Working in Japan

Reflective on time spent doing research in Japan. Actually turned into more of a tourist blog.

Shrines, mines, and tourism

A very large vermillion torii (shrine gate) rising out of the sea

The grand torii at Miyajima. Photo: Jordy Meow, CC BY-SA-3.0. Original here.

After leaving Fukuoka on Saturday my first stop was the island of Miyajima, literally “Shrine island”. At one time the whole island was considered too sacred for common people to set foot upon, so the famous “floating” temple, with its maritime torii, was constructed on stilts on the coast. I took a cable car to the top of the island’s hightest peak (about 530m) and admired the view right across the Seto Inland Sea. I decided to walk down, but had not anticipated the Japanese penchant for steps… where in Europe the gradient would have resulted in a winding, cliffhugging path, here it was basically a 2.5km staircase. My right knee was not impressed.

At Miyajima I felt a kind of reverse culture shock. For the last six weeks the number of white people I’ve met is in the low double digits, and the number with really fluent English somewhat lower. Here, suddenly, everywhere I look there are people from all over the world. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising at one of the country’s top tourist attractions on a Saturday in summer…

The worship hall and then mail hall of a shinto shrine, both very large and in a style uninfluenced by Chinese buddhism.

The grand shrine at Izumo. Photo: miya.m, CC BY-SA 3.0. Original here.

Two days later, after a stop in the hill town of Tsuwano and then a day of travel problems caused by heavy rain, I arrived in Izumo. I visited an Edo-period silver mining area, now a World Heritage Site. Considering its status, there were surprisingly few visitors, and apart from myself I only spotted one group of non-Japanese. In contrast to a few days earlier, things felt more like they had before… apparently the foreigners don’t reach too far beyond the major cities and the shinkansen lines. Later I visited Izumo-taisha, arguably the second most important Shinto shrine and said to be the oldest. Again, I was the only obvious foreigner. I have the feeling that most Brits, and others, visit Tokyo->Kyoto->Hiroshima and then go home.

I’ll be joining them for the rest of my trip: today I’ll be travelling to Kyoto, and eventually east to Nagoya and Tokyo.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan


Side view of the front of a N700-series shinkansen train

N700-series train. Photo: author

Japan’s Shinkansen (bullet train) system is famous, and rightly so – it was one of the first high-speed railways in the world (the first on dedicated track), and as new sections have been built over the years it has stayed at the forefront of technology.

Interestingly, its origins parallel events in British Rail somewhat. Each country was faced with an old network with winding, low-speed routes. Development of the Shinkansen started about a decade earlier than development of the APT, and went in a different direction: the British, with standard-gauge track that was speed-limited by passenger comfort, did the early work on tilting. The Japanese had a mountainous country full of narrow-gauge railway, and so opted for a completely new high speed system with dedicated (standard-gauge) track, minimum bend radii, maximum slopes, and so forth. The APT was of course an unsuccessful project (although the technology that it developed lived on), but the first shinkansen sets[1] arrived a decade before the HST and had around the same service speed of 200kph.

0 series shinkansen

0 series, the first shinkansen train, in the 1960s. Photo: Roger Wollstadt, CC-BY-SA 2.0; original at Flikr

That was 55 years ago, and since then things have diverged… Shinkansen upgrades have pushed its speed on new routes up to 300kph, while UK speeds on old track have remained topped-out at what they were in the 70s. Meanwhile, using technological ideas that originated on the APT project, Japan now has “limited express” trains, the fastest to use the old narrow-gauge track, that tilt and run at 200kph (125mph).

Recently, long distance rail here has faced some of the same challenges that it does in the UK. Shinkansen tickets are really expensive, akin to on-peak British ones bought without any advance purchase discount, and low-cost air travel has been eroding the market. Nearly all of Japan’s sleeper trains have vanished, and the air route between Fukuoka and Tokyo is apparently the second busiest in the world, despite a high speed line running underneath that (for a city-centre to city-centre journey) doesn’t take much longer. This feels sad, and in energy terms must be bonkers.

Fortunately, if one has a JR Rail Pass (only available to foreign visitors, and only if bought outside Japan), things are really cheap. So bullet trains, here I come!

Noses of two N700-series Shinkansen trains (bullet trains) in a station

Two N700-series trains at Kagoshima station. Photo: Author

[1] If you’re wondering where the name “bullet train” came from, it’s not a direct translation – “shinkansen” just means something along the lines of “new trunk line”… but just look at that first train‘s nose!

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

Endings and continuations

Today was my last day at my host university in Japan. I didn’t achieve everything that I hoped, but I did get some interesting results that I can do something with in the months ahead. Such, I suspect, is the summary of most research projects.

Six weeks here has been a short enough time that I still feel new, and still wish that I had a few more weeks available, to do more work and to explore the area further; but it’s also a long enough time that I’ve made some local friends, and will feel sorry to leave. This afternoon I walked home the long way, and I found myself taking special note of the sights and sounds along the route, trying to fix them in memory. This has been a short chapter in my life, but a chapter nonetheless.

Tomorrow I am putting work largely on hold and going on a two-week holiday around Japan. I’ll probably write a little bit about it as I do (for those who are really not interested in my holiday diaries, forgive me – I’ll return to more subject-focused topics in a fortnight’s time). After that it’s back to Scotland, and a return to the reality that I have a looming thesis submission deadline, meaning that while I do plan to further analyse and to write up what I’ve been doing in Fukuoka, I have to be very careful how much time I spend on it.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

My weekend: A railway adventure

My original plan for last weekend had been to visit Aso-san, the large volcano at the centre of Kyushu, via some circuitous scenic railways. That prospect became somewhat less worthwhile when I discovered that the top of Aso is closed due to activity, so I came up with an alternate plan, also involving trains and a volcano.

On Saturday I sent off for Kagoshima, which is the port city at the southern end of the main islands of Japan. I booked a slow route, on vintage trains running through the interior – a landscape of never-ending lush, green, forested hills and mountains.

After reaching a main station the day started on a shinkansen, because I needed to cover some distance to reach the other railways. There are many good things that I could say about the “bullet trains”, but one thing that they are not good for is sightseeing. The Kyushu shinkansen in particular spends perhaps 1/3 of its length in tunnels, due to the terrain of the island, and for much of the rest of the time it hides behind noise barriers. This makes a lot of sense for everybody except the passengers, but for those on board it means that one can’t see much!

I disembarked at Shin-Yatsushiro, transferred from the new to the old station, and found myself on a lonely platform in the middle of nowhere, looking out across fields. After a short wait my next vehicle arrived in the form of a steam train! I’m not sure how old the locomotive was (although it was far from modern – we’re not talking post-war steam here), but the carriages behind it were thoroughly modern, freshly designed for a tourist line. At the rear of the train was an “observation lounge”, which was of course rapidly packed with people, with windows on three sides and sofas and armchairs from which to watch the scenery go by. I’m less fussed about old trains, and indeed steam locomotion, than many, but a train with a separate loco and a clear view out the back is a pleasant novelty in modern times. An unfortunate side effect of steam power was the number of shouty kids running around… We puffed our way along a steep-sided river valley, swapping sides occasionally, until we reached the smallish hill town of Hitoyoshi and disembarked. At some point I noticed that for the first time since my arrival in Japan, we had left overhead electrification behind.

The next two trains were nearly identical on the outside, although with different interiors: the “Isaburo” and “Hayato No Kaze” expresses were both operated by 1970s DMUs with thoroughly rebuilt interiors, in one case described by the railway company as “Meiji-period”. Unfortunately the brief given to the interior designer seemed to have neglected to mention the scenic-railway, sightseeing nature of these trains, because the fitout included such authentic features as high-backed seats, quality hardwood privacy screens, and other such luxuries that prevented one from actually seeing out of the windows very easily! Nevertheless, this train followed an impressive mountain railway, climbing through Japan’s only railway spiral (where the line crosses over itself) and two switchbacks (where instead of going around hairpin bends, it simply switches direction and goes up Z-shaped sets of tracks and points) to reach a station at more than 500m above sea level. A couple of times we stopped for 5-10 minutes at rural stations with wooden buildings that could easily be a hundred or more years old, where the locals set out souvenir stalls on the platform. This sort of rural railway is a world away from the urban commuter networks elsewhere in Japan.

Here are some poor-quality phonecam pictures from the journey; better photos will follow at a later date…

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Eventually, the second of the trains descended from the hills to the southern coast, and followed the bay around towards Kagoshima. The defining feature of this area is the looming mass of the volcano Sakurajima Рso named because it was an island in the bay  until it made itself a bridge in 1914. Said bay is itself a coastal caldera from a far more ancient mountain. Sakurajima is much closer to town than Vesuvius is to Napoli, and unlike its European cousin it is active Рsufficiently so that hiking near the crater has been prohibited for the last couple of months Рbut Kagoshima does have the partial protection of a mile and a half of sea between it and the volcano.

It so happened that I had arrived on the evening of Kagoshima’s annual fireworks display, which was a source of delight. The next morning I visited the Museum of the Meiji Restoration, where I was struck by how very recent Japan’s modernisation and industrialisation was, compared to Europe and America. Then it was onwards to the shinkansen station, where the distance that had taken most of the previous day to cover was devoured in just an hour and a half of smooth comfort to deliver me home – that’s the power of 160mph travel!

Here are some phonecam pictures from Kagoshima:

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Posted by simon in Working in Japan

Earthquake! Er, apparently?

Screenshot of earthquake listOne of the facts of life for living in Japan is the chance of earthquakes. This part of the country doesn’t get as many as some other areas (although it did have one of the worst in recent history earlier this year). Japanese phones automatically get warnings sent to them, but because my phone is not Japanese I have an app for the purpose, configured to warn above a certain magnitude and within a certain radius.

A few minutes ago my officemate came over and asked “did you feel that? I think there was a small earthquake”. I checked the app’s log, and sure enough the seismometer network reported a “Level 3” event, Magnitude 4.2, beneath the slopes of a volcano about 60 miles away.

My first potentially-noticable earthquake, and I missed it! I feel faintly disappointed; while I certainly hope that a major quake is a part of Japanese life that I do not get to experience, I’d quite like to feel a minor, non-dangerous one.

It does, perhaps, vindicate my change of weekend plans – I had hoped to go and visit that very volcano, but for the last few weeks the area within 1km of the active crater has been closed for safety reasons…

Posted by simon in Working in Japan