OPINION: Japan Finally Bans Smoking Indoors (Sadly)

Can you believe that in the year of our Lord anno Domini 2020, in Japan of all places, often seen as decades ahead of everyone else, still allows indoor smoking? That’s right– at most restaurants you can light up right at the table, even in freaking Burger King. And of course, bars too. If anything, it was weird to be in a bar that didn’t allow it. Needless to say, it is probably visitors’ #1 complaint of an otherwise “perfect” country for holiday, and of course many of my fellow ALTs complain about it too. However, as of yesterday, April 1st 2020, indoor smoking is now effectively banned in all but small mom-and-pop restaurants. As foreigners all over Japan rejoice, the vast majority of whom are not even going to be in Japan more than a few weeks, or a few years,  I’m quite sad, even as a fellow temporary resident. Japanese people too, of course, are alternately happy or dismayed as well.

mstars_001
Gone are the days of Chesterfield Christmases with Ronald Reagan.

Smoking is definitely on its way out, at least in the West. Most major movie studios have independently adopted ban on depicting on-screen smoking unless rated higher than PG-13 or for historical accuracy purposes, though if you notice, a majority of movies set in the late 20th century or before it are still mysteriously devoid of it despite how sterile it makes historical dramas look. Also: did you know, movie-smoking nowadays is achieved using herbal cigarettes, which contain no tobacco, tar, or nicotine. Commercials on TV have been banned since the 1970s in America. Even tobacco companies themselves don’t really promote “traditional,” combustible smoking anymore– one of the first jobs I applied for out of college was at R.J.  Reynolds, owner of Camels and American Spirits, and one of our duties would have been to try to convince smokers to switch to alternatives like snus or E-cigarettes. While in Japan, smoking is very much a part of daily life, being normalized to the extent that children’s textbooks still contain examples like “the old man is smoking” alongside “the boy is playing with his dog,” it is following along in the same footsteps with things like this ban.

To most people outside of Japan, and even in it, this ban is a good thing. But to me, while it is untenable to say that it is objectively a bad thing, I wholeheartedly disagree with this ban. And to those whose minds are already set, or who believe there is only one objectively correct answer to what should not even be a debate, I humbly entreat you to open your ears, and your mind.

sweet_1

The dangers of secondhand smoking, while well-documented and somewhat warranted, are still overblown, and Japan is one of the best arguments in support of this seemingly crackpot theory. In a country where exposure to secondhand smoke/smoking is just a fact of daily life, especially in enclosed spaces, you would think that given how dangerous it is said to be, there is no possible way that Japan could be #2 in life expectancy, second only to Monaco, a country with a population of 39,000. Meanwhile, Japan consumes 1,583 cigarettes per person per year, about 1.5 times the global average of 1,083 and putting it in the top 20%. For comparison, the US is just about average at 1,016 yet #43 in life expectancy, a full five years less. Of course, there are many other factors at play in Japanese people’s longevity too, including simply genetics, and the fact that the Japanese diet is pretty healthy compared to other diets of the world. Daily movement is also a big part of life, with the rigor of PE and club activities in schools growing up and just the idea that you have to walk so much from place to place, helping put Japan in the bottom 10 for obesity.  Given this, I think one can fairly confidently conclude that for all its dangers, its impact on mortality is not as much of a death sentence as it is made out to be; insofar that it neither magically cancels or even has a visible effect on otherwise healthy lifestyles.

claims_19

In the same vein, it is undeniable that smoking rates are declining worldwide. Instead, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and yes, asthma are all increasing. There are much bigger fish to fry, and the fact of the matter is, anti-smoking legislation has gone far enough. Gone are the days of smoking in hospitals and on airplanes. For the majority of people reading this, if you don’t want to be around smoking, you never have to be. We no longer live in an era where you were constantly around it, in it, and constantly inhaling it from others in all environments, something the previous generation had to suffer, and who make up pretty much all of secondhand smoke deaths to this day. Otherwise, nowadays, in the 21st-freaking-century, the incidental exposure you may get, from walking by someone who is smoking, or passing by that pachinko parlor, is completely negligible given that merely being outside is actually leaps and bounds more harmful– in Europe, air pollution literally kills more than even “firsthand” smoke does. Yet, no one bats an eye at the daily aerial smorgasbord they face of car exhaust, factory fumes, smog, and heck, even methane originating from cow “emissions” they face on a daily basis, and only the most salient yet infinitesimal aspects of it.

Nevertheless, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, especially not with facts and statistics. This comes down to personal beliefs and preferences, more than anything else. I believe very strongly in two principles: “vote with your dollar,” and that the government should leave people in control of their own lives. For the former, support businesses if you support their practices, and businesses with universally unpopular practices will change, suffer, or eventually fail. For the latter, if people want to smoke, drink, drive fast cars, shoot guns, or whatever it is, give the freedom to both them and the relevant businesses to make their own decisions. The government should not play the role of moral arbiter in this respect, leading to endless circles of why is X regulated while Y isn’t?

manner_poster_27
A poster from the 1970s about designated non-smoking times on the train platform.

It must be said, I don’t deny that smoking is bad for you. It certainly is. It definitely causes cancer. But secondhand smoke, the only reason people care about a ban in the first place, is not all that bad and has already been regulated to a place where most people never have to encounter it, and even when they do, it is not nearly enough to have any effect whatsoever. In fact, thanks to regulation, it is now more a minor annoyance than anything else. In the pursuit of nonsmokers’ freedom to breathe clean air, it has gotten to the point where they have that already, many times over, yet the march against people’s freedom of choice of what to do with their bodies continues. While you may argue that one should not have to deal with ANY negative effects of anyone else’s decisions, I believe that is just how it should be. I don’t expect the world to change to suit my needs and preferences. There are plenty of things *I* don’t like and secretly wish could be banned that I have to be around, but if having to is the cost of such freedom and independence for others and society at large, then I’d happily pay it twice over.

Coronavirus Hits 1,000; Titanic Iceberg Soccer

cache-Messagep180215
Saying goodbye to Siseko, pictured here whispering South African economy statistics. Credit goes to Julie S. for this photo.

You know that scene in Titanic where it’s just struck the iceberg and people are playing soccer with the ice chunks? That’s the kind of the spirit of this post. Since my last one, cases in Hyogo prefecture have trickled up to just over 100. I have a bad habit of underestimating/making light of disasters, and this one seems to be no exception either. A lot of the world is shutting down now, and it became more real when recently one of my closest friends here (together with two other people) all decided on Tuesday to quit their jobs, with four days’ notice to their schools, to move out of their apartments and fly out of the country on Sunday.

Japan, God bless it, REALLY hates change, and it is really resistant to corona-chan’s attempts to affect day-to-day life. Schools did close a week early for spring break, but they are still stubbornly going ahead with opening school as normal in April. Just yesterday, we had a sort of orientation for the incoming freshmen, with hundreds of kids running around the school all day. And as a “compromise” between exposing kids and closing schools, the usually-daily club activities have resumed practice, but *only* four days a week (instead of 6) and no more than two hours a day. Wowee! “Social distancing” has not yet even been recommended here, though the government does still come out to say “don’t travel between this and that prefecture unless necessary” every so often. A second motivator is that Japan really does not want to postpone the 2020 Olympics, so rumors are that the government is undertesting to keep numbers low. I have heard thirdhand (so take that with a grain of salt) of two JETs being told by doctors “you probably have coronavirus, but we won’t test you. Just stay home for two weeks,” and whatever reason for that your guess is as good as mine. UPDATE: As I wrote this post, it looks like Prime Minister Abe did admit they’ll have to postpone.

So, almost three months since corona began, Japan still isn’t shut down, and cases still haven’t exploded exponentially like they have in, say, Italy. As of writing, Japan has about 1,000 cases spread over the country. Businesses are all still open. Markets haven’t run out of anything, although toilet paper has become quite scarce and face masks disappeared since the beginning of this epidemic. Other than that, if you just totally ignore the news you’d never know this thing is going on in Japan. However, it’s only a matter of time until things really go south, given the total lack of any significant response or widespread quarantine practices, and the fact that around the world “it took 67 days… to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000, and just four days for the third 100,000.” (source) Either that, or we find out that the quaint Japanese tradition of totally eschewing hand soap actually builds mega-immunity. I’ve already tempted fate once, because my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival may very well have been ground zero. As I have said to many people in the ad nauseum conversations about it, what a crazy time to be alive. So, to the one person reading this, be thankful the ship hasn’t started leaking yet, but it DID hit that iceberg and it’s probably better to be padding those lifeboats than kicking ice around.

 

 

Coronavirus Strikes Japan!

I have lived through many health scares, from avian flu to zika virus (that is, they existed while I was alive), though they have never personally affected me. I thought coronavirus would be much the same, but little did I know that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would create some ripples on Thursday the 27th by suddenly requesting ALL SCHOOLS in Japan to close the following Monday. This sent schools into a panic, in a bureaucratic system where I am required to submit “travel reports” for a 200-yen ($2) train fare that must be stamped by hand by me, office staff, the principal, and the board of education before I get it deposited back into my account weeks later. Not only that, but many schools are still finishing up final exams, and some haven’t even had their graduation ceremonies yet.

Yet, today, Monday, students are still streaming into schools. In fact, from what I heard most schools hated the move. Many, including mine, agreed in contravention of Abe’s advice to have one or two more days of school to finish up exams, and then close. And guess what, schools being closed just mean students don’t have to come. We teachers still have to.

This has been a rapidly developing situation, and it has finally given me enough material to make a blogpost about it. Although it had been happening all over Japan, first nearer Tokyo, and then down as close as Osaka, I thought it was only a matter of time before a case popped up in Hyogo. And one did, just last night! My local community center has cancelled all events for the next month. Trains were a ghost town on Saturday night, and as always, people are wearing surgical masks (which, by now, are almost impossible to find in stores). It has affected bigger things too, for example the Grand Sumo Tournament in March being closed to spectators. Things are happening, but there is no widespread panic you see in day-to-day life as the news are implying. At the end of this all, I hope that if nothing else, back in the West this’ll bring masks into vogue, because what’s not to love? They cover half your face and look good too! More to come soon, of course, as coronavirus starts to ravage Hyogo.

Hokkaido & The Sapporo Snow Festival

When I was a kid, I thought “white Christmas” had something to do with white people, like how picture-perfect it was. Snow on Christmas, or in general, was just something so vague and abstract to me, something you see only in movies and TV. I also thought the intricate snowflake shapes you’d cut out in class were a total invention, and actual snow just shapeless specks. I’ve learned my lesson since then, since I have seen snow and experienced actual cold temperatures, but not like this, not in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island!

The 71st Sapporo Snow Festival

IMG-1897

This last weekend, temperatures had ranged from 30° F (-1° C) at the highest to 1° F (-20° C) at the lowest. Wow! In Fahrenheit, for those who don’t think about it much, water freezes at a sensible 32°. So imagine seeing temperatures almost near 0° F! There were snow sculptures really ALL over the city, and even surrounding cities that I went to, but the main attraction was the ones featured at the Sapporo Snow Festival, spanning perhaps six city blocks along Odori Park in the center of the city.

IMG-1764

There were also gigantic snow mural walls, and at night they’d do a project mapping and light show. Neat!

IMG_1916

Ice sculptures abounded too, and by morning time the nighttime snowfall lent them incredibly A E S T H E T I C accents of frost.

While the snow festival was the main reason I took the two-hour flight north to Hokkaido, other highlights included:

IMG-1545

An intimate jazz concert in Susukino featuring Mori Yamato, voted the best young guitarist in the WORLD for the year 2019.

IMG_1912

The Sapporo Beer Museum, situated inside a beautiful 19th-century brick warehouse with vintage Sapporo ads dating all the way back to the company’s inception in the late 1800s, exhibits of the vats, equipment, and the story of how they brought Western brewing techniques to Japan, guided tours, and of course beer tasting. In Hokkaido you can buy “Sapporo Classic,” based on the original brew and sold only in Hokkaido, while of course you can buy the regular Sapporo Draft anywhere in Japan.

FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD

IMG-1648

I also spent some time in Otaru, famed for being the best place in Hokkaido for sushi, a prefecture that already in itself is famous for having some of the best seafood in Japan.

IMG_1920
Clockwise from top left: revolving sushi at Hanamaru, considered one of the best in Japan, soup curry, otoro (well-marbled tuna), miso butter ramen, kaisendon (sashimi bowl), stuffed crab shell, and some cute parfaits, as Hokkaido is also known for its dairy.

Sapporo also has quite a lively nightlife, especially in Susukino, just a stone’s throw away from the festival in Odori Park. I found a place, Gossip Lounge, where the cover charge also included FIVE drinks, and for just another $1 you could increase that amount to ten. Not only that, but for the first time ever, I actually found a few places that would amazingly let foreigners in for free (but not others), to varying results of atmospheres. Just as in Fukuoka or Osaka, Hokkaidans were incredibly friendly and welcoming. And you know, for a city where the temperatures got to -20, at the same time you could hardly have expected to feel so warm.

Legoland Japan & Japan’s Most Boring City

Two years ago, two major things happened: Nagoya, the capital city of Aichi Prefecture, was voted the least appealing city in Japan (or rather, it was ranked lowest among the major cities for its appeal). Then, in April, another stunning revelation to the world– the opening of freaking LEGOLAND Japan, and really the main reason I decided to head up to Nagoya for the weekend.

Legoland Japan

IMG_E0786

Just like the city that houses it, Legoland has had a pretty beleaguered reputation, presumably mainly because tickets used to cost near 6900 yen ($69), despite the park being just 23 acres square. For comparison, Tokyo Disneyland is 115 acres, and a ticket there costs 7500 yen. It’s also freaking Disneyland and should not cost just under ten more dollars than Legoland. Also, Legoland opens at 10 AM and closes at 5 PM. That’s right, F I V E  P O S T  M E R I D I E M

IMG_0393

Anyways, highlights included a LEGO factory tour, which ended with you receiving your own special commemorative brick– did you know that Lego bricks made in 2020 will still fit ones made in 1958? Cool!

IMG_0397
The pagoda at Sensoji in Tokyo.

Naturally, the main highlight was definitely Miniland, where you can find scale models of many famous Japanese as well as Nagoyan landmarks. It’s all there– Tokyo Skytree, Osaka’s Dotonburi River, many of Kyoto’s famous temples and shrines, and other Japanese crap. Akashi Kaikyo Bridge was sadly not represented, despite being the longest suspension bridge in the world.

IMG_0449
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, as Mount Fuji rises majestically in the background.
IMG_0416
Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Station
IMG_0407
A mysteriously empty Shibuya Crossing.
IMG_0425
The Shinkansen bullet train speeds past Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest structure.
IMG_0444
Dotonburi River, Osaka, complete with “Glen Co.” Man!
IMG_0418
Osaka Castle, unfortunately missing the freaking glass-and-steel elevator they recently installed on the side of one of the keeps.

Not sure how it is in other Legolands, but only Japanese landmarks and scenery were represented. But hey, I’m not going to Legoland Japan to see a miniature Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty or something.

IMG_0511
The central rectangle is the entirety of the park. Even in LEGO scale you can kind of tell how small it really is.

All in all, I’d say Legoland is certainly worth visiting once, if you are interested in Lego at all, and yeah, though the park is indeed tiny you could comfortably spend opening to closing hours in the park. The rides were pretty kiddy but still enjoyable; the main attractions were definitely the scenery. And let’s not forget the cute Lego food!

IMG_0386
Don’t look at my face, look at my adorable Lego sandwich!

As for the rest of Nagoya, I agree with Stanzi in that it certainly gets an unfair shake among the rest of its metropolitan brethren– it is certainly a living, breathing city with lots of exciting things to do. Another VERY cool thing we checked out was the…

SCMAGLEV and Railway Park

IMG_0989

Trains are, of course, a huge part of your life in Japan. Their reputation for punctuality is no exaggeration: there was one week where the trains in my area were weirdly, consistently 2-3 minutes late every day. Then, when I was synchronizing my watch, I realized that… my watch had been running 3 minutes fast all week. The SCMAGLEV Museum, dedicated to those holy electric snakes, is one of the biggest I’ve been to in Japan, roughly the size of a warehouse, big enough to have 39 full-size train cars on its floor!!

IMG_0849

Trains from throughout history are featured, all the way from the late 19th century smokestacks to the latest and greatest bullet trains.

IMG_1062
The distance from Tokyo to Osaka is 246 miles (395km), and the Shinkansen takes about 2.5 hours. This bad boy could make it in less than an hour.

They were all fully preserved and completely enter-able, and it was really interesting to see the little things that changed throughout history, such as the post-WW2 trains having ashtrays in every row and mounted bottle openers since everything was still in glass bottles, and heck, even the toilets changed. Seems like soap and non-squat toilets never made it into Japanese train bathrooms until about the 1970s. Yikes.

Exhibits abound, from replica food in dining cars to fake ticket gates where you can print out your own ticket and go through, complete with fake timeboards, and even SIMULATORS where you can play the role of a Shinkansen operator or a local conductor in control of opening and closing the doors. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived they were all out for the day, so we didn’t get to check them out. I absolutely want to go back. We were there for only one and a half hours, but I could’ve easily spent a few more hours there. By the way, I am by no means a fanatic about trains or anything, but if you have even the vaguest interest in or appreciation for them then this was, by far, my favorite non-art museum I’ve been to in Japan.

As for the rest of Nagoya, well… it is a Japanese city. It comes with all the neat things that nearly all Japanese cities have, that is good nightlife, temples and shrines certainly worth checking out, massive multi-story shopping malls, arcades abound, and their own specialty food. For Nagoya, it’s sweet sesame sauce-slathered fried chicken, called tebasaki karaage, and miso sauce poured over tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet). Delicious!

IMG_0348

See you again some day, Nagoya!

Travels in Shiga, Part 2

So, besides our ryokan stay in part 1, there was a lot of other things to do in Shiga Prefecture. Other things we did in and around Lake Biwa were…

The Katsube Fire Festival

Emperor_Tsuchimikado

When Emperor Tsuchimikado fell sick sometime in the 13th century, a fortuneteller traced the cause of his sickness to a dragon living in a nearby marsh. The dragon was killed and burned, so every second Saturday of January, the Katsube Himatsuri (Fire Festival) is celebrated to commemorate that event.  Oh right, and yeah, the emperor recovered after that happened.

IMG_9120
Before…

So, to presumably represent said dragon, massive torches made of hay are constructed, hauled into the shrine grounds by men in traditional loincloths, and set aflame. As the torches burn, the men dance in circles and chant.

IMG_9127
During…

Small fireworks inside the torches go off just as the torches are spent, signifying their end. Then, their remains are hauled out through the shrine gates. Man, Japanese festivals are so cool.

IMG_9129
After.

Mount Hiei via the Biwako Valley Ropeway

IMG_9379

Biwako Valley Ropeway is Japan’s fastest, and it takes you to the top of the local Mount Hiei in five minutes. Activities included my first encounter with snow this unconscionably warm winter, and my first time sledding in over 15 years.

IMG_0252

We also spent what must have been an hour trying to get the perfect picture on the edge of the infinity pool at Biwako Valley Terrace. Perfect for Instagram! Too bad I don’t have one.

IMG-9513

Mount Hiei stands at a modest 2,782 feet (848.1m), which still makes for a great view above the clouds.

IMG_9467

The Michigan Cruise

50864556.3c8a3d768568f23a7533f113dde8c19d.20011313

Nothing is more Japanese than an American paddle steamboat straight out of 1880s Mississippi River. You can take a 60, 80, or 120-minute cruise on the fantastic Michigan, four stories and also featuring a bar and live performances.

IMG_9350

Keeping with the American theme, the performers even sang in ENGLISH, which is always a surprise. It was mostly Disney music, including Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” Mary Poppins’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You.”

ezgif-3-e2b444e3e564

Much like the Naruto cruise in Awaji, you can also feed the birds here, since they follow the boat the whole time and are pretty unafraid of humans. I had a perfect moment of symbiosis with one particular gull, who snatched my stick of Pretz right out of my hand. They flew a little too close for comfort a lot, even when we were just leaning on the railing looking out at the scenery.

Daiichi Nagisa Flower Park

IMG_9784

Conveniently located a several-mile walk next to turbid rivers, Communist-block architectural monstrosities, rice paddies, and homes for getting to a train station in less than half an hour is only a dream, is Daiichi Nagisa Park, where you can catch over 12,000 early-blooming rapeseed flowers.

IMG_9893
An actual candid of me mid-taking off my scarf. Thanks to Stanzi for the picture!

So now, thanks in large part to Stanzi and others encouraging me to travel more, I’ve made a not-insignificant dent into the prefectures of Japan!

japanex
LIVED: Hyogo, Osaka. VISITED: Kyoto, Nara, Tokushima. STAYED: Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Okayama, Shiga, Mie, Shizuoka, Tokyo, Chiba

To end on a more interesting note, Ogoto, the immediate area of Shiga that we stayed in, has a little bit of a seedy undertone and history to it. Our lovely 4-star hotel was right behind a huge pachinko parlor, and closer to it still was this:

50864556.608aad71ff6104c99a3968646a7f3062.20011313
Thanks to Stanzi for this one too.

A “soapland” in the process of being demolished. Soaplands are essentially brothels that just barely, barely skirt by in the eyes of Japanese law. We saw them dotted all over our travels across Shiga and around the lake. Oh well, perhaps on my next solo travel trip ;^)))

Staying in a Ryokan on Japan’s Mother Lake

“Have you gone to Kyoto? Have you gone to Tokyo? What about the mother lake of Japan?” nobody ever has often asked me. Sticking with my program of travelling only to places that people probably never Google, this last weekend I took a trip to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, one of the oldest on Earth at 4 million years, and located in the Shiga Prefecture, which is next to Kyoto. It’s shaped like a dog, apparently.

50864556.26437268f437560c1a2ad543e1739636.20011314

First and absolutely foremost, this was a golden opportunity to stay in one of the nicest, most expensive hotels in my entire life, in a traditional Japanese hotel, or ryokan. My girlfriend Stanzi and I stayed at Kyo Oumi, located in Otsu, the capital of the prefecture, whose population numbers only 300,000. Very inaka!

A stay at a ryokan, especially a fancy one, entails the following amenities:

IMG_9592

Your own yukata robe, so you can walk around the hotel and bathe in style.

IMG-0063

Kaiseki (multi-course, ultra-traditional) meals, the local delicacies and specialties of the region. For Shiga, it is tai (red seabream); Omi beef, in the same class as Kobe beef; fried and smoked fugu (poisonous blowfish); and of course fresh sashimi, local umeshu (plum wine), and also apparently edible chrysanthemum flowers.

IMG_9603.jpg

My personal favorite was absolutely the third day’s course, shabu shabu hot pot, where you swish thinly-sliced meat back and forth in boiling broth with your chopsticks, and it cooks almost instantly owing to its thinness. Traditional-traditional Japanese cuisine is such a different animal from regular Japanese cuisine, where you go from fried meat cutlets, curry, and ramen to steamed, boiled, pickled, or uncooked… somethings from the ocean. Absolutely delicious and memorable, but my mind wasn’t blown all across the dog-shaped lake as one might’ve expected.

Finally, the most amazing thing about a ryokan is the room itself.

IMG_0065

It was absolutely massive, big enough that I could run laps around it (which I did upon excitement first coming into the room). It is all tatami, featuring the main room, a sitting room, windows with views of the lake, and an onsen-style (sitting) shower complete with a bathtub ACTUALLY big enough to lay down in!

IMG-9672

Without a doubt, the pièce de résistance of the entire thing, really the main attraction aside from the kaiseki, is your own. Private. Onsen! That is, your own private hot spring, overlooking Lake Biwa. Absolutely magnificent.

IMG_0067

One final note about ryokan hotels, is that there is no bedroom. You sleep on the floor, really wherever you’d like, on a futon. Each time we came back from our kaiseki dinner, the staff had already laid them out for us! Otherwise they are stored in closets, and you can lay them out yourself.

IMG_9606

And that was all just the hotel! Lake Biwa had much more to offer than just our accommodation of course, which will follow in part 2… and, unlike Fukuoka, I swear I totally will write one.