Relocation, relocation, relocation

Photograph of an art installation consisting of two very high piles of brightly coloured luggage.

Photo: Susanne Nilsson, Flickr user infomastern. Licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

I’m about half way through a one year contract, so of course much of my headspace is occupied with wondering what comes next. (I’d rather it was occupied with great research, or any number of other things. This is one of many problems with the early-career norm of short-term contracts, but that’s another topic.)

As I look around at job adverts, naturally they are all over the world, and also varying in length. Recently I found myself looking at a short one in the US and thinking “I’m not sure I want to relocate intercontinentally for just a year”. My initial thinking was that I’d consider it more seriously for two or three years, but a one-year contract wasn’t worth the upheaval.

Then my officemate pointed out that I had jumped at the opportunity to live in Japan for two months, which is much shorter. I replied that I hadn’t actually “moved” there, it was simply a visit. But where does one draw the line? In my head, two or more years is definitely moving to a place, while two months is definitely a visit. Could a year be considered from either angle?

Possibly it’s less about duration than other things. In Japan I lived out of a suitcase, but I don’t think it really comes down to how many belongings one takes with. Perhaps it has more to do with whether one is getting paid in the other country, dealing with bank accounts, setting up local healthcare provision, househunting, etc.

Food for thought, and in the meantime I’m not ruling anything out.

Posted by simon in Reflective

I aten’t dead.

I’ve been rather quiet on here. Sorry. I have a couple of draft posts awaiting photos, but I probably won’t have the photos sorted until I get home and catch up with life. In the mean time, here’s a really bad photo of Tokyo Haneda airport just after midnight:

View through a window - Cartier store reflected in the glass, and planes behind.

I’m on my way home, and I have very mixed feelings. After two months I’m ready to resume “normal” life, to see friends and family, to speak English without always gauging how much I should slow and simplify my language according to the listener, and to sleep in my own bed. Probably for about a week. On the other hand, I will miss Japan. It’s a fascinating place, and while I understand it a lot better than I did eight weeks ago, there’s a long way to go on that front.

I hope I have the opportunity to return one day.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

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

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 – so 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 – sufficiently so that hiking near the crater has been prohibited for the last couple of months – but 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


Publishing this nearly three weeks after it was written, because it’s taken me that long to get the photos ready inbetween other activities.

I have a busy work schedule while I’m here, but I would be missing part of the point of a research exchange (and disappointing myself) if I didn’t get out and explore as well. The theme of last Saturday was steps.

I decided to visit the Atago Shrine, in another part of Fukuoka. I caught a subway to the area, and discovered that the Japanese are not afraid of steps when designing subway stations:

Many, many steps at the exit from a subway station

So I climbed those steps. Then I walked a few hundred metres and arrived at the start of the approach to the shrine. This is reputed to be the oldest shrine in Fukuoka, founded around 2000 years ago. It is notable, in a non-religious sense, for being at the top of a rather steep hill. So there are steps. Lots of steps. There are these steps:

Steps between Torii

and then some more steps that I didn’t keep a picture of… and then a short walk through a residential area… and then more steps:

More steps, another torii, and some stone lanterns

and more steps:

Steps, this time from above, with a torii and a red handrail

and finally, this is the view from the top. Totally worth it.

Foreground: inscribed stone fenceposts of a temple; mid-ground: cityscape; background: sea.

Apart from the view, I didn’t find anything particularly remarkable at the top… but I did fall in love with a tiny little shrine that was perched on the hillside about half way down, with some tiny torii (temple gates) that I had to bend over to walk through:

Small concrete torii in woodland

There are some (better) photos by somebody else here.

Summer is fireworks season on Kyushu, and on Saturday night I caught a train to a nearby town to see a display of 8,000 of them, spaced over an hour and a half. In the process I enjoyed some Japanese food stalls, including my first go at skewered fried squid.

After a late start the next morning, I set off to Tōchō-ji, the first of a set of Zen Buddhist temples of the day. This one is remarkable for having a 11-metre high Buddha, the largest wooden one in Japan. It is awe-inspiringly big, in a way that wouldn’t come through from a photo… which is perhaps consolation for the fact that the temple doesn’t allow photography anyway.

The rest of the morning was spent wandering around a whole set of temples that form a sizable self-contained complex, including one that is said to be the first Zen temple in Japan and the place where tea plants were first imported. These city-centre temples provide surprising oases of shade, calm, and nature in the middle of a dense urban area, and make for very pleasant exploration. I was struck, on both days of this weekend, how closely integrated old and new architecture are in the city. It’s common to see a Chinese-style temple roof joined onto a modern office block.

Here are a few more pictures:

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Tourism count so far
(at time of posting)

Temples: I’ve lost count. Lots.
Castles: 2 (1 ruined, 1 rebuilt in concrete)
Museums: 4


Posted by simon in Working in Japan