Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gone skiing

Leaving tomorrow for a few days. I'm going to Nagano with some friends, where we'll do some skiing and soaking in onsen. It should be a good time. I went out and bought a new hat. It's a lot like the ones Ana and Damine had when they came earlier this month - earflaps to keep my extra-long lobes warm. Last year they almost froze off because my hat was too short. *Sigh* Japan.

Anyhoo, I'll be back on the 31st, when I'll then have to rush off to a house party down in Yokosuka, near the US naval base. My friend Kim is having a countdown party. Hope I can stay awake after 3 days of skiing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Santa brought me a hangover this year! It's like the adult version of coal.

On another note, today doesn't seem like Xmas. It's (relatively) warm and sunny out. Last year I was in Hokkaido where it was below freezing with snow and ice everywhere and my tongue stuck to the bus when I tried to lick it. Here? I just get my tongue dirty.

Going to a friend's house for a Christmas dinner. Should be rather nice.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Give money!

I don't know if this is the best time, economically speaking, to do so, but the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the ubiquitous Wikipedia and many other similar wikis, has issued a call for donations. I often link there for explanations of various Japanese terms and cultural references, not to mention using it for everything from learning about movies and books to looking up historical events.

I've plunked down a bit for them, I hope you'll consider doing the same.

Wikipedia Affiliate Button

Friday, December 12, 2008

That's what I get for sending money home two weeks ago

Back then, 96 yen to the dollar. When I got home from work today, 89.8.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mmm, breakfast

There's nothing like Nacho Cheese Doritos and clementine oranges, washed down with milk tea for Sunday breakfast. What can I say, I'm outta food. More on the reasons why later.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A nice surprise

I got two nice surprises last night, shirts from both my brother and my folks. I've had trouble getting shirts with sleeves long enough for me to wear, so it's good to get a fresh supply just as the weather has turned and short-sleeves aren't cutting it, even under a jacket.

Today I get to celebrate Thanksgiving, a few friends and I are headed up to Tokyo for a turkey lunch, then it's back to Hiratsuka in the evening for a potluck dinner party. I'm going to try and recreate my pumpkin soup recipe. The key is the blending.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What're you thankful for?

I'm thankful for my life as it is. Out of all the possibilities, sure, there are a hundred scenarios in which I'd have a better job, stable family by now, or something like that. Of course, I could also have ended up dead in a ditch at 16 if that car had hit me a hundredth of a second earlier. So on the balance, I have a pretty good life.

I do wish that I had an animal, but with my forgetfulness, it'd be a pile of bones by the time I remembered to water it. This is why I don't have kids, and why my plants are perpetually brown.

I'm thankful for my friends in Japan, the US and around the world who hang out with me, put up with my crap, and let me sleep on their couch. I'm thankful for being able to enjoy my life to the fullest. That's what matters.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Alternative to a Detroit bailout

This actually occurred to me one day, and then I pushed it aside as I was deciding whether to make pumpkin or potato soup. But it really is a theoretical possibility, as much as it may be a cartoon. Although, in my version, in exchange for a bailout, the Big 3 automakers were required to manufacture rails and train cars that the US government would then buy to construct a high-speed rail service in the Midwest. Considering the bailout is around $5 billion more/less (c'mon, what's a few billion when we're handing out trillions to the financial sector anyway?) than the high-speed service California's constructing. I, for one, will not move back to the US anywhere that doesn't have some form of decent public transit. Prompted by Keith Knight's cartoon

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Children of Japan

Speaking of WWII, this is an interesting video of Japanese life in pre-war Japan. It's interesting that even then the Japanese-as-photo-nuts stereotype is well-established. I also like how the narrator uses 'oftener'.

Dehumanizing the enemy

I came across an interesting discussion online about video games, and particularly the portrayal of different races as the villians. The game referenced here is a(nother) WWII first-person shooter, that's set in the Pacific theater. A gaming journalist took offense at the opening scenes, bringing up memories of his family, specifically his (Japanese-American) grandmother who was interned in the camps in the western US. If you feel uncomfortable, that's fine, but he goes on to use the Nazis as an example of a group that he has had no problem gunning down in other WWII shooters.

The discussion at Ars has ranged pretty widely, and I think it's notable that it hasn't descended into typical Angry Internet Man territory. There are some very thoughtful comments on what the use is of dehumanizing the Nazis, and how some people conflate the Germans of today with the Nazis of the 30s and 40s. I would highly recommend it, and I'll restate my comment there that it's important not to call the Nazis monsters, because it removes their humanity from them, thus making it less likely that the rest of us will be on guard for that same potential to commit atrocious acts. The best way to honor the victims of concentration camps is to realize that all of us are capable, and to protect against becoming what we decry.

The most interesting comments were about Japan, and how they were so much worse than the Nazis, and thus are even more deserving of dehumanization. My father wrote me recently, asking about the Japanese Air Defence Force general who was forced to resign after writing that Japan was forced to bomb Pearl Harbor, and specifically my reaction to a blog post he read.

History is written by the winners, but that only works if you eradicate the opponent. Otherwise, what you get are different versions written for different audiences. I'm going to assume most of you know the schoolbook American version. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, we fought back, it was very difficult, but we overcame the hardships and dropped atomic bombs because we had no other choice. This is not exactly how it went, and deserves some thought about revision. Why was Pearl Harbor bombed? Hint, it wasn't because we Americans were minding our own beeswax when the Japanese decided to conquer the US.

The Japanese schoolbook version is a bit different, and there's not actually one set version. There are some versions that are more true, but there are also a few revisionist versions that whitewash everything from the occupation of China to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the basic gist of what schoolchildren learn is basically that Japan started the war, people fought, then America dropped the bomb on poor, little Japan and now we should pity them and they have a cudgel to beat Americans with every August (which is reason #53 I leave during August, in between #52 80% humidity and #54 being bored out of my skull not doing anything for a month).

Neither the Japanese version nor the American schoolbook versions are entirely correct. Each one emphasizes what benefits the country's narrative (Americans fighting back after being unfairly attacked, Japan suffering the only atomic bombing in history) and minimizes embarrassments (American Marines boiling Japanese skulls for sending home as souvenirs, the firebombing of Tokyo, the Rape of Nanking, the death marches, "comfort women").

With my parents, I visited Yasukuni shrine, the one that gets Asians all upset when Japanese politicians visit because all war dead are enshrined there, including a number of class A war criminals. There's a history WWII there, told from the Japanese perspective. It's very illuminating, especially the parts about pre-Pearl Harbor events. Most Americans think Pearl Harbor just happened. There's no mention of the US oil embargo on Japan, nor how they were being strangled economically because of their involvement in China.

I'd really like to know more about Japanese sentiments, but it's very difficult to have this discussion with people. It's still an emotional topic.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Indiana went for Obama we know, now check out the video at this link (I'm too lazy to embed it). It's worth it, though. It's got Luke Russert, son, I presume, of Tim, at IU discussing the election. Just wait for the verrrry end:


The new setup

I've been saving my money up lately, since I got back from my summer vacation, and with my evening private lessons, I've been able to afford a new computer monitor. Well, that's what I call it. It's actually a hi-def Sharp AQUOS 37" TV. Does the job quite nicely as well. I'm still mucking about with the dual-monitor setup, and I've managed to get my shows, movies and games to play on the big monitor, while I can still use the smaller one for web browsing and chat programs, to see if they're worth pausing my movie for :P

Here's the pic of the new setup. What you can't see is the mound of crap I've shoveled out of the way to make this all nice and neat. Saturday and Sunday will be living room straightening day, though I've got a date Saturday in Kamakura (and I'll get your paper, Mom), which might preclude me from getting this stuff done. Ah well. Hopefully I'll have it ready in time for some Thanksgiving party action.

I'm still futzing about with stuff, so the arrangement will probably change due to space considerations. I'd also like to get a more sturdy rack for my CPU, barely visible behind the small monitor. They're some cheap-o 100 yen things I had lying around. Ye olde computer desk, inherited from my friend Nicole, will probably go to roommate Mike, who's about to start online classes. Which also means I'll have to get some headphones to play Fallout 3 in 1900x1080 resolution. Happy happy happy.

(And yes, that's a bottle of sake and a tupperware of Japanese pickles. The green bottle is water, and the rope....use your imagination)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back from Gifu

I had a three day weekend, so I took off to visit Ana and Damien in Gifu Prefecture, a ways off. We visited an old postal town on the Nakasendo (the inland route from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto). The main street is very well preserved, and full of little shops and wonderful restaurants. I had some awesome soba noodles and the local specialty, gohan-mochi, which are rice balls grilled and dipped into sweet peanut sauce. Good, but a tad messy. It was chilly out, so after the warmth from the soba wore off, we stopped in and warmed up at a little hirori (I think), which is a square of hard-packed earth with an open fire in it, and usually an iron pot cooking something over the fire. Very traditional.

We bought some local beers, and Sunday we visited a tiny village nearby to visit a sake brewery owned by one of Ana's students. The owner was in and allowed us to sample his wares. We probably could've gotten a tour had he not been the only one minding the shop that day. I got a bottle of something for myself to take home. It'll be good.

I just got home, then immediately sped out again to do some food shopping. Now it's bedtime, I'm wiped out. I'm uploading photos as I write this, so I'll linkify things when they're done (or more probably tomorrow)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Proud to Be an American Again

I've travelled a lot since 2000. I've been on 4 continents, the only white face in the room countless times. I've lived outside of the USA for longer than I've been in it. And to my discredit, I've often found myself wishing that I weren't an American citizen.

An old man on a train in Morocco asked me where I was from. I replied that I was from America. He said, "Ah, Bill Clinton," and started cackling. I was pretty embarrassed then. Little did I know...

In 2000 I watched the election from my boarding house in Madrid. I watched the Floridian fiasco play out to Spanish guffaws and ridicule. When Bush finally won, I wondered what was wrong. How did a nepotistic loser gain the highest office in the land?

I once got pinned into a crowd of pissed-off North Africans in 2000, demanding my nationality. I told them I was German and they left me alone.

I watched the Towers fall on a sunny, beautiful morning at Purdue University. People cried, constantly phoning, trying to reach family and friends. Some douchebags in my classes tried to convince the profs that we should have a day off from classes and get out early. One professor said we should just "continue on, because what the people who did this want more than anything was to disrupt our lives, and we can't let them."

I flew to Denver a month after, when the TSA changed the rules for baggage while I was gone, and I was stuck trying to repack everything at the check-in counter to match their specifications. The next three years were spent exactly as the professor said the terrorists wanted: in fear, confusion, orange alerts and duct tape. Shoes off at the airport, suspicion of everyone, some asshole driving a car into the mosque in Plainfield. My Indian girlfriend going to a supermarket in Carmel, IN and being treated like she was going to blow the place up. Racist fucks.

I don't even want to get into Iraq. Trillions of dollars squandered, thousands of dead Americans, multiples of that are now maimed or scarred, physically and/or mentally for life. Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, with at least a million chased from their country by ethnic strife. All because Saddam was bad, he had WMD, was complicit in 9/11, we needed to free the Iraqis. Bullshit. As Friedman said, we wanted to flex our muscles and tell the A-rabs to Suck. On. This. Yes, that's turned out well.

I went to Japan, where it's still reasonably pleasant to be an American, unless you live near a military base, where 18-year olds drunk on hormones and booze brawl and make general nuisances of themselves. Don't get me started on the military. It's hard to thank someone for their service when they're busy puking on your shoes or starting a brawl or raping the occasional Japanese schoolgirl.

Bush: worst President in post-WWII America, probably since the Civil War. A drug addict, failed businessman, draft dodger (yes, poppy pulling strings so you don't have to fight is dodging) and 'Christian' who should by all rights have been living in a halfway house were his daddy not rich. I was raised by my family to make your way on your own merits. This sad excuse for a man hasn't ever done that.

Two more months, then our long, national nightmare will end. We've elected a charismatic man, someone who truly worked their way up from nothing. The poor guy's grandmother passed away mere days before the election, the last person to raise him that was alive.

I don't expect him to be perfect, contrary to what many say, I don't believe he's the be-all end-all of our hopes. Him getting elected was half the battle. Now making sure he carries through on his promises and trying to get him to relinquish the powers Bush has seized for the office is the other half. And we won't win all of them. But we'll do better under him than under anyone else.

The McCain campaign used dirty tricks, claiming he was a socialist, with one hand egging the racists on, while with the other hand pretending to distance themselves. McCain probably isn't that racist, and he attempted to tamp down some of the more extreme stuff. But he certainly took what he could, and didn't bother to do much about it. Maverick my ass. Anyone who still thinks he's an independent man is deluded. He's only for his own glorification.

But that's in the past. We've got a long way to go. Civil unions for gays have been banned in at least 3 states and gay adoptions banned in Arkansas. Energy policy needs tackling, we've wasted 8 years to take the lead internationally. We seriously need national healthcare. We're the only developed nation without some form of national healthcare. We need fix so many things that have been broken or left untended for so long. Worried about Obama raising taxes? Shoulda thought about that before you cheered on two wars replete with war profiteering and watched our economy tank. Conservatives always trumpet personal responsibility, but they never want to take responsibility for the fallout from their bad ideas. Suck it up, boys.

We're on our way to something better, I hope. Get on board folks. Whatever comes, it's going to be interesting. And I'm finally proud to be an American again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Now THAT's my generation

Anyone else think being called Generation Y sucks? I'm definitely not Gen X, and not young enough for Millenial, so I guess I'm stuck in this generation with a crap name. Fortunately, one guy has a great suggestion, Generation Trail.

The criteria I'd set would be born 76-86, like Yglesias says, plus played Oregon Trail in elementary school. In addition, I'd say we're unique in that we're the generation to go through school with computers being around the whole time, but no Internet. I never used the Internet until a senior in high school, when I'd use my dad's email to write friends who'd graduated and gone off to college.

Any others?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Time to send money home

101 yen to the dollar. Wow!

UPDATE: 99.9 yen! Holy schmoly. C'mon payday!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Just a thought

For $700 billion, how many kids could have health insurance?

Ben's here!

My brother got here Friday night from Washington. He was only back in the States a week or so, having just got back from the sandy wastes of Iraq. He's still vacuuming sand out of his craw, but he's in good shape and a lot bigger than I remember (although I still win in height - yay!). Weirdly enough, we weight the same, which tells me that if I can somehow turn my beer gut to muscle, I'll have an advantage.

We hit up Bincho Ohgiya, my favorite yakitori restaurant the first night, then played darts at the sports pub near my house. Ben beat me at darts and then celebrated by breaking the tips off one of them. boo.

Yesterday we went to Kamakura and did the normal thing, visiting two of the major shrines and temples before jet lag set in. Ironically, he stayed awake the whole train ride back while I napped. In the evening we had a drinking session, complete with lots of sashimi and variuos fried stuff.

Today there's a Brazilian festival on in the park north of my place, so we're heading up there. It looks like rain again today (we had a typhoon brush us Friday night, then last night another rainstorm), so our plans for heading to Harajuku and checking out the crazy people is gonna have to wait til next week.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A slight detour, by Tarp Lazer Palin

Well, there's a lot going on. I've been back from Singapore for a couple weeks, broken up with my girlfriend, had a birthday that turned out alright after threatening to be a complete bummer. I'm now on a 3 day weekend drifting, not knowing at all what to do.

So instead of dealing with our problems, let's aviod them for 15 minutes and play the Sara Palin Baby Name Generator. You can see my name above. My friend Ana has the best name, as she's now "Skunk Grunt Palin," a name that only slightly bests her maiden name of Ana Roof.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Last night I watched Hancock. It was an alright movie, especially since I only paid about $3 to get in, and this is at one of the premier theaters in Kuala Lumpur, in the mall attached to the Petronas Towers. The downside? The censoring of certain words. Now I see why it was so cheap. They cut out the words, either leaving you to lip read Will Smith's expletives, or they just skip the movie ahead, cutting out the word/phrase. It's not a huge detriment, especially since Hancock didn't have that many cuts (that I know of), but it's enough to jar you out of the experience and deter you from watching other movies at that cheap a price. I suppose if I were going to watch a G-rated film, it would be alright. But I was planning on seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and they'd probably have to cut out half the movie. So there go my plans of escaping the midday heat with a movie.

That and the DVD player at the guesthouse is busted, so no watching their giant library of pirated dvds.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Spa fish

Meandering around Chinatown the other day, I got hit up by the touts selling massages. I usually blow them off, but one had a fish spa on offer, and for super-cheap compared to what it was going for in Tokyo. So for around $12, I got to sit in lukewarm water up to my knees and have hundreds of little fish come up and feast on my dead skin. It was a weird sensation, the fish are basically rasping the outer layer of skin off you. There were a couple really big fish that you could tell when they tried to take a bite, but otherwise, it felt like millions of tiny sand grains being rubbed on you, but all at a different pressure. I'll post a photo as soon as I find a good shot I can take. Might go back for another one today, since I saw one on offer for even cheaper, though the presentation wasn't as nice - basically you hang your feet in a plexiglass tank in a storefront window with passersby gawking.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Singapore to Malaysia

So now I'm Kuala Lumpur. I had a few good days in Singapore. I visited the zoo, a definite must-see that somehow I didn't on my trip last year. The enclosures aren't really cages, except for a few necessary ones like the butterfly enclosure or the close-up reptile enclosure (where, oddly, the only reptile I saw was an iguana - but there were tamarinds everywhere). most of the animals are separated by a large moat, except for one area with windows so you can get up-close and personal with the lions and tigers. The orangutans had two enclosures that they could travel between via ropes high up over the visitors' heads.

Besides that, I also went to the movies in order to catch The Dark Knight, which came out on the 2nd in Japan. It cost me only S$9.50, a far cry from the 1400yen I'd pay in Japan. I did a bit of shopping, especially books. I'm going through Stephen King's epic Dark Tower series. I managed to find the first two at the Border's in Singapore. I tore through the first one, and managed to finish the 2nd on my first night in KL. Fortunately, I found the rest of the series at a bookstore in the mall near my guesthouse. I picked up #3 and #4, will have to get the remainder before I move on. It's going to be heavy carrying all those around. Hmm.

I'd been staying at my college friend Borna's house. She and her family just moved into a really nice house out in the 'burbs in Singapore. It's a bit of a trek into the city, but I'm not complaining. Especially when a cursory look for hotels turned up quite a few going for S$200/night. Her family is fantastic, especially her mother who made sure I was well-fed every morning before I headed off to wherever. Her dad I didn't see as much, but on the first morning we chatted in the kitchen as he stuffed me full of watermelon. Her younger brother I only spoke with briefly, and her boyfriend was down with a throat infection, which curbed his natural chattiness. Hopefully, I'll get to see more of them when I pass through again on my way out.

So yesterday I got up early, and headed off for the border to Malaysia. I'd meant to get a really early start, but got caught up searching for a pair of shorts that had vanished into the black hole of family laundry management. They turned up eventually, a good thing when you only have three pairs, one of which is dirty and the other doesn't quite fit right. That pair's headed for the trash heap before I leave.

Anyways, got to the border ahead of the rush, definitely a good thing, since I don't have fond memories of my last trip through the overland border crossing. I made it to the Johor Bharu bus terminal in time to catch the 11am bus up to KL. Traffic wasn't too bad, so we got in just past 4pm, giving me ample time to plow through the 2nd Dark Tower book.

I wandered out, got a kebap for an afternoon snack, and plopped myself down in the guesthouse lobby to get an early night. Well, that's what was supposed to happen. I ended up chatting with some of the other guests, including one Malaysian girl from the northern part, who was apartment-hunting while she started a new job. She showed us around the local bar scene, which was very useful because I had no idea that there were some good expat bars down a tiny, dirty alley beside our guesthouse. I'd have probably gone my whole time here without finding them otherwise. So we hit a couple places, then I wanted to have something other than meat and beer in my stomach, so we stopped at an Indian place for ayam tanduri (tandoori chicken) and garlic naan.

Today's a bit of browsing Chinatown and searching for a lens cleaning kit, since I've got a small smudge on my filter I need to get off before it ruins my photos. Tonight? Maybe fish & chips at the pub 'round the corner and a chat with the owner, seemed like a nice guy last night.

Friday, August 01, 2008

My night in Changi

I've arrived in Singapore, and am currently deciding how I'm going to spend the night, until my friend Borna comes to get me. There's a decent place to crash out right here, but I've just got off the plane - I haven't gone anywhere to get my luggage yet. I need to do that before I can sleep, but I'm worried about getting stuck somewhere between immigration and customs where there won't be anyplace to sit. How fun. And I've got 8 minutes left on the terminal here, so I thought I'd post something real quick.

The flight was good - the staff are friendly and helpful, although the 2nd and last beer they brought me was Budweiser. I was hoping for more Tiger. I did get to catch up on my summer movies, I watched "Kung Fu Panda" and "Iron Man," both movies that have been out a while, I believe, but haven't arrived in Japan yet. I also watched "Leatherheads," the George Clooney movie. That man loves the '20s. That's all for this update, it's 2:15am and I need to find a sofa to lie down on.

Sitting, waiting, wishing...

I'm trapped in Narita airport now. My folks wanted to get here early for their 3:30pm flight, so we rolled in a bit ahead and they just went through security. I ran into my friend Todd, who's flying back to Philly today, and chatted, but he's just gone too. I'm stuck because Singapore Airlines won't open checkin until 3.30pm for my 7pm flight. So I'm in this place for at least 5 hours, with only a few periodic, frantic bursts of running about as I realize I've left something or other and get screwed.

I'll arrive in Singapore at 1.15am local time, well after the trains and buses shut, so I'll have the joy of sleeping on a couch somewhere inside the restricted zone and hope nobody ganks my camera. Gosh, ain't flying fun?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stabbing rampage

Last (Monday) night, my parents and I went out to dinner in Hiratsuka near the station. I took them to a ramen shop I really like. On the way, we saw a bunch of fire engines race up to the station, and there were a ton of police at the koban.

Turns out, there was a stabbing rampage here in Hiratsuka around that time. It's the latest in a series of stabbing episodes that kicked off after one guy ran over a bunch of people in the Akihabara electric district, then got out and started stabbing the people who'd gone to help the victims. Seven people died in that, but fortunately, none of the seven men stabbed in Hiratsuka were seriously wounded. That's some crazy stuff.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My folks are coming

Well, that's the theory, anyway. They were supposed to land at 1:30 this afternoon and be here by now, but it turns out their flight was delayed, and they won't touch down until 8pm. This puts a serious damper on their first day here, as they won't even reach Hiratsuka until almost midnight.

At a loss for what to do with myself today (I cleaned the apartment somewhat yesterday, but that motivation has gone out of me today), I rode my bike around town. The downside was that I forgot that it was really hot and sunny, and how that would affect my poor bare arms and shoulders, which are currently bright red and not too happy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Corporation

I finally got around to watching "The Corporation", a documentary recommended to me by a coworker a few years ago. I expected it to be a diatribe against corporations and capitalism, simply that it was evil and we should do away with it. What I found instead was a serious look at the history behind corporations, and the "legal person" theory (you have the 14th Amendment, granting rights to slaves, to thank for that - along with hordes of corporate lawyers).

One of the more interesting characters in the film was a man called Ray Anderson, founder of a carpet company. In the mid-90s, he had an epiphany, after customers started asking about his company's environmental considerations. For people who would take the corporatist position on this, his story is important to note, especially considering he's managed to balance profits with social responsibility. In my opinion, the ethical decline the world has suffered is not due to atheism and lack of religion, but a blind adherence to the almighty dollar. This should give those genuflecting businessmen something to chew on.

The main thrust of the film is that corporations have one inherent evil, a drive for profits that gives them an incentive to ignore long-term benefits in place of short-term profits. The idea isn't that capitalism is bad, but that the way it's currently done - in the case of a corporation responsible to no one - is.

It also gives a good reason to stay away from milk in America. Unless you like bacteria-filled pus, that is. Ick. Glad Japan has the sense to limit rBGH.

My new toy

It can't do Aut-exposure bracketing for HDR, but it oughta take some pretty photos.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Josh and Jenn came to visit

I've been remiss in my writing, so let me say that my friend Josh and his wife Jenn came to visit last week. It was good to see someone from home finally show up here, it'd been more than 18 months since my last visitor. My apartment is rather small and not well-suited to accommodate visitors, nor is my roommate terribly keen on having people crash on our couch for a week (he bitches a lot). So it was a great stroke of luck that my friend Eric from Michigan had to go to western Japan for some business during that time, and graciously opened his apartment to them.

Anyways, hopefully I'll get around to posting the pics, but this weekend's the Tanabata festival, so I won't be in the house much.

Happy birthday America

232 years old today, and your age didn't start showing until about 7 years ago...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Summer plan decided

Well, I was thinking I'd hang around Japan, but with friends visiting now, my folks coming next month, my brother coming in September, and my good friend Miwa just now getting back from Thailand, I'm feeling left out from all the travel goodness. So I've got a flight booked to Singapore on August 1st, the day my parents leave. What I didn't realize is that it's upwards of a couple hundred bucks for a hotel room, and I wouldn't be arriving til about 2am. Thankfully, my college pal Borna came to the rescue and secured a bed for me in her parents' guest room. Score!

I'm not gonna hang around Singapore for 3 weeks, though, since my objective is to spend less money than I would futzing about in Japanland. So I'm thinking of boating over to Indonesia (mind the pirates!) and resting on the beach. I'm thinking about the Riau islands, though this might change depending on what info I can get about it. My idea is to stop off at the Border's in Singapore, load up on books, find a small island with a dive shop and a beach chair, and park my butt there for a while.

That's the plan, though my manic side might take over and I'll turn up in India with a hangover, a sore bum and a missing kidney.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

My letter to Senator Obama

What the hell, Senator Obama? I'm extremely disappointed in your support for the so-called 'compromise' on the FISA bill in H.R. 6304. There are times for compromise, and then there are times to stand firm. I've spent so much time defending you to friends and family, telling them you're the right man for the job, that you're interested in getting our country back on track after 8 years of abuse. And many of them had come around. These were Republicans and Libertarians who were going to vote for a Democrat, something they'd villified for so long, because of your statements on reaffirming our civil liberties.

And then this happens. You've soured untold numbers of people by this craven folding to 'compromise.' This is not a compromise, it's giving criminals immunity from prosecution. I expected better from you. So much for Change we can believe in.

If you want my vote in November, you're going to have to work hard to earn it. Because you've just lost yourself a ton of credit.


Jeremy Eades

Monday, June 16, 2008

A question

Is it good or bad if my biggest concern is whether to wear track pants because they're cooler, or jeans because they'll prevent children from poking their fingers up my butt?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Maybe it's human sacrifice

There's some weird chanting coming from the house right by my balcony. It started around noon, when a friend of mine was over picking something up. He asked me what it was, and we couldn't figure it out. Eventually, we stood on the balcony and could hear it coming from that house. It sounded like that part from Indiana Jones, right before they tore the guy's heart out of his chest. Hope that's not our neighbors.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Derren Brown, Messiah

Dunno if any of you have ever seen this guy, but he's a really talented British magician, and in one show, he goes around the US trying to convince 5 influential members of various kooky communities (including an evangelican preacher) that he's a legitimate practitioner of whatever they're pushing. In it, he claims to be psychic, be able to convert people to Christianity with a single touch (this one got me the most), can read dreams with a magical crystal-powered box, was abducted by aliens and can read people's medical history, and talk to the dead.

Brown's an adept magician, he uses these skills to manipulate people and situations to maneuver them into believing him. The first segment, on remote viewing, provided the most "WTF!? how did he do that?" moment, but the Christianity conversion was the most interesting. I for one, find it pleasurable to have someone touch me, or be near me, but it's nothing religious, I just enjoy human contact. One of my most memorable moments was watching a friend of mine -- Christina, I think -- draw a picture in a cafe in Spain. It was just that feeling of closeness to someone else, nothing more.

He may be a skilled entertainer, but I doubt everything he did was merely psychology. Here's a good video of him reading someone's mind whilst ballroom dancing. Cold reading is a skill I'd love to have, though I don't know that I could only use it for good. Here's a criticism of Derren Brown as well, decrying his claims (on another show) that he didn't use magic. The Youtube video is eight parts, so just look for the next one in the related videos section.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Immigration rant

My visa expired last April. Yes, nearly two months ago. But more than two weeks before, I’d gone to the immigration office in Yokohama to renew my visa. I took the same information that my co-worker, Tracey, took when she went to do hers, a tax receipt for the past year and proof of current employment.

So I get there early, because if you don’t, you’re waiting in line for hours (my roommate waited an hour and a half when he went in the afternoon), and take my number, then go fill out my application, making sure to request the 3-year visa. I’m number 18, twelve people behind who’s being served now. I get up there, hand over all my documents, and the lady asks me for information on my previous job. Previous job? That was more than a year ago. But she still wants the info, and asks for two specific things, proof of employment at the previous job, and info that I’d paid taxes. Why they didn’t ask Tracey, you got me. But anyway, I said ok, they gave me an envelope to put the stuff in, and I head off. I email my old company a few days later, and get all the stuff mailed off around the 1st of April.

And then I wait. Tracey gets her notice to pick up her visa around the time our visas expire (by an odd coincidence, we have almost exactly the same expiry date), but I don’t get anything. I wait more, and by the end of April I’m wondering if my roommate hadn’t thrown it out with the daily mound of junk mail. At the beginning of May, I call the info line and ask what’s up. They say it’s probably just been held up, April’s their busy month, and to just sit tight.

Fast forward to May 23rd or so. I’m tearing my hair out, paranoid that I’ll get pulled over by the cops on my bicycle and arrested for having an expired visa (we get a stamp in our passports that allows us to remain legal while the visa’s being processed, but our foreigner registration card shows the original date) by an overzealous cop who won’t care if I claim I’ve got a legit stamp at home. And they can keep you locked up for a few weeks without having to file charges. And I check the mail and I find that glorious little postcard telling me to pick up my visa before May 30th.

Fortunately, I’m off the Monday before then due to the sports day held over the weekend, so I can go in. I get up early, about the same time as usual since it’s a longer haul to Yokohama than to work, and set off. I’m still groggy and the morning caffeine hasn’t kicked in, so I miss the station I was supposed to get off at. I switch trains, go back one stop, get off, and promptly go out of the wrong exit. And there’s no way back to the correct exit through the station, gotta cross the river over the little bridge with the ramp in the middle for bikes. As I’m walking down the stairs on the far side, I somehow miss and step half on the step, half on the air above the ramp and do a superman down the stairs. The slope was shallow, so there was no tumbling, but I managed to sprain my right ankle, one that has been weak for a while. And it hurt. Bad. I’ve never sprained it this badly before. It hurts like hell, but the only thing going through my mind is, I don’t wanna get deported, gotta get to immigration now. So I limp the 15 minutes (20 with a bad leg), go into the convenience store to buy the stamps. It’s $40 for the visa renewal, plus another $60 for the multiple re-entry permit (if you leave without one, your visa is automatically cancelled and you can only re-enter on a 90-day tourist visa – goodbye job). I limp my way up to the 5th floor and get in line. This line typically goes faster than the initial application line, so even though I’m twelfth, I get up to the front pretty quickly. The kind lady takes my stuff, puts it in a folder and gives me a waiting number. About 20 people ahead of me, but that’s not so bad. I sit down and crack open my book, trying to ignore bawling kid next to me and the pain and swelling going on in my foot, and try to tough it out. Eventually, my number gets called and I limp up to the counter. The guy shows me my passport, checks ID, then shows me my visa stamp. “Here’s your one-year visa,” he says. Wait – what? One year? I ask him, and he says something to the effect of, “Yeah, that’s what you had last time.” I try to explain that I had a 3-year visa, why didn’t I get another one, and you can see the wall go up. Either he doesn’t understand or he understands and could care less about explaining to me. I wonder how many foreigners he gets trying to argue their visa status each day. My throbbing ankle makes me completely unable to deal with any conflict, the soullessness of the atmosphere has sucked any combativeness out of me. I limp out of there, my reward for $100, a sprained ankle, and train fare to Yokohama? A one-year visa that I’ll have to do all over again next year.

This is the kicker. A three-year visa? Forty bucks. A one-year visa? Forty bucks. That multiple re-entry stamp? Good for as long as your visa. So Tracey, who’s in the same position as me, gets a three-year visa with a smile from Immigration. I get grilled on past employment and a dinky one-year visa, despite having lived here for 4 years, 3 of those on one visa stamp. I suppose I would understand and accept it if there were rhyme or reason to it, but there’s not. It’s completely arbitrary. I checked the little box that asks if you want a 1-year or 3-year visa, so why didn’t I get it? I’m not the only one, either. This has happened so many times. People who arrive around the same time will go in together to renew their visa, and one will walk out with a three-year, one gets a one-year, but both apply for a 3-year, and have the exact same work conditions.

It sounds like whining, and it is, but part of it is the fact that I will have to go spend another $100, plus 2 days taking the train to Yokohama, possibly missing work, just to do this all over again. Theoretically, if I do this again next year, and they give me the same damn one-year visa, I’ll spend $300 whereas someone else who gets the lucky strike only shells out $100. Like I said, if there were a method to this madness, I could accept it, even if I didn’t like it. But there’s nothing. No explanations, nothing. This sucks. And my ankle hurts.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Here's a haiku for you

Ode to the Tsurugaoka Hachiman gingko

I was there last month
all those squirrels are gone I
wonder where they went

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Monon Trail dilemma

The Senator from Delaware made a speech recently on the need for more mass transit, especially in the face of rising gas prices.

From Planetizen, I found this IBJ article about planners in Indy looking to add streetcars as a form of mass transit to relieve congestion. This is something I think every city needs to look into. I know lots of people back home would always bring up population density and how no one would use it, etc. And to look at the comments at the IBJ article, the same short-sighted view is on display. One reader questions why his taxes should pay for a line that only goes to Irvington, overlooking the simple fact that we can't build a full network immediately. Start with Irvington, then slowly add and build up.

I went to public meetings about this while I was at Purdue, the city was discussing building a line from Union Station out to Noblesville in order to relieve some of the congestion on I-465. It would have been a great idea had it worked, but people were up in arms about everything. About how they'd be inconvenienced waiting at RR crossings for the trains to pass. One couple stood up and actually made the argument that they'd bought a home along the rail corridor the city wanted to use in hopes that it would turn into a Monan Trail and up their property value. They were aghast that people would want to use an existing rail corridor for - get this - a railroad!

And this brings us to the Monon Trail. In all, it seems to be a very noble idea - build a greenway that cyclists, skaters and pedestrians can use, that connects various neighborhoods and will bring people together. I admit making use of this trail, albeit only 3 or 4 times in the time it has existed. Frankly, I think it should go, and a light rail service be put in place. Wikipedia claims that it's successful for its promotion of healthful activities such as walking and biking, and that it promotes local businesses along the trail. I'd beg to differ.

The climate of Indianapolis is not the most favorable. It changes frequently, from bright and sunny to sudden downpours with strong winds, neither of which is conducive to cycling or walking. In addition, the weather from about October to April is chilly, if not dangerously cold, while the summer months often find people hiding indoors from the scorching heat, something that a walk on a sun-beaten asphalt path wouldn't help. In addition, the Trail passes through some unsavory neighborhoods as it moves towards downtown. While that may change, it means that at the moment many people, primarily women, are afraid to go anywhere on the trail south of Broad Ripple, especially alone (this is based on conversations with several friends and hasn't been scientifically studied. Who knows, maybe all my friends are wusses).

I believe a light rail service that ran the length of the Trail would be far more useful to the city and beneficial to its residents. The trail extends for quite a long distance and passes through several central commercial areas. The city should put stops in at, say, downtown, the Indiana Fairgrounds, Broad Ripple, Nora, 116th Street by carmel, probably another one farther north, as well as one or two more in between downtown and Broad Ripple, which would connect several popular destinations, primarily downtown and Broad Ripple year-round and the Fairgrounds during the summer with the exploding populations of Fishers and Carmel. Doing so would revitalize the perrenially empty Nora area, as well as bolster the already popular destinations downtown and in Broad Ripple. Something like this should be done in conjunction with another line headed NE out to Noblesville, as well as another stretching to Zionsville. These would cover the parts of Indianapolis that I have extensive knowledge of, connecting popular residential and commercial areas in a bid to reduce congestion and parking space, as well as provide a safe alternative to driving. Such a system would be a boon to the pubs and clubs downtown, in Broad Ripple and in Castleton and would hopefully reduce drunk driving.

While this would mean the loss of a somewhat popular (Indiana Greenways claims a study has shown "thousands of users" but neglects to tell us if that's per day, week, month, year, or ever, which wouldn't mean very popular, methinks) exercise trail, I think we as Hoosiers need to question why we need a greenway separated from cars - a greenway that I have always needed a car to travel to so that I can make use of it. The city itself should be a greenway, more friendly to bikers and pedestrians, and designed in a way that benefits those who make use of more healthy, less space/energy-consuming modes of transportation. If the trains were designed to allow stowage of bicycles, these could be taken to the destination points, taken out and ridden around. In addition, bus lines could run out from the station along major roads. From Broad Ripple, for example, a bus running eastward could run to Castleton and beyond, which a westward-bound bus could follow the canal (another popular bike path) all the way to Butler University, connecting residential areas along the way. Tram lines like the ones featured in the IBJ article could also be used, although they move slower and would not be very efficient on the Monon itself. As well, transfer stations around I-465 could allow a loop train to connect various spokes of the wheel if a train could be made to run in between the two major lanes of traffic.

A side benefit would allow for fewer parking spaces and for certain areas to utilize parking lots and turn them into open-air malls that are more pedestrian-friendly could hold more businesses. One other thing that should be done is to redo zoning in areas around the station to allow for taller buildings with commercial street-level properties. This would allow for essential stores to be placed closer to larger amounts of people. Taking over the various big-box stores, razing them and their parking lots and building an apartment complex maybe three stories high with streetside grocery stores would certainly be an improvement to the urban blight we have going on now. And if you believe a person wouldn't want to live in a condo around Nora within walking distance to a train line that runs to the commercial center downtown as well as the party district of Broad Ripple, I've got a nice portfolio of subprimes you might be interested in. I'll even throw in a bridge to sweeten the deal.

So yeah, this a wild, incoherent rant, but it's one that needs to be ranted. I've lived in several cities now, and I definitely know the benefits and drawbacks (I lived next to one of the most heavily-travelled train lines - the 4am freight train wasn't fun) of public transport. But the reality is, not everyone can own a car. This would help poorer people to travel to work affordably, and allow others who are better off to be more efficient in their time. What do you do during your 45-min commute? Drive and get stressed? I could sleep, read a book, check out the pretty girl across the aisle from me, etc. Of course, you occasionally get the old drunk with horrible breath leaning on you, but the good things more than make up for it.

Indiana Greenways says that from 10th street to 96th is roughly 16km (well, they say it's 10 miles, but I'm going metric here, get used to it). From Hiratsuka to Tokyo is 50-60km, or roughly an hour with several stops. 16km would probably get you from here to Ofuna, or 20 minutes with three stops in between. Would you like be able to go from Broad Ripple to downtown in 20 minutes, without having to drive. That means no $50 taxicab back from the bar, and a whole heap of other hidden costs taken out. If there was a monthly pass system, that would mean a free ride all the way, making it an absolute steal.

The ways are out there, they just need to be seized. On this note, I'm off to bed. Let me know what you think if you manage to read this far.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Hey, I'm in Wikipedia

I don't have my own entry yet, but it's a start.

Back from camping, with a souvenir sunburn

I just got back in this evening from Nikko. Going wasn't bad, despite the smattering of rain on the way. It took quite a while, about four hours by train to Nikko station and then another 45 min or so by bus to the campsite, with a pause between the two to load up on groceries. This was the first time to go camping without a car to get me where I needed to go. It's very difficult to do 'car camping' when you don't have a vehicle. Other people drove, so they brought a couple crates of beer, but the four of us who came together had to get all the food and haul it there.

The camp was beautiful. I went camping there two years ago and had a great time, and this year was with many of the same people, though I think we had fewer than the previous time. We set up camp, played a game of ultimate frisbee, and set up a great campfire where we cooked a good deal of food. Yesterday was spent hiking partway around the lake, to a nice little beach, where we rested and had lunch. A couple of guys went for a dip, but they didn't last long in the mountain lake. It's up around 1200m elevation, we could still see snow in crevices on the mountains. I dipped my feet in, but nothing else. Sayaka made friends with a 9-year old in our group and they made sand sculptures of boobs, which I'm sure greatly entertained the families who went trekking past us on the way out.

After the hike, we wandered up the highway to the onsen. This one was definitely natural -- it had that eggy smell, and the water was milky and had a nice later of sulfurous sediment encrusting the spout. It was also searingly hot. I could only sit down in it just above my belly because it drove my sunburn mad, so when I got out and stood in front of the mirror everything below that sharp line was a bright pink. But it was relaxing, and the stroll along the waterfall just outside the onsen was beautiful.

The second night wasn't anywhere near as cold as the first night. Sayaka spent that night wearing all the layers she had and still shivering and complaining about the cold. She got up 5 or 6 times for I don't know what, though once was to buy a hot tea from the vending machine at the camp office -- I know because I knocked it over in our tent when I woke up. We made sure to rent a heavy blanket from the camp office for the second night, but it was still chilly the second night, though not like the first.

Our ride home was a huge pain. One reason we left so early to go to Nikko was because of the horrendous traffic jam that hits that area during Golden Week. We were lucky enough not to have any traffic going, but heading back was a nightmare. The bus didn't come for us once, so we had to wait for the next one, which headed down the mountainside in a hair-raising series of hairpin turns and the occasional monkey crossing the street. It then proceeded to get stuck in a long, snaking traffic jam all the way to the station, during which time it started raining. We got to the station only to find out all the express trains had been sold out, so we had to take a local train. It wasn't so bad as we were lucky enough to get a seat, whereas some of our friends who were in a hurry to get home had crammed themselves into an earlier train with (very little) standing room only.

We were waiting for the bus from about 1:15pm, and I didn't roll in to Hiratsuka until about 7:45pm. That is a long trip. I'm exhausted and my insides are punishing me for the enormous quantity of alcohol consumed with an almost entirely carnivorous diet for three days. Oh, not to mention, I brought my camera, but forgot to put the memory card in, so all the photos I got were taken with Sayaka's camera and will be a little tardy in getting posted.

Friday, May 02, 2008

4-day weekend, woohoo!

This week is Golden Week, and on my extra-long weekend, I'm headed off to Nikko for some camping. I went a couple years ago as well and had a good time. Sayaka and I went shopping and are now the proud owners of a tent and a soft-sided cooler.

We're not driving this year, there was a shortage of people with cars, so we have to take the train. Carrying all of our gear will be interesting. We're not travelling alone, we'll meet up with a few friends on the way, and things should be easier as we'll buy stuff at the supermarket near Nikko station, so carrying stuff shouldn't be too tough. But we're going during one of the busiest times of the year, and since everyone and their brother is going camping up there, my guess is that the market will be sold out. I'm hoping to be proved wrong. Otherwise, we'll be up a creek.

Tonight I have a welcome party for new teachers, and then I've gotta get up before 6am to get the train. Ick.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Caught up

Now that I’m more or less caught up with spring break, I can focus on other things. This year isn’t too bad. I’ve got one of the teachers asking for me to see if there’s an aikido place around Hiratsuka where I could learn. Hopefully enrolling in a course where I’d have to go would make me more likely to go. Rather than dithering about going to the gym because it’s raining and I hate going out in the rain because I can’t ride my bike. I’ve also taken on a couple of things to do in the evening. It’s good money, but I sometimes wonder if I’m stretching myself too thin. Fortunately, they’re not too frequent, so they shouldn’t eat up too much of my free time.

Last weekend Sayaka and I went to Kamakura for the Kamakura Festival. I think the festival is supposed to commemorate one of the rulers from back when Kamakura was the capital of Japan, but the modern festival didn’t get started until the 50s or 60s, probably as a way of drawing tourists, particularly foreigners, down from Tokyo and up from Yokosuka (where the US Navy base is). It certainly worked – I haven’t seen that many foreigners since I met Aaron’s friends and went walking around Akihabara and Shibuya. If I start becoming surprised at seeing westerners, does that make me more Japanese? I hope not.

Anyways, the main reason I went to this festival was to see the yabusame. I’ve mentioned it before, it’s basically Japanese horseback archery. The horses come charging down a path and the archers shoot at targets that, realistically, aren’t that far away. I don’t think ancient Japanese warriors hung around waiting for the archers to get three meters away just so they could get plugged by an arrow. They probably had pikes and things longer than that, come to think about it. It seems to be more ceremonial than anything. The targets are all trussed up with flowers hanging off the sides. It also makes sense to have a closer target, considering the huge crowds of people, as well as the large proportion of foreigners and their propensity for ignoring Japanese rules and wandering about where they don’t belong, like behind the target range.

The horses were fun to watch, and the riders, one in particular, urged their horses on really fast as they flew down the course. We were next to the second target, so we had a good view of them drawing the bow, but we couldn’t see around the barrier to see if they actually hit the target. From what I gathered, only one person missed. It’s pretty impressive that they did so well, especially in comparison to how I’d fare (I can’t even ride a horse), although with targets that close…

Afterwards, we found a little sausage shop and got a couple sausages and a really good Kamakura beer.

The new school year

We’re now into the second week of the school year. In previous years, at the other school system, I was moved around quite often, and had to visit four or five schools for a week or two at a time - and every six months, that set of schools changed. All this meant that I never really got to know the students very well, or see their progress in English, or just in general. In my second year there, I was moved back to one school that I’d taught at at the beginning of my first year. It was fun to see how the students had changed, and it was nice that some of them even remembered who I was.

At my current schools, I rotate between the same two elementary and two junior high schools. After teaching the sixth graders in elementary, who were acting like big shots over there, and seeing them as first-years in junior high, is rather humorous. They’re so meek and quiet now. It seems like the third-years have gotten bigger somehow, over the three-week spring vacation.

Adding to the mix, some teachers have changed schools. We have new teachers coming in to replace retiring ones, as well as some teachers who’ve reached their mandatory limit for teaching at one school (I think it’s nine years), and have been reassigned to the other school. So the vice principal at one junior high school became the principal at the other, both of the elementary principals moved, and nobody told me, so I nearly ran down one of the new principals, this tiny lady, who was making tea when I was trying to find some class materials. Just another day, I suppose.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Visit to Nagoya and Kani

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so some recaps. I went to visit Ana and Damien in their new home in Kani City, in Gifu Prefecture at the end of March. It was good to see old friends again, and especially interesting to see another part of Japan. I’d pretty much assumed all of Japan looked more or less like Hiratsuka, with everything centered around a train station, and getting less dense the farther away you got. Kani’s not like that. There are two train stations, right next to one another, but they’re not near the center of the city. Really, Kani doesn’t seem to have any really defined center. There’s an older section, with narrow roads and old wooden buildings that probably was Kani back in the day, but the busiest places seemed to be the shopping centers located far away from the historic area.

Getting around by car was a unique change of pace. I rode in a car there more than I have in the past year in Hiratsuka. Damien commented that one reason he wanted to come to Japan was to escape having to drive everywhere. Now he drives 5 days a week to his schools. We drove out to a mountain to do some hiking and happened across a large group of mostly older Japanese folks, all of them out to view these little purple flowers that covered only a small area of the northern side of the hill. It was really odd since we’d rather expected it to be quiet and empty, only to be directed by people directing traffic viewing for small, purple flowers.

As far as sightseeing goes, we went to Inuyama Castle, the first time Ana had been on a train since she’d come to Japan. Inuyama is one of four or so original castles. All of the others had been burned down or bombed in the war and are concrete reproductions. Outside, you can’t really tell, but inside the difference is striking. Odawara Castle, near where I live, is a reproduction, and the interior is nice and wide, easy to access, with nice views from the windows. Inuyama feels old. Upon entering, the first thing you have to do is climb up a set of narrow, incredibly steep stairs into a confining room with nothing in it except another set of the same stairs leading to the castle. I don’t know the real purpose, but I’d guess it would be difficult for heavy, armored attackers to enter and move up the stairs. But my understanding is that Japanese castles were mainly for shows of power and keeping treasure and arms, so I’m not really sure.

The grounds of Inuyama are pretty, the castle’s perched on a hill over a river, giving you a fantastic view of the surrounding area. A good military vantage point, I suppose. Walking back we saw what I think is probably the prettiest tree I’ve ever seen. It was a cherry tree in full bloom in the garden of a little temple. It’s called shidarezakura, a kind of weeping-willow cherry tree.

While that was a beautiful tree, Inuyama has nothing on the grounds of Nagoya Castle. One of the guys in an English group I go to occasionally got his sister-in-law to show us around Nagoya. She took us on a walking tour to the castle. After walking a bit from the bustling station area, we walked about a block off the main thoroughfare and found a bunch of Meiji-era buildings and little, worn shrines. This area was a shopkeepers district back in the day. Coming upon the castle, it looks like it’s just a nice, peaceful pedestrian park, but once you get in the gates, you see the castle set back, peeking out through myriad cherry trees. That had to be one of the largest groupings of cherry trees I’ve seen, right up there with the famous Ueno Park area of Tokyo. One of the curious features was the moat. There wasn’t any water, it had long been drained and was covered with grass. The weird part was the deer in it. There was no visible way out, nor any noticeable water source or food, besides the Japanese tourists for whom feeding wild animals ranks up there as a pastime with baseball and eating anything they can put in their mouths.

Most of the castle and its gate towers were reconstructions, the originals were destroyed by Allied bombs. They did a remarkable job on the reconstruction, and the interior of the castle, while not very authentic, made a better museum than Inuyama did.

After the castle we headed to another random open-air mall, but a beautiful one with a roof that was essentially a giant glass oval with a pool on top. We had a coffee underneath it, then took the elevator up and watched the sun set. It wasn’t very high, but afforded us a good view of downtown and the taller landmarks nearby. It seems every major Japanese city has a large, orange and white radio tower modeled after the Eiffel Tower. Tokyo’s is the most famous, but Sapporo has one, as does Nagoya, even Hiratsuka has a smaller, gray version perched on top of Shonandaira mountain, that bizarre lump that I have to ride around to get to my schools every day.

After my friend, Toshiko left, the three of us had some greasy izakaya food and lots of beer and sake, a must whenever you’re in the party district of a city.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Meguri Max!

Well, I've got some things to write about my spring vacation, but I'm still recovering and exhausted, so I don't feel like writing much. Instead, I'll show you a bizarre Japanese game. Here's the game's own explanation:
I'm the Mekuri Master, the Skirt-Flip King. The name isn't their idea... It's mine. I'm a man who was born to lift skirts. You think any so-called "rules" are gonna stop me? When classes get out, I race through the corridors like a fearsome wind, flipping, flipping, flipping up girls' skirts and letting the whole world know that I am the Mekuri Master!
Basically, you're some pervert running through a school hall flipping girls skirts. It's harder than it sounds (oh, I kill me!). You can even select the type of panties the girls have. For those of you unwilling to play, here's a video for ya:

(from Rock, Paper, Scissors, video by GameTrailers)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Off to Gifu tomorrow

That's the plan anyway. I've got my tickets, and a bunch of books I'm going to offload onto Ana and Damien. I've also got some other things, but since they read this blog, I'm not gonna say what they are. But it's gonna be fun!

Today was a lazy day. After going to bed way too late last night, I puttered around the house, walked to the place I'd left my bike last night (it decided to pour down suddenly), and went to the internet cafe to print some things off. The weather's warmed up recently, and the cherry blossoms picked today to come out, which is really lucky because usually one good rain ruins them all. Looks like I'll be doing my hanami thing in Gifu prefecture this year.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Spring vacation

Friday was the last day of the school year, at least for me. In the town I work for, there is a special school for troubled kids. I'm not sure if it's because they have family problems, or behavioral problems of the kids themselves - probably a combination of the two - but the students live there. There aren't many, only about 15 or 20 students, and nearly as many teachers there. Tracey and I go only very occasionally, Friday was the 3rd time for us. The last two times we played soccer and visited the festival held on the school grounds, but this time we went to Enoshima Aquarium in Fujisawa city.

It's fairly small, but pretty good for one not in a huge city. A few weeks ago I went to Hakkejima Sea Paradise, and while Enoshima lacks a ginormous whale tank with beluga whales and roller coaster rides, they do well with what they've got. The construction is really impressive, there's a giant central tank full of schooling fish, stingrays and various other fishes. The entrance is on the 2nd floor and winds around the central tank, giving you small glimpses into it while showing various aquatic ecosystems around Japan, then finally opens up into a giant glass wall that shows the whole tank. It's pretty breathtaking for a town of 400k people.

So we went with the kids and got in free (teachers get free entrance, yay!), then ran all the way to the other side for the dolphin show. After that was a more leisurely walk back around the aquarium and then hanging out at the beach right next to the aquarium. That part was still rather cold and windy.

And that finished my last day of school, how tough. But it's not all fun and games yet. Tomorrow I've gotta go to the immigration office in Yokohama and suffer through the visa renewal process. After, I'll meet Sayaka for lunch and walk around Chinatown, though it's supposed to rain, which sucks.

Future plans are going to visit Ana and Damien on the 27th for the rest of March. I can't wait to see them again, it'll be so strange to hang out in Japan again. Crazy. Right after I get back, I'm going to meet a friend of my friend Aaron, Drew, and his wife who will be visiting Japan. I'm going to take them up to Tokyo and show them around Akihabara, maybe go to a maid cafe, and then have dinner and drinks somewhere. Probably Shibuya. But I'm gonna have to ask around where the good places are because my idea of exotic up there is going to this great English pub and having a bunch of specialty brews.

I'll have some days off at the start of April, school won't get going again until after the 7th, so I was thinking about doing a bike trip. I wanted to ride out to see Ana and Dam-o, but 300km is too far to ride in such a short time. Maybe I'll try to ride halfway, there's a famous castle about that distance. Three days oughta do it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Time to move the money

Looks like the dollar's down to 96 yen. About a year after I came here, it reached a high of around 122 yen/dollar. Amazing. Note to self: next time you go abroad, do it in the middle of the Republican's term, and send money home all the time they manage to tank the economy.

Friday, March 07, 2008

"I Am Legend" Alternate Ending

I saw this movie a month or two ago. After the movie, my friends and I were discussing the ending and things we didn't like about it. I haven't read the book yet, I'm waiting on my roommate to relinquish the book so I can give it a go.

Evidently there's an alternate ending. It's not much better, it doesn't quite mesh with the book's theme, but it's better than the original. The link has some interesting theories on why this ending wasn't used, though I'm not sure I agree with them. Either way, the alternate comes out better.

(Tip: if you haven't seen the movie, go watch it first)

Monday, March 03, 2008

Speaking of seafood

Monday's lunch was interesting. I wandered back to the teachers' room after 4th period to get a drink and wait for the kids to come get me for lunch. At the elementary schools, I eat lunch with one of the classes of the grade I teach that day, so they can pepper me with the same questions about how tall I am, if I'm married, or when my birthday is. So I walk into the room and some of the teachers are putting food onto trays for the teachers to eat in the staff room, and one of them is plucking these brown fried fillets and plopping them into a dish. I asked her what they were, and she replied, "kujira," or whale.


Actually, when I tried it at lunch, it wasn't all that bad, although it was cold and the congealed grease made it not terribly appetizing. Most of the kids didn't even seem to be aware of what they were eating. The 12-year-old boy next to me said it was fish, and when I asked if it might not be whale he said, "tabun." Maybe. Then he shrugged and downed the rest of it. The taste wasn't that bad. I have to say it wasn't exactly appealing, but it wasn't any worse than cold KFC that had been left in the fridge. But I took a couple bites and pushed it off to one side to finish my mochi rice cakes.

This was my first experience with whale, although it can be found at several restaurants. One of my favorite yakitori shops offers whale bacon, something I've never gotten up the courage to eat.

Japan has a long history of whaling. It started out as a nutritional supplement for the Ainu (a different race of people that were pushed into the north of Hokkaido and were killed off or assimilated), kind of like the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, though without a religious tradition behind it. After WWII, when food - particularly protein - was extremely scarce, the US encouraged Japan to turn to whaling for its protein needs. After Japan's rapid growth, it didn't really need it, but the fleet was still sent out as the owners were/are politically connected and receive huge subsidies. Nowadays, most people don't eat it - those who do do it as a sort of nostalgia for their childhood when it was widely served in school lunches. All that excess whale that's caught is typically turned into pet food here, a very sad ending that could easily be replaced by soy products - lord knows they eat enough soy here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Blue-eyed Boy

This is pretty cool. Blue eyes are really new in our genetic history, just 6-10,000 years old. We can be traced back to a single genetic mutation that turned off the brown eyes that had heretofore been all humans had ever known. According to the article, all other eye colors, from brown to green, can be attributed to the amount of melanin in the iris, but only us lucky blue-eyes have an absolute lack of melanin there. I guess that's why albinos have blue eyes as well. Funny that one genetic switch was able to change our eyes but not our skin or hair levels.

(from Long Now)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Weekend ski trip

I got back last night from an overnight ski trip. It's a pretty interesting way of doing things.

Sayaka and I caught the 10pm shinkansen from Tokyo north up towards Niigata to Echgo Yuzawa, a little resort town full of hot springs and ski slopes. We had to exit the train at Echigo Yuzawa and wait a bit for the shuttle bus to pick us up. They didn't list what time the train left that we were supposed to board, and the information guys told us that we had about 3 minutes to board a train going that direction, so we jumped aboard the wrong train, but at least going in the right direction.

The shuttle bus took us to the Gala resort spa. This is the cool part. The building where the spa is also has the ski rental shop, the gondola up to the ski slopes, and a shinkansen station for the trip back. Talk about all-inclusive. So we went to the onsen in the spa and slept in the relaxation room there. Typically, the room's are nicely-lit with tatami floors and soothing music. Everything that makes relaxing easier. But this one was hard carpeting and fluorescent lights, and I forgot my sleeping bag. It made for a rather hard night's sleep.

And from here on out, everything kinda went downhill. We woke up in the morning to an announcement that the gondola was closed due to high winds, but our lift pass would be tradeable at another resort. I had to rent my skis at the first place, though, and haul them onto the bus for 20 minutes to the other resort. That one wasn't so bad, but it was pretty crowded.

One cool thing was that at the very highest lift, there was a small restaurant serving Okinawan food, incongruously enough. But there was also a stand outside selling beer and cocktails, with several young people sitting around sipping away. Thirsty? Just grab a beer, chug it down, then head down that black diamond slope. No problem.

This probably explains the most annoying part of the day, every goddamn snowboarder's penchant for parking themselves in the middle of the slope, just sitting there, sometimes in twos and threes. It's not all that uncommon, actually.

If you go to the beach here in the summer, you'll see surfers bobbing up and down in large groups way out. Every now and then one of them will halfheartedly try to get a wave, but most of the time they're just out there bobbing. But they're surfers - that's their hobby. Evidently, those same bastards are snowboarders in the winter.

Our perfectly-laid plans of hitting the slopes early ruined, we didn't get out til about 10am, and we had to catch the 3pm shuttle back to the first place so I could return my skis without a penalty. We'd only been out til about noon, with the weather going from just above freezing with beautiful clear skies and awesome views, to threatening clouds on the horizon, to lots of snow coming down and visibility reduced to not very much. It was tough to tell where the edges of the slopes were, especially if there were no trees marking the places you obviously shouldn't be skiing on. But at least other skiers were visible and you could follow them down or at least dodge the idiots blocking half the slope. We decided to wait it out, in the restaurant at the top of the mountain, but after a couple hours the the wind was blowing harder, picking up the bits of ice on the ground and slamming them into your face. Not the best conditions. After a few times down where I nearly hit or got hit by several skiers, we decided to pack it in.

We actually snuck aboard an earlier shinkansen and headed back. The weather was so bad it delayed all the trains, so we ended up arriving back in Tokyo at the time out normal train would've made it back anyway. The train ride was alright, between sleeping and listening to all the TEDtalks I'd loaded onto my iPod.

Monday, February 18, 2008

February is sick month

Just as well that I cut out the booze this month, I'm not on antibiotics. And not for that, thank you very much. February is about the time the Japanese cedars (I believe) release their pollen. It's similar to what happens in Indiana when the cottentails send out their little minions of annoyance: clogged/runny nose and itchy eyes. Yes, folks, allergy season in Japan is in February.

Despite taking meds, I get sick. I think it has to do with not having heating in my bedroom, besides a simple little 2-bar space heater that is costly to leave on all night, not to mention incredibly dangerous. I think the cold air combined with the allergies gives me a sinus infection. I was looking for my doctor's card today (I've sense gained a third one since the one I went to last year in Hiratsuka is closed Mondays) and they were all issued in February of each preceding year. Except the first year, because that year I decided to tough it out, which turned out to be an incredibly bad idea. How bad? Like shivering, delirious, crouched in a hot shower kind of bad. I decided to forgo that, cancelled my tutoring lessons for this evening ($70 gone) and shelled out $50 to see the doc.

I tried out a new place, one Tracey recommended, though it turned out to be a children's doctor (dunno why they treated Tracey). Those people recommended another one around the corner, with a kindly old doctor who spoke about two words of English and a nurse who showed pretty much everybody in the waiting room how I'd written my address in kanji.

So now I'm at home with a ton of kleenex and having drunk about a gallon of tea, and my damn heater won't turn on for some reason. Hopefully an early night and the antibiotics will get me set for tomorrow. Today's lessons with 6-year olds was hell.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On the wagon - kinda

One of the running jokes among foreigners here is the amount of alcohol we consume. Access is incredibly easy - nearly every convenience store sells booze (though some don't - I've never understood why those two or three individual stores in particular don't, they aren't even the same chain), it's available at train stations for hardworking salarymen to pick one up on the long train ride home, vending machines all over the place. Also, there's not many activities here that require total sobriety to do (besides work, and even then not for some) because I know only two or three people who drive a car/motorbike, and even then that's just to work, afterwards they're out at the bars.

Working for the now-defunct NOVA, the school ran 7 days a week, so teachers' days off were staggered, so it was always someone's Friday, plus there was always a reason to have a party - someone had just arrived, someone was leaving, someone's birthday was coming up, or someone's roommate's co-worker was doing one of those three things and we tagged along.

When I moved to the junior high schools, I lost a lot of those contacts, for better and for worse, but one of the guys who'd changed jobs with me, my good friend Julian, was a big fan of casual drinking, so we'd finish work around 3:30 or 4 and head back to Hiratsuka, grab a couple of cans in the convinience store and hang out in the city park for an hour or so if the weather was nice. It was a good way to spend an afternoon, we did it quite often.

Well, as time goes by, it just becomes one of those things, part of the culture. It's not just foreigners, the Japanese are the same way, especially older working men. It can be a lot of fun, but after a while, you find yourself drinking 5 or 6 days out of the week. Not getting smashed, but a can or two to relax after work.

So I decided February would be my no alcohol month. I didn't plan it very well, as I had a friend leaving at the beginning of the month, and another good friend's birthday party tonight. So this month has become my "drink only three nights" month. Though I've come down with a bad case of allergies/sinus infection, so tonight will be mostly booze-free as well. I thought initially it might be why I wasn't sleeping very well at night and not feeling so good during the day. Well, that's been proved wrong as I've felt exactly the same, and even managed to get sick this week. So much for that idea.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Breaking news: January's cold

Bet you didn't know that, huh?

Most of the year, being outside may not be the most pleasant thing in the world, but it's bearable. The heat won't kill you, and you won't be a popscicle in the winter. Well, during most of it. This week's turning out to be a pretty frigid one, especially in the morning. Not too cold, it doesn't get much below freezing around here, but since people here are outside a lot more than Indiana, you feel it. This morning was the first day of real ice on the ground, remnants of the freezing rain that hit late last night. The sun had managed to warm up the roads enough that where the cars drive was totally dry, but it was still a bit damp, though not frozen, on the sides where I ride. The big problem is riding around the north side of the mountain just west of my town, where the low sun's blocked for a large part of a winter's day. It's not hard to just ride straight and hope you don't slip and fall under a tire, the dangerous part is once you've got up the hill and are heading down the other side, because you run the risk of hitting a patch and either falling - with or without a car riding your tail - or not being able to turn and running off the road into something: an onion field or a concrete pole.

While it's a cold ride to and from the schools, it's nice to be able to jump in a hot shower and thaw out. That is, if your hot water works, which ours hasn't. The way I've been showering for the past month and change is to fill up the tub with the not-even-lukewarm water, turn on the bath heater, wait for it to get reasonably warm then use a small bucket to pour water over your head and do the bathing thing. Afterwards, you jump in the bath and get nice and sleepy-warm. That's the only nice part about it. Obviously, this isn't all that conducive to rapid showering, so if I'm running behind, there's little-to-no chance of getting out the door on time.

All that changed yesterday. My friend Miwa, who'd been helping me deal with the landlord (he still hasn't replaced the stove that the gas company said was dangerous to use last JUNE), has been too busy to really help out, so Sayaka rode to the rescue. I don't know what she said, but the real estate agent who's been the mediator (maybe because the landlord lives in Yokohama, but no one I know has had this many degrees of separation), and a bit of a dick, came by last week, mucked about with it, and said he thought something was broken, and called the gas company to have them come out to check the water heater. The guy came by yesterday and after 15 minutes replaced one little part, and we're back in business.

I don't know if I should be happy or really frustrated. Happy because it's fixed, or frustrated because the real estate guy dragged his feet every step of the way. I told him back in July about the gas stove and the hot water not working right. Because I was gone in August, he didn't make it out til September to check things, but I wasn't there, so my roommate, whose interest in things that don't directly affect him at that moment rates about 0, didn't really tell them anything. The guy says they'll get a new gas stove, and did nothing about the water. Well, come winter, hot water doesn't work, and they're "still waiting" for the new stove to come. Still waiting on the gas stove, too.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New Year, Same Old Thing

I'm ready for a change. I don't know what it is, maybe something biological, but after doing the same-old same-old, I get all antsy in the pantsy and start yearning for something different. It's not that things are bad, just a sense of unease that I've been feeling as of late.

It's not that things aren't going well - I had a great winter holiday. Sayaka and I went skiing in Hokkaido for a few days, then spent the New Year first at the shrine by my house, then met friends and talked, drank, and danced. 2008 has started off really well for me: I got a solid score on my GREs, which is the first baby step towards grad school.

I'm back at work, though the first two weeks are short so I can sort of ease my way back into the mix.

I guess the biggest thing for me is trying for grad school. The hardest thing I think will be that the schools I'm looking at want you to have a paper published already. That's fine if you're a college student and can talk to your professor about doing something, but if you've already graduated, then it's a bit difficult to write a paper, especially the necessary access to other works and research so you can develop your hypothesis without trying to reinvent the wheel. Spending lots of time creating your own study and writing it, only to find out it's been done to death already, doesn't make it likely you'd get your paper published at all. Yay. I got a lot of work cut out for me.