Friday, April 27, 2007

Finally, some pictures of Ottawa

Well, as promised in my last post, I have some photos! Yesterday, Yoshiko and I hopped on our bikes and headed down the river towards downtown. As we got to the bike path which runs along the river, (Ottawa has over 170km of bike paths) we spotted a little groundhog poking his head out of a hole. Yoshiko and I have really been enjoying the little critters that run around Ottawa. In our first few days, we spotted squirrels, groundhogs, a raccoon, ducks, geese, and countless little birds... all without leaving our neighbourhood!

Since I'd actually taken my camera with me this time around, I took it out, lined up a shot and snapped away.

Unfortunately, dumbass that I am, my batteries died on me after the second picture I took. Ok, no problem, dig into my bag, whip out my spare set.... DEAD! Doh! I guess that's what you get for not using or charging your batteries for a month... so I spent the rest of the day admiring the views, but not taking pictures. No biggie, since the day was overcast and I really want to showcase Ottawa under the usual blue skies... so there...

Here is a photo Yoshiko took from the side of the bike path looking out over the Ottawa river to downtown Ottawa. Those pointy buildings in the center are the Parliament buildings. The water is pretty high this time of year with the spring runoff from the melting snow upstream. Really nice bike ride with all the migratory birds flying back.

We had a very nice afternoon of biking, clocking something along the lines of 15 kilometers from our house to downtown and back up the Rideau Canal. The tulips seems to be just about ready to burst so we will definitely head back down next week with batteries fully charged this time...

Tomorrow, I plan to have a look at a very promising vehicle, and I hope everything works out! Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Yes, I am still alive...

...just not in much of a blogging mood is all. I'm usually a late evening blogger and what with us still getting over jet lag, the evening are spent just trying to stay awake to allow us as much night time sleep as possible.

All is going well as we round the corner on our first week in Canada. We've done a lot of walking around the neighborhood and the other day we took a lovely bike ride down the river and spotted the first migratory bird arrivals of the season. The shores of the Ottawa river are full of ducks and Canada Geese this time of year as they make their way back from their winter feeding grounds. Of course, I have yet to unpack my camera and so have nothing to show you, but I promise I will take some tomorrow. We'll be biking downtown and back up the Rideau Canal and hoping to spot some early blooming tulips.

Our apartment downstairs is still coming along, we haven't done much in the last few days, kinda taking it mellow. We've gotten comfy though.

On the job front, I'm on another resume editing\application spurt... have until midnight tonight to get my resume and letter to an interesting position in the government, we shall see. The opportunity I'd spotted while still in Japan was unfortunately filled before I got here, but thems the breaks as they say.

Yoshiko is doing well so far, though she does miss the food and the word "big" seems to come out of her mouth a lot around meal times... We've taken to ordering one order of something at the restaurant and sharing, hoping to keep our weight to a manageable level. I have enjoyed getting back into the kitchen though, this week's masterpiece was a pork roast glazed with a port wine sauce... yum! Next on the menu at some point will be my trademark Beef Stroganoff which I've been telling Yoshiko about for 2 years now....

Anywho, that's about it for now. Cheers!

Friday, April 20, 2007


Well, all in all, it was an uneventful flight which brought us to Canada last Wednesday night. The only hitch we had was at Narita when the airline wouldn't issue a boarding pass to Yoshiko because she didn't have a return ticket... but that was quickly sorted out and we were on our way after saying tear-filled goodbyes at the airport.

The flight to Atlanta, while long, was relatively comfortable since the seat next to us was vacated by the passenger shortly before takeoff. He made his way to another aisle seat leaving us with a little extra room to spread out. Once the video system was up and running, I managed to run off "Blood Diamonds", "Deja Vue" and "Napoleon Dynamite" as well as a few TV shows. Great way to pass the time. Once we finally made it to Ottawa nearly 27 hours after our departure, we found the customs and immigration procedures to be fairly straightforward and the officers were very helpful and friendly, which was an added bonus. So Yoshiko is now legally in Canada, though we are still waiting on her status from Immigration.

We were quite pleasantly surprised with the setup my family put together for us over here, we will be VERY comfortable! Within 12 hours of landing, we were out in the stores and quickly snapped up a really nice mattress set. Our first evening in Canada was spent watching the Ottawa Senators drive the last nail in the coffin of the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 3-0 shutout. They now await their next opponents.

Today, we did a little more shopping, I picked up a wireless router to get our laptops all hooked into the high speed Internet here and hence this first blog post. Tomorrow we should be able to get most of the rest of the apartment finished up and get to relax a bit...

So far, it's been really great being back, and the weather has been really amazing. Considering that snow was falling last Monday, we are quite lucky to be blessed with 20+ degree weather and gorgeous sunshine. NICE!

Anywho, I am pooped, still getting over the whole jet lag thing... pics to come!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Once more, our bags are packed...

On a cold, rainy evening in Imaichi, nestled under a kotatsu surrounded by my wife and her family, my time in Japan is coming to an end.

In about 12 hours, Yoshiko and I will hop in her brother's car with her family and make the drive to Narita airport where we will leave Japan at 15:30 for the 12 and a half hour flight to Atlanta. Unfortunately, we will then have to wait 5 hours for our flight to Ottawa, finally setting foot in Canada some time around 11PM after 27 hours of traveling... yikes!

Luckily, I think we are well outfitted for this long flight. I was glad to learn that the 777 we'll be taking has TVs in every seat, watching movies always makes the time go by MUCH quicker. Who knows, I may even try to get some sleep for the first time ever on a plane. Got myself a travel pillow and an eye mask, plus I can plug myself into my iPod to block out the ambient noise... we shall see.

If any of you were expecting some long goodbye to Japan filled with perspective and thoughts, it's not gonna happen... yet My head is too filled up with the practical aspects of travelling back home, getting work, a vehicle, a house, etc to be thinking too too much about the end of this fantastic 2 year journey of mine. Needless to say, it is currently the defining experience of my life, having not only traveled and learned so much but having met and married my lovely Yoshiko. As Scotto (I think, there was plenty of drinking involved so I'm sorry if I make a mistake) put it the other day, I'll be taking the best part of Japan away with me for sure.

I will take a moment to say a bit of a goodbye to some people.
  • To my students: Thank you for teaching me so much more than I taught you.
  • To Stacy, Matt, Scott and Alex: You guys were truly what made working at AEON survivable.
  • To the Japanese staff at the school: Gambatte!
  • To the new guard filling in for Matt and I as we leave: Good luck, and savour every moment of the experience that is Japan.
  • To the dry cleaning lady: The name is Michel, not Matt and Anthony is not Michel, I am!
  • To Akko-san at Cafe Praktica: Thanks for sharing such a special place with all of us.
  • To the curry shop guy: Thanks for all the little extras, and you should fire the smoking lady.
  • To Yoshiko's family: Thanks for letting me take her with me!
  • To my family: Thanks for not forcefully confining me to my room on the day of my flight 2 years go as had been suggested by Sebastien. Your boy is coming home...
Our last day in Japan was spent packing our things and getting set to go. We made a trip out to say goodbye to Yoshiko's 90+ year old grandfather, who I am right in love with. He is the genkiest 90 year old I've ever met, and his character reminds me a lot of my dear mother-in-law Yukiko. After the visit, we stopped by the supermarket to pickup sushi, a fitting final dinner in Japan.

And with that, my blogging from Japan is over. My next post will be from Canada.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

The final weekend in Utsunomiya... and Japan!

Well, just a little over 2 days left in Japan and things are still rolling along well. Saturday, we hopped into my dear wife's beloved Pajero for the last ride into Utsunomiya before we leave. The cherry trees are still doing their thing up here in cold cold Imaichi, which is nice. I am really glad I got to see another cherry blossom season here, truly the best time to be in Japan.

When I heard a little while back that Scott was coming back to the 'Nomiya, I was quite excited. It had been almost a year since he left, and he was sorely missed. Yoshiko and I met up with him at the station before Yoshiko left us to do some shopping and have lunch with a friend, leaving the two Utsunomiya vets to reminisce about old times. We quickly decided to do what we used to do all the time, walk. At least a couple of times a month, Scott and I used to wander around town shooting the proverbial shit and taking in the scenery. With cherry season just finishing up here in town, we still had plenty of scenery to take in, here are the hanging cherry blossoms which have just popped out along the river.

Since Scott had witnessed the construction of the "famed" Utsunomiya "castle", we thought we'd swing by so he could see the result of the couple of hundred million yen spent on this concrete monstrosity. As Scott put it, it's something right off the pages of "Dogs and Demons" by Alex Kerr. The very fact that they used concrete to shape the entrance way show just how much thought was put into making this an authentic reproduction... not to mention the concrete encased elevator which juts out over the wall in plain view. We did get a bit of comic relief on the walk down though, when we spotted this dog with his very own umbrella!

After a quick stop in at Mahal for some curry and nan, we decided to do one of our more frequent loops and eventually wound up in Hachimanyama park where the blossoms were falling like snow and covering everything in pale shades of pink.

And when I say falling like snow, I'm not kidding!

I think this is my favourite point in the cycle of the blossoms, as they start to fall and the leaves come out. Quite nice. And here is the Scottmeister himself.

I hadn't managed to get many decent macro shots of the blossoms so far due to lack of time and effort, so I tried my hand at it on Saturday. The wind was blowing quite a bit, but I think this one came out pretty good.

After the park, we made our way to the nearby temple where we visited these funky little guys for the last time. Very interesting little display.

We then made our ceremonial walk down to Yamaya as we often did back in the day before meeting up with Yoshiko again down by the station. After Yoshiko and I checked in to our nice room at the Roynet hotel, we headed on up to Le Metro to grab and hold a table for her and her friend Noriko. On the way there, we saw that the carp streamers had been hung over the river in preparation for Boys' Day in a couple of weeks.

After a nice little rest with Yoshiko and her friend, we headed back out to meet Isao and Tomoko who were taking us to a little Yakitori place they like. With some time to kill, we ended up again in front of the "castle" where the cherry trees which were recently planted are adding some beauty to the surrounding grounds.

Yoshiko joined us at Yakitori after getting her hair cut and we had a great time conversing with Isao and Tomoko. They really are great people. 8 o'clock came pretty fast and we had to sprint over to AEON to meet the group for the usual pre-party beer at the Lion's Head. We then headed out to Matt's farewell party at Universal Dining, a very nice place for a party, where we spent the evening eating and drinking and saying goodbyes. As has become an AEON party custom, the crazy guy (usually guys, but one couldn't come) put on a bit of a performance. This time, Masa dressed up in a friend's maid outfit... love the look on Matt's face on this one!

Alas, the party came to an end and I had to say my goodbyes (for real this time) to everyone. I've been a bit of an AEON ghost recently, as Setsuko put it so well. Gone, but not gone... running into students in the street or around the school and such. Finally, they will be rid of me!

This morning, we got up and had breakfast before making a run to Tobu to find a gift for Yoshiko's parents who have made our last week in Japan so wonderful. Here is the final view we had of the big city of Utsunomiya. Not much to look at, but beneath all that concrete and under those power lines, are some wonderful memories. This is where I made my home for the past two years, met dozens of wonderful people and the woman I married. Utsunomiya will not be forgotten, and we WILL be back... my Japanese family lives just up the road after all!

For lunch, we stopped by a little place called Saimon in Imaichi where Yoshiko had worked a long time ago and she said her goodbyes to her friends there. When we got back home, we cleaned out the Pajero as it was going to be picked up by the dealer shortly... and I got to take it for a spin! My first real driving in Japan! It was quite hilarious when Yoshiko told me to make a left turn and I immediately proceeded to turn on the windshield wipers since the controls are reversed here (along with the driver's seat and the side of the road one drives on.) I quickly got my bearings though, and it wasn't that bad, I'm sure Yoshiko will do fine in Canada.

So here we are, on the verge of leaving Japan, homeless, vehicleless and soon to be cell phoneless as well. Sheesh! As I said, it will be nice to get to Canada and get settled in.

Tonight, we hooked up the web cam that Stacy gave us at our wedding to Yoshiko's parents' computer and tested everything to make sure it worked while her computer-wiz brother was around. Tomorrow, I will get back into tech mode and teach my dear mother-in-law how to use MSN Messenger and Skype to keep in touch with us in Canada.

On another note, I have recently discovered Facebook. Very interesting! I've been able to find so many people from my past on there, and see what everyone has been up to. Very cool site! 4 friends so far! Look me up if you're on there...

Anywho, that's about it for tonight. Probably just 1 more post from Japan before I leave and this chapter of Sushi and Maple Syrup will come to a close. What a terrific journey this has been, and over 37,000 hits to this blog! Thank you very much for following me along and leaving me messages. I hope you stay with us as we start our new life in Canada!

Friday, April 13, 2007

In the middle of things...

So here I am, pretty much just where I was 2 years ago at this time... neither here nor there... I'm starting to feel the strain of not having a permanent.... well anything, at the moment. Luckily, the Internet is helping to serve as a bit of a bridge back home and I'm able to scour the classifieds for a vehicle and jobs and such as the hours tick down to our Wednesday departure.

With just a little over 4 days left in Japan, we're fluttering around doing all the last minute things one needs to do before leaving. Of course, Yoshiko has a lot more to do than I, but I think we've done pretty well so far. Today, we dropped by the banks to shut down our accounts and send money to Canada. Yoshiko's mother came along and we had lunch and saw a movie together, which was nice. Tomorrow we head in to Utsunomiya for the weekend to meet up with Scott who is coming up from Nagoya and attend Matt's farewell party with Aeon. It's been a year since I last saw my ol' walking partner with whom I had so many great conversations as we wandered the streets of the 'Nomiya. A few people have left a permanent mark on me, Scott is definitely one of them. Matt and Alex are others and many of our students as well. It'll be nice to see a few of them again before we leave.

This week has of course been pretty busy, but we have managed to take some time out once in a while and smell the roses so to speak. This is our last week in Japan after all, and it'll be a while before we get back so we should try to make it a good one. Helping along with that are the sakura, which are still in full bloom out here in the cold cold countryside. Not sure what they're like in the city, but here are a couple we spotted in Kanuma when we went on Wednesday to pick up Yoshiko's International Driver's license.

While in Kanuma, we stopped by a great little Italian restaurant called Al Covo. While it certainly wasn't up to Milano Shokudo standards, the meal was some of the best Italian one can get out here, which was a pleasant surprise for a sleepy little town like Kanuma. In a yard by the restaurant, there were these gorgeous flowering trees of which we've seen a few recently. Weren't quite sure what they were since they have different coloured flowers, but Yoshiko's mother today said they are peach trees... and sure enough, the 'net just confirmed it.

On Thursday, Yoshiko's aunt and uncle came by with their grand kids for a visit to say goodbye. The little one they brought along was simply adorable and quite the handful. She didn't stay in one place for too long, so all I could get was an action shot!

I (we?) hadn't seen them since the wedding in October, and they are very nice people. The uncle is a bit of a camera freak, carries a big Canon DSLR and was quite taken with my little S3. They were asking about the best time to visit Canada, maybe thinking of coming down???

The garden out front has started coming to life with the warm weather we've been having. As I say that and look at the Ottawa weather I see 1 degree and snow... certainly not a warm Spring this year, probably goes along with the late onset of Winter this year. Here however, things are blooming...

It's interesting just how disconnected from things I've become in the last few months. I've had so many "oh yeah" moments in the last little while.... like "oh yeah, today is Easter" and "Oh yeah the Senators have started their playoff run." I think part of that is because my life has changed so much from before, not only from being in Japan but mainly because of Yoshiko. She is now the center of my universe and things which used to be there have moved to the outside. It's nice for us to have each other as a constant in the time ahead as we move from one side of the planet to the other.

Anywho, I'd better get to bed soon. Scott's Shinkansen arrives at 9:50 and I said I'd meet him at the gate. Gnight!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Settled in and feasting like kings

Well that's it, we are now officially address-less in Japan. After another early-ish morning, we headed back into the city and finished things up at the apartment. A recycle shop came by and loaded up all of Yoshiko's furniture and appliances and stuff, paying us peanuts really, but we got the last laugh. The guy got a bit confused and gave us a bit more than his "estimate" was... HA! Considering they were giving us nothing for Yoshiko's 400$ bed, I figure it's just karma.

When the guys had emptied the apartment, we rode our bicycles for the last time, leaving them at AEON where Anthony has claimed mine and Mayu will claim Yoshiko's this Saturday. After dropping by the post office to change our address, we hit up the Vietnamese place for a great lunch of Pho and nama-harumaki. Yum!

We then went on back to the apartment in time to meet the lady from the rental company for the final inspection and turning over of the key. This was when the first little hiccup of the day happened. Things being as they are and companies being such as things dictate them to being, we are getting scammed out of some cash... in my humble opinion of course. It seems to be a pretty common thing for rental companies to make you sign a contract stating that you will be responsible for any damage to the apartment. This to me makes sense. If I decide on a drunken rampage to throw my toilet out my 4th floor window, the company has the right to ask me to pay for it. However, we were notified today during the inspection that they will be taking a bite out of Yoshiko's safety deposit to re-wallpaper the living room and closet because there are a few scuff marks on the walls. We're not talking about tears in the paper, or holes punched in the wall here... but cuff marks like those a shoe would make along the base of the wall. Of course, when Yoshiko moved in, the apartment was not new and it is entirely conceivable that some of those marks were made by previous tenants who were then also forced to fork over some cash. From what I understand, this is pretty common practice and most people don't fight it and just pay. Yoshiko has had the experience in the past of calling their bluff and argued with them about it, the price of repairs went from 1000$ to 100$... odd. Of course, we are in a very weak position here, what with leaving the country in a week and the estimate for repairs not being ready for a month... but we shall see what happens. Chances are, the deposit money will not be refunded, but it's not that much so no biggie. We had a bit of a funny moment at the front door of the apartment with me thinking of arguing some more. Yoshiko stated simply: "This is Japan." And I said: "And that's why we're leaving" to which we both had a bit of a giggle.

So we headed on to our temporary home here in Imaichi with our final load of stuff. We then proceeded to promptly fill up my poor parents-in-laws' house with bags of things to be sorted and handed out to anyone interested. Luckily, it shouldn't take too much time tomorrow to get everything sorted out and done with.

For our second meal here, okaa-san pulled out all the stops and laid out a yaki-niku feast for us. As you can see here, yaki-niku is quite simply meat which is grilled at the table with vegetables and dipped in a sauce. Fantastic!

Here is my little Japanese family.

I love that my mother-in-law and my mother are so much alike. Both about the same height and very easy to smile and laugh. I'm sure we will have a great time when they come down to visit us and the two ladies are reunited again. And of course, after promising to post a picture of everyone, it was only fair for Yoshiko to take up the camera and get a shot of me as well.

And that's about it for now, while we did take the scenic route along Nikko street and it's beautiful cherry trees, I didn't bring my camera along for the ride. Too bad... will bring it for sure next time. Off to bed! Gnight.

Monday, April 09, 2007

On the move again

Well, that's it. I've said my goodbyes to my third and final Japanese apartment and have moved in to a lovely Japanese home in the countryside within spitting distance of the mountains. A nice step up! The welcome here at the Takahashi household was fantastic, as expected. When we got here this afternoon with our second load of stuff, we found our furniture and beds setup upstairs in our very own little 2 room flat and there was some salmon cooking in the kitchen. Doesn't get much better than that! After a wonderful meal prepared by my mother-in-law, we watched a bit of TV before I called it quits, showered and headed upstairs. We've been up and going since 5AM this morning, so needless to say we are both quite knackered. It is nice to have the biggest part done though, the apartment is just about empty and it's ready to be cleaned. The shipping company came by this afternoon to pick up the 16 boxes of stuff which we'll be shipping ahead of us by sea. Keep your fingers crossed everything makes it to Ottawa ok!

Besides the move tiring me out, I didn't get to bed until midnight last night which made 5AM come up quite fast. Aiichirou and Fumi had a little get-together at their place last night, kind of a last farewell to Matt and I since we will both be leaving next week. As Aiichirou puts it: It was a "Get out of Japan" party. Other than Matt and I, the other guests were Anthony, Seiko and Kohei... at first. Aiichirou announced that a special guest would be joining us. Tied in with my visit to Ashio last week, Aiichirou had spoken of a gentleman who is running for city council and who is an activist on a whole range of fronts including trying to get the monument for the Korean workers at the mine built. Well, Aiichirou pulled some strings and had him take time out of his busy pre-election schedule to sit down and break bread with us. It was very interesting to have him along, and before he left he gave us a bit of a speech about his views and the kind of work he does. Between translation breaks from Aiichirou, his ideas sparked a very lively and entertaining conversation on all sorts of current issues in Japan. Those around us were quite impressed at how well versed I was on current issues, amazing what an Internet connection and no job will do to a guy... lol Seriously though, this whole "coming to Japan" thing for me was just as much about discovering the true and real Japan as it was about seeing the temples and travelling... oh yeah and teaching. Many people come here, do their year and leave all starry eyed about the fantastic place that Japan is, talking about how great the sushi is and happy that they learned Ikebana flower arranging. If that's all you're in it for, then fine, but those things are just the top layer of Japan. That's like coming back from a year in Europe and being happy to have visited Euro-Disney. I am glad to have met people like Aiichirou and Fumi who have opened up my eyes to a whole other side of the country, a side that most kawaii-crazed people around here don't know about, don't want to know about and couldn't care much less about. A good example of this is the re-election last night of Ishihara as governor of Tokyo. This is the moron, if you'll permit the use of the word, who said that women are useless to society after they lose the capacity to reproduce and that the foreign population in Japan (around 1-2%) is responsible for a majority of the crimes. Anywho, enough about politics.

So we have just a little less than 9 days left in Japan, hard to believe that this (almost) 2 year journey is coming to an end. Fortunately, I am bringing the best part of Japan with me. This will be a pretty busy week, without much chance to sit back and enjoy Cherry Blossom season much. Still have to finish up the move, than shut down all our accounts and cell phones and stuff, sell the car... sheesh! We do have a bit of a diversion this weekend though with Matt's farewell party, which we will be crashing.... with advance notice and tickets already purchased of course... lol An additional surprise is that Scotto will be coming to town for the weekend, looking forward to seeing him again after a year.

Anywho, I really should get to sleep. I promise to take some pictures soon, we spotted a nice tri-coloured plum tree on the drive here today I'll try to stop and get a shot of it tomorrow.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Final trip to Tokyo

Greetings and Salutations, been a busy week. After visiting Ashio with Aiichirou on Monday, Yoshiko and I headed in to Tokyo for lunch and cherry blossoms in the rain on Tuesday, spent the night in nearby Chiba and hit Tokyo Disney Sea on Wednesday before making our way back home. As our time here gets shorter and shorter, with only 12 days left, we've started to prepare in earnest for our upcoming moves. I say moves because the first move will be from Utsunomiya to Imaichi, where we will spend our final week with Yoshiko's parents before our flight on April 18th. Our last day here in the apartment is on the 10th, leaving us with only a few more days to get everything packed/sold/shipped. In fact, we've booked our shipping company and did some box hunting today with some success. Busy couple of days ahead for sure, and then we have to start closing down our bank accounts and stuff next week too... hard work. Luckily, most of my things are already in Canada. I am only left with one bag here, so I am officially now an assistant to Yoshiko as we get stuff ready to go.

Another thing keeping me thinking and busy perusing the 'net is job searching. I've applied to a few already, and am in contact with a gentleman with an IT services company in Ottawa about an interesting position they've got opening up. I've made the decision that a front-line tech support position is only a last resort. It was good work, but it's certainly not something I'd like to do forever. We shall see what turns up in the next few weeks\months.

So, on to the story of our final trip in Japan.

Our first stop was the Village Vanguard Diner in Kichijoji which Alex showed Matt and I last Fall. They have some fantastic burgers and onion rings, and we had a great lunch. Unfortunately for us, the weather was not cooperating and it was raining, but we didn't let that stop us from our cherry blossom viewing. After lunch, we went to nearby Inogashira park where some trees were in full bloom and others were a little beyond. With the rain and wind, everything was covered in fallen blossoms and the park was really not busy which was nice.

Here is my lovely Yoshiko under the blossoms.

Cherry trees aren't the only thing in bloom out here, there were some lovely Camellias in bloom as well.

Picture wise, the flowers are much nicer with a blue sky in the background, so my pictures didn't turn out as punchy as I like them. I did get a few nice quiet\deserted shots, such as this one of benches covered in petals.

Luckily, the rain tapered off as we were walking in the park. I took a very similar picture as this when I came here last year, lovely with the trees in bloom.

After our walk, we hopped back on the trains and headed to Tokyo station where we hiked the looooooooooooooooooong underground path to the Keiyo line. Tokyo Station really is massively huge. Once on the train, we were pleased to see the clouds parting a bit as we made our way into Chiba. Our hotel was in Makuhari, a new area built on reclaimed land in Tokyo bay. We stayed at the Francs Hotel, which was very nice and well maintained. That night, we headed down to the Disney area to check out the mall and grab dinner before turning in.

Wednesday morning, we were up bright and early, had a nice breakfast at the hotel and were on the train before 8:30. As we got to Maihamba station, we were surprised to see a huge lineup for the Disney Resort Line into Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea. The wait to buy a ticket was about 40 minutes according to the lady outside, so we decided to hoof it and got there in 15-20 minutes. It was at this point that I began to fear the dreaded Tokyo Disney crowds which invade the park and turn it into a sea of unhappy, waiting people. As we got to the gate, things didn't look much better. There were huge lines of people waiting to get in to the park... and these were the ones who already had tickets!

Yoshiko headed into the ticket line while I manned the park entrance line. Amusingly, my line kept moving really fast and I quickly ended up right next to Yoshiko multiple times before the crowds thinned out and there was no point in lining up. All in all, about 40 minutes to buy tickets and get in to the park, not soooooo bad. Of course, throughout the day, I kept comparing the waiting time to my experience at Walt Disney World in Orlando where I went once in August (not so busy) and May (dead). But it turned out not to be so bad. We started our day with a quick boat ride around the resort. Tokyo Disney Sea, as the name hints to, is a water themed park set on the seaside. We started our day with a cruise around the different areas while we mapped out a plan of action on how to best use our Fast Pass and avoid the lineups. From this spot, you could just see the top of the castle in nearby Tokyo Disney.

A new addition, The Tower of Terror certainly towers over the entire park. The lineup for this thing was ridiculously long, starting inside the building itself and winding its way outside, along the front of the large ship you see on the right, over the bridge and into the neighbouring area. CRAZY!

Luckily, Disney being the expert at theme parks that it is, things are extremely well organized and seem to work out well enough. At the entrance to the park, this board shows you the waiting times for the many attractions as well as show times. This picture was taken in the afternoon as we walked by, and the leading contender is Indiana Jones with a wait time of almost 2 hours. This, as I understand it, is the way it is most of the time.... and this was a weekday! I can't imagine weekends and vacations, you wouldn't catch me here then, that's for sure. We ended up doing very well with our Fast Pass and only waiting in a "normal" lineup a couple of times, the longest of which was 40 minutes.

Another thing which Disney does very well is decor and atmosphere. The Mediterranean area of Disney Sea is really quite pretty, with gondolas running around the canals. Very Italy. The staff are also really good, right down to the cleaners who have little stickers that kids can collect if they ask for them. It think that's a great way for them to get to interact a little more with guests as they do their rounds. No real complaints about the park, very well put together.

The English is very good as well, and the only thing that made me go hmmmm was this sign on the awning of a restaurant. Table for Ladies? Really? That's one ugly lookin lady...

The big rumour about Tokyo Disney is that if you come here with your boyfriend\girlfriend, you will break up. This is probably true, with the long lineups for everything from popcorn to toilets, I can see how people might get a little abrasive. I also think that those long wait lines lead to an interesting thing called "conversation" at which point some people no doubt realize that the person they've been with is a total idiot. This guy had a defense against "conversation" called a "Nintendo DS" which his girlfriend could watch him play on. Wonder if they made it through the day?

At around 4PM as we were waiting for the little train which makes a 4 minute run to the front of the park, we were treated to a nice view over Tokyo bay. I was wondering what that thing on the left was all day, no, it's not a ship. After a bit of online research, we found that it is part of the ventilation system for a 15 kilometer bridge and tunnel system which runs from Kawasaki to Chiba on\under Tokyo Bay. From what I've read, massive cost overruns during the construction of the tunnel have forced the operation to charge a ridiculously high toll to use the tunnel and so most people don't. One more offering from Japan to the Construction gods... a tunnel nobody can afford to use... how wonderful!

One of the day's highlights was Yoshiko's reaction to Aquatopia, a water ride which threatens to get you wet but really just spins you around a lot. Here's a quick video.

With all but one of our plans complete, we were right on track.... until a massive storm rolled in. You can see it here on the right over the bay. Ironically, the building in the foreground is an attraction called Storm Rider where you board a weather control plane of the future to go take out a massive hurricane before it makes landfall.

Within a few minutes of the last picture, it started raining. A few minutes after that, it was POURING rain, complete with thunder and lightning. We abandoned all hope of riding the gondolas, which were closed for the afternoon due to waterborne shows. Knowing Yoshiko really wanted to ride them, we made a promise to ride the authentic gondolas in Venice some day in the near future. ;-)

After running from shop to shop for heat and protection from the rain and finding every nook and cranny filled with storm refugees, we decided to make a run for it and made our way out of the park and into the nearby mall where we had a great meal at the Salon de Thé Pierre Herme which we'd spotted the night before. We were then quite lucky with our trains and managed to get a seat on the long haul local train back to Utsunomiya. Certainly beats standing all the way, which I have had to do on more than one occasion when leaving Tokyo around rush hour. And that was that!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ashio Copper Mine

Today, I went on another field trip with Aiichirou, our local human rights guru here in Utsunomiya. You might recall that he took Matt and I on a tour to discuss the issue of Burakumin Discrimination last year.

Today, I was the lone traveler and our destination was the town of Ashio, site of one of the worst environmental disasters in Japan. The part that really hit home about this is just how close this horrific environmental damage was to Nikko, my favourite place in Japan. As we began our journey at 9AM this morning, Aiichirou told me that Ashio's problems is\are on two levels. First is the pollution and next is the issue of forced labourers abducted from nations occupied by Japan in the 30s.

First, a bit of history. The Ashio Copper Mine was initially exploited under the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period from the 1600s on. Due to the technological limitations of the time, it was only semi-productive while it remained open and was eventually shut down. With the industrial revival brought on by the Meiji Restoration, aiming to bring Japan up to par with the rest of the world, the mine was re-opened as a private venture by Furukawa company in 1871. That is when what some say the template for Japan's many environmental problems was created. With a total lack of regard for the surrounding natural environment, the population of villages surrounding the mine and kilometers downstream, production was successively ramped up at the Ashio mine to the point where it was supplying anywhere from 20-40% of Japan's total copper production. This copper was then exported in exchange for the import of iron ore and steel for use in the ever expanding industrial sector, including the massive military expansion which continued right through WWII.

The refining process of copper being what it is, it is a severely damaging enterprise. Within 15 years of the mine's reopening, all of the trees on the mountains surrounding the refinery were dead. The mountains were then left bare and with no water absorption, this led to frequent major floods. These floods brought contaminated water downstream to communities within a huge radius of Ashio spanning 5 prefectures. Hundreds of acres of farmland were contaminated over and over again with each recurring flood over the decades that the mine continued to operate. Surveys done in the late 1800s show that the mortality rates of affected area was nearly double the national average while the birthrate was substantially lower. Despite the complaints from residents and demands by local politicians that the mine be shut down, nothing was done. The mine continued to operate until 1972! And the problems resulting from it continue to this day.

There are pages and pages of information on this available online, but here are some photos which I took today which show the damage, still evident 35 years after the mine stopped production.

You can clearly see the bare mountainside, with only small grass currently growing.

You can see that concrete was used to halt erosion once the trees were killed and landslides began.

After the mine was shutdown, the focus turned to flood prevention and dams were built to keep the poison water upstream... in theory.

The damage is all the more striking when you leave the immediate area of the mine and once more find yourself in unaffected areas where the trees are still present.

Very interesting place to visit. 100 years of pollution, a lasting legacy.

The second reason for our visit here as I mentioned earlier was the use of forced labour at the mining site. It is a generally accepted fact, one even substantiated by an NHK documentary a while back, that people were abducted from Japanese occupied China and Korea and forced to work at the Ashio mine. The problem of recognition is what continues to this day. In a striking example of the power of the Japanese Right Wing, which is fighting the survivors and descendants of the forced labourers inch for inch. Here are two photos.

The first shows a monument erected by the municipality in remembrance to the Chinese labourers who worked and died here. After years of fighting, the Chinese community finally got their monument.

The second shows the monument erected by local Koreans, since their memorial has been denied to this day.

Do you see a slight difference in scale? That is because the establishment of a permanent memorial for the Koreans has been blocked at every turn by the same groups who deny such facts as the use of sex-slaves by the Japanese military and who continue to selectively censor Japanese textbooks who dare mention some of the less than honorable acts perpetrated by Japan in the past. Why were the Chinese allowed their memorial and the Koreans not? Because the Koreans have insisted on the inclusion of the words "kyosei renkou" which means "taken by force." The right wing groups insist that they chose to come work in Japan, the worker insist they were taken by force, the fight continues to this day.

Luckily, there are people like Aiichirou who are talking about this and trying to get action and make things right. Good luck!

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Yesterday morning, we headed on out on our bikes to pick up some food and drink for the hanami party which was put together at the last minute by Mayu. With AEON opting not to continue the yearly tradition of the hanami party, to the disappointment of many students, people have decided to put together their own shindigs. The party was of course in Hachimanyama park, and it turned out being a great day!

We ended up with a great turnout, about 15 people showed up, and stayed for varying periods of time. We even ran into a former student of mine and her boyfriend and had them join us. Here is the initial group.

It was nice to see ol' Motoki again... I didn't teach him for my final few months at AEON and didn't get to see him much for the last while, at least not as much as I did last year. Too bad cause he's a lot of fun.

The afternoon was very comfortable, and we ended up spending about 6 hours out there in the park among the blossoms. A lovely afternoon.