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.

The Sky Tree’s the Limit

Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree

A couple of weeks ago the Tokyo Sky Tree opened to the public. At 634m it is the tallest tower in the world. In a beautiful paradox the Sky Tree is a thing simultaneously with pinnacle and pointless.

The Japanese media’s infatuation with it has been nothing short of extraordinary. We’ve had TV programs on it’s perfect design, on how it was built, its LED lighting plan, the opinions of local residents and distant tourists, on the financial circumstances of its owner (Tobu Railways), on the Skytree-Shaped Food that is currently being sold all around Sumida Ward, and on the trouble being caused by bored youth hanging around at the tower’s foot and trampling on the new garden beds.

In the midst of this wide smorgasbord of televisual nonsense has been pervasive coverage of how the Sky Tree makes people feel. “The tower makes me smile”, one woman says. “It raises my hopes for Japan”, says another. “It makes me feel good about the future”. “It makes me think that Japan is really great”. The upper observatory costs a ridiculous $40 per adult but in typical Japanese style it has been fully-booked for weeks in advance.

In evidence that God has a sense of humour, on the opening day the observatory was shrouded in cloud. The honoured first guests enjoyed a view of perfect white, and then become stranded at the top as the elevator had to be suspended due to high winds.

I now agree with one of the aforementioned interviewees. “The tower makes me smile”.

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!

Peak Japan

Japan’s rapid development following its humiliating defeat in the Pacific War has been well documented. During the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s the country’s infrastructure developed at an unprecedented rate and to a very full extent. Highways and bridges were built servicing areas with no need for them. Airports were constructed in remote, lightly-populated areas to fly vegetables to the cities. (Have you ever bought a radish that has its own Air Miles?) Unused concert halls and empty art galleries were built in the smallest of hamlets. Railways were expanded to every corner of the country and sprawling subways (underground railways) were built under most of the major urban centres. While current residents enjoy the fruits of this investment, they are increasingly having to shoulder the burden of maintaining it all.

On NHK news last night there was a story about the increasing cost of maintaining Japan’s now ageing public infrastructure such as roads, highways, bridges, and municipal public buildings. Maintenance costs for public infrastructure have been increasing year on year for the last half-century, and last year, for the first time, more money was spent maintaining current infrastructure than building new stuff. In the last couple of decades Japan has been stuck in a cycle of deflation, so these increases in costs are real, not inflationary.

This would all probably be OK if the economy was growing (it’s barely moving), the population was increasing (it’s declining), the number of taxpaying workers was going up (it’s not),  there was little public debt (it’s now at a whopping 220% of GDP), and there were no other budgetary surprises (it is now forecast that decommissioning and decontaminating Fukushima will take 40 years). Living in Japan in 2012 really feels like living in a post-developed economy that is just starting to go into gradual but terminal decline.

So what’s the solution? On the news story last night NHK looked at how the municipality of Hamamatsu was dealing with the problem. Their solution is a public fire sale. Assets that can be sold will be sold, and the small amount of money raised will be used to demolish assets that have no value. The national government is currently pursuing legislation to increase sales tax. Further tax increases along with cuts to social services and the national pension scheme are inevitable.

Unless some other radical step is taken (such as opening the country to mass immigration) I think that residents of Japan in 2030 will look back to 2012 as the end of a golden era for Japanese public services, taxes, and infrastructure.

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.

Kobe Illuminare

Last weekend we visited close friends who live in Takarazuka.

Because we’re cheap we made this trip using the wonderful seishuun 18 kippu, and because we’re heartless we took only one of our two sons, leaving the younger one to fend for himself amongst the mountains of toys and sweets and loving grandparents. Poor boy.

The quality of rail service in this country is superb, but rail travel over long distances isn’t cheap. This makes the seishuun 18 kippu is one of the few rail bargains of Japan. This special ticket, which can be bought by anyone but is only available during school holidays, allows unlimited travel for a whole day for 2,300 yen (about $30). The only catch is that it is only valid for local and basic express services. No bullet trains or special express trains. The trip from Nagoya to Takarazuka took just under 4 hours (including 5 transfers) and it was an enjoyable way to see some familiar countryside. The line passes right through Shiga Prefecture, where I used to live.

Takarazuka
Takarazuka from our friends' apartment balcony
Admiring Takarazuka from a nearby hill
Crazy K, Nicewife and ID admiring the city from a nearby hill

Something I love about Takarazuka is the convenience of its location. It is 30 minutes away from the centre of both Osaka and Kobe, yet is not as crowded as either. It is a hilly town with narrow streets and relatively few cars. It features small shops full of character that spill out onto the street. Everyone gets around locally either by bicycle or on foot, and people mostly commute to the larger cities by the privately-run Hankyu railway that has frequent services and is cheap.

Although our friends’ apartment is small by Australian standards, it is 8 minutes walk to the train station, 1 minute to the school, 3 minutes to the supermarket (and the all-important 100 yen shop) and 5 minutes to a street of coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Until recently they have not needed to own a car.

multi-story bicycle parking
Multi-story Bicycle Parking near the Obayashi train station.

We took the opportunity to visit Kobe in the evening to see the famous Kobe Illuminare. This magnificent display of lights and music is an annual commemoration of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Because of the national emphasis on saving energy this year, the duration of the Illuminare was shorter than usual. This led to intense crowding, even by Japanese standards.

Kobe Illuminare 1
Kobe Illuminare 1
Kobe Illuminare 2
Kobe Illuminare 2

I once again fell in love with Kobe. It is in my opinion the most beautiful of the large Japanese cities. It is also, for Japan, surprisingly cosmopolitan. There are plenty of restaurants offering food from around the world, it has a Chinatown (something of a rarity in Japanese cities), it features tree-lined European streets, and, as Kobe has a relatively high population of expatriates, it’s not unusual to see other foreigners about the place.

It’s not all beauty and tranquility though. Kobe is also the home of Japan’s most infamous Yakuza organisation.