Tag Archives: postaweek2011

Christmas in Tohoku Part 1

Before I came to Japan, I wondered what Christmas would be like.  It is not a Christian country and New Year is a much more important festival in the Japanese calendar.  So I wasn’t expecting to see many Christmas trees.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The shopping centres and public areas around Tokyo have their decorations up even earlier than many do in the UK and – kids being kids – everyone is excited about Santa’s arrival, presents and cake.  In school we play games, make Christmas decorations and sing songs, much the same as you do.  In one class, a student got the words to ‘Jingle Bells’ slightly muddled and all his classmates jumped in to tell him the right ones.  You’ve got to get it right for Santa!

Despite – or perhaps because of – everything they have been through, the small people of Ishinomaki are no strangers to the Christmas anticipation.  I could imagine kids in temporary housing asking their mums if Santa would be able to find them, just as my brother and I did after our family moved house late one year.  The charity Free Tohoku was determined to give them a reason to smile this Christmas and so ‘let them eat cake!’ was born.

The idea was to give each family some treats – Christmas cake and cookies – as well as shopping tokens for other things they needed.  Thanks to the generosity of so many, fundraising efforts were a great success.  23 December saw an assortment of friends, colleagues and Twitter acquaintances meet on a cold winter’s night at a remote station in Chiba (about 20 miles from central Tokyo).  We loaded a brightly painted rainbow bus with all the essentials, including but not limited to: helium for balloons; a Santa costume; a hot water heater and – of course! – a Christmas tree.  There was so much stuff I wasn’t sure there would be room for all of us, but somehow everything squeezed in and then our journey could start.

(For the fact fans, it is around 250 miles)

This was my first trip so far to the north of Japan and I would love to tell you all about everything we passed.  But it was after midnight and motorways being more or less the same the world over, there wasn’t much scenery to speak of.  Instead, it was time to try to snatch some shut-eye.  We had lots of kids to entertain soon!

We woke to a gorgeous morning breaking over a much more snowy and hilly landscape than the one we had left behind.  As always when I am awake at the crack of dawn, I was surprised to see how many other cars and trucks were on the road, the days in Japan start early!  We had a quick wash and brush up in the service station toilets before heading into the centre of Ishinomaki, via a slightly circuitous route to the primary school hall, where we met the volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud to get everything unloaded and ready for Santa’s visit.  It seemed like there was so much to do – however would we finish in time?

Many hands made light work of it all and soon the helium balloons and the cafe were up and running:

The bouncy castle was waiting for the crowds:

The Christmas tree was beautifully decorated:

And we had hung up the handmade or decorated Christmas cards sent to Ishinomaki by children in Ireland, Japan and the UK:

I had thought this way of hanging up cards was quite usual but it seems to just be a British thing as many visitors and volunteers asked about it… maybe this will start a trend next year!  Much nicer than putting them away and they helped to cheer up the chilly school hall.

Then suddenly everything was ready, the doors opened and the kids arrived.  The first part of the day flashed by in a blur, but there were huge queues for the bouncy castle and trampolines, as well as a craft area to make decorations, while the parents stopped for a chat and a coffee.  We also had a visit from a clown who made balloon animals and swords, which came in very handy for clobbering friends:

Delicious onigiri was served for lunch and then came the moment everyone had been waiting for…

Excitement was running very high as the kids got their gifts and treats and it was lovely to hear the hall ring with their shrieks and laughter.  We sang Christmas songs, while some made beautiful thank you notes and pictures:

You can see some of the results by clicking on the link in this tweet:

All too soon it was time to load up the bus and head back to the city, feeling  exhausted but happy – as I hope all the partygoers did.  To those who donated either cash or time, a huge thank you!  To the wonderful team of Our Man and Our Woman in Abiko – who asked if I would like to come along – thank you so much, it was a pleasure!  And to all the It’s Not Just Mud team, thanks for everything, I’ll be back before long.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Before leaving Miyagi, the Free Tohoku bus made another stop.  Christmas in Tohoku Part 2 is here.

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An exotic, foreign taste

Women’s minds are more intricate and labyrinthine, their perceptions deeper, and what they tell you is generally new stuff.  Male friendships are ham and eggs, toast and coffee meals.  Men-Women friendships are an exotic, foreign taste – delicious in odd ways, like fresh paprika, like fennel.

- Jonathan Carroll, Outside the Dog Museum

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After the rain

Plans to walk in the park, always happily made, are often ruined by the kind of rain Tokyo sometimes to unleash without warning.  Even though I come from England I am still surprised at the weather here and how it manages to drop a month’s worth of water on my head in a couple of hours.  Still, we decided to brave it and were lucky as the downpour stopped right before we got off the train at Rikugien Park.

(click on any picture to start the slideshow)

Another perfect day under the trees in Tokyo, thank you Tomoka!

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Thanksgiving

Long-time readers of ten minutes hate may remember this post, about Emily Richmond and how she was going off for the horizon to sail around the world single-handedly.  She funded the trip via creative projects funding site Kickstarter and her excellent website recording it is here.  It is well worth a read if you are sitting at a desk and feeling the need for inspiration to get going on making your own dreams come true.

Ms Richmond has also written a great Thanksgiving email for Kickstarter, in which she gives thanks for:

-friends and family and every single person who’s been a part of making this little dream come true (nearly 500 of you now!)
-i’m thankful for being alive in 2011 where technology/magic make it possible for me, even from the furthest corner of the globe, to stay connected with you lovely people
-i’m thankful for the shortwave radio that tells me of this great American Awakening: the lifting of that malaise that had made it so hard to see that bigger is not and has not been better, that each and every one of us has the ability to change our world into the one we want to see (and that it starts in our lives).

To which I can only really add ‘me too’.  I am thankful for all my friends and family around the globe and the technology that makes the distances between us feel so small.  And I am full of thanks for everyone who dreams of something better to come as well as hope that we can all find the strength to start steering a course towards sunnier horizons.

Thanks to everyone for reading.  Domo!

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If ye break faith with us

So Remembrance Sunday has passed, when the UK spends two minutes quietly remembering its war dead, before returning to the usual business of adding more names to memorials.  The event was originally conceived to honour the now long dead young men of that most futile ‘war to end all wars‘, but its motives seem to have been lost recently in a fog created by a bitter war of words over the poppy.

It is as if pinning one to your jacket and thereby supporting the work of the Royal British Legion has become akin to joining a kind of ‘all war is good’ chorus, instead of the charity appeal for a soldier’s welfare and campaigning movement which is what it really should be.  This is especially sad, as all this chatter about paper flowers drowns out the essential conversation we ought to be having about the lives our wars are damaging today.

These include, but are not limited to, the soldiers who are taking their own lives after returning from combat or others suffering the effects of mental illness alone.  The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports that:

What is known is that only half of those experiencing mental health problems sought help from the NHS, and those that did were rarely referred to specialist mental health services.

Wearing the poppy should always be a matter of individual choice, after all, there are as many reasons to wear one or not to as there are people.  For some it might be a memory of those they have known personally, for others a matter of respect or gratitude.  For those who do not, it could be for based on their pacifism, or a reluctance to be seen to support the motives of recent wars.  On this, I agree with the Independent’s leader of last week:

The moment that someone feels obliged to wear the symbol for fear of looking out of place or disrespectful is the moment we forget what our servicemen and women actually fought for.

I would also love to see a moratorium on starting the next one (Iran) until all the damage caused from the last few (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) has been cleared up.  I would like to see an end to politicians wielding huge wreaths at the Cenotaph while slashing the support available to serving and former services personnel.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one…

Here are two war poems, perhaps the most famous of all and a more recent addition, Adam Ford’s prize-winning entry to the ‘Dulce et Decorum… Next!’ competition.

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‘The waters are rising’ – The National in Tokyo, 09/11/11

This shouldn’t necessarily be an earthquake story.  It should be a music review, of a band and how they played, the songs they sang in whichever order, and how happy they made everyone that heard them.

But it is set in Japan in 2011, so of course there’s an earthquake.

The National were meant to play in Tokyo for the first time on 17 March this year.  I wasn’t even supposed to be going, having been unable to get the night off work (here we finish late and gigs start early).  I was trying to be stoic about the disappointment of missing something that I had been keen to see since spying the advert in December.  There would be other chances, I reasoned, they weren’t really my favourite band, there was only one of their songs that I adored.

Then the plates conspired, the waters rushed in and everything changed, for some of us more than others.  People left Japan, perhaps never to return, handing over tickets to those who stayed for a gig we weren’t sure would ever take place.  Biding my time, I bought a couple of albums worth of songs and discovered much more to love.  So much so that I chafed like a kid forced to wait for Christmas when the new date was finally announced.  November?  But that’s miiiiiiiiiiiles away!

Until suddenly it isn’t.  You are packed into a venue so intimate the band could be playing just for you, so close to your neighbours it is like a Yamanote line train.  The band walk onstage to Dylan’s ‘The Man in Me’ and it as well as the Big Lebowski – your second favourite Coen brothers film – give you a big grin.  So much anticipation.  So long to wait.  Could anything live up to the hype?

Well, of course.

Listening to them on record does display traces of humour, but you might be unprepared for how funny The National are.  They are tough on themselves – Matt Berninger accuses himself of messing up two songs, Aaron Dessner promises that the next time they play in Tokyo they will have better jokes – but they are playful, at ease with each other and yes, funny guys.  Still, they are not here for the stand-up, unlike the angels of ‘England’ never needing to be desperate to entertain.

There is a gentle start from the gorgeous ‘Runaway’, before the ‘kind of like a pop song’ ‘Anyone’s Ghost’ and then it is back to third album Alligator for ‘Secret Meeting’.  Perhaps it is the louder moments from latest ‘High Violet’ that get the crowd jumping, either ‘Ghost’ or ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, but there is beauty in the quieter moments too.  And almost a tear during ‘Abel’, for the friends that should have been here to see this but are now so far away.

The band mention it too, speaking simply of the horrible events that kept them away and their feelings about them.  Also mentioning that now they have been – and almost managed to get to grips with the Metro – they will be back.  It gets loud cheers from the crowd, as of course it would, but they are genuine ones.  Remembering how Japan felt as people left or postponed visits and how happy we are to see visitors…

Especially ones who bring songs like ‘Terrible Love’ for us to leap around to, hands in the air and yelling the words, the atmosphere perhaps so infectious that Berninger heads into the crowd to sing it from the back, mike lead borne aloft courtesy of some heroics from the roadies as he goes, surrounded by an array of smartphones and dazed expressions.  Did he really do that?

All too soon we reach the end, an acoustic ‘Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks’, which everyone joins in with, as instructed – ‘if you know the words or even if you don’t’.

It is a lovely moment, still I can’t be the only one getting chills from all these voices from Japan and elsewhere singing the line ‘the waters are rising’.  Those dark waters and their after-effects brought so much pain still to be healed that an eight-month delay to hearing a band doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Even so, I am glad they finally made it and hope it won’t be that long until the next time.

Photos by Kate Borland

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Road to nowhere

For all of those readers who aren’t students of the 1930s – and why wouldn’t you be, given that we seem to be hell-bent on recreating it? – all I can say is, well.

Be warned, the last time foreign creditors tried to circumvent the democratic institutions of a sovereign nation in order to impose ever-increasing deprivation on its working and middle-class population, via a series of coalition governments lacking clear mandates to do so, it did not end well.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Picture borrowed from here, also well worth a read.

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