My desire to ensure environmental sustainability.

Point blank on environmental issues.

Friday, 24 July 2015

This is Japan 2

Transport system and general infrastructure

Talk of transport infrastructure; the highways/superhighways, railway lines, sub-ways, monorails, airports, and ports (water). The locations in which they are built and the design itself, indeed, make none doubt the ingenuity of engineering in the world. Note that over 50% of Japan’s land is mountainous; meaning that putting up structures such as transport facilities is quite an uphill. However, the engineers did something that most of us (or at least me) finds breathtaking and worth an appreciation; instead of revolving around the mountains to find their way, the dug through them and constructed the road and railway tunnels. Additionally, Japan has a channel of islands and accessibility is only possible through bridges that have to run for several kilometers connect the islands; that chapter was closed long ago! I know that such structures exist in other parts of the world, and this confirms that science (engineering) is a real deal.
Two-way road tunnels

Akashi Kaikyo bridge (longest suspended bridge
in the world)
Image Courtesy: Japan

Notably, it will take you lots of time (if not forever) to get yourself to a destination, were it not for Google maps or other location devices. This is because the network of these infrastructural systems, especially in cities like Tokyo, is quite confusing, to an extent that such location devices are your best friends; otherwise you will just make rounds in one place or find yourself at downtown instead of the CBD! One of my friends made a joke out this; that it is only in Japan where you have to use Google maps even from your workplace back home (no offence).  Owing to this infrastructural level, you can rarely experience cases of traffic jam or even accidents; in your country, how many hours do you spend on the road going to the work place or getting back home?
Tokyo sub-way map (this is why I got lost in Shinjuku!)
Image Courtesy: Tokyo Metro
There are various means of transport in Japan ranging from buses, taxis, trams, electric trains, and bullet trains or shinkansen. Although all these means exhibit a great incorporation of technology, the shinkansen caught most of my attention. By the way, I just accomplished that dream of riding in a shinkansen, though the time was too short; not short because of the closeness of my destination but rather the high speed of the bullet train! All in all, I enjoyed the ride- ever comfortable, soothing, and fulfilling. Essentially, the technological ingenuity displayed in Japan’s means of transport, especially the shinkansen and the upcoming MAGLEV Train, talks much about the possibility attaining the unthinkable.  

Shinkansen arriving at Shin-Osaka 
In addition, there are range skyscrapers that create a magnificent view of city skylines in Japan. For instance, The Tokyo Tower and The Tokyo Sky Tree (the world’s tallest tower) are places to visits if you want the real experience of the panoramic view of the Tokyo skyline. The ingenuous skills used to build the Japanese castles are also amazing. These castles, wholesomely constructed of wood and a few metals, were used in ancient times as hideouts during war and as residential places for kings (emperors). Existing in virtually every prefecture, they are now among the top tourist attractions in Japan.     
Himejijo in Hyogo Prefecture
(UNESCO World Heritage site);
purely made of wood and very few metals!

Kochi castle in
Kochi Prefecture

Horyuji Temple (Oldest wooden structure in Japan
  and a UNESCO World Heritage Site)


I remember in the first few weeks of my stay in Japan, I used to upload pictures of various Japanese foods on my social media accounts, and for sure, some of my friends found it scary (better still, not appetizing at all); those comments said it all! Well, I have to admit that I sailed in the same boat with such people for a while; it was my first time to eat such foods except for Japanese green tea and sushi, which I had already tasted at the Japanese Embassy in Kenya! I have been dining on a table full of various sea delicacies; talk of seaweeds, various types of fish (including raw ones, called shashimi), mollusks like bivalves, shrimp, and octopus. Actually, the sea is Japan’s garden. I was only used to terrestrial and river/lake delicacies; that can tell you how strange it was for me in the first few days.


Shrimp and oyster

Partially grilled/raw fish (katsuo no tataki)

Rice is the staple food in Japan, and can be eaten together with various assortments of food like chicken, beef, fish, or vegetables. However, I have to admit that it is very difficult for a vegetarian to survive in Japan, owing to the little variety of vegetables around here; that only reminds me of managu, kunde, sukuma wiki, murenda in back in Kenya. I once tried to use the Japanese corn flour to make some ugali (Kenya’s staple food-しゅしょく), but I did not like the results! Still in search of an online shop, that has the real maize flour! All these notwithstanding, I have come to develop a liking for Japanese cuisines and will soon be offering a detailed look into most of them.    


Japan has virtually all forms of weather conditions that you might think of! Some things like typhoons, earthquakes/tsunami, and extreme seasons of the year, were just high school Geography theory until I came in Japan. I am here for the real life experience. Talking of seasons, I have already experienced the full cycle, and the comparison with my country (Kenya) is far off! Whereas Kenya’s seasons are a bit mild, one can readily recognize the changes in weather patterns in Japan’s seasons. This is the first time (初めて) I am experiencing such extreme conditions; new lows and highs of temperature, rainfall and humidity.
To survive the winter, one has to, obviously, invest in heavy wear because the cold is too threatening-the snow literally rains (falls), driving temperatures to negative figures. I remember one of my friends saying “hii baridi inachoma” (Swahili for “this cold is burning”). Please keep warm all the time to avoid catching a cold, or other scary ailments like frostbite and other respiratory diseases. Following winter is a rainy spring during which temperatures are gradually increasing, prompting you to abandon some of the heavy wear. The only problem with spring is the inconvenience caused, especially for those people whose major means of transport is a motorbike or bicycle-time to invest in a raincoat and keep an umbrella as your best companion! Summer is the total contrast of winter. I always thought that the main feature defining summer is high temperature but I was forced to add one more to my list- humidity. The humidity levels in Japan can be so high during summer, to extents that you sweat even at a still position- walking out of the bathroom, sweat is still part of you! Thanks goodness that the Japanese (actually most Asians), have less sweat glands, especially the apocrine glands that are responsible for body odor- too much biology in there!  As for people from other continents, who have a combination of both sweat glands (eccrine and appocrine- still, biology), a deodorant and face towel is a worthy accompaniment. In the living room or any other meeting place, woe unto you, if you have no access to an air conditioner, or fan. As for autumn, the season is a bit calm, preparing you for the winter. Despite these extremes in all the seasons, various festivals accompanying each of them makes days count so fast all through the year.
Further, on Japanese weather, typhoons are a regular occurrence, where you expect the strong winds and heavy rains to cause quite some disturbance. Talk of floods that can wash away property or even people, and winds pushing down enormous materials. Additionally, earthquakes and or tsunami rarely occur, but be sure to witness havoc in case of any. A combination of these natural disasters among others like heat strokes, really cause anxiety. However, the most amazing thing is that, you can always be out of danger if you are an attentive and alert person all the time. This is because there are always early warnings, evacuations centers, standby help desks or hotlines, and most importantly, regular disaster drills; actually, this makes Japan one of the best countries in the globe when it comes to disaster preparedness. みなさんきおすけます(please keep attention all the time and take care).

Education system    

I am not fully conversant on the Japanese education, but what I know is that Japanese is the major language of instruction. Other languages like English are taught as subjects, and no much interest is given to them. You had better start working on your survival Japanese lessons if you want to have a better life here! The schooling system starts from elementary- junior high- senior high, and then university. The university system, especially the undergraduate, is quite similar to what I went through- a lot of course work followed by some tests. On the other hand, the graduate schools are more of research oriented where there is too little course, if at all there is. A graduate student will spend most of the time in the laboratory conducting experiments and others (like me), will be out in the field to collect data. The rest of the time, one will spend it on trying to analyze the data and write a report, things which are sometimes a bit challenging because of the low course content in graduate school (note: personal observation). However, as much as there some weaknesses, I will have to say that the concentration on research work has granted Japan it is rightful position of a home of technological innovations, inventions, and groundbreaking discoveries.


Buddhism and Shinto are the major religions in Japan, with the rest such as Christianity and Islam, accounting for negligible percentages. These two religions (Buddhism and Shinto) have existed in Japan for centuries, and they have a great connection and identification with both culture and traditions. Be sure to find temples and shrines in the proximity of any natural forest, because these religions greatly identify with nature- another reason for high forest cover in Japan! Actually, there is no clear difference between the two religions because one can identify with either of them. Buddhism arrived in Japan from China, and was incorporated with the indigenous Shinto religion. I may not dwell much on the philosophical and or the theological aspects, but what I can say is that, it is spiritually challenging to live in such a society where Christianity accounts for less than 2% of the 127 million. One of the famous missionaries, Francis Xavier greatly attested to this, on his Japanese spiritual journey, something that even succeeding missionaries are facing.  Chances are that, you leave Japan either as an exhausted or strong than ever before. My prayer is to achieve the latter. 
Entrance gate (torii) into a Japanese shrine.


This experience is indeed, quite humbling, adventurous and full of surprises all through. I have come to learn that being developed does not necessarily mean doing away with your culture and traditions, but rather integrating them in the process. That, ingenious ways of doing things and technological innovations are quickly interrupting those saying NO to ideal situations. Notably, culture shock real and the recovery from it depends on how ready you are to learn, make friends, and discover the particular region and its people; mindset! Specifically, the most valuable lesson I have learnt so far is that, we, the people can for sure live to love, help, respect, and serve each other irrespective of race, gender, class, region, or religion. I am still in the process of discovery and the journey of sharing my experiences and thoughts about Japan has just begun. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

This is Japan 1

It is almost a year since I came to Japan, and I have to admit that life has not been easy, going by the huddles that I had to (and still) overcoming. The culture shock has been real- food, culture, tradition, development level…daily life! It felt like each country belonged to its own sphere, except the sharing of great phrases that mention the mystery of the sun; that, Nairobi (Kenya’s Capital) is a “Green City in the sun,” and Japan is “the Land of the rising sun.” My symbolic correlation between these two wordings is that, just as one can view the sun piercing through the peaks of Mount Kenya from Nairobi, so can someone view the sun illuminating snowy Mount Fuji (san) from Tokyo’s amazing skylines. This article details my firsthand experience of Japan, owing to many days of exposure, travel, research and participation in various Japanese events. 

The Japanese language

Though I loved the Japanese language from the word go, I really had (have) a hell of time to understanding and applying it. This is not only due to its newness to me, but also the fact they use three different writing systems that have specific uses; 1) Hiragana (ひらがな) for pronunciation purposes, 2)Katana (カタカナ) for foreign words, and 3)Kanji (感字) for explaining the meaning of words. Here I was, only used to the roman alphabets, now daring to immerse myself into learning the writing and reading of just characters (not letters anymore). In ranking, I think hiragana is easy for me because it is more of curved images that one can easily identify with, but katana (for foreign words just like me, a foreigner) is an uphill task- seems like trying to join sticks together and later on explain what that means (no offence)! However, I have to say that this is what makes the learning even more interesting. I will not talk much about kanji because even up to now I can count the number of those that I know out of the possible thousands that there are; maybe…Japan (日本), river (), mountain (), person (), tree ()…other are still loading! The most amazing thing about kanji is that the physical appearance relates to whatever they mean, just as some of the above directly display. I am used to saying a “kanji ga wakarimasen” (I don’t know kanji) joke in the Japanese class, but I hope by the time I leave Japan I will proudly say “Kanji ga wakarimasu” (I know kanji). これから毎日頑張っています(I will try to learn kanji everyday). I am happy that my Japanese capability is gradually improving! God speed, they say!

The people, culture and tradition

A Japanese is a very mysterious friend! They are great friends when you are with them or need them- great talk, help at whatever cost, company, feeling the laughter and happiness. The mystery comes in that, in the following day or encounter, you may need to start from square but be sure, that all will end up well; the bond has to be re-formed everyday!  
I have not been to most parts of the world, but going by the knowledge accumulated, I can confidently say that the humility and kindness of the Japanese people ranks quite high. This is despite a few shortcomings that are overwhelmed by the positive side. I remember one case in particular when I first came to Japan. It was in Tokyo, Shinjuku (one of the busiest railway stations in Japan, and most probably the whole world), and I got confused on how to change to the next train (they call it “norikae” in Japanese). Though the day was not fully of people as other business days, because it was on a Sunday afternoon, it was a challenge for me, a guest in town. Worse of all, I was not good in Japanese by then; just “sumimasen” (excuse me) and “watashi wa” (I am)…just imagine; double tragedy! My statement was: “sumimasen, watashi wa…mmmh…lost!” Thank God they guy was quick to get what I meant and humbly, left what he was doing, and showed me the way! It was even more worrying when I relocated from Tokyo to a rather countryside place, where Japanese is a must- know but I always experience the “Shinjuku guy kindness” everyday. As much, as such cases are a norm in other parts of the world, getting a person ready to help and serve indiscriminately (i.e. irrespective of race, class, age, or gender) is quite rare.
Despite Japan’s developed level (among the top three largest world economies), her culture and tradition has remained mostly intact. This is evidential in virtually every place that you visit; be it in the office, school, home, shop, vehicle, or even on the lanes. Although I am now used to some of them, I initially found it funny or somewhat weird. Actually, I am yet to find the right inclination angle of the “Japanese bow.” The bow requires one to bend on certain degrees depending on the partners involved (mostly, in order of seniority), and it takes quite a bit long to finish; actually, a certain professor on Japanese business manner told us the bow takes about 3 seconds.  So, the procedure goes: approach each other but keep some distance (I guess this is to avoid collision during bowing), introduce yourselves (you can also exchange business cards if available), and then bow (NOTE: no physical contact). To me, it was more of an exercise rather than a greeting because I am used to the handshake, which sometimes gets vigorous in away releasing the tension in oneself. It is good that now, I can confidently bow, no matter how imperfect it is.
I know punctuality is a culture that should cut across every nation or region, but Japan has my gold medal on that; be in the meeting place at least five minutes before, and that happens! Another example is at the train station; there is a fixed schedule, and if the train gets late by even two (2) minutes, an apology follows automatically!
It is quite impressive that Japan has not allowed dilution of its culture and tradition, despite having an influx of visitors with a diversity of them (tradition and culture). A perfect implementation of the Romans’ principle; “When you get to Japan, do as the Japanese do it!” It is unfortunate that most countries have fallen victim of easily succumbing to cultural and traditional manipulations, leading to loss of identity and belongingness. I wish we could borrow a leaf!
Daily life in Japan is quite busy- every time of the day is just rush hour to an extent of missing time for oneself. All the time is preoccupied with work assignments, business objectives, and other activities revolving around work. This is the same case to my country too, but the people have time to shake it off- forget about any problem or stress that you have and give in to what your heart needs! Somewhere in Africa, one will go for the party, sing, drink and shout the hell out of them, while freely dancing; my friend in Ghana will go Azonto, my broda in Nigeria dey go Skelewu or Sekem, and South Africans will get on their knees vigorously shaking to Zulu tunes. As for my fellow countrymen from East Africa (Kenya, to be specific), they will find their way to the Carnivore Restaurant for the Tribal Nights-Ramogi, Mulembe, Kamba, Kalenjin, Esagasaga, Coast- and rejuvenate the youthfulness in them. As for Japanese, they like keeping it calm and that is how they like it!

Waste management, sanitation and the general environment

As highlighted in an earlier blog post, waste management in Japan follows an organized system characterized with a lot of discipline, dedication, and adherence to the rules and regulations. Most of the companies that collect waste are privately owned, but have a close relationship with local governments with whom they sign contracts of offering the services. One’s work is just to ensure the specified garbage is put in the designated area early in the morning in readiness for collection. Arguably, it is common sense that waste should not be disposed anyhow, but rather follow the systematic flow. However, this is not the case to some us; do you know where you left that bottle of water? What about the polythene paper that had your shopping? And those food wrappings? No idea until you find them washed into your house by floodwaters or creating unsightly conditions on the roadside (better still, talk of poorly managed dumping sites)! On the other hand, that little discipline makes Japan to be one of the cleanest countries in the world.
The waste management discipline in Japan closely interlinks with sanitation levels; off course, the better the waste disposal system, the lesser the pollution. This confirms why rivers and streams passing through Japanese cities are ever clean; amazing! By the way, did you know that water in every running tap in Japan is safe for drinking; no doubt! Tapped water follows strict government regulations that ensure zero contamination and high health standards. Therefore, you rather refill your PET bottle with tapped water rather than (wasting) money in the shop for a new package. Generally, my ranking of the Japanese sanitation levels is quite higher and most countries will need more than average efforts to get there.
Despite having a little endowment to natural resources, Japan has ensured the maximum utilization, conservation and management of the little that they have. Notably, it is one of the most forested countries in the world, with the current forestry cover standing at 67% (note: my residence prefecture- Kochi, 高知県- has 84% forest cover). This is indeed, amazing and at the same time challenging at such a time when most countries have not even attained the minimal global requirement of 10% forest cover. Although the reasons for such a high forest cover, are high dependency on imported wood, cultural/religious practices, and the fact that they do not depend on wood as the major source of energy, their forestry practices are worth an appreciation. The beauty of the Japanese environment is also enhanced by the presence of forest parks, botanical gardens, and beatification projects along roads, cities, and institutions. Indeed, this makes travelling around Japan quite entertaining, breathtaking and therapeutic. Additionally, the presence of various seasons (winter, spring, summer, and autumn), creates a magical mystery in nature. The cold snowy summer slowly ushers in the cherry blossoming spring, then summer full of gorgeous beaches for sunbathing and surfing, and lastly, autumn that naturally creates a variety of colorful sceneries on the tree canopies; just give up on oneself and surrender to the natural way!     
NOTE: Please come back for "This is Japan 2," to know more about the Japanese food, transport and infrastructure among other things :)