Sunday, April 30, 2006

On my way...

Well that's the first leg done.... only 3 more to go. After a fabulous breakfast this morning cooked by my lovely Yoshiko who I will miss dearly during my time away, I hopped on the ol' Shinkansen and started this journey of mine through 3 train stations and 4 airports.... ugh.
So far so good. Made it through the trains with no problems, and to the airport. There was a bit of a delay as I was selected for one of those random checks and my suitcase was searched... they even rifled through the 10-15 books I'm bringing home... sheesh!
But made it through, had some so so katsu-don at the airport and am now killing time surfing the web at a little kiosk. Very handy, and only 30% more expensive than most Internet Cafes in Japan, so not bad. I have found in my travels that Japan tends not to gouge travellers too much. There is of course a marginal increase in price as you make your way deeper into the airport and such... but 800 Yen for a katsu-don lunch set is quite reasonable.
I also just found out that my Sens just beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 to advance to the Conference semi-finals... only 3 more rounds to go to the Stanley Cup!
Anywho, that's that for now. Wish me luck.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go....

I'm standing here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say... goodbye


Oops, sorry, got carried away with the lyrics (Leaving on a Jet Plane) there for a bit... good song though, and highly relevant as I am about to depart this great city of Utsunomiya for the great city of Ottawa. Tomorrow morning I just have to clean up a bit, pack up my toothbrush and say goodbye to my apartment for 9 nights. Of course, between me leaving and me getting there are quite a few things, not the least of which is a full day of work.

I took today off to pack and prepare for the trip as well as to cook dinner (Pad Thai and Rice Pudding) for Yoshiko. Tomorrow after work, we're hitting up Le Metro, the new place opened by the couple of Cafe Praktica fame, for dinner and I'm hopping a train on Sunday morning at 11 for the airport. Then the arduous journey truly begins.

My first flight leaves Tokyo at 16:00 and travels over 8200 kilometers in 9 hours to San Francisco, where I wait 3 hours. My next flight leaves at 12:40 and travels over 3300 kilometers in 4 hours to Detroit, where I wait for about an hour before making the final 700 kilometers to Ottawa in about 2 hours. Total travel time is 19 hours, which is an hour longer than it took me to get to Japan last May. Coming back I only stop in Detroit though, so that ain't too bad.

So that's it that's all... Sayonara, Arrivaderchi, Aurevoir and all that... see youz all in one week. I will likely be making a few posts from home, but I'm not making any promises as it will be a very busy week. Have a nice Golden Week everyone!


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Monday, April 24, 2006

The best hotel experience EVER

Lordy lordy lord how nice it is to sample a little bit of the posh air once in a while. Yoshiko and I had a fantastic weekend putting around Odaiba and Ginza, with the highlight definitely being the Pacific Meridien Tokyo where we stayed.

We met up at Utsunomiya Eki (which is still under construction by the way... has been for the best part of the last year as far as I can tell) and after grabbing a quick Starbucks pick-me-up we hopped a train heading in to Tokyo... again. Seems I've been heading down to Tokyo a lot lately, something which the hot scalding summer temperatures will no doubt put a stop to. After a quick trip down the Yamanote line, we transferred onto the Yurikamome line, which was pretty cool. The Yurikamome transit system is a relatively new addition to the Tokyo public transit system and serves the waterfront area as well as the island of Odaiba. Two things make this train different... it takes a ride on Tokyo's lovely Rainbow bridge. See if you can guess the second thing by looking at this picture.


That's the front of the train ladies and gents... no drivers! Very nice little ride along the waterfront, then across the bridge and into Odaiba. Here's the little guy passing between the Fuji TV building and the waterfront shopping malls in Odaiba. And it really is little compared to the mega long trains in and around Tokyo, while I will admit to have seen one train smaller once, out in the country side driving up into the mountains for skiing... it was a combined engine\passenger car, with no additional cars.


After dropping our bags off with baggage check at the very impressive Meridien, we headed out to check the area out. First in line was the waterfront with it's nice view of the bridge and of central Tokyo, including the Tokyo tower. The waterfront of course wouldn't be complete without a copy of the Statue of Liberty... right?


All in all, I truly enjoyed Odaiba. Since it is a relatively new construction, built using "land-reclamation" (construction talk for dumping a lot of rock into the ocean and making an island) it is quite spacious and has a different feel than the crammed city just a stone's throw away. Our first official tourist attraction was the Fuji TV building, which houses the studios of one of Japan's largest TV networks. This gnarly ball in the middle of the building is made of Titatnium and includes and observation deck which while overly heated was worth the look.


Here is the view of the bridge, and Tokyo from the observation deck. Too bad the weather wasn't clearer, but I am constantly amazed at the size of Tokyo, with buildings sprawling out into every direction.


After touring some of the studios via a hallway with glass opening every once in a while, we headed on back out into the mean streets of Odaiba in search of some lunch. The side of the Fuji TV building is serviced by a really long escalator covered in glass, and you can just spot our hotel in the upper left corner of this picture, ideal location indeed.


After trading a few emails with my culinary consultant (Alex) we decided to try out Kua Anai, a burger joint from Hawaii which is taking Tokyo by storm, and with good reason! I'm not sure if it's just the fact that I haven't had a decent burger in over a year, mainly since if given the choice I'll hit up a subway or something before a fast food joint, but this pineaple burger was almost the best I've ever had. I was gonna say THE best but The Works in Ottawa puts on a better show. Man was it ever good, especially with a side of onion rings... mmmm.


After a quick trounce in the mall, we decided to head back to the hotel to check in and relax for a bit. This is the Pacific Meridien by the way, the largest hotel in Tokyo, 30 floors on the Odaiba waterfront with panoramic views all 'round.


Since we were getting a discount that Yoshiko won through her company which entitled us to over 50% discount, we weren't expecting much in the way of a view. There is a smaller hotel directly between the Meridien and Tokyo Bay, and we expected to have a view of that, not the bay. However, due to some kind of tie up at the Front Desk which meant that we had to take a seat and wait 5-7 minutes before getting our room key, they upgraded us to a room on the 26th floor overlooking the Bay... how amazing is that! The room was absolutely fantastic, after some thought, it was the single best hotel stay I've ever had, which is saying lots. Since I travelled a bit on Ogilvy Renault's dime while working for them, I was put up in some pretty nice hotels including the Royal York in Toronto... but there really is no comparing the service and quality which came to be standard here during the boom of the 80s. The great service, in English mind you, added to Japan's "no-tipping necessary" policy made for a great time. We spent the remainder of the afternoon lazing about the room enjoying the view and watching the darkness roll in.


We later headed back out for dinner and the rain\clouds had cleared up nicely giving us a great view of the bridge and the city.




We ate at an Asian place called Monsoon cafe, which was quite good. I especially recommend the fresh spring rolls and shrimp toast to anyone dropping on by to the Odaiba or Yokohama location... quite tasty! We then took another little stroll before retiring for the evening.

This morning we woke up and headed down to one of the hotel's restaurants for breakfast, which was included with the room. We had a traditional Japanese breakfast while be waited on personally by the manager who even gave me a little help with how to prepare and eat the rice porridge I ordered. While enjoying breakfast at a window-side seat we even got to see a celebrity with Ai Sugiyama, a Japanese pro-tennis player, grabbing a seat with her mom\coach.

We then proceeded to check out of the hotel and head to Ginza where I wanted to take in a quick Kabuki play at Kabuki-za. Kabuki is a form of Japanese theater which is entirely performed by men. Today's show was about a flute player who, having recently lost his wife, happens to save a female fox and her cubs from being killed by his friend. A short time thereafter her meets Tomone, a woman who is nearly identical to his dead wife, whom he takes home as a substitute. They fall in love, he not knowing that she is in fact one of the fox cubs he saved who has taken human form to help alleviate his suffering. The play evolves quite nicely, and spans the 4 seasons over 5 acts with intricate sets, costumes and makeup. This is definitely something I would check out again some day.


After kabuki, we had lunch at a lovely cafe and walked around the Ginza for a bit before deciding to head on back relatively early. As we arrived at Yurakucho station, we heard an announcement that the Yamanote line, Tokyo's main transit line was shut down. We thought nothing of it since we weren't taking it. HOWEVER, this meant that other trains were quite crowded with commuters. For the first time in my life, I experienced first hand what commuting in Tokyo means. While the guys with the white gloves didn't need to push us in to the trains for the doors to close, this was only because passengers getting onto the train were taking running starts and cramming themselves in themselves. We were all standing around, with no one holding on to any support and yet the wall of bodies around you ensured you weren't going to fall. Quite an interesting experience and yet another reminder of just how lucky we are out here in Utsunomiya, with our 5 minutes' walk to work! We actually managed to detrain at our station and caught a train out this way on which we both got seats after about an hour... not so bad.

Upon arrival, I was lucky enough to be taught how to make Japanese style curry, something I've been eating out of boil-in-a-bag since I came here. Quite simple in the end and our combined culinary effort turned out quite tasty. As the saying goes: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to make curry, feed him for life." Amen to that!


On a celebratory note, Le Metro, Utsunomiya's newest and hippest restaurant has opened. As a second location owned and operated by the couple at Cafe Praktica, I'm sure this place will be a resounding success. I dropped by this evening after seeing Yoshiko off to say hello, check the place out and offer my congratulations. Praktica will now be manned by the mistress of the house only, while the master moves on to the new place to oversea the operations with a new chef and waitress. We'll be sampling the drinks this Wednesday, and the new chef's food this Saturday evening, picture to come.

Tomorrow morning is Japanese class, which I'm not looking forward to since I missed last week's and will be behind a bit. With any luck, I'll get up early and review Matt's notes and at least have a clue as to what I'm doing.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Another good week...

First, some important news from Hockey Country. After giving me a bit of a scare this morning as I listened to the game and they stayed down 1-0 through 2+ periods of play, my Ottawa Sens finally solved the hot Tampa Bay goaltender and opened up with 4 unanswered goals leading them to a 4-1 victory in the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I've said it before, let me say it again. GO SENS GO!

Good weeks have been pretty common recently, thanks in large part I think to the official arrival of spring. While the overall weather's been a bit strange with thunderstorms and gale force winds one minute and peaceful blue skies the next, it's great to be able to walk the streets and bask in the sunshine.

Last night, the senseis and a couple of current\former students headed out to Karaoke and acted silly. It is certainly a great way to vent and to let off some steam and we had a blast! For the first time since coming to Japan, my signing was upstaged by the won!derful voice of Matto-sensei... amazing, there's no other way to describe the man's signing.

We also got to fulfill a wish by signing "In the Ghetto" by Elvis, one of the worst songs ever recorded. "In the Ghetto" has been kind of a tag on inside joke we've been adding to everyday sentences for a laugh the last few months and it was great to sing the real thing as badly as it was written.

Here's the group pic at the end of the evening, no sure what's up with Masae... or where that dolphin came from for that matter.


Another good laugh was had when Matt handed me this chocolate wrapper this afternoon at work. I assume the bad translating does not come from Japan this time since there is no Japanese text, but I could be mistaken.


Of course, the English includes a small mistake, with the word "whole" replacing the correct "full" but the real laughs came when I read the French translation at the bottom. The direct translation to English is: "Doing the husband? It's a full time job."

Tomorrow morning, Yoshiko and I are heading in to Tokyo for a well deserved weekend away. we'll spend the day in Odaiba and stay at the Grand Pacific Meridien in Odaiba tomorrow night before hitting up Kabuki on Monday and coming back to Utsunomiya.

With any luck, Le Metro (Cafe Praktica's owners' new restaurant) will have some space available for opening night and we can enjoy an inaugural meal. Should be a fantastic weekend!

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Untoucheables

***First of all, a disclaimer. Yes it is a long read, but an interesting one (I hope) and an important one. This is not Japan bashing, I know that there is discrimination everywhere in the world including Canada (natives, immigrants, the French minority, women) but one difference here seems to be the reluctance of anyone to talk about it. To anyone who thinks the Burakumin problem is an issue which shouldn't be talked about, you can shove it. It is by talking about these types of issues that we come to a better understanding of their root causes, and thus to a resolution. This issue has been (almost) ignored and considered very taboo for 400 years, it's about time it got a little air time.***

Yesterday was quite an enlightening day. So much so that I thought it best to ruminate on what we learned and witnessed yesterday for some time to let it all sink in. Yesterday morning, the boys had plans to meet at Tully's at 9 for a coffee before hooking up with Aiichirou for our day of touring. Unfortunately, Tully's doesn't open until 9:30 (how stupid is that for a coffee shop?) and so we headed to Starbucks. Upon seating ourselves, we couldn't help but giggle over this feller here who must have had one heck of a weekend.


After picking up some gifts to thank our guide for the day, we headed off and hopped into Aiichirou's little car with his wife Fumi and headed to Oyama and the Tochigi branch of the Buraku Liberation League. We were met there by someone from the staff and given a quick historical background of the Buraku class and how it came into being.

Historical Background
When the Edo period started in Japan in the early 1600s, a new class system was introduced. At the top of the hierarchy were the samurai warrior caste, followed by peasants, artisans and merchants. This was a relatively simple and yet quite strict separation of the population into different groups based on their occupations. However, this segmentation left out a portion of the population who worked in jobs considered "filthy" and "impure". A certain ostracizing of these people, such as butchers, grave diggers and executioners had always been present, but this new class system now officially put these groups on the margins of society. While they continued to provide a necessary service to society, they were forced to live in bad conditions and in lesser locations and were treated as untouchables by the remaining 4 classes. These people were called "eta", which translates from Japanese into "extreme filth" and is considered to be the most vulgar word of the Japanese language. Another word used to describe this class was "buraku" which means community, since they lived in segregated villages. The word "min" signifies people and so we know them today as the Burakumin. This class system ruled until 1867 when the Edo government fell and the Japanese Emperor was restored in what is known as the Meiji Restoration. So far as many people in Japan know (or care to know) that was the end of it and all's well that ends well. HOWEVER, after 300 years of segregation, it is quite foolish to believe that the discrimination which these people faced suddenly disappeared. In reality it is still very present even to this day. With the relatively recent addition of anti-discrimination legislation, the hatred for this group has only been driven underground, but is still quite present.

Hate
Makoto Toda, the BLL representative who would be guiding us for the day, gave us a few examples of the hatred which still simmers below the surface of legislation and attempts at "integration" by the Japanese government. The most striking thing he showed us was a letter which was left in front of two Burakumin households with some of the most hateful speech you can imagine, calling the Burakumin everything from filth to cannibals and saying that they will die and the world will be a better place thereafter. The letter was written in Katakana, which is more difficult to trace back to an author than Kanji, and left on the street. I think it is safe to assume that since the coward didn't even bother to put it in the letter box, other letters may have been lost or other victims of this coward may not have come forward. But we saw the original letter, and it was dripping with so much hate that I could feel it jumping off the paper at me. Since the letter did not mention anyone by name, the police refused to take any action against the perpetrator, saying it was simply stating an opinion and not targeting anyone for harm.

Employment and Marriage Discrimination
The Japanese "Koseki", essentially a family register, ensures that it is relatively easy to find out where a person was born with a few subtle questions placed in the right places. While the document is kept relatively secret due to its sensitive nature (records of births, criminal convictions, marriage, divorce, etc.) it is still very common for discreet investigations to take place to ensure that the person you are about to hire, or god forbid the man who is about to marry your daughter, is not one of the "filthy" class. There have been hundreds of documented cases of blatant discrimination based solely on Buraku status. This has become one of the most damaging forms of discrimination for the Burakumin since it essentially ensures a continuation of the cycle of poverty and segregation that these families have had to deal with since the 1600s. This is the main reason the level of education and standard of living is much lower in Buraku villages than that of average Japan. In 1975, a book was published naming Burakumin villages as well as the prevalent occupation in each area. It is alleged that over 200 major Japanese firms, including large automakers and electronics manufacturers bought these books for use in their Human Resources Departments as screening tools. While use of this book was outlawed in 1985, hundreds of copies of this 330 page handwritten book were disseminated and one can only assume has since found it's way onto the Internet. As recently as 1997, an Osaka private investigation firm was charged with using the book.

The Graveyard
Our first stop of the day was an old graveyard in Ashikaga city in which some Buraku people had their family graves. It seems that even in death, the Buraku people are ostracized. The attention to detail paid during the construction of this graveyard to make sure the Buraku people knew they were lesser is simply shocking. The first thing which jumps out is this gate, which leads to the "normal" part of the cemetary. As you can see, each side is flanked with large stone markers.


This photo shows the entrance into the Buraku section of the graveyard, much smaller than the other, no stone markers... almost like an entrance to an alleyway.


Once you step inside the graveyard, you encounter an even more degrading design aspect. The entire Buraku section of the graveyard sits a good 8-12 inches lower than the "normal" section of the graveyard.


Here's where the attention to detail really comes in though. This is a picture I took of the outer wall of the graveyard where the Buraku section starts. You can see that not only is the "normal" graveyard wall separate, but the masonry with which it was built is different. The Buraku graveyard wall is built very weak with blocks stacked one on top of the other while the "normal" graveyard wall is built using the much stronger staggered design.


Can you imagine? Someone actually sat down and made these decisions on how to segregate the lower class remains from the four "normal" classes. And say what you will about moving on and this being a new world, but this graveyard still exists in it's original discriminatory form, with no moves made by anyone to change it.

The Mountain Burakumin Village
Our second stop of the day was at a tiny Burakumin hamlet wedged into a tight area at the base of the mountains.


This village is separated from the rest of the flat lands in the area by the Tohoku Expressway and the only way to access it is through a few of these tiny tunnels which run underneath, still very segregated to this day.


As you exit the tunnel, you are greeted by plentiful rice fields and the little village tucked away at the base of the hills. Once you enter the village, you can really feel the cramped conditions even though the roads were widened here by the government about 20 years ago. Before then, no emergency vehicles would be able to enter the village since the roads were too narrow.


We stopped at a small community center and Toda-san gave us a bit of background on some of the stories from this area including some incidents of children throwing rocks at Buraku kids who were walking to school many years back. These families were originally forced to eek out an existence by growing vegetables in the mountains or in the lumber industry, but have now found employment in the construction booms sweeping Japan. As we were exiting the tunnel, Toda-san was quick to point out some grafiti on the inside which warned anyone entering that they were going into "filth" country. Charmingu.

The Riverside Community
We then headed out to visit a riverside Buraku Community which is considered to be the poorest in all of Tochigi. For the record, the two large houses you see here are not Buraku, but were owned by a rich family who ran a boating company back in the Edo Period and who employed many Buraku as menial labour.


The first thing which jumped out at me was the presence of these huge High Tension Power Lines running through the middle of this pocket of houses, but that is fairly common and is a horror even non-Buraku communities must deal with in Japan. What was interesting, but is difficult to discern in this picture due to the beautiful built up berms of the river, is that these homes are sitting in a lowlying pocket of land. During Typhoon season, the river would often crest on this side, with the other side being higher, thus flooding out these Buraku houses on a regular basis. The rich families could afford to built structures on stilts in which to store their goods, but of the 30 Buraku families who lived here, only 2 had such structures.


Another interesting tidbit was that most of these Buraku now make their living in the scrap business, and this scrap yard absolutely mortified us. Of the 50-100 vehicles left here to rot in this field, only a handful of them had any kind of substantial damage. Most of them just had minor front end collision damage, and yet here they are in a dump.... and new cars too! Ridiculous how the car industry here propagates such a culture of waste, using vehicles as cheap disposable items.


The Disappointing Community Resources Center
After leaving the river area, we headed to the Community Ressource Center for Ohira town to get some information on some of the work they are doing there to help the Human Rights cause. This center is funded by the government and staffed by 8 people whose job it is to promote Human Rights in the area, not only for Buraku people but everyone in general. What was disappointing is how quickly we found this place to be a total and utter waste of resources, a simple government attempt at throwing money at a problem with essentially no vision. The first disappointment we had was the shock on the face of the 20 something worker who was asked to sit with us and explain some of the work they do. She was mortified of sitting down with three foreigners, which is quite disappointing for someone who is supposed to be promoting diversity and open-mindedness. The next disappointment was with the substance that this shell of a center lacks. Their entire purpose for being is to organize and promote Human Rights Week, an event which happens in this town every December. They have admittedly had little success in drawing attention to their plight and for this year have chosen a concert venue to try and attract people, after which point they will no doubt lock the doors and pump their minds full of goodness. A staff of 8 people, working a full year to organize one measly event for a town of a few thousand people... waste. In the few minutes we were there, we totally blew the staff away with the questions we were asking, and the only answer we really got was that elementary students got 2 hours per year of Human Rights lessons, a new victory for this center..... jeez. I guess it's good to have something. Wish them luck as thei fight what is obviously an uphill battle.

Between a river and a river
The next area we visited was a small chunk of homes which was once again crammed between a rock and a hard place... in this case what used to be two raging rivers, but are not much more now than creeks. This Buraku community once only had 1 bridge for access and all of the streets were originally like this one below, impassable by vehicles of any kind until 20 years ago.


It was obvious throughout the day that the standard of living in these communities was lower than most other places. While many places did look quite nice, others were less than pretty.


The major occupation here is in the growing and selling of herbs and spices, which we could definitely smell in some areas.


Here is a typical Buraku shrine, very simple, no frills.


After a long day of travelling, we headed back to the BLL and said goodbye to our host for the day. Here's the group after a job well done.


It certainly was an eye opening experience, and I am quite happy to have been able to take it all in. It's days like these that make living in Japan worthwhile, seeing the nitty gritty of everyday life, the modern day people still being affected by centuries old laws and regulations, it is quite fascinating.

After a rather heavy day of learning about the downtrodden, we headed back to Aiichirou's for some drinks and some grub. As usual, the feast was fantastic and Fumi took out her violin. To our surprise, our young Matt turned out to be quite the virtuoso and spit out a varied amount of tunes from classical to the Beatles to the Canadian National Anthem!


Needless to say, after such a day we needed to wind down, and after plenty to drink slowly made our way home on foot, hootin and hollerin in revenge for the times we get woken up by drunken Japanese people running around our neighbourhoods... I guess we were lucky not to be arrested, but we couldn't have cared much less. The real amusing part was how the more we walked the drunker Scott got... our young Aussie will be missed when he departs this island of ours just a little over a month from now.


And thus ended the day of the Buraku. I can't help but feel that my intensity dwindled as I got to the end of this essay\article\blog post\diary entry but I am working on a total of about 3 hours of sleep, having continuously woken up throughout the night and having to be up in the 6:30 range to deal with something this morning. I am now turning in to bed for a well deserved rest. Otsukare sama.

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!

Well Easter weekend is just about over and were it not for the comment by my mother and a few haphazard mentions over the week, you wouldn't even have noticed it. I guess Japan hasn't quite caught on to the whole chocolate-egg-and-rabbits-and-animals craze, which is just as well. While Christians here do in fact celebrate Easter with Easter Sunday services, the mainstream population does not mark it in any way, shape or form. I guess it just goes with being in Japan, the holidays which were traditionally important for me kind of just float by with hardly a mention. A good example of this is Christmas day, which I spent in transit to Beijing. Anywho, that's not to say nothing happened today... but nothing Easterish happened, though I did get a piece of chocolate.

First, allow me to post a retraction from my last post. Being the typical man, my relationship memory seems to be a lesser force than I thought it was. I was under the distinct impression that Yoshiko and I went to Cafe Praktica on October 14th, but I was mistaken. We actually went out to Yatai Mura on the 14th. My brain seems to have melded the 2 first dates we had into one... duh. No worries though, Cafe Praktica is a great date location for a 6 month anniversary nonetheless, and they'd lit a candle and decorated our table with some white roses for the occasion... gotta love that personal touch!

Yesterday morning, I rediscovered french toast... something I should have thought about at some point in the last year but which slipped my mind for some reason. I even added my personal touch by replacing the Vanilla extract with a drab of Amaretto which added a lovely almond flavour... mmm! Topped it all off with a bit of fruit, and there was Saturday morning breakfast before running the gauntlet of lessons.


Today was of course AEON's much anticipated Hanami party, which went off smashingly. For those not "in the know", Hanami is a cherry blossom viewing party... and yet another excuse to drink and let loose. With the blossoms being early this year and our party scheduled a bit late, we anticipated that the blossoms wouldn't still be around, but they stuck through a week of rain and wind for us and were still ever present, and even falling like a pink snow making for a great day.


The party was of course held in Hachimanyama park. You can see some of the leaves coming out as the blossoms fall, quite a lovely rebirth. The leaves have started to bud throughout the city now. The rain even held off for us and the sun actually came out for a large part of the party!


While we were settings up for the party, a rather enterprising pizza delivery man came down with some flyers saying they could deliver to our party. Quite a good idea! We of course had all the food we could ever need, but I'm sure they make a killing off it.


The pink carpet near where we were setting up.


We had a decent turnout as well, considering the blossom and weather forecast was against us and scared many students from signing up. Here we are basking in the sunlight and enjoying the dishes everybody brought. I threw together a quick taco salad for the occasion which went over quite well. Matto-sensei made up some great rice pudding, which is quite an anomaly here in Japan. While it seems perfectly normal to eat things such as fermented soy beans and to put beans in desserts, people seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around the use of rice in a desert. Thanks to Matt, I'd say a good portion of our students have been convinced that it is is fact possibly to eat rice for dessert!


There was of course the requisite party game, in this case Bingo... with Master Kobayashi as the bingo caller.


After we'd been there for a couple of hours, we got a pleasant surprise with this travelling live music\karaoke duo setting up shop next to our tarp for a little bit. They started out by doing a song for us, and then handed out a book of karaoke songs for the crowd to peruse.


Of course, with us foreigners being the stars of the show at these types of shindigs, the crowd prompted Scott, Matt and myself to give it a shot, which we obliged. Here is Scott belting out his favourite "Take Me Home, Country Road" by John Denver.


And our young scandinavian scamp giving us a rousing rendition of Twist and Shout! For the record, I sang Yesterday by the Beatles and was told I was pretty damn good. Pictures are of course unavailable due to the fact I was signing, but I feel Matt may retaliate for my posting his picture by posting mine on his blog... I also have both Scott and Matt's songs on video, but will limit their embarrasment (for the right price) by not posting the videos here. (yet)


It was great of them travellin' cowboys to stop on by, certainly livened things up a bit! Here's the group. And I've officially decided that my camera's auto setting is crap when it's not sunny out... I'll have to stop being lazy and fiddle with the manual settings.


So a great party! Gotta love the Hanami tradition...

After the party, Yoshiko and I had coffee with 2 of her coworkers, one of which did a homestay in Vancouver and Toronto and actually visited Ottawa! Very cool!

Tomorrow morning, I'm meeting up with the lads and we're being taken to Southern Tochigi by Aiichirou to meet with the head of the Buraku Liberation League. Aiichirou is a human rights advocate working full time on many issues. One of the ongoing problems here in Japan is with Buraku discrimination, which essentially segregates a certain class of society and takes any and every opportunity away from them. I'll have more to say on the subject tomorrow, should be an interesting day!

Next weekend, Yoshiko and I are heading to Tokyo for the weekend, and the following weekend I'm off to Canada!

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Apocalypse, Hockey and Rain

I've been reading this book Scott lent me written by Marcelo Gleiser who is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The book is entitled: The Prophet and the Astronomer, Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World. It is quite an interesting book. His writing is rather scientific in nature of course but is a fascinating look at the history of sky\sun\star worship in religions dating back thousands of years, and the natural phenomena that people have feared since man formed an opinion on the subject a couple ten thousand years ago. He so far has specifically focused on the fear of comets which have been thought to be harbingers of bad events such as wars and the death of kings. Gleiser states that this is giving a bad reputation to celestial objects since, for all intents and purposes, Humankind itself has an asteroid to thank for our survival on this planet.

How's this you ask? Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 180 Million years, and would still be running around chomping on meat today had it not been for the impact of a 10 kilometer wide asteroid travelling at 20,000 meters per second which hit in the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago. The resulting crater, which was discovered not that long ago, is over 270 kilometers wide, so you can imagine the resulting damage to the planet. The most major change which occurred following the impact was a major shift in climate, with the massive dust and smoke from the impact blocking sunlight for months on end. Following the cooling trend, a massive greenhouse effect took over and the temperature rose sharply. Planetary climate took thousands of years to recover from this impact and roughly 40% of life on the planet was extinguished. Fortunately for us, human's predecessors were able to adapt and thrive in the new environment, and human life was eventually able to develop. So he essentially says that we have an asteroid impact to thank for our very existence, so we shouldn't be complaining to the gods about the chance of any cataclysmic events in the future... it's just part of nature's cycle. Quite an interesting read.

On the Hockey note, the NHL Playoffs are set to begin soon with the Ottawa Senators at or near the top of the Eastern Conference. While their opponent in the first round has yet to be determined, games should be starting next weekend I think? Go Sens Go! On a sad note (ya right!) the Toronto Maple Leafs look to be just about out of contending for the playoffs, five points back for the 8th playoff spot.... how sad. :-)

The weather out here this week has been very Tsuyu (Rainy season) like, with rain EVERY day since Monday. This is apparently a quite unusual amount of rain for this area in April, and has battered the lovely cherry blossoms a bit. They are nonetheless holding on for dear life and will hopefully still be there for our party on Sunday.

On a nicer note, this evening will mark the 6 month anniversary of Yoshiko and I first going out to dinner at Cafe Praktica, an occasion we will of course be celebrating together tonight.

Anywho, gotta do a tad of cleaning and get going to work.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Fantabulous day, and another Photo Story

Woke up this morning at the crack of 8:30 and since it was my third time waking up in the previous hour, I decided to get out of bed at this ungodly hour and see what kind of trouble I could stir up. While tyring to be productive and failing miserably (putting a load in the washing machine isn't exactly considered productive in my books) I procrastinated by making up the the first of the 4-5 retrospectives on my year in Japan that I plan to make. Essentially, I went through all the pictures I've taken thus far and selected about 250 or so of the best and will be making a couple of video stories as the last month before my one year anniversary rolls on by. The first one ecompasses pictures from My arrival in Omiya on May 13th to a day trip in Tokyo on August 10th with stops in Nasu, Oyama, Mashiko, Tochigishi, Ueno, Shinjuku, Ginza and of course right here in Utsunomiya.


I did manage to clean up a tad before meeting up with Scott down the street for our weekly cherry blossom inspection, with plans for lunch at Al Noor later. Unfortunately the skies were overcast and threatening to pour on us, so the colours aren't quite so bright in the pictures I took today, but we saw some lovely things nonetheless. We started by heading to Sho'un ji temple, where the 400 year old hanging sakura tree had past it's prime blooming time and green shoots could be seen, quite a large tree. Here's a picture Matt took of said tree while it was at 100% bloom.

After checking that out, we headed on up the stairs to Hachimanyama park and were quite surprised to see that the trees which were absolutely barren last week are now in full bloom. This unfortunately means that the Hanami party for next weekend will be more of a picnic in the park than a cherry blossom viewing party since there won't be many blossoms left, unless the rain and winds can hold off for a bit and give us a chance. Here is the mega tower of Utsunomiya, ranked right up these with Tokyo Tower in the "Big ugly orange towers" book.


There were few people in the park today compared with those that were there yesterday enjoying the sunshine according to Scott. Hachimanyama park has over 700 trees of different varieties... interesting that this was once a private garden in the early 1900s.


These yatai were setup all over the place, no doubt not quite happy about the lack of sunshine and people for the day.


These gentlemen were sprawled out under the blossoms enjoying the view and engaging in conversation while keeping the spot for a hanami later in the day. Funny to see the same thing happening as we saw last week in Ueno, guess Hachiman is a busy place for parties this time of year.


Of course, any day of blossom viewing isn't complete without a zoom in picture.


Scott and I then headed out to a different temple to check that out, you may recognize this tree and building from previous excursions. This is the oldest wooden building in Utsunomiya, dating back to the days of Utsunomiya castle. It was moved from the castle grounds and has survived to this day.


While it was overcast and a tad chilly, it was nice weather for walking.


Here is what has become a trademark photo that anyone walking with Scott has likely taken. As we line up for pictures while conversing and walking, Scott will often continue walking and talking, not noticing that we've stopped to frame up a shot. As you can see here, I am not the only one who has encountered this phenomenon, and it has become somewhat of an inside joke between Matt and I.


Shortly after the last picture was taken, we got in touch with dear Matt who said he'd meet us at the curry place for some lunch. We continued walking a bit and ended up back at Futarayama shrine, which was just as gorgeous as it has been all week.



This beauty is certainly accentuated by the lack of beauty in the surrounding buildings. It gets quite depressing sometimes looking at how this city was built, just look at the crappy building rising above this centuries old place of worship... disgraceful really.


When we got to Al Noor, the place was packed and the chef was gone. He's vacationing back home in Pakistan for a while and he's left his assistant in charge while he's out. What is quite funny about that is that on the first day the temporary chef was to be alone, he called in some reinforcements in the form of the 2 Pakistani guys who sell Silver jewelry and stuff on Orion dori. It was quite the shock to see these 2 behind the counter, and once the place cleared out we ended up having a great discussion with them about the state of world affairs, particularly terrorism in their homeland, as well as cooking.... of course. After lunch, we headed back to Ji Ko Ji temple where the early blooming cherry tree was also starting to fade, had a nice walk through the graveyard though, which offers a view over the city.

Afterwards, when making a quick pit stop at Daily Yamazaki, we noticed these evil cigarette promo packs, no doubt capitalizing on the hanami parties happening just up the street. For just a few yen over regular price, you can get yourself a whole carton of cigarettes, along with a can of beer or a bag of snacks... just what the enterprising young salaryman needs for an afternoon of cherry blossom viewing and fresh air. It really is sick how the tobacco laws and just the general feelings about smoking are at the levels that they were in North American in the 50s and 60s.


Scott left us at this point and I took Matt out for his first look at Hachimanyama. On the way up there, we took a detour up some stairs I'd never been up and discovered a tomb dating back to the 6th century! Quite intriguing. I guess people were shorter back then than they are now...


After a couple of rounds around Hachiman and another visit to Sho'un ji temple, we headed back into the concrete wonderland that is Utsunomiya, and were provided with this bit of Engrish. It's nice that they have Ken Tucky's Bourbon, I know old Ken and he'd be pissed if they didn't. Not even gonna venture a guess as to what the ItalianGermanSpanish line is doing separated from the French... some kind of wine segregation? France is above the common wines of the other nations? Who knows....


So tomorrow is lesson number 3 at TIC, wish me luck... though now that I know to expect Hiragana, I'm sure I'll do better.

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