Sunday, July 30, 2006

Oyama Fireworks Festival... take deux

Wow, has it been a year already? This time last summer, I was heading out to Oyama on my very first local train trip to go see the Fireworks Festival. My, how things have changed. A Japan veteran, I now travel with an insulated bag filled with shochu coolers, a high-end digital camera, and of course a beautiful Japanese fiancee... the difference a year makes!

What a fantastic day. The weekend started last night with dinner at Modern, my friendly neighbourhood Okinawan pub... not going there so much these days, we tend to spread our restauranting out a bit. Then, today we set out to join a BBQ in progress in Oyama with Wasim, Steve, Saki and Masaki. They'd arranged for a little gazebo type setup with a grill over some hot coals... great food! Here's part of the group hamming it up for the camera.

Of course, as with any event in proximity of the hoards from Tokyo, the parks along the riverside in the relatively small town of Oyama were absolutely packed with people. We were lucky to get in rather close to the place from which they were launching, and staked out our little patch of grass. (Yes, those are people on the opposite side of the river!)

The fireworks are sponsored by different companies, but the hour and a half show was essentially a succession of fireworks displays with short intermissions between them... a great format for a fireworks festival. And now, for some of the pictures I took.

I thought this one was pretty cool since I caught one just going off, which you can see as a star at the bottom. Nice clear pictures, considering I was doing this freehand and that the S3's fireworks mode leaves the shutter open for a while.

Another good shot, showing two bursts at different stages.

This one I liked because it looks like a flower, very cool effect with the shutter staying open long enough to capture the initial explosion as well as the outward movement of the embers.

You'll notice the quality on this one is lesser, that's because I switched modes to give continuous shooting a try. While taking about a picture a second, I caught several "moment of explosion" type shots, of which this is one. Too bad the picture is so noisy. The Fireworks mode does a much better job, but takes a good 5 seconds to process the image and remove noise.

And finally, another great big thanks to the gods of zooming. My favourite shot of the night, I took this shot while zoomed into the center of a burst. Very cool!

And of course, what's a festival without yatai food. This time around we didn't grab anything to eat since we were stuffed from the BBQ, but I thought this was a nice effect of movement contrasting with the ononomiyaki sign which is in focus.

A great day, as you can very well see. Also, Yoshiko has agreed to finally allow me to post her picture on my blog. Once the committee reviews the portfolio I've presented them and choose an appropriate picture, I'll post it.

Tomorrow night, Matt and I are joining one of our departing students for a Sake experience somewhere out here. Looking forward to that as well.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Scotty update!

Just got an email from our dear departed Scotto outlining his plans. After a little more than 2 months back in his native Australia after 10 years of traveling, our young wandering neophyte is on the move again.... destination Thailand this time. He says he's booked into a 10 day meditation session at a Buddhist temple and will see where things take him from there. Enjoy Scotty!

In other news, I recently finished reading "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down", an amazing book by author Anne Fadiman.

While this book is partially a case study in Asian immigrant integration in the Western world, exposing some major obstacles and failures of Western Medicine when dealing with shamanistic religions from abroad along the way, it is primarily the story of one little girl. Her name is Lia, and she and her family have suffered more hardships and overcome more difficulties than most of us can imagine. The Lee family is first and foremost Hmong, an ethnic group from Southeast Asia. They landed in California after being exiled from Laos and spending some time in refugee camps in Thailand. Lia was born in Merced, California in 1982 and relatively soon suffered the first of uncountable seizures caused by a severe case of epilepsy. The book details both sides of the resulting drama, from parents with a system of beliefs totally at odds with Western medicine and doctors trying (and often failing) to deal with the major cultural and language barriers thrown up between them and caring for this patient. It's a sad and tragic story, but also one of hope and perseverance. The love and devotion Lia's parents have shown for their children is admirable, the honesty with which Lia's primary care givers discuss her case is refreshing and will hopefully help to understand these types of situations in the future. I definitely suggest reading this book.

In camera news, I'm still playing... this week I ordered an adapter and a couple of filters. Also took some pictures to show off the zoom on this baby. Here is a construction worker directing traffic. Picture was taken at full (including digital) zoom from my apartment window.

Here he is again, this time using only the lens's 12x zoom.

And without zoom... can you find him?

Centre of the picture, to the left of the yellow building... see that little white spot? that's his helmet. Gotta love it! This will be great for wildlife shots in the future... hopefully monkeys in Nagano in a couple of weeks.

Anywho, better shower and head on in to work...

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Nikko again, and that's ok

Have I mentioned I love the Nikko area? In case I haven't said it enough, here it is again. I love Nikko and its surrounding area. Today, after fiddling around on the Internet and finally booking our hotel rooms for our trip to Nagano this Obon, Yoshiko and I headed out to the Kirifuri Kogen area near Nikko to check out yet another set of water falls I hadn't seen. The falls in question, Kirifuri no taki, (which translates to the misty mountain falls?) are simply gorgeous. They are not quite as dramatic (and morbidly historical) as Kegon Falls, but the lush green surroundings make the visit a memorable one. The area we were in is at an altitude of 1200 meters, and the falls drop a good hundred meters or more down the side of the mountain. The viewing area is at the end of a 5 minute walk down a well maintained path, and the cicadas were signing to us as we made our way down. Here is a 4 picture stitching I took.

Following our peek at the falls, we ate at a fabulous restaurant which offers a view of the falls. The food was amazing! Their French onion soup is pretty much on par with what I'm used to back home, which is quite the feat since the few times I've tried the soup here in Japan I have not been able to finish the bowl... ick! But this stuff was great!

Afterwards, we headed off for a little exploration of Nikko, we parked in a little residential area and wandered through a quiet temple along the river where the hydrangea were still in full bloom.

I also really liked the moss growing on the basin here, and the trademark dragon was nice too.

We then followed the river down and made our way to what must be the very head of the river. The water narrows and rushes pretty intensely around this point... and the lack of concrete or any other man made obstacles to the river make this the most natural riverside surroundings I've ever encountered in Japan!

Along this path are also dozens of these moss covered statues who have been here for quite some time.

Some have even lost their heads to some unknown calamity, but have been able to hold on to their hats!

Needless to say, a wonderful day, though Yoshiko may think I was fiddling with my camera a little too much. I am very much still in the learning phase, doing a lot by trial and error, but am pleased with what I was able to get today, especially considering the lack of sunshine. The photo stitching feature by which you can take several pictures and stitch them into one panorama is very cool, and the video mode is amazing too! More of those coming in the future for sure. Tomorrow is back to the rain if the weather reports are to be believed, so other than a trip to get some food, I doubt I'll be doing much.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Another farewell party...

Tonight, we had a little farewell party for Shige who is leaving us shortly to study business at Santa Monica College in California. Shige is one of the students with whom I've forged a personal relationship during my time here, which makes his departure both a happy and a sad occasion. On the one hand, I am totally happy for him and very proud of the progress he has made and am glad to have had the opportunity to help him in his journey. On the other hand, I am sad to see him go and will miss him both in class and at the Lion's Head and such. The dynamics of teaching here are certainly interesting. Our young Master Shige gave a lovely speech to thank us all for helping him get to this point in his life, on the cusp of starting a new life in America. I usually don't think much about the effect we as teachers have on the lives of our students. After a year of teaching, it is easy to see lessons as merely a process, and not so much a means to an end since after each rotation comes a fresh batch of students. It is certainly nice to get the occasional glimpses of the dreams which we are helping our students reach. With 5-10 students leaving\having left us to go abroad this summer alone, the farewells have been a little too frequent for my liking!

He sure will be missed. He has the fantastic habit of constantly throwing me off by saying things like "I think ____ is total bullshit" during our class discussions. This was his description of Modern Art last week, which is just fantastic. You know you've reached a certain level of fluency when you start using profanity!

Here is dear Shige with his Senseis flanking him on either side.

Matto also took the opportunity to get to know his new camera, here it is complete with tripod (which for which my camera was unfortunately too heavy) scoping things out with the wide angle lens.

Since it was also Matt's birthday today, both he and Shige were treated to these HUGE parfaits, that everyone got to have a taste of.

The AEON group attending the party... from the left: Yoshiko (our new manager), Yuji (student) and his wife (crouching dressed in black, former student), Stacy, Sayaka, Shige, Yukiyo, Matt and I.

And now off to bed, long day ahead tomorrow.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Are you tired of bottoms getting in your drive?

Are you constantly thinking: "If only there were some way to keep these bottoms out of my drive!"? Have bottom-clogged drives resulted in anxiety? anger? incontinence? the end of your marriage? If you answered yes or no to any of these questions, Unico Corp has the perfect product for you! B-Straps, our patented "bottom strap for bicycle" are the answer to your problems. Simply tie the B-Strap to your bottom, and you're done! No more bottoms in your drive! Now available at Tobu department store for the low low price of 609 Yen! B-Straps: Keeps bottoms out of your drive!

If you're still wondering what these things are, they're velcro straps to keep the bottom of your pant legs from getting stuck in your bicycle chain... I bought myself a pair today since I busted the chain guard on my bike the other day and didn't want my pants to get mangled. They are quite useful, though the company really should stick to writing out instructions in Japanese, unless they're willing to shell out a couple thousand yen on proper translation. I just had to share this bit of Engrish with you...

In other news, after recently finding out that Cleve (who you can see busting some moves in the last picture of this post is now officially a Japanese Superstar. I'd heard he'd left the company some time back under mysterious circumstances which he didn't want to discuss... and low and behold here he is on Japanese TV! You can see an article about him from D.C. here(3rd article down). Go Cleve Go!

In other news, the Canon Powershot S3 learning is progressing nicely. I've gotten lots of information by reading the forums on which has TONS of info on any camera you could be interested in. I've also found a useful site hosted by Canon which explains the basics of SLR photography, a lot of which is applicable to my S3, and it's got great comparison shots and stuff too. Yesterday, I headed down to Yodobashi camera and picked up a camera bag and mini tripod... I'm ready to take on the world with with the S3 at my side! Now if only the weather can let up a bit for the weekend... the weather experts in Japan have officially extended rainy season through next week, so I don't know. So far, I've been really impressed with the zoom features on this camera. This is a picture of a puddle taken from my 3rd floor apartment, which I took free hand without the camera resting on anything for support... very nice zoom.

2 more days to go until the next weekend, Yoshiko and I really need to get our asses in gear and plan our trip to Nagano for Obon...

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Goodbye old friend....

It's been a good run, we've experienced so much together that I can't help but feel sadness and nostalgia when I think of us parting ways. Alas, the time to go our seperate ways has come. We've had a heck of a good time. I remember the first pictures I took the day I bought you, capturing shots of President Bush's motorcade from my company's offices as the dozens of vehicles roared onto Parliament Hill. Since that first blurry experience (so blurry that I didn't keep any pictures) we've come a long way. You were somehow able to not only capture the sights and sounds as I experienced them over the past two years, but also captured a little bit of myself with every click of the shutter. From the woods of Algonquin Park to the last few cherished moments with family before my departure from Canada, you served your purpose perfectly. Then, you embarked on this amazing adventure with me, and gave me countless (not true, there have been 2,697) mementos of my time in Asia. From the streets of Utsunomiya and the ski slopes of the Fukushima mountain range to the streets of Beijing and the Great Wall of China, you have been there with me, and I thank you. I now pass you on to another worthy traveller, and I hope he will enjoy your company as much as I have especially on his upcoming trip to India. My good friend, the Sony Cybershot DSC-W1, I bid you adieu.

On a much brighter note, I have a new camera! I took the plunge today and with the help of Yoshiko to barter for what amounted to a 17% discount in the form of store credit (which I used to buy a 2GB memory card) I purchased the new Canon Powershot S3 IS. Amazing camera it is, full of bells and whistles which I can't wait to try out! The two nicest additions I've played with so far are the "Sports" mode and the "Night Snapshot" mode which allow for a quick and easy way to take action shots and night shots. The Image Stabilizer feature is also nice, especially when combined with the 12x zoom... Of course, the manual is in Japanese, so I'll have to check online for documentation for this baby, but that is but a minor inconvenience. I now have a new reason to go out and get pictures, now if only this rain can hold off for a bit...

So obviously a quite enjoyable weekend, mainly since I got to spend the whole weekend with my lovely fiancee. Saturday night, we had a little pizza party to welcome our new manager Yoshiko (not the one I am going to marry... another Yoshiko) to AEON Utsunomiya... welcome back I guess since she was manager here a couple of years ago. I still can't quite get used to Japanese pizza, though most of them were ok. The seafood one was good, but the one(s) with cooked mayo are just wrong!

Sunday morning, we headed out to Movix for a preview glance at "Pirates of the Caribean 2: Dead man's chest". I am sorry to say I was not blown away. It was good, but I have many problems with it. There were a few too many "convenient" occurrences, and some sequences (the waterwheel fight comes to mind) were too long. All in all, it was a good movie and I will see the third... but... anywho.

Afterwards, we headed over to Kyoko's house for a fantastic evening of fantastic food. Kyoko has been my student for quite some time, alone in class most of the time. She is simply a fantasticly classy lady, and I've been right in love with her since I first started teaching her. 65 years old and the mother of our new manager, she has traveled extensively and was quite happy to share her photos with Yoshiko and I throughout the evening. And the food! Oh my god... she made up some Sukiyaki for us using the most amazing beef.... and supplemented it with a series of Japanese side dishes and pickled stuff.... sooooo good! Today was the camera shopping and some relaxing in front of the TV since the weather was crappy. It's been raining pretty heavily since last night, and won't really back off until Thursday.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Mushi atsui! (Humid and hot)

It is hot and humid these days, I can't imagine what it must be like in Tokyo and I am looking forward to running off into the mountains for Obon!

2 weeks ago, I went on a bit of a rant about Japan's policy against immigrants. This week, I read an interesting article from the same author talking about a new proposal which would reform the existing system. It's nice to see some steps are being made in the right direction. I think it's important for Japan to realize that Immigration is not a bane, but a boon, to a country with a declining population. Allowing skilled immigrants into the country can only help make it more prosperous in the future and help to mitigate the collapse of the social safety net due to the aging population. Speaking of which, Japan is now the oldest country in the world, with 21% of its population over the age of 65. It recently passed Italy's 20% to take the lead.

On the learning front, I am thinking of getting into the Japanese a little bit more... starting with picking up my katakana textbook again, which I haven't spent more than 5 minutes on in the last 3 months. On this note, I got an interesting comment the other day and found a funny little tune about hirgana and katakana. The song even has it's own blog here and you can have a listen to it here. Unfortunately, my Japanese pronunciation is not the problem, it's drawing the little buggers, they look too much alike! Maybe a video version of the same song???

In other news, I've decided to purchase a new camera. My little Sony Cybershot DSCW1 has done marvelous things for me, but I feel I am ready to move up in the world of digital photography and am looking at the feature packed SLR-like models available out there. Both Sony and Canon have recently come out with new models, the Sony Cybershot DSC-H5 and the Canon Powershot S3 IS. I am leaning towards the Canon due to it's reputation and such (and the fact that it looks very cool!), but the Sony does have some interesting features (like a 3" screen and an extra mega pixel), and I could use my existing memory cards in it.... hmmm.... things to ponder. I think it will end up being a matter of fit and comfort when I handle both models at the store, we shall see! By the way, anyone interesting in purchasing a camera should definitely check out the site I linked to above. You should definitely check out for EXTENSIVE camera reviews and digital photography news and discussions.

That's about it for now. One of my students has invited Yoshiko and I over on Sunday, I am really looking forward to it.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

To quote Scotty: "It's a good life... isn't it?"

It sure is Scotty, it sure is.

The end of another most excellent weekend is upon us, and work is looming large in the backs of our minds, but right now, we still have a few precious hours of freedom.

What a great weekend this had been. It all started out with a party at the Suda household to celebrate Stacy's return to Utsunomiya as well as Motoki's birthday. As is tradition at the Suda's, the plate must never be empty until one is satisfied, and the glass must never be empty until.... well, the glass must never be empty. Tonight, I even spotted Hirofumi, Mieko's husband, notifying Isao when my glass was empty, at which point it was immediately refilled. As a small gesture to show my appreciation for the Suda's hospitality, as well as that of Aiichirou and Fumi, I'll be having a BBQ on my rooftop some time after Obon for them. As we were leaving their place after 1AM, we got caught in a downpour and got soaked on the bike ride home. It was great to get caught out in the rain and not really care at all, and it wasn't just the wine that made it fun, it was quite liberating after a hard week at work.

Yoshiko and I hooked up with Matt and Wasim on Sunday and headed out to the Utsunomiya Museum of Art, with which I was quite impressed. They have a really nice exhibit on at the moment, mostly photography based modern-art. Some of it beautiful, some of it disturbing, definitely worth the visit. UMoA's claim to fame are two paintings by world-renowned artists, namely René Magritte's "La Grande Famille" as well as one painting from Marc Chagall. It is a very nice museum, set in a lovely park, definitely worth the visit for anyone in Utsunomiya. After getting some ramen and gyoza we parted ways and then Yoshiko and I spent the evening chilling out in front of a DVD.

Today, I hooked up again with Matt and Wasim (Montrealer currently teaching in Oyama), and Saki (one of our students who transfered from Oyama not too long ago) and then we headed out to Oya, where Yoshiko and I went last November. It is a really nice area to walk around, and Matt and I plan to head out there by bicycle some time in November, it's an uphill ride, but the return trip will be easy. For the record, it's just a quick 30 minute\440 Yen trip on bus number 45 which leaves Utsunomiya Eki from stop number 6.

The first thing one sees when one gets off the bus is this eerie looking building looming over the town. It's the type of place right out of a horror movie where some kid dares another to go inside and then they encounter the blood-thirsty patients of an abandoned insane asylum. I had noticed it from a distance when Yoshiko and I first went there, very spooky place. Anybody have any idea what it was by any chance? Do you know someone who has lived in the area and could find out? We're curious....

After checking out the spooky building, we headed to Oyaji temple, which was founded in 810AD. As you can clearly see, the temple building is not original, but is interesting nonetheless since it is recessed into the rock face and protects some ancient carvings. When the area was fully excavated in the 1960s, archaeologists made a surprising discovery. They unearthed human remains dating back 11,000 years, which are on display on the grounds of the temple.

We then explored the temple grounds and gardens a bit, had an interesting encounter with some hungry fish and saw some more interesting carvings.

Following our temple tour, we walked over to the Oya Stone Museum, which incidentally if googled, brings up my blog as the second listing. Unfortunately, the artwork which dotted the mine when I last visited has been mostly removed and the remaining works are not illuminated. The whole mine was, however, filled with mist from the recent rains and it made for an interesting setting. We found this cool spot to play with shaddows too.

After quickly checking out the Oya Kannon, which you can no longer walk up to due to construction, we headed back to the bus stop, where Matt had an interesting encounter with a mangy old dog. Apparently smelling the cookies Matt was carrying, and no doubt used to people feeding him, he wouldn't leave Matt alone for the longest time. He was cute, but desperately in need of a bath, not unlike the old pervert who started talking with Yoshiko last time we went to Oya... his dog maybe?

After losing the mutt, we hopped on a bus and headed to Al Noor for some of their yummy curry. However, since they had yet to open for dinner, we headed to a nearby temple to see those funky statues and I also got a look at the big old cherry tree, now fully covered in leaves. Unfortunately, I never got a good look at it in full bloom, only before and now after....

We finally did get into Al Noor and enjoyed a great dinner before parting ways and heading on home. After stopping by 7-11 for some refreshments, I headed up to the roof to dry off and snapped this nice shot of the moon over Utsunomiya.

Quite the lovely weekend, lots of walking, lots of talking and great company, what more could one ask for? I even got 2 pictures for my 26 things -July2003 project... I got "empty" and "construction", which means 2 down, 24 to go!

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

26 Things, a trial run

Greetings and Salutations to all. Lovely weather these days in small town Utsunomiya, a little wet but the humidity has broken and we're experience some cool nights which are fantastic for sleeping.

I stumbled upon an interesting photo scavenger hunt online the other day and I've decided to jump into it. It's called 26 Things, and essentially puts out a list of 26 words every once in a while and it's up to you to go nuts, be creative and come up with the matching photographs. From what I can see on the archived list, the words given are open to interpretation, which gives you a lot of leeway. So I've decided to get in on this action, but will set my own pace and will start with the first list, from July 2003 which is:

Should be an amusing way to pass some time, and a good way to refocus my photography interests. To start with, I did a scavenger hunt through the photos I already had to see what I could come up with to match this list. From the 3000+ pictures I've taken so far, I was able to find pictures to match all 26 themes. I've also decided my memory is pretty good, almost every word brought one particular picture to mind and I was able to find it quickly. The whole blogging thing must be helping improve my retention of what's happening to me out here. Anywho, without further ado, I present to you "26 Things" - July 2003.

Couple cuddling - Yokohama


Me on the Great Wall - Badaling, China


Crispy fish at a Yatai during Mia Matsuri - Utsunomiya


Newly opened plum blossoms - Utsunomiya


Sleeping cat - Asakusa


Mountains of Fukushima - Takatsue Ski Resort


Alex on the Sanshin - Utsunomiya


Down with the old, up with the new near Futarayama shrine - Utsunomiya


Couldn't find anything matching here, the first thing I did was go to the trip I took to Canada two months ago... I guess that's my home.... This is the view from my old apartment, the best feature in an otherwise nasty old building.... much nicer apartment now.


Ferris Wheel - Yokohama


Shufu loading up her groceries for the trip home outside Nagasakiya - Utsunomiya


A break in the clouds - Chuzenjiko


Kegon no taki - Nikko


Neon signs - Omiya


Tanning salon - Utsunomiya


Flight board at Narita Airport - Narita


Police officers outside their koban - Utsunomiya


The peaceful face of the Daibutsu - Kamakura


A courtyard of the Forbidden City being slowly draped in snow - Beijing, China


Mount Fuji outlined by a sunset seen from the landmark tower- Yokohama


Guard Towers disappearing into the fog on the City Walls - Xian, China


Utsunomiya Tower in Hachimanyama Park- Utsunomiya


Tiny car - Tochigi city


The things people discard - Oya


Luxury cars outside the Shinto office of the Meiji Shrine - Harajuku


The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - Ueno

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