Climbing Shichimensan

My nephew passed away in January at the age of 36 from a diabetic coma. Ten years ago he came to Japan with his dad (my older brother), on a trip to Nagano where we visited several hot springs. After his son passed away, my brother said the trip had been a special memory for my nephew. I then promised to offer a memorial prayer when I climbed Shichimensan in the spring.

Then the COVID-19 crisis hit and going anywhere became a nightmare of hurdles: travel restrictions, reduced operating hours, limited transit schedules, getting enough face masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper as those items became hard to obtain. 

It turned out to be a memorable trip. This was not because the trip itself was difficult or long. Instead there was an otherworldly quality in attempting to do normal things in a world that just isn’t normal. Japanese authorities never enacted a “lockdown.” Instead, local governments requested self-restraint for businesses and the public in early April.

Throughout the month, wearing face masks at all times outside the home became routine while clear plastic barriers were put up at every store checkout. Cafes and restaurants reduced seats, then they closed altogether or switched to takeout only. Rush-hour trains and the Shinkansen started running empty. By Golden Week vacation, normally a peak time for travel and going out, city streets and major stations were nearly empty and looked like scenes from a science fiction movie.

Going to Shichimen seemed like it would be out of the question until I called Okunoin temple and discovered that travel restrictions were lifted at the end of Golden Week. The temple was open for pilgrimages, offered food and shelter, but the priest on the phone advised me to wear a mask when I was there, and to be careful of leeches on the lower parts of the trail. I decided to take the chance, packed extra masks and disinfectant, purchased a bus ticket online and made my way to Shinjuku bus terminal on a clear Saturday morning.

Anyone who has used Shinjuku bus terminal on a weekend knows how packed and hectic it is. However, on this Saturday morning, the terminal was empty except for the staff who checked and rechecked empty passenger lists. The bus to Minobu was empty, the expressway and rest areas were clear of cars and trucks. At Minobusan, the Kuonji morning service had just three local residents attended to by 20 priests.

And yet, things felt more normal in Minobu than anywhere else. People were running errands, schools were beginning to reopen, construction workers were busy. On the final taxi ride up to the Shichimensan Omotesando trail entrance, the driver pointed at the gravel road and said, “take a good look because this road is going up there soon.” He nodded up the hill where there was another road. “They need that road to remove rock as they bore the new Shinkansen tunnel.” The new linear maglev Chuo Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya will tunnel through the Southern Alps region very close to Mt. Shichimen.

I did a quick waterfall purification at Bentendo Temple along the Haruki River and then started to climb. There are five rest area “bo” on the climb up the South Sando pilgrimage trail. All of them were closed and quiet except for the sound of bees circling clumps of Rhododendron blossoms. There were also songbirds: wrens, flycatchers and robins. The month of May is the best time to hear them since they are so active.

Trail damage from two typhoons in the past two years was massive in places. Whole valley sides are missing along with pieces of the upper trail. There are new trail sections built around them. At the gate entrance to Keishiin Temple, I noticed something new. Deer had eaten away the bark of old trees seriously damaging them. Deer overpopulation is a big problem in Japanese mountains. Protecting high mountain forests and wildflowers is a growing challenge.

The next morning, the temple priest drummed and chanted the Odaimoku until the first rays of sun shot over the horizon. He then recited the famous Kenji Miyazawa poem “Ame ni mo Makezu,” “Not losing to the rain… Not fettered by desire.” I thought of the quote Nichiren Shonin included at the conclusion of Kanjin Honzon Sho, “When the sky is blue, the land is bright, those who know the Lotus Sutra can see the reasons for the occurrences in the world.”

After morning prayers were finished with a memorial toba for my nephew enshrined on the altar, I said goodbye to the priests and hiked down the North Sando pilgrimage trail. The forest on this side of Shichimensan was untouched by typhoon damage. Returning to Tokyo, I felt exhausted but also refreshed and grounded again. Nichiren Shonin lived in extremely challenging times, but now we are all living in our own challenging times, how comforting it is to follow in the wisdom of his footsteps.

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The iPhone SE Bright Spot in Japan

MacRumors and other sites are reporting the Counterpoint Research note that indicates iPhone SE sales will be the ‘bright spot’ in Apple’s Q3 2020 quarter. I have alway said that iPhone SE will do well and it will be an especially bright spot in Japan because: (1) it’s the only Touch ID model in the Face ID sucks with face mask era and everybody in Japan is wearing face masks, (2) the easy entry point SE upgrade from pre-iPhone 7 brings those users into the Apple Pay Japan orbit as Japan goes cashless, there’s a regular flow of first time SE ‘I’m on Apple Pay Suica now’ tweets.

The analysis matches up with Japanese SE user comments but, surprisingly, does not mention the iPhone SE Touch ID upside:

Apple’s ‌iPhone SE‌ sales are “unlikely” to cannibalize sales of the 2020 iPhone 12 models because ‌iPhone SE‌ purchasers are “more pragmatic” about price, less concerned with 5G connectivity, and the smaller display is “not considered a hindrance.”

In the current ‘who knows what’s happening today’ environment with talk of another soft lockdown to combat rising 2nd wave COVID infections, iPhone users in Japan will remain hyper pragmatic and face masks will continue to be de rigueur.

For that reason I don’t think iPhone 12 will do very well here and high end iPhone sales will be sluggish until Apple delivers a version of Face ID that works seamlessly with face masks, or something else like in-display Touch ID. 5G won’t move the sales needle. For the time being iPhone SE will carry water for the entire iPhone line in Japan. We’ll find out the full story at the Q3 2020 earnings call on July 30.

Tanabata and Obon

Many festivals are canceled this year because of COVID but you can still go to a local shrine or temple and tie your Tanabata wish to the bamboo. It’s always fun to read what other people have wished for: good health, happy family or the very appropriate ‘go away COVID’.

In the old lunar calendar Tanabata and Obon came together, 7/7 and 7/13 respectively. The western calendar mixed things up in the Meiji era because both events herald the last hurrah of Japanese summer and fall during the western August when calculated by the lunar July. This is why the events are July in Tokyo and August in the countryside.

There are plenty of hot days after Obon but summer feels done, you can feel wisps of autumn in the night air. The Japanese enjoyment of seasons is never the full gaudy glory but in catching the first faint whispers of change.

Mandatory Suica App Update

Mobile Suica issued a system notice today: there is a new version of Suica App (v2.7) on the App Store, users must update by July 21. After that date you must use version 2.7 to access Mobile Suica services. The only difference I could see is that Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket purchase history search has been added going back to July 2019. Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service ended March 13, replaced by the cloud based Ekinet eTicket service.

Some users have been experiencing multiple Mobile Suica 1201 recharge errors recently. There’s a lot of cloud work JR East has to do on the Mobile Suica and Ekinet systems in preparation for the next generation Suica debut in spring 2021. The mandatory update requirement is a sign something is changing on the backend. Hopefully JR East is fixing all things Mobile Suica.

Japan Cashless X-Day

Anybody care to chart the Japanese cashless transformation?

Now that the CASHLESS Rebate program is over with transaction rates reportedly going back to ‘normal’ (an estimated 1% rise over rebate program rates), JP media outlets report that some smaller merchants might go back to cash to keep profit margins intact. Real transaction rates are always hush-hush but QR payment rates recently revealed in connection with the Japan QR (JPQR) unified code scheme give us an idea what goes on behind the curtain:

NTT Data already lowered basic CAFIS transaction rates in response to the stera payment co-venture from SMBC-Visa Japan-GMO. As the JPQR transaction rate chart makes clear, banks and payment players have plenty of transaction rate wiggle room. The Japanese government is pushing cashless. If necessary the push will become shove for lower rates and yet another cashless program but where do things stand right now?

July 2020 is the proverbial “X-Day” crossover point: Japan is cashless now, even though the transformation is uneven, ongoing and very messy. On the customer side cashless is the mindset and survival behavior for many Japanese, even for older folks who under normal circumstances would prefer using cash until they day they die.

Faced with the reality of handing money that carries the risk of infection, people are going cashless instead especially with contactless smartphone payments. Junya Suzuki was right all along: Apple Pay turned out to be “the black ship of payments” catalyst that finally nudged Japan from cash to cashless. That and COVID.

Market analysts will undoubtably demand chart data that clearly explains and quantifies the transformation before declaring a ‘winner’ but they have a long wait. That’s because the cashless transformation is sloppy with huge regional variations, all happening right before us. But all of this is an afterthought and our priorities are different now, getting accurate market survey information of any kind in the current environment is extremely difficult.

The Tokyo Olympics was supposed to be the event heralding the cashless era but the COVID crisis has forced much more change very quickly. Evidence is best found in the countless little rituals of daily life that have evolved and are not going back. Merchants who do go back to cash face the risk of fewer customers: when offered a choice people choose cashless.

This realization hit me yesterday when my partner complained about his Docomo dPAY points taking a hit because the Summit supermarket staffer tapped a wrong payment button on the new POS cashless menu options added on July 1. He wanted to pay with iD. A year ago he never used iD, dPAY or Apple Pay and never wanted to, but life changed.

These days I hear contactless reader sounds everywhere, FeliCa chirps and EMV beeps are common as clear plastic sheeting and foot position floor stickers at checkout. And just when posting this the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism announced that Japanese Expressways will be going cashless only with ETC. If there’s anything that defines this sea change it is this: it’s not a ‘victory’ over cash that the media sometimes depicts, nor does it feel like progress. In the COVID era it merely feels like survival.