Walk Through a Shibuya Arcade

130221_1643Arcade culture is alive and well in Japan. In Tokyo, where the apartments are small and travel is all by foot and train, gaming centers have thrived in shopping areas and around commuter train stations. These arcades are stacked five or six stories high, with each level boasting new wonders and challenges: crane games, coin games, photo booths, slot machines, dancing games, music games, multi-player fighter and first-person shooting games. The players are focused and calm, but the air is a mash-up of explosions, pop-tunes, thumping beats, and classing 8-bit melodies. Here is a walk through an arcade in Shibuya:

Crane games
Crane games dominate the 1st floor. You can claw around for anything…
Crane games dominate the ground floor, you can claw around for just about anything
The sign with the American flag says: “Don’t buy it at Costco!”





Sounds of Safety

130218_0909Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, but how are they beating the reaper? Good health helps, but as we work our way down the list of the world’s biggest killers, somewhere between heart disease and colon cancer is accidental death: car crashes, drug overdoses, and falling old people. Here again, Japan wins. In the United States, motor vehicles alone claim over 12 lives a year for every 100,000 people (right between Jamaica and Bangladesh); Japan clocks in at just under 4. Yes, Japanese are better drivers, but the real story of these statistics is a vigilant culture of public safety.

Concern for life is evident as soon as I step out the door. Across the street is the neighborhood koban, a diminutive police booth staffed 24/7 with two officers. Children are on the way to school, marching holding hands in bright matching caps. They raise their hands in the air at each crosswalk so that cars can see them. Pre-schoolers, on the other hand, are simply wheeled around in a cart like a week’s worth of groceries. There is construction going on, and not one, but two men with reflective vests and batons bow and point me towards the edge of the sidewalk.


The ground itself is equipped with safety features: a strip of textured surface that blind people can follow with their feet. The brailed walkway continues into buildings and stations, using different patterns to tell the walker to stop or change direction. Tokyo must have hundreds of miles of these strips.


At escalators and intersections, sounds are used to warn those with low vision, and like the train melodies I wrote about earlier, these sounds often have charming flair. This is a combination of three recordings. There are two crosswalk melodies, from two different areas in North Tokyo. The tunes are from Japanese folk songs. Finally there is blinker sound used by the city’s garbage trucks. It says that the truck is turning left and to be careful.

You might wonder how a country with such meticulous safety precautions could allow a nuclear power plant to explode. It is a fair question that generated a lot of criticism and investigation following the Fukushima disaster of March 2011. A scathing report published last year by an independent commission found that the nature of Japanese culture was in fact “at the heart” of the disaster, which it described as “made in Japan.” In this case, the cultural traits it refers to are deference to superiors and blind obedience. Plant operators continued working diligently without pointing out flaws in the reactor system or challenging decisions made by senior management. Perhaps this is the other side of that exacting nature that makes the train conductor and sidewalk safety officer so effective. That is not to say that obedience and vigilance are inherently linked; they aren’t, but in my experience cultural characteristics come in bundles that aren’t easily separated; and they almost always cut both ways.

The National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission: full report

Double New Years


Christmas may only come once a year, but there are as many New Years as there are calendar systems. In Bali it came in March, and for most of East Asia it comes in February. Japan, however, switched its New Years to the Roman calendar in 1873, when the country was actively opening itself to the West. So in the past month I have rung in the year twice: first in a mountaintop temple, and just this week in Yokohama City, which boasts the largest Chinatown in Asia.


As the story goes, a monk named Kobo Daishi went to China in the year 804 to study esoteric Buddhism. When he completed his studies and was ready to return to Japan, he threw three relics out over the ocean. He later found them, thousands of miles away, on top of a mountain in central Japan. In 819, he settled on its broad peak and founded Shingon Buddhism, which is still headquartered there today. He named the mountain Koya (高野山: literally: high-field-mountain). The mountain is now home to over one hundred temples and the largest cemetery in Japan. Even more stunning, however, are the groves of thousand-year old cedar trees that grow in and around the temple grounds.

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           Here is the evening in sound:

Shortly before midnight, a monk began ringing the bell, working the heavy pendulum back and forth several times before throwing his weight into the cord and finally making contact. He wore only a thin robe and his head was bare. As the bell rang, burning logs were carried around the temple buildings. We gathered with the other temple guests at 12 for soup, hot sake, and a quick countdown, then made the long walk through the cemetery to the central temple. There, monks chanted until 3am, when we finally returned to our frigid temple lodging. We were woken again at 6am for morning prayers.



You can hear them stoking a fire as they chant. Many of the Japanese families staying at the temple wrote prayers on wooden sticks that looked like paint stirrers. Later these were burned. I love the way the monks’ voices drift around a single note: occasionally building tension and then releasing. Here is our room looking over the temple courtyard:


Chinese New Year in Yokohama

DSC_0010DSC_0030The crowd that gathered for the opening of the New Years festival was at times frightening: the kind of crowd where you actually can’t move, and you have to keep your arms up or they will get pinned at your side.

DSC_0043 DSC_0039
DSC_0046The main event was the lion dance. A group of young men went door to door with drums, symbols, and a long lion costume, performing a short dance at each shop to bring them good luck. The crowd surged and heaved every time the show advanced down the narrow street. After a few performances, of which there must have been well over one hundred, I’d had enough. The open air of Yokohama harbor never felt so good.


Sounds of Tokyo 4: Election Season


Japanese election seasons are brief and furious: two weeks of breakneck politicking packed with all the drama and surprises of their more protracted American counterparts. Two factors make it possible. First, Japan’s parliamentary system encourages large numbers of parties. This year was especially chaotic: one ruling party had been ousted in 2009, the new one had since become deeply unpopular, and a number of new voices were entering the fray following the nuclear disaster of 2011 and renewed territorial disputes with China and Korea. All these players had very little time to organize themselves because the election was not scheduled. Facing parliamentary gridlock and declining popularity, the ruling party suddenly dissolved the legislative session in November and called for a new election the following month.

The second reason Japanese elections are bonkers, and the reason for this post, is that Japan does not seem to regulate public noisemaking. If you have something to say you just take it to the street. Each political party owns a fleet of loudspeaker-equipped vehicles that ply the streets constantly for the two weeks leading up to voting day. Most of them just repeat the candidates name over and over again, which apparently helps. Other cars seem to give little sermons, which for better or worse, I couldn’t understand. Somehow I don’t think that is the point anyway. So close your eyes and picture the scene: a brisk December day on any street in Tokyo. No neon, just black suits, short skirts, tiny dogs and ugly buildings…and then this:

It is up to you to judge the aesthetic value of incomprehensible chatter, something I have spent a lot of time doing these past two years. But from someone who has heard a lot, Japanese babble is by far the best.