Wrestling with Big Issues

This morning, a few minutes from home, we saw this:

sumo wrestlers practicing
These guys are in town practicing for the July Grand Tournament in Nagoya.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day”, I thought. But then I looked around and saw the general public completely unfazed and I realised that, in Japan, perhaps it is.


EDIT: In an even more surreal encounter, on Monday I saw two sumo wrestlers get into a lift at our local shopping mall. I wonder whether 10 persons or less still applies?


Uncrossable Crossing Closes – Nerds Get Emotional

Today is an historic day for Nagoya train nerds. The Atsuta Jingu Mae level crossing is permanently closing, and little wonder too. It crosses 8 tracks (4 JR tracks and 4 Meitetsu tracks) carrying a total of 1,300 freight and passenger trains per day. This means the crossing is open for an average of only 1 minute 14 seconds in every hour.

Other peculiarities that have train nerds foaming at the mouth are the pulley-operated rope barriers that are manually lowered and raised by station staff, and the island in the middle where one can end up marooned when both halves close at the same time.

Jingu Mae Crossing
Jingu-Mae Level Crossing. Source: This blog.

Prepaid Data SIM Cards

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get prepaid SIM cards in Japan on a tourist visa. They are quite hard to find and there’s little information available in English, which is why I thought I’d write this post. Having data on the go is indispensable if you plan to take a smartphone and laptop with you on your trip. There is very little free public Wi-Fi in Japan and the ability to check your e-mail, find your location and map out train routes with Google Maps, and book hotels on the move is a huge advantage.

I bought a 6-month prepaid u300 b-mobile data SIM for 14,900 yen. I’ve since recharged it online for a further 6 month period for the same price. There are no additional usage fees to pay. B-Mobile uses NTT Docomo’s network which has possibly the best coverage in Japan.

I use this SIM in my Australian unlocked iPhone 3GS to access the net on the move. I use a USB cable to tether with my laptop and use this connection when I’m working away from my desk. Uploads and downloads are unlimited but are speed-restricted to 300kbps. That’s fine for e-mail, maps and basic web. It’s not fast enough for Skype (even audio-only) or web video. If you want faster access you can buy the b-mobile 1GB定額 which gives you 1GB of data without a speed limit.

In Nagoya you can buy b-mobile SIMs at Bic Camera (just outside Nagoya Station) or at some of the many small electrical retailers around Osu-Kanon’s Akamon Street. The SIM card I bought required activation by making a simple phone call from a separate Japanese mobile (which you can ask a friend to do for you). However, I’ve noticed that they’ve just released a new product for travellers that doesn’t require activation and they’ve finally put up some information about it in English.

B-mobile SIM Package. This is the 6-month prepaid version.
b-Mobile SIM
The actual SIM card.
b-mobile speedtest
Speed is limited to 300kbps. Here’s my speedtest.net result from my tethered laptop.

Annular Eclipse 2012

We were blessed to experience a pretty cool eclipse this morning. Nagoya was within the path of annularity (I had to look that up!) which meant we were able to view the sun as a “ring of fire” around a silhouette of the moon. We viewed it using a pinhole projector made from an old shoebox. In contrast, Nicewife’s dad decided the best way to view it was to look directly at the sun… We’re expecting him to need new glasses by tomorrow.

The Japanese word for eclipse is made of the characters 日食 which literally mean “eat the sun”. Kinda neat, eh. Nicewife’s 95 year old grandma doesn’t understand science – she proclaimed that the sun god had an illness. A very beautiful illness.

So here’s the picture:


Annular Eclipse
Annular Eclipse from our home just outside Nagoya


Nuptials with Nanoparticles

Given that you usually only get married once, you want that special day to be memorable. One way to ensure this is to get married at this beautiful and expensive little wedding chapel in the south of Nagoya.

What a beautiful fake-sandstone wedding chapel....
after 1
.... just make sure your photographer knows how to crop his pictures.
After 2
A perfect setting for a special day.

Small Boy Arrested In Front of Bullet Train

Small Boy and Bullet Train
Source: Nagoya Police Department

If you can read a Japanese date you’ll realise that this photo was taken back in February, when we spent a very enjoyable and appropriately geeky day at the Linear Railway Park – a new railway museum in Nagoya. If you’re visiting this part of Japan and have even a passing interest in trains (heh heh) I definitely recommend paying a visit. At ¥1000 a ticket it isn’t the cheapest day out, but you get plenty of trains for your money. If you’re lucky you might even get to try out the bullet train driving simulator.

Watch out for hardcore train geeks with huge cameras. They have little patience for mere mortals who obstruct the view of their precious trains!


In Japan, the glossing-over of atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) during the Pacific War (and the Second Sino-Japanese War in particular) is sadly neither new nor uncommon. Outright denials that such events occurred are thankfully much rarer, but it often seems that men with such extreme views end up in positions of political power giving their views undeserved attention.

This week Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, made headlines both here and in China for his denial of the Nanking Massacre, in which the IJA raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in the winter of 1937. These atrocities were shockingly brutal. Kawamura’s father was stationed in Nanjing in 1945.

Nagoya and Nanjing established a sister-city relationship in 1978. Kawamura, showing his complete ineptitude for diplomacy, chose to make his remarks to a visiting delegation of Nanjing city officials. Nanjing has since suspended its city sister relationship with Nagoya.

Even after 70 years, Japan’s continued inability to unequivocally acknowledge and honestly reflect upon the events of the Second Sino-Japanese War has been a major contributor in preventing the warming of Sino-Japanese relations, both at diplomatic and personal levels.

The Origins of Ninja

For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.

Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.

Rural Mie
The JR Kansai Line running through the Iga Plains of rural Mie Prefecture

My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)

During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations.  As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.

I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.

Hidden Katana

The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.

In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.

Iga Castle Walls
Iga Castle Walls

I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.

There ‘snow snow in Adelaide

Position of Adelaide and Nagoya
Relative Positions of Adelaide and Nagoya

Nagoya’s location almost exactly mirrors that of my hometown of Adelaide. Nagoya is 35 North, 136 East. Adelaide is 35 South 139 East. This means that if you draw a line extending directly north from Adelaide it will pass through this part of Japan, and it is the same distance to the equator from either city.

Given that we have relatively mild winters in Adelaide and we never get any snow, it always surprises me how much snow we get in Japan. In northern Nagahama in Shiga, where I used to live, the local residents woke up to 80cm of snow this morning. Here we only had about 15cm, but the boys still enjoyed their first experience of playing in the snow.