Category Archives: Hotels

Spike: No man but a blockhead

[This is the last ever Spike ramble, so slip on your stoutest trekking boots, decant a wee dram of aqua vitae into your hip-flask, and join me across a few rickety stiles and muddy, forgotten fields.]

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Samuel Johnson, Friday, 5 April 1776, from The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell

Many moons ago, long before the accident, I went for a drive.
The goal was to dip a metaphorical toe in the Pacific, somewhere in mid-Fukushima, then head over the spine of Honshu on backroads into Niigata and dip another metaphorical toe (or even the same one) in the Sea of Japan. No particular reason, just to blow away a few cobwebs—drive ni iku, the Japanese say, to go for a drive, and it often appears in the rankings of favorite leisure-time activities, at least among men of a certain age.
I never made it to the Sea of Japan. In the depopulating wilds of south-central Fukushima, tantalizing signs advertising a local attraction began to appear with Burma Shave regularity at the side of the road, the last of which was this, directing the driver to turn right up what turned out to be a 6km semi-private road to the top of a hill. “Pax per linguam” reads the Cod Latin motto on the faux coat of arms, “peace through language”. It seems unlikely.

Britain that way

British Hills, British Hills? Where had I heard of British Hills before? In some magazine or newspaper account, years previously? It sounded like a golf club, out at the end of the Metropolitan Line, in Pinner or Rickmansworth perhaps, where the members spend more time at the 19th than at the first eighteen, where chaps (and chapesses—we must move with the times!) with surnames like Bloomstein, though no longer blackballed, are greeted by the barman with a froideur not shown to those with surnames like Brown.  
A couple of hours later I was driving down the private road, face smirk-split from port to starboard, a reaction that only kitsch of the very toppest notch can evoke. The audacity! The execution! The sheer bloody extravagance of the place!
Some years later, not long after the accident, I returned, this time to stay the night.

Drogo

Willie

Racing green

Just like Scotland 

Tenpole Tudor

Part English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) educational institute, part luxury resort hotel, British Hills sprawls over some sixty acres (all “facts” about British Hills, even those on its own website, are quite possibly apocryphal) atop a seemingly randomly chosen hill in the village of Ten’ei, centered around a recreation of a manor house, reminiscent of the late domestic architecture of Edward Lutyens, such as what is now the Abbey House Hotel, built for the Vickers shipbuilding family, and above all Castle Drogo, completed in 1930 and widely dubbed “the last castle built in England”. According to Oxford Brookes University anthropologist and Japanologist Joy Hendry, in The Orient Strikes Back: A Global View of Cultural Display, British Hills was the dream of the mother of the chairman of the Sano Educational Foundation, which runs three not especially prestigious seats of learning, the Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages (est. 1957), a two-year vocational school, Kanda University of International Studies (est. 1987), and Kanda Gaigo Career College, an language and communication course provider (est. 1996). British Hills was completed in 1994, making it yet another fruit of a hazy reverie one late Bubble afternoon, rendered flesh in brick and stone, and without a doubt the most delicious tale surrounding its creation is that it caused such an artificial spike in demand for English oak as to retard the erection of that other temple of chintz, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on London’s Bankside, by a couple of years. The most frequently cited figure for the cost of construction is GBP60mn, a cool inflation-adjusted GBP100mn (USD150mn). Rumours swirl about financial difficulties in the first few years of operation, with salvation reportedly coming in the events of 9/11, which caused the more timid traveller to shun the complexities of authenticity and seek refuge in the safety of the fake.

British Hills, my spies inform me, is staffed—aside from the Japanese, who do most of the real work—by ten EFL teachers and a dozen or so twentysomethings on working holiday visas, mostly from the UK, Canada, and Australia, although not from the US, either because of visa issues or, one blogger reports, because of the “slovenliness of their accent”. So much for pax per linguam. These twentysomethings are largely present for decorative purposes and their blogs reveal they are not unaware of this. “My receptionist duties mainly involve being British” writes one; as she was British, and not, say, Azerbaijani, this should not have been beyond her capabilities. Writes another: “I can fold a mean napkin as well as bow a lot & look white which is a large part of my job description.”

The reactions of Japanese visitors to British Hills, so far as it is possible to determine from websites such as tripadvisor.com, are beguilingly innocent and free of irony: “a precious facility where you can enjoy a little study abroad in Japan” (国内でプチ留学できる貴重な施設); “everything’s exactly as it would be in England—an English village that makes you wonder whether you’re really in Japan” (すべてがイギリスそのもの!日本にいるの?と思わせるイギリス村); “it’s the UK even though it’s in Japan…step inside and everything’s English language, the feeling of a foreign country without a passport” (日本なのに英国・・・一歩入ったらすべて英語、パスポートなしの外国気分). Whether this trio has been to Britain, I know not, but I’d hazard they’ve never been to Scunthorpe, say, or Workington or Grimsby.

I particularly relish this reaction, written in English by a Japanese man: “A Caucasian receptionist accepted my check-in. … Unlike the people you may see in the countries other than Japan, she behaved in a manner as polite and gentle as Japanese clerks would do.” Then there’s this delightful attempt to render the world of British Hills in the Basic English of eccentric polymath C. K. Ogden (“what the world needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages”)—850 words and just 18 “operators” (“verbs” to you and me):
Hills are small mountains.
British Hills in fact
are not hills or mountains.
They are a sort of hotel
on a mountain,
with a special purpose.
Nearly everything in
this hotel
is British or English.
The building and the
14 houses
are copies of old ones in
Britain.
Most of the workers are able to give talks in English
though some have Australian sounds.
Streets are clean with no automatic soft-drink machines.

Reception from above

Back to school

After much pedantic talk at reception about under which accommodation package I might, having turned up unbidden and unannounced, be allowed to stay, I’m ushered to a room in a “house”—really an aggregation of suites—called Turner, replete with unguents and nostalgically aspirational plumbing from Ross-on-Wye.

Bath from Ross

Aspirational plumbing

Soon it’s time for drinks and dinner in The Falstaff pub, which stands next to “Ye Shoppe” (whatever happened to the “Olde”?); Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, and Old Speckled Hen are on tap, and I daresay there’s no finer selection of amber nectar to be found on any other Fukushima hilltop.

Drink up

Roast beef of old England

There’s a pear-bottle of Sarson’s on the table—for the fish ’n’ chips, I suppose—but there’s really, really no need for more vinegar, as both the duck entrée and the beef roast are slathered in aceto balsamico, just as they would be at many a mediocre gastropub on the home islands; rap and R&B, turned down just low enough not to grate, fill the tea-color corners, with Frankie J crooning to all who’ll listen that “I can tell you sweet things that would make you smile”; there’s no smoking allowed inside the pub—natch—so I huddle, shivering, around an outdoor ashtray; many Japanese guests are clad in Pottercloaks (what accommodation package are they on?) and there’s endless Pottercrap on the telly. The British Hills experience was turning out to be terrifically, horrifically true to modern life on Airstrip One: all we needed now to complete the picture was ubiquitous CCTV and a pack of hoodies having a brawl in its collective blind-spot.

Amateur oil

Major General Piggott and company

The ambassador's lecture hall

Sir Rutherford and successors

One possible reason British Hills has survived, if not thrived, is that it is formidably well-connected, both on the British and Japanese sides. In descending order, the quartet of photos above show (a much younger) QEII, consort, and mother, together with the Shōwa Emperor and Empress Kōjun; a wall’s worth of yeoman worthies with ties, in foul times and fair, to Japan, starting with Major General Francis Piggott (1910-1996), British military attaché to Tokyo in the mid-1930s and in World War II organizer, under Orde Wingate, of the Burmese chindit partisans; The British Ambassador’s Lecture Hall; and a portrait, in the lecture hall, of Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British consul-general in Japan.

On the Japanese side, at least at the time of my visit, there was the intriguingly named André Yuki Kawada (1936-2012), so baptized at birth by a French Catholic priest, who was recruited in 1993 from Mitsubishi Corp. to become Director General of British Hills, was eventually to ascend to Honorary Director General, and who just so happened to be the great-grandson of Koichiro Kawada—who, together with the more celebrated Yataro Iwasaki, founded the mighty Mitsubishi zaibatsu. André Kawada was educated at Gakushuin, the bluest blooded of all Japan’s blue-blood schools, where he was a dormitory chum of His Imperial Highness The Prince Hitachi, still fourth in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and interviewed his senpai elder, novelist Yukio Mishima, for the school magazine. Now those are quite some connections—and they explain, I later realized, why the high-speed, touch-free hand-dryer in my bathroom was made by Mitsubishi.

But all this, though intriguing enough, was a distraction, for I had returned to British Hills for one reason alone: the library.

Library conference table

Seat of learning

Annals and a lamp

Bookended

British Hills calls it the replica of a London gentleman’s club, but it strikes me, given its location in the manor house, more like a simulacrum of a gentleman’s private library, of the sort that could, at its apogee, have been found in maybe no more than a couple of thousand castles, manors, and rectories across the British Isles. Whoever had assembled this collection—and I can picture in the mind’s inscape the dry-as-dust mouth of an antiquarian book-dealer on the Charing Cross Road begin to salivate one morning in 1992 as Mr. Kato and Mr. Sato from Japan step across the threshold and describe their requirements—had done a commendable job: the clock had stopped, never to go again, in the middle of the third decade of the twentieth century.

Anyone for Punch

Old Japan hands

One stack of shelves groans under nothing but bound volumes of Punch magazine, 1901-1925. How many legions of unfunny cartoons are contained therein? On my previous visit, a pile of 1960s children’s books on space exploration and popular science had spoiled the artifice, but these had been banished, and there was little left to ruin the illusion, although on close inspection of a shelf-full of Ye Olde Japanne travelogues—Three Rolling Stones in Japan by Gilbert Watson (1904) and The Other Side of the Lantern: An Account of a Commonplace Tour Round the World by Sir Frederick Treves (1905), for instance—The Deer Cry Pavilion by Pat Barr, which I can date no further back than 1968, is but a fawn among hoary stags.

Multivolume editions of exactly the novelists and poets you would expect to find in the library of a conservative but catholic (or even, perhaps, Conservative and Catholic) reader of 1925—Galsworthy and Hardy, Tennyson and Browning and Kipling, Jerome K. Jerome and Arnold Bennett, and of course The Chesterbelloc—are all present and correct.

Whyte who

But what was this shelf, full of novels with curious titles—Tilbury Nogo, M or N, Black but Comely, and Market Harborough (surely nobody could have penned a novel set in that dullest of East England towns)? And who was their author, George John Whyte Melville? I was convinced—wrongly, as it turned out—that I had never heard of him before. This—English literature—was supposed to be my specialist subject, the one over which I had sweated (well, gently perspired) for my undergraduate degree, and yet here was a shelf-worth of a Victorian novelist who had tumbled into such an abyss of obscurity that his very name rang no bell of recognition. Dispirited and dejected, not so much with my unpardonable ignorance but more with the fickleness of fama, I resolved—not for the first time—to bin Spike. What is the point, I asked myself but couldn’t answer, of writing anything that will be forgotten if not within an hour, then at the outside, within a day? Luckily, my wise friend Dr. T was on hand to counsel: “As for futility, of course what you are doing is futile. Futility is to the human condition as wetness is to water. So what? You enjoy doing it. I and many other of your fans enjoy reading it. Long live Spike!” Enheartened, I vowed to ramble on.

So who the blazes was G. J. Whyte Melville? Well, he was a novelist of the sporting field—no, wait, where did I get that from? Why, from Wikipedia, of course. The six-hundred-odd word entry on Whyte Melville has just two footnotes and no cautionary hypertext warning the reader of the fallibility of the writer, for these are the wildest shores of the Wikiempire, where the writ of the Wikilaw does not run and the Wikipolice do not patrol.

And where, I wondered, did the Wikiwriters (let’s assume a collective for the sake of convenience) obtain the knowledge to pen their essaylet on Whyte Melville? From a deep and abiding familiarity with the works? No, not at all, as it turned out—chunks are purloined from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and to a lesser extent perhaps from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900.

1) Wikipedia: Most of his heroes and heroines: Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honourable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be hunters.
Britannica: He was the laureate of fox-hunting; all his most popular and distinctive heroes and heroines, Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honorable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be mighty hunters.
2) Wikipedia: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry but this was the only break in his literary career.
By a strange accident, Whyte-Melville lost his life whilst hunting 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse.
Britannica: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry; but this was the only break in his literary career from the time that he began to write novels till his death.
By a strange accident, he lost his life in the hunting-field on the 5th of December 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over an ordinary ploughed field in the Vale of the White Horse.
3) Wikipedia: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
Britannica: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
4) Wikipedia: Some characters reappear in different novels: such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow.
Britannica: It is on his portraiture of contemporary sporting society that his reputation as a novelist must rest; and, though now and then a character reappears, such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow, his variety in the invention of incidents is amazing.

To appropriate from texts long in the public domain is no crime, and were the footnotes adequate, this entry would conceivably not even infringe on Wikipedia’s editorial standards, but were it to be handed in as homework it would merit 0/10, and the authority of the authors has been shot to pieces, pieces smaller than those into which starburst the clay pigeons at which Whyte Melville characters occasionally take pot-shot.

I should have realized from first encounter with the subliterate misuse of colons in examples (1) and (4) above that the Whyte Melville Wikipage was suspect, but I suspect my senses were lulled by ignorance of the subject and, more importantly, by the often spurious authority that Wikipedia has come to command in its dozen (count ’em) years of existence.

“A novelist of the sporting field” has become an Internet micro-meme, used exclusively with reference to Whyte Melville, often by booksellers ignorant of the author whose works they have picked up, perhaps at some house clearance auction. But is “a novelist of the sporting field” a fair characterization of Whyte Melville? Not from the two novels of his I’ve now read, and not, if we take references to foxes as a proxy for the sporting field, from the seven works of his I’ve skimmed at Project Gutenberg: The Interpreter: A Tale of the War has two fox references, General Bounce, or The Lady and The Locusts 13 (six about a horse called The Fox), M or N: Similia similibus curantur one, Contraband, or A Losing Hazard one, Kate Coventry: An Autobiography 14, and Katerfelto: A Tale of Exmoor, four—contrast those with the 63 fox references in the autobiographical Riding Recollections, which really is about the sporting field.

One reason that ignorant booksellers turn to Wikipedia anything other than the deepest of dives into the trenches of the Internet will turn up next to nothing about Whyte Melville—but surely these bibliophiles (and if they’re not bibliophiles, they’re in the wrong trade) have reference works, old-school ones printed with ink on paper, which they could consult for a potted biography?

Companion

Whyte Melville entry

I delved into the recesses of my library to dredge up my 1985 fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by novelist Margaret Drabble (cruelly nicknamed Margery Drivel by me in my youth for the dullness of her fictions) and “a team of distinguished contributors” over five what must have been laborious years, only to discover that in a previous life—in January 1987, to judge from the neat pencil marks in which I had dated readings of surrounding entries—I had read the Whyte Melville entry and officiously corrected in red biro the typo that misrecorded his birth as 1721 rather than 1821. One up to Wikipedia, I suppose. For the record, here’s the entry in full:

WHYTE-MELVILLE, George John (1721-78 [sic]), born in Fife, educated at Eton, joined the 93rd Highlanders, then the Coldstream Guards, and served in the Crimean war. He then returned to England and devoted his time to field sports on which he was an authority. Most of his literary works were novels, sometimes historical, and hunting figures largely in many of them. His first, Digby Grand, was published in 1853; Galsworthy, at Oxford, fell under the spell of the ‘Bright Things’ in Whyte-Melville’s novels and Digby Grand was Jolyon’s (in The Forstye Saga) first idol. He achieved fame with Holmby House (1859), a historical romance describing the Civil War. Market Harborough (1861) and The Gladiators (1863), also very popular, were followed by several others. In 1869 he published his Songs and Verse, and Riding Recollections (1879) was a notable book on horsemanship. He was killed in a hunting accident.

Not inspired, certainly—the antepenultimate sentence is especially damp—and I wonder if the author knew beforehand of the Galsworthy connection or unearthed it from the only academic paper I can find on Whyte Melville, Whyte-Melville and Galsworthy’s “Bright Beings”, by James C. Freeman, in the September 1950 edition of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, which quotes the young Jolyon Forsyte reminiscing about his time at Cambridge in “the golden sixties when the world was simple, dandies glamourous, Democracy not born, and the books of Whyte-Melville coming thick and fast”. There were short-cuts to the assumption of the mantle of authority even before the Internet bulldozed the neighbourhood to make it nothing but a lattice of short-cuts. Another one up to Wikipedia? 

********************

Wikipedia: An unsocratic dialogue, January 2013

If you are settling in the wilds, ten reference shelves are the minimum.
Early Reading and Desert Island Books, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind, a place we can all go to think and learn.
Excerpt from the latest Wikipedia fundraising message

Spike: Reddit is a disgrace to humanity but Wikipedia is a little gem—don’t forget that Tim Minchin invokes it in Storm:
Does the idea that one afternoon
On Wiki-fucking-pedia might enlighten you
Frighten you? 
It brightened my life today with two great quotations, the first from Hilaire Belloc, on being asked why he wrote so much: 
“Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.”
 And the second, which you probably know, from Lord Rutherford:
“All science is either physics or stamp-collecting.”
You come closest to Luddism when you claim that “we did have…encyclopedias written by experts”. What we really had was the Britannica, which had long been prostituted to Chicago and the ranks of the door-to-door brush salesmen. (And I didn’t get that from Wikipedia.) That’s not to say Wikipedia’s perfect—it’s failed me when I needed it for things as varied as chemical vapor deposition to the politics of Graham Greene—but it’s free, whereas the Britannica in the old days must have cost a month’s salary or more, it doesn’t take up any space, and plenty of research has suggested it is not much more inaccurate than the Britannica was. Whether this is a giant leap is another question.

Dr. T: Though I idolise Tim Minchin every bit as much as you do, I’m not sure that a Wikipedia endorsement from him is enough to shake my nagging suspicion that it is doing for all of human culture what David Attenborough did for biology—dumbing it down to the point that any fool can ‘comprehend’ it. The problem with this is that you then create a huge number of people who think they understand, say, evolution, because they’ve got the box set of Life on Earth
Wikipedia hasn’t, surely, made anyone cleverer or even better informed; it has just given a lot of people the illusion that they are suddenly clever and well informed, which is dangerous, isn’t it? Like anything easily attained—and I do realise that this sounds or perhaps just is incredibly pompous—knowledge looked up on Wikipedia is too cheap to have much value. In the end, to the extent that it has any value at all, it relies on the expertise of the real experts and, if we’re not careful, we’ll disincentivise everyone from becoming an expert, which can still only be done the old-fashioned way. Try an experiment that I have had fun with and look up the Wikipedia entry on the ten subjects on which you believe you are personally best informed. Even the entries on evolution and natural selection are obviously written by what a former boss referred to as “your basic C-student”. By the time you get down to subjects that I really know more than most people about, the entries are barely one step above a trip through the square window on Play School. Anyway, judge your entries on their merits, then come back and tell me, if you still believe it to be true, that Wikipedia is a force for good not evil. What would Christopher Hitchens have said?
Spike: You dare attack Saint David of Attenborough? Next you’ll be having a go at that lovely Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu woman, just like Christopher Hitchens (and yes, I did have to go to Wikipedia for her Albanian name, and very efficient it was, too).
Sorry if it may come as a revelation but not everyone on this pale blue dot is as smart as you—surely there is room for a harmless old duffer like Lord Attenborough of Richmond to instill a wonder for nature in the unwashed? You can be very Calvinist in your opprobrium.
Does Wikipedia necessarily dumb down everything? Walk me through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument here, which we were discussing before. Or perhaps you’d like to try your chances with the Kerr-Newman metric? These are not isolated examples of forbiddingly tricky Wikipages—there are thousands upon thousands more out there. Perhaps we should be arguing that Wikipedia hasn’t been dumbed down enough?
Do you think that people, generally, have the illusion that they are suddenly clever because they can access Wikipedia? Is there any evidence for that? Maybe the possession of a fifty volume Britannica fifty years ago made the people who bought it made them feel special, knowledgeable even, because they’d forked over so much money for it and it had pride of place in the sitting room, but do most casual users of Wikipedia feel that way today? Isn’t the absence of that illusion precisely part of the beauty of its being free?
Here’s how I used Wikipedia today—1) for work, I wanted to confirm that the trading house Mitsui & Co. was founded in 1876—it seemed a little late to me—confirmed; 2) for work, but mostly out of curiosity, I wanted to know if the Japanese for “sprawling prewar business combine”, zaibatsu, shared the same Chinese characters as the Korean Hanja (the Chinese form of Korean, as opposed to Hangul) for chaebol, i.e., Samsung—it does; 3) for pleasure, I wanted to know the classical Greek term of rhetoric for an intentional stutter in oratory—for instance, “thousands—no, tens of thousands—of our fellow citizens…” This was trickier; I thought for a while I had it nailed with epanorthosis—but then, maybe not. Wikipedia’s rhetoric pages need attention. But would the Britannica have been better in any way? And can’t we tell when we’re being let down?
We (well, I, which I admit is a narrower class of humanity) peck at Wikipedia for tidbits—noone, other than a desperate teenager, is going to take it as the sum of knowledge. And encyclopedists are supposed to be your basic C-grade student, encyclopedias are supposed to be for plodders or people outside their fields; it’s not for nothing that one of Wikipedia’s warnings is “This article may contain original research”—noone wants that kind of filth in an encyclopedia! Here’s a mirror-image challenge to yours—go and pick ten subjects about which you know next to zero, search them at Wikipedia, and come away telling me you didn’t learn something, however trivial. That’s what encyclopedias are for.
As for subjects that “I really know more than most people about”, well I concede that Japan pages are dire. Here’s one about a place dear to both of our hearts:
“Most of Monbetsu’s economy is dedicated to fishing for cold-water species such as crab.”
All together now, panto style—“Oh no it’s not!”
But, but, but… Would the Britannica have done any better?  
If I concede to you on one point—and I do—it’s that I often catch journos in the act of pulling “facts” off Wikipedia. I recall writing to a friend, in a context I’ve sadly forgotten, “That is mere Wikiknowledge!” A neologism that noone else (Google says, so it must be true) seems to have coined in a pejorative sense. But this is far from a generalized sense of complacency about knowledge, although it does caution for a heightened sensitivity to laziness. And as we know, journalists are basically only one rung up the evolutionary ladder from high-school students.
Dr T: Well, speaking as one iconoclast to another, yes, Saint David of Attenborough has certainly created several generation of wildlife program fans but I’m unconvinced that he has created many natural historians. We tend to find St. D after we’ve caught the bug, not the other way round. I think that St. D is exactly analogous to Jamie Oliver. St. J has not caused more people to start cooking or to raise their culinary game above Spaghetti Bolognese but he has forced Waitrose to raise its game in the ready meals department. For this, I am thankful. But seriously, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to object to misinformation being dispensed by the BBC, do you? In fact, he says, warming to his theme, isn’t your duty to be scrupulously accurate with the facts proportional to your ability to influence public opinion?
Well, I can’t walk you through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument, which is precisely my point. I understand the principle behind Bayesian statistics, which is that you would be wise to take account of what you already know to be true, when estimating the probability that something about which you are uncertain is also true. For example, if you know that chimpanzees and humans are more closely related than humans and jellyfish, you will get a more robust hypothesis about the relationship among chimpanzees, humans and jellyfish when you plug the DNA into a molecular phylogeny program than if you pretended not to know the likely outcome. It’s a way of incorporating existing knowledge into statistical predictions. The Wikipedia entry on the Doomsday argument taught me nothing intelligible that I didn’t already know and the maths assumes far more understanding than I possess. In other words, it fails on every count. It doesn’t add to the understanding of a reasonably well-educated layman (with regard to Bayesian statistics) and it is intelligible only to people who have access to the original research. As an encyclopaedia entry it’s a waste of energy and someone’s time.
Of course Britannica would have done better! You or I could go onto Wikipedia now and amend any article on the basis of our prejudices not our knowledge of the pertinent subject. I’m not arguing that Britannica was an infallible source of knowledge, just that Wikipedia is more fallible and, further, that you have no way of knowing, as a user, whether a Wikipedia claim is true or false. If you want to figure that out, you have to go to the original research. 
I’m not claiming that Wikipedia is useless or devoid of interesting content. Just that you must judge it by its entries on stuff you know about, not stuff you don’t. Of course, if I look up something I know nothing about, say Japanese ceramics, I will read facts about them of which I was previously unaware. But how will I judge the veracity of these facts? One way would be to look at Wikipedia entries on subjects that I do know something about and estimate the percentage that seem to be on the ball (say, being generous, 30%) and apply that percentage to the stuff that I can’t independently verify.  
My fear is that, as Wikipedia and knowledge become synonymous in popular understanding, we will lose the ability to discriminate between truth and plausibility. 
Spike: I think your comment about the ease of amending Wikiarticles reveals that you don’t really understand how Wikipedia works. It’s like a war, there are fiercely contested hot zones, and areas where truces have held for aeons (in Internet time). You go and try an interpolate a comment at the George W. Bush page that says, “In 2010, ex-President Bush was convicted in a Texas court of sodomy and sentenced to three months in prison” and let me know how long it lasts. Or even if you get through the vetting process to be allowed to insert that comment.
Dr. T: It’s true that I have never attempted to write anything on Wikipedia. I think you are missing my point, however, or perhaps I am making it badly. Fans of Wikipedia or other open source technologies, like Linux or Firefox, seem to believe in the “wisdom of crowds”. It’s an open question whether crowds are any wiser than individuals—I’d vote not, but what do I know. Nicholas Carr’s point is that Wikipedia isn’t written by the crowd, it’s written by a cabal, so you get the worst of all worlds. You don’t benefit from the marginal improvements that could be made by the crowd, if the self-appointed censors didn’t forbid it, and it isn’t written by experts. What you get is articles written by people who have nothing better to do than write Wikipedia articles and police its frontiers.
Spike: Now that is a much more forceful criticism than any other you’ve presented me with. I sense Wikipedia’s actually written by a mix of a crowd and a cabal—crowd at the edges, perhaps, cabal at the center. The cabal needs the crowd because of its own epistemological shortcomings. You could easily enough stand the argument on its head, though, in the absence of really hard evidence, and say that you get the best of both worlds. I know, though, that I could greatly improve thousands of Wikipedia articles, but can’t be bothered (did you know that apathetics inhabit the outer perimeter of Dante’s Inferno, just before the vats start boiling?)  
You got me reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. He has some beguiling one-liners:
“Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity.”
And in what way is that different from a traditional encyclopedia? But actually at Wikipedia, because it’s a constant work in progress, you endlessly encounter those superscripted notes {citation needed} or the magisterial headers “This article has multiple issues”, which are a constant reminder that we are dealing with very human, very fought-over texts. I don’t think Lanier is a careful enough reader when it comes to this.

Postscript: An article in the Free Exchange column of the March 9th edition of The Economist, which surveys a trio of studies that attempt to quantify the “consumer surplus” generated by the wonders of the Internet (although as one study was commissioned by a web-advertising industry group and another partly funded by Google, their integrity must be open to at least a smidgeon of doubt, on the principle that you don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut), handsomely illustrates one of Dr. T’s points. It begins thus (bolding mine):

When her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, Judy Mollica spent hours in a nearby medical library in south Florida, combing through journals for information about her child’s condition. Upon seeing an unfamiliar term she would stop and hunt down its meaning elsewhere in the library. It was, she says, like “walking in the dark”. Her daughter recovered but in 2005 was diagnosed with a different form of cancer. This time, Ms Mollica was able to stay by her side. She could read articles online, instantly look up medical and scientific terms on Wikipedia, and then follow footnotes to new sources. She could converse with her daughter’s specialists like a fellow doctor. Wikipedia, she says, not only saved her time but gave her a greater sense of control. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Much as I am glad that Ms Mollica gained a greater illusion of authority, that is all it is—an illusion. Seven to ten rigorous years of medical training will allow you to converse with specialists like a fellow doctor; one afternoon on Wiki-fucking-pedia might just, if you’re in luck, begin to disabuse you of your belief in homeopathy and other footnotes in the history of piffle but it won’t award you—it beggars belief that anyone has to point this out—a doctorate in medicine.

********************

Digby

Inside Digby

The moment that my edition of Digby Grand: An Autobiography, printed in London by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1890, crossed my threshold, having winged its way from Selkirk in Scotland, not so very far from where Whyte Melville was born, it became, at 123 years old (older, just, than any documented human has ever lived), by far the oldest object in my possession, the family heirlooms, such as they were, having been liberated by an avaricious relative as my elderly parents struggled to squeeze the quart of their accumulated lives into the pint of their final home. The corporeal book, with its faint mustiness, imprimatur of age, and archaic typeface, offers manifold pleasures and opportunities for speculation that no e-reader will ever match: was, for instance, Katherine M. Hope, whose name appears on the front paste-down, the same Katherine M. Hope who appears in the 1881 Scottish census as born in 1879 and resident in Clackmannanshire? What would she, an impressionable eleven if the book’s first reader, have made of the dissolute youth of Digby Grand? There’s a palpable thrill, too, as the first pages fall open, that one is about to be inducted into a secret camaraderie: how many people alive and under fifty have read Digby Grand? A hundred?

Manifold, too, are the pleasures within: while there is much hunting, not a little shooting and even some fishing, a great deal of slaughter of the beasts of the field, of “flying covey and dodging coney”, and fulsome tribute paid to “a capital horse, with as crack a pack of hounds as England could produce”, Digby Grand is not, primarily, a “novel of the sporting field” but a Bildungsroman, in which our eponymous hero bids to negotiate the hazards of polite society, in the shape of characters with near-Dickensian names, Mrs. Man-trap, Captain Lavish, Lord Growler, Sir Harlequin Hauteboy, and Dr. Driveller, and its tapestry of temptations, from “enormous consumption of provender and wassail”, “oceans of claret”, “bumper after bumper of Bordeaux”, and “jorums of mull” (this is not a novel likely to appear on the recommended reading list of the British Medical Association) to card games from whist to lansquenet and écarté, on which the stakes wagered are staggering, a dissipate world (“it was usually twilight before I found myself dressed for the morning”) in which it is not always easy to distinguish between “a deuced ticklish fellow” and “a devilish good fellow”, one where Beau Brummel is the dandy’s model, and one in which Digby lives so far beyond his means that he laments that “I found my personal income was about sufficient to fund me in gloves, blacking, and cigars.”

The mood darkens: debts mount, creditors pursue, Digby flees; captured, he becomes “a prisoner of the law” and is reduced to penury. A friend dies by his own hand, driven to insanity by the gaming-table and Play, “firstly the seductive pastime, then the invincible habit, lastly the despotic infatuation, from which there is no escape.” Penniless, with “the charm of youth dispelled”, Digby learns of the death of his estranged father, as improvident as the son, and that of the ancestral home, Haverley Hall, and its contents, “everything must be sold”. Rescued by the Victorian deus ex machina of a chance encounter with an old friend, Digby becomes a respectable wine-merchant: “the days of coxcombry are gone by, the sun of dandyism is set.” Finally, about to marry, Digby—or is it Whyte Melville?—issues a stinging repudiation of Epicureanism: “How many a noble intellect and gallant spirit is at this moment wasting his energies on the most unworthy and unsatisfactory of all employments, the pursuit of pleasure!”

In this, Whyte Melville is in deep dialogue with Horace, whom he has translated three years’ before, or at least the Epicurean side of Horace, the one most familiar to the modern ear through the marble epigrams of “carpe diem” and “nunc est bibendum”, but perhaps nowhere more charmingly expressed than in Ode I.IX, Vides et Ulta, often known as the Soracte Ode, a carmina so knotty and dense an entire book of exegesis has been devoted to it, addressed to what may have been Horace’s catamite, Thaliarchus (“master of festivities”), and marking, according to translator David West, the latter’s passage from boyhood and the love of Horace to manhood and the love of girls.

You see Soracte standing white and deep
with snow, the woods in trouble, hardly able
to carry their burden, and the rivers
halted by sharp ice.

Thaw out the cold. Pile up the logs
on the hearth and be more generous, Thaliarchus,
as you draw the four-year-old Sabine
from its two-eared cask.

Leave everything else to the gods. As soon as
they still the winds battling it out
on the boiling sea, the cypresses stop waving
and the old ash trees.

Don’t ask what will happen tomorrow.
Whatever day Fortune gives you, enter it
as profit, and don’t look down on love
and dancing while you’re still a lad,

while the gloomy grey keeps away from the green.
Now is the time for the Campus and the squares
and soft sighs at the time arranged
as darkness falls.

Now is the time for the lovely laugh from the secret corner
giving away the girl in her hiding-place,
and for the token snatched from her arm
or finger feebly resisting.

World War One—indeed, one poem, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est—went a long way to killing off Horace in Britian; the war claimed Whyte Melville, too, his uncomplicated paeans to Merry England, his scant acknowledgement of “the lower orders”, and his superannuated vocabulary—Digby Grand must surely be one of the last unironic outings in literature for the Chaucerian “yclept”, as in “one of those solemn outings yclept a county ball”, a ball where the revellers are no mere revellers but “votaries of Terpsichore”. (Why are lexicographers so assiduous in tracking down first usages but not last ones?) Whyte Melville was reprinted twice, once in the 1930s and again in the 1980s, but not by mainstream publishers, and that, in the era of the e-reader, where everything is free (or nearly free) but nothing has value, will be that.

Digby Grand is not without its faults—Whyte Melville has but tepid hands for metaphor, and the jabs at sententious profundity (“What a mercurial thing is youth!”, “Fortune…seldom fails to assist those who assist themselves”) are those of a cheerful bantamweight—but the overarching difficulty for the modern reader (at least one with sufficient reserves of respect to deeply understand that the past truly is a foreign country and they do indeed do things differently there) is that Digby Grand, despite being genre fiction (dread words!), is a demanding read.

(In this context I savour the sole review for any of Whyte Melville’s “802” works at amazon.com:
“The premis is a good one but this book is written like Homer’s Illid. It is simply impossible to read as written. The prose is something out of the second century and try as I might I could only get through 4 chapters. I finally had to put it away as I simply could not keep any intertest. Frankly, it was painful to read a single page and enjoy it. I suggest before you put down any money you read a page or two. The entire book is just like those few pages and if that type of prose keeps your interest…….well your attention span is much more patent than mine.”)

It’s true, you need a patent attention span. Here’s a sentence that caught my eye, but “the entire book is just like” this. Digby—don’t ask why—is sailing down the Saint Lawrence River in Canada with one of his early ladye-loves, Zoë de Grand-Martigny (Digby, and I suspect Whyte Melville too, is possessed of a severe case of Francophilia):

As we steamed along that broad unruffled surface, glistening like burnished gold in the setting sun, and studded with islands of every size and shape, from the undulating mass, whose rocks and woods stretching away into the distance, made us fancy we were coasting on the real bank of the river, down to the tiny islet, reflecting on its wavering mirror the single fir-tree for whose solitary growth alone it could find room; as we glided through this region of enchantment, and paced the deck by our two selves in the drowsy air of the summer evening, no wonder that Zoë and I both felt the influence of the hour, and that in tones lowering more and more as we trenched further upon the dangerous ground of sentiment and romance, we breathed forth whispers that had far better have been left unsaid, and gave way to feelings that should rise again like ghosts of the past to embitter with their shadowy mockery the uncared-for ‘days to come.’

What thwarts the modern reader here is not the vocabulary—only “trenched” gives any pause, and is easily replaced by “impinged” or “broached”—nor even the sheer length of the sentence, which weighs in at 167 words, but the syntax, the thirteen commas, single semi-colon, and above all the hundred words’ worth of multiple embedded subordinate and sub-subordinate clauses before the predicate, which, notwithstanding the disputations of the grammarians, I take to be “felt the influence of the hour” and which appears close to two-thirds of the way to the finishing line, pushed back toward the end of the sentence in a typically Latinate manner. Dickens, Whyte Melville’s contemporary, largely bereft of a formal, let alone classical, education, is in this respect much more palatable to the modern reader.

This predicate push, I am reminded from a recent column by George Will, whose politics I do not share but whose prose, bookish yet well tailored, sardonic and lapidary—a favourite word of his—I do admire, can be used to great comedic effect, as in the opening sentence of Leave it to Psmith (1923) by P. G. Wodehouse, a fellow Old Alleynian.

At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

Compare, if you care (and I think you should), those two instances of syntactic complexity, both from popular and not explicitly literary fiction, one 90 years old and one 160, with the opening sentences of the top 10 paid fiction best-sellers at the amazon.com Kindle store, which as of this writing were these:

1)    There were two things in life that scared the ever-loving crap out of me.
2)    Being left at the altar is not for sissies.
3)    The hell of it was that it couldn’t have been a better day for flying.
4)    It’s not every day I get a naked girl answering the door I knock on.
5)    There was a knock on the door then just the small shuffle of feet.
6)    On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.
7)    As Kate wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair.
8)    When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
9)    “I told you she would be beautiful,” Decebel held the baby girl in his arms and stared down at her with more adoration than Jen had ever seen in anyone’s eyes.
10) It was done.

We have been reduced to an impoverished world of syntactic flatness, of polder-like tedium. That’s not to say great literature cannot be wrung out of this staccato simplicity—see Hemingway, or Raymond Carver—but if we exist solely in a plantation monoculture of uniform cedar-prose, then we remorselessly rob ourselves of the neurological dexterity required to engage with almost everything written more than a generation ago. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

Now that the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen, authors will adapt once more. They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as “groupiness”, where people read mainly “for the sake of belonging” rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.

The faintest vestiges of Whyte Melville linger in Britain: there is a public house, The Whyte Melville, in Boughton, Northants, located in a former residence of his, a memorial fountain in St Andrews, Fife, named after him (he captained The Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1851), and a lawn bowls club in Moulton, Northants, which bears his name. One of his poems, The Good Grey Mare (“I have lived my life – I am nearly done – / I have played the game all round; / But I freely admit that the best of my fun / I owe it to horse and hound”) was the 1884 inspiration for name of the equestrian magazine, Horse & Hound, still, astonishingly, in print and which bears, I believe, Whyte Melville’s lines on its masthead to this day.

After much sleuthing, I track down a reference to Whyte Melville in Forty Years On (1968), the debut drama of Alan Bennett, Beloved National Institution (subcategories: northern, English, working-class, gay; see also Russell Harty) and at 78, one of the stately homos of old England. I read the play first as a teen—was it this reference that sent me scurrying to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, all those years ago? Set in a second-rate boarding school, Forty Years On is a state-of-Albion treatise, deeply suspicious of a modern world in which “country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year” yet also ill-at-ease with the brutalities and injustices of the past, and at its climax a schoolboy reads from a lectern an abridged Whyte Melville poem, titled (according to Bennett) Lines Written in Dejection, a poem of remarkable and unwavering melancholy—or shot through with the maudlin sentimentality characteristic of the age, according to your fancy.

A child in the nursery crying,
A boy in the cricket field – out,
A youth for a fantasy sighing,
A man with a fit of the gout.
Some sense of experience wasted,
Of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted,
And of pain that did him no good.
The sum of a life expended,
A pearl in the pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended,
And what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow,
The journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow
And a lie carved deep into stone.

In the play, the poem serves perhaps as both a threnody for the failures of the retiring headmaster and an elegy for the passing of an age. Entranced, I try to track down the complete poem, scouring Whyte Melville’s two collections of poetry, Songs and Verses (1869) and Hunting Poems, but draw a blank. More detective work uncovers full versions of the poem, in varying states of corruption, across a rag-tag assortment of long vanished North American newspapers: The Geneva Gazette of January 19, 1877, the Brooklyn Daily Union-Argus of March 27, 1877, The Waterloo Advertiser from Canada of April 30, 1880, The Day, “a Republican evening newspaper” from New London, Connecticut, of November 5, 1891, The Plattsburg Sentinel of November 6, 1891, and finally, the poem having hiked its way west, The Salt Lake Herald of February 19, 1894. In most instances it is titled The Story of a Life, and in all but one, where the author is given, confoundingly, as “Temple Bar”, it is unattributed. Here is a tidied up, composite version, although not, I suspect, one completely ridden of corruption:

A child in the nursery crying—a boy in the cricket field, “out!”
A youth for a fantasy sighing—a man with a fit of the gout,
A heart dried up and narrowed—a task repeated in vain,
A field plowed deep and harrowed, but bare and barren of grain.
Some sense of experience wasted, of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted, and pain that did him no good,
Some sparks of sentiment perished—some flashes of genius lost,
A torrent of false love cherished—a ripple of true love crossed,
Some feeble breasting of trouble to glide again with the stream,
In principle void as a bubble—in purpose vague as a dream,
A future hope half-hearted, for dim is the future now—
That the triple crown has parted, and death is damp on the brow,
And a debt is to pay by the debtor—a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse,
A feeling he should have been better, a doubt if he could have been worse,
While the ghostly finger traces its ghostly message of doom,
And a troop of ghostly faces pass on in a darkened room,
With ghostly shapes to beckon and ghostly voices to call,
And the grim recorder to reckon, and add the total of all,
The sum of a life expended—a pearl in a pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended—and what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow—the journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow, and a lie carved deep in the stone.

One final slender thread connects the living—us—with Whyte Melville. The last poem in Songs and Verses, Goodbye!, is a bleak autumnal serenade.  

Falling leaf and fading tree,
Lines of white in a sullen sea,
Shadows rising on you and me;
The swallows are making them ready to fly,
Wheeling out on a windy sky.
Goodbye Summer! Goodbye, Goodbye!
Hush! A voice from the far away!
“Listen and learn,” it seems to say,
“All the to-morrows shall be as today.”
The cord is frayed—the cruse is dry,
The link must break, and the lamp must die—
Goodbye Hope! Goodbye, Goodbye!
What are we waiting for? Oh! my heart!
Kiss me straight on the brows! And part!
Again! Again!—my heart! my heart!
What are we waiting for, you and I?
A pleading look—a stifled cry.
Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

This was later crafted into a song by the Italian-British composer Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) and later—much later—sung by Canada-born Hollywood starlet Deanna Durbin in the 1946 film, Because of Him. Two years later, disenchanted with the machinations of the movie industry, Durbin upped sticks with her husband to the life of a near-recluse in a farmhouse outside Paris, from which she has only given one interview these past six-plus decades and where she remains, a nonagenarian pushing 92, an emissary from an utterly other world.

********************

Otsukaresama. As I mentioned at the outset, this is the last ever Spike ramble. I’m bored, to be honest, with Japan, the Japan of Abenomics and AKB47, of The Idolmaster and super-deformed anime, of bullying and territorial tantrums and constitutional revisionism. It’s not all—not at all—Japan’s fault: my interest waxes and wanes in multiyear cycles and right now I’m waning gibbous, bored of writing Japan this, Japan that, Japan the other, bored more than anything with seeing everything through the narrowing and distorting prism of a nation-state. In most of the ponderables I’ve been mulling over the last year, from, say, “What caused the last five mass extinctions of life on Earth and will knowing the answers shed any light on the coming, sixth one?” and “Would it be possible to construct a sociobiological approach to literary criticism?” to “What, if any, are the artistic implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?”, the word Japan does not figure; nor does it figure more than tangentially in any putative answers.

More than that, however, I’m disillusioned with much of the Internet, while fully cognizant that little of Spike could have been written without it. I’m tired of the Internet’s stalkers and spammers, the rule of its lynch mobs and witch hunters, the whinnying of its millions of saloon-bar donkey-bores, betraying their unthinking ignorance with every bray, and the incivility it engenders, even in mild-mannered me; tired of the degradation of art to “content”, monetized or not; tired of the ten thousand tech bloggers panting to live-blog the release of the latest phablet (a word which, if you haven’t already encountered it, is coming very soon to your lexicon, like it or not); tired of the grin given me by Jeff Bezos, who, having donned cassock and surplice, is about to administer, gleefully, the last rites to the book on its deathbed, tired of his “fulfilment center” warehouses, tired, so tired already of his Kindle I bought to research this piece, loathing everything about it from the fatuity embodied in its Paperwhite name (paper, at least the paper books are printed on, is not white, it’s ivory to cream) to its assassination of the integrity of the page to the way it froze a fortnight out of the box; tired of the relentless destruction (156,000 US Postal Service jobs gone in the last five years) and the absence of meaningful creation; tired by the erasure of the past, by the all-pervasive decontextualization, and by the way so much is written, stripped down, in C. K. Ogden’s Basic English; tired by the 250 milliseconds, less time than the 400 milliseconds it takes to blink, that will dissuade people from visiting a website if has a quicker loading peer; and tired by the way the Internet panders tirelessly to our false new twin idols of convenience and cheapness. I’m tired of mindless technophiles and technosnobs, such as this writer in the January 26th Economist, and their laughable visions of progress:

The iTV, which may be controlled by via gestures and voice commands as well as via iPads and iPhones, could be a digital hub for the home. It would let people check whether their washing machine has finished its cycle while they gossip on Facebook and watch their favourite soap.

But above all, I’m tired by the Orwellian undertones the telescreens of the Internet are beginning to assume. I could go on; indeed, I could go on at book length, but I’ll leave you, obliquely, with this.

There was a small bookcase in the other corner, and Winston had already gravitated towards it. It contained nothing but rubbish. The hunting-down and destruction of books had been done with the same thoroughness in the prole quarters as everywhere else. It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960.

1984, George Orwell

For a book as supposedly well known and widely read as 1984, this passage garners very few citations on the Internet, which makes me wonder—and worry—about the depth of the conversations we have. Noone (in their right minds) would suggest that the West, or any fraction of it, is about to become a totalitarian state ruled over by IngSoc, but if we blithely surrender our libraries, both public and personal, as we seem with alacrity to be doing, to digitization by the Lords of the Cloud, then where will reside the control of the past? Not with you or me. None of the AGFA quartet of lords—Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple—is even middle-aged, two are teenagers, and one is still in short trousers. You might assume, as do their self-appointed overlords in their self-perceived benignity, that they’ll be around forever, immune to overthrow by more malign forces. It seems unlikely.

“What shall it be this time?” he said, still with the same faint suggestion of irony. “To the confusion of the Thought Police? To the death of Big Brother? To humanity? To the future?”
“To the past,” said Winston.
“The past is more important,” agreed O’Brien gravely.

1984, George Orwell

Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention—although I will. There’s many a half-finished essay moldering in the bowels of the desktop, from ones for which I took all the photos, such as Utsunomiya: Nest of Loansharks, but neglected to do the requisite but intimidatingly vast research into Japan’s consumer-finance industry, to ones with barely more than a title, such as Thirty Minutes to Toyota, about the dreariness of life in Toyota’s home prefecture of Aichi. But you don’t want to hear about the ones that got away.

Learnings? Aplenty. In the last four years, I’ve learned a lot about extremities, having visited, in the course of the performance of my writerly duties, the easternmost, northernmost, westernmost, and southernmost points of mainland Japan. Much more than that, though, I’ve learned the hard way how hard it is to write hard—how anything more than a thousand or so worthwhile words a day is well-nigh impossible, at least for me.

All that now remains is for me to give a tear-fragile Oscar speech in miniature: I’d like to thank Financial Times journalist Lindsay Whipp for the article that first gave impetus to Spike; The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist, thebrowser.com, and the other media outlets who have kindly profiled or linked to or featured Spike; everyone who, however briefly, has perused these pages; everyone who has taken the trouble to leave a comment, and in particular Jeffrey, Troy, and my fiercest critic, Kyushu Ranger; and above all Dr. T, aka Torquatus, aka Alphatuosity, my intellectual sparring partner—although with him, I often feel like a Whyte Melville pugilist punching feebly in a class above my weight.

“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.’”
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” repeated Winston obediently.
“Who controls the present controls the past,” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?”
Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial.

1984, George Orwell

Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

In praise of… The worst hotel in the world

It was getting late that Sunday evening, and I was in sore need of a bed. The lights had been defiantly out at the place I had been hoping to stay, so I set wearily off down the truck-choked and traffic-light-infested Rte 254 in southwest Gunma, past empty coin-op laundries and soulless convenience stores, detouring into the decrepit center of the old silk-mill city of Tomioka in fruitless search of lodging before pitching up on the outskirts of charmless, anonymous Fujioka, a place best known for its expressway junction, where to my delight that neon-starved night the Business Hotel Fujioka was putting out just enough illumination to capture a traveler’s tired eye, and I swung into the almost deserted parking lot, half of which had returned to grass, with mounting anticipation.

Of the mah-jongg club Tenho (“Heavenly Hand”) and the yakiniku grilled meat restaurant Yacchan to which the eager arrows of the signs pointed there proved to be no trace. The proprietor sat slumped in a stupor on a slate-grey vinyl sofa, transfixed by the television, in a cavernous lobby of such transcendental aesthetic horror that I was spellbound at once, sent into a trance of rapture by the ocean of aquamarine linoleum and vast wall-embedded canvases of flower-filled fields and mysterious mountainscapes.

I opened with my usual patter about not having a reservation but wondering if a room was available; unsurprisingly, one was, although it took a little pantomime of perusal of a dusty ledger to confirm this. Board, breakfast, and evening meal, all for Y4,725 (about $60)—cheaper than even the cheapest budget chain hotels.

“You can eat over the road,” he said, gesturing at a noodle joint called Hime Ramen (“Princess Ramen”).
“Isn’t there anywhere else?”
“No.” That seemed implausible in a city of nearly 70,000 people. “Besides, they don’t just do ramen. They’ve got all sorts of good stuff. Here, I’ll show you to your room.”
He led me on the aquamarine linoleum, now a river, down a short musty corridor of concentration-camp gloom to the last cell on the right.

From having observed down the years how hoteliers like to fill their rooms, I realized I was the first guest that night. A fragment of Larkin came to me with a jolt.

“This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.”

The room was an airless cube. A lone blue plastic hanger dangled on one of a row of hooks while a shoehorn swung like a hanged convict by the door. Some madman, perhaps the proprietor himself, had chosen to embed a picture of a Mediterranean harbor filled with gin-palace superyachts in the wall above the coin-op television.

Perhaps the same madman had painted the fluffy white clouds in the style of Tiepolo on the ceiling.

More Larkin surfaced, and I dared not draw back the drapes.

Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered.

There was no washbasin and no toilet, no shower and no bath.

“Bathroom’s down the hall,” he said, gesticulating. “Better use it tonight. It’s not open in the mornings.”

Across the road at Princess Ramen a raucously drunken party was in full swing.

I was ushered into a backroom across wine-red linoleum, sticky to the sole, which in well-trodden spots had been worn away to the concrete below. It occurred to me that I had stumbled on an ecosystem every bit as imperiled as a tract of montane rainforest in Costa Rica: the last vestiges of a working-class culture that some might call slovenly and others carefree, whose denizens are itinerant salespeople, suitcases forever in hand, forklift drivers in pallid green overalls, and factory girls in hairnets, a culture that is being chopped down by the buzz-saws of deindustrialization, globalization, and digitization just as remorselessly as it is anywhere in the well-off world.

Flashing an angelic milk-white smile, a young and strangely androgynous waiter, scion of the ramen family, brought a beer. For the first time in my life I was flummoxed in the act of gender identification. I was seized with the sense that I was overlooking something obvious, such that if a companion had been with me, he or she would have laughed at my incomprehension. Peanuts arrived in a bowl bearing the insignia “Dinnerware Adam & Eve”, which at first I misread as “Dinner with Adam & Eve”. What would have been served, I wondered, and who would have been on the guest list. The menu prodded the peruser to three dishes, two of which were katsudon pork cutlets on rice, one man-sized, said the menu, and a smaller one for the ladies. In keeping with the spirit of androgyny I ordered the smaller.

Out the front, the football was blaring away but the backroom television was tuned to a program commemorating the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, at the heart of which was the tale of a solitary sailor in the port of Kesennuma whose ship was forced by tsunami tides to trace an infinite loop around the harbor for hour upon hour on a Viking inferno of a jet-black night sea ablaze with debris kindled by spilt diesel. Sleep would not easily be bought tonight, I knew, as the partiers out front cackled and jabbered on.

Back across the road, the proprietor was in a conspiratorial huddle with a policeman standing by a cop car, devil-red lights whirling in stony silence. Yet again up stole the guilty wash of nebulous criminality that has dogged me as long as I can recall, a secular sibling of the doctrine of original sin that might have been instilled by a pedophile priest but—to my recollection—wasn’t.

“Everything okay?”
A couple of nods and grunts.

A single gunmetal-grey door divided the hotel and the bowling alley. A solo bowler occupied a middle lane of the aquamarine paradise, the clanging of tumbling pins rattling off the vault and walls.

Turning to go back through the door, I ran face-to-face into a torn poster, terrifying in its wholesome antiquity.

In the room, I lay on the bed looking up at the fluffy white clouds and struggling to remember the last verses of Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, but “one hired box” was all that came to mind. Through the tissue-thin walls a latecomer in the next room coughed gutturally and hacked up phlegm, which he must, I imagined, have spat from the window, as there was no washbasin and no toilet and men around here are not known to swallow their sputum.

To distract myself, I constructed a narrative for the hotel in my head: it had been built at the very fag-end of the seventies just as the first expressway crept toward Fujioka and the city boomed in anticipation. And here it had remained, trapped in a glow of seventies amber, as the expressways crept past, north and northwest, on to other, more glamorous destinations, and the dreams of the city wilted.

Fitful sleep on polycotton sheets atop a lumpy mattress with a saggy pillow was punctuated by dreams of ledges and precipices and chasms, but it was morning soon enough and I stumbled bleary out to breakfast.

A rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“you’ve got to keep yourself beautiful”) doing a passable imitation of a burly drag queen doing a passable imitation of a rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“just tell yourself you’ve got gorgeous lips”) sat slouched in front of the television, stubbing her fag out and snapping to something like attention on my approach. She might have been in her mid-forties, about my age.

In the deserted dining-room, a half-formed meal for one—me—sat on a flowery tablecloth overlaid with thick plastic sheets, replete with all the melancholy of a condemned prisoner. An emaciated half-moon slice of the sorriest factory ham lay uncomfortably on a bed of grated cabbage (I knew how it felt) next to what once had been scrambled eggs—a scrambled egg—but were now hardening, graying, chilling pellets fit only for fish food. Three bowls were flanked around, one of slimy kamaboko fish paste confections, one of gunky natto fermented soybeans, and one of the cheapest daikon radish pickles, almost as pink as candy-floss and packed, no doubt, with as much artificial coloring. There were no condiments and no chopsticks, no paper napkins and no toothpicks, at least not within reach. The art of this meal, I decided, would be to eat as much as I could to save loss of face but not so much as to gag. Into which circle of hell had I plunged, I wondered, and for what misdeeds.

Fag-ash Lil loitered.

“Help yourself to rice. I’ll get the miso soup.” She retreated into the Stygian depths of the kitchen. The insides of the rice-cooker were rimed with scorch marks and dusted with flakes of papery rice like dead, sunburned skin. And voila, the meal was complete.

“Your Japanese is really good.”
“I studied it at university,” I lied.
“You must be smart, huh? Japanese is really difficult.”
You seem to be making a reasonable fist of it, I wanted so much to say.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m researching the Shimo Nita War”, I lied.
“The Shimo Nita War? There was a war in Shimo Nita? Just down the road? How come you know about it and I don’t?”
“It was a very small war. About 148 years ago.” Not bad off the top of my head—it was 147 years ago.
“Where have you come from, anyway?”
“England,” I lied.
“England? They speak English there, don’t they?”
“Yes.” There was a limit to dissimulation.

She retreated into the kitchen again. I mixed the ham and eggs deep into the rice and wolfed it down. The gloopy fermented soybeans, which should have come as light relief in a meal of this caliber, were leathery and long past their sell-by date. She returned to hover.

“France?”
This had me baffled for a moment.
“No, England.”
“Oh, England.”
“Yes, England.” A question hung pregnant in the air.
“Are cigarettes expensive there?”
“Ooh, very. About a thousand yen a packet. It’s the taxes, you see.”
“Hmm, really?” She nodded sagely, satisfied with this short account of the depravity of foreign lands, and retreated once again across the Styx as I longed for the waters of Lethe.

The Business Hotel Fujioka is not, of course, the worst hotel in the world, nor even the worst hotel in the developed world, although by some chalk it’s the worst developed-world hotel at which I’ve ever stayed (and one of the most wonderful). Such judgments are wholly subjective, anyway, and what is heavenly to one will be hellish to another.

Nevertheless I ask you to raise a shot glass of methylated spirit or lighter fluid, if you please, ladies and gentlemen, to the glories of the Business Hotel Fujioka and to the people who make it tick, in a toast to its demise, for it will all be gone to grass before a generation is out, and the world will know its like no more.

Back home, I looked up the last Larkin verses and shivered, as always, at the tortured conditional of the syntactic climax:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread 

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know

Holiday in Fukushima: Drift, baby, drift

When hunting for destinations for a holiday in Fukushima, I reached not for a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet (my 1994 edition of which anyway devotes just a couple of its eight hundred pages to the delights of the prefecture) but for an altogether more outré publication, Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s 1998 bilingual bestiary of the bizarre, Roadside Japan, described by the author himself as “a heaping helping of crass, dumb, and vile nonsense”, a book that celebrates every stupendous banality of modern existence, from the idle menace of swan pedalos to the tragicomic absurdity of abandoned restaurants capped with giant concrete Buddhas, and which has served as a wellspring of inspiration these last few years. What did Doctor Tsuzuki prescribe for Fukushima? Only three sites, as it turned out—Godzilla’s egg (which we’ll come to later), the treasures of the ogre hag of Adachigahara (which sadly we won’t), and Tohoku Safari Park, which on first blush sounded unpromising:

You can nose your Honda as close as you dare to a yawning lion, feed giraffes from your car window, get bison slobber all over your windshield, it’s a thrill a minute here!

Yes, been there, done that, remain in therapy from the assault of a troupe of chimps on the vinyl roof (well, it was the seventies) of our slice of ripped-off bargain-basement Detroit iron at a certain British safari park when I was six, something I am still subtly paying for in the shape of an ever so slightly diminished inheritance. No bison was going to slobber all over my Honda’s windshield, thank you very much. But Tsuzuki mentions in passing that the park had an “Erotica House—something for the kiddies and something for the grown-ups”, and this called for further investigation.

No trace of the Erotica House was to be found at the website of the safari park—my, how prudish we have grown in our dotage, Japan—and it turns out that in 2006 the president of the park, Tokio Kumakubo, then aged 74, briefly ended up in the clinker for displaying pornographic photos of un-mosaicked couplings in his Erotica House. This wasn’t Kumakubo’s first brush with the law: back in the sixties he had become one of the largest real estate brokers in Tohoku but his operations fell apart in 1973 when he was suspected of tax evasion. Somehow he navigated his way through bankruptcy while holding on to large tracts of land, on which he built a couple of successful safari parks, and was reputed at one time to own a hundred racehorses.

In the course of unearthing all this, I learned that Kubota had indulged his son, Nobushige (41), by building him a network of motor-racing tracks, Ebisu Circuit, on lower hillside land to the east of Tohoku Safari Park, that these circuits were regarded as the spiritual home of that made-in-Japan motorsport, drift racing, that Nobushige was a pro drift racer and the Lord of Ebisu, where he is known as “The Controller”, and that the weekend I would be in town the circuit was scheduled to hold a Drift Matsuri festival. Sold!

 

Pulling up in front of the safari park entrance, it was instantly apparent that something was awry.

 

Although it should have been one of the holidaymaking peaks of the year, the ghastly seventies hulk of the Safari Hotel had been crudely mothballed, a stub of two by four jammed down behind the round handles of its glass reception doors.

Mold was creeping up the long-closed shutters of a used tire vendor.

 

Across the road was a spartan dosshouse nap room, bedding heaped in corners, available free of charge to circiut drivers too impecunious or obsessed to pay for accommodation.

At the admission gate I forked over a very reasonable Y1,500 ($20) spectator fee, for which I was rewarded with a complementary pair of black driver’s gloves emblazoned with “Drift Tengoku” (Drift Heaven) in pink—drift is nothing if not colorful—and a sheaf of bilingual maps, guides, and warnings, the sternest admonition being a chillingly ultimate disclaimer of responsibility: “No matter what happens (for example, death, wound, damage) during Drift Heaven Week, we can’t take responsibility or be liable for anything”.

Roars, screeches, and bellows, not of the lions, bears, and tigers of the safari park but rather of the Soarers, the Chasers, and the other big beasts of drift, drew me in.

Someone—I forget who—once wrote that you could live in Japan a long time before realizing that the head of state was the emperor. I’m not sure that’s true, but you could certainly live out your life in Japan—even as a Japanese—without being aware that the subculture of drift-racing existed, never see it on the nightly news (broadcasts are relegated to an obscure satellite channel), never read of it in the daily papers, never hear of it in morning coffee conversations with coworkers. That’s I think because it has its (eighties) roots in highly illegal touge mountain-pass racing on public highways and is hence condemned to be forever part of the ura, the hidden Janus face of society, rather than the omote face presented to the world, no matter how much it has been made respectable and spread around the globe in recent years.

Nothing quite prepares the drift novitiate for the unearthly banshee wails and tortured turbo whinnies of a drift car driven at the limit, and within moments I was hooked. Drift struck me immediately as everything modern omote Japan so fastidiously tries not to be: stinky, grimy, raucous, unrefined, unfettered, and very definitely high-testosterone—no soshokukei herbivore men need apply here. And as Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the BBC carlife show Top Gear, might say, I absolutely bloody love it. This well-watched video, Ebisu: The Soul of Drift, captures the poetic, almost balletic, rhythms and cadences of drift far better than any still photo could.

And yet, for someone primed like me to look for signs of trouble, they were everywhere. The pit blocks were at best half-full of wannabe racers. What cars there were, were of a certain vintage, like this R32 Skyline from the distant early nineties, easily tuneable rear-wheel drive monsters of power that the Japanese auto industry doesn’t much deign to churn out any more.

The merest handful of spectators, including this couple out on a date (at whose instigation, I wonder), were scattered across the creaking, peeling stands.

The circuit’s maintenance and support vehicles were without exception of extreme antiquity. An old woman loitered at the door of her customerless restauant, watching the action. The VIP room had been furnished with worn and lumpy sofas that might have been yanked off the street in the glorious sodai gomi days of yore, when people junked their almost new yet already unwanted furniture by the roadside. Could it be possible, I mused: in the land of its birth, was drift adrift?

Much to my surprise, a knot of foreigners were lounging around the pit walls. I approached one, a US Air Force dude who’d driven down from the Misawa Air Base in far northern Aomori and who’d missed the last festival because of a tour of duty in Iraq. He’d been here four days and nights straight—no time to sleep, he said—but had smacked into a wall and done some damage to his ride, which is why, at the chaotic lower echelons of drift, bruised is best.

“The great thing about drift, man, is you get to mix with the pros, people like Naoto Suenaga.”

“It’s not like NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Junior, ya know.”

I assured him I was sure it wasn’t.

After a couple of entertaining hours, I wended my happy way north, but was left with a headful of nagging questions. Was drift one of the holy places where the races meet? It seemed so, from the conviviality with which pro Suenaga chatted with his foreign admirers. Was drift in peril in its homeland? So hard to tell, what with the circuit only about 65km west-northwest of Fukushima Daiichi and the dislocation and disorientation of the March 11 disasters so fresh. Or was drift only ever a minority passion? And why was I so smitten?

I vowed to return to Ebisu Circuit in August, when it hosted rounds six and seven of the D1 Grand Prix professional drifting series, and in the meantime mugged up a little on the history of drift, which I’ll recount here first through half-a-dozen key words.

Hashiriya (走り屋, hooners): Drifters that once upon a time raced illegally over mountain passes or in wharfside warehouse districts. The originators of drift, hashiriya at first raced on grip principles until a quiet drift boom built up in the mid-eighties. Street drifting as practiced by the hashiriya peaked in the mid-nineties and went into decline as drift moved, not without police pressure, onto circuits and into the world of omote.

Broadly defined, my online Japanese drift lexicon tells me, hashiriya includes a subtribe, the “maximum speedsters” (最高速系, saikosokukei), who liked to race on Tokyo’s extraordinary network of elevated expressways and who themselves could be divided into sects: the “bayshore kids” (湾岸系, wangankei), who preferred the flatter, straighter Tokyo Bay expressways and the “roulette tribes” (ルーレット族, roulettezoku), who preferred the central elevated ring road. One rouletteer cheekily quipped to a TV reporter full of omote outrage in a late nineties newsclip I unearthed that the Tokyo expressways are like a racing circuit with a Y700 admission fee—which is exactly why they have featured in so many a video game. 

These subtribes are not to be confused with a bewildering assortment of other mostly dormant or extinct speedster sects from bygone eras, many two-wheeled: the “thunder tribes” (カミナリ族, kaminarizoku), the “Mach tribes” (マッハ族, Machzoku), and the “thriller tribes” (スリラー族 thrillerzoku), bikers of the sixties who gathered spontaneously in parks and plazas, the din of their exhausts, mufflers removed for enhanced performance, reminiscent of rolling thunder; the “circuit tribes” (サーキット族, circuitzoku) and the “750 tribes” (ナナハン族, nanahanzoku), Saturday night station-front racers of beefy Honda 750 bikes who were mostly tolerated by the police, even on occasion trained in safe riding skills by them; the notorious “violent running tribes” (暴走族, bosozoku) biker delinquents of the eighties, keener on brawling and militarist paraphernalia than racing; and the “rolling tribes” (ローリング族、rollingzoku) of the eighties and nineties, who aped the style of pro superbike racers, tore over mountain roads in the depths of night, and died in droves on corners and off cliffs.

Dorikin (ドリキン, drift king) – The nickname of the man widely credited as the godfather of drift, Keiichi Tsuchiya (55), who first rose to fame for his drifting techniques and six straight victories in the 1984 Fuji Speedway freshman races and who briefly in 1987 lost his Japan Automobile Federation racing license for a hair-raising video, The Touge

filmed on the treacherous and now bypassed old road over the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma prefectures—all this in a country where it is a reputedly a crime to leave tire marks on the white lines on the road. Also known as the “drift dude” (ドリフト野郎, drift yaro), Tsuchiya is these days the retired elder statesman of drift.

Dorisha (ドリ車, drift car) – This is what you drift in, your wheels, your ride—better get yourself a fly one. A portmanteau word combining the first two of the four Japanese syllables in “drift” and the pseudo-Chinese reading of “car”.

Hachiroku (ハチロク, eighty six) – The Toyota Levin/Trueno Sprinter AE86 featured in The Touge video above. Known affectionately as the “the little hachi that could”, the AE86 was the first great drift car and is still widely adored and drifted today, even though production ended in 1987. Slumming it in the Tokyo ’burbs in the late nineties, I often wondered why these dowdy and already dated coupes were going for anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 at the second-hand dealers—guess I know now.   

D1 machine (D1マシン) – At the far end of the spectrum from the (originally) cheap, cheerful, lightweight and modestly powered hachiroku, these are the mean machines that duke it out in D1. We’ll encounter some later.

A series of landmarks punctuated the gradual emergence of drift from the shadowy ura valleys to the sunlit omote uplands. In 1995, Initial D, a manga about young hashiriya, started serialization in Weekly Young magazine, spawning an anime of the same name that ran intermittently from 1998-2006, (mostly shown when hoon-fearing folk were safely tucked up in bed—27:20 to 27:50 in one case on the magnificent only-in-Japan 48-hour clock), and a 2005 Hong Kong movie. In 1997, a monthly magazine in praise of all things drift, Drift Tengoku, began publication. In October 2000, the first races in the All Japan Professional Drift Championship, which would soon morph into D1, were held at Ebisu Circuit. By now, drift was going global: Formula Drift started in the US in 2004 and the first Red Bull Drifting World Championship was held in 2008.

Hollywood at long last sat up and took lucrative notice of the drift explosion in 2006, with the third in the Fast and the Furious film franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a fine example of a favorite subgenre, so-bad-they’re-good films (ostensibly) about Japan. Here’s a blurry fanboy video montage, music courtesy of the Teriyaki Boyz:

I wonder if you know
How they live in Tokyo
If you see me then you mean it
Then you know you have to go
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)

I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo? Not quite like that, to be sure. The movie is unabashedly a teenboy’s wet dream, something made amply clear about five minutes in, when a tanned blonde highschool babe offers up her body to the winner of a grudge-match roadrace. The sheer wet dreaminess of it all is quickly and cheerfully acknowledged in the dialogue: as our hero motors into an implausible multistory car park filled with tattooed Asian hotties in microskirts bent over throbbing engine bays, his buddy hands him a conveniently at-hand box of tissues. After a split second of incomprehension: “That’s for when you blow your wad, man.” How thoughtful!

Our teen hero, Sean, supposedly 17 years old, is played by Lucas Black, already 24 back then (and already able to pass for forty), which made him the oldest teen swinger in Tokyo town—and the most ridiculous one ever to try and ease himself behind a Tokyo high school desk, albeit at a most fantastical high school where something akin to sushi but more elaborate, rather than curry rice, is served for lunch.

As we’re in the Tokyo ’hood and all, we have to get with the local lingo, and until very late in the action, where Sean develops overnight a stunning competence in Japanese, the movie is fixated on two words: gaijin, foreigner, which goes through many mutations, the most favored being a heavily accented first syllable and a long drawn-out second—GUYjean—and yakuza, gangster, which is pronounced as if “bazooka” had had its “b” replaced with a “y” and the “z” and the “k” swapped—yaKOOza. I braced myself for what was surely to come, and yes, there it was, halfway in, uttered by Sean’s gone-native and fount-of-local-wisdom father: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. Let that be a lesson to all you drifters out there. But don’t worry too much if you’re a foreigner, as Sean’s drift guru Han has some words of Nietzschean wisdom to impart: “Outsider, insider, doesn’t really matter, all that matters is knowing what you really want and going after it”. Austrian house-painter Adolf Hitler would have been hugely consoled.

Due to the utter dearth of thoroughbred Japanese actors and actresses able to get by in English, everyone in the movie under 40 of any importance, aside from Sean (white) and his pal Twinkie (black) is a hero of hyphenation: Sean’s guru, Korean-American actor Sung Kang; the love interest, Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelly; the villain, Japanese-Korean-American actor Brian Tee, and the villain’s sidekick, Argentina-born Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam, which gives the movie the air of having been filmed not in the monoculture of Tokyo but in polyglot Los Angles—as indeed much of it was…  

So I found myself one sweltering and thunderous August Saturday pounding up the Tohoku Expressway in search of drift. The first surprise was the Ebisu Circuit car park: aside from the odd souped-up econobox that no go-faster sticker or low-profile tire should ever grace, the spectators’ vehicles were eminently sensible and would not have looked out of place in the lot of a suburban supermarket.

Stalls that lined the path to the main circuit offered insights into the culture of drift.

The T-shirt hanging left-center assigns ateji, phonetically equivalent Chinese characters, to the four Japanese syllables of “drift”—怒輪, “dori”, “angry wheels”, 風徒, “futo”, “follow the wind”, making the foreign indigenous. On its left, the towel is adorned with the expression togekotai (峠攻隊, mountain-pass attack force), in conscious echo of the tokkotai (特攻隊) special attack forces of World War II, known to the rest of the world as kamikaze pilots.

A stall offering one of the strangest of all offshoots of the phenomenon of drift: rajidori, radio-controlled miniature drift cars, which once had to have their wheels encased in PVC tubing to make them slippery enough to drift but now come equipped with their own tiny low-grip drift tires.

Crea (vocals) and Mia (rap) of duo 80’s☆Doll, selected in last year as official D1 artists, were hawking their debut album, Lip Service, a lively mix of eighties disco music and current club sounds (says their website).

A kimono-clad lovely was doling out free samples of Beast Eye, a homegrown alternative to Red Bull. A fair few of the womenfolk, who made up maybe a quarter of the crowd, had donned kimono for the occasion, which lent the proceedings a matsuri feel, as did the customary and coronary-inducing choice of festival fare: kara’age fried chicken, American dogs (deep-fried sausages on sticks), and fried yaki soba noodles.

Over the tannoys, the MCs chattered away about a shank of beef that was roasting on a giant spit and would later be carved up for all who stayed for the evening fireworks.

No mention was made of the home of the cow that had been slaughtered to fill the bellies of the worshippers of drift; let’s hope it wasn’t a local, radioactive one.

The setting was certainly stunning: this view of the stands looks east, over the central Fukushima valley and out toward Fukushima Daiichi beyond the pale blue hills in the distance.

No surprise that prominent among the sponsors were three tire brands, Toyo Tires, Dunlop, and Goodyear: drift is so brutal to tires that many pro drift racers change theirs after every bout, which lasts all of a couple of minutes. 

My guess was that the grand prix had mustered an attendance of three or four thousand, around the number that gathered back in October 2000 for the very first D1 races: drift then was perhaps neither thriving nor dying, but idling, ticking over. Still, there was enough money left in the pot to afford an LED ad truck, to remind you where you were in case you forgot.

Back on the circuit, the D1 machines screamed on, leaving layered acrid veils of burnt rubber through which others had to drift.

There exists a drift technique, “smoky curtain driving” (煙幕走行, enmaku soko), designed to exploit the haze and rob drivers behind of their sight, although it wasn’t being deliberately practiced here.

A short sharp squall breezed down from up in the mountains, and the nimble drift cars, at both sides of the limit of adhesion in the dry, were reduced to lumbering dinosaurs in the wet, gingerly tiptoeing into corners at half their normal speed and even then often spinning out to shunt the walls of tires and giant polystyrene blocks. 

The track dried out soon enough and my attention turned to the scoring, which operates on an all-must-have-prizes principle. Drivers start out with 100 points and have them deducted for not following the prescribed line around the four corners on which they are judged, for wobbles, for sloth, for shallow angles, and for lifting off the throttle. Nobody scores fewer than around 95 points (with usual local precision, scores are pushed out to two decimal places, so 96.78 would represent an average score) unless they spin or lose their drift and return to the prosaic world of grip.  

It dawned on me that not only was drift scored like figure skating, it resembled it in a host of other ways. All other motorsports are akin to speed skating, where time is not only of the essence, it is the essence. In drift, though, while speed is key, it is not an absolute god whose word is law. Drift, like figure skating, has single and pair events, and outside of regular competition, synchronized drifting with multiple cars. Drift, like figure skating, is about skill, transition, execution, choreography, and interpretation (the five components of the International Skating Union non-technical judging system). Drifters even practice figures of eight, and pirouettes around a single cone.

My attention wandered back to the crowd. D1 spectatorship was not just an escape for lonely young men but a day out for the whole orange family.

Go Team Orange! (Whoever said Japan was suffering from a collapsing birth rate?)

A pair of portly, bonneted, and very well provisioned women left too many questions unanswered.

Was that a brace of young mullets I saw before me? The father’s baseball cap bore the forbidding Rabelaisian legend: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”. Amen to that—and the halves of the global fruit can be sliced at so many angles.

Unimaginatively, I dubbed this willowy trio the Vuitton boys, after the Vuitton clutch bag one of them slung nonchalantly from his shoulder and the Vuitton wallet one of them carelessly left sticking out of his back pocket. Wonder how long they’d last at a NASCAR race?

 

Up in the stands stood the pink Crocs tribe, the leader sporting a pair of those monstrous crimes against footwear in the most shocking of shades.

For some, the heat and the smoke and the excitement, not to mention the family feuds, had all become a bit too much, underscoring the uncanny local ability to sleep through unholy levels of noise.

Finally I found a fence-free sweet spot, on the last corner before the finish line, from which to snap the drifters slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination…

One of the incidental fascinations of drift is its physics, the subject of a droll 2006 paper with a Keatsian title, On the Dynamics of Automobile Drifting, by Mujahid Abdulrahim of the University of Florida for the US Society of Automotive Engineers.

Drifting is…an important part of any memorable movie scene involving a police chase. Despite the performance advantages of low-sideslip driving, it is well known that villains are more appropriately apprehended with much tire squealing and smoke.

Abdulrahim kindly explains from his lofty physicist’s perch that drift “challenges drivers to navigate a course in a sustained sideslip by exploiting coupled nonlinearities in the tire force response”, a thought unlikely to be uppermost in the mind of the average drifter approaching the apex of a bend. Here are some random shots of passing sideslippers captioned with soundbites on the physics of drift.

Takahiro Imamura (39) in a Mazda RX7 FC3S (1986-1991)

Through the complex relationship between slips and forces, equilibrium is achieved in general with front tires in counter-steer and rear tires spinning.

Robbie Nishida (33) in a Toyota Cresta JZX90 (1992-1996)

The coupling between longitudinal slip and lateral force is of particular importance for drifting, considering this is the primary means by which moment stabilization can be achieved at large sideslip.

Tatsuya Kataoka (32) in a Toyota Trueno AE86 (1983-1987)

The rear tires in a typical drift maneuver operate in the nonlinear plateau regime while the front tires operate nearer the linear range at small slip angles.

Ryoji Jinushi (37) in a Toyota Soarer JZZ30 (1991-2000)

The sideforce generated at large sideslip is generally less than the maximum sideforce, thus drifts cannot maintain high levels of lateral acceleration. Drifting produces unstable conditions such as positive cornering stiffness gradients and large restoring/upsetting yaw moments.

Yoshikazu Kawakami (36) in a Nissan Silvia S14 (1995-2000)

Thus, the challenge of drift racing is manipulating the vehicle controls to achieve small yaw moments in order to maintain a large-amplitude sideslip attitude.

None of these cars, at their battered and beaten cores, was less than a decade old, and a couple might have been on the road a quarter of a century. These were low-ranked drivers, to be sure, with scarcely a point between them all season, but the drivers on the leader-board were largely at the reins of steeds no more modern. Almost without exception the drivers are on the far side of thirty, with some, such as number four ranked Ken Nomura (48), pushing the half century mark. Drift, I concluded, was getting gouty, putting on a middle-aged gut—much like the land that gave birth to it.

Despite our physicist’s talk of longitudinal and lateral tractive forces, the dominant force that drift both does battle with and tries to harness is inertia, as does any attempt to pilot round a corner at moderate velocity a modern vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, which would much rather go straight on. A motorsport called drift with inertia at its heart: could there be a better mirror-metaphor to hold up to contemporary society?

Aside from half-Japanese US army brat (and I mean that in the kindest way) Robbie Nishida, pictured above, there was only one foreign driver on the circuit that day, Italian Federico Sceriffo, whose Subaru Impreza’s business end looks like this.

Neither of them had accrued any points in the season thus far, and much as it pains me to say, I suspect neither—nor any GUYjean—has much of a chance of climbing the rankings, unless drift gets itself organized under an international governing body, as it should—why, if figure skating is, it could be an Olympic sport one day.

Among the 38 (naturally all-male) drivers, only one was at the wheel of a foreign marque: Takahiro Ueno in a BMW 320i, the traitorous filler in this colorful sandwich.

And as far as I could tell, your tourist-correspondent in the world of drift was the only roundeye in the spectator stands.

Of my two trips to Ebisu, I preferred the former, with its overwhelming shock of the new. At the D1 Grand Prix, there was not even an overpriced beer to be had, thanks be no doubt to the Fukushima constabulary. The patter of the MCs was drenched in excruciatingly formal Japanese and winners were welcomed to the podium with a tremulous titter of applause. A friend known for his delicate turn of phrase forecast that Ebisu would be chockablock with “chapatsu slappers” (translation: women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair) but there was scarcely a bottle brunette to be found. Drift at the top has been professionalized, commercialized, sanitized, and suburbanized, stripped by the dominant culture of the “sub” of its subculture. Nothing wrong with that in many ways—even drifters have to eat, after all. But in the long and winding road from ura to omote, something fierce and vital has been sacrificed along the way: the barking, howling, snarling beast of drift has finally been tamed.

Lake Shikotsu: Vitriol for the Viking

By the time I left Poroto Kotan, it was too late to hunt down lunch, so I made do with an onigiri rice ball and a bottle of tea for the second day in a row and headed off up the back roads to my next destination, Lake Shikotsu, another caldera lake, but the fog closed in fast on the acclivity into the mountains and on the map the road up ahead narrowed disturbingly, so I retraced my steps and headed east back up the coast to the blot on the landscape that is the paper town of Tomakomai (1980 population 151,967, estimated 2009 population 173,743, projected 2035 population 142,120), described in 1880 by Isabella Bird as “a wide, dreary place” and unchanged since. I then turned inland on tree canopied Rte 276, crossing over into Chitose (1980 population 66,788 estimated 2009 population 93,211, projected 2035 population 87,968). Located just south of Sapporo, Chitose has been flourishing not only because it is the home of Hokkaido’s largest airport (the Sapporo-Tokyo run was once reputed to be the most profitable airline route in the world and is still one of the busiest) but also because roughly a third of the city’s inhabitants are military personnel, as it is the home to the Seventh Division of the Japanese Imperial Army Japan Ground Self-defense Force.

Despite being located only around 20km from downtown Chitose, Lake Shikotsu feels far more remote from civilization than Lake Toya—it is not even fully encircled by tarmac. The resort area at Shikotsuko Onsen is concomitantly more compact, with the detritus of forlorn craft shops, cafes, and restaurants corralled into a square acre away from the handful of hotels.

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Delightful to see the Bubble-era Mitsubishi Debonair sedan in the background, pushing 20 years old—at least—and still going strong, presumably as a daily driver; clearly not owned by a Japanese person though, according to the blogosphere, which will have you believe that all Japanese people junk their cars after a decade while starving their babies—if they have any—in order to be able to afford to do so.

I was already by this stage growing weary of Japanese business hotels, with their collage of hard to identify but rarely pleasant odors, spiritless décor and listless service, coffee rings and cigarette burns, and longed for relief from molded plastic bathrooms so cramped, gentle reader, that even the averagely endowed male of the species has trouble, when perched on the throne, in tucking himself in.

Fortunately relief was at hand in the center of the onsen village, in the shape of the splendidly named Lake Shikotsu Tsuruga Resort Spa Mizu no Uta (“song of water”). The name in Japanese is worth unpicking:

しこつ湖鶴雅リゾートスパ水の謌

The creators of the hotel had opted to write Lake Shikotsu as しこつ湖 rather than the usual 支笏湖, perhaps to add a friendly touch with a hiragana lead-in rather than the formality of the kanji. Tsuruga (鶴雅, or “crane elegance”), I later learned, was the name of the small hotel group that ran the operation. Next comes resort spa (リゾートスパ) in the katakana script reserved primarily these days for foreign loanwords. What had happened to the “and” between “resort” and “spa”, I wondered. Was that just an ampersand too far? Bringing up the rear is “Mizu no Uta” (水の謌), and here the bestower of the name had excelled: of the four different ways of writing “uta” (song)

歌 (common or garden song)
唄 (long song, folk song, or other form of traditional Japanese song)
詩 (poetic song or more frequently poetry)

our hero had chosen the most obscure of all, one I had never come across before and one which many native speakers of Japanese cannot fathom, to judge from the number of websites on which it appears with metatextual explanations of how it is read. Clearly I was in the presence of something special.

Entering the lobby, everything came over a bit boutique, a bit—dare I say it?—a bit Bali.

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Gingerly I enquired at reception of Hashimoto san, the man on the left, how much a night in this temple of the contemporary might set me back. The answer was a shade over Y25,000 ($280, GBP175) for full board. Not cheap, certainly, but then I was on holiday (as I had to keep reminding myself) and feeling an acute urge to scrub away the soot of Muroran. Done! Hashimoto san had been a tad stand-offish at first, alarmed perhaps by my bright polkadot shorts and scruffy T-shirt, but warmed a little after he watched me maneuver the car into a space by the entrance lobby. Entirely unsurprising how perceptions of wealth alter people’s attitudes. He showed me to a soothing and softly-lit tatami matted room. “We’ve prepared an extra-large yukata for you, sir”, he said, referring to the cotton kimono in which Japanese hotel guests love to loll around. “For your ample girth”, he might as well have added. “Well done, my man, I see you’ve taken care of everything.” He also explained, in response to a bit of prodding, that the hotel was under new ownership and had just been completely refurbished, reopening only months before.

I strolled around the public areas of the hotel, luxuriating in all the boxes than had been so conscientiously ticked.

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It felt, I smirked cynically to myself, as though the designer had been handed a pile of coffee table books with titles such as “Chichi Hotels of the World” and “Modern Hotel Design for Simpletons”, given a lavish budget and told to get on with it, after a parting lecture on how these days the punters are going gaga about yer natural look, how these days it’s all about yer slate and yer granite and yer stone, and how we’ll be havin’ none o’ that plasticky tack, thank you very much.

I have to admit, though, that the designers had done a  fine job in capturing the essence of nowness. I had simply had no idea that this sort of ultrafashionable bijou accommodation existed in Japan and wondered, on first arrival, whether foreign confectioners were behind the creation. This fanciful notion was swiftly disabused by the shoe Gestapo. As normal in a Japanese hotel, guests are required to change from shoes to slippers in the lobby; at Mizu no Uta, however, there is nothing as vulgar as locker but instead a shoe valet, who whisks your pumps or plimsolls away as soon as you step out of them, and a further shoe affectation in the form of the geta clogs that guests are obliged to don to eat, so a quick trip from room to car to dining room requires two changing-of-the-footwear ceremonies, and ceremonies they were too, as the valet has to be found, the shoes have to be produced with a flourish, and slippers have to be placed just so, with corporal precision, on the edge of the raised genkan entrance. Such anality with brogues and loafers could not be the province of the slobby foreigner.

I took a preprandial amble down to the lakeside and stumbled across the Yamasen bridge over the headwaters of the Chitose river, the oldest surviving railway bridge in Hokkaido, forged in Wednesbury in the Black Country of England in 1899.

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A university friend of mine once wrote a song about Wednesbury, quite possibly the only one that has ever been composed before or since, and I thought of him as Wednesbury 1899 met Hokkaido 2009.

“On the right a cemetery
On the left the sky
On the right the hoarding boards
Pylons flashing by….

Wednesbury sleeps where Wednesbury stands
In the middle of the week, in the middle of the Midlands.”

It was only at that moment, more than two decades on, that I realized there was a joke buried in the chorus. I can be slow on the uptake like that.

Britain was cropping up in the most unexpected places: there was the Scottish connection in Yoichi, of course, but there was also the grave in Muroran of a British sailor on the HMS Providence, which put in at the port as early as 1796, the conversation on which I eavesdropped in Niseko, and—if only I had had the time to investigate—the British consulate in Hakodate, built in 1859 and still standing, the very first British legation in Japan with a permanent home.

I retraced my steps to once again luxuriate in the arms of my newfound hotel friend, lingering awhile in the bar with a gin and tonic to ponder my good fortune.
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Almost every conceivable travel book about Japan has already been written, I mused, as I nursed the glass and the condensation on its outside brought a pleasant palm-chill. The country has been walked, hitched, and written across from north to south and from west to east, the last written by the former boss of my present boss—it’s a vanishingly small world. At least three pedal-propelling authors have penned accounts of journeys up and down Japan, one a woman so enthralled by her first cycling encounter (“useful for swatting flies”, one Amazon reviewer puts it, although even that comment generated dissent) that she came back and did it again (“stop her before she writes another”). Foot and bicycle have been the preferred choice of locomotion for those in the perhaps misguidedly naïve search for lost and vanishing Japan, the “real” Japan, the “authentic” Japan. The bicycle has also been responsible for what is currently at the top of my list of worst examples of travel writing about Japan—a fiercely contested trophy—this 1988 New York Times essay, Rediscovering Japanese Life at a Bike’s Pace, by James Salter, a winner of the PEN/Faulkner award, which puts him in the illustrious company of the likes of John Updike and E. Annie Proulx.

People have written about their year in Japan, their two years in Japan, and their three years in Japan, often on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, convinced that although at any one time there are around 5,000 JET teachers across the length and breadth of Japan undergoing experiences very similar to theirs, they have something uniquely profound to impart, although in the case of the last of this trio, if as this New Zealand Herald reviewer seems to believe, the author’s opus of sublimely pedestrian discoveries—Japan is hot in summer!—and experiences—getting drunk in beer gardens and falling asleep on trains—had indeed been set “on the Japanese island of Osaka”, the writer would truly have had something wholly new to share with the world.

No facet of Japanese life has been left unexplored: I have long lost count of meditations on time spent in Zen monasteries, confessionals about time spent as nightclub hostesses, and thinly fictionalized exposes of the zany world of English conversation classes, books with arch titles like Green Tea to Go, Sweet Daruma, and Lost Girls and Love Hotels. There are travel tomes about Japan’s seas, its slums, and even, seemingly, largely about its socks. There are travel guides to its love hotels, its hot springs, and its sex clubs. Is there any country on earth that has been more picked over by travel writers, aspiring and actual? Is there an angle they have neglected to survey, a mossy stone of Zen left unturned, a tawdry gimmick still left on the rack? Just maybe. In the spirit of generosity, I offer up these titles of books I might care to read about Japan for wanderlust-possessed adventurers with the wherewithal, the writing chops, and the time to kill—a year should do it in most cases, much less in one. Budgets and the requisite talents may vary.

Japanese Life at a Funereal Pace: Hearsing around in Old Nippon

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear! Or how I pedaled backward across Japan on a unicycle and lived to tell the tale

Pogo through Hyogo: One Gal’s Extreme Pogo Trip to Enlightenment

Maybach manga mayhem! Japan’s pop culture as seen from the back of a limousine

Thirty Seconds in Tokyo: My Narita Transit Lounge Heaven and Hell

A year of living dully: On being a human tape-recorder in the classrooms of a sleepy provincial town in Japan

My Sushi was a Burger—Bikkuri Donkey and other tales of eating dangerously in Japan’s family restaurants

My Ramen Voyage from Sapporo to Hakata: The Untold Story of the Noodle that Captured a Nation’s Heart

Lost and Found in Japan, a journey of self-discovery through the lost luggage offices of Japan Railways

The Tetrapod Traveler: A practical guide to the concrete structures that are altering Japan’s coastline—and changing lives

Ryokan and me: My year in a thatch hut I built myself

Lord of the Fries: My dog-eat-dog year spent working a Tokyo fast-food joint

How I got a zombie geisha tattoo—Crazy Stories from the Tokyo Night

Miss Manners does Japan: 36 things not to do with your chopsticks and other fine points of Japanese etiquette

Ganbatte means go for it! Or…how to become an English teacher in Japan

Drat! It looks as though the last one has already been penned.

Off the top of my head, there are three travel books about Japan I would genuinely like to see written. The first would be a plain vanilla tour of Hokkaido, digging deep into its contested history, the restlessness of its colonists, and the sadness of much of its present. My preferred means of locomotion would be a fast sports car, just to annoy all the go-slow and prosaic pedestrians and bicyclistas of yore that presume to equate sluggishness with authentic encounters and spiritual access. My preferred accommodation, from the same motive, would be as luxurious as possible, so Mizu no Uta was a good start. The second would be a trek around the hundreds of inhabited islands aside from the big four that go to make up the archipelago; Japan must have more of these than any country on earth save perhaps Indonesia, the Philippines, and Greece, (one day I’ll investigate that list), and the contrast between the rito (isolated islands) and the megalopolises is arguably nowhere starker than here. This would take forever—it is an almost constant source of wonder to me, for instance, that there are islands under the jurisdiction of Tokyo that are a day’s travel (by boat) from any other inhabited place on the planet (there are very few places left about which you can say that)—but be truly on the unbeaten track and I’m sure deeply rewarding. The third would be a reprise of Jonathan Raban’s wonderful circumnavigation of Britain in Coasting; what could be more fitting for a nation so intimately tied up with the sea in which, despite being twice the size of Britain and roughly the same area as California, it is never possible to get even close to 100 miles from the coast.

Enough musing already, though, it was time for dinner. One of the most miserable aspects of prolonged stays in Japanese hostelries of the business stripe is the Viking breakfast buffet, named I believe after an eponymous Swedish restaurant in Tokyo in the 1950s that pioneered the smorgasbord. Now the smorgasbord as a concept might be perfectly acceptable for fare such as rollmops, lox, ham, and cheese, as well as the odd hot dish such as meatballs or a casserole, but it is far from appetizing in the form into which it has mutated in Japanese business hotels. In its current Japanese breakfast incarnation, it is intended to symbolize a cornucopia of indulgence, the luxury of the provender of the land that the hotel sees fit to share with its exalted guests, but instead takes the innocent diner on a wholly unwanted timewarp back to the 1950s and lays bare the astonishing resistance to culinary innovation and improvement that defines the bulk of degraded Japanese cuisine today.

The easiest place to start is with the “Western” options; we’ll be done with them in a jiffy. All Viking bread is naturally completely inedible—outside a few select outlets in or near the center of major cities, Japanese bread has been fossilized in the industrial era, when bread had to be as white and smooth and tasteless and antiseptic as possible. I invite you to recoil in horror at the photo that adorns the top of the homepage of the website of Japan’s largest breadmaker, Yamazaki Baking. Other Viking concessions to Western tastes include the Weiner sausage, the very lowest rung of sausage life and which is better passed over as quickly as possible, again with a shudder, and some form of egg concoction, usually scrambled, which brings us to a problem that unites both the Japanese and Western sides of the Viking experience.

Business hotels serve breakfast between 7am and 9am, with slight variations; woe betide you if you arrive toward the end of that aperture, because the scrambled eggs (on the Western side) and the miniature grilled salmon or yellowtail steaks (on the Japanese side) will have been stewing on a hotplate or under a microwave light for at least a couple of hours and thereby drained entirely of moisture and rendered both inedible and lukewarm; arriving on the dot at 7am improves the chances of edibility but does not render it a done deal by any means, as the platters could easily have been put out half an hour beforehand, allowing plenty of time for the juices to evaporate, the eggs to transmogrify from lubricious runniness to surly yellow lumps of snot and the yellowtail and salmon steaklets to curl up at the sides, spit out their bones, and die a gastronomic death.

On the Japanese side of the equation there are at least the old staples of white Japonica rice and miso soup, both of which I find utterly palatable but which cannot by any stretch be said to satisfy the promise of abundance in these saturated times and  are hence entirely missable to this spoiled palate. The rest of the Japanese offerings seem to be engaged in a private competition of their own for the world’s most unpleasant morning food: I like to think I’m an adventurous eater (no—I am, chocolate-coated grasshoppers of a Thailand evening were not an issue), but fermented squid innards and pickled cod bollocks at 7am are not the way I need to be snapped back into reality.

Then there’s the coffee. The coffee of itself is often not bad, although the perils of the hotpot stew are omnipresent, but if you take it white, as I do, then you have to navigate past the hideous miniature plastic tubs of synthetic “cream” that keep for several millennia at room temperature and pour a glass of fresh Hokkaido milk, return to your seat, and run the risk of an impolite white ring being left on the table as you attempt to milkify your coffee from such an unsuitable vessel.

I was therefore crestfallen to learn from Hashimoto san that the evening dinner would also be served in a Viking stylee, together with an entrée to be ordered in advance: either aigamo duck (technically, an only-in-Japan cross between a Mallard and a domestic goose) from Takikawa in Northern Hokkaido, or himemasu (kokanee, the landlocked form of the sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka) from out of Lake Shikotsu itself. The hotel clearly had the modern fetish for local food down pat, although it went overboard by describing next morning’s breakfast salmon as being from the Okhotsk Sea. Big place, the Okhotsk Sea…

There was something ever so slightly disturbing about the chubby Western girl on the Healthy Buffet AmAm sign that I couldn’t quite—and still can’t—put my finger on.

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The entrée of aigamo arrived within minutes of my sitting down, leaving no time for the plateful of appetizers I’d selected from the Viking. The kitchen left no room for doubt that it was a fervent worshipper at the altar of nouvelle cuisine: three slices of duck breast, each roughly the size and shape of a pinched thumb and forefinger, were perched on half a white kabu turnip and dusted with a smattering of rock salt, looking lonely and forlorn in the middle of a gleaming white plate with a diameter of about ten inches. Many, many meals had been made from the duck that died to feed me. The hot dishes at the Viking were suffering from the same problems of overexposure that plague all buffets and the Chinese offerings gave off that familiar but ever unsettling glisten of cornstarch. Some of the descriptions of the dishes careened into the land of BS: what, I pondered, did the “PG”, written in the Roman alphabet, stand for in PG tamago no medamayaki (PG fried eggs)? Parental guidance? Procter & Gamble? I made mischief by asking. The first server had no clue; a summoned chef mumbled something about its signifying that the yolk had a high density. Was that a good thing, I wondered to myself. Research suggests that “PG” is indeed a massively obscure designation for a particular type of egg, so the Japanese Vikingers were in all probability as bamboozled as I was. Some diners were taking discreet snaps of their meals; I preferred to photograph the condiment set.

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It is my firm conviction that toothpicks should not be found on the tables of respectable restaurants, as gentlemen and ladies simply don’t.

While Mizu no Uta will never win any awards for the quality of its cuisine, the bed was supremely comfortable, falling asleep to the fragrance of tatami for the first time in a long while was sublimley comforting, the public spaces were chic without being intimidating, and there were some nice touches of decadence, such as the foot spa in the garden, to flatter guests into thinking that they were among the ranks of the ultrawealthy, if only for a night.

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After a stroll the next morning around Yacho no Mori (Wild Bird Wood), where instead of communing with dearly beloved feathered friends I was viciously mobbed by a pair of nesting Jungle Crows (not birds in my book but emissaries of Satan), I headed into and out of Chitose and then across little arable towns east of Sapporo—Naganuma (1980 population 13,354, estimated 2009 population 12,119, projected 2035 population 9,724) Yuni (9,000, 6,228, 3,861), and Kuriyama (17,482, 13,731, 9,779)—where I got deliriously lost and didn’t give a damn because the  hoonage was such a hoot, before finally setting tire and foot in the one-time coal-mining city of Yubari, which was to be home for the next three days.

Lake Toya: The billion-dollar Tower of Bubble

There could be no clearer example of the mismatch between the perceived need for relaxation and communion with the natural order, and the policies adopted in practice, than this 1987 [Resort] Law. Relaxation, along with freshness, greenness, and “my life”, was incidental to what happened. The expansionary thrust of Japanese capitalism shifted into a higher gear. The Resort Archipelago formula devised by PM Yasuhiro Nakasone created a huge new market and fed fierce expansionary pressures…In the Green Japan Plan Phase Two, published in 1988, resorts were described for the first time as “a new basic industry for Japan”. When Nakasone spoke of his ideal for Japan of “peace, freedom, and verdant greenery”, it should be understood that what he meant was…a land of chemicalized golf courses, expensive marinas, toll expressways that penetrated the deepest mountains, and resorts that multiplied the ideology and aesthetics of Disneyland, where culture meant consumption.

Gavan McCormack, The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (1996)

Rte 393 ascends steeply out of Otaru in a succession of hairpins, eventually delivering drivers across the 700m Kenashi pass and into the village of Akaigawa (1899 population 1,716, 1935 population 3,592, 1955 population 3,045, 1980 population 1,485, estimated 2009 population 1,235, projected 2035 population 918), which covers an area larger than Otaru but is currently fourth smallest by population of Hokkaido’s municipalities. Reportedly its only concession to the retail experience is a single convenience store, and the village attracted a brief moment of notoriety in the media in 1999 when the Obuchi administration lavished some $7bn on “Regional Promotion Coupons” (chiiki shinkoken) as being one of the few places in the archipelago where it was next to impossible to use them. Rte 393 turns south before it reached the center of the village and the only place that attracted my attention on the forested mountain passes was the Mountain Village Revitalization Support Center.

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The center was and remains something of a mystery. Why was it deserted and locked in the middle of a Tuesday morning? Why was so fancy an edifice constructed for the twelve hundred villagers? Perhaps, I speculated, that in Japan’s Construction State, it was the very act of construction that served as the act of revitalization, and that the center would be repeatedly torn down and rebuilt, torn down and rebuilt, to provide endless off-season work to Akaigawa’s pumpkin, corn, and watermelon farmers.

More mountain passes and tunnels led me back to the edge of Kutchan, and it was in a stretch of a couple of hundred of meters between the hamlets of Yamato and Fuwa, that I took a handful of snaps that I think convey well the way human life is ebbing away from the badlands of Hokkaido: the ageing smallholder hanging on, the ancient patched-up barn, the long forsaken homestead returning to the elements, the more recently abandoned and boarded-up farm.

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From Kutchan, the route took me around the other, eastern side of Mount Yotei in forbidding weather through the arable farm towns of Kyogoku and Kimobetsu (1980 population 4,085, estimated 2009 population 2,520, projected 2035 population 1,335) and the village of Rusutsu (1980 population 2,075, estimated 2009 population 2,037, projected 2035 population 1,606), where ski resorts and sky sports seem to be keeping the economy ticking over, and finally into the lakeside town of Toyako (1980 population 14,401, estimated 2009 population 10,484, projected 2035 population 7,199), my first real destination of the day and the July 2008 venue for the 34th G8 summit of world leaders.

Rte 238 runs along the edge of tableland that descends steeply to the northwest side of the caldera lake of Toyako and affords spectacular views of it, views that attracted the development in the 1970s (I would guess) of a string of complexes with restaurants, gift-shops, and observation decks. Time and the frail tourist economy have not been kind to them.

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I was particularly enamored with the exuberance and sheer datedness of this place. It’s for sale, and if structurally sound it would make a wonderful boutique hotel or an extravagant private residence.

Just a little further along was the Sairo observation deck, a characteristically Hokkaido piece of architecture, gamely hanging in there although without a great deal of appeal inside under the strip-lit glare.

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On the opposite side of the road, I was struck by the contrast between the venerable iron plough and the almost Midwestern neatness of the farm behind. The prosperity or otherwise of Hokkaido’s farming districts varies hugely from crop to crop and village to village, and clearly many larger farms, especially the big dairy ones, have accrued survivor benefits from having outlasted their neighbors and are not faring too badly.

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I threaded my way down to the side of the lake and into the hot springs resort of Toyako Onsen, which straddles the towns of Toyako and Sobetsu (1980 population 4,292, estimated 2009 population 3,008, projected 2035 population 2,043). The resort consists of a dozen or hotels, mostly abutting the lake, some of considerable size, and almost all with the malodorous pall of the Bubble hanging over them.

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The second photo is of the 127-room Toya Park Hotel Tensho, completed in 1992, whose cavernous and ebulliently high ceilinged dining room was all but deserted (well, it was Tuesday) as I took a lunchtime stroll along the waterfront. It was readily apparent that something was gravely amiss. The only tourists were pensioners and there was only the merest smattering of them. One of the lakeside hotels had already called it quits.

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The sun emerged for the briefest of moments and I allowed myself to be distracted by wonderful light that resulted as the pregnant rain clouds hung menacingly low over the lake.

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It’s not widely known outside a coterie of ornithologists, but the council of owl elders has decreed that when the avian revolution comes, the pedalo swans that blight every lake in Japan will be given the bills of the most terrifying of the pterosaurs and the machine guns of Mad Max and assigned a sacred mission—to hunt down and terminate with extreme prejudice everyone who has ever been foolish enough to rent one out.

The inland side of the lakeshore road was home to a couple of grimier hotels, one sporting a banner offering rooms at the exceptionally low price of Y3,990 ($42.50), and the rubble of the flotsam and jetsam of craft and gift shops, noodle restaurants, and karaoke parlors that had once lived off the crumbs of trade that the larger hotels threw their way but starved and died as the pickings grew ever slenderer. The wrong side of the street was in tatters.

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I was just too late for the 2pm lunch cutoff at the Toya Park Hotel, so my entire contribution to the Toyako Onsen economy was the purchase of an onigiri rice ball and a bottle of iced tea from a convenience store, where I had to ask for directions to the Windsor Hotel Toya Resort & Spa, the hilltop hotel where the G8 summit was actually held.

As I retraced my steps to get to the 3km-long private driveway that leads to the hotel, the weather closed in again and the fog came down, reducing visibility to mere yards, which was a shame because the view on a good day must be phenomenal.

The Windsor Hotel has a checkered history, to say the least: if it were a G8 head of state, from among the presidents, prime ministers, and solitary chancellor who attended the summit, it would perhaps be reformed boozer George W. Bush, although the hotel’s addiction was not to liquor but money, vast armfuls and suitcases and Olympic swimming pools of the stuff, snorting up a cool Y65bn ($700mn or so at the current exchange rate) in construction expenses alone, with the total cost estimated to be around the $1bn mark. Do you need to be told that it was a Bubble-era vanity project? I thought not. The firm with the fantasy was an obscure Sapporo real estate developer, Kabuto Decom, which had started out in life in 1971 as a road paver, of all things, and was determined to ride the resort boom of the late 1980s. One deep irony of the hosting of the G8 summit by the Windsor Hotel was that the hotel’s very existence might be said to have originated in a similar sort of gathering, the infamous one between the finance ministers of Japan, the US, the UK, France, and West Germany at the Plaza Hotel in New York a quarter of a century before, where agreement was reached in the Plaza Accord on concerted foreign currency market intervention to depreciate the dollar with the aim of boosting US exports, resulting in a brief economic downturn in Japan and monetary loosening that lit the fires of the asset bubble. One shallower irony is that the G8 summit and all its hot air about global warming took place in a hotel that is a temple to environmental desecration.

The hotel finally opened, as the Hotel Apex Toya, the deliciously named developer Apex having been a subsidiary of Kabuto Decom, in June 1993, born into an inhospitable post-Bubble world around the time that suspicions were first being raised about the lending practices of Kabuto Decom’s main source of funds, Hokkaido Takushoku Bank.

Kabuto Decom’s modus operandi appears to have been this: it would make group companies buy up land in a notorious Bubble land-sharking practice known as “jiage”, then get the group companies to place orders with it for resort construction. Once it had finished the construction, it would buy up the resort and then sell it on again to the subsidiaries. It would then book a double dose of profit in a kind of internalized Ponzi scheme, once on the margin on construction and a second time on the sale to the subsidiary. Say for example the land cost $50mn and the construction of the resort cost $100mn; Kabuto Decom would then buy the resort for $200mn and sell it back to the subsidiary for $300mn, the “profit” being $50mn on purchase of the resort attributable to the subsidiary and $100mn on the sale of the resort to the subsidiary attributable to the parent, a $150mn “profit” on $150mn of expenditure. Consolidated accounting, which would have snuffed out this sort of chicanery, was in its embryonic stages in the Japan of the time, and it was not until the late 1990s that its application became mandatory. I had a brief chat with my bank analyst colleague, who graces the top of the rankings for his sector year after year, about the mechanics of the collusion, and it was his opinion that the group companies were quite probably near-fictitious entities in the name of the wife or other relatives of the president of Kabuto Decom, a shadowy figure called Shigeru Sato, whose photo I have tried for hours to track down but to no avail.

It took two to dance this crooked tango, of course, and Kabuto Decom had a more than willing partner in Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, colloquially known as Takugin. Takugin was established as a state-run development bank in 1900 to alleviate the problems of Hokkaido’s existing network of banks, which were small in scale and usurious in their lending practices. After the Second World War, the state lessened its grip and Takugin became an ordinary private-sector bank, one with such deep ties to the community that Hokkaido families, the majority of whom held accounts at the bank, came to refer to it as “Takugin san” – Mr. Takugin – and an account with or a loan from Takugin was seen as a barometer of the creditworthiness and stature of a business. By far the largest bank in the prefecture, there was a tacit understanding, of the sort that proliferated under the “convoy system” of the old and indulgently paternalist Ministry of Finance, that in any joint financing of an enterprise, Takugin would supply 40% of the credit, with the rest split between Hokkaido’s three other banks, Hokkaido Bank (30%), North Pacific Bank (20%), and Sapporo Bank (10%).

Enter the Bubble. The Bubble inflated first in the metropolises and was slow to ripple out to remote Hokkaido, and it was not until 1988 that Takugin began to seriously engage in the deliriously speculative real estate lending that defined the Bubble. Being late to the party was a recipe for disaster; while the earlier to arrive guests had been drinking in moderation from the punchbowl in 1986 and 1987, Takugin had to hammer back the tequila slammers to catch up. These slammers were particularly toxic; as the latecomer, Takugin was forced to take subordinated positions on collateral in real estate in the structure of existing, already extravagant, loans of 120%-130% on astronomically overvalued land.

Two small Takugin teams of fewer than a dozen people each, one in Tokyo and one in Sapporo, were responsible for much of the insanity. Feeling the chill winds of the collapse of the Bubble, with the Nikkei tumbling and land prices teetering, the Tokyo team quickly froze lending and was disbanded in 1991, but the Hokkaido team sailed blithely on.

For the briefest of moments, it seemed as though Hokkaido and the world lay at the feet of Kabuto Decom; its shares, which were first listed in March 1989 at Y2,300, spiraled higher and higher, to reach Y41,400 in October 1990, fully 10 months after the Nikkei had peaked, on the very last trading day of the 1980s. Sales, however dubiously they were measured, ballooned to Y100.9bn in 1991 from just Y15.4bn in 1989. In September 1989, Kabuto Decom snapped up a country club and ski resort in Hokkaido; by April 1990 it had started construction of a shopping center in Las Vegas.

Two other firms were particularly lavish bingers on Takugin’s largesse: Miki, a jeweler and retailer of women’s and children’s apparel, which at its peak had 1,400 outlets across Japan and was the nation’s largest retail jeweler; and Sophia, which like Kabuto Decom was a real estate developer, though one with even more bizarre roots. Sophia had been founded by a born-into-poverty hairdresser from Kutchan, Yoichi Nakamura, who started a salon with sauna attached (I cannot even begin to imagine how that worked) in Sapporo in 1972 and built a small chain of them around Hokkaido and beyond. Takugin lavished him with at least a couple of billion dollars to build two resort hotels in Sapporo.

The hotels that Kabuto Decom and Sophia built were probably intrinsically unprofitable, and this was compounded by the one thing that Kabuto Decom, Sophia, and the bankers parachuted in to help from Takugin had in common: none of them knew the first thing about the hotel business. When Hotel Apex Toya finally opened, many of its customers were the families of Takugin branch employees, no doubt not entirely of their own free will, and even then the occupancy rate was less than half of the target.

Kabuto Decom had incurred two principal forms of liability with Takugin, the original loans to buy the land and the debt guarantees on the borrowing of its subsidiaries to finance the construction, which conventionally it would have provided but which were again borrowed. The momentum of the spinning plates that were Kabuto Decom’s Byzantine financing arrangements were beginning to fail, but the bank could not bring itself to pull the plug, as it knew that at least some of its loans had passed through dummy companies and that a Kabuto Decom bankruptcy would expose the shenanigans in which it had been complicit, so it rushed around desperately trying to keep all the plates in motion, funnelling tens of billions of yen through dummy companies to Kabuto Decom so it could repay loans to its nonbank subsidiaries, while at the same time plotting to have its dummy companies buy up Kabuto Decom’s real estate holdings in preparation for its bankruptcy soon afterward.

The bank managed to seize control of some of the few profitable parts of the empire but its strategy backfired when to, cap it all, it had the Kabuto Decom President arrested by the Sapporo District Public Prosecutors Office on charges of promissory note forgery, the objective being the unconditional surrender and departure of the Kabuto Decom management team in exchange for dropping the case. The management team, backed into a fearsome corner, duly folded, but when the bank tried to withdraw the forgery allegations, the public prosecutors turned on it and threatened charges of aggravated breach of trust.

By early 1994, the story had seeped out to the media and Takugin was being dubbed an “abunai ginko”, a bank on the brink. Still, the unfolding of events has a slow motion feel to it in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008: it took the Ministry of Finance until the end of 1994 to (secretly, in the best ministerial tradition) require the bank to submit its earnings reports to the ministry for approval, the announcement of the first loss in the bank’s history did not come until May 1995, and Moody’s did not downgrade it to the lowest bank rating, E (” very modest intrinsic financial strength, with a higher likelihood of periodic outside support”) until the summer of 1995. A run on the bank had begun discreetly in 1994, with corporate customers closing accounts, but somehow it staggered on through 1996, until a comment early in 1997 on a TV program (“to judge from the share price, Takugin’s effectively bankrupt”) sparked a minor run the next day among retail depositors. By March 1997, Takugin had an official non-performing loan ratio of 13.4%, versus 1%-2% for a healthy bank in normal times, and in all likelihood, thanks to lax borrower categorization, a real ratio of triple that.

The Ministry of Finance, whose mantra of the time was not that “some banks are too big to fail but that “all banks are too big to fail”, tried to effect a merger between Takugin and Hokkaido Bank, the prefecture’s second largest bank, which was nursing its own crippling hangover from the after-effects of the Bubble. It came very close to succeeding, too: the long-time rivals announced a “love marriage” on April 1, only for their love to turn to hate over the next six months, as Hokkaido Bank staff rebelled against merging with the bank’s perennial competitor and Takugin, unforgivably, railed against its smaller rival’s plans to cut it down to size.

The death knell came, as so often it does, from an unexpected and trivial quarter; on November 3, 1997, second-tier securities firm Sanyo Shoken went under, causing a default on a Y1bn uncollateralized call loan by an obscure credit union, which led the already jittery call market to convulse, cutting off virtually the only source of funds left to pariah Takugin. On Friday, November 14, Takugin was unable to raise its daily requirement of Y40bn by noon, mustering only Y6.1bn. Over the weekend the Ministry of Finance and senior Takugin bankers frantically tried to find a solution, the first proposal being a merger with fourth ranked Sapporo Bank, which had historically had much cozier ties with Takugin than Hokkaido Bank had. Takugin executives pig-headedly spurned all such talk, however, as the then Sapporo Bank head, a former Takugin top brass, had wanted to take the bank toward consumer lending and away from corporate lending when he had been at Takugin, for which heresy he had been summarily excommunicated. There was only one bank left in Hokkaido with whom the ministry could force a merger, the North Pacific Bank, which had just one-fifth of the assets and one-tenth of the capital of Takugin. Frantic preparations were made by all parties and the Bank of Japan to prepare for a run on the bank come Monday.

On the morning of Monday, November 17, at a hastily called press conference, Takugin officials announced that the bank’s operations would, in a face-saving euphemism, be “transferred” to the North Pacific Bank and that it would be disbanded. Takugin thus became the very first “city bank” (one headquartered in a major city) in post-war Japan to go under, and to date it is still the only one. It was only the eighth bank to go under since the end of the war, the first ever having sought refuge in the arms of the authorities only in 1992, the second just two years previously, in 1996. In contrast, five US banks were shut down by the regulators yesterday, as of this September 5, 2009, writing, bringing the year’s tally of US bank closures to 89. Those sentences alone tell you pretty much all you need to know about the difference between the economies and the societies of the US and Japan.

As word of Takugin’s failure spread, newspapers rushed out special editions and the bank’s customers thronged branches in such numbers that the police had to be mobilized. In the three days after the collapse, panicked customers withdrew approximately $5bn in deposits and branches ran out of the forms needed to close accounts. The bank’s final accounting, for FY3/98, was prepared according to US generally accepted accounting principles, and revealed that of the total loan book of Y5.9trn, a staggering Y2.3trn (close to 40%) was non-performing. The bank was insolvent (i.e., in a position of negative net worth, with liabilities exceeding assets) to the tune of Y1.1trn.

It is difficult to understate the impact that the collapse of Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, together with that of Yamaichi Securities, one of the big four brokerage houses and Takugin’s lead underwriter, exactly a week later, had on the national psyche in Japan’s annus horribilis of 1997. The aftermath of the Bubble had been festering on the fringes of finance for a while but the problems appeared to be confined to semi-respectable specialists in mortgage lending known as “jusen” or to second-tier regional banks of little national significance. Although the stock market was in the doldrums and land prices were continuing to sag, it seemed possible to many ordinary people that, while there had indeed been a Bubble, its effects had been localized and the economy was getting back on its feet, if in fits and starts. The failures of Takugin and Yamaichi shattered these illusions. In the immaculately groomed socioeconomic order of post-war Japan, bank failures were simply inconceivable. The cancer of the Bubble had metastasized to the vital organs of business life.

How badly was Hokkaido really affected by the collapse of its largest bank? That’s a difficult question to which to assign a quantitative answer from this distance, temporal and spatial. The response of the media was predictably shallow—a big bank failure must be a calamity. The Washington Post reported from Hokkaido in June 1998:

Japanese legislator Shizuo Sato is well aware that foreign leaders, economists and investors are pleading for Japan to bolster its ailing financial system by closing or merging its sick banks.

But Sato recently received a message just as compelling from a panicked hospital manager: The hospital is in financial trouble because it hasn’t been able to find a lender since the failure in November of Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, the biggest Japanese bank ever to go bust. And the hospital manager is just one of many borrowers who have complained to Sato, a 56-year-old member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as he has traveled across the island of Hokkaido recently.

“Everywhere I go, every meeting, I hear owners of companies, and wives of businessmen, and parents of those who work for companies who were hurt” when Hokkaido Takushoku Bank collapsed, Sato said.

Business Week was near to hysteria in May 1998, in an article titled “The crisis hits home in Hokkaido”:

For a look at how badly the Japanese crisis can affect the lives of ordinary citizens, just head for Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The failure of Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, the dominant local bank, has dealt a devastating blow to the island’s already fragile economy. And its citizens now worry that public works projects in their prefecture may soon dry up, as the central government in Tokyo runs out of funds.

The squeeze already is bad. According to Teikoku Databank, a Tokyo-based credit research organization, 974 Hokkaido companies folded in the past fiscal year ending in March, up 25.7% from 1997. “Hokkaido’s current crisis is the severest one in its history,” says Yasuyuki Yanagisawa, manager of Teikoku Data Bank’s Sapporo branch. “And one sees no sign of a rebound.”

A more measured academic response suggests that the impact of Takugin’s disappearance was not that profound; as it was Hokkaido’s most prestigious bank, it had a lot of blue-chip clients that found it relatively straightforward to establish banking relationships with other banks, and the handover to the North Pacific Bank was handled seamlessly.

Taking the macro view, Cabinet Office statistics on prefectural economies indicate that Hokkaido’s real gross product contracted by 2.5% in FY3/98, the fifth worst prefectural performance, but it rebounded to register growth in FY3/99, when 21 prefectures out of Japan’s 47 contracted. Over the longer run, Hokkaido’s real gross product shrank by 2.5% in the decade between FY3/97 and FY3/07, the latest year for which data are available, and was the only prefecture to record a decline, although the disappearance of Takugin can only have played a modest role in this baleful record.

Kabuto Decom subsidiary Apex finally went belly up in March 1998; Hotel Apex Toya, which had been renamed the Windsor Hotel Toya, was left in the hands of the administrators and closed its doors. It was bought in 2000 by security services firm Secom forY6bn, less than a tenth of the total cost of construction, reopening after refurbishment in 2002. It’s a member of a loose consortium of several hundred of the Leading Hotels of the World, where it hobnobs in the company of the Hotel de Crillion in Paris, the Ritz in London, and the Hotel Cipriani in Venice. Without seeing the books, it’s hard to say in anything other than an impressionistic way whether it’s thriving or merely surviving, but the foggy day I was there the car park was packed and the foyer bustling if not abuzz. The hotel is reputed these days to draw heavily for its guests from the well-heeled nouveau riche of the Sinosphere but I heard mostly Japanese being spoken. Rates are roughly Y35,000-Y60,000 ($375-$645) for a room and Y60,000-Y100,000 ($645-$1,075) for a suite. Fancy indulging yourself with a night the 500m2 Grand Presidential Suite in peak season? That’s Y1,386,000 ($14,900) a night, please. Well, it is at least five times the size of a generously proportioned Tokyo apartment; on the other hand, stay there for three months and you could buy that generously proportioned Tokyo apartment outright.

So what is the hotel actually like? The final 50m or so of the driveway to the front entrance is covered, and this is the scene greeting those guests lucky enough to be stepping out of their limousines.

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The atrium, which overlooks the spot where many of the G8 press conferences took place, is discreetly inoffensive in its restrained opulence.

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Up on the second floor, I stumbled across a restaurant whose name struck me as very out of keeping with the environs.

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To my knowledge, the UK was never subjected to the joys of the 1960s schlock TV serial “Gilligan’s Island”, but I’ve spent just enough of my adult life around North Americans to know that there was a desperate brand mismatch occurring here. Take a minute or two here to acquaint yourself with the intro if you’re not a familiar with the series and you’ll begin to understand why.

What on earth were they thinking? What did the US delegation to the G8 summit make of it? Did eternal frat boy George W. Bush have the sign pointed out by aides and break into gusty Texan guffaws? Sadly the annals of history will in all probability remain forever silent on this score.

Did the assembled leaders of the free (and in the case of Russia, not so free) world have any inkling of the tortured birth pangs and struggle for survival in infancy of the resort at which they were lodging, I wondered. My private bet would be that the only ones in the know would have been the Japanese delegation and that this particular full tub’s worth of dirty laundry stayed firmly off the washing line.

That was it, sadly, for me and the Windsor Hotel, although I hope to renew our acquaintance sometime.

Kabuto Decom president Shigeru Sato, who was only 44 when the Bubble burst in 1990, was somehow found not guilty of forgery by the Sapporo High Court in August 1999, and didn’t stick around long thereafter: an unsubstantiated but somehow entirely believable Internet site run (I assume) by a Sato victim alleges that soon after the verdict he fled to Hawaii with a new wife, having ferreted a couple of billion yen to the US over the years, and has been quietly building a property empire on the islands and the West Coast over the last decade.

Like Sato, Kabuto Decom proved to be a survivor; for reasons that are to me utterly unfathomable, the company lingers on as a shell. According to its FY3/08 securities filing, it had sales of Y12mn or so and net liabilities not yet dealt with of around Y422bn (approximately $4.5bn).

The former directors of Takugin were not so lucky. The Resolution and Collection Corporation, which inherited the bank’s liabilities, went after them with a vengeance; the five civil lawsuits brought against them ended up in front of Japan’s Supreme Court, and in January 2008, the court ordered the directors, including former Takugin boss Hiroshi Yamauchi (80), to pay Y5bn in compensation for the Kabuto Decom debacle; in total 13 Takugin executives face Y10.1bn in compensation claims. The criminal cases, in which certain directors face jail terms of up to two and a half years, despite their advanced age, are in the final stages of Supreme Court appeal. We are approaching the 12th anniversary of the demise of Takugin; justice delayed, Japanese style, is justice denied.

The biggest loser, though, was the Japanese taxpayer; combing through the footnotes of the FY3/09 annual report of the Deposit Insurance Corporation, one of the principal organizations charged with the wet-towel wiping up of the deposits of the Bubble, in conjunction with my friendly bank analyst, reveals that the cost to the Japanese state (i.e., taxpayer, eventually) of the demise of Takugin was approximately: Y1,763,100,000,000. The number doesn’t even fit on the screen of my pocket calculator. Let’s try again. Y1.76trn. Let’s now put that into dollars at today’s rate: $19.1bn. A manageable enough amount, then.

Like the anti-globalization Canutes and single-issue obsessives around the planet, the Japanese media have a touchingly naïve belief in the relevance of G8 summits, as if bringing the frightened pilots of the countries that count and a hodgepodge of assorted other luminaries together for a hobnob gabfest jamboree over three days at an estimated cost of Y60bn (over $600mn) is going to do either great good or great damage, and they whip themselves into a particular frenzy whenever the hoopla is held in Japan. The summit’s peroration was a communiqué of excruciating length and banality (“We are determined to continuously take appropriate actions, individually and collectively, to ensure stability and growth in our economies and globally”) and which was almost immediately overtaken by events: “Financial market conditions have improved somewhat in the past few months”…

Ahead of the summit, the usual boosters oozed confidence that the summit’s halo effect would produce untold benefits for the local economy, although it’s hard to conceive what kind of freaks—apart from me, of course—would choose their holiday destination based on past G8 summit venues. Tetsuo Kuboyama, president of the hotel management company Windsor Hotels International and something of a legendary hotelier, spurned the skeptics in a Japan Times interview, portraying the hoopla as “an opportunity for the entire region to gain experience in serving discriminating foreign guests”. The Japan Times in May 2007 reported that “the Hokkaido Economic Federation recently estimated that the G8 summit will generate economic effects worth 37.9 billion yen for the region in the five years following the event”.

Tourism around Lake Toya ground to a halt, however, in the face of a massive security operation in the weeks leading up to the summit, and when the books were closed on FY3/09, Toyako tourist numbers were actually down 10% versus the previous year, hit supposedly by the surge in gasoline prices and a 40% drop-off in foreign tourists due to the financial crisis and the strength of the yen. “We didn’t expect at all (that the figures) would drop below the level of the previous year,” one Toyako official said. “It’s beyond our imagination.”

I swung one last time through the slumbering streets of Toyako Onsen before pulling east then south away from the lake through the coastal city of Date (1980 population, 36,309, estimated 2009 population 37,044, projected 2035 population 28,745) and on to my second and final appointment of the day, the clapped-out steeltown of Muroran.

[with thanks to H.N.]