Sunday, October 30, 2011

I Did This

This is the 15th annual Halloween parade in Kawasaki, Japan and I am responsible for it. Well, it's not entirely my fault. I haven't been in Japan 15 years, but I did have a hand in fueling the frenzy I'm afraid. My little neighborhood Halloween bashes at the local shrine topped off with mass carvings of jack-o'-lanterns helped pave the way for this creepy cultural invasion.

Winding along the city streets and through Kawasaki's famed Silver Dragon Market, the procession ends up in Citta Della, a shopping mall modeled on a quaint Italian villa. A lot of the festivities, including everything from trick or treating to zombie makeovers and more take place against the backdrop of this tiny phony terra-cotta town. If the thought of holding this most hair raising of American holidays in the center of this Italian village in the middle of Japan doesn't make your head spin maybe this next video will (take a look, the tricks they do with the lights here are a real treat).

Related post: Holiday Theft

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Falling Waters

Peeing Boy Statue at Tokyo's Hamamatsucho  Station
Decked out in Its Fall Festival Attire

Water comes in different forms, soft and hard, liquid and solid. It's everywhere around us, hanging above our heads as vapor and from time to time falling down upon on us with either tragic life-taking or wonderful life-giving consequences. "Better no gold than no snow," goes an Afghan proverb, for that frozen white water is the source from which life springs across fields and orchards every year. One oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds, water is the stuff that holds our lives together. Without it we are nothing and we search for it, finding the occasional oasis even in the driest of places.

Related Peeing Post: Just When You Thought...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Joint is Bumpin'

Tentai Kansoku (Celestial Observation)*

Yesterday Cosmonaut, the new DVD by the sensational Japanese rock band, Bump of Chicken, hit the shelves at Temple Valley's only music store and everybody is goosebumps all over about it. 

The group came up with their name back when they were in junior high. Aiming for something along the lines of "the roar of a mouse," the group decided on "blow of a chicken(as in coward)" but with meager English language abilities they hit upon the close approximation of "Bump of Chicken." Of course they could have come up with something even worse like, "Chicken's Blow," and we can all be thankful they skirted that pitfall. 

What they lacked in English skills, the group (whose members have been together since they were in kindergarten) has more than made up for in a musical ability that has been described as pure genius.

*The song featured in the video, Tentai Kansoku (Celestial Observation), is not on the new Cosmonaut DVD but is perhaps BoC's best known number.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dyeing Words

Even a word like "contaminated"
can be made to appear beautiful

Winston Churchill once said, "we shape our buildings then they shape us." The complex structure of language has the same kind of  power over us. It defines who we are and confines the way we think. 

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the most frequently heard words in the Japanese language is osen (汚染), or contamination, as in radioactive contamination. Following close behind is its linguistic counterweight josen (除染), meaning decontamination. 

The common character, sen (circled in red), shared by both written compounds essentially means "to dye." 

To express "contamination" you would simply tack on the character "o" (汚), meaning "dirty." When the word is used to describe the geographic areas that have been tainted by radioactive particles from the leaking nuclear reactors in Fukushima you get the lasting impression that the impurity is dyed into the soil. 

When talking about the process of cleansing those polluted geographic areas, Japanese speakers use the word josen, or decontamination. It gives the listener the impression that the "dirty dye" is being somehow removed (除) from the soil, like a coffee stain from a clean white linen shirt. When you hear the word "decontamination" echoing from official chambers and the mass media, you know things are bad but at the same time you get this reassuring sense that the solution is as simple as separating the chaff from the grain. 

That's miles away from what's actually happening in the field. The atomic impurities in the ground aren't being removed, they are simply being moved, along with a good bit of the topsoil it has stained. It gets scraped off and hauled away, sometimes not very far away, and piled onto growing radioactive mounds, etc. Given the fact that the half-life of cesium-137 is 30 years and that of plutonium-239 more than 24,000, this dye is more or less permanent. There is virtually no removing it.

Writer, Natsuki Ikezawa, suggests using the more accurate descriptor of isen (移染), "moving the contamination," over josen (除染), "removing the contamination," since that's what's really happening. Maybe we should follow Ikezawa's advice and move the discussion closer to reality, give it more of a tinge of honesty. When you find yourself living in a nuclear fallout zone where you're told everything will be okay if you would just smile (in the same way Fukushima prefecture advisor, Dr. Shunichi Yamashita essentially did), it's probably time to breach the confines of the discussion with some straight talk and begin shaping a new future from the ground up.

Monday, October 17, 2011

_ _ it Happens

Temple Valley, Yokohama - It happens from time to time in different places around the world and it's happening right here in Temple Valley. A serial pooper is on the loose. The culprit has been marking his or her territory for years now and we in Temple Valley are smack dab in the middle of it. No one knows for sure who is behind it all, but everyone seems to agree that it isn't over yet. While tales of the relentless perpetrator's misdeeds raise feelings of shock and dismay among residents, the brunt of the offense falls on those who must clean up the calling cards deposited on their doorstep or walkway. It's proximity to the scene of the crime that determines who will shoulder the most responsibility for whatever fallout occurs and it is likely to occur again unless somebody does something to stop it.

In other news... earlier this month an unusually large deposit of radioactive cesium-137 was discovered on the rooftop of a nearby public elementary school as was, the perhaps even more hazardous, strontium-90 at another Yokohama rooftop by a local resident. Both deposits (found far outside the central government's testing range for radioactive substances) are likely due to the fallout from  the leaking Fukushima nuclear reactors. Closer to the atomic flash point some 250 km away, local governments in Fukushima are waging a never ending battle to decontaminate the soil. A report from on a story appearing in one of Japan's major dailies, the Mainichi Shinbun, notes: "The city of Fukushima decontaminated its Onami and Watari district in July and August after a surge in local radiation levels. In the week following the end of the operation, the city took fresh radiation readings at 885 points, of which seven actually registered levels exceeding those found before the decontamination." 

It's as if there is no end to it.

Related video (on YouTube): Fukushima Nuclear Boy and His Poopy Diaper
In the news (MSNBC): Fukushima Residents Are Desperate, Angry, Homeless
Related Post: Downwind from Disaster

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Harmony in the Streets

Chindonya in Kawasaki

A Note from Tune Town

Just a stone's throw away from Temple Valley, the concrete canyons of Kawasaki City were alive with the sound of music today. This largely working class town, sandwiched between the brighter urban stars of Tokyo and Yokohama, is becoming something of a mecca for musicians looking for a venue to play. Dubbed Ongaku no Machi, or Music Town, Kawasaki is known for its street troubadour-friendly policies that have struck a chord with the musically inclined and brought a little more harmony to the city. Today this musical municipality celebrated what it calls the Iijan Kawasaki Festival  (whatever that means) and the streets were filled with the sweet sounds of music from a myriad of street performers that was topped off with a thousand savory smells wafting from food stalls that lined the narrow byways that snake toward the city's two main train stations.

Advertising the event were appropriately enough, Japan's traditional chindonya, colorfully attired performers hired to herald the opening of a new shop, a sale and more. A rare sight these days, the chindonya get their name from the sound their instruments make. "Chin" is for the sound of the symbols crashing and "don," the beat of the drum, with "ya" perhaps filling in here as something equivalent to the English suffix "er."

If you're looking for a little bit of harmony, get over to Kawasaki and get in tune with the beat coming from the street.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Anything for Money

How do you get businesses big and small to be more responsible about environmental pollution and more? Carrotmob says make them an offer they can't refuse. Watch how it works:

Carrotmob Makes It Rain from carrotmob on Vimeo.

Why Carrotmob?

I'm not sure but my guess is that Carrotmob gets their name from the "carrot and stick" idiom. I'm never sure if that phrase implies a choice between the reward of the carrot or the punishment of the stick, or if it refers to the illusive reward of the carrot which is hanging by a string from a stick before one's eyes, or if it is as most people think a combination of the threat or actual punishment of being hit by the stick coupled with the reward of the carrot. 

Apparently a lot of people are confused, so much so they put word detective, Evan Morris, on the case. Morris writes that "the earliest (1916) citation for the phrase listed by the OED seems to refer to a carrot dangling from a stick attached to and moving forward with the donkey ...But the world being what it is, the "reward and punishment" meaning took over rather rapidly, and is thus the one heard most often today."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where My Eyes Wander

Japanese Women in Traditional Dress, Shinichi Suzuki (1835-1919) 

 The Metropolitan Museum of Art  (

The experts say when traveling you should focus your camera lens on those fleeting instances that catch your eye before they disappear forever. You can always pick up a perfect image of that famous enduring monument or temple from off the post card rack at the airport souvenir shop. You'll never be able to share that burning image in your memory of the kimono clad maiden standing atop that floating barge with its glowing crimson lanterns as she peers into the night sky the instant it is illuminated with the radiance of a sparkling summer shower, unless you seize the moment and freeze it forever photographically. That's what my camera craves, those little slices of exotica that I can savor over and over again. The trouble is my eyes are bigger than my camera lens. 

While traveling the byways of the information superhighway I've stumbled upon more than a few blogs that capture the Japanese citizenry in a number of endearing poses. Often the photographic imagery looks like it has been ripped from the pages of Life magazine or some highbrow annals du photographie. Then there are those blogs that are full of grainy images of everyday folks. There is a snapshot of somebody's grandma sweeping the street, some lady holding on to the strap handle of a subway car as it carries her home from work, kids weighed down with enormous leather backpacks on the way to school, and more, all captured with the same artistry and sophistication found in your typical FBI surveillance photo. They are basically the kind of photos I take.

I want to take those Life-like photos but I just don't have the lens for it. Call it lens envy if you'd like but I need the kind of camera that will allow me to take close-up shots but still give me enough distance so that nobody knows what I'm up to (I hope that didn't sound too creepy). 

Still I don't think I have the eye of a real photographer and maybe I just don't have the stomach for secretly photographing unwitting subjects either. I have taken pictures of strangers before, festival workers, delivery people on bicycles, homeless guys collecting cans, etc. and a weird tingling sensation always creeps up my spine the minute I press the shutter button. I guess it's an automatic biological response triggered by that stare they usually give me that says something like "you have just violated my inner being."  

I wonder how I would feel if one day, while surfing the net, I happened upon a blog owned by some Japanese traveler in America and among the photos of Amish buggies, NYC cabbies, waitresses with beehive hairdos and lit cigs dangling from their lips, there was a picture of my octogenarian mother waiting for the bus in New Jersey's version of the kimono (polyester pants with an elastic waistband). I might be shocked, culture shocked that is(as in digital culture). 

That's unlikely to happen though since the rule of Internet and blog etiquette (and maybe privacy laws) in Japan is to block out or blur  facial features on photos that people post on their blog. While the little dots completely obscuring people's heads or blurred faces diminish the aesthetic value of the work, they do protect individual privacy, an issue that nobody in Japan treads on too lightly.

Even the pros in Japan tend to walk on egg shells when it comes to publishing photographic images of people and the places they inhabit. In response to a question on legal rights and wrongs regarding snapping pictures in public, Tokyo-based photojournalist, Tony McNicol writes on his website that for him "the rule tends to be 'shoot first, ask permission later." He notes that he only asks permission if the people he has just photographed notice him. The law in this regard seems a bit vague at best. McNicol says his understanding is that, "there are no restrictions on taking photos in public places in Japan. But if the picture is published and you have infringed someone’s right to privacy, they can sue you and have a good chance of winning."

Whether a photo constitutes an invasion of privacy depends a lot on how it is perceived. Like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. No matter where my eyes may wander at least I've got two things in my favor that are likely to keep me out of legal hot water. The first is a camera with a slow-as-molasses shutter speed that ensures every shot of a moving object (like a person) is always from the back. The second is an eye for photography that is forever out of focus. Put the two together and you get a good picture of a photograph ideally suited for the Japanese blogosphere where things are less than perfectly clear.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Will the Revolution Be Branded?

The revolution may not be televised, but somebody may just try to brand it. This week the ice cream maker known as Ben & Jerry's issued a statement of solidarity in support of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS)movement. It's not too surprising. Ben & Jerry's is no stranger to issues of corporate social responsibility and social justice. Despite the fact that the Vermont-based dairy company was sold (or maybe "sold out," depending on your point of view) to the multinational corporation, Unilever, they still manage to serve up some delicious, all-around wholesome ice cream. Ben & Jerry's inspiring mission statement and philanthropy (like the 1% for peace it used to proclaim on its product containers) goes down the gullet like an extra scoop of goodness. 

If that sounds a little too sugar coated, it's probably because it is, just a little. Ben & Jerry's is after all part of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate. Yet even though the Unilever label has lent a less-than-transparent veil to the company (particularly regarding the disparity between the CEO's salary and workers' wages) Ben & Jerry's as a company by itself is still probably a lot better than most

While its recent statement of support for OWS fits squarely with the values Ben & Jerry's has expressed over the years, I wonder if somebody won't try to do them one better. Although I wouldn't be surprised to see something like "Stomp on Wall Street" sneakers from some company like Nike hitting the streets sometime in the future, it would be unlikely to gain much traction since the revolution by its nature will not be branded. I'm ninety nine percent sure of it.

Related post: Voice of the People

Friday, October 7, 2011

Behind the Label

It was more than a few years ago that I first picked up a pair of sticks and began playing the Japanese drums, or taiko.  Truth be told, I really haven't improved much since that day. I probably get some benefit from the physical exercise the practice sessions provide but basically I'm as good a player as anybody who has never beat a drum in their lives. Still I have one thing that separates me from the rest of the crowd. I have a uniform. Getting it wasn't cheap (it's made locally and I was told the garment workers who sewed it all together so perfectly are paid fair wages and labor under comfortable working conditions) but it was worth it.

The catalog from which everyone in my drumming group (The God of Light Drummers) orders their outfits has three basic sizes, small, medium, and large. The large size category is further subdivided into large, extra-large and a bigger size labeled himan  or "obese." Even though that last size distinction may sound a bit offensive, you have to pay a little extra for it. Hurt feelings aside, the sizes fit our little troupe perfectly since we've divided the group into small, medium, and large as well. Small includes kids from 5 to 10 or so, medium ranges from ages 11 to 17 and large would be the adults. The adult group is further sub-divided into large, extra-large and obese. At least that's what our labels say.

Related posts: Beating in the New Year
               The Beat Goes On

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Order of the Day

Image via Wikipedia

I just read a great article about steak on my favorite food blog, One Hungry Chef. The website is stuffed with nice writing paired with some great insights and mouth watering photos. 

When visiting the site today, I found myself salivating over the image of a picture perfect steak. I've  drooled over photos of food before but not in a long while. The last time was years ago. It was  about a week before  payday and  I was  running low on cash. After knocking off work one evening, I stopped at the local Amoco service station to top off my tanks, my car tank at the gas pump and my gastrointestinal tank at the attached "Gas 'n Go" mini mart. When I went to pay my gas bill, the attendant saw fit to seize and cut up my debt-burdened credit card. While I know he was just following orders, his actions made it impossible for me to purchase any "groceries" in the convenience store section. That week the Giant food store circular never looked so good. 

I eat plenty these days but I haven't had a steak in close to a decade. It was probably the few still-burning embers in my mind of some distant BBQ that triggered the secretion from my salivary glands when I spied that picture today. I guess it's true what they say, "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and hopefully in this case the absence of red meat from my diet has made it grow even stronger.

Beef once featured prominently in my diet. I used to wait tables at a crummy catering hall called Manny's that served mostly prime rib.  The pay was subsistence level but there were a few perks. One of those perks was free prime rib dinners, served to the point where some of the staff, too poor to be able to purchase such a choice cut of beef from their meager wages themselves,  were sick of it. "Oh no, not prime rib again!" was the whispered complaint du jour whenever the dining  room and kitchen staff sat down together for the "family meal" served just before the crushing wave of patrons broke through the main door. 

Once some brave soul asked Manny, "Can't we have something else for dinner?" He said "I'll see what I can do." It was a phrase straight from the yet-to-be-written Manny's handbook which states: "Never say 'yes' or 'no,' always say "I'll see what I can do." It was his way of saying no without actually saying no.

Despite the boredom from lack of menu variety, the primary issue with the prime rib was the fear it instilled during some of the most intense moments of the work shift. Typically Manny's guests were given a choice between chicken or beef and about eighty percent went with the latter. While it was all pretty straight forward, it wasn't without some trepidation that a server like myself would take a guest's order. Usually the "conversation" went something along the lines of: "May I take your order? We have a choice of prime rib or stuffed capon." Written all over my face was the desperate subtext,  "Don't say it. DON'T SAY IT. PLEASE DON'T SAY IT!!! PLEASE!!!!!"  But somebody always said it and always followed by an order for the prime rib. "End cut," was what they said. It was the most dreaded verbal pairing to ever echo through Manny's dining room.

"End cut," the phrase hit the eardrum like a knife blade. There was no telling how the chef  (who, rumor had, in a previous life was a guerrilla commando in some southern hot spot) would react to the order. I once got a taste of the terror he had no doubt dished out in the jungles of some tropical war zone for simply repeating a guest's request for a small, solitary end cut. I sympathized with his plight. I realized there were only two ends to any one side of beef, but I had my orders. So orders in hand I endured his verbal shellacking  and soldiered on. 

I thought if I could somehow  keep the end cut orders to a minimum, I would be able to take the occasional tongue lashing but I guess everybody has a limit. Mine was thirteen. Thirteen orders of prime rib end cuts from one huge table of  tattooed (when tattoos meant trouble) troublemakers that I was lucky enough to get saddled with for the night. End cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, by end cut order number eight I was immune to the fear it normally instilled deep within my core. I simply said, "I'll see what I can do," thirteen times. Then I put on my kamikaze demeanor, marched into the kitchen and barked out an order for 13 ends. I thought it would be the end of me for sure but something inside of me (maybe the thought of the table of 13 bikers waiting for their hunk of meat) made me stand my ground. Chef locked his piercing dark black eyes with my innocent baby blues and, while ever-so-slowly nodding his head up and, down uttered, “okay babe, I'll see what I can do.” 

In today's entry to his own Epicurean annals,  One Hungry Chef writes about how you can learn from even a bad chef. I don't know if Manny's chef was bad or not. He sure had a bad temper at times. I guess the one lesson I learned from him is that if you really try and see what you can do, you might just find out that there are enough end cuts to go around for everybody.

Note: Manny's is not the real name of the establishment. Despite the fact that it was torn down over a decade ago and replaced by a super drug emporium, I'm still a little fearful of angering Chef (who I call by the name he was known by to many at Manny's)so I've changed the name.