Saturday, April 30, 2022

Japan, Germs and a Cashless Society

    When I first started coming to Japan, some thirty years ago, I was warned that I would need cash. Lots of cash. Cards were practically unheard of -- you just couldn't use them except maybe sometimes at big hotels in Tokyo or Osaka, which guaranteed you huge foreign transaction fees and lousy exchange rates.

    Banking here was strange, with banks far away from me no matter where I was and they were generally useless as the ones in Japan didn't speak to any of the ones in the US. The American Express Office would be my best and only friend if anything untoward happened, as long as I could get there during their business hours -- so be sure to keep a secret stash of cash to make certain that was possible.

    Trading American Express Traveller's Cheques for yen at an airport bank branch would get me the very most bang for my buck, as long as I could get the Traveller's Cheques for free. 

    When I moved here, almost five years ago now, I still used cash for everything. That was normal.  

    But there has been a change. Some of it's due to COVID. Money is dirty. Everybody knows that. Hands are covered in germs. We started sanitizing our hands all the time, all over the place and still do. I have tiny bottles and packets of hand sanitizer in all my bags. Sanitizer stations are at the entrances to everywhere, along with new temperature-taking tech that improves every week. And people stopped using cash.

    This first became apparent when a store clerk proudly showed me that he didn't actually have touch filthy lucre any more. He'd scan my items but then I'd push a few buttons, stick money in a machine and get my change and a receipt back. In addition to being clean, which everybody here loves, this appeals enormously to the national passion for accuracy. These machines have sprouted up all over, even in my dentist's office, where the receptionist hands me the handwritten bill and I shove cash for my share into the magic machine! How convenient! How accurate! How clean! Some stores have come up with self-checkout sections, but mostly human cashiers scan your purchases and (tidily, with great precision) put them in a basket so you can transfer them to your own cart or carrier. Since bags started costing, to reduce plastic waste, nobody buys a bag anymore. We bring.

    Interestingly, the use of cards has become more widespread, too. People don't want to handle that dirty cash any more if they can help it, and they've discovered cards are dirty, too! I finally gave in and activated the Wallet function on my phone a few days ago, so I could use my Japanese credit card as a points card particularly. It's paid by magic from my bank account, and I thought it might be convenient to have it in my Wallet. Those points do add up.

    I have also had a Suica card for many years. I think of it as my train card, and that's mostly what I use it for, but it can also be used to make small purchases, even from vending machines. It holds a balance up to 20,000 yen and it's easy to charge at any station or convenience store. Following the example of a friend who managed it from London, I just transferred mine to the Wallet function on my phone two days ago.

     Then, yesterday, I got another new card: a Rakutan/Edy card for shopping, specifically. I don't shop much, but when one was offered me, I took it, just to check it out. It holds 50,000 yen, so I can top it off periodically almost anywhere or even (if I'm brave enough to try another Japanese web site) arrange for it top itself off via my JCB card. It will give me points and those do, eventually, add up. I will no doubt add this to the Wallet function of my phone when I arrange for it to top itself off. But I just did all this over the last few days! It's all new to me.

    It's Golden Week here, a week-long period of holidays when everybody who possibly can takes a few vacation days to mingle with the official holidays to finagle a week or ten days of vacation. Yesterday was the start, with the first holiday, but it poured all day long. Today, it felt like the first day of summer vacation with people pouring out from everywhere, going places and doing things. I saw more gaijin today than I have in over a year, except at Immigration. Students as well as business people are being let in in larger groups and absolutely everybody wanted to get outside and party.

    Today, I took a train to a fairly distant museum, involving a few changes here and there. I wasn't sure if it'd work, but all I had to do was wave my phone at the card reader, and it beeped! Then I had to buy a ticket from the machine at the museum, under the watchful eye of the receptionist, who wasn't sure I could be trusted to work the machine. But, wow! I pressed buttons. Things beeped! My Suica balance was appropriately diminished. I was delighted. I'd done it right -- never a given between computers and my level of Japanese -- and things worked. 

    Then I wanted to buy something and wanted to use my JCB card as a point card. My plan was to pay cash, despite the fact that I was becoming aware that nobody but me was even thinking about using actual cash, which requires fishing in pockets or purses and counting. When I looked a touch confused at where I should wave my phone, the cashier cheerfully pointed out that I should touch here, press there, and wave at something else. The entire transaction was done and finished! No actual money involved! I was out the door in seconds.

    I have to admit it was easy and convenient. On the train home, I recalled that in the US I used a Miles Card to pay for everything I could, and paid it off each month, keeping a running total in my head. I used those miles. In fact, I still have a stack of them waiting for me to use them. It's not like that part is new to me. 

    COVID has changed the world in many ways. It looks like moving Japan to a cashless society is yet another one. I'm on board with it, but I'm still not sure what I think about it.

    I'm not putting photos of my cards or my phone on the Internet, but here's some PR material that's just come in for The Oni's Shamisen.  I think they did a pretty nice job. Don't forget to pick up your review copies today!

Friday, April 15, 2022

Kekko ja nai desu -- It was not enough!

    There's a saying here: "Don't say 'kekko' until you've seen Nikko."

    "Kekko" means "enough," so if you don't want more of something, you say, "Kekko desu, arigato," which basically means, "No, thank you; I've had enough." 

    But you haven't had enough of Japan until you've been to Nikko. And I haven't had enough of Nikko.

    It's a huge tourist destination, home of several World Heritage sites and National Treasures and a huge National Park. The big deal you'll see everywhere is Toshogu Shrine where Tokugawa Ieyasu's spirit was ultimately elevated to kami and where his remains are interred. Huge quantities of history! Famous sculptures (those three moneys and the sleeping kitty, among others!)  Fabulous architecture, paintings, and so much more. Other members of Ieyasu's clan are mostly in Tokyo at the very venerable Zozo-ji, a worthwhile visit on its own. It has an excellent museum. I like museums.

    I just returned from my third trip to Nikko, and my first in the spring. I had hoped to be celebrating the soft release of The Oni's Shamisen, but Things Happened, so that be within the next couple of weeks. If you are awaiting an ARC, you will get it soon (and if you want one, let me know.) But there was a pause, and I enjoyed every second of it.

    I had thought that the sakura would just about be out in Nikko, but the elevation ranges from about 600 feet to about 5000 as you go from the train station to the top at Yunoko, which was as far as I could get by bus. There was snow on the ground. The source of the famous local hot springs is at a temple called Onsen-ji. Yes, that does mean Hot Spring Temple. Water is piped from there to the onsen hotels in this tiny town. 

    Lower down, at Chuzenjiko, a much larger and lovely lake boasts another interesting ancient temple, a science museum, boat tours, rentals and fishing (not running yet), hiking (some trails open, some not open yet) and more hot springs! 

    In Nikko proper, the sakura were just about to pop and many did while I was there. Pretty, huh? Gloriously gorgeous, in fact. And it just got better. I stayed at Gableview Forest Inn, a charming place owned by delightful people, and where I will return. I enjoyed it so much, I almost hesitate to tell you that you can reserve on and many other hotel sites, but I will, so you can go there, too. 

    Comfortable! There's a onsen! Excellent cuisine! Oh, yeah. This is where you want to stay!

    Though I only selected ONE photo to upload, they all came at once. So you're just going to have to read the captions to see where these are. It's worth it. 

    These are wild rhododendrons that look to me the same as Korean rhododendrons as they are deciduous, bloom on bare wood and then leaf out. Here, of course, they are JAPANESE rhododendrons, and since they are wild, they certainly are. This is on the way to Kirifuri Falls, one of the three Big Falls here. 

    And here are the falls. The top part, anyway, with more flowers. Truly spectacular.

    This is Lake Yuno (Yunoko: "ko" is lake). The ice was gone, but there was snow on the ground. People will fish, boat and hike here soon. I came to walk around this small lake, but the trail is still closed by snow. Instead, I walked to a very small little ski area, but there was nothing interessting to see there. 

    More Kirifuri Falls. See the pink starting up on the hills by the falls? This is most of it. It goes down a little farther.

    Thursday, it was supposed to rain (and it did) so I planned to go see Edomura, an Edo period theme park I'd really had no interest in before, but I wanted to research street entertainers and they're supposed to have them, and do, when it's not pouring. Again, the season doesn't really open until next week, but the park was open. It was much better than I thought it would be, and I want to go again! It's worth your time and simply fabulously beautiful.

    There are a number of Jizo statues along this path and a few real, serious, working shrines. This one is small, tenderly cared for, and, as you can see, beautiful.

    This is the entry, the "Post Road" area, setting the stage for your entry into the period town that comprises the park. There is an actual movie set connected to the park and I expect a lot of filming reaches into the park during its off-hours. It is closed Wednesdays. 

    Kirifuri Falls again. Those flowers...breathtaking. Pink blossoms scattered all over the hills.

    Edomura is beautifully landscaped, of course, and there are many varieties of blooming trees everywhere. Here's a cherry just starting, with more backing it up the hill. Look at how impressive this is: yes, it's a theme park. Yes, it is authentic, with plenty of history, culture and so much of the beauty and attention to detail that Japan prizes. 

    Sugawara Michizane is a collateral ancestor of my painstakingly researched but still fictional Maeda family. Statesman, scholar, and poet, he ran afoul of the powers that were, and ended up exiled in Kyushu (see: The Shadows of War). After his death, many Bad Things happened that were attributed to his angry spirit. In reparation, his lifetime titles and honors were restored and he was, of course, elevated to kami as Tenman or Tenjin. The Bad Things did stop, so one may assume he liked that. 

    He is the patron of scholars, particularly, and is often petitioned by students. Many shrines honor him including one shrine in Edomura. This statue, above, depicts Michizane, with his plum blossom crest on the offering box. It's a working shrine. I saw people perform the traditional rituals. Off to the left you can see racks of plaques of written petitions left in the hopes that Michizane will read them and give them a boost. 

    This is Nyanmage, the mascot of Edomura. Hello Kitty's brother, or maybe cousin, his superpower (there's a hilarious film along with many others depicting performances that were not live that day) is raising his left paw and saying "Nyan", which is "Mew" in Japanese. His hair in in the traditional style of a samurai man. He has a princess for a human companion, and is accompanied by a puppy, a panda and a monkey, all of whom likewise have human women as companions, though I am not sure if they are princesses. They defeat all manner of bad guys, including (naturally) evil ninja and (of course) tengu.

    Before I left Friday, I went to the Toshogu Shrine museum. I've been to the shine before. That will take you all day and worth it. Friday, I had just a few hours, so the museum seemed like a good bet. It was raining and foggy but see the fabulous pink of the sakura behind these bare trees. No pictures inside, though. Too bad: there're some interesting items on exhibit. 

    Japan recognizes and celebrates skill. This statue is of the architect of Toshogu Shrine and a number of other famous monuments built in the early to mid 1600s. I got the sign in the hopes of preserving his name, since it was raining rather hard, but now I can't make it out. I'm glad he is remembered and honored, though! His work is wonderful. 

    And one last photo, where I tried to capture, through the rain and fog, the subtle magnificence of the wild sakura and other flowers starting their season of bloom in the hills. 

    For me, it's "kekko ja nai desu." No, I haven't had enough of Nikko. I'll be back. 


Shamisen Under The Cherry Blossoms [Sakura Original Version] - Ki&Ki 輝&輝...

Because I can't resist!  A real post from me, later.