Tripods are for Pussies

Iceland, where elves and volcanoes meet a high-tech viking society with a history that blends into myth. I visited for 4 days, and I was enchanted.

I went to Iceland because my partner has always wanted to go to Iceland, and I was in London for two weeks for work so it seemed like a good idea for us to go. Of course, I’d also heard things about Iceland as inspiration for myth and legend, and as perhaps the last living repository of the kind of stories that inspired Tolkien. Iceland is a christian society, but it’s clear as well that the Icelandic people retain a strong connection with their folklore, and like all successful implementations of christianity, the Icelandic church has made sure that it appropriates, or deals flexibly with, the pre-christian forces in Icelandic culture. I don’t think you can go past the excellent documentary Screaming Masterpiece as an example of the careful blend of the fantastic and the religious in shaping Icelandic culture (in this case, their music), and the result of all this blending is a fascinatingly different island that on the surface is completely accessible to your average uncultured Australian – everyone speaks English, the place looks and behaves like a chilly version of an Australian country town[1], even the landscape is strangely familiar – but is at the same time intoxicatingly different.

Here are a few of my observations on Iceland, based on four days in the country (and thus thoroughly authoritative) with pictures.

Icelanders do Churches Better than You

Could you pray here?

The Churches in Iceland are amazing. I’m guessing this is a unique combination of the nordic sense of design, the Pagan sense of the joy of devotion (as opposed to its dour protestant alternative) and a peculiar Icelandic appreciation of the joys of light and airy spaces. The main church in Reykjavik is a joy to behold, and also has an amazing organ; but I passed many other beautiful churches in Iceland during my brief time there. The stained glass depicted below is from Skaraholt, the church that the bishop of Iceland occupied for many years before he moved to Iceland, and this is now rebuilt as a cultural monument; it is designed in every way to maximize the light available to its worshippers.

Icelandic Disco Jesus wants You, Baby

When I go to London I’m always struck by the difference between Britain and other Northern European countries – British people squat in the cold dark eating their own young, while Scandinavians build houses with enormous windows to catch every bit of available light, and also make good coffee by default – and Iceland has extended this tradition to churches. British churches are splendid in their architecture, but dark and cold and silent (and sometimes grim) inside; Icelandic churches are not so splendid (though their design is beautiful) but they are brilliant and airy inside. I blame this on the elves.

A Land on the Edge of the Earth

You genuinely feel, in Iceland, that you are on the edge of the world. You could go the same distance away from the equator in the opposite direction, to New Zealand, and you will feel like you’re in a country that isn’t, to quote a great man, on the raggedy edge. But Iceland is a country where you really feel like civilization stops beyond your porch. It’s the kind of country where anything imported is genuinely expensive, where the population is so small that they endure monopolies (including import monopolies!) on products we take for granted. A country that could not grow its own fruit until the 1930s, when they designed their first geothermally heated greenhouses. This is a country that has traditionally eschewed the death penalty, because the worst possible penalty to an Icelander is exile – in Iceland, exile means you take ship for a new land or you die.

A Parliament So Old it is Myth

Cast your vote into the rift

Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, was formed in 980 AD, and is the oldest extant parliament on earth. The early years of the parliament are recorded in the Book of Settlements, a book so unreliable that scholars have rejected its description of Iceland’s natural environment; the parliament itself is so old that no one is 100% sure of where the famous Law Rock was placed, though they have a good idea. For the rest of the world, this is like not knowing where the Speaker of Parliament sits, or where the president lives. And democracy was no easy task for the early Icelanders, either: the parliament was held every year in the gap between the Asian and American tectonic plates, in a gradually sinking zone called the Thingvellir, which was in the geographical centre of Iceland but was a good two weeks’ march from many communities. How’s that for getting out the vote!

A Land of Astounding Vistas

When glaciers run to the sea

The countryside in Iceland is breathtaking, and very changeable. It has deserts of volcanic rock, plains of lichen, little forests of stunted and hardy trees, mountains, glaciers, farmlands and waterfalls all in a few hours drive. The open spaces, compounded by the clear air, give the feeling of vast openness that all Australians are familiar with, and some of the colours are the same; but it also reproduces the russets, yellows and reds of a British autumn in its mosses and lichens, with mountains, glaciers and volcanoes glittering icily on the far horizon, further than you’ve ever seen in your life before. This is countryside to inspire legends.

Environmental Purity is Underrated

How's the tranquility?

I had never experienced an environment as pure as Iceland’s before. With such a low population density, and entirely renewable energy, as well as Atlantic winds to carry away vehicle fumes, Iceland’s air and water is clean in a way that most of the rest of the world has probably forgotten is possible. You can see further than you thought possible on a sunny day, and the rivers and streams are so clear they’re almost not there. There’s also very little noise in most of the country I explored – just you and the sky, and the ever-present wind. I think until you experience a genuinely pure environment, you don’t realize what you’ve been missing – just as, until you experience a genuinely low-crime society you don’t realize how horrible living with the threat of crime really is.

Role-playing Inspirations

All of these properties make Iceland a really inspiring place to visit for your average nerd, and also a very useful source of ideas and source material. I’ll be revisiting this in a subsequent post…


fn1: minus the restrictive gender stereotypes and dogs called “blue,” of course[2]

fn2: I should do a blogpost on my Australian Deliverance moment, really

I made two trips to see the Northern Lights, because the first was unsuccessful. During the first, unsuccessful trip, our guide was a cheerful middle-aged Icelander who seemed to have a great love for the Northern Lights. Our tour guides on both nights gave us an explanation of the science underlying the phenomenon and on the first night our guide was particularly interested in explaining the details. He was halfway through describing the role sunspots play in generating charged particles when our bus passed a pair of large rocks on the side of the road, and he broke off his explanation to tell us about the other half of Icelandic natural lore, with a tale of the elves who lived in the rocks.

The elves and the motorway
When the motorway was built it was only two lanes wide, so in the ’70s it had to be widened. The process of widening the road would have put the two huge rocks squarely in the median strip between the two sides of the road, and this would be a huge problem. The rocks were home to a couple of elves, and it would be unseemly to expect them to cross the motorway. The rocks would have to be moved. So, as any sensible road-building company would, the engineers called in a local resident with knowledge of elves, and she (?) gave them the advice they needed to move the rocks outside the motorway in a sufficiently respectful manner. Our guide explained to us that “only” about 20% of Icelanders believe in elves, but the rest of Icelandic society respects this belief and try wherever possible to be respectful around places where elves are believed to live “as if we were in someone else’s garden.”

He then went on to explain the effect of charged particles on the excitation states of atoms, and the role of valence band transition in determining the colour of the aurora. Once he had got through that he gave some theories the Icelandic people came up with to explain the aurora before the advent of atomic science. They actually came charmingly close: one theory held that the aurora was caused by glaciers re-radiating light captured during the day. But my favorite theory, which he explained on the way home, links the aurora with the milky way and Viking religion, and I think includes a much nicer explanation for the milky way than the greeks gave us.

The winter road
Icelanders call the milky way the “winter road,” because it is only visible in winter. This is because of the high longitude, but actually when we saw it the milky way was stunning, really like a road paved with stars rather than a faint smattering of stars (of course you can’t see it at all in Tokyo[1]). So the early Vikings saw this and imagined that the Winter Road was the path that their warriors took to Valhalla. They then guessed that the Valkyrie met the warriors halfway, and the Northern Lights are the reflection of the valkyrie’s radiance from the warriors’ armour.

I think that’s much more romantic than milk sprayed from a jealous goddess’s breast. Iceland itself is a romantic, wild and majestic place, and its history seems to merge with myth in some ways, lending its politics and culture a similar air of romance. I’ll be saying more about this soon, and also talking about historical Iceland as a role-playing setting.

fn1: actually the clarity of light in Iceland and the purity of the water really is stunning, and has me thinking that we who live in more polluted countries really underestimate the value of clean air. In the debate about nuclear power, for example, opponents of nukes tend to assign clean air a very low value in their arguments, even though air pollution is a significant cause of mortality. Iceland with it’s entirely renewable power system, low population density, and atlantic winds to blow away car exhausts, has incredibly clean air and water, and it’s noticeable as soon as you arrive here. It’s amazing, actually.

Yesterday (2:46pm) one week elapsed since the earthquake of north eastern Japan wiped out  a large portion of the eastern seaboard and threw half of Japan into (orderly) chaos. This post is a roundup of some of the things that have happened in that time, as seen from inside Japan. As foreign media become increasingly detached from reality, and information about events here goes through more and more permutations across news services, I thought it might be a good idea to give a perspective based on what the media within Japan, and those Japanese people I know, are seeing and saying about the disaster. This is all being digested safely from my armchair in my partner’s house in steamy Beppu, but I’m returning to the thick of it (well, to Tokyo) tomorrow. As always, some of this information is based on my understanding of Japanese newscasts so needs to be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of it is from TV reports so unreferenced.

Commemoration Ceremonies

Workplaces and institutions across Japan paused yesterday at the moment of the quake to commemorate the destruction. In some cities in the affected areas sirens rang out for the duration of the pause. These moments were in some instances filmed and broadcast, and afterward visibly moved participants were interviewed. Everyone is well aware of how momentous this moment of destruction was.

Graduation Ceremonies

Schools around Japan are holding their graduation ceremonies this week, and in a much more somber tone than is usual. In the earthquake-affected region the students are unable to attend proper ceremonies because the halls have been destroyed or pressed into use for evacuees; they can’t wear kimonos or suits because they have no possessions, and no kimono shops are open. So we have seen footage of students receiving their graduation certificates wearing tracksuits, in their classrooms rather than in front of their peers in a big hall. These have been very emotional and somber events, with even the school principal crying in his speech in one televised event (I cannot imagine an event serious enough to make my school principal show any emotion, let alone tears). Graduation ceremonies always involve some star student making a speech about the future, but this year’s have a grim cloud hanging over them that gives those speeches new meaning. Some universities in Tokyo have postponed or rescheduled graduation ceremonies, especially if they involve many foreign students who are delaying their return to the country.

Rolling blackouts

Tokyo and other parts of Eastern Japan have been subject to rolling blackouts and requests for reduction in energy use to allow the power system to cope with the simultaneous loss of six reactors. Mostly these blackouts have been cancelled at the last minute, because energy conservation has been sufficient, but it has led to reduced opening hours for shops, and the energy conservation has disrupted the transport system, so many people are staying home. This is why I am in Beppu; given 4 days’ leave to work from home, I figured I could do it from somewhere a little more geologically reliable – right now it’s better to be in the neighbourhood of a dormant volcano than an active fault [aren’t the geographical choices facing Japanese people just great?]

Foreign Panic

The foreign media being somewhat overhyped about the whole thing, and some governments rather overly panicky – especially about radiation – there has been a lot of panic amongst foreign residents of Japan and their families overseas. Beyond the messages of concern [thanks everyone, much appreciated!] many foreigners have been receiving desperate pleas from family to leave. Americans, particularly, seem to be vulnerable to this (what is CNN showing over there?) I know of one American living in Beppu who has fled the country even though she is 1000 kms from the danger zone, and several others who are being bombarded with panicky pleas from their family in the US. Britain has laid on charter flights to evacuate Brits from Tokyo, and the US has suggested an 80km exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plants (which, wisely, the Japanese have not bothered to implement). The Australian government has been more measured, suggesting merely that Australians avoid visiting Tokyo due to disruptions in essential services, the threat of aftershocks, and possible radiation hazards. The WHO on the other hand says that there is no reason to avoid visiting Tokyo or to leave.

Many foreigners are desperately scrambling to leave the country, so there is a 6 hour wait at the immigration department in Tokyo for re-entry permits, the airports are clogged and tickets are hard to find. Even in Osaka… Others are just popping out to Korea for a few days, though how this will help protect them from a radiation menace they think will stretch as far as Beppu I don’t know…

Social Media

Social media have come to the fore as agents for the dissemination of clear and useful information in this disaster, and for helping people remain in contact. Facebook posts an information header on the pages of all Japanese users, in 4 possible languages, giving up to date information on blackouts, train schedules, and other information. It also actively combats rumour and panic, putting up advisories on inaccurate chain emails and panic shopping. They also put up a very informative report on a meeting between the British ambassador in Tokyo and the UK Chief Scientist, dispelling many myths about radiation. Sadly, the British Foreign Office isn’t reading a Japanese facebook.

Facebook has also been useful for keeping in contact with each other and overseas contacts. My friend in Iwaki was able to tell everyone about his survival in one sentence through facebook, after his phone charge died; another friend changed his profile picture to a map of Japan, showing clearly how far he was from the Fukushima power plant, so his US friends and relatives could get some context.

Skype has offered every Japanese account holder 25 free minutes to contact relatives, and the Japanese social networking site Mixi is offering both an information page and organizing fundraising for the disaster victims. Social media have been excellent in their handling of this crisis.

Work and Social Disruption Outside the Disaster Zone

Because it’s so hard to move around Tokyo at the moment, many shops are closed or running on reduced electricity, and the town has a very different feeling to three weeks ago when I arrived. The usual frantic pace of partying and shopping has died down. Many people are working from home, and my colleagues are treating the workplace as a dangerous excursion, with only two staff members going in once a day. No one wants to be far from home when the aftershock comes. Many large businesses have shut down for the week, and/or have rejigged their activities to send support to the North. The whole country has been submerged into a sombre mood, in which the frivolous ordinary lifestyle of a week ago has been, at least partly, suspended.

Corporate support

Big companies make up the backbone of Japanese economic life, and they have responded rapidly to the disaster. Yamaha alone is sending 500 diesel generators into the disaster zone, and another company 1000; NEOS Gasoline have sent a fleet of tankers to carry petroleum, and many agricultural coops and smaller supermarkets have scrambled to reopen shops in disaster-struck towns. Throughout the tsunami zone since Tuesday, shops have been slowly reopening to try and resupply the locals. Nonetheless, the shattered infrastructure and blocked roads have made it hard to get any help into the area quickly. The government has even released stocks of salt from its strategic salt reserve [who knew countries had such things?] to help with the production of food. Many smaller companies are donating stocks to disaster coordination agencies and prefectural governments (individuals have been told not to do this), or sending skilled workers. Particularly, prefectural government staff have been sent from across the country to help with coordinating disaster efforts.

Cold Weather and Floods

After the tsunami came a cold snap that drove temperatures across Japan below zero. Here in steamy Beppu night-time temperatures were forecast to hit -2, and in the affected area -4. This came with heavy snow in the North. On top of this, the Spring Tide season started yesterday, leading to 8 days of above-average tide levels. The earthquake apparently lowered the coastal land by 40cm in the affected area, so tides are going to be particularly high this year and will probably inundate inland areas that would otherwise be safe. In some places the tsunami actually destroyed cities’ typhoon wave barriers – huge constructions of reinforced concrete that were smashed into pieces like lego blocks, further weakening coastal resistance to high tides and heavy weather. This is going to be a huge reconstruction task.

Evacuation, starvation and nuclear panic

Some tens of people have died in or during movement to evacuation centres, largely through the cold or lack of access to proper medicines. The self defence forces found one hospital in the exclusion zone of the power plant that had been abandoned by staff, with some 6 patients already dead. With no power supplies and limited transport in or out, some hastily-established evacuation centres have received no medicine before Friday. On Friday I saw an interview with a nurse who was the only medical professional in an ad hoc evacuation centre in a school, that had been formed by the local city office. They had no power, no lights, and only the medicine they could scrounge up from the immediate vicinity; and no way to get in or out for more. This nurse had spent 6 days managing the health complaints of 200 or so evacuees – including injuries – while waiting for some kind of help to get through. She had organized medical charts, lists of needed medicines, and treatment regimens as best she could, but had obviously run out of everything she needed by Friday, when the first self defence force supplies reached her. In the interview she was composed but clearly at the end of her tether. Can you imagine being forced to take responsibility for such a task, with nothing more at your disposal than your own ingenuity?

I think that the evacuation and resupply task has been made much harder by the nuclear panic, because people leaving the areas are clogging roads, and people unable to leave are scared to go outside to find the support material they need. Not to mention the occasional moments of callous terror evidenced in people abandoning their patients during evacuation. A more reasonable approach to nuclear terror is needed, I think. Which brings us to…

The Fukushima Power Plant

I have left this to last because of the controversy surrounding it in the international press. Eight days on, it still hasn’t entered a meltdown, and according to the WHO radiation levels outside the 30km exclusion zone are not harmful to health. On Thursday the self defence forces started water bombing it, and on Friday the fire department and defence forces started spraying it with water, including using special appliances from Tokyo that can spraydown into the containment vessel. Radiation inside the plant is high and there are concerns for the workers there, but it’s not out of control yet, and workers are not sent back to the reactor after they exceed 150 milliseiverts.

A professor interviewed on NHK this morning revealed that the design plans for Japanese reactors don’t cover an event of this magnitude, and no one had envisaged such a catastrophic failure, which basically consists of the complete destruction of all infrastructure within 50km, that is a collapse of the external electricity grid as well as all functioning roads and support services. I have heard that the reactor was built to withstand 8m waves, but the waves that hit it were well above that, and delivered with considerably more force than the reactor was designed for. Nonetheless all 6 plants are still standing, and 2 are in relatively good condition. And although they hadn’t planned for damage of this magnitude, the reactor team did a drill in November last year that involved patching in power from an external grid; they’re using this drill to set up the current external power supply, only they have to run power cables from high tension lines some distance from the plant (the only lines intact after the event). This isn’t a trivial task, since presumably they will have to find a transformer in the wreckage.

The description of the repair task being undertaken, given on TV this morning, was terrifying. All the pumps and electrical gear in the plants were submerged by the wave, and destroyed, so they need to repatch the electrical systems and then repair pumps; but repairing pumps requires getting power into them to diagnose problems. So they have 20 staff working in the least damaged reactors (1 and 2, I think), in the dark, wearing heavy protective gear, frantically trying to restore electrical function in heavily damaged equipment. This has to be done at a fast pace because they can only work there for 8 or 10 hours before they reach their radiation limit and have to be taken out. They also have to pause when the spraying of damaged plants would interfere with cable laying or cleanup.

It’s worth bearing in mind that before repairs could begin, cleanup had to happen. Before equipment could reach them, roads had to be cleared; before cables could be laid, places to lay them to had to be found and water had to drain away.

A lot of the foreign media have panicked over this situation and made a lot of accusations of poor planning, incompetence and confusion on the part of the company, as well as unclear communication by the authorities. The unclear communication is primarily coming from overseas (especially the Americans and the French, including some melodramatic poet in charge of EU energy policy who described it as an “apocalypse” – a phrase I think would be particularly insulting to a country that has seen more clearly than any other what nuclear apocalypse could actually look like). If one listens to Edano san, the PM’s spokesperson, he is being very clear and direct about the situation, which remains – despite the angstridden claims of the foreign press – largely under control, though not yet fixed, 8 days after it started.

As for poor planning – this plant was built 40 years ago, when the biggest quake ever to happen in the area was a 7.3 magnitude. It was designed to withstand 8m tsunami waves, but has survived much larger waves capable of throwing boats on top of schools. I don’t think that there would be a chemical plant or nuclear reactor on earth whose disaster plan includes a section on how to handle the complete destruction of infrastructure surrounding the plant, loss of all road transport facilities, swamping of all repair and support facilities onsite, and inability to bring in new staff for several days (or even food!) Under the circumstances, the staff on that site have done well, and we should all be very impressed by them. Plus, we should remember that radiation leaks from a plant like this aren’t that dangerous, even if it melts down, and focus on the real dangers in this situation – the huge numbers of people who are at risk of illness, hunger and exposure because a massive wave wiped out whole towns and cities.

And we should ask ourselves just how ghoulish the press are being in this situation, with their fixation on a disaster that hasn’t happened, in hopes (?) of having a compound tragedy to report on. Panic merchants and liars, in the circumstances, is my judgment.

This is the story of my flight from Tokyo. On Monday my University decided it would be easier and safer for us all to stay home because the municipal government had introduced rolling power cuts (5 hours a day!) and the train system had switched to electricity conservation mode, which meant queues of two hours to get onto trains.  Getting to work was hard and with aftershocks still rolling by (there were two significant ones while I tried to sleep on Monday night) nobody thought it would be particularly safe to be traveling to and from work. So we were told to work from home. I realized at this point that working from home can be done just as well from my partner’s home in Beppu, where I was living before – well away from earthquakes, nuclear fallout and even Godzilla (if the fallout heads over the sea). So, on Tuesday I left Tokyo for distant Beppu.

Of course I took the Japanese internally displaced person’s preferred mode of evacuation – the shinkansen (bullet train). I chose this means for several reasons – prices don’t change depending on time before the booking, you can pay for a non-reserved ticket that can be used anytime (very handy for evacuations, especially if you want to have a coffee before you get on the train), you don’t have to do the hour-and-a-half trek across town to the airport (or arrive early), and the shinkansen rocks.

By Tuesday morning Tokyo was in nothing like the state I had expected. On Monday night the rolling blackouts were canceled, and when I got to Kichijoji station at 11am it was as silent as any normal day in Tokyo. The only slightly unusual thing I saw was intense activity in the local supermarkets, but this was probably as much due to their restricted hours (10 to 4pm instead of 9am to 1am) as any panic buying. Everything appeared to be operating normally, though some convenience stores were slightly less well lit. I suspect that the energy conservation needs were met by the many big businesses that have shut down this week, and the train system running on a reduced timetable, plus individuals’ efforts, and the blackouts were no longer necessary.

So, onto my train I hopped, and off to Tokyo station to find my steel salvation. Not that I felt very much in need of salvation, and actually I was feeling twinges of guilt about leaving Tokyo as I passed through a completely normal day with the intention of “working from home” on the other side of the country.

But all that changed when I reached Tokyo station, the shinkansen departure point, which was thronged with people all sharing one goal – to get out. I saw it as soon as I arrived – huge queues at the shinkansen ticket booth, perhaps a hundred or more people in each, plus a constant queue 3 deep at every ticket vending machine, as thousands of people descended on Japan’s fastest escape route on a Tuesday midday. Where usually the station would be quiet, and the shinkansen counter being visited primarily by groups of businessmen or little groups of pretty ladies-who-lunch off on a day trip (perhaps Haiku writing, or off to some seasonal event) today it was packed with families, with children and pets, waiting to buy their exit tickets. There were many foreigners also trying to find tickets, and most telling of all the Japanese were carrying their luggage with them. Usually when a Japanese family go on a trip, they plan ahead and arrange a courier to deliver their bags overnight to their destination (this costs about 1200 yen). But this time they clearly hadn’t had time to arrange such niceties, and were dragging their clothes, valuables and pets with them on the train. This, I am sure, is the first and clearest sign of genuine panic.

But panic there was not, with everyone going about their evacuation business in the calm, orderly way in which Japanese people do everything. Nobody jumped queues, people apologized for moving through your queue if it was in their way, and everybody waited patiently while the person in front of them struggled with the vending machines. There were many staff yelling instructions, so in that strange way that Japan does, where everyone is quiet and goes about their business calmly against a backdrop of strident business-like yelling, things proceeded merely as if it were the start of the long national holidays. The staff at the station – barring one idiot – were calm and reassuring, and everything happened with ease.

First I asked a polite young lady for lockers, and put my luggage out of my way, then I went to the exit from the station and asked an extremely agitated and ignorant older man if I could buy a ticket outside the station. He said no, I would have to go back inside the station to the shinkansen counter and wait with the other million people to buy my ticket. I foolishly believed him, and spent the next 20 minutes trying to find the right queue, and then trying to operate the vending machines (I’m no fool but I couldn’t even get the English language version to produce a ticket). Worrying about spending all my available cash on the wrong ticket, I asked a helpful station chap what to do and he told me “there’s a ticket shop right outside the gate – it’ll be quieter there!” I think he even patted me on the back. So I toddled out past the idiot who had misdirected me before, turned left and found a completely empty ticket counter, with noone waiting. It was quiet, airconditioned, calm, a few people using the machines… so my ticket purchase took all of a total of 25 minutes – 20 minutes of confusion, 4 minutes of ticket purchase[1], and 1 minute of helping an extremely rude American woman ask questions of the staff, for which she did not even thank me.

So, having booked a ticket, off I went to get lunch, and here again I found signs of chaos. I went to the “Soup Stock Tokyo” to get curry rice, and the staff said to me – very apologetically – that they had run out of rice and were cooking more and could I wait half an hour? This was the middle of the lunch-hour rush. How could a shop catering to the lunch hour rush in Tokyo have run out of rice? This was a Japanese version of the cheese-shop skit. So I found myself, on a normal Tuesday afternoon in Tokyo, eating bread. Nonetheless, I found a relaxing cafe, took in the subterranean Tokyo atmosphere, and then plunged back into the chaos of the station to find my 13:30 train.

The train arrived on time, was prepped on time, and we all got in and found our seats. Next to me was an Italian chap, his Japanese girlfriend and their slobbery shitzuh dog, which looked at me with wizened eyes and rasped its slobbery rasp from inside its carry bag. The Italian told me that his embassy had advised him “If you can’t leave Japan head South” so he and his girlfriend were fleeing to Kyoto without a plan. But with a dog. Her relatives lived in Fukushima and she spent the entire train ride trying to call them on her mobile – also a big breach of Japanese etiquette, to use a phone in the carriage, but I presume if she made contact she was going to dash out of the carriage, and in any case everyone would surely forgive her. Apparently her relatives were safe but refusing to leave.

For those who have never had the singular pleasure of flying across the countryside on elevated rails, watching vast swathes of mountain and city flash by like they were Made In Dream, Japanese Shinkansens have separate carriages for reserved and non-reserved seats[2], with the first three carriages set aside for people without reservations. In rush hour these are like commuter trains, packed with people standing. But today, on a Tuesday afternoon, those carriages were so packed that people flowed over into carriage 4. And unlike a normal commuter morning, they didn’t empty out at Shinagawa or Yokohama – people were standing all the way to Kyoto, a 3 hour trip. More signs that this was an exodus, not a normal travelling day. I had visions of nuclear disaster up north, and JR rendering all carriages into non-reserved, so that every shinkansen leaving Tokyo was speeding through the Spring fog packed to the gunnels with desperate people leaving. There is a shinkansen every 8 minutes – could they empty Tokyo within a day? What a strange contrast to the survivors of previous eras’ disasters, shambling along roads with their possessions on their backs or on makeshift carts.

No, instead we in modern Japan are hurled out of the zone of chaos on metal rails, insulated from the world around us and listening to the calming voice of the announcer asking us only to smoke in the designated rooms and to refrain from talking on mobile phones. And once we were out we all felt that lifting of the spirits that comes with a worry left behind, and indeed once past Shizuoka (where last night there was a magnitude 6 aftershock, that damaged nothing) it was impossible not to be relieved. I walked up to carriage 8 to get a coffee just before Shin-Osaka and saw in every carriage a family with a pet in a cage[3], but once we were past Shin-Osaka the train returned to its normal quiet, nearly empty weekday norm.

And here’s the final beauty of it all … expecting delays in all the panic and confusion, my helpful ticket official at Tokyo station had booked my follow-on train at Kokura with an extra 20 minute wait, to ensure that I didn’t miss it. But everything went so smoothly according to schedule that I was able to catch an earlier connection, and reached Beppu an hour earlier than intended.

Only in Japan can an evacuation train arrive early at its destination …

fn1: for some unfathomable reason, Japan Rail tickets take an age to issue.

fn2: Unlike British trains, where you regularly have to turf someone out of your seat; also unlike British trains, Japanese train doors open from the inside

fn3: It isn’t entirely unusual to see pets on the shinkansen, but more than one in a whole train is weird. I once saw a Russian family with 3 perfect little Russian children carrying two ferrets and a rabbit, but in general one doesn’t see this sort of thing very often. No doubt there is a pet courier service that provides superior comfort and transport quality for one’s precious wan-chan

Well, that wasn’t the experience I had in mind when I came to Japan. I was at work when this little nugget of chaos hit, and the trains immediately stopped so I spent all of yesterday evening (6.5 hours!) walking home, from Hongo to Kichijoji.  The route is in the map above, it’s between 16 and 18 kms (10.8 to 11.1 miles) and takes 3 hours 40 minutes without traffic lights. My experience of the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 1200 years was … a long walk. Anyway, this post will describe events from the moment it struck to my arrival home, with hopefully some observations on Japanese life during the ramble. I’ve set it out in sections for your viewing pleasure and I’m approaching it in a light-hearted manner but let’s not forget that while I’m writing this a handful of cities have been completely destroyed and over a thousand people are still missing…

The Quake

I share an office with 4 women, two of whom were in yesterday and one of whom is rather sensitive where earthquakes are concerned (we had several in the last 2 weeks). We’ve already had enough minor rumbles for me to know that she’s got a very good sense for these things, and so we were all aware the moment the slightest tremor started. We sat at our desks while it got worse and my colleague became increasingly agitated, but the building itself wasn’t moving so much, really. Whenever an earthquake strikes I look out my window and thank my luck, because our building is new, made of very solid stuff and surrounded by a kind of cage of concrete buttresses, which are themselves cross-hatched with huge diagonally-placed steel girders. They weren’t even moving, and things were rattling inside and it was a bit … mobile … but nothing bad. It was certainly not like the video footage of Fukushima. But things kept getting worse so after maybe another 5 or 10 seconds the women in my office broke for the door, and we saw other staff rushing by outside. Since I don’t know much about earthquake safety, and figured that Tokyo people know best, I followed. This is sufficient both to show that a lifetime’s exposure to safety information isn’t necessarily particularly effective (as you’ll see, we should have stayed!) and to illustrate how long and devastating this earthquake was. We are on the 5th floor of the Medicine faculty building, and before we left we grabbed our coats and bags (!) – I forgot my bag at the door and went back for it. We then had to walk down the corridor and down 5 flights of stairs, along the corridor and through the (still-functioning) automatic doors, and out under a massive concrete verandah(!) to the path outside. When we arrived, the ground was still rocking, and the earthquake took a few seconds more to subside. I’d say it was more than a minute long (we had to descend those stairs with some care) and it was at its worst when we were halfway down the stairs.

So why was going outside so unwise? First of all because the stairs were not the most negotiable of rocking, twisting obstacle courses, and we could have fallen. But mostly because when we got outside we found ourselves standing in a narrow valley between two 8 storey buildings, with nowhere to run if one collapsed, right next to a truck full of gas bottles. Imagine the timing, if a single bit of concrete set off something in those gas bottles, and wiped out the cream of Tokyo University’s medical faculty so thoroughly that there wouldn’t be enough flesh left to clone them[1].

The Wait

We then engaged in every post-apocalyptic drama’s most tedious part, the wait. Everyone stood around in the cold, trying to get a reception on their phone, while a loud speaker gave us increasingly disturbing news – first it was a magnitude 5, then a magnitude 6, then we discover the whole coast is affected, etc. The ground kept swaying occasionally, and we were all quite scared, so that sometimes you couldn’t tell if it was the ground or your own fevered imagination. At which point you could just check that truck, to see how much the gas bottles were wobbling… until the delivery chap came out wheeling a gas bottle, and tightened the whole lot up. People were wandering around, trying to call loved ones, looking around at the clear cold day and talking about how damnably scary a big earthquake is, and I was looking at that cage of girders and buttresses around our building and thinking, “bravo for Japanese engineering.” Eventually, after about 20 minutes, the loudspeaker informed us that we should all move to an open area and wait for further instructions. Sometime in this period the three women from reception emerged from the building, having taken the much more sensible approach of hiding under their desks while the world wobbled[2].

So off we all went, me and the women from my office at quite a pace, because that gas truck was a bit disturbing. Halfway there another big tremor hit, so you could see all the topiary of the medicine faculty grounds shaking and grooving – had the topiary been dinosaurs and not mere tree-shaping, the effect would have been quite excellent. My colleagues and I decided to move more rapidly at this point, because I have already decided that I intend to die at the wheel of a ferrari during my mid-life crisis, not in a hail of broken glass from the university admin building. So we arrived expeditiously at the centre of the campus, and more standing around ensued. One of the reception staff managed to produce another ingenious Japanese invention – a combined torch and radio – and we listened to increasingly alarming news from up north – a 6m tsunami forecast for Fukushima, all underground trains halted, risk of aftershocks. Which kept coming and coming, so that every few minutes the ground kept shaking.

After another little while two of our colleagues were dispatched to check the building, and the all clear was given. We returned to our offices but no-one was in the mood for work. One of my colleagues walked around distributing water bottles “just in case” and we all spent the afternoon checking the internet. At about 5pm it was decided to leave early, because none of the trains were working, so we were going to have to walk home. With typical Japanese quiet calm, teams were organized, to ensure that the foreign staff who speaks no Japanese could get home, and the completely new guy who doesn’t know Tokyo (i.e. me). One staff member had ordered sushi for a party that was now cancelled, so we ate some sushi and off we went, leaving behind four staff members who live so far away that their only choice was to stay the night in the office.

Disaster Japanese

I should mention at this point that my Japanese is neither good enough to understand Japanese spoken on loud-speakers, nor sufficiently stocked with disaster words. Also, although I can read some Japanese I don’t read nearly enough to be able to navigate information sites quickly, nor can I understand much of radio broadcasts, so I was very much dependent on my colleagues’ support when it came to working out what was happening. I also don’t know anything about Tokyo so had no idea how to get home. My heart goes out to all those people in Japan who don’t speak or read Japanese and found themselves stranded and far from home in such a situation, because it can be bewildering even if most day-to-day conversation is manageable. By the end of the day my colleague who doesn’t speak any Japanese (a British visiting professor) was beginning to get quite frustrated, because even though people translate the essential stuff, when people are scared and confused they naturally exchange a lot of information very rapidly in their mother tongue. Certainly in the shock of the event my Japanese went a little backward, and my sentence construction fragmented. Plus, who prepares the necessary vocabulary for a situation like this in their second language? Who thinks to themselves “I really should learn all the apocalypse words in my second language”? Well, actually, I have learnt a pretty weird vocabulary in my time here, but I’m a nerd. And my weird vocabulary might include monsters, but it doesn’t include words like “evacuation” and “elevated ground”. So, handling a disaster in a second language… not the best way to deal with the situation[3].

The Walk

So we set off, me and two colleagues, for a walk we predicted to take about 3.5 hours. One colleague was separating at Shinjuku, and one at Shin Nagano. At that point I would be on my own, and I had rather sensibly elected not to print a map. Of course, this is Japan so you can guarantee that someone will help you, but I think it should be clear here that I’m not part of that small elite of people who are going to survive the apocalypse. Though I did have good walking shoes (I recommend Whoop-de-doo shoe company for all your apocalyptic footwear needs). We set off at 5:30, and as soon as we emerged from the campus we entered a river of people. As we got closer to Shinjuku station this river widened, like the famous graphic of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow; everyone was heading the same way, towards the huge junctions at Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. The same river was flowing on both sides of the road, and in between us was a river of traffic, all moving very slowly and forced to delay at every crossing as thousands of people crossed the roads. The crowd was cooperative and quiet, as crowds always are in Japan, not pushing or getting in each other’s way even at the stupidly-designed crossing near the Shinjuku rail bridge, where a crowd 10 abreast coming one way hits the same crowd going the other way, at a corner where the pavement is barricaded from the road and narrows to two people in width. Even bicycles negotiated this chokepoint without yells or complaints. People just accepted that we were in this situation, and moved through and past each other with that quiet Japanese manner that makes everything here flow so smoothly.

On the way we passed many things, but one thing we didn’t see was any evidence of earthquake damage, and everyone was chatting and joking as if this were a funny little outing, or a charity walk. At about 8pm everyone in possession of a docomo phone finally got their earthquake warning call (for the 2:40pm earthquake), and there was more joking about this. We didn’t have proper reception so noone could watch TV or receive information, so mostly we didn’t know about the catastrophe unfolding further North. I passed a bicycle shop where a queue of maybe 20 or 30 people were waiting patiently to buy bicycles, the staff frantically trying to assemble and register the bikes as quickly as possible; every macdonalds had huge queues outside as people gathered for food, and all the convenience stores where thronging with people, many queueing for the toilets. Some restaurants had put out signs saying “We have toilets, please use them,” which was a nice touch. Some shops had to close due to damaged stock (particularly the alcohol shops) but most restaurants were open and doing a roaring trade. I saw a cute scene of a man entering a rental car shop to be greeted by a staff member bowing with good-humoured and exaggerated obeisance, to make clear that this time, at least, the lack of available cars was entirely beyond his control. I passed a group of girls standing around their friend, whose feet just weren’t up to the task in her work shoes – I think this must have been a problem for many people. Groups of people were camping out in the rooms where the cash corners are located, some with their laptops out. At Shinjuku I saw the fascinating contrast of twenty or thirty people crouched under a shop entrance, with nowhere to go for the night; in amongst them was a homeless man with his possessions and, of course, his cardboard house, suddenly a prince among paupers as the usual order of Japanese life was turned on its head by nothing more than the collapse of the transport system. But for all of this sea of humanity with its congestions and minor tribulations and difficulties, I didn’t see a single person get in a fight. And no one smoked as they walked. They stopped at the smoking spots before continuing, preserving even the smallest of Japanese manners at this moment of confusion.

All these people of all walks of life converged on Shinjuku, the hosts swaggering through the crowd past salarymen and schoolgirls and office ladies in little elegant gaggles, every tenth person wearing a mask. The traffic was still trapped in gridlock, inching forward, and we were moving much faster. Under the Shinjuku bridge and onward up Blue Plum Road, already 3 hours into our journey and me only halfway home. At Shin Nagano when my colleague left me I bought some hand-warmers (kairo) and stuffed them in my pockets, and kept walking until I stumbled on a cute little cafe, Doggie Boogie Cafe, where I took a break and had what I think is the best Thai food I’ve eaten in a long time. Here I rested for an hour before continuing, and now I walked alongside a pair of office workers who had set off an hour before me from Tokyo station, and had just finished their second break (this one, in the cafe with me, was for booze). They were still cheerful despite 4 hours of walking and 3 more to come, and they and the restaurant owner helpfully directed me to a shortcut to Kichijoji, down Itsukaichi Road. Here I found a bus stop for a bus going to Kichijoji station, but it was 10 pm and the last bus left at 9:20pm. Too bad! I had my ipod on now, and kept walking. At 10:50pm I passed that last bus, stuck in traffic and jammed with people. Further on I found the 9pm bus, stopped at a bus stop, and finally got to see something I have always heard of but never seen – two bus company employees actually pushing passengers into the bus to fit more on. One often sees this on TV but I’ve never seen it in real life, so that’s a Tokyo experience I can tick off… and I’m glad I didn’t have the experience of being pushed onto that bus, because I beat it to Kichijoji station when I arrived at midnight.

So, I finally got home at about quarter past midnight, my only information about the disaster unfolding to the north coming from a single mail from my partner, that arrived during a patchy period of uncongested transmission at about 9pm, telling me it was bad. I have a friend in Iwaki City, which has been partially destroyed and may have to be evacuated due to the nuclear plants; I spent the evening occasionally trying to call him but the reception was impossible. Occasionally mails would reach me from various people, asking if I was okay or telling me they were okay, but this was intermittent. It was just me, alone in the cold neon night amongst a river of a million people just like me. And when I got to Kichijoji at midnight that river was still flowing but I, thankfully, was at the end of my earthquake odyssey and able to find out the true magnitude of the horror unfolding to the north. This morning Tokyo feels just like it did yesterday, as if nothing happened, except for the regular little aftershocks. I think it’s safe to say that this is a very good country to experience a disaster, even if (or maybe especially if) you don’t speak the language. Nonetheless, I’d have happily traded this experience – especially that minute in my office, wondering if I’m about to become a statistic (東京外国人1人死亡)- for a quiet evening with a glass of wine and a book.

fn1: We’re across from the experimental research facility, where they probably have that technology.

fn2: As a general approach to problem-solving, this is probably excellent

fn3: Though I pride myself on understanding all of “A tsunami warning is being broadcast for the Fukushima Prefecture, and all people living in coastal areas should immediately evacuate.”

Would you risk your fate with this man?

On Tuesday I start working at the Tokyo University Department of Global Health Policy as an Assistant Professor, which means that on Sunday I am moving from Steamy Beppu to the City of Light. I will also be returning to full time work after a year working part time and being a househusband.

This means that my Japanese Warhammer 3rd Edition group has broken up, and my Japanese role-playing plans in general have to go on hold until I can find a suitable group in Tokyo. I don’t know how easy that will be. It also means that I’ll have a lot less time for, and material to put into, long posts, so my posting frequency will go down, which is a shame because I’ve been on a bit of a roll recently.

To keep my posting frequency up I may add a new posting series, about bars and restaurants in Tokyo, because I will be exploring them. I may also put in some taste-testing of various Japanese sake, which I’m becoming interested in… we’ll see. It’s a bit off topic but when I go searching for information about Tokyo night life I appreciate other peoples’ views, so maybe someone will appreciate it being here… also there may be some general aspects of Tokyo life to comment on, so the blog may open a little beyond nerd culture to include general big city culture.

I will of course be trying to expand my role-playing horizons in Tokyo – who knows, I may even play in English! – and exploring nerd life a little. There may also be some Harajuku-related material on here too… we’ll see how busy I am. But the move to Tokyo may well indicate a move to a broader focus on Japanese otaku life, hopefully from the perspective of someone at least slightly involved in it. We’ll see. But for the meantime, expect me to post slightly less frequently, and don’t be disheartened.

The miniature at the top of this post was painted by one of my players, Tencho-san. It’s a likeness of me. You can’t see it in the photo but the book has “Master” written on it’s cover, and on the back of the wizard’s jacket is written (混沌東大), which is Japanese shorthand for “Tokyo University Chaos!” This was part of my going-away present, along with the game Make You Fortress and a collection of cards for the game Make You Kingdom, which contain colour cardboard cutouts of all the cute monsters from the game. I really need to play this game at some point…

A report of the last session of the Rats in the Ranks campaign will be going up soon. In the meantime, any particular requests for investigation you would like to see conducted in Tokyo, please let me know in comments (and yes, if I find a used underwear vending machine I will post a photo!)

May Flopsy guide my schemes...

I crawled out into the freezing cold with a hangover today to visit the Asami Shrine in Beppu, to burn my 2010 demon-breaking arrow and purchase a new arrow for 2011. Burning the arrow that symbolizes the year before gives one time to pause and think about what one did in that 365 days, and to think about the year to come. My year to come promises to be busy, but I have a variety of plans I want to put into action in my gaming, research and real lives. Here is a brief outline.

Gaming Plans

Continue the Rats in the Ranks Campaign: My players indicated they want it to continue, and so I’m going to try and play it right through until I work out at what point WFRP 3 breaks. Whether this happens or not I don’t know, but I have a long-term goal for this campaign (or rather, the adversaries I’m controlling have a very distinct long-term goal in Ubersreik, which hopefully my players will discover before everything goes pear-shaped). After that we’ll see where the campaign takes us. It’s fun and my players are good, so let’s see what happens.

Start an Oriental Steampunk sandbox: Based on the one-off Pathfinder adventure I ran last year for a Japanese group, I’ve been thinking for a while now of expanding that into a genuine steampunk (literally!) sandbox. The players from that group have a hook for one more adventure, and from there we could start exploring. I’m thinking of using my ideas for adapting WFRP 3 to steampunk, or even to high fantasy (depending on the direction I want it to go) and just playing along until it gets boring. This will give me the opportunity to get my Japanese players to collaborate in building a semi-oriental/semi-western steampunk world based around a Meiji-era image of the place we are all living in now, with (at the very least!) gnomes.

Introduce the local convention to some English-language-only games: I’m in something of a unique position here to introduce my local Japanese-language gaming convention to untranslated games, and I’m thinking of running a session of WFRP 3 and maybe Exalted for just this reason. Recently a player at the convention said she wanted to play a game “that used loads of dice!” and it occurred to me right then that Exalted was just the game for her. This type of international exchange segues into my biggest possible plan for the year…

Start a TRPG Club at my University: This may seem a bit trivial but it’s actually a plan full of possibilities. My local University has about 100 nationalities of student, many of them nerdy, from all over the world, and they all meet to study and hang out using two languages that I speak – English and Japanese. So these students could bring an untranslated game from their own country – most likely in Thai, Mandarin or Vietnamese, but you never know what else is lurking out there – and run it in a different language for the other students. Or, they could play a game that isn’t translated to their language for a group of their compatriots. This opens up all sorts of options for language and gaming exchange, and a few people I’ve spoken to have been interested, so I’m thinking I might look into doing that this year.

GM Make You Kingdom in English: I’m going to Australia for a few weeks twice this year, and on at least one such occasion I will be in Melbourne, so I’m thinking of inviting regular commenter (and previous player) Paul to join me in a game of Make You Kingdom, translated of course. This depends on me being able to translate the necessary information by the time I go there and also being able to explain the rules for him (and get to Melbourne). I reckon I can do it, and I can even put stuff on this blog. Maybe I can also GM Double Cross 3 at some point too…

All of these plans are going to depend on a few crucial meat-life plans as well, though…

Meat Life Plans

Go to Iceland: I’ve never been and I really want to go. It’s vaguely in the pipeline to do this year, in which case I might pop into filthy scummy London to see some old friends at the same time.

Improve My Japanese: Today I received a New Year’s Card from the Japanese language school in Fukuoka where I did a 6 week intensive last year, and this year I think I’ll be in a position to do skype lessons with them. So, this year I really want to improve my Japanese to the point where I can do the following:

  • Teach Statistics in Japanese: easier than it sounds, but still fiendishly hard
  • Watch TV in Japanese: a lot lot harder than it sounds, and still impossible for me
  • Read a Fantasy novel in Japanese: I may start with A Wizard of Earthsea, because I know it, but from there I want to read Japanese authors. This has always been a big goal of mine in my Japanese study. I have read one novel already, but it was an easy one and really hard work, so at the moment I’m sticking with manga because they have less words and often furigana.

This is obviously an essential meat life goal if I want to be better able to role-play in Japanese. Or just live here happily.

Get fit: I have never been so unfit as I am now, and although my current fitness level is acceptable for a 37 year old, by my standards it’s awful. This year I need to do something about this!

Research Plans

I’ve got a whole research plan written for the next year (it coincides with my starting a PhD through an Australian University), so I aim to do quite a bit of research. This year’s plans are:

An overview of advanced statistical methods for intervention research: Modern research into intervention in health systems requires quite advanced statistical methods, including heirarchical linear models, time series analysis and probability survey research, but combining these can be very challenging. I aim to get a good, solid overview of what is being done in the field and what can’t be done, with the view of using it or improving on it.

Combining heirarchical linear models in Probability surveys: There has to be a way to do this, and I want to work out how. Or alternatively, work out approximations and workarounds to the problem.

Systematize time-dependent difference-in-difference models: Difference-in-difference models are a fancy way for economists to say “linear regression with interaction term” but all the fancy language doesn’t hide the fact that understanding of how to use these models in the health economics literature is remarkably poor. I aim to systematize this, to point out the (trivially obvious) problems in doing this research without considering the time dependent component of the data, and to make recommendations for its application in health services research.

Who knows what trouble this is going to throw up? But that’s my main research goals for the year.

It looks like it may be a busy year for me, but I think I’m going to enjoy it…

Four Wishes at Dusk

On the weekend just been, regular commenter and past player of mine, Paul, and his wife The Indomitable G came to my sleepy resort town at the tale end of a two week tour of Japan. We had heard tell of a minor festival of bamboo lanterns in distant Hita Town, so decided to visit. We rented a car and headed to Hita Town via the excellent Ebisu Hot Spring, where we stopped for an hour long soak and a lunch of delicious noodles and fried chicken. We arrived at Hita itself at about 3pm, to find the town overrun by police, who were directing traffic very officiously. Ominously, when we stopped to ask a uniformed chap the way to the nearest car park, he told us he didn’t know because he was from out of town.

Out of town police? What could possibly be going on? Upon inquiring at a convenience store we discovered that Crown Prince Naruhito would be passing through Hita Town on his way to an international wheelchair marathon in a nearby town[1]. By the time we found this out, groups of Japanese spectators with Rising Sun flags were gathering at suitably spaced cordons, guarded by police (including some – universally very handsome and quite macho – wearing caps emblazoned with a riot police logo). These police were giving instructions in an extremely polite tone to the gathered crowds, such as “please do not press beyond this rope barrier, as cars are coming through here – thank you very much for your cooperation” and “papa! Papa! Please step down from that wall!” (to the giggles of everyone in the crowd). So we decided to join the crowds and wait for the Crown Prince to pass.

After 10 minutes or so our responsible cop told us that two cars would pass us by, one with a “3” written on the side and one with a “1” on it. These would indicate that the Crown Prince was 3 and then 1 minute away from us, so we could prepare our waves. One policeman had his batch of crowd practice their waves, but we weren’t so lucky as to receive drill training. In fact, I think the two cars were not two minutes apart as promised, and then were followed by a big black saloon car which didn’t, in fact, contain the crown prince – it contained two of his household staff, who were grinning inside the car and madly pointing to the car behind them. Everyone had been waving at this saloon car, but when they saw the pointing staffers they immediately turned to the following car and there inside was the Crown Prince himself, waving happily to the crowd. He was gone in a moment, and followed by two buses full of police.

Satisfied with our glimpse of royalty, we traipsed off with everyone else towards the suburb called “Beanfield Town” (Mameda Town) where the lantern festival was being held. On the way a group of 3 schoolgirls walking behind us interrupted our conversation with gentle hellos, and there proceeded a hilarious conversation in which they tried to practice their English, and misdirected us towards the “big river” where we could see the lanterns. In fact, they later found us at the big river, and declared in unison “Big River!!!” with great satisfaction. A very cute moment of international exchange indeed…

The Moon Princess wishes for a day job

First though we found Beanfield Town, a section of old buildings in the Edo style, full of cute shops (all selling the same stuff) and some quaint little streams, winding between rice paddies and walled compounds, and lined with bamboo or paper lanterns hanging from poles. These being not yet lit, we wandered the town a little in search of the aforementioned “Big River,” which we finally found. This river was lined with serried ranks of white paper lanterns, such as the one shown here, all decorated with the wishes of the people who placed them. The pictured lantern is by a schoolchild, who wishes to become a nurse. Other wishes included “I want to be a medal-winning olympic volleyballer,” “I want to read 10 books,” and “I want to be proficient with my abacus.” As the sun set these lanterns were lit, and the river was lined with patterns formed from lines and clusters of candles. Even the stepping stones across the river were graced with clusters of bamboo lamps, and furthermore every shop and shrine in town had placed their own small collection of lanterns by the street, sometimes in elaborate displays (one small temple had a buddha amongst the candles). There were also some stages for musical performances set about the town, lined and surmounted with bamboo lanterns in intricate patterns, and the grounds of the main shrine in the town were full of intricate patterns and tall multi-candle bamboo poles, carved with bats and cat footprints that the candles shone through.

As full night overcame the town we had to return to our car park, but on the way we passed back through the main town, where the musicians were warming up and the local school was selling burgers made of noodles (?). Many residents were carrying pretty red lanterns on poles, and wandering about looking in the shop windows. There is a legend in Japan concerning a princess from the moon who lives in a bamboo stalk, and was found there by an old man. Both Paul and I looked in many bamboo lanterns, but we found no moon princess. Despite this, the day was very successful and the evening festival enchanting. Next year I hope to come back to this town and stay the night, so that I can enjoy the festival until late in the evening, and I recommend it to anyone travelling Kyushu in mid-November.



fn1: which explains the wheelchair-bound athletes I saw gathering for dinner in Oita on Wednesday night

So tomorrow I will depart from the Northern Bay by bus to the Station of Wide Acclaim, from whence I shall take a bullet train to Double Mountain. There I change to the express over the mountains to the town I used to live, Pine Bay. I’ll spend three days there with my New Zealand friends Drs. P and B, and once I’ve exhausted their beer stocks I will take the same route back along the sunshine coast to the city of Double Blessings. I’ll spend a night with a friend there, and then return by bus to the Bay of Rice Cakes.

I think Drs. P & B have recently installed broadband (Pine Bay is a little behind in internet, if not coffee and other imported delicacies; or P &B are), so I may be able to check my email but I definitely won’t be posting here.

I am presenting a Special Lecture on Global Crime and Public Health this semester, which is really the culmination of my work on international drug cartels, prohibition and harm reduction. In preparation for the lecture on harm reduction, at the end of the lecture on sex work and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) I thought I should give an overview of the “changing” attitudes towards public health and sex work and STIs in the medical literature. I remembered a few years ago reading an archived letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in which a doctor advocates not treating syphilis because syphilis serves as a moral warning to society of the dangers of promiscuous sex (this was before Tuskegee, by which time we were so enlightened that only black people got no treatment). The BMJ now has all its issues since 1840 online, so I went trawling through back issues looking for admonitions against sleeping with “loose women” and ways of preventing said women from returning to their “vicious life,” and although I didn’t find that original letter I found a lot of other fun stuff. However, in the process I stumbled upon a doozy of a letter from a certain Surgeon-Lieutenant-General E.M.Wrench, MVO, FRCSEng (and if ever anyone deserved a medal this man did!) describing his experiences as a military surgeon in the Crimean War. It was published in 1908, so by that time he must have been quite old, but it presents a crystal clear image of his experiences in the war. Reading this I was both impressed by how primitive British war-making was in the mid-19th century, and reminded of why I really enjoy working with medical  doctors. Their sense of humour, their writing style, and their earthy view of the world is truly a rewarding combination to work alongside.

I’ve put in a few bold elements to indicate the bits I find truly disturbing, and a series of footnotes (of course) with cynical/salutary (take your pick) lessons for the modern NHS. But please don’t let them distract you from the horror that is a Doctor’s cynical report on life in the Crimean war. Incidentally, this report was entitled “Lessons from the past.”

The surgeon begins with discussion of the nature of his arrival, but we’ll skip that…

I will not, however, talk of these generalities, but describe my experience when in charge of a ward of what might be called the base hospital at Balaclava in November, 1854, shortly after the battle of Inkerman, some of the wounded from which were under my care, together with cases of cholera, scorbutic dysentery, and fever. It was situated in what had been the military school of St.Nicholas, which contained several rooms about 30 feet square. There were no bedsteads or proper bedding; the patients lay in their clothes on the floor, which from the rain blown through the damaged windows and the traffic to and from the open-air latrines was as muddy as a country lane. There were no nurses, no washing conveniences, either personal or for clothing. Two old soldiers, called orderlies, did their ignorant best to attend to the wants of the patients, but were chiefly occupied in rude cooking and burying the dead. There was no bread, of course no milk, and if I remember rightly, no tea, only the famous green coffee. There was certainly no beef tea – Liebig’s extract and similar substitutes had not been invented, and tinned meats were almost unknown. About midday a large iron witch’s-cauldron was carried into the middle of the ward; the patients crowded round to dip in their tin canteens, those bedridden dependent on the generosity of their comrades for a share of the contents of the pot – a mixture of lean mutton and fat salt pork[1], floating in the weakest of oily broth. Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the commissariat each surgeon had to make out a daily diet role, showing what each patient should have – full, half, or spoon diet – to satisfy the red tape system and prevent the purveyor being surcharged for the cost of the scanty food he was able to supply. We were practically without medicines. The supply landed at the capture of Balaclava was exhausted, and the reserve gone to the bottom of the Black Sea with the winter clothing and several surgeons in the Prince-steamer, so that in November, 1854, the base hospital was without opium, quinine, and ammonia. Sanitary science was in its infancy, and sanitary precautions were not capable of being carried out when the living were so hard pressed to live and dead men were for days floating about amongst the ships in the harbour.

You will not be surprised to hear that many of our patients died, but, probably owing to our unglazed windows, we were free from what was then aptly called ” hospital gangrene,” which carried off, I believe, every one of the thirty wounded Russians in the Town Hall not many yards away[2]. The stench of that building I shall never forget. You may ask why, with so many ships in the harbour, we were not able to obtain bedding and medical comforts. The reply is: The medical department was, in those days, powerless to incur expense[4], and the purveyors’ department was likewise in such a subordinate condition that they were afraid of responsibility. It was to Miss Nightingale’s bravery in setting all red tape at defiance that the success in reforming the great hospital at Scutari was due, and if there is one lesson more than another to be learnt from the breakdown of the medical department in the Crimea, it is that if the department is to be held responsible for the cure of the sick and wounded, it must have the power not only to administer pills and potions, but to secure at all costs the quite as – nay, more – important food, shelter, and equipment of the hospitals. The initial breakdown in the Crimea was the result of the military – monopolizing all the transports, and hence the landing of the army devoid of hospital equipment and the absence of hospital ships, so that the only apology for bedding in a ship full of sick and wounded, of which my brother-in-law, Mr. Swinhoe, had charge from Balaclava to Scutari, were the mats previously provided in the ship when conveying horses to the seat of war[6].

The condition of the base hospital being such as I have described, that of the field hospital, seven miles away on an exposed plateau under canvas, was, if possible worse; hence it was the object of most regimental surgeons to send away their sick and wounded, as often as the French could lend their mule litters, for embarkation at Balaclava; though their chance of arriving alive at Scutari was not good, for 10 per cent during the winter were cast overboard as corpses during a voyage of 160 miles, none of the ships being fitted for the purpose, and some, as I have already described, intended for the conveyance of horses.

Much was said in days gone by of the advantages of the system of regimental surgeons, and as one who spent eight years in that capacity I can endorse it as very pleasant for the surgeon, and possibly, in those days of long service, of some advantage to the regiment, from the knowledge acquired of the history of the men, but in time of war no system could be worse. To give an example: During the month of June, 1855, my regiment, the 34th (now the Border[7]), in addition to their share of the fifty daily wounded[8] in the trenches suffered heavily at the assaults of the quarries on the 12th and 18th. On the latter date I marched down to the trenches with twelve officers, and back to camp with two, the other ten being killed or wounded. The men suffered nearly as heavily, and there being no division hospital we had to convert three regimental barrack huts into hospitals, and staff them with men from the ranks entirely ignorant of ambulance duties. Two of the three regimental assistant surgeons soon knocked up, and were temporarily invalided. The surgeon was very shaky; he died of delirium tremens shortly afterwards, and I had to work single handed. As a consequence some of the slightly wounded were not properly attended to for several days, the wounds became infected by maggots, and operations were performed under the greatest difficulties. I remember a case of amputation at the shoulder-joint, when I had to administer the chloroform, compress the subelavian and pick up the axillary artery, whilst the surgeon, with trembling hands, tied it; yet possibly in the same brigade there were several regimental surgeons almost unemployed.

Here I may allude to the dread of the use of chloroform (then recently invented) by the older surgeons, and to the famous memorandum issued by the Director-General condemning its too frequent use, and adding that the cries of the patient undergoing an operation were satisfactory to the surgeon as indicating the absence of syncope, and that pain was a stimulant that aided recovery. Surgery was then little advanced from classical times; antisepsis was unthought of, and the resection of a wounded joint so novel, that Fergusson invented the term “conservative surgery ” to describe it.

The duties, as well as the practice, of the regimental surgeon differed from those of the present day; one of his most unpleasant, was his enforced attendance alongside of the prisoner, at what was called “punishment parade,” when his duty was to watch the man being flogged lest he die under the lash of the cat-o’-nine-tails or faint from loss of blood, which usually flowed freely after the first few strokes. The parade over, the man was removed to the hospital for the surgeon to cure him and render him fit for duty as speedily as possible.

Wars always have been, and always will be, cruel. It is, however, the pride of our profession that, while sharing the fatigues and dangers of the campaign, our sole duty will be the protection of the soldiers from what, after all, is his most deadly enemy – disease[9] – and the alleviation of the sufferings of the wounded. The report of the Royal Commission on the Crimean War reported that the medical breakdown was the result of the system, and not of the surgeons – a lesson that I trust will not be forgotten by the nation. The medical department, unless made efficient and given proper authority[10] during peace, cannot be expected to do its duty satisfactorily during war.

Of course, in a Compromise and Conceit-style campaign, this would all be different, since there would be magical healing, the healer’s guild would have “a long, low-roofed white building” set up to receive the injured, and all would be peaceful sage candles and tender moments between red-headed chicks and their injured lovers. When, oh when will the NHS find faith healing?[11]

fn1: So, the hotel services in the NHS haven’t changed…

fn2: Hospital Acquired Infections were novel even then… and, the Daily Mail was right, it was all the foreigners’ fault[3]

fn3: You may laugh at this silly joke, but I have actually read newspapers in the UK trying to blame hospital infections on foreigners… more than once!

fn4: Whereas, under the current straitened conditions, the NHS is “quarantined” from cuts, and able to purchase such luxuries[5]

fn5: I have worked in an organisation subject to hiring freezes and budgetary constraints, so I understand exactly this man’s feelings

fn6: I think it’s worth noting that, while modern armies are well capable of providing hospital services, in certain recent wars their administrative organs certainly seemed to forget other aspects of planning for the post-invasion situation, with similar consequences (for the Iraqis, at least)

fn7: That’s right, the same regiment as George McDonald Fraser, of Flashman fame. Do they teach writing classes in that regiment, perchance?

fn8: It’s quite well-remarked (as we’ll see below) that compared to subsequent wars casualties in the Crimea were remarkably low, and in fact military engagements of the time were remarkable for their low casualty rates compared to modern wars between mechanized armies. The main killer in the Crimea was disease, which makes the war all the more tragically pointless.

fn9: In fact, the Crimean war had a role to play in the development of epidemiology, since the aforementioned “Miss Florence Nightingale” led a campaign to change conditions in military hospitals, and did so using some very cunning graphical devices, which presaged later methods for the comparison of disease. As I discovered in my trawling through the annals of Britain’s response to sexually transmitted infections, the military and their fighting fitness have played an important role in the development of modern public health practice, not just through direct intervention in their health problems, but through the peacetime health policy implemented in support of the health of soldiers.

fn10: And out of tragedy… a doctor demands more institutional authority!!! Who could have guessed it would end this way?

fn11: when some quack gets Prince Charles’s ear, obviously.

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