Amelia Newcomb's Blogs

  • Of shogunates and ATMs

    Kamakura is a bit of a touchstone for me in Japan, as I love to visit and take in its rich history – think the seat of Japan’s first shogunate, the place where “divine winds” or kamikaze repelled Mongol invaders in the late 13th century, the home of many Zen Buddhist temples of the Rinzai sect. I realized today, though, that it has also become one small gauge for how modern Japan has really become – or not. The scene: I am walking down a narrow street filled with all sorts of gift shops and see the one that my kids and I loved when we visited years ago. I walk in. I see a couple of must have Christmas gifts and set them aside. The very nice women start wrapping. I make my final selection and ask in the kind...

  • Never to rural to download

    Last week I visited a rural town on the northern tip of Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. It was the kind of town that is often referenced as people talk about the hollowing out of Japan’s countryside as young people leave for the city. Getting there means traversing what some might call death-defyingly narrow and curvaceous roads. Two thousand people share the river that runs through town and the cedars that blanket the towering mountains on all sides. They know each others’ goings on. It’d be easy to think life is pretty remote up there. Naturally, it’s not. Cellphones are a given, and not a cellphone call in our party ever dropped out. I can’t make that claim in my town 14 miles outside of Boston. And then there’s Internet access. We talked...

  • Another ominous ‘fed up’

    Manga kissa (short for kissaten, or cafes) are Japanese novelties where you can watch anime and read comics and magazines for a per hour fee. At one I visited in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area recently, you pay about $4 for an hour of perusing a large selection of manga, enjoying free tea, or trolling the Internet. They’re kind of cool – and not a bad deal! But they can be strange places too: you sit in one of numerous little cubicles with computers and a reading lamp in a large blackened room . You’re all together – and all alone. Some people rent group rooms. Adult videos can be part of the scenery. You can see how people – especially kids – could spend way too much time in them. Now the cafes are in the spotlight as Osakans come to terms...

  • Missing in Tokyo

    My daily commute alone reminds me that a lot has happened in terms of the technology of daily life since I was last here a decade ago. My friends and I, for example, used to marvel at the guys who punched your ticket as you entered the subway line. You bought your paper ticket and passed through the turnstile area, where grave men in uniforms and white gloves magically connected at just the right moment with your oustretched ticket. Their hole-punchers kept up a sort of chatty clickety-clack, never resting for a moment whether someone was passing through or not. They are gone. Now I just wave a debit card over the turnstile, walk through, and update myself on the other end as to how much is left on my card. Not as much fun. Gone too are the ranks of men reading manga (comics)...

  • Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

    The Japanese are big on signs. A day on the Tokyo subway system drives home this point. To a visitor, of course, it’s a good thing. And for a Bostonian, the notion that public authorities could be so concerned that you be able to find your way around is nothing short of stunning. But I could do with a little less information. I am not trying to be ungrateful. I love walking down the stairs to the subway and seeing clearly delineated train lines with all their stops listed in both Japanese and English. I like the colored circles that make it easy to identify the train. And sure, it’s helpful when I enter the station to know that I will reach the gate after walking 120 meters. But then I pass a sign that it’s only 80 meters to my...

  • Sumo on the train

    Riding the train in Tokyo is typically a time for staring into the middle distance or trying to catch a cat nap. But when a sumo wrestler swanned into my car yesterday, it was hard not to sit up and take a second look – and a third and a fourth. The Japanese regulars were nonchalant, probably because they knew there’s a nearby residence for sumo wrestlers. No big deal, then, if a 6-foot man whose scale-tipping girth is the first thing you notice (well before his face and feet) shares a ride with you.I, however, was impressed by one of those charming moments of tradition-sidles-up-to-21st-century that Japan is so good at serving up. It wasn’t just the man’s size, though he took up the space of three people (my gauge being the small posse of fashionably...

  • On the fast track

    The other day I took Japan’s iconic bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, a major city about 164 miles to the southwest. From an American East Coast perspective, it’s roughly comparable to the 190-mile trip between Boston and New York. Except that typically, the Amtrak run along the Northeast Corridor takes 3-1/2 to 4 hours, barring any number of possible glitches. The Shinkansen, on the other hand, got me to my destination in one hour and 42 minutes – no unexpected stops, no extended slowdowns, and a very nice lady serving snacks throughout the trip. The train travels at speeds of up to 188 miles an hour, though I don’t know what our speed was on my particular trip. The ride was smooth. The conductors bowed as they came in and out of the car. I first rode the Shinkansen almost 30 years ago...

  • Turning into Robots

    Yesterday I watched a robot play the trumpet. Really. His fingers moved up and down with alacrity, and unlike most human musicians, he could use his left hand to make musical flourishes as the melody soared. People watching the performance at the Toyota museum in Nagoya were captivated – and, like me, a bit at a loss as to how to react at the end. One woman clapped with quiet but clear delight. The Japanese don’t see robots as mechanical and faceless – as robotic, in other words. I’m not talking about the industrial ones that populate car factories. They don’t look human – more like the disembodied arm of Rosie the Riveter doing a repetitive task without ever losing concentration or mixing up drills. The trumpet player, by contrast, stands on two feet. His arms move much as...

  • The perfect flush

    I met a friend for lunch in between appointments today and we headed to a coffeehouse near the US Embassy in Tokyo. Lunch was the usual efficient affair — choose a sandwich that’s whisked into the microwave, order an isu-tea-shohto (short — as in Starbucks — iced tea), exchange money with the efficiency of a military operation, and find a seat. That was all pleasant enough. But the real treat was heading toward the ladies’ room at the end. When I lived in Tokyo 27 years ago, I may now confess, I often lifted the stickers in public bathrooms that showed Japanese how to maneuver around a sit-style Western toilet. I sent these as “thinking of you” notes to friends. So imagine my delight today when I found an updated version awaiting me in the stall. But the big difference this...

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