This four part series, which was recently repeated on BBC4 whilst I was back home, saw enthusiastic presenter Dr Iain Stewart travel around the Pacific Rim visiting some of the world’s most volatile places. The shows journeyed through the perilous landscapes of Indonesia, the geological booby-traps of California and the hostile peaks of the Andes before concluding in Japan which has had more than its fair share of volcanic disasters.
Geologist Stewart’s passion shined through and he explained and demonstrated everything with relative ease in the name of telling how the rocks beneath our feet have played a fundamental role in shaping human history in this country which has turned geological adversity to its advantage.
To be fair, I only really watched this as I wanted to take advantage of BBC iPlayer downloads to give me something half decent to watch back here in the land of awful dumbed down TV. I never realised at the time of watching that it was a repeat until the end where a feature on miniaturised electrical items seemed a bit dated and I was suspicious as to why the big earthquake of 2011 was never mentioned.
Unlike the usual documentaries on Japan, which tend to just focus on the weird and wonderful, this one was a bit more unique and showed how the country’s culture has been inescapably defined by the rocks. That is the everlasting message of this show and to be honest it did become a bit tenuous at times, particularly the latter part of this documentary where he focused on pachinko, haikyu poetry, walkman’s and miniaturised technology. Of course it was geology that played a starring role in these things.
Around 75% of Japan is mountainous and with these area’s being less sympathetic to urban settlement it has forced its inhabitants into some of the most densely populated places on earth where space is scarce and every square centimetre is at a premium as the places are 20% smaller than in Western Europe.
I guess the one particular place which shows how overcrowded Tokyo is (due to the rocks remember!), is the morning commuter trains and naturally they feature here as indeed they did only a few days before (August 9th) on the Channel 5 documentary ‘World’s Busiest Train Station’ which showed the ridiculous nature of how pushers are used to cram people in like sardines.
One of the highlights for me was seeing the Nakagin Capsule Tower which actually doubled up as love hotel in ‘The Wolverine‘ (2013). Stewart visits an international lawyer who has been living in these 5 square metre rooms for 15 years with no kitchen and a fold out desk and bed to really optimise the rooms tiny amount of space.
Rather than the perennial regular haunts like Tokyo and Kyoto, Stewart did at least travel the length of the country where he visited the U-shaped river valleys (formed by glacial sculpting) of Kamikochi which is a really wonderful part of central Honshu that I visited back in October 2005 during the Autumn leaves season. He also went to Kyushu and in particular to Mount Aso which is almost constantly active as the toxic gases bubble away down below and if it ever gets to the surface there’ll be one hell of a big bang.
Further south is Mount Sakurajima; another perilous environment where the locals have to be ready for eruption at any moment. Furthermore, these hostile mountains have landslides, the soil is thin, stoney and unstable and heavy rains leech them of nutrients and its this kind of inhospitable terrain which has forced Japan’s 127 million people to live in huge urban sprawls.
So basically the rocks have caused overcrowding resulting in people craving personal space which led to the invention of the walkman (and its more recent incarnations) giving them their own personal cosmos. All this is in stark contrast to contemplating zen through meditation! The show, originally shown in 2006, concludes with how a big earthquake would not only affect Japan but the rest of the world who have invested here. Not even Stewart’s trip to a Tokyo earthquake prevention centre to experience a simulated quake could have prepared him or any of us for what happened two and a half years ago.