Sunday, July 31, 2011

Games People Play

I love board games especially those that involve just a little bit of strategy. When I spied a game called Power Grid sitting on the shelf of my local toy emporium, I just had to own it. Living in Japan where the threat of blackouts and, more frighteningly, the risk of radiation exposure all due to the broken nuclear power plants in Fukushima have made me think twice about our energy choices.

While many people are less than pleased with Japan’s investment in nuclear power, everyone in my family is extremely happy about my investment in Power Grid, the board game. It’s in a word, electrifying. Unlike a lot of digital games, this analog masterpiece is fun for the whole family and not just the nuclear family either. The game comes with a board that is essentially a map of cities in need of power and playing cards representing power facilities fueled by either coal, oil, nuclear, wind, solar resources and more. I like to collect the alternative energy cards because you don’t have to buy any of the game’s little resource chips to run them. The whole object of Power Grid is to supply the most cities with power. There’s one problem with the game though. If you try to win with alternative power alone, you’ll soon realize that the deck of cards that come in the box is stacked against you.

While I see this as a problem, my oldest son says it only adds to the realism of the game. He might be right. A recent report from the
Japan Today news web site notes how the mayor of Omaezaki in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture “criticized the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency after revelations continued to emerge that several electric power companies had been asked by the agency to have local residents pose questions in favor of Japan’s nuclear projects at symposiums." The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which falls under Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), is one of the country’s two nuclear watchdogs. 

Questions from opposition lawmakers regarding the unethical practice of rigging these town hall meetings on nuclear power reduced current METI head, Banri Kaieda to tears this Friday. Although Kaieda wasn't in charge of the ministry in 2007 when the meetings occurred(in fact the opposition party was in charge back then), it’s no doubt a political loss for him and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. I’ve seen the same kind of waterworks display while playing Power Grid, tear drops sometimes fall from the eyes of my youngest who often loses out due to a short-sighted strategy. Japan’s power grid games really aren’t too far away from the one played out on my kitchen table. Of course one big difference might be that human lives are at stake in the game Japan’s politicians are playing. No matter how you cut the cards, when the stakes are that high, playing with a stacked deck ought to be against the rules.

Related post: Nuclear Regulators Leave Kan to Fill in the Blanks

To learn more about Power Grid try watching Board Games with Scott on Youtube.


More Power Games

Watching the US congress and White House battle it out over the debt ceiling, reminds me of how politics are pretty much the same the world over. In the immediate aftermath of Japan's 3-11 disasters, rather than forging an alliance to pick up the pieces left in the wake of the killer quake and tsunami, the main opposition party (the Liberal Democratic Party or LDP) chose to sit back and just watch. Their plan it seems was to wait for the reigning party (the Democratic Party or DP) to stumble and then cash in on the political capital lost in their fall. Not to be outfoxed by their political foes it seems that the DP then decided to do nothing at all as well. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that it's impossible to fall from a supine position, even if it is lying down on the job. Maybe that explains why there really hasn't been any adequate accounting for radiation levels, etc. and why six months after disaster struck so many still have that sinking feeling. When it comes to power games the clear losers are always those of us relegated to the sidelines.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fire Flowers

Japan is renowned the world over for it's fabulous fireworks displays. Even the Japanese word for fireworks, hanabi (literally "fire flower")  is a thing of beauty. This year the garden in the sky is thinner than usual.

Many summer festivals have either cancelled or shortened their fireworks shows this year in light of the plight of those impacted by the multiple disasters of March 11. They have a word for it, jishuku, a self-imposed barrier to limit oneself from overindulging in the face of the those who have lost so much. It  happens here at the worst of times. It occurred in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Kobe over a decade ago and it has been happening since Mother Nature delivered her tsunami-earthquake double punch this past spring. I don't know if it's a totally alien concept but it seems sooo Japanese. If one member of the group is hurting, the entire group feels the pain.

I  actually don't mind that the summer night canvas will be sans all those extra colors. Fireworks kind of scare me, they always have. The "fire" in the sky, the gut-wrenching booms, and the potential for danger everywhere from errant rockets to stampeding hordes of pedestrians.
 The best fireworks show I ever saw was one I couldn't actually see. It was 1983 and I had been volunteering my time at a soup kitchen and shelter for the homeless in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York. I just so happened to be there on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. The sisters (as in nuns) living in the building next to the shelter had invited us all up to the roof for a spectacular view of the lights in the sky.

It was a magnificent display, or at least the twenty percent that I saw of it was. There was a huge building standing in the foreground that obstructed our view of the bridge and fireworks.
While we could only make out the periphery of the fire flowers blooming across the heavens, everybody was thrilled just the same. Most excited of all was a little girl among our company, who along with her mother and slightly older sister had recently found themselves in New York City without any lodging. After learning of their plight the sisters took them in and on this special night we were all celebrating the littlest one's fifth birthday with one of the most magnificent fireworks shows New York City had ever seen. 

Forgot to draw bridge suspension cables, please imagine them where they should be.

The remarkable thing was that it was all for her, at least that's what she believed and nobody said anything otherwise. It was maybe the most precarious yet most precious of times to be five years old, at least for this little flower in God's garden. After the show, we all headed back down to the shelter where thirty people had a roof over their heads for the night.

The first time I stepped foot in the shelter it was the dead cold of winter. I was about 19 years old and had signed on for a two-week hitch. I had hooked up with the chaplain of a college that was down the block from my house, who was going to the shelter for winter break to relieve at least one  long-term, full-time volunteer who was on the verge of burn-out.

I really didn't bring much to the table. I didn't have any kind of useful social work skills or anything like that but I could clean bathrooms, pitch in cooking and serving at the lunchtime soup kitchen (after thoroughly washing my hands), and play a mean game of checkers with the kids who would stop by and I mean brutally mean. 

One day the chaplain, Mike, and one of the sisters (I forget her name but she was French or French Canadian so I'll call her Frenchy)announced they were going out to pick up some donated foods and asked if I wouldn't mind holding down the fort alone for a few hours. They were concerned that I was still shaken after "the incident" that had occurred the previous night.

The guests were usually referred to the shelter by some social work agency or other. The place was designed for short term stays not beyond a few weeks and could house up to thirty people in semi-dormitory style, women and men in separate sleeping areas. It was basically a band-aid operation. The doors would open at 5:00  and close for the night just before lights out at 8:00. No one was aloud in after 8:00, without exception and that was the root of the aforementioned incident.

It was around 11:30 pm when the heavy metal doors, separating everyone nestled within from the ice cold snow covered streets outside, were suddenly peppered with rapid fire pounding followed by a demand to "open up the f#!%ing door." Mike slid open the half dollar-sized peep hole cap to try and get a look at who was on the other side of the reinforced steel barrier. As soon as he removed the cover, the glass cover was shattered by the incessant pounding and a noxious gas poured through the small portal to fill the interior.

I think it was some mixture of gin and tonic. It was obvious that whoever was on the other side had been drinking a lot, a lot which is probably what gave them the power to start hurling every garbage can on the street at the door. Once Mike slid closed the metal cap over the porthole, the force or forces on the other side broke through the protective cap with a terrifying ramming device, a human finger.

Frenchy to go out and have a good time, assuring them there was nothing to worry about. They said they would be back by 5:00 and on their way out gave me one set of final instructions to follow: "DON'T OPEN THE DOOR!" 

It was about 2:00 pm when Mike and Frenchy left and everything was going just fine until about 2:30. It was then that I heard the pounding on the steel door reverberate throughout the building and bounce off the corners of my mind where the goings on of the night before still lingered in some horrific memory. "Oh no. Oh no," I said. This can't be happening again.

I summoned every ounce of bravery inside my bones and walked to the door where I peered out the eye portal. There was no one or thing in sight. Just then as I was peering into the empty void, the door was bombarded by a steel wrecking ball, or so I thought. The impact was so forceful it nearly knocked me to the ground as I cringed with fear as the thought of the door popping out of its frame popped into my mind. Then came an eerie, almost unearthly, bellowing voice that groaned on as if the metal door hinges from which it emanated were chewing lit bits of gravel. I shuttered as the voice spake, "I HATE THIS PLACE!!!"

I instantly turned into a trembling bowl of instant Jello brand gelatin. My knees suddenly buckled and fell to the floor as I clasped my hands and prayed to heaven above for some divine intervention.

Then all of a sudden I heard what sounded like whimpering coming from beyond the steel door. Was it Satan trying to trick me I wondered. It didn't sound especially satanic so, after much internal deliberation, I decided to violate my orders and began sliding back the huge door bolts that  normally held us securely in the palm of safety's hand.

The minute I pulled back the metal seal I was struck by a blinding light from the heavens above and now saw why I couldn't see anything when I looked through the peephole just minutes (that felt like hours) before. It was a kid barely four feet tall and all of eight years old. The same kid I had beat at checkers just a few days before. When he finally shut off the water works, he asked me, "Have you seen my mother?"

I told him I hadn't but directed him to the sisters next door where from their lofty vantage it seemed as if they could make miracles happen for little kids.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Bottled Light

Shedding light wherever they go,
Light Ambassadors open up new horizons with old plastic bottles.

Getting Big in Japan

Original matryoshka PET bottles
They call it PET bottle syndrome (PBS). That's PET as in polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used to make the bulk of beverage containers in the marketplace today. It's the sugary liquid often inside those containers that lead to PBS. When the mercury rises so does the general public's body weight.

Combine the conditions of scorching heat with the ubiquitous vending machine and the result is extra pounds. When the temperature climbs the response is almost reflexive, put a coin in one of the nearby drink vending machines ( and there is always one nearby- they occupy a spot on nearly every street corner) and replenish the body of its fast evaporating liquid content. While it's vitally important to stay hydrated in the heat of summer, making the right choice of liquid sustenance may be just as important. While unsweetened teas, like ice-cold oolong, may be the beverage of choice for most people here, a growing range of sugar-sweetened drinks have taken up permanent residence in most vending machines here in Temple Valley. Keeping off the extra weight can be as simple as pushing the right button (or carrying around your own canteen of water.)


The slice of Japanese life American tourists (a species now on the verge of extinction in Japan these days) were most likely to to take home with them via their cameras used to be the ubiquitous vending machine (from which you can buy everything you need, from soup to nuts, but no longer pornography). Now it's images of people standing forever in front of convenience store magazine racks pouring over the pages of unpurchased merchandise.

Related Post: PET Bottles Turned Anti-pet Bottles

Getting Small in Japan

Matryoshka lowers
bigger sisters.
They say what goes up must come down so it should come as no surprise that they've finally figured out how to get the last of the three cranes sitting atop Tokyo's soaring Sky Tree tower down once and for all. If you been following this series you'll know that we've been wondering if the architects and engineers had any idea of how on earth they were going to make that last crane's descent from the heavens happen. Apparently they've had a really big idea all along which just got smaller and smaller and smaller.

Photo by Namazu-tron 
via Wikipedia
Readers of the series will know that workers dismantled Crane Number One and lowered it form its perch via Crane Number Two. They then repeated that feat to lower Crane Number Two with Crane Number One. That left just one lonely crane standing  634 meters up in the sky. How in heavens will they get crane Number One down you ask?

The answer is amazingly simple (it's the kind of solution I would have come up with). Workers will dismantle Crane Number One and then assemble a smaller crane, we'll call Crane A. They will then use Crane A to lower Crane Number One. Then they will dismantle Crane A and  assemble an even smaller crane (let's call that crane, Crane B) to bring Crane A down to the ground. They will repeat the process over and over again until finally they are left with a crane that is small enough to fit in the elevator and leave with it via the front door just like everybody else.

Related Post: And Then There Was One

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Apples, Oranges & Lots of Bull

As alarm over the discovery of radiation-tainted beef from Fukushima sweeps Japan, some folks in Temple Valley are concerned that the city of Yokohama's move to suspend the use of beef in school lunches is more than just a precautionary measure. Consumers nationwide have been shocked to find out that contaminated meat from Fukushima had made it to supermarkets and butcher's cases across the country. 

A recent Japan Times article states that "eating 1 kg of the meat is roughly equal to a radiation dose of 82.65 microsieverts for a period during which radioactive cesium remains in one's body." The article's author then goes on to make a  now familiar comparison, observing that "the 82.65 microsieverts compares with the 100 microsieverts of radiation a person would be exposed to during a one-way flight from Tokyo to New York."

I wonder if that's how the cows got poisoned with radiation? Did they take too many excursions to New York over the last year? I don't think so. I'm no expert but the radioactive particles probably made it into the bovines' systems in the same way they likely enter the bodies of their human neighbors. They were either ingested (by eating contaminated food, etc.), or inhaled, where they can then become lodged in the body and potentially cause harm over time. So rather than akin to getting an an x-ray examination at the doctor's office, eating radioactive foodstuff is probably more like eating an x-ray machine, albeit a very tiny one, that is constantly turned on. All it takes is one tiny hot particle to  cause a human cell to mutate.  There is a world of difference between internal and external exposure. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Metaphorically speaking apples and oranges may be different, people and cows maybe not so much (we're both mammals after all). That makes me wonder. If the cows have an unacceptable level of  radioactive poison in their bodies, what about the people living in the same vicinity? 

Related post: U.S. Beef Smells Fishy

All Is Not Lost

A Message for Japan:

Criminal Designs

Osaka - Somebody is veiling bronze statues across the city of Osaka, Japan and local authorities want to find out who. The city is itching to piece together this mystery and unveil the criminal mastermind behind these exquisitely tailor-made and hand dyed fashion statements - not to arrest him/her/them for vandalism but to work with them. The mayor here is asking the "vandal" or "vandals" to come forward in the hopes of pouring all that creative energy into one of the many art projects the city has lined up. As of now the case is still far from being wrapped up.

Smooth Criminal

Big in Temple Valley today:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sour Medicine

Just for the record dear reader I wanted to tell someone about these concoctions M (my wife) has been brewing and spraying around the house as well as, I think, lacing some of our victuals with. She claims this lactic acid brew has the power to protect us from possible exposure to radiation spewing from the broken nuclear power plants at Fukushima.

While surfing the web one day, M stumbled upon a blog by someone who claimed that this brown rice mash cured her family of a host of respiratory problems they had been suffering post 3-11 (the day disaster struck northeastern Japan).  Concerned about the health of our family in the face of Japan's continually evolving nuclear disaster, M thought it wouldn't hurt to give it a try.

Now I know what you may be thinking , but there is a method to M's madness - a scientific method. NHK World reports that "a team led by Professor Ken Sasaki of Hiroshima Kokusai Gakuin University has for 10 years been studying ways to remove metals using microbes called phototrophic bacteria." He wants to put his method to the test in Fukushima where he believes it may rid the soil and water of radioactive cesium. 


Similarly the makers of Hatcho Miso, the preferred miso of the emperor, claim that this traditional Japanese food can "prevent radiation sickness."  The Hatcho Miso web site notes that "immediately after the Chernobyl accident in l986, European customers ordered over 40 tons of Hatcho miso believing it to be most powerful against the effect[s] of radiation."   The folks at Hatcho also point out that "in 1972 researchers discovered an alkaloid in miso that discharges heavy metals from the body and recently workers at Japan's Tohoku University isolated substances in miso that cancel out the effects of some carcinogens." M says her brew, like miso, is loaded with lactic acid bacteria and other beneficial enzymes.

Say what you will about M 's response to the nuclear disaster but one thing is for sure, it's a whole lot better than the Japanese government's response to those living directly in the shadow of Fukushima's leaking nuclear reactors:

Relatively Speaking

My Uncle Ron  made the news, but not for committing a crime or anything like that (although obviously there are some who think otherwise).

Related post: Tom and Ron

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ohhh Nooo!!!


The phones are ringing off the walls across Temple Valley and beyond. Tomorrow is the day the Craneview Middle School art club is going to the museum and nobody knows anything about it. One guy calls my son Jiro to find out where they are supposed to meet in the morning. Jiro doesn't know either so he calls his friend, Saburo, who does know but he's not sure if they're supposed to pack lunch or not. Jiro doesn't know anything about the lunch either so he calls his friend Shiro who just so happens to have the 411 on the lunches but would like to know if they are supposed to wear their school uniforms or regular clothes. Jiro is clueless about that too so he gets on the horn to one of the Art Club's upper classmen, Goro, who is a little more aware of what is happening tomorrow than any of the know-nothings who have called so far. The puzzle is beginning to fall into place and a sense of calm is descending on the valley.

It's like the teacher gave each one of them a part of a puzzle and now they are trying to desperately piece the whole thing together. I would bet donuts to dollars that the teacher handed each one of them a sheet of paper with all the information, they are now clawing to get a hold of, neatly printed out for everybody to plainly see. We're going to find that piece of paper too someday, all crumpled up and stained with ink and who knows what else after being recovered from the dark recesses of Jiro's school bag. That wouldn't be much of a surprise really. It happens all the time. What I find surprising is how all five of these kids (and it's probably more than just them), almost one tenth of the entire art club, could have lost this important piece of paper. It's like one of the major art world mysteries of all time. I wish I had more time to sit here and figure it out but the phone is ringing and it's my turn to pick up.


Houttuynia cordata, or doku dami as it is called here, reportedly holds a myriad of anti toxic and other medicinal properties and we're covered with it. It begins to creep into the garden somewhere around early June and within a couple of weeks has blanketed the entire yard (which isn't that much ground really) before it makes its full retreat by mid July. Dubbed Heart Leaf or Lizard Tail in America, this herb is renowned for its ability to fight everything from mosquitoes to more menacing viral bugs.

My wife's uncle soaks the leaves of the Lizard Tail plant in alcohol and smears it over his face and arms to repel insects (but that's not an endorsement). Long used as an herbal tea ingredient, Lizard Tail has also found its way into the Coca Cola Company's popular bottled tea, Sokenbicha, which can be found in just about every vending machine in Temple Valley. So drink this healthy and refreshing Lizard Tail infused beverage to your heart's content(but that's not an endorsement either)!

While Coca Cola is famous for closely guarding the secret behind its soda, it looks like the cat is (or some other furry animals are) out of the bag on this one.

Au Naturel Foods

Page 3

When carrots go bad...

they can be oh so good!

This was among a wild bunch of obscenely expensive organic carrots we received as a gift a few years ago.

Those readers whose tastes run in the direction of unnaturally shaped vegetables like this might be interested in the carved daikons offered up at the Kanamara  "penis festival" in neighboring Kawasaki, Japan as seen on the Lonlee Planet site.

Related Post: Banana Gone Bad


My youngest son, let's call him Jiro, bought a Nintendo DSi handheld game system a couple of years ago and before it broke and was sent out for repair I began thinking it was a natural extension to his appendages. I don't know much about handheld game devices outside of Etch A Sketch so I was always astonished to see what Jiro could do on the Nintendo DSi. It comes equipped with this neat animation program, which is what Jiro uses it most for. He's done some remarkable animations (mostly stick figures, a popular genre for DSi animators) which I would like to post but he won't allow me but that's okay.

My drumming buddy, Mr. Guttermouth (his name sounds a lot nicer in Japanese but it's TVT policy to anglicize all names when possible), has a son who is a year younger than Jiro who got a DSi this past December. After perhaps a year-long campaign of pleading, his prayers were answered on Christmas morning when Santa finally came through. Then the real battle began. I think his father got a little addicted to the thing. So much so it's a wonder the the kid could get his hands on it, but he did get pretty good at it. Take a look for yourself:

After seeing what Guttermouth could do, I wanted to try my hand at the DSi too but I didn't want to vie with Jiro for machine interface time. I also feared the small screen might pose a potential burden for my tired old eyes. Then I learned that Nintendo made an extra large version (DSi XL) of the same device. It was exactly what I needed.

When I mentioned that I was weighing the purchase of a DSi XL, the idea didn't fuel the home crowd with quite as much enthusiasm as I had anticipated. Foremost among the detractors was M, my wife, who strongly suggested that I should instead pull a volume or two out of the "boatload of books" I had stored in the closet and draw in the margins. "You know make a flip book," she said.

After further contemplation I've decided to shelve the idea for now and in the meantime I've got this to show:

Related posts: Making Faces

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Analog Wave Crashes

I've been riding the "digital TV wave" for  a couple of hours now and all I can say is that I feel like something is missing. Maybe it's the tender caress of those familiar analog waves and how they rippled through the air to brush softly against my TV antenna and kindle the fires inside the magical window box you probably call your TV.  Economist and Newsweek Japan contributor, Nobuo Ikeda, in a recent Twitter tweet noted that the government is supposedly cutting viewers off from their analog connections to free up those radio waves for other uses, which they actually haven't come up with yet. That would mean those not able to afford a new digital TV and antenna could still be sailing atop the analog wave instead of being cast adrift (with no port in sight as they do their best to weather the sandstorm before their eyes).

Post Script

On this day in broadcast history, Analog Fish (featured in the above video) announced the release of their new CD, On the Wild Side. Catch Analog Fish while you still can!

Tube Haboob!!!

"What are we going to do without the television?" Those were the first words out of Jiro's mouth this morning (Jiro is my number two son in birth order). It was a  cry that has echoed throughout the less fortunate corners of Temple Valley over the months leading to this day. It's D-day, digital broadcasting day, the day they cut off the analog TV connection and make the glorious digital transformation everyone has been talking about for years. 

For residents of Japan, the writing on the screen is bigger than ever. Television sets have been warning viewers of the impending metamorphosis for a month via a little message that constantly appears in the bottom left corner of the screen. It's not so bothersome. In fact it's no distraction at all for viewers here who are accustomed to a similar message that has been running across the bottom of the screen for many months now, along with the clock in the top left hand corner and the intermittent typhoon and earthquake warnings that flash across the top center. This confusing display of text is all often accompanied by Japanese subtitles, streaming across the top of the little message at the bottom, for Japanese television programs featuring people speaking Japanese. Why the subtitles? I don't know. I haven't researched it or anything but I don't think it's like closed caption for hearing impaired and deaf viewers. I think it's more for dramatic impact. Any way once they flip the digital switch, some of that screen ink will disappear and the picture will be clearer than ever to boot. 

The only glitch is that we don't have a digital TV antenna installed, which has instilled some (like Jiro) with a sense of panic. He's seen this kind of scenario play out in the past and views this event with much trepidation. To him it looks like a repeat of the same show. The last time our TV broke down, I decided not to get a new one. I thought the lack of the boob tube might spark a cultural renaissance where we would write operas, create inspiring images on canvas, pen the great novels of our time, etc. It didn't happen. We did play a lot of board games, which we still do to this day, but mostly the void was filled by comic books and portable electronic gaming devices. We eventually bought a new, digital broadcast-ready, monster of a television.

While we still don't exactly have the approximately three hundred dollars to shell out for a digital TV antenna we do have a plan. After some research, M (my wife) has discovered a way to turn a traditional Japanese wind power device, the uchiwa (a rounded hand held fan), into a state-of-the-art digital broadcast receptor. All it took was a little tin foil, some tape, a length of electrical wiring and about fifteen minutes of labor to turn that little plastic fan (a promotional item bearing a cell phone advert that someone was giving away by the thousands in front of the local train station) into our golden ticket to that wonderful wasteland known as televised programming.

M holding fantenna
 We've hung our makeshift antenna (aka the fantenna) on the clothes line and when typhoon number six, which the weather service has been textually warning us about via the top half of the TV monitor for the better part of the  morning, finally makes landfall we'll take it in so it doesn't get wet or cause any problems.  It's now 11:59 and we're on the edge of our seats.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Extra Extra....


The Huffington Post reports that "over his 20-year career, [George] Filer regularly briefed generals and congressmen about a wide range of security issues, including UFO sightings, up through the Vietnam War." Those briefings include incidents that occurred at Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base in southern New Jersey (a.k.a. Roswell East).

This could be the exact confirmation we've been looking for!!!

XXXXX, NJ (a stone's throw away from Fort Dix and McGuire AFB) - It was Christmas night 2008. I was visiting my parents in New Jersey's desolate Pine Barrens when, while taking out the trash with my octogenarian mother, I observed what appeared to be a huge plasma lamp in the sky. If only I had a camera I would have proof to show you my story was true (and maybe something to sell to the National Enquirer - my ticket out of Palookaville)but all I have is this dear readers:

The plasma orb continued moving in our direction and when it was just above our position on the ground, the light filaments emanating from its center completely diminished. In the night sky above our heads we could just about make out the shadowy figure of a jet plane-like vehicle with three relatively small lights clearly visible to the naked eye.

Dumbfounded, we combed every news source we could get our hands on in a desperate search for any kind of story remotely like ours. Afraid of being branded with the "UFO kook" label, we've been laying low but keeping our heads up and pointed toward the sky.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Table Talk

If this pot could talk, it would tell a delicious tale.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Out of This World

Kappa seen enjoying a nice hot dip in this sign
advertising a Temple Valley public bath and pool.

Stories of kappas, legendary creatures that inhabit this land's more watery realm, abound here.  In his Myths and Legends of Japan, author David  Hadland describes the kappa as "a river goblin, a hairy creature with the body of a tortoise and scaly limbs." Hadland writes that "his head somewhat resembles that of an ape, in the top of which there is a cavity containing a mysterious fluid, said to be the source of the creature's power."

Kappa occupy a prominent place in the collective Japanese psyche, they are familiar to old and young alike. While stories of cucumber-and-child-devouring (in a really gruesome way)kappa were perhaps once used to frighten young children into being wary of the dangers that lurk in the water world of fast flowing rivers and deep lakes, today you often see them depicted as cute and lovable little mascots, etc.

While the faces of kappas adorn the facades of everything from indoor swimming pools to watering holes and more, I've never seen a real kappa up close. That is not until today perhaps. While riding the Japan Railway's Kehein-Tohoku line, which traverses the shores of a number of waterways, I spied this curious looking gentleman. 

I can't say for sure whether or not he was one of the breed of legendary water people but the resemblance was uncanny. He may have just been an artist though. I followed his trail to the end of the rail car where he approached another somewhat disheveled looking gentleman perusing a book containing the works of some great painter unknown to me. After the two shared a word and a glance at the tome, the kappa alone disembarked from the train at Shinagawa Station - a name that curiously enough contains the word "gawa" meaning river in Japanese.

 Believe It Or Not

The really strange thing is that when I asked my sister-in-law (her name is Happy Child but I call her "Honorable Sister"), who was sitting next to me on the train, if she saw the mysterious passenger illustrated above, she said she hadn't noticed him! You might think I possess some special gift that would allow me to see beyond what the normal human eye can envision but that's not the case. I believe it's a fairly common phenomenon that was perhaps best explained by a wise man I saw on some TV show once. He noted that if you grow up in a "crazy" family, you don't notice that everybody in the family is "crazy" until you move out of the house and observe them from a safe distance. You could probably extend that same logic beyond the family and apply it to your school, your job, your community, your country and finally your world.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Money Don't Grow on Trees

But Obviously Bicycles Do

This is not the bike I bought, but it might as well have been.

I wanted the blue one but the shop master said the green one was more my style so I forked over six big ones (about sixty dollars) and rode off on my secondhand green machine into the setting sun.
I had been contemplating purchasing a new set of wheels for the last two years now. I bought a collapsible bike about three years ago and truth be told it gave me more stress than the convenience and sheer riding pleasure it provided.

I couldn't get beyond the thought of it possibly collapsing right beneath me while peddling atop the asphalt so I wound up all the hinged parts with rolls and rolls of black electrical tape for peace of mind. Then I worried about rainwater collecting inside the taped over areas, trapped and unable to evaporate, eventually rusting away the metal from within.

My dream bike is the beach cruiser which has just begun to make inroads into this far eastern marketplace. Their price tag isn't prohibitive, but the width of the handle bars is. It's just too broad shouldered to fit between the fence surrounding the property my house (my house for this month anyway) sits on and the house itself. That's why I've decided to go with a more slender Japanese model.

I had been passing a more-than-slightly-used bike parked in front of a local mom and pop bike shop for weeks now. At half the price of a lower end machine (and approximately half the price of a cheap new cruiser) it was kind of tempting. I thought I could pay the lesser price and if for some reason the size of the house I'm living in should shrink or the size of the property it sits on should expand, I would still have enough dough to finally purchase my dream bike and I wouldn't feel like I had wasted a lot of money on the interim vehicle either.

When I saw that dreamy sky blue bike displayed outside the shop along with the green one the temptation doubled. It had everything I wanted, two wheels, a light, a brand name that I could trust and a shiny new bell. When the shop owner steered me toward the model that had been sitting out in front of the store, unsold for months, I didn't suspect that he was simply trying to get rid of it.

It was fate. That bike was meant for me and the fact that nobody had bought it all those months was just further proof that some unseen hand was holding it for me.

Post Script

In hindsight perhaps I should have bought a new bike for about forty dollars more. The new ones come with a three-year warranty so if you get a flat tire or whatever, the bike shop mechanic will fix it free of charge. Anyway I'm thinking about stripping my bike down and souping it up to make it a lean, green, street eating machine like no other on the planet.

Before I entered kindergarten (many years ago) I had to go through  some sort of an assessment in which a tester asked me a series of predetermined questions. One of the questions was, "Which is faster a bicycle or a car?" For a five-year-old genius like myself the answer was a no-brainer. I said, "my bicycle." The answer set off alarms in the testers minds and they suggested to my mother and father that I might have some sort of learning disability. Later, on the way home, my parents asked me why I thought a car was faster than a bike? So I explained, "because my bicycle is the fastest thing in the world." It really was.

This is a receipt from the bike shop. I don't think they've sold too many cycles recently, the pre-printed ink is so faded you can hardly make out the name of the store printed at the top of the receipt, which makes me kind of glad I bought mine there.

Go here to see more bicycles that grow on trees: Bamboo Bikes and More

Monday, July 18, 2011

Path to Enlightenment

Sojiji Temple

I took this photo a couple of years ago at Sojiji Temple (the temple from which Temple Valley gets its name). I like this place. This past spring I took a similar photo that was published in the Japan Times but I like this one better.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Path to Fulfillment

Sojiji summer festival July, 2009

Related post: Spirited Away

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Monks Are Calling

It's the Sojiji Temple's annual summer festival and the lilting voices of the celebrating monks are calling to me. I've hardly ever missed one second of the three-day-long annual festival for all the years I've resided in Temple Valley. When my oldest son Ichiro outgrew accompanying his father to the fair, my second son, Jiro, was ready to take his place. 

Last year at this time I had to briefly take my leave of Temple Valley so Jiro went to the festival with his friends from Bounty Hill Elementary School. This year Jiro is a middle schooler and it doesn't look like I'll be getting asked to the fair. He made plans to go with his friends over a week ago.

The sounds of the music and smells of the steamed potatoes smothered in butter and other epicurean delights have seeped into every nook and cranny of the Valley and it's filling me with a sense of nostalgia and vivid memories of my first fair. 

It was just plain weird. I was standing there holding my fish shaped lantern, a popular item that year, while Ichiro attached himself to my elbow as he savored a heaping cupful of shaved ice. Then I spied a strange figure approaching us from across the expanse of a huge area set aside for dancing. It was still early in the evening and the suffocating crowd that filled the path to the temple that was lined with food and gaming tents was just beginning to feed into the dancing/fireworks zone (seen in the video above). He, like Ichiro and I, probably stood out in the crowd due to his "foreignness." I say foreignness because he wasn't completely foreign in this context since his attire was completely Japanese and what's more he seemed to be fluent in the native tongue. 

Dedicated to legendary Buddhist priest and poet, Ikkyu, the lyrics go something like: "I like, like, like, like, like Ikkyu. I love you!"

He wasn't singing to me,or with me since I was totally unfamiliar with the tune, but rather at me in a most alarming fashion. Luckily he didn't stop to "serenade" us but instead kept moving right past us singing all the while as he stared us up and down. 

I took it (his behavior) as a challenge. I was new in town, a stranger in a strange land, and perhaps I had unwittingly stepped on his turf. Perhaps my presence questioned some claim of his to being the only foreigner in the area. I didn't know. All I knew was that I was going to learn that song if it was the last thing I did and return next summer to pick up the gauntlet my new rival had dropped.

A year had come and gone and I still had not learned the tune when my son Ichiro asked me to take him to the festival. With much fear and trepidation I returned to the scene of the singing but by the grace of God had narrowly missed meeting my arch nemesis. 

This year I know all the words to the song, I have the exact same outfit, and I'm just itching to show somebody. Maybe I'll head up there by myself. After all I've been going to that festival for years. I practically own it. That's MY festival. I'm going to go up there and sing and dance in my jimbe whether somebody asks me to go with them or not!!!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Watch Your A's

Upon my arrival to these distant shores I found work on the rough and tumble docks of Yokohama. Sure the work was dirty, demeaning, and downright dangerous but so was I. After the whistle would blow I would knock off work and erase the blackboards and clean up the classroom of any trace I had been there (oh, I was an English teacher at a big American container shipping company going over the finer points of conversational English with the Japanese employees).

One evening while waiting for the train home at the nearby train station I was approached by one of my students. He was surprised I didn't drive a car back and forth to work. I think he imagined me arriving to work in a Cadillac convertible, wearing a ten gallon hat on my head and cowboy boots on my feet, and was probably a little disappointed to see me waiting on the train station platform.

He asked me, "Do you drive car?"

"No I don't have a car," I told him.

Then he asked, "Are you saving ass?"

The question made me pause and think for a moment. Was he asking me if I gave up driving in favor of getting more exercise through walking, etc. in an attempt to trim down ("save") the size of my ass? 

"Ass?" I asked in hope of getting the derailed conversation back on track. Then he pointed to the full glowing moon hanging low over the roof of the station and said, "You know, moon - ass." 
Which I found to be just as puzzling a statement as his previous one. I thought his reference to the moon was once again anatomical, as in "mooning," etc. 

After a few awkward minutes I finally realized he wasn't saying "ass" but rather he was saying "earth." He was asking me if I had given up driving for the sake of the planet earth. Japanese learners of English usually pronounce the "th" sound as "s" while e's and a's are typically elongated.

Relieved at where the conversation was headed, I smiled and said, "Oh, earth, you mean earth. Yes, I'm saving the earth." Then suddenly two trains pulled up along both sides of the platform. He smiled bowed and got on his train while I nodded and boarded mine on the opposite side as we departed into the night, headed in completely different directions.