Pointing and Calling

Japan’s rail system is known worldwide for being efficient and punctual, probably the best transportation system on the planet.

Visitors to Japan are sometimes baffled by rail staff standing on the platform and pointing with their fingers in various directions, gestures that are sometimes accompanied also by shouting.

Here’s an example:

This seemingly mysterious ritual is there for a reason. Japan invented a system called shisa kanko (“pointing and calling”) which has been proven to reduce errors by up to 85%. This started more than a century ago, with train drivers calling out signal status, and was later expanded to include all rail staff. Even the Shinkansen (bullet train) cleaning staff – known for the 7-minute miracle – use this system.

Apparently, the physical movement and the vocalization of the task help in raising the worker’s focus and consciousness about the task at hand, thus reducing the possibility of making mistakes

This system is unique to Japan, where the culture permits workers to behave like this in public without feeling self-conscious or silly and without being laughed at by others. I am not aware of other countries where such a system would work (a limited version of it is supposedly used by New York’s subway drivers).

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

 

Amona – Something Positive

I have not written much about Amona, the West Bank outpost that was evacuated this week after being proclaimed illegal by the High Court of Justice. The reason is that there isn’t much to add to what has already been written and discussed ad nauseam about this topic.

At the end of the day it’s a simple open-and-shut case that should have been behind us years ago, were it not for a small but loud minority of settlers delaying the process through the right-wing government they hold hostage. Any other person in Israel building illegally on land owned by another person would have swiftly felt the full force of the law falling on his head, but as we know too well, settlers in the West Bank enjoy extra legem privileges not available to ordinary Israelis.

There is however one positive aspect to the sordid affair of Amona. The vast majority of the Israeli public expressed utter indifference to the plight of these law-breaking settlers. A long and very visible struggle against the evacuation, tireless efforts by senior government ministers (including the Prime Minister) to overturn the evacuation order, desperate calls by rabbis and leaders of the settlement movement for the masses to come to Amona and oppose the evacuation – were all met by a collective apathetic shrug. A bunch of bored young hooligans did turn up to occupy the local synagogue and delay the evacuation process, but that was it.

And this is a huge positive. The settlers have proven, once again, what is a well-known but little-spoken-of fact: the Israeli public does not have their back. In the famous words of one of their rabbis many years ago, they may have settled the land but they have failed to settle in the hearts of Israelis. And this is positive because when the day comes that many of the settlements will need to be evacuated, the settlers will not find sympathy in their fellow nationals. They will realize that their decades-long hijacking of Israel’s future in the name of a messianic ideology will end up in the ash heap of history.

VaEra – Weekly Remembrance

לכן אמר לבני ישראל אני ה’, והוצאתי אתכם מתחת סבלת מצרים, והצלתי אתכם מעבדתם וגאלתי אתכם בזרוע נטויה ובשפטים גדלים. ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם, והייתי לכם לאלהים, וידעתם כי אני ה’ אלהיכם המוציא אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים. (שמות ו, ו-ז)

Jews have a mitsva to remember the time our forefathers were enslaved in Egypt and how God liberated them and brought them to Israel. Every year in Passover, we recite the words from the Mishna: “In each generation, every person is obligated to see oneself as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt” (Pesachim 10, 5). We do this in various ways – in our daily prayers, during the festival of Passover – but we also do this every week, perhaps unconsciously.

In this week’s parasha God makes his promise to deliver the Jews out of Egypt using the famous four words of redemption, highlighted in the following passage:

So I say to the children of Israel: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Shemot 6, 6-7)

There are many interpretations of these words of redemption, but one of them provides an interesting comparison with other four words mentioned in the beginning of Shemot. The Slonimer Rebbe (the “Netivot Shalom”) says that when the people of Israel passed from slavery to freedom they uttered four deep sighs that came from their sufferings in Egypt. He identifies these”four words of sighing” in the Torah, again highlighted below:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot 2, 23-24)

These four utterances of sighing, says the Slonimer Rabbe, came from the depth of their heart, not as a prayer but as a sigh. They symbolize the four types of sufferings that they endured in Egypt, those of the body, the soul, the spirit and the neshama. By uttering these sighs, the people of Israel released themselves from these sufferings and thus became prepared for redemption.

The interesting point is that the Slonimer Rebbe says these things in his essay about the Shabbat, explaining how a Jew prepares himself for the start of the Shabbat on Friday afternoon. During the week we undergo various sufferings – of the body, the soul, the spirit and the neshama; but as we approach Shabbat we utter sighs and thus purge them from us, preparing ourselves to enter the holy day devoid of sufferings.

By drawing this comparison we are able not only enter Shabbat peacefully, but at the same time remember the four original sighs and the four words of redemption, thus fulfilling the mitsva of remembering our redemption from Egypt.

Silence, by Shusako Endo

Earlier this week I read the novel “Silence”, by Shusako Endo, and yesterday I watched the eponymous newly-released movie based on this novel.

Endo’s 1966 novel tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who travels to Japan together with a fellow priest, to find out what happened to their mentor, Father Ferreira, with whom the church had lost contact. This is 17th century Japan, when Christianity is outlawed and Christians are being persecuted by the ruling Shogunate.

Guided by a drunkard and unreliable Japanese Christian, Rodrigues and his partner land on an island off the coast of Kyushu and find refuge in a remote village of hidden Japanese Christians. They witness the hardships these peasants need to endure, suffering torture and death and yet refusing to renounce their faith and apostatize. The Jesuit priests flee from the authorities but are eventually captured and tortured by the local inquisitor. Rodrigues meets Ferreira and finds out what happened to him.

“Silence” here refers to the silence of God. Rodrigues’ faith is tested when he witnesses, again and again, the unbelievable sufferings of these humble Japanese peasants. He cries out for God to intervene but is answered with silence. This silence shakes him to the core and leads to internal struggles and to interesting theological exchanges with his Japanese inquisitors.

The novel is very engaging and the movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a faithful representation of the novel. At almost 3 hours long, and given its content, it is not an easy movie to watch. But reading the novel first helped, because knowing the story ahead of time allowed me to focus on the acting and the filmography. At times I felt as if I was watching a painting rather than a movie.

Earlier this month I visited Kyushu for the first time, and witnessed firsthand the Christian legacy in Japan. I was introduced to this painful time in history through the memorial for the 26 martyrs on Nishizaka hill in Nagasaki, and the artifacts from the Shimabara Rebellion at the local castle (an event which triggered the brutal repression of Japanese Christians depicted in the novel). Endo’s book and Scorsese’s movie both resonated strongly with me after this visit.

Restored Sumo Glory

The big news in Japan today is the promotion of sumo wrestler Kisenosato to Yokozuna, the highest rank in the sport.

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Why is this big news? Because Kisenosato is the first Japanese to be awarded this rank in 19 years (the last one was Wakanohana, in 1998). This many sound strange to some, as sumo is a uniquely Japanese sport, but in the past couple of decades foreign wrestlers have dominated the sport. The first foreigner to attain the coveted Yokozuna rank was Akebono, back in 1993. But he was an American-born Japanese from Hawaii, so that was not considered a big disruption.

The real shock came in 1999, when another Hawaiian claimed the title: Musashimaru. He was born in American Samoa and had no Japanese background. Following him, it looked like sumo had become a Mongolian sport, as no less than four Mongolians took the top spot one after the other: Asashoryu, Hakuo, Harumafuji and Kakuryu. The last three are still active.

This is why many Japanese, especially the older generation, are elated by today’s news. For some it seemed like sumo was going down the route of many other Japanese traditions, losing its uniqueness. For many, Kisenosato is a symbol or restored Japanese sumo glory.

By the way, the sumo wrestlers’ names are not their real names. They adopt a “wresting name”, often given to them by their trainers. Kisenosato’s birth name is Yutaka Hagiwara.

Oversized Garbage

I took these photos on one of my morning walks in Kobe last week:

 

In Japan, garbage that doesn’t fit into the standard 45-liter garbage bags is defined as oversized garbage (sodai gomi).

In most places, to dispose of this garbage you need to call a special number and get a specific pick-up date. In busy times, such as after the new-year cleaning, there can be a 2-3 weeks wait… After the date is fixed, you need to go to a government office or an authorized shop (usually a convenience store) and buy a sticker in the amount appropriate for the garbage you are throwing away. In the photos above, the disposal cost for the piece of furniture is 900 Yen (about $7.5) and for the suitcase 300 Yen (about $2.5). The sticker goes on the garbage, which is taken out on the morning of the appointed date (and not earlier).

Now, while this may seem a little burdensome (and it is), the end result has two main benefits: the streets are free of garbage people just throw away, and most of this garbage gets recycled.

An interesting twist to this policy is that nowadays most prefectures do not allow people to simply take this garbage from the street if they like it, unless they get permission from the person who threw it away. Rest assured that the one of the ever-watchful old ladies of the neighborhood will catch you trying and reprimand you. In the bubble days of the 1980s this policy did not exist, and many people furnished their houses by picking up sodai gomi furniture and appliances from the street…

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Kyushu Trip, Day 2 – Nagasaki

Kyushu Trip – Day 1 is here.

Day 2 in Nagasaki, exploring the sights south of Nagasaki Station. I did a lot of walking today…

Glover Garden

The morning was planned for a cruise tour of Gunkanjima (see below), but as I arrived early at the cruise ship terminal, I decided to do Glover Garden first.

The garden – a collection of western houses set on the Minami-Yamate hill overlooking Nagasaki Harbor – is named after Thomas Glover, a Scotsman who came here in the mid-19th century, aged only 21, and proceeded to build a fortune in coal mining, shipbuilding and tea trade. He is known as “the father of Japanese beer”, and myth has it that the creature on the logo of Kirin beer sports a mustache in his honor… Glover married a Japanese woman, and the family is buried in a special plot in the Sakamoto International Cemetery, which I visited yesterday. The Glover house is apparently reminiscent of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and a statue of the opera master is on display.

Glover’s is not the only western residence in Minami-Yamate. Other colonial-looking houses belonged to foreigners, mainly Brits, who also lived here. These residences were restored in the 1970s and are surrounded by beautiful, immaculately maintained, gardens. The views of Nagasaki from the hilltop are also beautiful.

Admission is 610 Yen, and it takes 40-50 minutes to properly see the entire compound.

Oura Cathedral

Adjacent to Glover Garden is Nagasaki’s most imposing Catholic Church – the Oura Cathedral. Last year it celebrated its 150th anniversary. The church was dedicated to the 26 martyrs who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 (I visited their memorial site yesterday). It is not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but it is exquisite. It lacks the grandeur (and the height) of the big European cathedrals, and it’s more wood than brick, which in my mind makes it less awe-inspiring but more welcoming. Next to the church is the former school of divinity, itself an impressive building.

Admission to the church is 600 Yen.

Gunkanjima (Battleship Island)

It was time to head back to the wharf to catch the cruise to Gunkanjima, also known as Hashima Island. Coal was discovered here in the early 19th century, and after Mitsubishi bought the island, a full-scale coal mining operation began. In the 1950s the island was home to more than 5,000 people. It had a school, a hospital, a post office, a shrine… everything required to support the families that called Hashima their home.

When the last mine closed, in 1974, the island was abandoned. Left to the forces of nature – the sea, the winds and, most devastatingly, the typhoons – the buildings on the island were slowly destroyed. Its eerie silhouette earned it the nickname “battleship island”. It became famous worldwide after the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall” was shot here.

There are several companies operating cruises to the island; I used Concierge. They have two tours daily, each about 3 hours long, costing 4,300 Yen. The journey to the island takes almost an hour (faster on the way back), and the guides constantly bombard the passengers with information about the island and its history (audio guides in English are available, but do not provide much information). On the island itself there are 3 observation posts; wandering around the island is forbidden due to danger of collapse. This cruise is an interesting, and very different, aspect of visiting Nagasaki. I realize it’s not for everyone, especially as the tour is all in Japanese.

Holland Slope / Misaki Road

Getting off the cruise I headed to Oranda-zaka (Holland Slope), which is nearby Glover Garden. This is a steep, stone-paved road that was the center street of the foreign settlement in Nagasaki. It is named so because many of the residents along it were Dutch.

Frankly, this famous road is somewhat of a disappointment. It’s OK, but after Glover Garden it’s an anti-climax. It’s no big deal to walk it so no harm done as it’s on the way to the center of Nagasaki anyway.

While in the neighborhood I looked for the Nagasaki Synagogue. I didn’t have much information and none was available at the tourist office (and very little online). I knew it was in the Umegasaki-Machi neighborhood, so I walked there from Oranda-zaka. This unplanned walk led me to one of the most charming areas of Nagasaki: Misaki Road, which is basically a slope of stairs leading down from Orandazaka to Chinatown. The tiny alleys and old houses along this quiet street were quite the unexpected gem of the day.

The Nagasaki Synagogue, the first in Japan, was called Bet Shalom (House of Peace), and was established in 1894. I didn’t find it because it’s no longer there. After the Jews left Nagasaki (most of them following the Russo-Japanese war, and others after World War 1),  the building was sold and later demolished to make way for houses. I found a signpost with some information on the street that the synagogue used to be.

Chinatown

Nagasaki’s Chinatown is one of the largest in Japan, and the oldest one, as the city was open to Chinese trade even during the period of isolation. It still retains a strong Chinese influence, but looks like most other Chinatowns: many restaurants, campon and udon sellers, and many tacky toy shops. It is packed with tourists, so I left it in an hurry and walked to the nearby old Chinese quarter.

This area, known as Taijin-Yashiki, is a rundown area of Nagasaki. There are several buildings and shrines from the time when it was a bustling quarter of Chinese merchants and vendors, but even these look somewhat shabby and under-maintained compared to other sights in Nagasaki.

Central Nagasaki

The central area of Nagasaki is composed of several neighborhoods, predominantly Hamano-Machi (long shopping street), Shian-Bashi (nightlife area) and the surrounding area. There is not much to see here besides window-shopping and people-watching.

One of the attractions in the area is Megane-Bashi (Spectacles Bridge), which stands out from the other bridges because of its two arches. When reflected in the water they make perfect circles resembling spectacles. Many Japanese couples come here to tread carefully on the stepping stones to the middle of the river and take a selfie with the bridge in the background.

Sofukuji Temple and Kofukuji Temple

These two temples are a little off the beaten track, but well worth a visit.

Sofukuji Temple is an impressive Shinto shrine, southeast of central Nagasaki. It has imposing red gates framing the steep staircase leading up to the temple. As this was January 2nd, there were many Japanese there for their Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year).

Kofukuji Temple is north of the central area, and is a Chinese Buddhist temple. It dates back to the 17th century and is Nagasaki’s oldest temple and the first Zen temple in Japan. Built by merchants from China’s Ming dynasty, it was home to famous Zen masters and many monks flocked here for their training. It was different, in appearance and even in smell, from the the many Shinto temples around the city.

That’s it for Nagasaki. I’m off to Kumamoto tomorrow morning.

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 1 – Nagasaki

I took a morning flight from Kobe to Nagasaki, a 1-hour flight on Skymark Airlines (a Japanese LCC), arriving in Nagasaki just after 10:30am. A limousine bus (900 Yen) takes you from Nagasaki Airport to Nagasaki Station, with several stops in central Nagasaki on the way. After checking in to the hotel (JR Kyushu Hotel, inside Nagasaki Station; it doesn’t get more convenient than this), I set out – on my first day here – to explore the sights north of Nagasaki Station.

Nagasaki Trams

Getting around in Nagasaki is easy, as most tourist sights are covered by trams (120 Yen per ride, you pay upon exiting, exact change only; or a 500 Yen day ticket). The central area of Nagasaki is not very big, so walking – my favorite mode of transportation when exploring a new place – is also an option. The Nagasaki trams take you back in time several decades, if not longer. Apparently the city collects trams from other cities in Japan that have moved on to more modern forms of transportation (i.e. subways), so the eclectic mix of these single-carriage trams are a unique feature of the city. Old but functioning. Even the 1950s speakers announcing the stations, and playing background music in between, still work!

 

Peace Park

Most people know Nagasaki as the second – and, to date, last – city to have been obliterated with an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the first target of the Americans on that fateful day, August 9, 1945. Captain Charles Sweeney’s mission was to bomb Kokura, a city in northern Kyushu, but smoke prevented him from visually confirming the target so he headed south for the secondary target: Nagasaki. (By the way, Kokura was lucky twice, as the city was itself the secondary target on August 6, 1945, after Hiroshima).

The Nagasaki Peace Park is reachable by the trams traveling north from Nagasaki Station (lines 1, 2 and 3), and the closest stop is Matsuyama-Machi. The park consists of two main areas: one is the park itself, with the famous Peace Statue and other memorials; the other is the epicenter memorial and the Atomic Bomb Museum.

If you’ve seen the museum in Hiroshima, the Nagasaki one might be somewhat underwheming. For me, because I recently read Susan Southard’s excellent book on the Nagasaki bombing, many of the exhibits (and the names of the Hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors) were familiar, making it a moving experience. I was also touched by the minimalistic, yet powerful, epicenter memorial: a black pillar surrounded by wide circular steps, a symbol of the bomb’s outward-radiating power.

The park is free; admission to the museum is 200 Yen. It takes a couple of hours to walk through the park and visit the museum.

 

Jewish Cemetery

Nagasaki was home to the first Jewish community in Japan. After Commodore Perry forced Japan to end its isolation and open up for trade, the port cities in Japan saw an influx of foreign merchants – chiefly among them them Nagasaki, which already had a long history of foreign settlement (mainly Dutch and Portuguese). Among these were Jews, mainly Russians, who established a community here in the late 19th century, numbering at around a 100 families. The first synagogue in Japan, Bet Shalom, was built in Nagasaki.

Unlike the Jewish cemetery in Kobe (which I wrote about here), the Jewish one in the Sakamoto International Cemetery – called Bet Olam (“eternal home”) – is a very small one; I counted about 30-40 tombstones. Most of the dates on the tombstones are around 1900, and a large number of them died very young (in their 40s, some in their 20s). On several of the tombstones the inscriptions are illegible. I said a few psalms of Tehilim in memory of the dead buried there, and regretted there was no minyan to be able to say kaddish.

The Sakamoto International Cemetery is about halfway between the Peace Park and Nagasaki Station. The closest tram stations are Urakami-Eki-Mae or Mori-Machi. The cemetery is a short walk up a steep hill, and the Jewish plot is right at the entrance (to the right).

 

Nishizaka Hill

Another first for Nagasaki: Christianity made its debut in Japan here, in the middle of the 16th century. Portuguese Catholic missionaries landed here and initially were free to practice their faith and convert Japanese to Christianity. But things changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate took over, and Christians suffered from repeated persecutions and murder.

The most famous incident was the crucifixion of 26 Roman Catholics – 6 of them foreign Franciscan missionaries, and the rest Japanese converts, including 3 young boys – on Nishizaka Hill. The story reverberated throughout the Christian world and eventually the victims were martyred and canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (in the mid-19th century). On the site of the crucifixion stands an impressive memorial with life-like statues of the 26. Behind the memorial is a small museum. Also on this hill is the San Filippo Church, with turrets reminiscent of the famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

 

Fuchi Shrine / Nagasaki Ropeway / Mount Inasa

Across the Urakami-Gawa river is Mount Inasa, with the famous Nagasaki Ropeway leading to the observatory at the top. Before taking the ropeway, the adjacent Fuchi Shrine is well worth a visit. I was lucky to be here on January 1st, when many Japanese make their Hatsumode, the first visit to the shrine in the new year.

Fuchi Shrine is neatly tucked into the mountain side, with several secondary “mini shrines” a short climb up the mountain path. The main shrine is in typical Shinto style, complete with the purifying water, the hanging Ema (wooden plaques) and the mandatory bell, faithfully jingled by every visitor.

The cable car ride up the mountain takes less than 5 minutes, during which the Japanese attendant explains about the ropeway and the observatory (with English recordings following her explanations). The observatory at the top is a circular one, giving a 360-degree view of Nagasaki city to the east and the Sumo-Nada sea to the west. I timed it so I would get to the top a little before sunset, to watch both the sunset on one side and then the city night view on the other.

The night view of Nagasaki from Mount Inasa is labeled as one of the “top three night views in the world” (along with Hong Kong and Monaco). I don’t know who rates these night views and how Nagasaki made it to the top three, but it is certainly a most impressive view. I spent more than an hour on the top, watching the day turn into night, and it was a majestic spectacle of nature. Luckily, it was a clear day so visibility was good.

A round-trip ticket on the ropeway is 1,23o Yen. One can also climb up (or walk down) using the “promenade”, convenient stairs carved into the mountain.

 

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Train Schedule

I took this photo at Shinagawa station in Tokyo. It shows the upcoming Shinkansen (bullet train) departures.

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At the bottom is a notice, in Japanese and in English, about a planned suspension of service. The trains will stop for 1 hour on Dec. 18, for safety checks.

The interesting part is that I took this photo on Nov. 29. Fully three weeks in advance (and probably longer) of the planned 1-hour suspension in service.

This is a great example of the almost impeccable train service in Japan, especially the Shinkansen lines. Punctuality is of utmost importance, so meticulous planning – such as this scheduled safety check – is de rigeur. Sometimes this fervor for punctuality can lead to tragic consequences, but mostly it leads to unparalleled predictability in train schedules. In fact, the average annual delay in Shinkansen trains, country-wide, is less than 1 minute (!). That’s on a network that transports more than 350 million passengers annually over almost 3,000 kilometers of lines.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Tokyo Photography Exhibition

If you are in Tokyo between now and 29 January 2017, I recommend a visit to the “Tokyo, Tokyo and TOKYO” photography exhibition at TOP Museum (Tokyo Photographic Art Museum), located in Yebisu Garden Place. I went there yesterday and enjoyed it very much.

Actually, there are two exhibitions under the “Tokyo, Tokyo and TOKYO” name. The one on the 3rd floor is a collection of some of the best works in the museum’s archives. The one on the 2nd floor is a collection of contemporary works.

Combined, these two exhibitions provide an incredible experience of Tokyo-focused photographs over the last few decades, ranging from landscapes to people to close-ups, by different artists with different approaches.