Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bowing diplomacy

Last month president Barack Obama made a 9 day visit to Asia. On this trip, like most of his foreign policy, he was received well but didnt get much actually done. However, this is not what I would like to discuss. Or maybe it is, but only in relation to something else that happened. On his tour he made a stop in Japan. Unfortunately the discussion he had with the prime minister, Hatoyama, did not make big headlines in the U.S. What did make headlines is that he bowed to the emperor of Japan.
I first learned about this from a forum of JETs here in Japan. We all came to the same decision as to what the bow meant. I then heard a bunch about news stories in the US and when I was in Hawaii bought Time, 2 issues of Newsweek, and the Economist. All three magazines mentioned the trip and the bow. Time and Newsweek both mentioned that it was not received well by people in the US, but failed to go furthur. The Economist, however, commented not on the media attention it was getting exactly, but the bow itself and its impact in Japan. I think they hit it right on the head by saying, "There was all the customary talk-show outrage over what much of the rest of the world would view as a gesture of cultural courtesy".
The first thing that people in the US should realize is that they live in the US and while a bow may mean something to them it is entirely different here in Japan. The people of Japan did not see this as the president of the US losing face in front of the emperor, but gaining it. This bow wasn't meant for the people of the U.S. to analyze, it was meant for the Japanese people, in a Japanese context. In Japan bowing is respectful and those who dont are considered arrogant and rude.
For me, and I think much of the rest of the world, that bow was a symbol of respect that went a long way in restoring what was lost in the past 10 years. The world is expecting change from Obama and in matters of foreign diplomacy at least, it seems, that it is happening.


Hawaii was as beautiful as everyone says it is. The weather was great and it only rained a few times, but even those rains were gentle and warm. The ocean was beautiful and the people were equally so. I was most surprised and happy with the number of Japanese people/speakers on the islands and as I make rounds apply for jobs this Spring I will certainly send a few to Hawaii.
As far as sightseeing on Oahu we went to Waikiki beach and the North Shore. Both were beautiful beaches and the waves on the North shore were monsters at about 25 feet. It was amazing to see people surfing them. We missed going to the Bishop museum which I heard was good, along with hiking Diamond Head and seeing the Arizona memorial which I really wanted to do being an avid hiker and history teacher. We also missed out on Hanauma bay, which just about all our friends and family told us was a beautiful bay with great snorkeling.
Near the end of our trip we flew to Hawaii to spend about 12 hours on that big island, and big it is. As we flew in over the land we could only see a scattering of lights as opposed to Oahu which seemed like the vegas strip at night. On the big island we visited black sands beach which was amazingly beautiful at 7am and the Volcano National Park. The park features a number of trails, some of which we got to hike, and lots of interesting things. We didn’t get close enough to active lava, but according to the accounts of friends and family it was stunning. We also made a stop at Rainbow falls which was beautiful. I took a turn swinging from vine (or tree?) that was fun until my abrupt stop against another tree, ouch! How does Tarzan do it?
Overall the islands seemed like very interesting places with much to do, although we didn’t get to indulge that much. We are even thinking of returning this spring for a honeymoon just because we are now tempted to see it all.

The Wedding

Getting married. Well, now I am married. I guess there are two things I would like to say about it. First; how it all went down. Second; how I feel about it. So, first; Aya and I left Japan on the 18th of November, crossed the dateline and spent the 18th all over again in Hawaii. The first day we checked in then immediatly did various appointments for kimono, AV guy, etc. Later met up with some friends at night. We were jet lagged, but refused to go to bed early and by the time we got up the next day we were on the clock nicely. Friday saw us greeting incoming family before renting a car and going to our friend dan’s rehearsal dinner and the bachelor/bachelorette parties which had both of us out late. On Saturday, the day of my friends wedding, I didn’t even get up til 1 though our phones had been ringing since 7am, and even then wasn’t feeling super. Dan’s wedding was quite good and his bride was looking beautiful. All in all good time. Sunday we had our own shebang. By 12 we were both up, although again calls starting at 7am, and getting ready and were to the shrine by 3. The ceremony went well and I cant imagine anything better. The reception that followed was also good and pretty much everything went as planned. There were some really good skits and songs and I think everyone had a good time. Monday we were up late because of the previous nights drinking, though the phone started ringing at 4am, and ended up hitting the road at 12ish with my brother, mom, and uncle. We went to the north shore to see some surfers which was cool. By 5 we were back in Waikiki where we didn’t do much of anything and went to bed early, we had a 5am flight to catch. The flight was fine, but anything at 5am is bound to suck so by the time we got to the big island of Hawaii we were all bushed. We ended up seeing Rainbow falls, the black sands beach, and some stuff at Volcano park such as a lava tube, and sulfur vents. We didn’t actually get to see lava, but could see the active volcano from a distance. That night, pooped out, Aya and I decided to spend time alone. I went for a run and by the time I got home she was out shopping for gifts. We she returned the stress of 6 days of non-stop family and planning came pouring out of her and we ended up going to bed very late. I may have actually fell asleep listening to her. The next day, Wednesday, we vowed to spend alone, doing what we wanted. We were both hurting to relax a little. We got up late,no 7am phone calls, I ran, she slept a little more then we did a small amount of shopping and went out for lunch. In the afternoon we hit the beach for an hour and then said goodbye to my family before heading to the Hilton hotel for a Luau. The Luau was good, but was on a rooftop and so maybe not so traditional. However the dancers were spectacular. I even was called on stage for a dance alone with 5 ladies, spectacular. Aya said she couldn’t see my hips, which was probably good considering I cant dance at all. After we got some popcorn and headed back to our room to watch some TV and slowly pack our bags. Thursday morning we were up early and to the airport by noon. The flight back was good, I watched 4 movies, and getting to Tokyo was a relief, but also depressing as I was stared at on the train back from the airport. OH JAPAN!Good to be reminded that I am a stranger in a foreign land.

Now, part 2; how do I feel about all of this. Well, this was the culmination of months of planning. Many people said to me “I bet aya is very busy”. Well, we were both very busy. Because the wedding was in America we did joint planning and I wasn’t missing for any step of the way, it was hard work for the both of us and involved lots of emails and phone calls to confirm and reconfirm then switch, then switch back, etc. We also received no planning help from parents or friends because well, no one lives in Hawaii and it would be almost more work to have a third person help out. By the time we actually got to Hawaii it was like a dream, not because we were having so much fun, but because we were both looking forward to it all being over with. We had to constantly remind each other that is was just a little more, a little more, a little more. Once our ceremony and reception came the stress was at a fever pitch as people showed up 2 minutes before our ceremony started and things like place settings weren’t finished when we arrived at the reception. By the time the reception was over our relief was palpable. At this point I think we both thought it was time to sit down and relax, but it was not so. My family wanted to spend time with me and that combined with various other things led to us getting little sleep and no alone time in the next two days which ended up with Aya having a small meltdown and me having to stop and reassess what exactly I was doing. We did finally get one day by ourselves and that was a great relief.
Now by saying all that I don’t want to say that I didn’t enjoy spending time with my family or friends or that I had no fun at my wedding or that I saw very little of Hawaii, although all those things are partially true. I had a great time hanging out with my brother and mother. I think my uncle Paul was fun for Aya and I to hang out with throughout the whole trip. Our friends were supportive and if nothing else provided a great bachelor/bachelorette party for us. Especially our friends Brian and Cynthia deserve a huge thanks for helping us at the reception and as various other stages as well as lending us a sympathetic ear as we complained about various things. Although the ceremony and reception were almost too busy to enjoy, I did enjoy it and my bride was beautiful. Much of my family was there and many people came from very far to be there, Germany the farthest I think. Perhaps that is a 16 hour flight? It's pretty much as far as you can get. Everything went off well and everyone we talked to had a good time which is a really good thing considering all the different kinds of people we were bringing together and all the potential for mis-understanding and uncomfortable silences. The cake, food, and drinks that I did get to have were delicious and the staff at the Willows and at Masako Formal Wear was great, along with our AV guy, Myles, who was visibly busting his ass to do everything he could for us. As far as seeing Hawaii and its landscape along with its people I don’t feel full enough, but I did get a taste and from what I tasted the people are relaxed and kind and MY GOD there are a lot of Japanese people there!
To make this all concise, the wedding was great and went well. It was very busy, but also kind of fun. We didn’t get to do much sightseeing and would like to return someday.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Two weekends ago I went to Nikko, a UNESCO world heritage site. To those outside of Japan Nikko will have very little or no meaning, so I will explain a little bit about Japanese history. As some people know, Japan has an emperor and that empirical line has “ruled” Japan for as long as most written history goes. The true origins are unknown although there is a first recorded instance of someone claiming the descent from the gods and that is where the empirical line can legitimately be traced to. In any case, the emperor has not always been the actual ruler, the present being one of those times. Two things have to be considered. First; although the emperor has not always been the one in control, the line has always been recognized as the legitimate heir to Japan, as it were. Which enters my second point, Japan; as it were. Japan has not always been what we think of it now. Most early history crowds around the areas of present day Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo and that was Japan. It is not until the last 500 years or so that anyone gave any concern to what was to the north of those regions, like where I live now, or to the giant island of Hokkaido. Okinawa is a different, but similar story, but I digress.
The point of all of this is that the unification of Japan, the establishment of a country, and who ruled what when, changes so who ruled what when gets slippery.
So, why the history lesson? Well, Nikko is the burial site of one of the most famous of Japanese people, Ieyasu Tokugawa. He was the first shogun to unite all of Japan, which means he was the first to wrest control of Japan, as it was, from the hands of everyone else, including the figure head emperor of that time. You see, for a large portion of recent Japanese history the country has been ruled not by emperor but by shogun. When we westerners picture old Japan, full of warriors and temples, etc. this is probably what we are picturing, the time of the shoguns.
Along with Ieyasu, his grandson Iemitsu is buried at Nikko. There is also the Futarasan Shrine, which dates to the year 767. That is enough to be pretty cool. Before the discovery of the Americas, before the Magna Carta, before… you get the point, and you can touch it! There is also the famous Three Wise Monkeys, yes, you know them. Hear no, see no, speak no EVIL! There is also a fourth, do no evil, but he was out doing evil so I didn't see him. It’s those monkeys and that is where they come from! Well… at least that is where their fame comes from, the proverb is likely much older. How about that?

Back to Ieyasu; the reason he is important is that he was the first shogun to consolidate power under one shogun. This ushered in about 300 years of rule by his family that ended shortly after the opening of Japan to the west by Perry’s black ships in the 1850’s. That is why he is important. When I asked Aya why he picked Nikko for his burial place she didn’t know. Later, after we had wandered around a bit she said that he had never been to Nikko. I am still wondering why he would want to be buried there. It is a beautiful place, but I can’t see someone wanting to spend eternity somewhere they had never been given that they could have easily gone there during their lifetime to check it out.

There are a few animal carvings around the temple grounds. The first and most famous is the three monkey mentioned above. The second is the sleeping cat. People were piled up to take a picture of this cat, why I didn’t know. I snapped a picture of it because I happened to be walking under the gate and thought it might make a good story later. Turns out that the sculptor Jingoro, was quite well known and that the spirit of Ieyasu is believed to reside in the sculpture. The third, and I think most interesting sculpture is of two elephants. As you can see, one elephant is very strange looking, kind of furry and just generally grotesque looking while the other looks more like a rhino/tiger cross. This is not what the affect artist intended. You see, the artist, Kanyo Tanyu, never saw an elephant! Yes, that is right, never saw one! At the time, it hardly mattered, since no one else had seen an elephant either. I can imagine his thought process, "hm...yes, fur, three claws, a monstrous eye, perfect... yes!"

You would think with all this interesting and beautiful stuff in one place (and there is more than I mention) that my favorite part would be something old or ornate, but it was not. Toward the beginning of our walk around the grounds we went up to a shrine on top of a hill. Around the corner from the main objects was a very small shrine built into a tree. Aya jumped in line to pray as I waited and in line with her was a mother with a boy of about 6 years old. As they stood in line the boy asked, “mama, what are we doing here?” she said, “well, we will put this money in the box and then pray for what we want.” And the boy said, “I want to be a ninja!” and started prancing around like a ninja/pony cross. Everyone in line had a good giggle. It was the best thing I saw all day. Aya said it was refreshing to know that even Japanese kids want to grow up to be ninjas, and that someday, maybe, he might get his wish.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mr. James

McDonald's Japan came out with a new ad a few months ago that has raised the ire of some white residents living in Japan. The new ad campaign features a character named Mr. James, who promotes a new series of burgers called the Nippon All Stars. The character, while not readily identified in ads as American, is indeed so. However, to know that you have to access his blog through McDonald's. In the ads Mr. James speaks poor Japanese and on posters uses poor Japanese combined with katakana, the writing system for foreign words (even though Mr. James is speaking Japanese, however poorly, his words are rendered in katakana).

Some of the foreign white community in Japan have taken offense to these ads for a number of reasons.

I have to agree. While the community outside Japan may see this as no big deal I do and I am offended by this ad. I wish that McDonald's would stop this ad and I have not eaten there since the ad began and will not until it is stopped.
Unfortunately in Japan people have little idea of what an actual foreign person is like. This is part of the reason I am here. I am here to be a foreign person, any person not of Japanese decent, in my community. There are 6,000 people in my town, they are all Japanese. When ad campaigns like Mr. James give reason for the people in my town to apply ideas to me I am not happy. I have spent the past 2 years here trying to break those ideas down, to show the people in my town that I am an individual and part of their community. Although I think this man said it best in an editorial on the blog of Arudou Debito, a foreign man with Japanese citizenship.

"The people complaining about this ad live in Japan, pay taxes here, and in some cases have naturalised and become Japanese citizens. Of course from the outside it doesn’t seem like a big deal -it isn’t going to affect your lives or the way your children are treated in school or on the street.

We find this campaign reinforces unwelcome stereotypes that affect our lives here. I have been denied housing, bank loans, and even entry to businesses specifically because of my race/nationality. By pandering to the ‘hapless foreigner’ stereotype, McDonald’s is reinforcing the idea that non-Japanese cannot speak Japanese or conduct themselves properly in Japan.

A multinational corporation like McDonald’s should be more careful about the subliminal messages they put out, and we are just trying to bring that to their attention."

I hope McDonald's, regardless of what they originally thought was a good ad campaign, will now realize how insensitive they have been and stop their ads.


This morning I ran the Wakamatsu Tsuruga Castle Marathon. In Japan, any race can carry the name marathon and be under marathon length. It is also common to say marathon(ing) instead of running. I decided to run the 10k, which while my longest race, is not the longest distance I have ever run. I was the only foreign person running the 10k, one my friends in Wakamatsu ran the 5k, he got a 21:03, which is a pretty good time. My fastest 5k has been just under 22:00.
Today I ran a 51:43 which while a decent time was not what I had hoped for. In training I was running just over 50:00 and was hoping that the added plus of actually having people running with and against me would propel me to do better and maybe get a 49 or 48. It was not to be. While I finished the first 5k in about 23:30, twice during the second half I had to walk in order to bring down my pulse quickly. I became dizzy and so decided to check my pulse. My watch has a heart monitor on it and when it exceeds 185 beats per minute the watch will beep, which means, STOP, and it did twice. Normally I run between 155-165 beats per minute and will go to 175 or so when I am sprinting at the end of a race, but the day was hotter than normal and I was overheating. So twice I walked.
In any case I am happy with my run, it is the first formal race that I have done in a long time and in the past two months I have run the fastest and longest distances that I have ever run. Many of you are probably thinking, that is great, but why even run? What is the point?
There are two reasons I did this race. The first is that I took initiative to have people pledge money for my run, the proceeds of which I am donating to an orphanage in Thailand called Baan Dada(see sponsor names above on my homemade shirt). Some of the JETs in the prefecture responding by pledging money to see me finish, so I couldn’t let them down. The second reason is that. I love running. My day doesn’t feel complete if I don’t run, or exercise in some way, and it is a great time for me to unwind mentally and physically. Beating the paths around the river in my town I have had lots of moments of peaceful reflection, improved my health, and seen wildlife that I would not have otherwise. I also see my students out and about town and I hope it encourages those that already do to stick with it. Today, I saw many of my students at the race. A few of them were cheering me on as I ran and a few I met after where I learned what race they had just done or were about to do. It was great to see them so happy with what they had achieved. Seeing the power that inspires these kids to run inspires me also. I hope that in turn seeing me at the race will encourage them to keep running.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sado Island

Sado island is the 6th largest island in the Japanese archipelago (excluding the northern territories), behind the big 4 that make up the main body of Japan, and then the 5th, Okinawa. It is relatively close to me, about 2 hours by car, then a 2 hour ferry. I have wanted to go for some time, but just could never work out enough time to get in gear. Last week was Silver Week. It is called such because in May there is Golden week, a time when many holidays happen to fall on the same week and so lots of people vacation then. This year, certain holidays in September happened to fall during the week, creating a 5 day weekend. Time to travel.

Aya and I did a little research, packed up the car, and groaned at the ferry fee, but we made it to Sado very sound. It was great weather the whole time, sunny with a slight breeze and just perfect temperature. I felt like I was some little girl in a bear’s house eating porridge. Just right.
There are many interesting things to see on Sado Island from the oldest steel lighthouse in Japan, an abandoned gold mine, lots of beaches, an endangered species (the ibis), the Alcohol Republic, Charles Jenkins and tarai-bune.
The first day there we departed the ferry and started to drive north east, reaching futatsugame beach where we spent some time foraging on the beach. I felt like I was home again with the wind in my hair as I combed the shore for glass and interesting bones. It was great. From there we followed the coast west and took a glass bottomed boat ride over some very interesting rock formations, but really we did not have much time that day to do anything as just about everything shuts down after 6. Sado was strange and wonderful in that way. The buildings were very old and the atmosphere very small town. It was very relaxing compared to the hustle and plastic in the rest of Japan.

Day two had us up early (since we went to sleep at 9) and on my morning run I discovered the oldest iron lighthouse in Japan was about 30ft from our hotel. We snapped a few pictures then headed south and west along the south shore to have some fun in the tarai bune. Basically, these are giant wooden washtubs that people paddle with one ridiculous paddle. You basically have to grab the handles and make a churning motion to move the boat. When Aya tried we went backwards. She was really good. After that we headed north and to the Alcohol Republic. It is so named because there are a good number of sake factories in close proximity. I was told you could get a passport and get stamped at various establishments which of course excited me because it combines two of my favorite things, using a passport and alcohol. Unfortunately no one seemed to know where to get a passport. They did however know where to get free sake for me to taste, so I was ok with it, and then pretty happy with it, then I wasn’t sure what I was or was not happy with.
After some lunch in town we headed to the gold mine to find some gold of our own. After paying a 700yen entrance fee we went through a small museum and into an area full of troughs with sand in them. We were then showed how to pan and let go for 30 minutes to find what we could. We each scored about 8 small flakes. I told Aya that we should do this for a living, she did not agree. After getting brow beaten by an old lady outside to buy an ice cream cone (we got chocolate) we took off again, this time to see what Aya’s co-worker had described as the best thing on Sado Island, animatronics robots performing a Noh play. I had to wonder how robots performing a Noh play could be the best thing on the island, considering there was an endangered species and a gold mine, not to mention REAL Noh plays in the cultural birthplace of this distinct type of theater. We arrived at the center and found out the bots were broken; I guess I will never know the best part of Sado Island.
After that disappointment we went off to see the Japanese Crested Ibis. I had read about the Ibis and was almost as excited to see it as I was to see the Liger in Korea. This particular type of bird was thought to have gone extinct about 5 years ago, then some were found in China (is everything just waiting to be found in China?) and they were bred and given to Japan, which has since managed to breed a good number of the birds, so much in fact that about 12 were released a year ago, back into the wild. The center, nicely priced at 200yen, is basically a small museum and then a short viewing area from which you can see the birds at about 100ft. You can’t get closer. I don’t know if I really wanted to though, they birds are ugly and their call is far from beautiful. It sounds like someone blowing their nose and shrieking. Needless to say it did not compare to the Liger, but it was still cool to see a living thing so rare.
As we left the Ibis center we realized that it was 430pm and it would soon be getting dark. I felt somewhat like we were on an island that would be seized by vampires after the sun set as everyone scurried around doing what they could before activity ceased around 6. We had a plan of our own and went back to our hotel to get drunk.

On day three we had about 3 hours to kill before we headed to the ferry, first on the list, go back to the gold mine and pan again! That’s right; I got Aya to change her mind, almost. She agreed that it was fun, so we went again, but she still would not concede that we should do it full time. This time we managed to get past the old woman hawking ice cream on the way out. With about 1 hour left to kill we decided to do what I had been rolling over in my mind the whole time, visit Mr. Jenkins. Charles Jenkins defected to North Korea when he was serving as a soldier for the US army in South Korea in 1965. One night after deciding that he did not want to go to Vietnam he drank a bunch of beer and walked across the line. He says he almost instantly regretted it. Many years later he was introduced to a Japanese woman the North Koreans had kidnapped from Sado Island, they fell in love and had two kids. Mind you still in N. Korea. In 2005 through a deal between the Japanese and N. Korean government he and his family were allowed to enter and stay in Japan. Once there Jenkins served 24 days in a U.S. army jail for desertion and was discharged. Jenkins now lives on Sado, with his wife, and works at one of the local history museums/ gift shops. He is a very popular tourist attraction and I must admit that I wanted to go see him, but at the same time I was thinking that he must be awfully sick of all the attention. We arrived at the museum and found out the fee was 700 yen to enter, which was just enough to deter me from going in. You may have your peace Mr. Jenkins.
After that we went back to the ferry port, boarded for our way home on a beautiful sunny day and left Sado behind. It was a very quiet and lovely place.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

John Lennon Museum

Aya and I went to the John Lennon museum located in Saitama last weekend. It was really cool. The price to get in is not much, I think it cost us 1,300yen for the both of us and we got a discount because we were married, funny. Although most items in the museum have a Japanese explanation accompanying them, a great deal of them also have English which was really nice. Also, even though it was a Saturday, there were not many people in the museum and at times we were entirely alone.
The items in the museum and the set up itself is pretty cool. Room by room you go through the objects and stories of John’s life starting from his early years all the way to his death. I was very impressed with the amount of authentic objects in the museum from guitars to glasses, to art and signatures, to his report cards and diary. We were asked not to take pictures and I obeyed, mostly, one picture I could not resist and that is the one above, John’s report card!
The overall feeling of the museum was great, it really gave me the impression of actually understanding the years passing and progression from one thing to another. It gave me a much greater perspective on John’s life. I even learned that he visited Japan a number of times and kept a journal with pictures for learning Japanese, that was really cool. There were also many photos and objects from other personal moments and I felt the most moved when viewing objects from the 5 years when John took off to care for Sean.
If you are in the Tokyo area and are a Lennon fan I would highly recommend this place. If you are just a casual tourist I would still recommend it, but only if you have ample time to see other Tokyo places first.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I finally got around to climbing mount Iide (2105m). Last summer, myself and a group of friends got up the mustard to give it a try. Driving to the starting point Aya and I were separated from the rest of the group and we started up a different path. It was very difficult and after about an hour Aya said she couldn't take it anymore and we decided to turn around. Rightly so, it was about a 50 degree incline. Very difficult.
That was last year. This year I returned, alone, to claim the top. I had wanted to go with some friends, but everyone was busy. The weather was perfect and I finally had a day free so I decided to go it alone despite that hiking alone is not a good idea.
I started at 9am. After the first 15 minutes of flat trail the fun began. Much the same as last year, despite that this was a different path, the 50 degree incline was intimidating. I slogged on for about 2 hours before that ended and I reached the top of the first of many peaks and a "flat" area. Iide, in respect to other climbs I have done, was different in that way. After the first two hours the next 3 1/2 was a series of saddles between peaks. Sometimes the inclines would be so hard to pass that chains had been hammered in to the rock so you could hoist yourself up the rock face. In a couple of places the trail was only a couple of feet wide flanked by a precipitous drop that certainly would lead to death if you happened to mis-step. In the photo above there is a rock face that seems very slim, you have to hoist up a chain on the left side then walk the middle of that with 100m drops on either side. Scary. After 5 1/2 hours, exhausted, I reached the peak of Iide. Most people that climb take 2 days or more to do so, they stay in cabins along the way which provide water and shelter for the night. Those people are wise, I was not. I had it in mind to do it all in one day, so after reaching the top I promptly turned around and headed back.
Usually when I hike I figure a 3/2 ascent/descent time. If it takes 3 to go up it usually it will take 2 to go down as the descent requires more finesse and less raw power. However, because of the saddles this was not the case for Iide. It still took me 5 1/2 hours to descend and the last 2 hours were spent utterly alone and in the dark. The sun had gone down and all other hikers had long since gone to their cabins for the night. In addition I had somehow hurt my ankle near the top and was having the pain increase on the way down. So there I was, in the dark, hours from anybody, injured, descending the mountain. This is why you should not hike alone. However I always prepare a pack with essentials. I had a sleeping bag, rain jacket, 2 days of food, rope, water, cell phone, headlamp, etc.

To stave off paranoia and to hopefully frighten off any large animals like bears I started talking to myself out loud. I sang songs, rationalized my future, commented on the trail conditions, etc. Anything to remain loud and keep my mind off the solitude of the dark forest. Finally, 11 hours after starting, I reached the bottom. I thankfully peeled off my boots and headed home for some hot ramen and a cold beer. Iide was a great hike, in my opinion more challenging than Fuji, and I want to go again. However, next time I will take more than one day and I will bring along a buddy.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fujikyu Highland Park

Fujikyu Highland park is one of the most intense roller coaster parks in the world. With Mt. Fuji in the background a stroll around the park is nicely backdropped, but we did more than stroll. Unfortunately we went on a saturday, lines were very long. We payed about 4,500 yen to enter with an open pass. We could ride anything all day, but the lines were such that we thought we could do 3 coasters at most. Our first target was Fujiyama, which was the tallest coaster in the world when it opened in 1996. It is also really fast, reaching speeds of 130kmh. To say it simply, it was really fun and very intense.
After that coaster we knew we had time for only one more, so we grabbed some lunch and stood in line for Eejanaika. This coaster has the Guinness World Record for the most number of inversions. It is what is called a 4th dimension coaster, meaning the seat is capable of 360 degree turning. Before getting on you must empty your pockets and take off your shoes. You are then strapped into a chair with legs dangling and drawn up the first embankment lying on your back. From there you are tossed and turned over the 14 inversions in a matter of about 2 minutes. It was really really intense and I have to say that i did not enjoy it as much because it was so intense. Fujiyama was good, but Eejanaika was just crazy. One other interesting note, I had my heart monitor watch with me and tested myself at different points along the rides. A normal resting rate for me is 65 beats per minute, 85 is a normal standing rate. I tested myself on both rides and results were close to the same. While in line my rate was 110, which is about the rate your heart would be at if you are taking a brisk walk. Once strapped in I was at 120, which is close to the same. On the ascent, right before the first drops it went to 140 which is the pace of a slow run. After the initial drops it went to 160 which is a normal jogging pace for a male of my age. Interesting to see how my body reacted.


Mount Fuji is the largest mountain at Japan and the peak is 3,776 meters above sea level (12,388ft). Most people start from the 5th station which is at roughly the 2300 meter mark. Richard and I thought that climbing it from the 5th was kind of cheating since that brings you to about the half way point without you hiking, you ride a bus there. So we hiked from the bottom, the absolute bottom. We started from our hotel in Fujiyoshida, Riben minshuku. As we left at 530am the inn keeper told us to "gambatte!" (fight for it!) We took about 20 minutes on foot to get to Sengen Jinja (shrine) and started the trail from there. This is only one of four trails from the bottom to the top, but the most popular, which was hard to believe since we saw not a soul (except for a mountain goat) along the trail.

The altitude at Sengen Jinja is about 800 meters above sea level.
Denver, Colorado, is roughly 1 mile high, 1 mile is about 1,600 meters so the 5th station starts at about 1 1/2 miles high and the top of fuji is over 2 1/2 miles high, much much higher than Denver. If you have ever watched a football game played at Mile High stadium you will have seen the players sucking oxygen on the sidelines. As you go higher the air gets very thin.

The hike was difficult and to get to the 5th station took us about 5 hours. We saw no one on the trail from Sengen Jinja to the 5th station. What a shame! No one taking the traditional route, no one interested in climbing the whole mountian, perhaps on the other three trails fromt the bottom there were other people, but I doubt it since we were on the "popular" one.

We took a break at the 5th station, observed the circus of buses, tourists, ponies, and women in high heels with strollers, bought a hiking stick and quickly moved on. From the 5th on the trail was pretty packed with people. We were never far from anyone and a few times held up by people ahead of us. By the 7th station fatigue started to set in and by the 8th we were both plodding our way onward at turtle pace taking frequent but empty breaths. Along the way, at most stations, we took 5 minutes to have our hiking stick branded and perhaps to sit for a minute.

By the 8th station many of the people had stopped climbing. They were bedding down for the night, waiting to reach the peak an sunrise and/or recovering from the change in altitude. It was also at this point that we started to lose the finer points of speech as our minds became fuzzy from the oxygen deprivation. Luckily, neither of us suffered more than mental slowness. Some people get terribly sick. More than a few times I saw people sucking on cans of oxygen, trying to keep their bodies from rebelling.

At the 7th station, about 3 hours from the top, the wind picked up and it started to rain. We had both brought rain gear, but still felt the biting cold and by the 8th station I could no longer feel my fingers. The rain continued up until we reached the top after 11 hours of climbing with minimal breaks. Once at the top we went searching for our final stamp, only to be told the person had closed down 30 minutes before. Being cold, tired, and dejected we snapped a few pictures, got another coffee to warm our hands, and started our descent.
Almost immediatly Richard came alive again and the next 3 hours descending in darkness went fairly quickly. We reached the 5th station at around 9 and took a bus back to Fujiyoshida. We had briefly talked about descending the whole mountain too, but decided not to since at that point it would be a drop in the bucket as we estimated it would only take about 2 1/2 hours more and after 16 hours we didnt care.

When returned back to Fujiyoshida, stopped at a sushi place for a drink and some sushi, then returned to our room at the minshuku where we promptly fell asleep. I was so tired I didnt fully undress and woke in the middle of the night to finish the job. The next morning after we got up, the minshuku owner asked us how the climb went. When we told him what we had done he said, "yuusho!" (champions!) All in all it was an excellent time and an experience that will not be soon forgotten.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Indecent Proposal

While in Stanley I proposed to Aya. We had already been talking about getting married, we have a date and location set, have sent out invitations etc. but I had still not proposed, getting married was something we had just agreed upon. So 4 months ago I bought her ring and ever since have been trying to wait for a good moment to come along for me to propose, some nice location or specific event or something. I didn’t know, I just thought inspiration would hit me and I would think, ok, perfect timing, let’s do it Kevin, but that didn’t happen. It finally occurred to me that I had to make it happen and so determined that I would do it in Hong Kong come hell or highwater. I knew that we would be near the sea, which would be nice, so I waited until we were alone, which we were in Stanley.
After having lunch along the board walk I said, let’s take a walk by the seawall. So we did as I thought about how to start. Of course I had an idea of what I wanted to say, but I did not know how to begin. First things first I distracted her by pointing out a junk (ship) in the harbor and saying she should take a picture of it. Meanwhile I slipped the box out of my pocket and put the ring on my pinky finger so that I would have it ready. I then hid the ring as best as I could and tried to begin. But the words just didn’t come out and so Aya said, lets go. I told her I wanted to stay a bit longer and sat on a ledge by the sea wall. I thought perhaps if I just start it will come out alright. So as she turned to walk away I started to get on my knees and said, “Aya I…” and then the ring slipped out of my hand. I watched it make a few weak bounces on the boards of the board walk, praying that it would not fall into the space between the slats and trying my best to put my body into motion, but by the time I made any kind of move to recover the ring it had quietly slipped into the space between the boards. I was shocked to say the least. Aya, who had watched the ring fall between the crack, wasn’t so concerned, so I said, “the ring, the ring fell between the cracks! (frantically pointing)” and she said, “oh well, its ok” and I said, “no, no, not this ring (pointing to the ring on my finger) THE ring, the wedding ring!” At which point she came around to what was happening and we both fell to our knees peeking between the cracks searching for the ring. Luckily it had landed on a flat piece of concrete about 2ft below the surface of the board walk. As some relief crept in that we knew where the ring was we began to talk about how to get it out and how much of an idiot I was. Luckily, just as I was starting out towards the commercial area to find something a security guard was walking by and I flagged her down. I told her that we had lost a ring, she came to take a look, confirmed that I had in fact dropped the ring, and then said she was going for help. About 5 minutes later she returned with two other security guards and a number of thin long tools. The first she tried was a long wire with a hook on the end, which worked and she gave me back the ring which I heartily thanked her for. Meanwhile Aya and the other two security people were taking lots of pictures. Thanks for the memories.

So I had the ring back in my hand and said to Aya, “Despite that I am and idiot…” which was the perfect start that I had been looking for. As we discussed the whole incident we both agreed that it was very much us, a perfect fit, and really the only way to go about it. Oh, and she said yes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nebuta Matsuri

Nebuta Mastsuri, in Aomori ken, is consider one of the three big festivals in the Tohoku region of Japan. When I first came to Japan I noticed in one of the English textbooks that the festival was mentioned and there was a picture of one of the floats. Since then I have wanted to go and got my chance last week. The drive was murder, 12 hours on a bus there and 8 hours back, with 5 hours in between to be at the festival. Despite that, I really enjoyed what I saw. The floats lived up to my expectations.
Nebuta refers to the stomping of the ground that dancers around the float do, but the orgins of the word mean root (ne) and to cover (buta) which refer to the loss of a warrior and the burial of his followers in old Japan. Usually the top of the float is a scene depicting a warrior and made of all paper, lit from the inside. They used to be smaller, built with a frame of bamboo, and lit with a candle from the inside, but now they have changed considerably. Floats are much larger, built with wire, and lit inside by light bulbs powered by a portable generator.
We, luckily, got a spot near the harbor and so were able to enjoy the procession of floats along the water front and the fireworks as well. One thing that really impressed me was that, despite that the waterfront was packed with people rows deep, everyone remained seated despite that most people had an obscured view that could be remedied if they stood. The only time people got up was to take a quick look or snapshot of a passing float and then to sit down again. If everyone had stood at the same time, the affect would be ruined and everyone would be back to square one. In America, everyone would stand, but in Japan, things are different.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hong Kong

Hong Kong was a beautiful place full of history and clashing of cultures that often make a place a breeding ground for my most desired combination of things. We only had 2 days in the city which is a shame and I hope to some day return, maybe even to live there except for one thing which really put me off. The heat! Japan is hot, but Hong Kong was hotter. Each day we took refugee in some air conditioned building about every 2 hours just to cool down and not exhaust ourselves. I can’t imagine living there for an entire summer, but the rest of the year must be superb.
On the first of our two days we went to Macau. Macau was “discovered” by the Portuguese in the 16th century and remained under Portuguese administration until 1999! One of the first and last colonies in China it is steeped with historical buildings and contains not a World Heritage building but an area! Clearly there was too much for just one specific point and numerous monuments, temples, and other places were incorporated. We saw the ruins of the cathedral of St. Paul, A-ma temple, and the fortress. Unfortunately, we were so exhausted by the heat, the walking, and the travel of the previous day that we decided to wrap it up early and head back to Hong Kong. The remainder of that day we spent finding a sweet shop for Aya and then a bar with good beer for us boys. We bounced to a few good places, one of which was Ned Kelly’s. I had remembered reading about it before coming. It wasn’t such a bad place, Filled, but not full of people on this Saturday evening with a live band and some decent beers available. It was a nice way to wile away the final hours of our day.

The next day we were up and about early enough to catch a bus to Stanley. Stanley is not far from the city. We took a bus for maybe 45 minutes through winding streets leading up steep hills with suicide drops on one side and sheer cliffs on the other, all the while the double decker bus swinging wildly around the curving road. When we arrived in Stanley we were greeted by a massive tourist market. All of the shops had something to offer, but I would say only a few were unique. Most had the same array of scarves, paintings, ornaments, and other junk that you could find in most major markets. Only a few had other wares, but overall I liked the market. After browsing for a bit we had lunch by the boardwalk and then took a walk by the sea wall. I proposed to Aya by this sea wall, but I will save that for a different thread. Safe to say she said yes.

After Stanley we returned to the city proper and went to some of the other touristy markets, the jade market, shoe street, the lady’s market, etc. Which were all fun and good. We did find some neat stuff and I was pretty happy to be roaming around these markets. One thing I especially enjoyed was a fruit, meat, and vegetable market street just a few blocks from the main action. Nothing too unusual, but a lot of fruits and veggies that I could not identify. Really makes you think about how restricted our diets are no matter how hard we try to expand them. Our second day ended with the purchase of some jade and a Tsing-Tao for me to wash down the heat of the day. Overall good trip.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

That Which Dwells Within Us

The other day I was at my with my Japanese language tutor and we were reading a story about vending machines in Japan. Part of the story focused on the benefits of the vending machines while the other part focused on the detriment. Detriments included things like using electricity, hiring someone to stock the machine, etc, but there was one unusual thing that at first I thought I had misread. It said that vending machines are limiting face to face contact among people. While I thought this was true, I also thought… so what? Is that a problem? Apparently in Japan it is.

After a little inquiry my teacher told me that she had recently had a “student” who had been coming by lately. He was what is called a hikikomori 引き籠もり,. Which translates as someone who pulls away, or a shut in. These people exist in other countries; usually they are people who have some sort of social, physical, or mental disorder or impairment that makes it difficult for them to function outside of a confined or familiar environment that they consider safe. Japan is a leader among the world for this sort of person and China, Taiwan, and South Korea are also seeing rising numbers of hikikomori recently. Some factors that are said to contribute to it is a lack of a right of passage, which would lead to youths becoming adults and also perhaps because of the rigid systems of social ranking in Japan and other countries. Many students in Japan face enormous pressure to test well for universities and highschools and many of those who graduate find slim job prospects, which may also encourage their disallusionment.
My teacher’s student had gone to school as a normal adolescent would, but upon graduating entered his home, rarely to emerge for the past 9 years. As of lately he had expressed a desire to come back into society and so my Japanese teacher, who is also a psychologist, agreed to meet with him to start some rehabilitation.

Apparently in Japan this is very common. I did a little research and asked a few people I know about hikikomori and all of them knew someone at some point in their lives who was or is a hikikomori. By some statistics this involves about 20% of adolescent males (1% of the total population). In fact I know there is at least one at my middle school, and a couple at my elementary schools, although the most serious cases are those that carry on beyond school. At this point you may be thinking, ok, so that is a little strange, but surely its not so bad. At some point these people must emerge from their rooms to go to the bathroom, eat, shop, work, etc. The suprising truth is… not really. Some are known to have stayed in their rooms for periods measuring in years. Many needs such as food and other shopping can be done over the internet or is done by the persons mother, who then brings it to their room. Going to the bathroom may only be done at times the person feels safe, like at night. Which brings me back to the original article I was reading about vending machines.

It seems that a negative side affect of vending machines, which are growing in number in Japan, is that it enables people to remain hikikomori. It also seems that a considerable amount of business occurs at night, which creates a conundrum for owners who don’t want their machines using electricity all night long, but also have a small, but growing costumer base for late night use.

While I recognize that some of these individuals really are disturbed and really do need to be catious about social interactions, the majority are being enabled by their parents and society who has taken a passive role in allowing them to isolate themselves. I can make this argument because when you compare the statistics for urban or middle class families with hikikomori children to those of lower class or rural families the difference is noticeable. People are choosing to become withdrawn from society for petty reasons and their loved ones are allowing them to do it. Despite all that I love about Japan, this is one thing I do not.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Going Grey

Japan has a big population problems. Standing now at 127 million, the Japanese population is expected to be less than 100 million by 2050. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is a negative population growth at -.14 Coupled with a very low rate of immigration that equals decline.
The second is the tendancy for Japanese to marry late, and therefore have children later or not at all.
This however creates big problems as the population becomes the most top heavy in the world. Creating a large base of elderly with a small amount of young. Now it is estimated that every retired person is supported by 7 working people, by 2050 that will be 2. The future for Japan, looks grey.


A month ago Aya’s grandfather died, which while a sad event was a cultural treasure trove for me. Now considered a member or the family, I was asked to come to the wake and the funeral. Both events had some similarities with western styles and some new things for me. I would like to share those things that are most interesting, briefly touching on the similarities, while telling a bit more about the differences.

I met Aya’s grandfather one time in the summer or 08’. At that time he didn’t talk and barely stirred, which I was assured was his normal state at that stage of his life, age 90. I didn’t think too much about him even though he lived quite close to me, until this past week when Aya and I went to a movie. It was a Friday and first you have to understand that going to a movie involves an hour drive. So Aya picked me up and as we started out she told me her grandfather had become quite ill and was in the hospital. After chatting a little we decided to keep going, After 1hr he was gone. So upon having reached the movie theater we turned around and drove back. Aya went to spend time with her family while I just went home.
I am not sure what the family did that first night, but probably just consoling each other getting plans ready.

The next day, Saturday, Aya asked me if I would come to the wake, which would be Sunday evening. Of course I said yes, but when I asked her what it would be like she was vague. It must also have been Saturday when the body was prepared encoffinment, which if you have seen the new Japanese movie Departures, you will know what that entails. If you haven’t seen that movie, I recommend you do, its very good and available in most countries since it received an academy award.

On with the story; I missed the encoffinment, because I didn’t know that it was happening, but I made it for the wake Sunday night. I was a bit confused as the word for wake in Japanese is 通夜, which means “through the night” . I was unsure of what to expect. All of the next 24 hours occurs in the same building except for a 2 hour period, so assume all events are in the same place. The building used was 2 stories, and seemed somewhat like a conference hall with dining room, lobby, café’ area, and one room with tatami mats, closets, bathroom, shower and couches. The tatami room was like a Japanese hotel room.

The wake was held in a large conference room, the body at the front in a balsa casket, top open for viewing, and surrounded one all sides by many flower arrangements with small signs indicating who they were from. On one side of the aisle were family, on the other close friends. At an appointed time a Buddhist priest entered, sat, and chanted (when I asked later what he said, no one knew, they said it was very old Japanese and very hard to understand). After about 20 minutes the priest rose and turned to sit facing the crowd. He then made a brief speech about the grandfathe’s life. After his speech attendees approached the casket, burned a small amount of incense, said a prayer and then went back to their seats. As there were about 25 family members and 30 other people, this did not take very long. After which we all went to the room next door which contained a dinner and drinks. We all toasted his life, had dinner and drinks, and the crowd thinned out until just the close family remained. After which time the family, and the casket, where brought downstairs to the tatami room. Here the casket was set on an altar near the couches and candles and incense where lit. The family then prepared more food and drink and talked. The closest family stayed there for the night, sleeping on the tatami near the body, using the bathrooms and showers in the morning to freshen up. Hence, throught the night. I went home, to return the next day.

When I returned the next day at 11am the body had been returned the to large room it had been in the previous night. The exception was that this time there where about twice as many guests as the night before, perhaps nearing 100. The arrangement was the same, except that all chairs were filled. The same Buddhist priest came in, gave what I took to be the same chant and things basically proceeded in the same way.

Once it was only family remaining the employees clipped the flowers off of all the arrangements and gave them to the family in baskets. These flowers were then put into the coffin around the body by the family. This was also the last chance for people to touch him or say goodbye to him and was the only time that I saw any weeping during the entire thing. After the flowers had been put in an employee retrieved the lid, driving a nail into each corner and one into the head. The one he drove into the head he did not fully drive in. He drove it in half way, then the family shuffled past, each taking a stone block, and using it to give the nail a couple of final taps, the last person using the hammer to fully drive it in.
After this the men of the family carried the coffin to a waiting hearse outside the building and the body was transported to a cremation center. The family followed in a bus.

Once we reached the cremation center the body was unloaded and put onto a sled which was wheeled to the front of the incinerator. Here we said a final prayer and the body was slid inside and the doors closed. Then we waited for 2 hours as the body was burned. During this time we had drinks and food and just talked a bit. After two hours we all went to a room and here is the most interesting part for me.

When we entered the room the sled was in the middle with small long tables on each side with pairs of chopsticks laid on them. The close family stood on one side while the rest of the family shuffled past on the other side. The sled in the middle was still very hot and contained the ashes and bones. Family on one side passes bones to family on the other to put into trays and then people switched. Here, people were passing from chopsticks to chopsticks which is why, during meals, it is very rude to use pass things chopsticks to chopsticks. After the most of everything had been collected an employee came in and swept up the rest of the remains taking that and the trays and putting them into the urn. It was odd, but as he put in the bones he would say things like, "this is the finger and that is a piece of the skull. etc"

After the urn was packed we returned to the first building where the guests were waiting. we had another dinner and after 2 hours most people cleared out. The the urn and the close family went back to the grandparents house where the urn, gifts and burning incense have been on display for the last month. In about a week there will be an internment ceremony at the family crypt. I will be sure to write about that later.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


This Golden Week I again did not have a lot of money to spend, so again I took to the roads around Fukushima and looked for places to hike. This year I took my friend Jon with me and Richard joined us for the third day.
We tried for 3 peaks in 3 days, but the third and tallest was too snow covered to reach the top. We did get to the tops of Adatara and Ogunigoya, but failed to summit Azuma. I am now suffering mountain withdrawl and I am going to hike the hills behind my house tomorrow. This was Golden Week.

Over the next few months I am setting my sights on higher yet, Iide and Fuji. Both mountains I have not done yet and both far higher than those that I have. It will be fun.