Sunday, July 31, 2005

Hanabi rocks!!!

Ok, ok, so hearing that from a native of Ottawa must be pretty shocking for most of you, I know I am quite shocked to be saying it myself. As the seat of Canada's Parliament, Ottawa is treated to one of the most spectacular (free to view) fireworks show around, of that I was certain. Every Canada Day, hundreds of thousands of people make the trek out to Parliament Hill and the surrounding parks to take in the light show which lasts anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on how many kickbacks the Liberals took in that year.

HOWEVER, the Oyama Hanabi festival goes one step further. By introducing private sponsors to the festival, they can put on a show which lasts several hours. It is not constant fireworks, but the longest break between displays is maybe 5 minutes. Before every sponsor's display of fireworks, a short announcement is made to the crowd over loudspeakers announcing the name of the sponsor... and then the show starts. From what I saw tonight, there are some pretty deep pockets in Japan! Full blown major foreworks barrages which lasted multiple minutes were common, and must have come at a hefty price. The overall effect is just as the name would suggest, a Hanabi festival... as opposed to a fireworks show. People sit around, picnic, glance up at the sky once in a while to see the show, talk with friends and leave when they feel like it. There was a steady stream of people in and out of the riverside area during the whole time we were there. Pretty damn cool stuff, very nice atmosphere with alot of people wearing traditional Japanese dress.

But fireworks weren't the only reason today was such a blast. I finally got the opportunity to ride Japan's much vaunted local rail system, all by my lonesome... and didn't get lost! Woohoo! I didn't even need to use Yoshi's help letter written out in Japanese. While I trust the man deeply, I couldn't help but think he'd try to send me to Sendai or something as a joke... lol I can just imagine what the message said: "This gaikokujin has absolutely no clue how to use the simple Japanese rail system, please help him get to Oyama, it may be best if you held his hand most of the way." LOL! Seriously, the note politely asked for assistance in purchasing a ticket and finding my way to the track, and I am quite grateful that Yoshi wrote it out for me. On with the pictures!

This is the monstrosity which I had to defeat today, the local train... kind of like a subway train, lots of standing room with seats along the outside... only for longer distances. Utsunomiya to Oyama is about 30 minutes, and costs 480Y. Mayu (one of our students) and Hiro hopped on at Suzumenomiya and Emiko (another student) hopped on one station further. And after the train took off, Noriyuki-sensei found me on the train as well and said hello, though that was the last time we saw him... the train filled up pretty quickly and the crowd heading out of the station was unbelievable.

Once we fought our way down the sidewalks and into the area where the streets were closed to vehicle traffic, we started smelling the lovely aroma of food cooking all around us. A series of outdoor food stalls had been setup and were selling a wide variety of Japanese and other (Korean pancake and French crepe among others) to the visitors. Here's a picture of a tired oconomiyaki chef taking a quick break from the hot grill between flips.

More oconomiyaki artisans, this is the stall I brought from.

Yet another shot of my favourite stall food. I also tried out a Korean pancake of some kind (Chi Chi something? and while it was good... it wasn't that great...

So after buying our oconomiyaki, chi chi something and a bag of beer, we headed on down to the river side to find a spot to pitch our tarp. This is a segment of our spread, oconomiyaki on the bottom, chi chi something with the red sauce in the middle, lovely marinated chicken wings a la Hiro and of course beer.... Hiro has also brought along his home made tako salad, which was lovely. (Note: Tako as in octopus, not as in Mexican taco)

Just to prove there were in fact fireworks there... I'm not setup photographically to take night or fireworks shot with this camera... if I had had the space to bring my Nikon SLR... it wouldn't be a problem... but I decided to travel light. I'm not that into fireworks pictures anyway...

Some kind of odd effect, I obviously moved...

The fearless Hanabi lovers after the fireworks and an extra beer at an Izakaya to let the crowds thin out. From the left, Hiro, Emiko and Mayu.

The group of 4 waiting for the train in Oyama.

Emiko and Mayu on the train.

And that's about that. I've got to get to bed... have to be up in 6 and a half hours to hop on ye old Shinkansen and head back in to Shinjuku. Will be nice to see the folks from initial training again...

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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Dogs and Demons - Chapter 1

As I mentionned before, I've been slowly making my way through Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr. It's pretty heavy stuff so I'm taking my time, and I've now read the first chapter twice. This chapter is entitled "The Contruction State" and deals with the behemoth self-serving construction industry in Japan. Why is this a heavy subject you ask? Well if anyone has been to "rural" Japan and taken a look around at the concrete lining the rivers, the thousands of dams, the endless roads heading to no particular location carved into the mountainsides, they'll understand. This chapter deals with the rape of Japan by huge companies with officials in government ministries receiving millions to continue funding projects and an "environnment" ministry which has been castrated.

Major corporations fund groups whose sole purpose is the creation of construction projects. These groups are more often than not staffed with former government officials who still have close ties to the purse strings of the nation. Japan's construction industry has entered a self-subsitance cycle of never ending projects just for the heck of having projects. Huge scandals have errupted in recent years where some ministry officials were caught receiving huge sums of money in exchange for diverting funds to this or that project, or for ensuring that the bidding process be favourable to a specific tender. While the ministry officials are usually chastized, the corporations doing the bribing rarely do.

Here are some stats pulled from his book which will show you the scale of the ongoing construction in Japan:
  • Planned spending on public works between 1995 and 2005 was pegged at $6.2 Trillion US. That's three to four times what the US will spend within the same time frame, and the US has 20 times the land mass and more than twice the population of Japan.
  • At 800 Billion US$ a year, Japan's construction industry is the largest in the World.
  • All but three of Japan's 113 major rivers have been turned into lifeless concrete chutes where only a trickle of water runs through. Life along the riverbanks has been decimated. Here is a picture of a mountain stream near Nasu as an example, concrete on both sides, and underneath... to "prevent" erosion and flooding.

  • Plans are in the works to add 500 new dams to the 2800 existing ones across Japan.
  • By 1993, 55% of Japan's coastline had become armoured with concrete and protected by giant tetrapods to prevent erosion. The problem is that the modification of the coastline in this way has actually had the effect of accelerating erosion. While countries such as the US are going so far as to remove existing armouring, Japan is continuing existing projects and planning new ones.
  • By 1998, construction employed more than 6.9 million people, more than 10% of Japan's workforce.
  • The 1999 contruction budget was 13 times larger than that of 1965 when Japan was gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics.
Difficult to understand why such a relateively small country needs so much constructions. One may be tempted to pass it off to the size of Japan's population or the numerous ecological disasters which threatens this beautiful country. That's an easy out though and can be easily discredited. Japan's population, pegged recently at around 127 million while large, is offset by the land available. Japan is thought to be a tiny island somewhere in the pacific, while in reality it is substantially larger than Britain and Germany. As for population density, Japan's reached 336 people per square kilometer by 1993, which is high, but let's compare it to other countries.
  • Japan - 336
  • China - 119
  • US - 27
  • Canada - 3.3 (WOOHOO!)
  • South Korea - 432
  • Taiwan - 625
  • Lebanon - 413
  • Netherlands - 385
  • Belgium - 337
  • Israel - 308
So Japan has a comparable population density to Belgium, and you don't see them doing anything this nasty right? Ok, so maybe it's the dreaded floods and typhoons and earthquakes that make Japan feel the need to armour itself against nature? Well again, we can take a quick look around the World and see much worse flooding in countries like China and India where hundreds of thousands of people have died in single calamities. So why is Japan so hell bent on destroying nature today when it was so in love with it in the past?

Alex Kerr puts forward an interesting argument in his book. He says that Japan's "love" of nature has never been more than a need to control it. Looking at the famous Japanese art forms of Ikebana and Bonsai, one can see a need to curve nature to one's own ideal of it. On page 37 of Dogs and Demons, Kerr asks: "What's the difference between torturing a Bonsai and torturing the landscape?" So maybe that can be used as a launching point for the hypothesis that Japan has always felt the need to control nature. The difference between now and a hundred years ago is that they're hacking away at it with bulldozers and concrete, which have a slightly more substantial impact... right?

Having said all that, I remind you that I am speaking from a purely academic standpoint. I am quite in love with Japan, its people and yes, even it's countryside. My trip to Nasu a few weeks ago proves that there is still plenty of natural beauty left in Japan. However, I feel that I must try and lend my voice to that of Mr. Kerr (and Scotto and Stacy) and get the word out there as to what's hapenning here. It truly is a travesty, and it's quite sad that more Japanese people don't comment or discuss this issue, unfortunate that they quickly accept the shady notion of "flood and erosion control" as a license to butcher the coastlines and rivers.

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Dinking and blogging is a serious problem.

Last year, the F.B.A. (Foreign Blogging Association) recorded over 123 million incidents of drinking and blogging. Drinking and blogging, while not as serious as drinking and driving, has serious consequences nonetheless. Last year alone, the phenomenon led to:
  • 6.1 million incidents of failed relationships due to often too frank comments about one's partner.
  • 3 million incidents of job-loss due to innapropriate comments about one's boss or company.
  • 437 cases of missing persons, likely related to comments about the mob, including 16 cases of members of the Witness Protection Program breaking their cover, and disappearing shortly thereafter.
As you can see, drunken blogging can have serious repercussions, which is why I am quite pleased at my capability to avoid blogging while drunk, especially last night when I actually had stuff (Tokyo mainly) to talk about...

Yesterday was Master Noriyuki's birthday, and we forced him to leave work for a few hours and come out for a beer with us. This simple event of going out to the Lion's Head last night will likely cost me mucho money during my stay in Utsunomiya. Why? Well, the place was packed, we think due to the end of the JET program, with foreigners so we were crammed against the side of the wall next to the door. As I happened to glance at said wall, I thought I was dreaming. Right there on a small shelf was a large bottle of the renowned Grey Goose vodka I have been sorely missing since my arrival in Japan. After glancing at the bar, I was dismayed to see no bottle on display, which would explain why I have never noticed this fine spirit at this establishment before. After asking Yosh to talk to the bartender about it, he headed over to the wall, grabbed the bottle and proceeded to uncork it for me and pour us a generous splash... woohoo! While it may be waaaayyyy too convenient to have a source of such marvelous vodka so close to work and home, I won't be complaining much. Actually, Madoka showed me a store which sells Grey Goose yesterday near the station, and for about half the price of what I was paying back home... not too shabby... I regret buying that Smirnoff last weekend.

So the first trip to Tokyo yesterday went well, I'm pretty confident I can figure out the train system now, nothing too too complicated. The ticket machines for the Shinkansen have English support, and the maps and signs in the subway stations also all have English so I'll be able to find my way back to the head office in Nishi-Shinjuku on Monday with no problems. How to describe Tokyo... HOT, packed with people, lots of foreigners, lots of people on the train even at what you would expect to be "quiet" times for the transit system... outside of rush hour. I couldn't imagine travelling during rush hour... though it looks like I may have to since my training starts at 11 on Monday. I'll have to leave here on a train around 9AM at the latest, hit Tokyo station around 9:40 and then hop onto the crammed subway to make my way to Shinjuku...

Tomorrow, I will be heading out to Oyama for a Hanabi (fireworks) festival, should be quite lovely... which means I will have to figure out the local trains here by myself... especially to get back here early enough to get some rest for the day of travelling on Monday... we'll see how that goes... lol

Anywho, off to work with me... busy day ahead.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Yet some more earth moving

It certainly is an interesting feeling when the ground under you, supposed to be the most stable thing around, starts to heave and roll. Had another minor quake yesterday, this one centered in Ibaraki prefecture to the east of here and was of Magnitude 5.1 at the site, maybe a 3 here in Utsunomiya. Last Saturday's was a 6, but a little further away. Yet again I was teaching when it hit and the building started creaking and rattling... getting used to these now, not sure if that's a good thing or not... lol

So I'm heading out shortly to catch the Shinkansen out to Shinjuku, my first visit to Tokyo. Going to check out AEON's head office and attend a training workshop for a few hours before making the trip back to teach my evening classes. Should be an interesting day.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Fantastic day in Utsunomiya

After the amount of rain we've received over the last few days, it was quite the pleasant surprise this morning to wake up to a gorgeous blue sky and amazing sunshine. I can say without a doubt that this has been the nicest weather I've seen since coming to Japan in May. For the last few months, even on sunny days, visibility was limited due to a constant haze and most of the time there were low-lying clouds floating around blocking any direct sunlight.

Today, it was amazing and really too bad that I had to be at work, though I had a window to look out of all day so I could enjoy a small part of the weather. The sunlight certainly brings out the colours.

So other than the weather, today was a good day... even though there were a few oddities. First of all, all my classes today were single student affairs, which is odd. I guess maybe everyone was out and about enjoying the weather? So my students got private lessons today, which is great for them. The second oddity was my first student interview... which went well-ish... I didn't get the flow down quite well enough but the training was two months ago after all. It still went well and I'm certain I pegged him at the correct level. As they say, practice makes perfect so I'm confident I'll improve my ways.

On that note, I will be visiting Tokyo for the first time on Friday, since I am attending an interview workshop with Madoka-sensei at the Head Office in Shinjuku. Should be an interesting trip, and I have to pay attention since I'll have to make the same trip down on Monday for my follow-up training... on my own... Having not braved the famous Japan trains yet (AEON-arranged travel upon my arrival doesn't count really) I am glad to get the chance to try them out.

Another newly added wonder in my day since my return to the world of the Internet connected is CFRA radio ( which I used to listen to fairly frequently back home, mostly when driving. Luckily, they have web-based audio streaming, which means I can listen to local news any time. CFRA is talk-radio and is now giving me my daily dose of politics and discussion on Canadian and world issues which I've missed dearly since coming to Japan. I get a good balance between day and night with Lowell (Right-Wing commentary) after I get home from work and Michael Harris (centre-ish commentary) in the morning before going in to work. Life is good.

How good? Well for example, I took advantage of my extended lunch break today to do my grocery shopping then headed home to whip up some lunch, check my email and have a quick cat-nap... not too shabby eh? Gotta love the 3-minute commute!

And then of course as is now tradition on Wednesday evening, we headed out for a quick beer and some grub at one of the local pubs around work. Tomorrow we're heading out to Al-Noor for lunch, which I hope will also turn into a weekly tradition... the most amazing indian curry I've ever had.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Batten down the hatches!

Japan is currently being smacked by Typhoon Number 7 (seventh hurricane to form in the Pacific). I'd noticed some heavy rain since last night but hadn't really thought much of it. Typhoon 7 made landfall about 150km southeast of here a few hours ago and has been dumping large amounts of rain on the Kanto plain since last night. The winds in this one aren't so bad, only 40-60kph... but the rainfall has been substantial, from 10-40+ centimeters depending on the location.

Some train and air travel has been disrupted and some injuries have been reported but other than that, no biggie.

Things look pretty peaceful now and the walk home wasn't as wet as the walk to work this morning, so I guess that's a good thing.

On a lighter note, here are some pictures from Sunday night's Beer Garden Party at Tobu.

The spread. Food included with the all-you-can drink fee of 3500Y.

Trying to sneak out of a picture will only make matters worse... lol

See? Much better if you just go along with it...

Master Yoshi stylin at Karaoke in his traditional Japanese summer wear.

The leftovers from the first party.

Singing it.

Yoshi rocking out to a Japanese song.

Smiles all 'round.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Yamaya, corrupter of all things good and innocent

Scott came over today and we headed out for one of our frequents walks. Today, I thought we should head out to Utsunomiya Higashi library and see if we can say hello to Riyo and her friends and maybe get ourselves added to the ranks of library card holders.

Unfortunately the library was closed but we did stop in to Yamaya on the way back. Yamaya is a combination Liquor\Exotic food store which has truly amazing prices on some things. While I had no real intention to purchase anything today, I found myself grabbing a basket and filling it up anyway! Amazing prices on booze, Khalua was 1050Y (about 10$) and the premium Smirnoff (it ain't Grey Goose but it'll do) was only 1200Y! So of course while I was there I also picked up some juice, pringles, and crunchy peanut butter... Stacy had showed both Scott and I this place when I first moved here but it's importance never registered until today. I can now shake up a couple of drinks if anyone is interested in dropping on by... lol

And of course, within minutes of arriving back home, I had a lovely refreshing screwdriver icing in a mug... gotta love it.

And this bounty comes on the heels of an announcement by the Liquor store workers in my native Ontario that they intend to strike shortly before a major holiday weekend.... hohum...

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Rockin' and Rollin'... the ground that is

Forgot to mention last night about the quake... didn't realize it was as serious as it was until I read up on it on Canoe...

In the middle of my Odyssey class, one of my students perked up, looked at me and said "Earthquake"... at which point I stopped pacing the room and noticed the creaking noises. Damned if it wasn't the biggest I've felt since I arrived in Japan. Lasted a good 10-20 seconds too... though I started teaching again. I could feel the ground moving under my feet when I was walking, it was pretty cool.

One of my later students says she felt it while she was driving so I figured it was a pretty big one and expressed concern about the people near it's epicenter...

In the end, it was a 6.0 magnitude quake which struck in Chiba prefecture (south-east of here) and caused some damage and injuries from falling stuff. No biggie I guess for Japan but it was exciting for me nonetheless....

I guess that tidbit of information was just lost in the jumble of a busy day.

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Long day... though it did its silver lining

I am pleased to say that today was the first day since my arrival in Japan which I consider to be a "long day."

Why am I pleased to say that? Because I've been here over 2 months and it's the first time I've had a "long day."

Why was today long? Well unfortunately we lost a third of our foreign teaching staff to a nasty attack of a cold, which means that my usually busy Saturday went from 9 hours of work with 6 lessons and 3 hours of non-teaching time to 9 hours of work with 8 lessons and a quick 20 minute break for Bento. I must admit the day went by pretty quick but too bad if I wasn't my normal Genki self once the 7PM Frontiers class rolled around... lol

As I said, there were some silver linings... one of which may involve a possible female presence in my life, which is all I am willing to say about that right now. The second silver lining was the promise of a great AEON party tomorrow night. I found out it was all you can drink for two hours... so I think I'll show the Beer Garden staff just what us Cannucks are made of!!! The final silver lining was a quick trip to an Izakaya with Scott to shed the stress of the day over some kim-chee rice, seafood salad and of course the requisite beers served in iced mugs. It was a wonderful end to a long day and was a great start to the weekend. If we were able to put away 4 beers in an hour while talking and eating (and while paying for each of them)... the beer garden tomorrow has it's work cut out for it... lol

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Finally Online!

Well that's that, after 69 days without, I am now online with Yahoo BB! Woohoo!

Nice to be able to check a couple of email while the rice-cooker does it's thing.

It was pretty easy too, just plugged everything in and it was working... not sure if I should be doing anything else, I'll bring the directions in to work for some translation...

This is definately the way to surf the net... no longer worried about 100 Yen charges for every 15 minutes, I was able to catch up on news back home (NHL strike is over and the Sens may get Gary Roberts from T.O.... WOOHOO! Go Sens Go!) and bought some credit for skype and tried out a few calls. Seems to work ok, and it's super cheap so I think it will be my method of choice for communicating back home. Called Home and left a message, I think they're on the road back from Northern Ontario... called Sherry to say hello, called Brigitte to say hello and left a page for Mr. Lewis who initially turned me on to this Skype thing.

So I figure I'll be on MSN ( an Skype (michellafleur) at some point between 9AM and 12PM Japan time (8PM-11PM Eastern Time) if anyone wants to drop in and say Hi.

Anywho, I have some patches and updating to do on my computer... I have been offline for over two months after all... You can take the guy out of the tech shop but you can't take the tech shop out of the guy!

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Volcanoes, Hot Springs, Storm Troopers, Good food, Good beer and Good friends

Another couple of blow-me-away moments this weekend, thanks to the weather, good friends and of course good ol' Japan.

Yoshiyuki (who took us to Ashikaga a few weeks ago) planned a trip out to the Nasu Mountains on Sunday. After being awoken at 7AM by a bunch of firecrackers going off, I knew there was something going on near my place. As I was heading out my door to meet him and Scott, this is what greeted me coming down the street.

This is a holiday weekend in Japan and Utsunomiya has been jumping with a festival for a couple of days now. This is a portable shrine which is beginning its journey for the day from its storage tent a few doors down from my place, complete with drums, chants and a full set of replacement carriers for those who need to take a break.

So I met up with Scott and Yoshiyuki near Aeon and we headed off for the day. The traffic on the Tohoku expressway wasn't too bad until it got time to get off the highway… the exit for Nasu was backed up over 500M down the expressway. We took our place in the queue and it took us around 20 minutes to get off the highway and then another hour or more to actually make it the few kilometres to Nasu. Most of the traffic was turning left before the volcano though so we were glad we wouldn't have to fight crowds on the mountain. Here's a sign announcing Nasu and you can see some of the foothills in the background. Japan in summer is always quite hazy but Sunday wasn't so bad.

At a rest area a little over 1000 metres (not feet) over Nasu, I took this shot of the village.

There was this great little 3D topographical map of the area at the rest area so you could orient yourself and spot the different peaks. The volcano we were going to is called Chausudake and is the volcano shaped one between the two other mountains at the top.

This is a shot of Chausudake from the rest area. It's the only active Volcano in Tochigi prefecture and last erupted in the 1960s. Its elevation is 1915 meters. To put that in perspective for Ottawa folks (mostly for skiers I guess):
Camp Fortune - 179 meters
Mont Ste-Marie - 381 meters
Mont Tremblant - 875 meters
This Volcano would of course be dwarfed by the Rockies in Western Canada, Whistler ski resort hitting a whopping 2182 meters and elevations reaching 4000 meters in some spots, but I've never been to the Rockies, so this was pretty amazing to me.

After parking our car at around the 1200M mark and heading up the mountain another 300M by cable car, we had a bit of a climb ahead of us. This is the visitor centre and cable car drop-off on the slope of Chausudake.

Here's a shot of me at some of the last tuffs of vegetation on the way up the mountain. The initial climb wasn't so bad, elevation with hard-esque packed gravel under foot. Got a little more difficult when it turned to softer finer gravel and sand and we lost Yoshiyuki. Scott and I forged ahead.

Then the walk hits some different materials and starts to get interesting. Here's a nice shot of the mountains in the background.

At this point, we had to climb with the help of our hands, trying not to cause rock falls which could injure people below. This picture shows the changes from gravel to rocks and finally to a 60-70 degree climb in rocks.

Mini steam vent you can't really see… you can see some whisps though... the wind was rather strong at this point so the steam wasn't sticking around much... the sulphur smell was though...

There was a beautiful view from up here of course, of which the mountain off to our right was the best. It has a really interesting mix between vegetation and harsh soil which was fascinating. I would stop climbing every once in a while and just be transfixed by the view.

These are some fellow mountaineers we stopped for some pictures on the way up to the crater. They were quite pleased to spend a little time with us and many pictures were taken all 'round.

I was rather surprised when we came up the final rise and saw this Shinto gate at the top of the mountain near the crater.

There was this little shrine up there and some nice carvings on the rocks, lord knows how old some of those were.

Somebody had a heck of a climb with this chunk of rock on their backs…

This is a view across the crater to some other mountains.

Me and the crater

The crater was quite sizeable, if you can see a few specks near the top to the right, those are people and a signpost.

This is an active steam vent spewing sulphur into the air. The smell was pretty pungent at this point.

Scotto atop the volcano.

When I said in my last post that I was blogging from the top of a mountain I wasn't kidding. Say what you will about Japan, I bet they've got the best cell phone coverage of any place in the World.

Rocks and mountains.

In some ways it was easier climbing up than going back down, even though it was much more tiring. You have to carefully pick your way down to avoid chucking rocks at the people under you.

A last look at my favourite peak.

After heading back down by cable car, we drove partway down the hill and stopped at the killing stone which Scott wanted to see. This is the site of a few ancient legends, the better known of which is about the fox with nine tails. A long time ago, there lived a powerful entity which was a shape-shifter and changed into a beautiful woman in order to seduce the lord of the region. A fortune teller, having seen through its lies, brought the "woman" to this clearing. Taking an arrow which was given to him by a god, he shot the entity and turned it into a rock. Unfortunately, due to its powers, the entity still had the power to poison any animal even though it was merely a rock. Some time later, a powerful monk came and was able to finally defeat the entity and broke the rock into 3 pieces, one of which is still on the slope seen in the distance. There are vents near the stone which release noxious gases, a dead crow lay near the rock while we were there.

Statue overlooking the rock clearing.

This site was visited in 1689 by Basho, a famous Japanese Haiku poet and inspired him to write a haiku, I wasn't able to find an English translation.

There are also 1000 well cared for statues praying at this site.

After visiting the site of the Killing Stone, we headed down to an ancient Onsen, founded over 1300 years ago. It's called Shika-no-yu (Deer hot spring) because the story goes that an injured deer fell into the waters which feed this Onsen and was healed. The Onsens of Nasu are known for their healing powers due to the high mineral content in the water, which is a milky colour. This particular Onsen's water is piped out of the earth at a scalding 78 degrees Celsius before being cooled down to 41 or 43 degrees and piped into the public baths.

I think we may have shocked a few bathers in this old Onsen. Most foreigners are a tad uncomfortable with the whole "bathing with a bunch of naked old men" thing so most of them don't do the Onsen thing. Neither Scott nor Yoshiyuki had been to a public Onsen before, and of course neither had I. I guess it's not very often that foreigners visit this one Onsen as Scott and I were definitely the centre of attention as we entered the room, not necessarily a good thing when you're not wearing a stitch of clothing... lol. We ended up in a 43 degree bath and it was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life. Forget a massage, forget shiatsu, forget hot tubs... the Onsen is THE thing. As for the nakedness thing, it's not really anything to worry about, you have a small "decency" towel to cover up the goods and it's very much like a locker-room atmosphere. The water was soooo nice and I can still feel the difference on my skin and hair a day later after 2 showers, it's pretty amazing, and was definitely a good thing to do after a hike up the mountain. Apparently they visit hot springs after skiing, which must be quite nice.

After the Onsen we battled our way back to the Tohoku Expressway on heavier traffic then when we came in. But that wasn't the end of the day. After Yoshiyuki dropped us off and we thanked him profusely for an excellent day, then proceeded across the street where we hooked up with Shige and went to see Star Wars: Episode 3. IT WAS AMAZING!!! I really liked it, though I thought the last two weren't too special. It was really nice to see just how everything fits in and Lucas does a masterful job of tying off all the loose ends, you can really see how this can lead into Star Wars: A New Hope. After the movie we headed out to an Izakaya for some grub and some beers and then headed on home for some rest.

So there you have it, another amazing weekend in Utsunomiya, and I'm nice and relaxed heading into the work-week.

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Adventure blogging

Only in Japan can one climb to the top of an active volcano and post to one's blog. gotta love it.

Mobile sushiandmaplesyrup

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

A good night

Well, it's 3AM and I am quite ashamed to say that I have just arrived home. (yes I know Stacy, just another 5 minutes)

Spent a wonderful night enjoying Suda-san's hospitality, and wine, and great food, and wine, and conversation, and beer, and some nameless Chinese 53% alcohol.
Having heeded Matt's warning not to try and keep up with our host, I am doing OK.

And now allow me to thank god for a schedule which still allows me 8 hours of sleep after a night out.
Mobile SushiandMapleSyrup

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A first comment on Dogs and Demons

One chapter down, 14 to go. Well not really since I intend to read the first chapter again to try and absorb a little more. So far, the book is quite interesting, offering great insight into the psyche of Japan.

The first thing which grabbed me was the title: Dogs and Demons, The Fall of Modern Japan. What's up with this Dogs and Demons thing? Well the way I understand it, the author is saying there are two major categories of things a country needs to deal with. First there are Demons, the big picture if you will, the Economy, Trade, etc. Then there are the dogs. These are the small, nitty gritty things of day to day life such as drinking water for the population, infrastructure and other basic things. Not quite as flashy as the Demons but in most cases much more relevant for the people. Kerr is saying that Japan has been focused on fighting the Demons in today's world while practically ignoring the dogs which have been let to run wild through the streets. A good example of this is the billions spent on cementing the rivers for "flood control" while leaving the streets littered with haphazardly placed utility poles with electrical wires hanging everywhere. How can it be that what is seen as the most technologically advanced nation in the world can't even bury their electrical wires? It's an interesting position to take and I'm curious about what lies ahead in the book.

Another thing which struck home for me was in the Prologue. Mr. Kerr talks about when he first got the idea for writing this book. He was sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand in 1996 having coffee with a friend. Looking around he could see a group of German businessmen discussing a new satellite system for Asia, an Italian man reading an Italian language newspaper and a few tables away a group of Americans and Thais planning a trip to Vietnam. It hit him then that this scene had no counterpart in Japan. Not many foreigners visit anymore, practically none of them are planning new businesses and as he says "It is hard to find a newspaper in English in many hotels, much less one in Italian."

Coming from Ottawa, the capital of one of the most multi-cultural countries in the World in my opinion, I can see a marked contrast between the integration of foreigners in Japan and Canada. While Ottawa is full of authentic foreign (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Greek, etc.) restaurants run by foreigners, I've only found one here in Utsunomiya, the Chinese place near work is actually run by a Chinese family. On the other hand, the Italian, Mexican, French and others are owned and run by Japanese people. I'm not saying that Japanese people shouldn't run foreign food restaurants, but I find it interesting that no foreigners have had the opportunity to start up their own. It's also quite rare to see a foreigner driving any kind of motorized vehicle, especially a car. And although Utsunomiya is only a 40 minute Shinkansen ride from the center of Tokyo, the presence of a foreigner automatically warrants a double-take whether it be from children, business people or restaurant owners. It's certainly quite interesting considering the variety of cultures I'm used to seeing. In my neighbourhood, the convenience store was run by a Serb, there's a Filipino woman who owns a house two doors down and a middle-eastern store a few blocks away. I've worked with Chinese, Lebanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Germans, Scots, South Americans and even dear Rudelle from Barbados. Here, outside of the English teaching community, and the African fellows who run the Hip Hop stores, you'd be hard pressed to find foreigners in Utsunomiya, much less ones who own land or run businesses.

While I realize comparing Utsunomiya to Ottawa may not be warranted and that there are in fact plenty of foreigners in Tokyo, a majority of those are teachers or US military personnel. As for the size of Utsunomiya, you can go to any similar sized Canadian cities (Barry, London, Windsor come to mind, all in Ontario) and find a similar variety of cultures intermingling.

I guess what makes this so fascinating is that the World IS such a small place today with air travel and the Internet and yet Japan still seems to be a relatively closed society. They like French foods and American music but you get the feeling it's only a fashion thing not an actual interest in foreign cultures. This certainly makes for an interesting place to live as a foreigner. We seem to live in some kind of limbo, uncertain if it's a good thing or a bad thing to be gaikokujin in Japan. Some days we're treated like movie stars, others like pariahs. I've actually had cars (3 now) filled with young people roll down their window to share the few lines of English they know with me. Usually this is limited to Hello, how are you and then fits of giggling, especially from the girls in the car. On the other side of things, Scott has been denied service in some places because he was a foreigner, it makes for a rather odd mix, but certainly for an interesting day-to-day life.

I think I will give Scott back his book and go buy my own... I have an urge to mark it up and attack it with a highlighter, it certainly makes one think... and that was just the Prologue!!!

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Monday, July 11, 2005

2 more firsts in Japan

Yup, more firsts in Japan... number one, I was able to find footwear without that much hassle. I had to visit 3 stores before finding anything bigger than a 9 but I did find a very comfortable pair of sandals in a 12 which fits me nicely. Number 2, I got a hair cut this morning... though I find myself with much more hair than I usually do, that's ok...

It's been a glorious weekend in Utsunomiya with temperatures hovering around 28 and the sun being out for 2 straight days now, though I see dark clouds coming in now. I spent alot of the weekend out and about. Scott and I took a nice hike around yesterday and then I met up with a student for dinner and a movie. This morning I met up with Scott again and we had another walk out to a lovely park I'd visited with him my first weekend here... so nice to get off the concrete, you can feel the coolness coming off the park and the ponds. Then we met up with Kanako who took us to a nice French cafe she knows. It's run by a Japanese couple, who have never been to France but I was very impressed with it. Seems they got their inspiration from some of the cafes in California and they learned to cook by themselves and are doing a heck of a job of it. We all had a lamb stew with cous cous which was quite delicious... I will definately go back to practice my French and maybe show it off to some of the young ladies whom I've taken notice of here...

Here are the pics from our walk yesterday...

First, we headed down Kencho past City Hall to the construction site of the Utsunomiya Castle. They are currently in the early stages of building, and the large cement mound you see in this shot will actually be a grassy hill surrounding the castle topped with a wall and several guard houses. It's an interesting project, I'll give them that and it will be quasi-historic since it is being built on the location of the original Utsunomiya Castle a couple of hundred years ago. They performed an archaeological dig here and found some artefacts which are now on display in a nearby visitor centre. I say quasi-historic because it will essentially be a historic "theme park" more than anything. I hope for the money they're spending on building this thing that it brings in some tourists to the city.

After our tour of the future\past Utsunomiya Castle, we headed down to my neighbourhood to check out a large park which I've known was there but had yet to visit. This park is huge! It includes a shrine, graveyard, bicycle race course, children's park, suspended bridge, koy pond, landscaped gardens, and of course the Utsunomiya Tower. Here's a shot of the Shinto gate at the entrance to the shrine.

Just inside the gate, there's this odd comic-character like statue of an animal holding a pencil. Oddly out of place sitting on the old Oya stone stairs... no idea what that's all about.

Here's a view of the mountains to the West of Utsunomiya, World Heritage Site Nikko is somewhere out there though I have yet to visit it... hint hint to anyone with a car and a desire to show me around Nikko... lol

Here's a shot of some pretty cool Japanese Pine trees growing sideways.

This is the suspended bridge which stretches over a large koy pond. You can also see the Utsunomiya Tower, a TV broadcasting tower if I am not mistaken to which they've added an observation deck where you can get a nice view of ol' Utsunomiya, for a fee. Some day when the weather's clear (read Fall, Winter or Spring) and you can actually see some distance without a haze, I'll go check it out.

Two brothers having a footrace on the bridge.

Bigger kid doesn't look like he's getting much of a challenge.

Once more, longer legs wins out over enthusiasm, the world is not

Good shot of south-eastern Utsunomiya. The train station is off picture on the right, Yamada-denki is almost center in the shot, with Yamaya slightly to the left. Higashi library is somewhere in the left of the picture. One of the view city views you can get without a cell or TV tower in the shot... though there are some massive power lines off in the distance...

Lovely flowers I took some time to stop and look at today. I liked the way some of the petals had fallen onto the leaves underneath.

Same bush of flowers...

Pretty cool that all this is within a few blocks of my work/home. Great little city this Utsunomiya.

This is the site of my next excursion, Futara shrine which is about 2 blocks from the office and which I can see out my back window at home. I went up with Matt the first day I was here but haven't taken the trip back up with my handy digicam. Notice the collection box in the forefront of the picture. I'm still amazed at just how safe everything is in Japan. I can't imagine churches leaving their collection boxes outside in front back home. Or having un-vandalized beer or cigarette vending machines in the streets for that matter. Regardless, it's an interesting example of an oasis in the middle of the urban jungle. This thing it right in the Centre of Utsunomiya, sourounded by office buildings and some residential buildings.

So that's that for now, I anxiously await the arrival of my package from NTT with my modem and such for Internet access at home... it'll be nice not to have to pay for internet...

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