school art teacher wore, and shut my clothes and daybag up in the locker. The backpack had to stay out in the corridor.

There were sinks and toilets on that floor and a communal bath in the basement. It was the usual Japanese set up, with sit-down showers around the wall where you scrubbed yourself up before soaking in the hot tub. There were sauna rooms, too, and because it was all-male they had televisions inside screening football, instead of that soothing music which is supposed to evoke temples and beaches.

The capsules were arranged like train station lockers, stacked two-high in parallel rows with a walkway of perhaps two metres wide between them. Some of the guests had left their screens open and, with the rows of feet, it was hard not to think of a morgue. There were rubberised steps and a chrome grab handle to get to the upper capsules. It was like climbing onto the back of a truck. I would not like to try it if I were in no state to get myself home.

The capsule was much nicer than I had imagined, though. It was more cosy than claustrophobic. There was enough room to sit up and read, and a decent light to read by; and there was a television, in case I wanted to watch people being loud and hysterical in a language I did not understand. It was quiet enough with the screen pulled at the end and the sliding door shut on the communal area; but I wore earplugs anyway. Some of the drunker guests who arrived in the early hours made enough noise to wake me up as they tumbled in, but I slept at least as well as I ever do in hostels.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Bog Above Standard

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It is a squat toilet in Southeast Asia: a hole in the ground with grips for your feet to stop you from falling in, a bucket to flush and a hose to clean yourself up.

In Africa, it is a long drop – just the hole in the ground. Sometimes you have as much privacy sitting on the loo as you do when sitting on a bus.

You will not so readily complain about trifling discomforts back home once you have used a squat toilet with an upset stomach and a backpack and nowhere fit to put it down. It will seem luxurious to have a locking door, a flush handle, a seat and soft paper.

Yet in Japan, the average Western crapper – the bog standard bog – seems as primitive as any squat toilet, as brutally functional as the long drop. Almost everywhere, there – even in bus stations and cheap hotels – you get a thunder box with a control panel which looks as if it belongs to an aeroplane, or at least a very expensive washing machine.

You will have a heated seat and a deodorising button, in case you stink the place out, and a sound of loudly percolating water you can switch on if you are planning to make a lot of noise.

There will be a jet of warm water you can adjust for aim and pressure, although if it is new to you, it will make you think you have been taken suddenly ill. That is, if you manage not to misunderstand the picture. Many a traveller has left a Japanese restroom angrily after mistaking that button for the flush and squirting himself in the face.

You start to wonder how even the grandest, most demanding people at home can be satisfied with just a locking door, a flush handle, a seat and soft paper.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Two Japans

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Tokyo seems never to end. Even from 200 metres up, on the observation deck of the Metropolitan Government Building, all you see stretching out until they blur together are thousands of densely packed office and apartment blocks. Only the nearby National Gardens break the monotony of concrete and glass. Rivers, parks, roads and railways are simply swallowed up.

The city streets are as wide as European motorways. The stations are the size of airports. The crowds expand to fill them. Hurrying salarymen toting briefcases. Bent old ladies with surgical masks and bells on their bags which tinkle like the collars which cats are made to wear to stop them catching birds. Orange-haired teenagers hunched over iPhones as they shuffle down the pavement and into the Metro and onto trains and out at the other end without ever looking up.

When the cherry blossoms come, the crowds descend on the parks and sit in huddles under the trees, laughing and chatting excitedly, or jostle with selfie sticks held at arm’s length. They take the train en masse to Naka-Meguro at the end of the Hibiya Line and clog the streets either side of the canal, stopping for selfies, street snacks, beer or cherry blossom ice cream.

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Searing neon fizzes from every surface. Music explodes from animated billboards. It follows you across the street along overhead wires. More of it pierces out of the sides of trucks as they inch through the middle of town.

The noise from  Vegas-scale pachinko parlours deafens as you pass by the door. Digital birdsong plays in the stairwells in stations. Elevators and escalators chatter away to you. The station cleaner’s rig plays Fur Elise to warn you that it is approaching from behind. The Yankee Doodle Boy heralds platform announcements; a jingle celebrates a train’s departure.

Yet even in the middle of Tokyo, there are pockets of perfect tranquility. Just a block or two back from Ueno Park, where shrieking couples lark in swan boats and tightly-packed groups share bentos on mats spread underneath the cherry trees, the scale shrinks and the noise is muted, the crowds vanish and the neon never intrudes. The alleys are lined with old wooden shophouses and discrete galleries, and temples and shrines, gnarled pines and ancient cedars.

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Two hours to the north in Nikkō, there are no high-rise blocks; no neon, no gratuitous music, no bustling salarymen, no teenagers with orange hair. There are just quiet restaurants and antique shops and a mineral-green river which hurtles over boulders and flows under a humped-back bridge.

In the forests in the hills, there are gilded temples with intricately painted eaves and dragons and grotesques and the original monkeys to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It is as beautiful and as peaceful as anywhere I have been in the world.

To the west, deep in the Japanese Alps, the streets of the old town of Takayama are lined with wooden buildings from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries: inns and craft shops and sake breweries. In the early evening, after the day-trippers have left, an old man potters down the street in pyjamas, and a lady kneels outside her house to pull up weeds, and a couple slowly rolls by on bicycles.

It is hard to comprehend how a single nation can be at once so manic and so sedate, so big, so bright, so loud, yet – at the same time – so quiet and calm; how unspoilt heritage can coexist so closely with ruthless modernity. It is almost as if there are two Japans.

© Richard Senior 2015    

Eating Sushi in London and Kanazawa

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I was part way through a run of long nights at the office. It was hours since the pinstriped crowd had made its way to the Tube, with its furled umbrellas and gym kits and Little Brown Bags. The City was silent then, without the murmur of innumerable phone conversations and the clatter of brogues and stilettos.

The pub on the corner had filled up with after-work drinkers, who got louder with every beer, then thinned out as they drifted off home. It was closed by the time I got out. Lights had been left on for show in the Gherkin and the Lloyd’s Building was uplit in blue. But the streets of the Square Mile were deserted then. Even the cleaners had been and gone. A gust of wind blew grit in my eye, and sent a dropped newspaper scuttling down the street.

It would have been too late for dinner by the time I got home, so I stopped at the sushi bar a little before it closed. The staff were cleaning up and winding down. Only a few plates were left on the conveyor. I watched them do their rounds, and daydreamed about sushi in Japan.

Three years on and I had given up being a lawyer and I was in Kanazawa in a sushi restaurant a few steps from the Omicho market, which bustles each morning with seafood vendors whose stalls are crowded with rows of spider crabs, piles of scallops, and ruby-fleshed tuna, silvery mackerel and bloated puffer fish. Some of the things on the menu were familiar enough. The sushi bar I used to call in after work had prawn nigiri and salmon roe norimaki. But not flounder fin, gizzard shad or horse mackerel; nor salted plum with cucumber makizushi.

The chef reached in the cabinet for a slab of tuna and sliced off a strip with an easy flick of the wrist. He wet his hand under the tap and, in the same movement, reached behind him into a barrel of rice and scooped up a handful which he had moulded into shape by the time he had brought it up to his board. He dipped his finger into a pot of wasabi and smeared it over the rice then glued on the strip of tuna, plated up and handed it over the counter to the customer.

Then he was onto the next order, rolling raw sea urchin and vinegared rice into a square of seaweed; then lightly searing a flounder fin with a woof of flame from a blowtorch. He worked at speed but never noticeably hurried; his movements were fluid, almost balletic, each seemingly casual cut precise.

The sushi there was as different from the sushi I had eaten at home as freshly-made pesto is different from the stuff in jars. I ordered three pieces, then another three, and another three after that.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I was eating sushi because I would be home too late to make dinner.

© Richard Senior 2015