Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A "Street with a View"

The most happening street in Google's view

Whenever I get homesick I usually go for a drive down the streets where I grew up. Thanks to Google Street View I can make the journey without ever leaving my kitchen/office and leave behind only the slightest carbon footprint to boot. 

It's a good thing I don't have to make the trip in a ton of steel on wheels because it could be dangerous. The truth is my hometown's Street View works like a tranquilizer. While in reality those streets are alive with the possibility of anything happening at any given moment, the monotonous rows of little layered brick boxes that line the macadam lanes depicted on the information highway are a yawn-and-a-half. 

Freezing a singular moment in time, Street View only gives you a fraction of the real picture, or so I thought until this morning. That's when I discovered perhaps the most sizzling street in the world. Most surprising of all, it isn't in Rio, or Chicago or any place that you might equate with the word "sizzling." It's actually tucked away on the north side of an American rust belt city whose name is perhaps the perfect antonym for "exciting." It's in Pittsburgh.*

Behind all this excitement in Pittsburgh are two local artists, Robin Hewlett and Ben Kinsley, who thought it might be nice if residents of the neighborhoods pictured on Street View could "choose how they are seen" by the world. So as the Google Street View cam car wound its way through the city streets on May 3, 2008, the residents of one tiny side alley were waiting. 

When the car finally turned down Sampsonia Way, these local Pittsburghers literally put on the show of their lives with a parade, a mini-marathon, a reenacted seventeenth century sword fight and much more. While every event was staged, Kinsley says everything captured by the camera was something "that could potentially happen" on Sampsonia Way, "the most exciting street in the world."

View the making of Street with a View:

Along Pittsburgh's Sampsonia Way you'll also find the offices of the online magazine of the same name. Sampsonia Way is "sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh celebrating literary free expression and supporting persecuted poets and novelists worldwide."

*I'm not up to date with all the latest  etymological theories behind the origin of the name Pittsburgh but it's clear to me that it's a combination of Pitt and burghPitt, or rather its alternatively spelling pit, is defined by Webster's Dictionary as a "place of futility, misery or degradation," as in "It's the pits (worst)." This combined with burgh, a word described by Webster's as " a medieval fortified group of houses..." gives us the word Pittsburgh.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Shades of Truth

Animated polarizer by Rogilbert via Wikipedia

“Always expect the worst.” That’s my mantra. It works well for me too. When things go bad, I’m never disappointed. When things go unexpectedly well, which fortunately they most often do, it’s like winning the lottery or finding loose change in the pocket of a seldom worn suit jacket. I’ve been told that all the worries that this bleak outlook on life causes is sure to cut my longevity short. The truth is I never thought I would live to this ripe old age as it is. So the way I see it, I’m way ahead of the game.

Today not even the dark tinted glasses through which I usually view the world could filter the shock waves from a disturbing story I spied in the morning paper. The tale,reported by the Kyodo news agency on February 25, tells how just days before 3/11 a government panel caved in to the wishes of TEPCO and two other nuclear power plant operators and revised a report warning of a possible massive tsunami in northeastern Japan. The facts of the story are, to borrow a quote from the Kyodo article, “unbelievable.”

For nearly a year the mantra of one of those companies and owner of the leaking atomic power plant in Fukushima, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has been that “the scope of the tsunami was beyond any reasonable expectation.” It was a carefully crafted statement designed to absolve the company of any culpability for the nuclear nightmare in Fukushima that has awakened growing numbers of people around the world to the inherent dangers of atomic power. Following on the heels of an unbelievably devastating disaster of almost mythical proportions that swallowed Japan’s northeastern seaboard, that oft repeated statement from TEPCO seemed plausible. That is until now.

In their initial draft report the government’s Earthquake Research Committee, pointed to the possibility of a disaster similar in scale to the magnitude 8.3 Jogan Earthquake of 869 which is estimated to have taken nearly one thousand lives at a time when the population of the area was significantly less dense. Not only were TEPCO and other power companies aware of the possibility of a major tsunami hitting the region, a government body gave them a free hand in hiding that information from the public. While we may not have a way to measure deception, this recent revelation sure does make TEPCO’s earlier repeated statements seem almost as unbelievable as the magnitude of the disaster itself.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Prose by the Plateful

Who wouldn't want to dip?

This is what Mister Donut of Japan would  probably call added value. Considering you'd probably have to buy three dozen or so fried doughnuts to earn enough purchase points to claim this prize, that "added value" really boils down to added calories.  I have a set of four. That's a lot of "added value," especially around the waistline.

Thank goodness, for my arteries sake, I didn't have to eat all those lard laden cakes to get these plates. I found them tucked away in the cupboard when I moved into my new home, about a five-minute's stroll away from the nearest Mr. Donut shop.

They would probably sell for beaucoup bucks on ebay but alas it's not a complete set. The two pinkies are dubs. At any rate, I could never put a price on them and besides their rightful owners who consumed so much to earn them may come back to claim them one day. If they do, I'll be waiting for them, with a plate full of matcha icing-glazed soy milk donuts - the healthier choice. Goodness knows they'll probably need it.

(As seen on The Japan Snack Times)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Let's Roll

Everyone across our little vale is still in a whirl over the latest addition to the community. It's a chic 1970's roller chair that has been carefully positioned at one of our most frequented bus stops. That is the stop most frequently used by the vegetable vendor from the shady side of the street. He sits there basking in the sun's radiance for hours as he shares his sunny disposition with anyone waiting to depart this depressed little spot of earth we call Temple Valley. 

The new seat on casters brings a revolutionary change to the rolling landscape. Sure our backs may still be up against the wall but we have the potential to roll on forward (given a slight nudge) however perilous that may be.

Related post: A Seat for Sore Eyes
              Bus Topped                                                                                                   

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poisoned Minds

Here on the grounds of Tozen Temple in nearby Ushioda (just a stone's throw away from Temple Valley) stands a monument to a random act of kindness and bravery. It's dedicated to Tsunekichi Okawa, a police precinct commander, neighborhood cop and local legend who is credited with single-handedly saving the area's Korean-Japanese community from the hands of a blood thirsty mob in the chaotic aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. 

In the wake of that devastating event, a volatile mix of emotions flowed through the streets of Yokohama. In his book, Yokohama Burning, Joshua Hammer writes that "some army commanders may have viewed the Great Kanto Earthquake as an opportunity to purge the country of trouble makers [and] vent their hatred against all Koreans..." In Yokohama fear mixed with old hatreds creating a tornado of violence that swept up the small ethnic Korean community in a path of death and destruction. Hammer notes that "the army in Tokyo and other areas whipped up rumors about Korean well poisonings... and for several days gave vigilante squads known as Self-Defense Committees freedom to patrol the streets and exact what justice they saw fit." 

It was just such a rumor that sent 300 people fleeing for their lives ahead of an angry mob to the doors of our valley's local police station. Not long after the desperate group of innocent men, women and children were given sanctuary within the walls of the precinct station, the state-sanctioned killers showed up looking for their pound of flesh and more. It was then that a man of quite ordinary stature, a simple cop, emerged from within. Staring the prospect of his own death straight in the eye, Tsunekichi Okawa looked the rabble up and down and said "if you want to kill them, you'll have to take my life first, so go and fetch me a jug of that poisoned well water you're crying about." Then jug in hand, Okawa downed the entire contents of the vessel proving beyond a doubt what he already knew. The poison was all in their minds. 

When he died, Okawa's ashes were interred in the cemetery attached to Tozen Temple. Years later some of those he had saved and their descendants had the monument pictured above erected on the temple grounds in his memory. This spot and a couple of others in the surrounding area known as Okitsuru (an amalgamation of the place names, Okinawa and Tsurumi)were stops on a multicultural Japan tour sponsored by a Tokyo-based NPO. The tours were  initiated sometime in the early aughties in response to a few less than kind words Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara, had to say about the metropolitan area's international community.

Related post: The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers

Like Blanch Dubois in A Street Car Named Desire, I've always relied on the kindness of strangers. That's why I was so happy to stumble upon 366 Random Acts of Kindness. 366 Random Acts is a blog by Chicagoan, Ryan Garcia, chronicling his "journey to give back through random acts of kindness every day of the year." So far those acts have included everything from buying breakfast for a stranger, playing Free Rice (the online trivia game where you earn 10 grams of rice for the hungry with every question you get right), to donating blood and much more. Each act is like a little revolution, full of potential to change the lives of everyone they touch. 

Pacifist, A.J. Muste once said, "Joy and growth come from following our deepest impulses, however foolish they may seem to some, or dangerous, and even though the apparent outcome may be defeat." While Garcia is not always sure his random act of kindness will be accepted in the spirit it was given (like his free hugs, or  valentines to strangers on the street) he looks pretty happy in the pictures posted on his blog.

Although it's an inspiring journey, I know it's one I could never last through. So instead I've decided to do the short day trip version of the same. I'm going to engage in one random act of kindness a month. I'm sure I can handle the pace because I've already chalked up an act of kindness for this month. I became a follower of Garcia's blog and for every blog follower gained, he promises to donate 10 cents to charity. If there is one thing that fills my heart with joy, it's donating other people's money in my name. I feel like I'm ten feet tall now. I guess random acts of kindness can really transform people's lives.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When It Rains...

A barge floats by the Morinaga factory in Yokohama
When it rains it pours cocoa in Temple Valley. It’s one of the benefits of lying in the shadow of a monstrous Morinaga chocolate factory. On clear days the air is thick with chocolate. Its pungent fragrance fills every fiber of clothing left to dry on the laundry lines that hang in every yard and balcony across the valley.* Wherever you go, this smell of home lingers on in whatever you're wearing. When the sun disappears into dusk, the blazing neon Morinaga trademark, an angel, that sits atop the factory burns brightly through the night like a shining beacon on a hill for all to see.

There's probably no place on earth that could use more light than the chocolate trade. In 2010 BBC investigative reporter, Paul Kenyon, working undercover in West Africa, shed new light on widespread child slave labor and other abuses despite Fairtrade certifications. While one way to ensure you don't consume chocolate produced with slave labor might be to go cold turkey, some organizations, like Food Is Power, suggest a little less drastic approach. They urge consumers to avoid buying chocolate sourced from West African countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast and to instead buy chocolate made entirely from cocoa grown in South America and other places where slavery is not an issue. Licking the problems of slavery, child labor and more in the chocolate trade ultimately depends on how hungry consumers are for justice. If they don't demand more from global industry giants like Nestles and their poorer regional cousins like Morinaga, no one will.

Today is Valentine's day and the angelic light of the Cupid-like angel who sits a top the Morinaga chocolate factory will fill the valley as usual. It will likely be the inspiration that helps fuel the flight of an assortment of chocolate candies from off the shelves of every supermarket and convenience store in sight. If you happen to be among the inspired, listen to the better angel of your nature and do your best to make a choice that won't leave a bitter aftertaste behind.

*Unless the wind is blowing northeast, then we’re stuck with the smell of burning garbage emanating from Old Lady (not her real name) Suzuki ’s place. 

More food for thought: By the People (Tree) for the people...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Not Again!

I don't know how this happened. Nobody does. In fact, everybody is saying the same thing, "How did this happen again?" 

I'm on the committee again, the preservation committee for the spring planting festival. It's one of the biggest public celebrations in town, held at the shrine where I play the drums (taiko) every Tuesday night. It's actually my membership in that percussion troupe that has opened the doors to this inner sanctum I won't even pretend to know anything about. While everybody else in the drumming group, dubbed "The God of Light Drummers," quickly came up with a plausible excuse for not being able to attend the planning committee meeting,  I automatically said, "yes," before I even understood what was being asked of me (unlike everyone else in The God of Light Drummers I'm usually in the dark). Which is exactly what I have to do at the committee meeting, just automatically say "yes" to every motion brought to the floor.  

Kamezo and Otsuru, the "king and queen" 
It's not a bad gig really. Like last year, we'll all gather at  a local Italian restaurant and if things go like they did last time, I'll be sitting with the local Liberal Democratic Party representatives (they eat fast and leave early) and constabulary chiefs from the neighborhood police precinct. So the only trouble I could possibly get into might be if I answer, "yes," when asked to play the role of one of the festival's favorite characters (this guy, in the picture on the right). 

Related posts: The Beat Goes On
               Springing Up   

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Bravest Little House in Japan

“I believe that there is a part of Japan that is still stubborn, still saying 'no' to westernization,” writes Jan Niemand, the author of Brave Little House (BLH). BLH is a website that captures one of Japan’s many contrasts, the juxtaposition of old and new, with a treasure trove of photos depicting traditional wood shingled houses that refuse to be muscled out by their newer, broad-shouldered neighbors. More than that, these brave little houses are what Niemand calls “a metaphor of this balance between the complicated and the simple, the loud and the silent, the full and the void.”

One house that might feel right at home on the BLH website is Asako House, shown in the video below. It just might be the bravest little house in all of Japan.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Green with Envy

Lucky Sevens pachinko parlor
I saw a foreign-looking guy much like me (he probably was a foreigner too, just like me) at the local train depot today. He had just stepped out of the adjacent pachinko parlor to buy some brewed coffee in a can and a pack of cigarettes from a couple of nearby vending machines and was heading back inside to feed the blinking mechanical bandits. I envied him. He seemed so well adjusted to life in Japan.

Related post: The Monks Are Calling


Oji, Tokyo

Before and after the fire

I had only traveled once down this shady lane with its inviting row of cozy little drinking establishments but always took comfort in just knowing that it was there.

Seeing the hind quarters of these corrugated metal and wooden shingled structures flash across the train window on my weekly commute through Tokyo always gave me a sense of continuity. Like an anchor in a sea of change, the place forever remained the same. Now that's all changed.

Related post: Building Character

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Voices in the Wilderness

Telling Tales of Canaries in a Coal Mine

A story in Friday's Irish Times by Tokyo based reporter David McNeill relates a disturbing tale told by ornithologists working "in the irradiated zone around the disabled Fukushima nuclear plant." A team of Japanese, US, and Danish scientists say the bird population in the area is dropping due to what they call "an immediate negative consequence of radiation for birds during the main breeding season March-July.” 

Among the researchers whose work is cited is one-time ornithology luminary, Anders Pape Moller. Moller's star crashed and burned out in 2003 when the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty found him guilty of manipulating research data. While that may be enough for many to dismiss anything Moller says without giving it a second thought, he is still hailed as a giant in the field by a long list of scientific notables. A 2007 article in The Scientist quotes former Evolution editor, Dolph Schluter, saying Moller is "under the microscope," suggesting his research may be more scrutinized than ever.

Journalist David McNeill consistently brings to light little known stories that never fall short on both substance and style. That's probably no easy task when most news media outlets care more about their bottom line than putting their bottoms on the line. It seems like today's news organizations just aren't willing to invest in the resources that would enable reporters to dig deep. That could be why the bulk of the stories picked for investigation appear to be low lying fruit or in some cases the fruit that falls to the ground. While this story, based on the findings of a fallen man, might seem to be the latter it doesn't mean it's rotten (just easier to overlook). 

Whether or not the toll on Fukushima's bird population is a harbinger of a silent spring to come, the voices of Moller and other researchers working in the field should at least be heard.  

Avian related post: Carried Away

Friday, February 3, 2012

Into the Abyss

It started out like any other Friday morning. I had just gotten Jiro (my son) to comb the mop atop his head and watched him dart out the door and off to school, the wind turning his long locks into wings of Mercury as he dashed down the slope that leads away from our home. After closing the iron gates to our yard that Jiro had just seconds ago crashed through, as he does every morning on his one man race to get to school on time, I bent down to tip open the lid on the milk box. The morning preparations to get everybody up and out had all been smooth sailing but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to witness.

AHHHHHHH! The box was completely and utterly empty. Where there should have been a liter-size carton of Takanashi’s fresh Hokkaido low fat milk, there was an absolute abyss, nothing but endless void, or at least ten cubic inches of it anyway. 

The same milkman has been bringing dairy products of every kind to my wife and her extended family who call this valley home for nearly  half a century and he has never missed a delivery, not once. There was only one explanation. We had been burgled! I had been touched by crime before in the years since I moved to what I was told was the safest country in the world, but never felt its dastardly grasp reach in and shake me to the very core like it did today.

I had just brewed a cup of tea for Pete’s sake. There it was patiently waiting for me on the kitchen counter. Now what was I to do, do without my spot of milk? Oh horrors! As the scorching-hot, bitter beverage burned a path across my tongue and down my throat, I began to narrow down a list of suspects in my head. It all boiled down to a question of motivation. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: CAT PEOPLE!

They are everywhere you turn in this neighborhood. Now of course we all know that cats love milk and that the cat people who “own” them will do anything to satisfy these felines’ desires. All I had to do was put two and two together and the Case of the Abyss was solved. There could be no other explanation, no need for further investigation. It was a simple crime of necessity and who among us hasn’t been there or but for the grace of God not been there.

"Every man is an abyss. You get dizzy looking in." -- Woyzeck

Related true crime post: It Happens

More about giving boxes from The Utne Reader: Giving Boxes