Author: Jeremy JL Hill

I am a retired British diplomat, originally from the East Midlands, where I have a UK base, but living for a lot of the year in Japan. Following a 35 year long career with HM Diplomatic Service which took me to Asia, Africa, the Middle East and finally back to Asia, I took voluntary early retirement in 2010. I then worked freelance for a few years as a corporate writing trainer, coach and consultant with global companies and Japanese government & agencies. Covid brought most of that to an end so I am now focussing on my own writing both creative non-fiction and fiction drawing on my international life and experiences for inspiration. Jeremy JL Hill

Royal reflections and respect

It certainly wasn’t planned, but it is rather poignant that the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is taking place on Respect for the Aged Day in Japan. And notable that the Japanese Emperor and Empress are making their first overseas trip, since taking on their roles, to attend the funeral.

Although neither a republican, nor staunch Royalist, I have tremendous respect for the late Queen, for what she achieved for my country and the world during her amazing 70 year long reign. Questions are already being raised as to the future of the Monarchy and its relevance in the world today; King Charles himself has already committed to ensuring it is a better fit and I’m sure with his well-known grit and determination he’ll do just that.

From a personal point of view, I was very privileged to meet The Queen twice during my career being involved in the planning and execution of two State visits. In Zimbabwe in 1991, as Head of the Commonwealth, a role the new King will also take seriously, she attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Harare. At that time, I was appointed as Liaison Officer between her staff working in State House, and my own team at the British High Commission. So, I saw close-up the detailed preparations that go into such a visit, and the sheer professionalism of Her Majesty and her husband HRH Prince Philip in carrying out those duties. As a member of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service, I was amazed when she undertook a series of one-to-one meetings with every attending Head of State, before embarking on the more ceremonial events such as receptions and banquets. Whilst all around her anxiously checked and double-checked every detail of the programme to ensure nothing would go wrong, she just got one with the job, and if something did go wrong just took it in her stride.

Eight years later in Seoul, South Korea another overseas posting for me, and another State Visit for Her Majesty. With trade and investment at the heart of Anglo-Korean relationships, the British Embassy was keen to use her visit to promote UK plc, and The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh did just that highlighting some of our successes and laying the groundwork for future business. I was involved in arranging for Prince Philip to visit and meet British companies working on the construction of the new Incheon airport hoping to be a regional transportation hub for the Asia Pacific.

For both of these visits, the energy and enthusiasm emanating from Her Majesty made her welcome wherever she went, and she certainly earned my respect. Although I do not believe in an after-life, I am happy that today her mortal remains will be laid to rest alongside those of her beloved husband and constant supporter of 73 years. May they both Rest in Peace; an historic example to us all in these troubled times.

And, Long Live the King!

Thank you, Your Majesty!

#4: Never too late

Although, over the years, as a father I’ve taken my children to theme parks in England and other parts of the world, I’ve never actually been to a Disney resort. So, just two weeks short of my 65th birthday, and with a coupon for a free night at a Hilton Hotel, it was time to put that to rights and to head out to Tokyo Bay on a cool and drizzly evening for a very pleasant night at the Hilton on the Bay. I must confess to being rather apprehensive about my first Disney experience expecting it all to be rather garish and over the top, but my son’s partner who is rather a Disney expert had suggested that DisneySea was probably more suitable for someone of advancing years compared to DisneyWorld.

Not only were we celebrating my own birthday in advance but it was also DisneySea’s 20th Anniversary. The sun was shining and the skies were blue so we had an early start and armed with an all-day passport got in to join in the 20th Anniversary celebrations which were branded as ‘Time to Shine’. And so it was and time to find our way around the venue.

Top of the agenda was to meet the stars, so we oriented ourselves through the centre to do just that. In accordance with Covid protocols were asked not to get too close to Mickey and Minnie; we were wearing masks but they weren’t.  Soon after that they emerged from their protective environment with some of their pals for a jaunt around the waterfront.

‘OOPs’ Indeed!

The culture vulture in me enjoyed the attractions related to popular entertainment and I ‘held on to my potato’ in an exciting ride around Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom.

A more sedate circuit with Sinbad took me back to watching videos with my kids years ago,

We even went to ‘Infinity and Beyond’ in the Toy Story’s shooting gallery – my wife scored more hits than me but I had a better accuracy rate! No pictures as I was shooting targets rather than photos.

A couple of shows (no photos allowed) with Mickey & friends singing and dancing to the American Big Band Beat sound got us inside for an hour, and then we hit the water with a gondola tour of Venice.

Followed by a trip on a paddle steamer to see the ‘Sea’.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Tokyo Disney Resort, and it did bring out the big kid in me. However, I’m no stranger to Tokyo Bay as very close by is Kasai Rinkai Koen (Marine Park).  As well as being a popular spot for Tokyoites to visit and to enjoy the oceanfront of Tokyo Bay, and also the venue for the 2020 Tokyo Games’ canoe slalom events, it is a very important area of nature conservation. The Wild Bird Society of Japan (WBSJ), of which I am a member, holds regular gatherings there to observe and enjoy some of the 126 species of birds, including many migratory shore birds and waders which can be seen from the hides and on the ponds and waterfront. Just four years ago, the WBSJ was successful, at COP13 in the United Arab  Emirates, in having Kasai Marine Park designated as the First Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Site in Tokyo.  A very proud moment for my Japanese birding friends.

So, this weekend, it’s time to put away the fake Mickey ears and get out my binoculars to enjoy yet another aspect of the rich cultural heritage of Tokyo.

Great egret

#3: BRAVO

Suntory Hall, Tokyo

Yet another downside of the Corona crisis in Japan, like so many other countries, has been the lack of classical music concerts. This has been particularly so here because enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans flock to the performances by leading orchestras from across the world. So, we were very excited to be able to attend a concert of music by English and American composers given by the NHK Symphony Orchestra at Suntory Hall last week. But even that had fallen victim to the crisis as both the Chief Conductor Paavo Jarvi, and guest violinist Hilary Hahn were unable to enter Japan due to additional Omicron border control restrictions. However re-knowned Japanese conductor, Tadaaki Otaka and Japanese -American violinist Mayumi Kanagawa stepped in: The Show must go on.

Tadaaki Otaka


Benjamin Britten

Sir Edward Elgar


Samuel Barber

Tadaaki Otaka CBE   has been the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Conductor since 2010, and was previously the principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the United Kingdom. I first saw him in 2011 when he took the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra to the UK for a charity concert to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross Society following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which had happened whilst I was in the UK. Otaka has a close affinity with British composers, which was reflected in last week’s concert which included the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera ‘Peter Grimes’, and Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma variations’.


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was born in Lowestoft, in the county of Suffolk on the east coast of England. It’s a part of my home country I know well having spent some of my teenage years swimming in the cold North Sea, birdwatching in some of the sanctuaries, and, more recently running the Suffolk coastal footpath marathon, so I have an affinity with one of the most famous of Britain’s composers, Britten. He is known best for his orchestral showpiece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945) and the War Requiem (1962). Peter Grimes (1945) is his best known opera and is a tragic tale set on the dramatic Suffolk coast so the Four Sea Interludes took me closer to my UK roots  for a while.


Edward Elgar (1857-1954) was born in the English Midlands, close to Worcester where I also have family links as it was there that my parents first met at college. A senior of Britten he is known not only for the Enigma variations (1899), but also for his Pomp & Circumstance Marches, No 1 being a firm favourite at the British Promenade concerts with the words ‘Land of Hope & Glory’, as well as his choral work the Dream of Gerontius (1900).


Samuel Barber (1910-1981).  My American friends would not forgive me for omitting reference to his Violin Concerto Opus 14 which allowed the soloist, Mayumi Kanagawa to display her virtuoso skills. I sometimes wonder why people relate violin playing to sad stories, but her brief encore could have moved me to tears even without knowing its name or provenance.


A wonderful concert spoilt only as the audience were asked not to vocalise their appreciation at the end, as part of the anti-infection measures. However, an audible behind-the-masks groan of approval said it all along with rapturous applause for the conductor, the orchestra, and I’m proud to say, the best of English classical music in Japan. BRAVO!!

#2: ALL THE TWOs: A Call to adventure

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

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This week marked the start of the Year of the Tiger and yesterday was 2nd February 2022 or 2.2.22. It’s also two years since my post retirement freelance work came to and end mainly as a result of the Corona crisis. When I decided to take early retirement from my main career with the UK Government and to remain in Tokyo, to where I was posted at the time, it had been my intention to divide my time equally between my family home in the British Midlands and my adopted home in Japan. To which a good friend remarked “So, you want the best of both worlds?” But, a regular contract as a business writing trainer and coach meant I spent the greater part of my time here in Japan.

However, reality now starts to kick in as one year from now, I’ll need to return to the UK to qualify for my State Pension when I turn 66. Joseph Campbell talks about a Hero’s Journey and although no hero, I like the structure that he advocates especially when embarking on one of life’s adventures. In his book ‘The Hero with a thousand faces’ he says one of the ways in which an adventure can begin is a ‘blunder’:

A blunder – apparently the merest chance- reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood. As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts….the blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.

Hero with a Thousand Faces, Chapter 1.Departure, 1. Call to adventure

/My failure to find any further freelance work could well be described as my blunder leading to my personal destiny, the call to the adventure of living the Albihon (best of England and Japan) lifestyle as well as writing about it. When I need to think, I usually do so best while walking. My final training contract took place on the 19th floor of the imposing Arco Tower building in Tokyo’s Meguro district.

From there we were usually blessed with views of Mt Fuji on the horizon. Whilst climbing Japan’s iconic mountain has long been a challenge I’d love to undertake, it’s not yet the climbing season so that’ll have to wait. A more realistic destination was the woodland area breaking up the suburban sprawl, I used to gaze down on. So yesterday I visited Rinshi no Mori park for the first time. After starting as a Meguro test nursery in 1900, it became Hayashi trial forest park in 1989. Now forest trails, adventure playgrounds, open areas and a pond make this an ideal location for a spot of forest therapy in the heart of the city.

It wasn’t the best season for a park with numerous plum and cherry trees, but it won’t be long until the weather warms up and we can enjoy their respective blossoms.

As well as the practicalities of the adventure ahead, I expect I’ll also be questioning my own beliefs. As it will also be a spiritual journey as well as a physical one yesterday’s walk included a visit to the Ryūsenji (瀧泉寺) also known as the Meguro Fudō (目黒不動, Black-eyed Fudō) Buddhist temple. According to the temple legend, Ryūsen-ji was built in 808 by Ennin to enshrine a statue of Fudō-myōō, while he was on a journey from Shimotsuke province to Mount Hiei.

Keeping my options open (I used to be a diplomat after all!) I then called in at the Otori Shinto Shrine, the history of which involved an emperor taking a rest stop after quelling some eastern barbarians.

Fortunately, this was something I’d never had to do during my previous career. But the thought of it was making me hungry. In Japanese, the character ‘wa’ (和) can mean ‘harmony or peace’ as well as ‘Japan’, and is often used as a prefix to a compound indicating a Japanese version of the word that follows. I’m familiar with its useage meaning Japanese-style, Japanese-clothes and Japanese-food but the following was new to me.

But my mackerel and tomato ‘wawich’ did the job and fuelled me for my walk home along the Meguro River.

Passing through Naka-Meguro the river pathway is lined with a motley collection of shops, galleries and boutiques, old and new, with a real international flavour to them.

Despite being in central Tokyo, I was still able to indulge in my ornithological interest as well.

/An excellent day’s walk which left me physically tired but spiritually refreshed and ready to face the next stage of my own life’s journey. As I got home, a quick glance at my step-count for the day even left me feeling slightly heroic.

Three more than was needed to have achieved ‘All the twos’! I’ve heard the call and I’m ready to respond

#1. Setting out

The start of the Shikoku Pilgrimage

The twelfth day of Christmas and I’ve just taken the tree down and packed the decorations away. Mind you, in Japan they often come down on Boxing Day to make way for the New Year celebrations which are more important in my host nation.

On New Year’s Eve, if you can avoid the interminable TV variety shows, it’s important to have a bowl of soba noodles which represent long life for the year ahead. Many people will head off to the country districts to visit family and having obtained a free covid test, courtesy of Japan Airlines, we decided to go to the southwestern island of Shikoku to see my wife’s family for the first time for more than two years  

As in so many cultures, food plays a large part in Japanese New Year celebrations the main feature being o-secchi ryori, a pre-prepared (or purchased) box with several layers of what we might call ‘finger food’ which will be grazed upon over the holiday period – using chopsticks of course! So, this formed the basis for our lunches and dinners for the first two days.

My in-laws live in the coastal town of Naruto, close to the prefectural capital of Tokushima, and their house is just a few minutes’ walk from the coast to where we were led by my father in-law. The main purpose of the trip was for us to visit the family cemetery to pay respects to the departed members of the family and more distant clan whose remains are interred in a lovely plot surrounded by trees and overlooking the Inland Sea. This year, the old chap was so proud to show us the tomb that he had prepared for his final rest which as a sprightly 90-year-old he doesn’t show ant signs of needing just yet.

The cemetery is in the grounds of a buddhist temple the religion under which most funerals take place. But, in a multi-denominational society it’s important to keep well-covered and another New Year tradition is to visit a shrine to give thanks to the Shinto Gods for the year just past and to pray for good health for the year to come.    For our own devotions we drove 10km to the Oasahiko Shrine in the Bando area of Naruto and enjoyed a long walk along the tree-lined approach to the shrine with other worshippers. Under Shintoism, gods also exist in nature especially trees, so as well as praying at the main shrine, we also did so at the 1,000-year-old, 22 metre tall, Go-shinboku camphor tree.

And for additional cover, the Oasahiko shrine is right next to Ryouzenji buddhist temple. This is famous for being the first stop on the 88 temple, 1400km o-henro pilgrimage trail which circumnavigates Shikoku.

Although I have ambitions to undertake the physical and spiritual challenge one day, for now I am making a different commitment: to post, throughout 2022, 88 blogs as part of my personal blogging pilgrimage.  The fortune o-mikuji slip I bought at the Oasahiko Shrine told me that this year my luck would be ‘very good’. So, maybe the Gods are smiling on me?!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

English Psycho in Tokyo

Introduction

Part travel, part memoir, part cultural investigation but overall an exploration of the urban soul of Japan’s capital city while delving into my own psyche while walking the streets.

I’ve lived in Tokyo for about 15 years now. But do I really know the city? Probably not. Do I really know the people? Probably not. Do I really know the language? Definitely not. But I have scratched the surface of it all, and now is the time to dive deeper.

Quarantine, exile, solitary confinement, self-isolation. In these difficult days of the corona-virus we’re all being urged to cut ourselves off from human contact to avoid contagion and infecting others but at the same time to preserve our physical and mental health by taking exercise daily. In the UK family and friends were allowed one hour/day, but no such rules were laid down in Tokyo. But with pools and gyms closed during the State of Emergency and jogging while wearing a mask not conducive to free breathing, walking at a leisurely pace seemed like a good alternative.

Why ‘psycho’? Is this some horror story about stalkers? Certainly not. Is it Freudian-style attempt at self-analysis? Possibly. Is it an attempt to join the ranks of some of the great city walker-writers? Probably. Or is it a growing interest in psychogeography? Definitely.

Psychogeography – sometimes described as the ‘science(?) of walking/wandering aimlessly’. Iain Sinclair, one of the greatest modern proponents says that ‘drifting purposefully is recommended’. As such, psychogeography is not about walking with a pre-determined destination.

A flaneur is a composite figure – vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller – yes within these many and often contradictory roles, his pre-dominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is the basis of his legacy to psychogeography…soon the mental traveller(Ann Tso quoting from Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography)

In the introduction to ‘Psychogeography and Psychotherapy’, editor Chris Rose says that:

Walking in a psychogeographical sense is not the same as a stroll or a ramble; it is observant, analytic and self- reflective. Psychogeographers find unfamiliar routes… Walking appears to have an effect that is unrelated to energy expenditure or exercise per se, and is often recommended as a treatment for depression’

James Kirkup in his book ‘Tokyo’ said ‘only by walking the streets can one really hope to know a city and its people’. So, during my retirement years, and certainly in the ‘social distancing’ era, I’ve done just that in the hope that I could get to know the soul of Japan’s capital. I’ve discovered parks, rivers, shrines and back-alley cafes and eateries that are not covered in the mainstream tour guides, and met some fascinating people.

And, by blogging about my experiences, I hope to offer to those with an interest in Japan and its capital city a personal insight and reflection on the place I have called my home for the last ten years.

An Imperial amble

The name of the new era was announced last week on 1 April 2019, a month before it starts on 1 May following the formal abdication of Emperor Akihito the previous day. So, after 30 years, Heisei will come to an end and Reiwa will start.

There was a slight confusion over the kanji for the new ‘reiwa’ (令和). A friend thought the first one was written (冷) meaning cool or cold, rather than (令) which has a meaning of order or command. If the former, then the new name could mean ‘Cold Peace’ or even ‘Cool Japan! In which case we could be welcoming a new era in sharp contrast to the  War years during the Showa era of Emperor Hirohito (1926 – 1989.) But what’s in a name? To the Japanese quite a lot it seems as the announcement was met by cheers and tears, and bewilderment as many struggled to find a deeper meaning in the words. The nationalistic Government has explained that the characters were chosen from a passage in ‘‘Manyoshu’’, Japan’s oldest known poetry anthology; this breaks with the long tradition of using Chinese classics as the source.

The change was announced in the week in which the cherry blossom was in full bloom. As usual the crowds were out in force sipping sake under the sakura in the parks and anyway the blossom could be soon for the annual hanami festival. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are known to take a private constitutional early in the morning in the inner Garden of the Imperial Palace.

On Sunday however, they couple left for a brief stroll outside the palace much to the surprise and delight of pedestrians and the joggers for whom an outer 5km circuit of the palace moat is one of the favourite running courses in Tokyo. This will be their last chance to participate in this ritual as they will move out soon swapping palaces with their son, Crown Prince Naruhito who will succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

But hanami is touched with sadness as it is short-lived. Within a week or 10 days the blossoms begin to fall reminding us of how our own hold on life can be beautiful but tenuous and that we need to live for the day, so on Sunday for the last open day of the Heisei era we joined the crowds on a beautiful spring day to enjoy the privilege of the blooms in the palace grounds before they disappear.

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Leaving the palace through the Inuimon Gate we then walked along the famous Chidorigafuchi

and for the first time into the national cemetery where a monument bears a poem written by the Emperor which translated reads: ’Having walked through times when there was no such great war, my thoughts go out to the people who have lived through the days of cruel hardship’. This is a recurring theme of his as he reflects on his reign and perhaps looks forward to a long, well-deserved peaceful retirement.

On Ageing

ON AGEING

Yesterday (18 September) was ‘Respect for the Aged Day’ in Japan, a public holiday to honour the senior citizens in the country. There’s certainly a lot of them to respect here, as Government figures released at the weekend show that the number of people aged 65 or over is ½ million more than this time last year bringing the total to over 35 million and accounting for nearly 30% of the population. The ageing population is certainly a problem with which the government and society is struggling to cope.

More than 2 million people are 90 years old or older, and topping the list has to be Nabi Tajima who has just been verified as the world’s oldest living person at the grand old age of 117 years following the sad passing at the weekend of Jamaican, Violet Brown, also 117.

Japanese often credit their advanced years to a healthy diet, so I’m hoping that, having lived here for more than 10 years now, some of that may rub off on me. Although not yet old enough to be included in the statistics, I passed my own milestone earlier this year. Kanreki is a celebration held on a man’s 60th birthday. ‘Kan’ means return and ‘reki’ means “calendar.” At 60, according to the Chinese zodiac, a person has returned to the calendar sign under which they were born. As the colour red in Japan symbolises babies, it is customary for men especially to undergo the ritual humiliation of donning a red hat and jacket on their 60th birthday to celebrate their re-birth.

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It seems appropriate therefore to end with these words from TS Eliot:

“The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”

 

To which I would add ‘…yet’!

 

 

 

Happy Year of the Rooster!

As I failed to write a new year greeting at the beginning of 2017, I’m making amends by doing so at the start of the Chinese New Year, as the Year of the Rooster starts today. This year is my year!

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‘In Chinese astrology, each zodiac year is not just associated with an animal sign, but also one of five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, or Earth. Both the zodiac sign and the element shape the astrology of the year. For example, 2017 is a Fire Rooster year. Element-sign combinations recur every 60 years.’

We Fire Roosters are meant to be ’Trustworthy, with a strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility at work’ but don’t believe everything you read.

Back at the start of the calendar year there were the usual queues to get to the shrines for hatsumōde 初詣, the first visit of the year, and nearby Meiji Shrine is a focal point in central Tokyo with crowds prepared to wait for an hour or more at midnight of 31st December. Also at Meiji Shrine, in the first week of the year the yokozuna (Grand Champion) sumo wrestlers brave the cold to perform, with much foot stamping the entering the ring ceremony before the start of the January tournament.

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Just up the road in the Tokyo Opera City complex, another cultural event took place this year. Normally seen in the summer months, especially in Harajuku, a local group put on a yosakoi traditional dance performance.

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Yesterday I had my new year pilgrimage to Kamakura for my own supplications where there is a very wide choice of shrines and temples at which to do so. It was the first time for me to visit Eishoji temple, the only remaining nunnery in Kamakura and off the main temple trail. With its architecture and peaceful bamboo garden I was able to face the Year of the Rooster suitably relaxed in a very spiritual setting.

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So whichever new year you are celebrating, and with whichever cultural events you choose to celebrate it, may I wish you a very happy and prosperous one with my own resolution to write more, and more often.

 

 

 

In an English Country Garden

The Japanese have long had a fascination with English gardens. For a country where few properties have enough space for a private garden, many people indulge their passion by visiting one of the many gardens and parks laid out in what is considered to be the English style. 

Although, like many of the so-called British pubs here, the attempts to recreate a little bit of England, don’t always work, I was very impressed by the Barakura English Garden near Chino in Nagano Prefecture. Co-designed by horticulturalist Kay Yamada who has won medals for her garden designs at the Chelsea Flower Show, Barakura was opened in 1990. Under the care of Head Gardener Andy Fisher, originally from Cumbria, there really is an authentic English atmosphere. 

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Even more so as when I first went this weekend a background of light rain created the perfect setting for the autumn festival with displays of vegetables not normally seen in Japan.

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But they were not only on display as on the lunch-time menu was butter-nut squash soup and a Cornish pasty as well as a selection of home made cakes and desserts. 

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And after that lot time for a rest in the garden

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 This weekend was even more special with the Royal Marines Concert Band playing a series of sets of mainly British patriotic music as part of this year’s celebrations of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday with well-known music from the shows such as ‘Oliver’ and TV theme tunes ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Sailing’. The latter was not the only nautical number as they also played some well known sea shanties. The finale on the last day of course included Vaughan Williams’ Sea Songs; a rousing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ brought their annual ‘English country gardens’ visit to Japan to a close.

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