On: protest, the media and graffiti

This is too long for a tweet, so… Two points on Saturday’s anti-austerity protest in Whitehall.

First: accusations of a ‘media blackout’ because it wasn’t immediately picked up by the news, particularly the BBC.

*sigh* This was an impromptu demo. Which means no journalists had advance notice of it, so nobody was assigned to cover it. Put yourself in the position of the newsroom, already a bit stretched on a weekend and even more so because all the serious politics hacks have finally gone to bed after two days of covering the general election. You look at this protest and think: is it any different from all the other protests that happen around Whitehall all the time? Are there any coherent messages to report other than that people are pissed off? Will this blow over in half an hour? The answer to these is likely: wait and see.

In the end, it looks like nobody sent their own reporters down there; or, at least, not until things started kicking off. Photos from the Telegraph, Guardian, Evening Standard, Metro and BBC are all credited to Twitter or newswire agencies, which have stringers and freelancers all over the place, who rush down to any sign of any disturbance in the hope of grabbing a story. On this occasion it paid off for them. Most of the time it doesn’t and would be a waste of time sending salaried staff to stand around doing nothing. This is why stringers exist. It’s also why news organisations can be slower than Twitter to report protests.

And the protest was reported as one of the handful of stories in this morning’s 6Music news bulletin. So much for a BBC blackout.

Second: graffiti on the war memorial.

I wish this didn’t keep happening. Every time something gets smashed up or defaced at a protest, that becomes the story. Opponents jump on it to say ‘well, look at them, they’ve got no respect, why should we respect their views?’. And when it’s a war memorial… I don’t actually think all war memorials should be sacred. The Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo is a prime example: it honours some war criminals. Anything that glorifies war should be graffitied, as far as I’m concerned. But the Women of World War Two memorial doesn’t do that; it remembers the work women did during the war – primarily at home. (Also, if you have to argue that any war was a just war, fighting the Nazis is right up there.)

So I don’t automatically join the ranks of people saying ‘this is a disgrace’. What I do do, is say to whoever did that damage: you’re a pillock. You’re a pillock because the graffiti is now the story. You’ve managed to undermine the message of your demo by pandering to the worst ideas the Daily Mail reading population – and the government – already had of you. You’ve made everyone come across as children having a tantrum, rather than people who are genuinely angry at the torrent of cuts and suffering yet to come. You’re not going to change anything unless you can persuade more people over to your side. And you’re not going to do that by scrawling ‘fuck Tory scum’ on a war memorial. Grow the fuck up.


Visiting Japan: Ainoshima Island, Kyushu

Ainoshima Island

You’d be forgiven for asking ‘where?’ on hearing the name Ainoshima Island. It’s off the coast of Fukuoka and is better known as one of Japan’s ‘cat islands’. Local photographer Fubirai’s photos of the cats went viral a few years ago. But I had no idea how to get to Ainoshima until I came across this blog post from a few months ago. I was able to piece together the various stages from that, but it’s still a bit confusing so here’s a step-by step guide to getting to Ainoshima.

First, you need to get to Shingu station (or to give it its ‘proper’ name, Nishitetsushingu station). From Hakata take the Kagoshima line to Chihaya then change to Nishitetsuchihaya station for the Kaizuka line and travel to the Shingu terminus. Chiyaha and Nishitetsuchihaya are in the same building but are technically different stations, so you’ll need a new ticket or to swipe out and in with your prepay card. The journey takes about 35 minutes and costs 460 yen in total. There’s another route from Tenjin: take the Hakozaki subway line to Kaizuka (end of the line), then switch to the Kaizuka line for Shingu. It takes about 40 minutes and costs 530 yen. These are commuter lines and trains are pretty regular.

At Shingu, turn left out of the station and walk for 100m until you get to a bus shelter in a car park. You need the local community bus, which is green, and not any of the Nishitetsu buses. All the timetables are on the Shingu town website (use Chrome’s translation widget to read them!).

(Since I originally wrote this guidance, the Shingu town website has handily put together a timetable guide for catching the bus and ferry. At the moment it’s here, but if the link breaks again go to the homepage, use Chrome to translate and look for ‘public transport’ in the menu.)

So for example, if you wanted to visit in summer, these are your options:

7.10am bus for the 7.50am ferry
8.45am bus for the 9.20am ferry
10.55am bus for the 11.30am ferry
2pm bus for the 2.30pm ferry
4.10pm bus for the 4.40pm ferry
(You could take the 5.30pm bus for the 6.10pm ferry, but that’s the last sailing for the day and you won’t be able to get back.)

The bus costs 100 yen. The journey takes about 10 minutes and you get dropped right at the ferry terminal. The bus then hangs around for the ferry to get in and picks up disembarking passengers. (Note: buses travelling in both directions wait to pick up passengers. Both go to the station but one will take longer! I asked the bus driver if he went to the station; I presume if he’d been the longer route he’d have directed me to the other bus.)

Cat on Ainoshima Island

The ferry costs 460 yen each way and takes about 20 minutes. You need to buy your ticket from a machine in the terminal at the Shingu side and a little office on Ainoshima (next to the restaurant). If you don’t spot it, like I didn’t, you can pay the person collecting the tickets on Ainoshima in cash.

It tipped it down the entire time I was on Ainoshima so I didn’t do much exploring (though I still saw five cats, two of which were very up for cuddles as they sheltered from the rain). The island is small and has some interesting scenery, but of course the main draw is the cats – take some snacks, hang around the port and you will see some. There’s a village (some of the doors were open and I got a peek into some traditional Japanese homes, all tatami mats and raised floors), and do pay a visit to the small restaurant. It’s run by a lovely woman who’s very fond of cats and is keen to visit England one day.

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: Usuki, Kyushu

Usuki Stone Buddhas

The big draw in Usuki is a series of stone Buddhas carved from soft volcanic rock about 1,000 years ago, designated as national treasures. The town itself is also worth a look, with some temples and an old district with shops and restaurants.

There are a couple of trains an hour to Usuki from Oita, a limited express which takes about 30 minutes and costs 1,670 yen and a local train which takes 45-55 minutes and costs 740 yen (both covered by the Rail Pass). There’s a little tourist information office at Usuki station (to the left at the front of the building) where you can pick up maps and bus timetables, because yet again the buses are infrequent.

There are only four buses on a weekday from Usuki station to the Stone Buddhas (Usuki Sekibutsu): 10.10am, 12.10pm, 2pm and 3.15pm. The bus costs 310 yen each way and takes about 20 minutes, but it drops you off right in the car park. If you’re willing to walk 10 minutes to bus stop Jyohoku there are more buses – and on the way back you may find yourself dropped off at Jyohoku anyway as only half the 11 buses from the Sekibutsu back into town go to the station.

When you arrive, work out when the buses leave. You’ll need at least an hour to see the Buddhas but the way the timetable falls you could end up with an hour to kill after that – in which case, a combined ticket for the Buddhas and the small historical museum next door is good value at 710 yen (entrance to the Buddhas alone is 530 yen). It’s a beautiful area in a small valley, with several temples scattered around the fields, and I heartily recommend a visit.

On the way back into town, if you get off at Hirasozu bus stop you can explore Ryugen-ji and its three-storey pagoda and walk back through the old samurai district. The maps given out at the tourist office list various different bus stops if you don’t fancy walking all the way back to the station, and you can roughly work out the times from the timetable they give you.

Usuki old town

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: Kitsuki, Kyushu

Kitsuki slopes

I spent so long faffing around at Rakan-ji that I didn’t have much time in Kitsuki, which was a shame. It’s an old samurai town with a castle and an interesting old district built on small hills with famous slopes and stairways. Pick up a town map from a rack in the station.

Kitsuki is on the same train line as Nakatsu. There are a couple of trains an hour from Oita (an express, which takes 20-25 minutes and costs 1,580 yen, and a local train which takes 35-40 minutes and costs 650 yen. Both are covered by the Rail Pass) but there are fewer direct trains connecting Nakatsu and Kitsuki. Kitsuki train station is several kilometres out of the city centre and, as seems typical for the Kunisaki peninsular, the buses aren’t very regular.

There’s an excellent site called Bus Navi Oita that generates timetables for stops you want to travel between. Here’s a link to timetables between Kitsuki station and Kitsuki bus terminal (all sights are walkable from the bus terminal) and timetables from Kitsuki bus terminal back to the station. You can easily be waiting an hour for the next bus, so time your arrival carefully, particularly in the afternoon when it goes down to about one bus an hour. The bus ride takes 10 minutes and costs about 300 yen each way. If you really screw up the timing you could always catch a taxi, there are plenty around the station (for obvious reasons).

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: Rakan-ji Temple and Nakatsu, Kyushu

Rakan-ji temple complex

Rakan-ji Temple is near Nakatsu in Oita prefecture. It’s a temple built into the cliff face halfway up Mount Rakan. The site dates from the 14th century and is mostly famous for thousands of stone Buddhas and the wooden rice paddles that people write prayers on and nail to the walls. There’s a hall with 500 Buddha statues, each with a different face, but what I loved about it most were the views across the valley and the sense of peace. It’s a beautiful place but a complete pain to get to.

First, take the train to Nakatsu. A limited express service runs from Oita about every 30-60 minutes which takes 45-55 minutes. It costs 2,890 yen each way but is covered by the rail pass. This is the easy part.

From Nakatsu, you need a bus to Nakashima bus stop. Go to the front of the station where there’s a mini bus station to the left (and I mean mini: there’s a shelter, some benches, timetables and a staffed hut). There’s no English on any of the signs so ask the person in the hut where the bus goes from – I can’t string the sentence together but use ‘doko’ (where) ‘bass’ (bus), Nakashima and ‘kudasai’ (please). I was lucky that the woman in the hut took pity on me, sold me a bus ticket (640 yen each way; otherwise take a ticket when you get on and pay the fare shown on the board next to the driver when you exit), made sure I got on the right bus and told the driver where I was heading. Bus announcements are in Japanese only but are easy to work out. Also, for most of the journey I was the only passenger and the driver let me know when we were approaching Nakashima.

The other problem with the buses is there aren’t many of them. Here are PDFs of the timetable from Nakatsu station – the third column from the right definitely goes to Nakashima, so Mon-Fri 9.40am, 10.30am, 1.40pm, 3.40pm, 5.10pm, 6pm and 7.10pm, though I have read elsewhere that all three columns furthest to the right will get you there – and the timetable back again from Nakashima, which is a lot more obvious. Still only about one bus an hour though. The bus journey takes 30 minutes and passes tourist site Yabakei Bridge and goes through the Ao-no-domon tunnel.

Once at Nakashima, you now have a 2km walk to the base of Mount Rakan. Nakashima bus stop is at a crossroads, and you need to walk in the direction this sign is pointing:


See the kanji at the top, where it says 2km? That says Rakan-ji; try and memorise it if you can. The walk is along a main road for 1.5km through pretty countryside. (There also seems to be a small taxi rank just past this sign if you don’t fancy walking.) Eventually you’ll hit two small convenience stores with drinks vending machines, one on either side of the road. Just after the shops there’s a small bridge, with this sign:


Told you to memorise the kanji! Cross this bridge and walk for about 500m towards the mountain. Once you’re at the base, go past the shops (or stop at the one with the small restaurant for some excellent noodles; no English menu but the owners are nice people and very understanding). You can walk up to the temple – it’s very, very steep – or you can catch a chairlift for 800 yen, which covers the trip to the temple, up to the top and back down again. The chairlift is tucked away behind a building so look for this sign:


There’s also a nice viewing point and garden at the top, so make sure you go all the way up the mountain in the chairlift.

I just missed a train on the way back so I had a wander round Nakatsu, visiting Gogan-ji Temple. It seems like a pleasant little town, and it has a castle. I barely scratched the surface (and didn’t get to the castle), but luckily Zooming Japan has. If you did want to stay, I could see a Toyoko Inn and a Super Hotel from the train platform.

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: Beppu and Takasakiyama, Kyushu

Tom has been to Beppu as well, and spent it visiting onsen. I went more touristy and visited some of the famous Hells (very hot springs for looking at, not bathing). This was probably a poor choice. I visited three of the eight and they were quite run-down and small; 400 yen entrance fee isn’t actually that much, but when you consider that entrance fees in Japan are generally quite low and you look at what’s in there, it feels like a rip-off. You can buy a combined ticket for all eight Hells for 2,100 yen but to avoid Hell fatigue I’d suggest picking the most interesting sounding and focusing on those. Especially considering that several keep live animals; I dread to think of the conditions.

The Hells are in two separate parts of town, all a significant distance from the train station. The Information Centre at Beppu station is fantastic and will load you up with leaflets, maps and timetables. If you’re going to visit both Hell districts, pick up a “1 Day Mini Free Passport” for the bus from the Information Centre for 900 yen; it’s a 10 yen saving on paying for each bus separately and is just easier than rootling out exact change. For the six Hells in Kannawa, you want either the 5, 9 or 41 buses from the West exit of the station and get off at Umi-jigoku mae. This is the stop after Kannawa bus station (a parking area with a small green bus shelter); I’m giving you this advice because although bus announcements in Beppu are given in English, they’re so quiet they’re almost impossible to hear.

Beppu: Cooking Pot Hell

Because I couldn’t hear the damn announcements I leapt off the bus at Kannawa and after trailing up the hill could only be bothered to visit Cooking Pot Hell (Kamado Jigoku). It’s on the tacky side of kitschy and the most interesting thing is probably the food cooked in the springs – steamed dumplings, boiled eggs and a rather tasty suet pudding. I gather Umi Jigoku has a lovely garden but it’s further up the hill and the weather was hot, so I went back to Kannawa bus station again to wait for a 16 or 16A bus to Chinoike-jigoku bus stop and the two Hells in the Shibaseki district. Chinioke Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) has red water, sells beauty and medical treatments made from the spring’s clay and not much else. Tatsumaki Jigoku next door has an actual geyser that erupts every 30-40 minutes for 5-10 minutes.

Geyser going off

You can see the geyser’s been enclosed; if it wasn’t, apparently it would reach up to 30m in height. The more cynical part of me thinks they walled it off so people wouldn’t be able to get a free show from outside. There are nice gardens to wander in while you wait for the geyser to go off and they sell excellent ice cream. When you’re done, catch the 16 or 16A back to Beppu station. It also stops at Kamegawa and Beppu Daigaku stations.

A far, far better tourist attraction in Beppu is Takasakiyama Monkey Park. This is also out of town, on a mountainside, but it’s also next to the Aquarium (which I was too late to visit but is apparently modern and very nice). To get to both, catch buses AS60 or AS61 from the East side of Beppu station, but there aren’t many of them and they stop at 2.39pm on weekdays and 4.20pm on weekends (warning: last entry to Takasakiyama is 4.30pm). There are more and later buses running from Beppu Kitahama, about 15-20 minutes walk from Beppu’s East exit. Buses AS54, AS60, AS61, AS70, AS71, AS72 and AS73 all leave from stop number 4, which is beyond Kitahama train station, on a crossroads and with a big 4 painted in a red circle. (It’s obvious once you see it but you’re walking for so long there’s a paranoia you’ve gone in the wrong direction or passed it.) The journey takes about 10 minutes to Takasakiyama-Umitamago stop – look out for the big aquarium on the left because the announcements are inaudible – and costs (IIRC) about 300 yen.

Monkeys on a swing

The monkey park costs 610 yen for entry with a ride up the hill on the monorail, 510 yen without. And the park is brilliant. It’s not a zoo: the monkeys were enticed there 60 years ago after causing havoc on farmland, and now stay voluntarily because they get fed. The monkeys are technically wild but not at all afraid of humans, and scamper around the visitors like we’re barely there. There are signs everywhere not to touch, stare or shout at the monkeys, which made the moment when one of them started gently tugging on my bag a little awkward (no food in there, little guy)…

Handily, the buses from Takasakiyama run on to Oita, where I was staying, so in theory you could catch the bus straight from Oita if your itinerary works better that way.

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: Yufuin, Kyushu

Yufuin street

Yufuin is a bonny, albeit kitschy, hot spring town a bit further inland from Beppu and, if I’m honest, I prefer Yufuin. It’s more compact and completely surrounded by mountains. But it’s not that handy if you want somewhere cheap to stay and eateries are mainly of the cafe variety: this is somewhere people either visit on a day trip or eat in their ryokans.

I went to Yufuin straight after landing at Fukuoka airport. I’d planned to get the train – there are a handful of direct trains from Hakata a day which cost around 4,500 yen and take 140 minutes. It’s covered by the Japan Rail Pass but I didn’t start mine right away, so when I spotted the Nishitetsu highway bus from the airport for 2,880 yen I leapt on it. (There are more frequent rail connections transferring via Kokura and Oita or Beppu, but most of them involve Shinkansen routes that aren’t covered by the Rail Pass.)

Buy tickets from the Domestic Terminal at Fukuoka Airport, which means getting on the free shuttle bus from International. The ticket machines and staffed office are directly in front of the bus stop. Then you have to get back on the shuttle, because the Yufuin bus leaves from the International Terminal! The bus stop is to a little to the left of the International Terminal’s main doors if you’re standing with your back to the building; look for ‘Yufuin’ painted on the floor along with other city names. An official turns up when buses are due to check tickets and put away luggage.

The journey takes about 1 hour 40 minutes, so it’s a cheaper and shorter journey than the train and the obvious option unless you have a Rail Pass. Buses leave roughly every 30-60 minutes – you can check the times online and reserve if you like, but there were less than 10 people on the bus I rode. To check the timetable and/or reserve, click the Reservation button the on left and select ‘Fukuoka’ for the departure prefecture, ‘Oita’ for the arrival prefecture, give it a few seconds to load up then select the Fukuoka-Yufuin route (obviously). Yufuin’s the final stop so no need to worry about missing it.

I stayed in a ryokan on the edge of the main town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the station but near the inn it’s very hilly and is all twisty lanes, so it’s advisable to get a taxi at least the first time. Some of the room fixtures and fittings at Hotel Reimei are a little worn, but there’s nothing quite like eating a keiseki meal in a room overlooking lush mountains followed by a soak in an outdoor onsen while watching the sun go down to deal with jetlag.

View from my ryokan window.

If you do go to Yufuin and you’re British, then as well as visiting Lake Kinrin and exploring the shops and galleries, make sure to nip into Yufuin Floral Village. It will mess with your head, jetlag or no jetlag.

Yufuin Floral Village

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: Towada-ko, Tohoku

There are two main lakes in Tohoku (the northern part of the main island). Tom’s been to Tazawa-ko but I needed one with better public transport links, so I visited Towado-ko instead.

Yasumiya shoreline

Lake Towada is the biggest caldera lake on Honshu, in the middle of a national park. The easiest way to get there is by bus; despite there being a Shichinohe-Towada stop on the Shinkansen, I have no idea how you get to Towada-ko from the station. A couple of buses a day leave from Hachinohe station but more (five) go from Aomori.

If you have a full Japan Rail Pass – but not a JR East pass – the bus is free, otherwise it costs about 3,000 yen in each direction. I tried to reserve a seat as soon as I got into Japan, being worried that the small number of services could mean they’d all be full, but the ticket office in Tokyo station had no idea what to do. Instead I waited until I got to Aomori, where the staff reserved me a place on the 7.50am bus. I needn’t have worried; it was only about a third full.

The bus takes two and a half hours to reach Yasumiya, the main development on Towada-ko, but has several stops at onsens along the way for snacks and toilet breaks. It’s a gorgeous journey through the mountains and you can still see snow packed several feet high even in June.

I got off the bus at Nenokuchi, the other, tiny, development on Towada-ko. From here I walked back up the Oirase stream a little way to look at the waterfalls – you can get off anywhere from Yakeyama stop onwards to walk along the Oirase stream, but the full length is 9km and the most interesting waterfalls are near the mouth of the lake anyway. Nenokuchi has a small shop and restaurant, but what it doesn’t have any more is a ferry linking it to Yasumiya. Unless you can time the buses perfectly, fancy the hike along the lake shoreline or really really like waterfalls I’m not sure there’s much to recommend stopping off at Nenokuchi any more.

There’s a sightseeing ferry from Yasumiya, which does a loop round one of the peninsulas and back to Yasumiya. It only runs April-November and costs 1,440 yen. There are lots of Matsushima-style islands jutting out of the lake and it’s worth getting up close to some of them. There are some more restaurants and shops in Yasumiya and a shrine, and the shoreline on a sunny day is beautiful and not at all busy, even on a Sunday; probably because it’s so remote. It’s one of my favourite parts of Tohoku and even though you’ll spend more time getting there than you will at the actual lake, it’s worth it.

Towada shrine

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Visiting Japan: basics

Ginza at night

I’m always amazed at how few Westerners there are in Japan, even in Tokyo. Japan as a whole got 10.3m foreign visitors in 2013; to put that into context, London alone got 16.8m foreign visitors in 2013. And many of Japan’s visitors will be from other Asian countries. There seems to be an idea that Japan is expensive (it’s not) and difficult to understand (it’s not; particularly in the major cities you’ll be amazed how much is translated into English, or how many pictures there are).

My friend Tom Royal has spent the last few years compiling a guide to visiting Japan on a budget. But there are a few places he hasn’t been to yet, and given the lack of information in English about these places I’m going to create a complementary guide.

First, there are some basics that I pass onto everyone who asks about travelling to Japan (Tom has more detailed info on hotels, transport etc):

  • Get a rail pass. Seriously, get a rail pass! They may initially look expensive but if you’re planning to do any travel at all, it pays for itself very quickly. For example, a 7 day standard adult rail pass for all Japan costs about 29,000 yen, and a return ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs 28,000 yen. There are different types of pass that cover different areas (and availability can vary; I had to buy my Kyushu pass from JTB UK) but the Japan Rail Pass website lists other vendors. I’ve used this site in the past. The main thing to remember is you need to buy the pass in the UK, then exchange the order for a rail pass in Japan (though you can buy some of the less popular passes in Japan itself).
  • Not all smartphones work in Japan so rather than risk being left with a brick once you arrive, get a data-only SIM card from B-Mobile. There’s some restrictions on the handsets they support (I take my old iPhone 3GS) and you need to make sure it’s unlocked – do that in the UK. If you have an iPhone there’s an extra step to the unlocking process that nobody tells you about, which is that the phone needs re-registering via WiFi. (Japanese hotels are getting better for WiFi though it’s often only in the lobby.) However, now it’s fully unlocked my phone just needs a new SIM card popping in and it works instantly. Vital for maps and checking information online.
  • This is an odd tip, but go with me: take a small flannel or towel with you. Japanese public toilets tend not to have hand dryers (or soap for that matter; also take hand sanitiser). Instead you’ll see the Japanese drying their hands on small towels they carry with them. Also very handy for mopping up sweat in the hotter months.
  • Speaking of which… the best times to travel are in spring and autumn. Much later than mid-May and the weather gets very hot and humid; also, from the end of May through June there’s the ‘rainy season’. To the British this means nothing more than a normal early summer (it might ‘rain’ every day but that could be no more than a few drops; carry an umbrella and you’ll be OK). It does mean that the air is damp and the sky is cloudy, so it’s not the most cheerful weather to go sightseeing in.
  • Also avoid the end of April and beginning of May as this is Golden Week, a series of national holidays when half the nation goes on the move. Expect hotels and trains to be very busy.
  • Bookmark Hyperdia. It will tell you all train times and connections, as well as fare information and whether you need to reserve a seat/how much it’ll cost you. There’s also an app which has a month’s free trial and then costs a couple of quid for a month’s access: worth every penny. The app has a Rail Pass search function that only returns trains that are valid with a rail pass so you don’t get caught out travelling on an invalid shinkansen (note that it can’t tell what kind of rail pass you have, so if you’re travelling on a Northern Kyushu rail pass it’s up to you to know you can’t go to Kagoshima).
  • Get a prepaid card for the subway – if you live in London, it’s like an Oyster card. Japanese subway fare systems are byzantine (especially Tokyo) and it’s just easier to pile some Yen onto a card and swipe in and out. Top up using machines, they have English language options. The Narita Express used to have a great deal that included a Suica card but it looks like they don’t do that any more; pick one up at a machine or ticket counter instead. There are lots of different types of prepay cards but most are compatible with each other – see Japan Guide’s coverage map. The cards can also be used on some buses and in shops and vending machines.

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

Twitter reporting and general points on moderation

I’ve been working as a moderator for two years now, and the attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez and my realisation that Twitter doesn’t have an easy ‘report abuse’ mechanism made me think about exactly how reporting might work on Twitter. And then, since I’m here, I’ve whacked out some ponderings on moderation in general. Because, y’know.

Reporting abuse on Twitter

At the moment if you want to report an abusive user you have to fill in a massive form. I mean, it’s huge. It wasn’t easy to find, either. That might be fine if you’ve got one person who’s repeatedly attacking you but if you’re experiencing a sustained campaign of abuse, it’s just not practical.

There’s a page in Twitter’s help section that says you can report abuse from the individual tweet page by clicking on the ‘more’ option, but this doesn’t appear for me. Presumably it’s what Twitter’s Tony Wang is referring to when he says the company is trialling new ways to report.

Won’t a ‘report abuse’ button be abused?

God, yes. Happens all the time. I see a lot of comments about football being reported by fans of rival teams. But it’s all in the implementation. A fully or partially automated system is definitely open to abuse because machines can’t appreciate nuance, and anything that triggers an automatic, temporary suspension (which I believe happens at the moment) is just asking to be abused by anyone who wants to attack an account proffering an opposing point of view.

If I were developing this, it would be managed entirely by humans. If you report a tweet or an account it would vanish from your timeline so you don’t have to look at it any more (this is what Twitter is already trialling) but it stays live. A human being then assesses the tweet against Twitter’s published guidelines and makes a judgement on whether a suspension or total ban is needed.

Note that I say Twitter’s published guidelines. They’re there so that everyone knows where they stand, and assessments can only be made against them. That goes for every site, everywhere. From what I’ve seen, some of the threats against Criado-Perez would fail current guidelines (“You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.”), though the guidelines aren’t very detailed1. You might not like the guidelines (Facebook’s stupid ‘no breastfeeding photos’ is one example) but that’s another issue2.

And moderators aren’t idiots. A malicious report is obvious and I don’t act on it. It doesn’t matter if 1,000 people report the same comment, if it doesn’t break the guidelines it stays. I’d rather 1,000 people didn’t report the comment because that creates a lot of work, but I’m not going to cave under sheer numbers. I’d also rather wade through 999 false reports than not have a decent mechanism for one that’s genuine.

I’ve seen a concern that an easy ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter could be taken up by celebrities looking to sick their followers onto someone. But if implemented intelligently, the system could actually spell the end of that kind of abuse of power. If I get a load of reports in a short timeframe it’s fairly obvious it’s been sparked by something specific. If a tweet is constantly reported that was directed at someone famous, it’s the work of a few minutes to check that celebrity’s timeline and see if they unleashed the mob. In such a situation I think a short sleb suspension would be in order; banning people for malicious reporting does happen and I’ve done it.

This is going to need a lot of people

Yup. That’s what happens if you want decent moderation. Sorry, Twitter, you’re going to have to increase your staff. And sorry, Twitter users, you’ll probably have to put up with more adverts to pay for them.

And anyway, Twitter currently has the capacity to suspend accounts because an avatar breaks a trademark (as a friend of mine found out). If it can do that, it can adequately deal with abuse as well.

It’s not Twitter’s job to be the police

Isn’t it? In my job, if I see something that’s a clear and credible threat I pass it up the management chain and it could potentially end up with the police. If the tweets sent to Criado-Perez containing her address and a threat to rape her had been posted to somewhere I was working, I would have immediately flagged that. The same goes if someone seems to be a credible suicide risk. I’m here to protect as well moderate – partly because I’ve been trained to have knowledge of certain laws and am perhaps better positioned to spot breaches than your average Joe. I don’t see why Twitter should put all the responsibility onto its users.

What’s the problem with the current system? It’s only a form

It is just a form. But as I said above, it’s not practical if you have more than a couple of accounts to report. I’ve never experienced a tirade of abuse into my personal accounts, but I have for work.

It started with a trickle of messages into the software I was using to moderate a Facebook page. They were all the same, clearly a copy and paste job being directed from somewhere else. But within a minute there were 100 messages waiting to be processed in the queue, then within five minutes there was 1,000. And it wasn’t slowing down. I dealt with it quickly because a) I’m a pro b) I had the right tools at my disposal and c) none of it was directed at me personally. I cannot imagine having to report each one in a laborious process, without colleagues to call on, in my own time, and having to assess and explain in detail why each horrible comment directed at me broke the guidelines.

And I’m having genuine difficulty thinking of a website or social media platform that doesn’t have some form of one-click reporting. If you create a platform you have to accept some responsibility for the safety and peace of mind of your users.

Twitter’s international, how is it supposed to deal with different countries’ laws?

I don’t know; find some kind of common ground? Ask Facebook how it does it? It’s not like this stuff hasn’t been worked out by other platforms. Edit: to be clear, I’m talking about Twitter asking Facebook how it’s worked out complying with basic legal requirements across various countries, not how Facebook moderates.

[The section that follows has apparently been read by some people as me advocating the following be applied to Twitter. Hells, no! It’d be unworkable and massively undesirable. The following is more of a background to me, as an agency moderator, working on company sites and pages, which all have more restrictive guidelines than the much more laissez faire basic platform guidelines of Twitter and Facebook et al.]

And more generally… moderators will be swayed by their own personal beliefs

Not if you employ decent people. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff I’ve let stand even though I found it foul and deeply offensive. If it passes site guidelines it doesn’t get touched; if a moderator doesn’t abide by this rule they won’t be in the job very long.

What about companies deleting comments they don’t like?

99 times out of 100, this won’t happen because companies are now savvy enough to realise this is brand suicide.  If there genuinely are no negative comments, then the company is stupid and you probably shouldn’t do business with them. Or they’re the most amazing company and nobody’s ever had a problem. Hahahahaha. I’m kidding. Someone, somewhere, will always have a problem that the best place to air is Facebook.

No, I’ve seen it happen!

Have you? Or have you seen people complaining that their comment got removed ‘for no reason at all’? When in actual fact (and when I see people complaining while I’m working, I always check back) the comments got deleted for very, very obvious reasons. If someone is insistent that their comment got removed because it somehow reflected badly on the site, look around for a moment and see how many other negative comments there are. I’ll bet there are loads, but none of them is calling the CEO a fuckwit.

Moderation is censorship and is against my human rights

You have no protected human right to heap abuse on anyone or to say ‘motherfucker’ on Facebook. Grow up.

Moderation is definitely censorship though

OK, let’s talk this one out. If you consider removing comments containing severe swearing censorship (moderators genuinely have a list of permitted swearwords; e.g., ‘arse but not arsehole’, ‘one shit but no more’) then OK it’s censorship, but no more so than the TV watershed. You may be posting in a public space, but if you’re posting on someone else’s page or site it’s still ‘owned’ by them and they have a right to set the tone of the discussion.

More contentious may be the removal of mindless comments like “[product] is shit” or “[name of competitor] FTW!”. This is a circumstance where those complaining their negative comment got removed has some grounding, but not a huge amount; firstly, it’s easy trolling. You have a problem with a company? Fine, write it out properly. But mainly these types of comments can get removed because of what happens afterwards. Generally 20 other, equally immature, commenters leap in with inventive suggestions of how the original poster can go fuck him- or herself. It derails a conversation and is unpleasant to read. Someone on Twitter suggested that keeping social media a ‘pleasant’ place sounds a bit Stepford. Maybe. But I’ve seen the alternative and I prefer it this way.

Another major reason for ‘censorship’ is legal grounds. Your comment may be deleted because it’s breaching copyright or trademark law, contempt of court law (not many people understand this one; as a general rule, if a trial is ongoing, don’t write a comment saying “hang him” because you’ve just assumed guilt), or falls into the category of illegal hate speech. In those circumstances you should be pleased your comment got removed; we, as moderators, just saved you from getting your ass sued à la Lord McAlpine.

Twitter won’t be moderating on this kind of scale though; and nobody is going to ban an account for general use of ‘cunt’. Though if all an account is doing is calling people cunts, that could be enough for a ban if it’s reported. And that needs a human being to make a judgement.

I don’t care, it’s all censorship

OK. You’re entitled to your opinion. But may I humbly suggest that if you feel this strongly that you should be able to express yourself on whatever subject and in whatever manner you choose, then perhaps the Waitrose Facebook page3 is not the place for you?

If a troll is banned, won’t they just set up a different account?

Yes. But as I’ve already said, moderators aren’t stupid. Trolls, on the other hand, often are. It is usually so obvious when an account is a sockpuppet or secondary account; when I read this New Statesman article about the gamification of trolling (in essence: trolls are proud of their behaviour so want duplicate accounts to be recognisable) I nodded in agreement so much I was in danger of pulling a neck muscle. Usernames are similar; email addresses used to sign up are variations on a theme; syntax, spelling, arguments are all very familiar. I worked on one site where one user had at least 30 aliases; when we banned him on a Tuesday I’d be waiting for him to reappear on the Wednesday. Eventually he got bored and pissed off.

That kind of thing is easier to keep track of when you’re working on a small site. For Twitter, if they don’t have some kind of database where they can check suspicions about duplicate accounts they’d be foolish. However, creating a duplicate account in itself isn’t necessarily grounds for banning – though if new accounts are being created specifically to abusively troll they’ll break the guidelines pretty quickly. My advice would be to report on the basis of rule breaking and add suspicions of a troll returning as a secondary matter; if you report just because, after a couple of tweets, you think your troll has returned you’ll get yourself a reputation for malicious reporting.

Added 30 July: I forgot to say that of course, spammers set up different accounts as soon as the originals are taken down. But I don’t see anyone saying ‘oh, we should just block and ignore them, they’re entitled to advertise their fake Viagra pills if they want’.

How do you cope with this stuff on a daily basis?

I’m dead inside.


1. I’ve often thought it would be helpful for many websites to expand on their published guidelines. I’ve worked on several sites where guidance to moderators runs to several pages, but the only guidance to users is a couple of sentences of impenetrable legalese. Then they wonder at users getting pissed off when they don’t understand why comments get removed.

2. I’ve seen Twitter have apparently rejected a report of “I will rape you when I get the chance” as it doesn’t violate their rules. I guess they’re only looking for what we’d call ‘specific, direct threats’; in other words, they want a time and a place, or some other indication that the user genuinely intends to rape the target. I’m hoping that this is because Twitter doesn’t currently have the resources to properly investigate this kind of abuse and not because it doesn’t think it’s their job to act. On any project I’ve worked on, a comment like this would be immediately blocked and the user potentially banned for unacceptable abuse. I’d also be interested to know if the police have a lower threshold for triggering an investigation than Twitter do for banning. If so: Twitter, you have a problem.

3. I do not work for Waitrose or its Facebook page.

Did I miss any points? Put them in the comments and I’ll see if I have any background knowledge that might help.