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.