Friday, June 30, 2006

Happy Canada Day!!!

139 years ago today, roughly about the time the Tokugawa Shogunate's hold over Japan fell to the Meiji Restoration with the return of the Emperor, a large swath of North America was consolidated into the Dominion of Canada by the British. Canada was born.

I've been lucky enough to have grown up in the Nation's Capital of Ottawa, and have enjoyed years of celebrations on and around Parliament Hill. Hundreds of thousands of people march on the hill to attend the concerts and check out the fireworks... What a blast it is!

Us Cannucks don't seem to be too patriotic for most of the year, but around Canada day, our pride for the country comes out. Faces are painted, flags are attached to cars, red and white is worn and of course the beer flows freely as the biggest event of the year hits Ottawa. For the second (and final) time, I will be teaching on Canada Day, with no real plans to partake in any celebrations. Anyone reading this in Canada, have a blast, have a beer or three for me... and remember how lucky we are to be Canadians.

Happy Birthday Canada!

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Well, it's back...

What's back you ask? The Japanese summer. While officially, we are still in the middle of rainy season, I balk at the idea and state that summer has hit. By the time I get home, even at 9 or 10PM, I am soaked through and through... by sweat, not rain. The humidity is just hanging in there overnight and this morning, I used my air conditioner for the first time and am glad to report that it works fine.

It's this time of year that I truly loathe having to wear a suit to work. We do our best not to use too much AC at the office, but it's often a losing battle when we're standing in front of a class trying to stay active. If only we had a summer dress code, like the Japanese government has tried to push. They call it "Cool Biz" and essentially aims to save electricity by allowing employees to wear cooler clothing for the summer and thus lowering the need for AC.

How hot is it? Well let me just put it this way... the Japanese PM has left Japan and headed to Canada to cool off, that's how hot it is. He even marveled today at the wonders of Niagara Falls, saying "We don't have falls like that in Japan".

In other news... Japan has just received a slap in the face from the UN in response to it's blatant lack of progress on Human Rights issues. Dr. Diene, a special representative of the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights came to Japan last month for a follow-up to his visit in July of 2005. With Japan pushing for a seat on the UN's Security Council, the UN has put Japan on notice that it must do more to fight discrimination in this country if it wants to play with the big boys. The bottom line is that Japan is being very slow to change anything, not even able to pass an anti-discrimination law tabled in the Diet some time ago. The right-wing groups here seem to hold a lot of sway and are managing to keep the status quo in place. This article by DEBITO ARUDOU (who's web site you can see linked on the right) in the Japan Times Online talks about a book which was recently published in response to Dr. Diene's report. According to the article:

"Said book even provided manga for the masses -- depicting foreigners picking fights in bars, lying down on the job, and laying waste to apartments, then unjustly calling the human rights commission to "rat" on any boss, barkeep, or landlord who objected.
Mentioning the Diene report in passing (comparing it to "book of lies" "The Rape of Nanking"), the book demanded the Foreign Ministry show some backbone for a change, stop the U.N. "insulting our country," and "protect our sovereignty and independence."

That's right, foreigners don't deserve protection because we all pick fights, are lazy and tear up our apartments.... now I understand. I found it ironic that this right-wing propaganda book would mention "The Rape of Nanking" and call it a "book of lies." The very fact that they compare a report by a UN special envoy with this book gives "The Rape of Nanking" credence. For those unfamiliar with the book, it discusses a massacre by Japanese forces during their invasion of China in the late 1930s. Japan's nationalist movement to this day states that it has been exaggerated and that no such massacre occurred, and this despite eye-witness accounts and photos from foreigners who had been traveling in the region. This discussion is for another day, as I am on the verge of reading this "book of lies", it's sitting on my night table right now.

Luckily, there is a silver lining in the form of organisations such as the IMADR and the BLL as well as people such as our student Aiichirou who work to further the cause of minorities in Japan. With any luck, their voices will grow stronger with time and true change will come when they are finally heard.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Weekend shenanigans

Well it certainly has been an entertaining weekend. I got my bike fixed up with the help of Yoshiko on Saturday morning and it now rides like a dream. Amazing what a little oil and a few adjustments can do! The rain held off in the west end of the city and the BBQ was a smashing success on Sunday. I bought some disposable charcoal grills at Trial for 269Yen and they worked out quite well!

I whipped up my World Famous (or at least Utsunomiya famous) Taco salad, and Yoshiko and I made up some beef, onion, mushroom and pepper skewers to grill which turned out quite nicely. Matt made up an Indian style carrot salad and some lovely marinated chicken breasts while Stacy brought some tasty melon and steaks. Mmmmmmm! All went well and the logistics of it were quite simple. We were 5 people up there and it went off rather smoothly, I may attempt a slightly larger event later this summer or in the Fall. Maybe invite some of our gracious students who have invited us into their homes so many times before. Matt and I made a dent (finally) in the bottle of Southern Comfort I'd bought at a year ago, and introduced our friends to Amaretto as well.

There was one slightly creepy occurrence at the beginning of our BBQ when we spotted a guy across the way looking out at us from a window. I understand three foreigners BBQing on a rooftop terrace is not a common occurrence, so at first we thought he was just curious. But then he didn't go away. Then we thought he was taking pictures of us but he finally crouched down so all we could see was his head and we noticed he was watching us with binoculars. He must have stayed there a good 10-15 minutes! I even went down to get my camera to stare back at him through my telephoto lens, but by the time I got my stuff together he'd disappeared. Too bad, would have made an amusing picture. Maybe we'll be lucky and he'll come back out the next time!

A grande ol' time was had by all, though I will say that Sean was correct and the best steak I've ever had was cooked over a camp fire in the middle of Algonquin Park. I think THE best of the camping steaks had to be when we did the winter camping thing and forgot to bring utensils. We were so tired and hungry from a day of trudging through snow and chopping wood that we devoured the steaks with our bare hands, making for some great pictures.

Today was the more spiritual of the two days with a planned trip to visit our friend\student\monk Saychon-san at his temple for lunch. You'll recall Alex and I visited last November.

Matt and Stacy came along this time and the experience was a slightly different one than what I had experienced. The lunch was fantastic of course, with a great curry and some fish head with a smattering of other dishes. The Thai sausage was the best in my opinion. Here are the three senseis offering one of the things we brought to the monks. These fellers are not allowed to purchase or make any of their own food. Their followers come to the temple twice a day (breakfast and lunch) to prepare food for them. They are also not allowed to accept food directly (hand to hand) from either women or their own followers. Matt and I, as common heathens, were allowed to pass him dishes directly but since Stacy was joining in for this photo op, we needed to place the fruit pie onto the monk's sash. Our student Saychon is the one on the left, with his stoic co-monk off on the right. So basically, these guys are totally dependant on their followers. If nobody comes to prepare something for them, they don't eat. From what I understand (and from the spread of dishes I witnessed today) this is not really a problem.

So far, the experience was the same. Friendly people, interesting conversation about Thai culture and Buddhism, all good. There were a few people visiting from the head temple in Bangkok and they made things quite different from when Alex and I visited alone with Saychon. After our meditation session, of which video clips were taken, they showed us a video about their International Ordination program whereby one goes to Thailand and takes vows as a Buddhist monk. It was interesting to see people from all over the world wanting to study Buddhism more in depth, but when they asked us if we were interested, it felt a bit like a sales push. They didn't insist or anything, but I didn't like the feeling with the head office people there. While I do find this religion fascinating, and believe that meditation is a good way to relieve stress and find peace, I'm not quite ready to hop on a plane, go to Thailand and shave what little hair I have left to become a monk! Kind of odd.... I joked with Matt that this was karmic punishment for the campaigns at AEON... lol

We finally parted ways and said our goodbyes to little Saychon. Tsukuba Steve, you take good care of him when he starts up classes in a couple of months.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The trials and tribulations of a two-wheeled existence

Little bit of a bike problem tonight, not fun at all. I found out this evening that Yoshiko and Tomomi were meeting at Cafe Praktica for dinner and decided to stop on by for a bite to eat after work. After a lovely meal with Matt and the girls, we all hopped on our bikes and parted ways. Since I was rolling right on by the post office, (there's a bike pump for public use there) I decided I may as well top off the tires in the bike, something which was well overdue.

As I started to inflate the rear tire, I heard a strange "spluttttt" sound followed by rushing air. Not good. Turns out the tire's valve popped out into two different pieces and I was unable to find the second piece in the dark. D'oh! Ended up walking the bike to work, locking it up and then walking home. Such are the problems one encounters when at the mercy of two rubber tubes and a couple of spokes. Granted, this issue is nothing compared to the mechanical complexities I've had to deal with back in my gas-powered vehicle days. I only hope someone can give me a hand tomorrow with the old guy who runs the bike shop nearby. While I've got the bike in for service, I'll have him do a tuneup and such, make sure everything is running smoothly and allow me to finally get the top gears going on this bike.

Made an interesting discovery today. As you may have noticed, the Japanese are big on using English on everything from Starbucks coffee cups to hair salons, just for the sake of being "cool". Well today, I went to a book store looking for a book of Sudoku puzzles (addictive little buggers) only to determine that our use of the word "Sudoku" for such puzzles may be just for the "coolness" factor of thinking we are playing a Japanese numbers game.

After trying to find the book by myself, I finally pulled out the rusty Japanese and asked "Sudoku no hon arimasuka?" (Sudoku book do you have?) and got a strange look from the book store lady. She went off to discuss what this strange foreigner was asking for with some of the other staff and they finally led me off to the English books section and offered me a book with an "is this what you're looking for" kinda look. One glance at the advanced mathematics puzzles enclosed and I vehemently made it known that this wasn't it. With gestures, I was able to communicate that the puzzles I wanted are smaller, and that seemed to get them going. I was taken to a back area and shown to a small section of the Sudoku I know and love. After thanking everyone who helped, I paid and was on my way. When I arrived at the office, I asked for a reading of the cover (since I have been lazy with my hiragana learning and haven't looked at more than the first 5 characters) and was told it was "Numpure". This is japanese-english for "number play" I guess. So basically, both Japan and the West play the same game. Japan uses an English name for it and we use a Japanese name for it. Quite interesting.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

New construction

Here's another intriguing and delightful custom I found out about this week. The other night when I got home, I found a towel in my mailbox. Not a large beach towel, just a small hand towel, could be used to go to an Onsen I guess. Anywho, it was wrapped in fancy paper with Kanji on it and came with a letter. After taking advantage of my lovely fiancee Yoshiko's translation skills, I learned that this gift was from Toyota Home. They are selling a number of lots next to my apartment building and construction is slated to start on Tomoko somethingorother's home this week.

How cool is that? A gift to say sorry for the noise I guess, though they won't bother me cause it's on the opposite corner of the building. Quite a nice touch though don't you think? Now if only we could get the city to give us gifts in Ottawa before they start tearing up our streets, I think it would make the whole process a lot more endurable, no?

This weekend has been pretty mellow. Watched a couple of movies, relaxed... nice weather today so I went on a bit of a bike tour to do some errands. Oh yeah! The movie thing reminds me of something I tried earlier today. I was watching a DVD of U571, and just as it got to one of the best parts of the movie (where the Americans board the German U-boat) the DVD started flicking and freezing and cutting out. Aaaaaaaarrrrrg! I remembered then that it had done that the first time I watched it too. Not wanting to miss out on 30 minutes of action for a second time, I turned in desperation to the toothpaste method of DVD repairs, which I had thought was an old wive's tale. It's not! Smeared toothpaste all over the DVD, rubbed it in, washed it off and voila! How great is that?

Next weekend will be busy. Having some folks over for a rooftop BBQ on Sunday and doing lunch at Saychon-san's temple on Monday. Bring on the great Thai food!

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ah tsuyu, how I missed thee... (not)

Yes, tsuyu (rainy season) has once again settled in on this little patch of sushi and gyoza we like to call Utsunomiya. We haven't seen more than an hour or so of sunshine here in a couple of weeks and now the rain has started to come down pretty regularly. It's not that bad I guess, I've only come home wet 3 or 4 times so far, which isn't bad considering I've biked every day but one. Japan does count on this season to fill up the reservoirs for the summer though, so I say: "Let it rain."

Speaking of bikes, I had an interesting encounter this week with my real-estate agency via fax. My manager came up to me with a computer drawn diagram and explained to me that the rental agency was asking that I move my bicycle from where I was parking it (under the stairs in a little dusty alcove nobody uses next to the mailboxes) to the garage. The request was made complete with a diagram of the layout of the building, a drawing of my bike in it's present location and a drawing of my bike in it's ideal location. Now, I don't know if someone from the building complained or something, but I found this whole exchange rather amusing. So I now park in the garage, with the cars... no problemo.

Matto "the natto" and I hit up Modern tonight. For those who don't know, Modern is an Okinawan Ozakaya which is now pretty much the halfway mark between work and my new apartment which serves up amazing food and has a great atmosphere. It's on Union Street near the Tobu end if anyone is interested in checking it out. We had grilled squid, yuba and salmon roe and of course their trademark salmon pizza. That and a couple of cokes (plus a salad that was on the house since they didn't have enough to make a full order) came out to 1900 Yen. (less than 20$) Not bad, eh?

The trip to Cambodia is forever morphing... I had originally considered getting a private tour package which would include just about every arrangement I would need to take care of once on the ground in Cambodia. After reading the Lonely Planet guide cover to cover, I have just about trashed that idea. I think a tour with a set itinerary would be a little too restrictive for what I want to do and see there, and after my experience with the 2 short arranged trips I experienced in China, I think I'll go it on my own. This way, I'll get to experience more of the true culture\food\locations rather than just hitting sites A, B and C followed by lunch at tour group restaurant #203 and moving on to temples #12 and 904. From what I understand, it's very cheap (5-10$) to hire a moto and driver for the day, and if you choose carefully, they can serve as a bit of a tour guide and show you some local places to eat and such around the temples. Tomorrow I'll hand in my request for time off and see where that gets me. With any luck, I'll be granted the 2 days off I'm asking for which will give me a total of 13 days of vacation. Sweeeeeet. My original plan to hit Thailand first is just about out the window, which will likely make my folks feel much better since I just read about a series of bombings in southern Thailand today. Of course, the unstable area is far from Bangkok, but I'd rather not have them worry any more than they will when they hear about the landmines which still litter Cambodia from decades of war. (did I just write that? ooops. No worries, so long as you don't stray from the beaten path... say to go for a leak in the forest... there's no danger.)

In other, sadder news, we just learned today that Saychon-san, our Thai Buddhist monk friend turned student will be moving next month to Tsukuba in Ibaraki. I believe he'll be setting up a new temple down there and will hand off his Tochigi temple to another monk. He will be missed! You'll remember that Alex and I had a lunch\meditation session with him a while back. Hey Tsukuba Steve! I'll have to get you guys in touch!

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Monday, June 12, 2006

World Cup Fever

For the last couple of hours, I was crammed into the Lion's Head with about a thousand Japanese people and 20 foreigners watching Japan's first World Cup Game against Australia. I got an email earlier from Shige asking if I wanted to join, and I thought: "What the hell" and hopped on my bike for the ride down. Interesting thing, I ran into someone (Brandon? Branden? sorry, it was loud) who reads or has read my blog and recognized me. Quite interesting, and not the first time this happens.

Now, I've never been one much for soccer, what with hockey taking up all of my sports related energy\interest, but there's just something about being in a crowd of cheering fans that makes any game exciting. I was cheering and jeering right along with everybody, shouting out "Nippon Nippon Nippon" with the rest of them and celebrating Japan's opening (and so far the only) goal of the game. Now of course, were Canada ever to get a team up there, I may very well cheer for them; since Japan is my home now though, I figured I'd support the home team. (Matto-sensei, how's that for the use of a semi-colon?)

I am quite disappointed that I didn't bring my camera with me as the cheering crowd would have made for great video... next time! I think I may join next Sunday if Shige or others feel up to it. And this time I'll wear shorts and bear the heat for the full game, not just the first half.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

I'm back baby! I'm back! (same intonation as George from Seinfeld)

Well, looks like my worries about not being connected turned out to be baseless. This morning when I woke up, I flipped on the modem and gave it a shot, and there I was connected to the Interwebs again. How marvelous! So many things have happened in the week I've been offline! The Edmonton Oilers are down 2-1 in a best of 7 series for the Stanley Cup, Al Quaeda's head in Iraq has been killed, the Canadian Dollar has soared (not good for those of us waiting for a good time to send Yen back home) and the first named storm of the season is heading to Florida. Now that I'm caught up on news and email and the like, I can carry on with my new life from Daikan, having moved from Hanawada all of 8 days ago.

Life here is good. I am still enjoying the double-takes I get as people in the neighbourhood slowly learn that there is a new Cannuck in the neighbourhood. I have yet to meet any of my neighbours, and haven't heard much from the building other than the odd TV at night. The bird life around here is quite nice, not composed only of crows like my old place. I will be quite happy here. For the record, there has been an addition to my living room. After a year of folding up a futon to lay back and watch a movie, I've purchased a little couch. It's a welcome addition to my new living room.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a new Lonely Planet guidebook on my table... this one for Cambodia. I've decided to check it out for New Year's holiday. The way it looks, if I can get 2 days off from work, that gives me a 13 day stretch of holiday time to visit possibly Vietnam (with Yoshiko) and Cambodia (hopefully with Matt or another willing accomplice) before returning to work in January. Cambodia has been closed to to Western World for so long with the constant strife there these past years and is just now opening up again and embracing tourism as a crutch to help recover from decades of war. From the ruins of Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom to the horrors of the killing fields and S-21 (Cambodia's version of Auschwitz), this will be quite the trip. But anywho, that's a good 6 months away...

The view here isn't as green as my old one, but I can see some mountains in the distance. On a clear day, I may be able to see Nantai-san, though said clear day has yet to materialized with the rather rainy week we've had.

My old apartment is where you can see the cranes on the left, and work is where you can sort of see the orange and white tower on the right. It's about a 15 minute walk, of a 5 minute bike ride from here to the office, quite nice. And another good thing is that I am now conveniently located a 5 minute bike ride from Trial, THE discount food and stuff shop out here.

The rooftop terrace! Will be quite nice to sit up here and BBQ... I'll get to test it out in 2 weeks when some folks are coming over.

So that's the new place. This weekend, Yoshiko and I went to Oarai on the coast to visit a pretty nice aquarium they've got there. The definite highlight of the day was the underwater viewing of the dolphins, who were quite friendly and would come by the window to get a look at us. One thing that was nice about this aquarium is that the theater where the dolphins and such do their show has a window view of the ocean, quite a nice backdrop.

We also got a good look at some of these penguins who would also come by the window to say hello.

Unfortunately, the weather was quite overcast, but it was a great day nonetheless.

On Sunday, we had a leisurely day and spent some time at an amusement center. We played pool for a couple of hours and did a little karaoke before grabbing some Subway for lunch and picking up my couch for about 100$. The teacher who moves in here after my departure will be quite happy, that is assuming I don't choose to sell everything I've bought for the apartment... we'll see.

Not much on the plate for today, going to head to the old apartment to see if my package has arrived yet. I ordered some movies from Amazon before I knew I was moving, hope they're here now. Life at the school is settling in again, though the dynamics have changed drastically with the departure of both Yoshi and Scott last month. Our young scamp is surely missed and traditions such as the morning Tully's pit stop and the Gyoza feast just aren't occurring as often as they once did. Hope he's having a good time walking the beaches of the Gold Coast.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Living the life...

Ah but 'tis a good life here at Ark Daikan Bldg.. Hello everyone, I am still alive, but unfortunately still offline. Internet should be hooked up on Monday, but I'm not getting my hopes up. It took 2 months to get it hooked up in the first place, you'll have to excuse me if I feel somewhat skeptical when they say a week to move the service.

I love this apartment! It's shiny, it's new, it's well organized, it's great! Here are some pics. First, this is a shot of the living area, with patio door leading to my enclosed balcony, great for use as storage, you'll notice my skis are out there waiting for the snow to come back...

This is a shot in the opposite direction, facing the little cubby where I've setup my desk and into the kitchen. I love the layout of this place. And an extra bonus, there's room in my kitchen for my fridge! This means I don't need to have my fridge and microwave in the living room. I've also managed to put my dresser and a bookshelf into the closet, saving even more space.

The best feature of this place I think is probably this nice bay window. I will be purchasing some plants to sit on the ledge there, and I get a great breeze running through when I open the patio door and the window. I even have a nightly visitor, in the form of a rather large spider who crawls down his\her web just outside the window and spends the night in wait for her next meal. We've become friends, it stays outside, I do my thing inside and I'm quite happy to have traded in the occasional roach in my old apartment.

And for the toiletophiles out there, this is my new loo... complete with computerized water dispensing, heated seat, CD player, massager and auto-cleaning mechanism. Of course, I don't need any of those things and will only turn said features on when guests are expected.

So that's about that for the new apaato. The kitchen is of similar size but I've been able to get better organized due to additional storage space. It's been comfortable out here, very quiet neighbourhood, no crows squawking at me at 4AM, no drunks running around all night singing and yelling at the top of their lungs. My only mishap so far was a little lack of communication\planning which left me without gas for my first few days here. No gas means no stove top burner, and more importantly no hot water for the morning shower. It was certainly an awakening experience on Tuesday when I had to shower and shave for work... glad the gas man came in on Tuesday afternoon and got me hooked up. Another interesting feature is that the hot water here is controlled by a computer. I have no hot water tank, I just have to go to one of the computerized panels, turn it on, select the water temp I want and do my dishes\shower or whatever. Quite ingenious in that I no longer have to pay to keep a large tank of water hot all year long.

I'll be holding a little BBQ in a few weeks to test out the rooftop terrace, then maybe a larger one for the staff at the school later this summer.

This weekend, Yoshiko and I are heading down to Ibaraki to check out an aquarium. I've taken Saturday off since it's counselling week which means we get to spend a whole two days together, yay!

Anywho, that's that... later.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Well, the hard part is done

It took us only 4 trips and a couple of hours to get all my crap moved into the new apartment today. Had I not needed to move all the furnishing of the apartment (AEON will no longer be using it) it would have taken just one trip. This is a good trial run for the final departure next year... so long as I don't accumulate too much crap between now and then, I should be fine.
Tomorrow, I need to head to the old place and clean up, bag the pile of trash I left in the middle of the room and then setup everything in my new apartment.
Tired, sleepy, but satisfied that we got it all done. Great big thanks to my lovely Yoshiko for her invaluable help today!
In other news, there has been a significant terrorism-related bust in Ontario. 17 people have been arrested on charges of planning a major bombing after gathering 3 tons of fertilizer (that's 3 times the amount used in the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 by the way) and starting to build the detonator. What pisses me off about these monsters is that all of them were residents, and some were even citizens of Canada. We had accepted them into our country with open arms, provided a home for them as an escape to their war torn homelands. After years of living the life and taking advantage of our way of life, they attempt an attack on that very same way of life. Don't these guys see the irony here?

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Phase 1 complete

Tonight after work, Matt was kind enough to lend a hand and move the big stuff I had. We did two loads with the car and moved my TV, washing machine, fridge, microwave, futons, bedding and food. Tomorrow should go pretty well.
So that's that, I am now officially offline again until YahooBB gets their act together and moves my stuff to the new place... crazy that it takes almost two weeks.
That's about that for now, I'll post pics of the new digs when I get a chance.

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