Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected

Best dango (traditional sweet treats) and rice balls in town 
Experiencing a sudden craving for rice balls, I had two options before me that would satisfy the savage beast in my belly. I could make them myself or buy them already made. Lacking the necessary raw ingredient (rice), I chose the latter. It was an easy decision to make but it put me face to face with another quandary. Should I buy from the brightly lit chain shop up the hill with its sparkling stainless steel counter tops and squeaky clean glass cases or go to the funky little neighborhood place I usually frequent? 

I thought about it for a second. If I chose the former, the rice balls would be exactly as I expected, all served up by a crew of expert technicians clad in surgical masks, aprons, and  gloves, who have been carefully trained to never utter a word that falls outside a manual that was painstakingly scripted to streamline any needless chit chat out of existence. It had everything I desired. Most of all it lacked the element of surprise that existed at the rickety old wooden storefront just down the street where somebody was always in the mood for gabbing. 

So I headed toward the bright gleaming shop on the hill where there was no danger of anyone engaging me in idle conversation and the only thing expected of me was cold hard cash. I made it about fifty paces before the guilt started to settle into my bones and stopped me dead in my tracks. Like it or not, I have developed a relationship with that little mom & pop shop that's hard to sever so quickly. Besides that it's a lot closer to home, geographically as well as figuratively speaking. I really had no choice so I turned and walked back down the hill.

"I saw your mother-in-law the other day," the old lady said to me the minute I stepped under the shop's faded awning. Then she went on to tell me, "I told her, you're a real nice guy. At the top of my lungs I shouted, 'HE'S SUCH A NICE GUY," really, I did!" 

I've come to expect the unexpected here and this greeting was definitely a pleasant surprise that really made my day and then some. I'm glad I decided to make my lunchtime investment in the local community. Now I only wish the old lady who owns that rice ball shop didn't have me confused with the Irish guy who used to live down the street from me (I hope he and his mother-in-law appreciate what I've done for his reputation) but that might be expecting too much. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Heavy Load to Bear

A can collector cycles through downtown Temple Valley

The Price of Redemption 

The rate for redeeming aluminum cans tends to move up and down with the general economy and since there is no deposit law here, payment is based on weight. Recycled aluminum is used heavily by automakers in Japan as well as abroad. The metal is considered scarce, and the price paid per can higher, when auto manufacturing is up and the jobs associated with the industry are relatively plentiful. When  the auto industry turns south so do the jobs as well as the value of some raw materials like aluminum. This means that as unemployment trickles down in a declining economy, it's likely the can collecting competition gets stiffer while the price per can dives lower. 

Despite the low financial return, rain or shine, come Friday you are sure to find a half dozen middle-aged or older men plying the streets of Temple Valley on two wheels in search of what for them is no doubt a precious metal. Friday is the day that local residents put out aluminum cans with their trash and I'm always amazed to see the load these roving laborers can forage from this urban jungle and bear on the backs of their bicycles. On top of having to eke out a living by gathering sacks upon sacks of cans stacked from head to toe, I've heard that collecting the discarded containers is actually prohibited by local ordinance. Fortunately it seems to be one (of many perhaps) that has gone largely unenforced here. 

The man in the photo above is new to the neighborhood and seems younger than most of his counterparts at work here. I think he is new to the "trade" too. While his bike looks stacked to capacity, veteran can miners who work the area might see room for more. The older can men are usually more economical in their methodology, taking time to crush each can with their bare hands until they are completely flat so there is not an inch of wasted space in the bags atop their bikes that are loaded to maximum capacity. He still has miles to go before he reaches the recycling center in nearby Kawasaki city and, crushed or not, he seems to have a heavy load to bear.

Further related reading: Failed Manhood on the Streets of Urban Japan (@ The Asia-Pacific Journal)

Related post: Cross Section

Sort of related post: Fire Flowers

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Speaking the Same Language

"You must speak louder," uttered the bespectacled Yodaish-like figure peering over my shoulder in a deep gravelly voice with the most heavily accented English ever spoken. His presence made the already intimidating prospect of learning a new language just a little scarier. I knew that learning a foreign language late in life could be a long haul so I enrolled in a night course taught by local volunteers not a week after I washed up on the shores of this island nation. While the class was up to lesson 11 of 15  by the time I had arrived, for a total tuition fee of 2000 yen (about 25 bucks), including the text, I thought it was worth taking the risk of not being able to catch up.

I had absolutely no idea what was going on the minute the learning process began. We were all speaking the same language, Japanese (or trying to at least), but I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Basically the class was repeating in unison sentences from the textbook that the instructor was reading aloud. Everyone sounded like they had a mouth full of marbles and since I didn't have my marble collection on hand, I soon gave up trying to join in the chanting. That's when the squat little figure with the four eyes popped up behind me.

"You must speak louder," he said again.
"I don't know what their saying. Zenzen wakarimasen," I replied in a hushed tone. "You must speak louder, " he repeated (in a voice that would make Raymond Massey's seem like a kitten's purr). "I DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY'RE SAYING. ZENZEN WAKARIMASEN," I kind of shouted.

Then after noticing that I was beginning to draw some unwanted attention in my direction, I decided to try my best and mumble along with the rest of the group. "Mizumushiniwadonokusrigaiidesuka,"  I repeated over and over again in the hopes that I wasn't summoning up some demon from the netherworld. But when it was all over, there he was waiting for me.

I must have sounded smart because he asked me, in that unearthly voice of his, "Are you an engineer?" I hated to disappoint him but I told him, "No, I'm not." Then I noticed a curious grin crawl across his lips as he replied, "MEE TOOO!I was puzzled. Was he an engineer or not? We were speaking the same language but once again I had no idea what we were talking about.

Related post: Watch Your A's

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Walking on Air

Solo performer and Apogee front man, Ryo Nagano, is walking on air these days.


Here's how:


Related post: Hopping Mad...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Moon Eats Sun

For the first time in centuries, inhabitants of Temple Valley were treated to the sight of an annular eclipse. As with any eclipse of the sun, safely viewing the literally blinding golden ring in the sky created by this once-in-a-lifetime event required special darkened glasses, which I didn't buy. At once every hundred years or so it just didn't seem like I would get that much of a return on my investment. So I simply averted my eyes from the sun's angry glare and instructed my children to all do the same. 

Even with the glasses, the risk of them slipping off in all the excitement was just to big to take and since "Avoid Danger" is my middle name, I decided to use a whole other approach to the heavenly event. Rather than attempting to view the sun even indirectly, I cut out a circle from a large piece of black construction paper and taped it over the celestial orb that hangs from my living room ceiling (as pictured above).* I thought it was beautiful and the spitting image of the annular eclipse of the sun that I simultaneously streamed into the house via the television.

Of course not everyone shared my view. While I don't think I'll ever do that again, I'm certain the memory of being forced to sit and stare up at the living room ceiling while one of the most beautiful and rarest astronomical events was occurring right outside the window will last in my children's memory for a lifetime.

*That's Toshiba's top-of-the-line 24'' circular ceiling light with three separate settings to mimic the sky's natural light, from sunup to sundown and more.

Related pics from around the net:

With this ring I thee...

Most Amazing...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Can't Beat This

Here is a video gem from an April 9, 2011 Taiko Drum Concert for Children at the Mid Hudson Children's Museum in Poughkeepsie, New York. The clip features local residents of upstate New York's Hudson Valley area, 5-year-old Kazuma Ban, 12-year-old Subaru Honge and Kenji Ban (you can read more about these amazing performers in the Hudson Valley Times).


The YouTube explanation of this video says: "Legend has it that exiles, banished to the faraway island of Hachijo, used drumsticks to beat out their longing for home. Hachijo-Taiko requires two drummers, one responsible for the "upper" beat and the other for the "lower" beat. The "lower" drummer sets the rhythm at one end of the drum, and at the other end his partner is free to beat out whatever "melody" comes to mind. This freedom for the drummer to develop and express his own style is one of the hallmarks of Hachijo-Taiko."

Related posts: Under the Drum Skin

Friday, May 11, 2012


Dr. Fieldhouse and I
Although it hadn’t been long enough for the backs of my bare sweaty legs to stick to the green Naugahyde upholstery, those ten minutes spent sitting on the lime green benches that lined the pale yellow corridors of the Toshiba Hospital felt like an eternity. I couldn't understand why I wasn't being rushed to a physician's operating table posthaste. Could they not see I was a special case? When the nurse finally called my name, I clutched my chest tightly and carefully moved my fragile body to examination room one where the doctor was waiting to see me. 

The minute I laid eyes on the elderly gentleman in the white lab coat sitting behind the gray metal desk I managed to utter in a trembling whisper, “Doctor, I think I’m having a heart attack. I have a really terrible pain in my chest.” Realizing there was no time to waste, he went right to work, checking my pulse, listening to my heart, etc. I had come to the right place. 

He then preceded to ask a series of pertinent questions. First off was "How long have you been experiencing these symptoms." When I told him three months, he let out a huge guffaw which I thought was pretty uncaring considering I was experiencing perhaps the longest duration of cardiac arrest in the history of medicine. The insensitivity echoed throughout the hallway. 

After stifling his last chuckle, he asked why I hadn’t come in earlier. When I told him that I had trouble finding the place, he nodded his head up and down sympathetically. Behind that snickering Mr. Hide lurked a Dr. Jekyll after all. He went on to assure me that I probably wasn’t having a heart attack but ordered up a double EKG and an MRI (which didn’t result in a cardiac at the cashier counter either, as I feared, since most of the bill was picked up by Japan's national health care system). 

Both the EKG and MRI came back all clear but I continued to return to the internal medicine department of Toshiba Hospital at least once a week for the next three months in an attempt to get at the root of my ailment. I think I met with every specialist in the building and everyone of them had come up empty until I encountered the one they call Dr. Fieldhouse (well I just call him Fieldhouse, his name is really Kurata), the chief internist on the internal medicine ward. He took one look at me and set me straight right away without having to reach for his stethoscope or anything. 

Staring me directly in the eye he says, “I can see what your problem is right away. It’s poor posture. Your head is leaning to the left. Try keeping it up and see if that doesn’t work.” That was it, examination over. The nurse showed me out, pointing the way to the cashier’s counter and I walked the length of the building's verdant valleys shaking my head in total disbelief. 

“Keep my head up!” What quackery!!! There was no way he could have been on the up and up. Still on the outside chance that he was on the level I gave it a try. Over the next week I walked around with my head tilted to the right and I felt like a complete idiot the entire time. I had been hoodwinked by the Japanese medical establishment and I was fuming mad about it. In fact I was so consumed with anger over the fact that I had been duped by this quack I totally forgot about the pain in my chest. That’s when I realized the pain wasn’t in my chest at all. Fieldhouse was right, it was really all in my head. 

Frames of Reference 

It can be difficult to keep your head on straight and that’s why I developed these glasses with a built-in level device that help you keep a level head.

Related post: Medical Discovery...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hope by the Cupful

"Human sound is also a wave... The human voice is stronger than a tsunami."

"A short vignette of Yoshi Masuda--a coffee enthusiast who is sharing his passion for coffee with victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami." (via Vimeo)

Directed/Edited/Shot by Mackenzie Sheppard 

More coffee post(s): History in a Cup

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Room with a View...

...and not just one but a whole house full of them. Not only that, the view is entirely reciprocal. While some might call it the house that Peeping Tom built, this over sized terrarium located in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, Japan is actually the brainchild of Sou Fujimoto Architects. If you're prone to throwing stones, I'd suggest finding less fragile digs but if you've got nothing to hide, this could be the place for you.

Update: Don't miss the transparent toilet.

Related post: Building Character

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

No Kidding Around

It's May again and the Peeing Boy at Japan Railway's Hamamatsucho Station in central Tokyo is decked out in his Children's Day  regalia and bearing traditional carp streamers. This year Children's Day, May fifth, coincided with the shutdown of Japan's last operating nuclear power plant. In the wake of the triple meltdown at the TEPCO Fukushima Daichi atomic plant, all of the country's nuclear power stations have been taken off line for maintenance and to ensure safety measures are adequate in light of the multiple disasters of March 11, 2011. 
Many however are hoping the plants will be shuttered forever. 

They also make a great
Father's Day gift
Associated Press writer, Yuri Kageyama, reported that, "Thousands of Japanese marched to celebrate the last of this nation’s 50 nuclear reactors switching off Saturday, shaking carp banners that have become an anti-nuclear symbol" (you can get a clearer picture of what she means from the article's accompanying photo as seen on the Japan Today website). Kageyama noted "the activists said it is fitting that the day Japan stopped nuclear power coincides with Children's Day because of their concerns about protecting children from radiation, which Fukushima Dai-ichi is still spewing into the air and water."

A recent poll by a major Japanese daily, the Tokyo Shimbun, indicated that well over half of the population of Japan is in favor of gradually phasing out the country's 50 nuclear power stations, with some more vehemently opposed to atomic power than others. The New York Times in its coverage of the nuclear shutdown quoted, Tadao Sakuma, an 81 year old hunger striker opposed to restarting the plants who stated, “I want all reactors to be scrapped, and I’m going to live 10 — no, 20 — years to see that through.” 

Related stories: Koi Boy is Coming!
                 Last Reactor of 50 is Shut Down (NYT)