Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Party Tricks

The President lay on the king-sized bed staring at the ceiling. The first two days of his state visit to Japan had been a nightmare.

Somebody must have slipped something into my drink, he thought as he lay there struggling to cling on to his sanity, surely I must be imagining this bizarre chain of events. It can’t be real.

There was a knock at the door. The President looked around to see where the sound had come from. The knock came again, a little louder this time; then a voice called out: “Mr. President are you OK?”

“Fuck off!” screamed the President.

There was a moment’s silence, then again the voice: “It’s me, Mr. President, the Secretary of State. Can I come in?”

The President hauled himself off the bed and plodded over to the door. He hesitated a moment, then opened it to let the Secretary of State enter.

“You look tired, Mr. President, why don’t you lie down,” said the Secretary of State.

“I was lying down,” said the President, “until you started banging on my door. What’s up now?”

“I’ve just been speaking to the ambassador about tomorrow’s schedule. He suggests a breakfast meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the balance of trade.”

The President looked incredulously at the Secretary of State and said, “Discuss the balance of trade at breakfast with the Prime Minister? The last time I had a meal with him, and that was dinner this evening, in case you don’t remember, it was like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!”

“Yes,” said the Secretary of State, “the Prime Minister is quite a character!”

“Quite a character?” said the President, “You can say that again without any fear of hyperbole! “

The Secretary of State was just about to repeat the statement when the President stopped him. “His tailor must be quite a character, too!  I couldn’t believe my eyes when he walked in wearing that red coat with the silk collar and black satin breeches with the matching stockings and patent leather pumps. I was so transfixed on his lower attire that it was a good few minutes before I noticed his white butterfly tie and white gloves. He looked as if he were off for a night in the Moulin Rouge in nineteenth century Paris rather than a formal dinner in the twenty-first with the most powerful leader on earth.”

“Yes,” said the Secretary of State, “his sense of dress code is rather idiosyncratic.”

“More like idiotic than idiosyncratic!” shouted the President. “If my tailor decked me out like that I’d send him to Texas for a lethal injection.”

“Well, you know that he’s a fan of Le Petomane, don’t you?” asked the Secretary of State.

“No, I fucking don’t!” snapped the President. “I’ve never heard of the Pederast or whoever he is!”

“Le Petomane was one of the great vaudeville entertainers in Paris at the fin de siecle. He used to play to packed houses every night at the Moulin Rouge. Even members of the complex mix of European royal families turned up to see him. Apparently his live shows were so explosive that women frequently fainted from laughing fits—they wore tight corsets in those days—and one man is rumored to have died of a heart attack brought on by laughing so much.”

“What was his party trick?” asked the President. “Did he dress up like a transvestite and tell heterosexual jokes?”

“No,” said the Secretary of State, “he farted?’

The President sat down slowly and stared at the Secretary of State. “Did you say he farted?” he asked.

The Secretary of State nodded. “Yes Le Petomane was not his real name. That was Joseph Pujol. Petomane is French for fartiste. You see, he was what we could call anal ventriloquist.”

The President shook his head and looked blankly out of the window at the neon Tokyo skyline. He jumped and looked around when the he heard the Secretary of State start speaking again.

“According to the ambassador,” said the Secretary of State, “the Prime Minister is an anal ventriloquist with an awesome repertoire. “In fact,” he continued, “the ambassador was telling me of an official reception he attended at which the Prime Minister unveiled his talent.”

“I have also experienced the Prime Ministers party tricks,” growled the President, “and that was just yesterday.”

The Secretary of State ignored the Presidents ire and continued, “The ambassador said that he can produce an amazing range of sounds through his rectum. He can quack like a duck, bark like a dog, meow like a cat, neigh like a horse….”

“And he can fart like a horse, too,” interjected the President. “Pass me that bottle of valium. I had better get to sleep before I go mad.”

The Secretary of State handed him the bottle and then looked on in amazement as the President gulped down a dozen tablets.

“And as for the fucking ambassador,” said the President, “where the hell did he come from? Which nincompoop had a lapse of sanity long enough to appoint him?”

The Secretary of State coughed. “Eh, you did, Mr. President.”

“Me?” screamed the President, jumping up too quickly for a man who had just taken an overdose of tranquilizers. “What was I doing at the time, sniffing glue?”

“Not as far as I could see,” said the Secretary of State. “In fact, I clearly remember you telling me that you thought the ambassador was a genius.”

“Well,” said the President, “there must be some truth in the maxim that there is a thin line between brilliance and madness. You weren’t in the car with him yesterday on the way in from the airport. I was! The buffoon never stopped talking about his birthday presents. He even had a catalog with him and he asked my opinion on what present he should choose.”

“Mind you,” said the President, struggling to keep his eyes open, “it is probably just as well he waffled on about his birthday presents because it distracted my attention from his necktie, which was one of the most ridiculous neckties I have ever seen in my life. And believe me, I have seen quite a few ridiculous neckties in my life. In fact, when I was young, spotting ridiculous neckties was one of my hobbies.

The Secretary of State raised his eyebrows and looked hard at the President, who was starting to lapse into sleep. It must he the medication, he thought, he doesn’t normally talk like this.

“By the way,” said the President, squinting at the Secretary of State’s purple and pink necktie, “where on earth did you get that necktie? I’ve been meaning to ask all day.”

The Secretary of State turned crimson and nervously fingered his necktie. “It was a present,” he answered.

“You are not a poof, are you” asked the President.

“Good Lord, no.” said the Secretary of State.

“Well, whoever gave you that necktie obviously thinks you are,” said the President, and then he fell asleep.

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved


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Sapporo is a very young city. Nevertheless, it spreads over 430 square miles, and is Japan’s third largest city in area and fifth in population. It is the center of politics, commerce and culture for the major northern island of Hokkaido, and it is the hub of communications for all domestic and international travelers to the region.

Hokkaido, which was once called Ezo, was originally inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people, whose footprint can be found on the island in many of the place names. There are indications that Japanese settlers arrived on Hokkaido in the 7th century to trade with the Ainu, but it was not until 1821 that the Tokugawa Shogunate established a trading post on the Ishikari River, near present-day Sapporo.

In 1855, the Shogunate officially annexed the whole of Hokkaido and established government offices at Hakodate, on the south coast of the island. Two years later, two families moved into the Sapporo area and became the first official residents of the region. Soon after, the government changed the name of the island from Ezo to Hokkaido and serious colonization began.

The government established the Kaitakushi, or Development Commission, to plan and develop the island’s resources. They decided to construct a capital for Hokkaido on the Ishikari Plain. Thus began the transformation of Sapporo from a small farming village into the major administrative center of Hokkaido. The Kaitakushi encouraged immigration by subsidizing transportation costs and providing food for settlers who were prepared to assist with defense preparations and development of the region.

The city planners created a green belt to divide the city into northern and southern portions. Today, Odori Park plays a major role in the seasonal events of the city by hosting major events such as the Sapporo Snow Festival, Cherry Blossom Viewing and the Sapporo Summer Festival.

Construction took place at a furious pace. The Kaitakushi office was completed in 1871, with other government buildings, such as the Old Hokkaido Government Building (Akarengo) going up around it in the northern part of the city. Meanwhile, south of Odori Park, the commercial and entertainment districts started to take shape.

Settlers arriving from Honshu were encouraged by the Kaitakushi to introduce Western production technology for capital-intensive farming and to establish lumber mills, breweries and mines. To facilitate the introduction of technology, Sapporo Agricultural College was established in 1876. In the same year, Kaitakushi Brewery, Japan’s first real beer brewery opened in Sapporo. The original Sapporo Brewery building is now home to the famous Sapporo Beer Garden.

In 1880, as the economy developed, based on raw materials and agriculture, Japan’s third railroad was constructed to link Sapporo with Otaru, a major port to the west. Sapporo prospered as the city oversaw the transportation of agricultural produce, such as wheat, potatoes, corn and asparagus, as well as raw materials like timber and coal. Gradually, the city replaced horse-drawn trolley cars with electric streetcars.

The Hokkaido Government was established in 1886, and it quickly set about encouraging private investment in the region. An influx of businessmen from Honshu, followed by immigrants looking for higher paying jobs in the new territories, saw the area’s population rise drastically from 1900 to 1920. Sapporo’s post-war history is one of rapid growth and development as well, bringing the population to over one million by 1970.

Sapporo appeared on the world stage in 1972, when the city hosted the 11th Winter Olympic Games. To accommodate the Games, Sapporo instigated a development program that included construction of its subway system, underground heating for roads, and some of the best winter sports facilities available, including the fabulous Okurayama Ski Jump.

Adding to its reputation as a sporting city, Sapporo was a venue for group games in the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup. In preparation for this, the city constructed the Sapporo Dome, a multipurpose venue that is one of the most modern stadiums in the country.

Sapporo is unlike any other Japanese city. It has wide streets, parks and green belts, and its sporting facilities are second to none. In such a short time, Sapporo has grown from a trading post to a city that is known throughout the world.

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While the city of Yokohama is a relatively recent phenomenon, the immediate area is a treasure chest of historical sites. These include the Otsuka and Saikachido sites dating from the Yayoi Period (300BC – 300AD), and Kamakura, the capital during the Kamakura Shogunate (1192 – 1333), which has a plethora of ancient temples and historical sites as well as the Kanazawa Bunko Library that was founded in 1275. The history of Yokohama itself, however, only started in the middle of the 19th century.

On July 8, 1853, a fleet of four American warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry arrived at Uraga, just south of Yokohama. Perry was carrying a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan demanding that Japan open itself to international trade. After handing over the letter, Perry left Japan saying that he would be back one year later for an answer. Little did anyone realize that Perry’s visit would lead to the elevation of an obscure fishing village on the southwestern coast of Tokyo Bay into the second largest city in Japan. But that is exactly the effect it had.

At the time of Perry’s visit, Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had been established by Ieyasu Tokugawa after his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Ieyasu established his capital at Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Yokohama came under direct shogunal jurisdiction.

In 1636, the Shogunate introduced an edict forcing total isolation on the country. No one was allowed in (with the exception of a small group of Chinese and Dutch traders, who were confined to Dejima, an artificial island just off the coast from Nagasaki), and no one was allowed out. This policy was strictly enforced until Perry arrived. Although the Japanese were loath to open up their country to foreigners and dangerous foreign influence, the sight of Perry’s steam-driven warships, which the Japanese called kurofune, or “black ships,” startled them. They realized that they were technologically inferior to the Americans and that if it came to hostilities, they would be hard pushed to defend Edo against the powerful cannons on the American warships.

When Perry returned in 1854, the Japanese signed the Kanagawa Treaty opening two ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, to American ships. In 1858, the US-Japan Treaty of Amity was signed, opening up six ports to foreign trade, including Kanagawa. One year later, the trading rights for foreigners were transferred to Yokohama, a sleepy little fishing village at the time. Thus began the transformation that was to turn Yokohama into one of the most famous port cities in the world.

Yokohama was selected as the base for foreigners as it was far enough from Edo to prevent unnecessary contact with the foreigners, whom the Japanese called ketojin, or “hairy barbarians.” The settlement was surrounded by a moat and divided into two sections: kangai (outside the barrier) and kannai (inside the barrier). The foreigners were located in Kannai, which has since become the very heart of the city.

Relations between fanatic Japanese isolationists and foreign traders were tense. In the first year, five foreigners were murdered. Things came to a head in September 1862 when Charles Richardson, a British merchant, was hacked to death by the bodyguard of the daimyo, or “lord,” of Satsuma (now Kagoshima). Great Britain declared war on Satsuma and exacted retribution.

As the foreign traders flocked to Yokohama, the village was transformed into a hub of commercial activity and subsequent development. It grew in significance as a port in 1872 when the first railroad in Japan connected Yokohama with Shimbashi in Tokyo, and in 1889 when it was constituted as a city with an area of 5.5 square kilometers and a population of 116,193.

Yokohama has continued to grow ever since, despite two major disasters, one natural and one induced by man. On September 1, 1923, a major earthquake hit the Kanto Plain, measuring 7.9 in magnitude on the Japanese scale. Yokohama was practically obliterated by the seismic shocks, the devastating fires that swept through the city and the tsunami tidal wave that followed. Reconstruction efforts quickly restored the port and its function as a gateway to the nation. But in May 1945, as the Pacific Front of World War II moved to Japanese soil, most of the business areas and more than half of the port facilities were destroyed by American air raids. By 1952, the port was again reopened, this time with more modern shipping and railway facilities that established Yokohama as one of the world’s great commercial centers.

In 1985, when the population of Yokohama passed the three million mark, the city was already planning for the future. One of the most important projects in the city’s history was announced. This was the development of Minato Mirai 21. The idea behind this project was to create “an information city of the 21st century incorporating an international culture center that was active around the clock” and provide a “human environment surrounded by water, greenery and history.” A visit to this fascinating waterfront area will confirm the accuracy of that vision and just how far Yokohama has come since Perry’s Black Ships first sailed into Uraga Bay.


© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved


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