Monday, April 29, 2013

Unforgiving Slopes

It's sad to hear that at least four people lost their lives in the mountains this last weekend. Three out of a party  of six that was hit by an avalanche on Nagano's Mt. Shirouma Saturday morning went missing; as of Sunday morning two of them had been found dead. Another man died on Mt. Yatsugatake on the Nagano-Yamanashi border, and yet another man was found dead Sunday morning at the seventh station of Mt. Fuji.

With Golden Week just begun, I'm afraid that there will be more mountain-climbing fatalities. As the weather warms up just in time for the multiple-holiday period, and many flowers start to bloom, a lot of people decide to go trekking and climbing. Unfortunately, the weather also tends to encourage avalanches as well as climbers, so many places can be  more dangerous than they look.

The fellow on Mt. Fuji was climbing pretty early: the official season is generally only the months of July and August. Police have said that he apparently slipped and hit his head. It's not clear whether the fall killed him or whether he died of exposure while unconscious, but this early in the season the paths are treacherous with ice even where there's no snow, and the temperatures that high on the mountain can get very low, indeed. Even in June or September, nighttime temperatures drop well below zero Celsius.  The winds can be strong, too, and change direction suddenly. That combined with tricky footing--it's not uncommon for ice to melt and then refreeze around sunset, leaving a sheet of ice with a thin covering of volcanic gravel atop it--can make it all too easy to lose your balance and slip, tumble, and very likely hit one of the boulders scattered around the slope. This early in the year, the mountain huts are all closed, so there's not much hope of either help or adequate shelter, so off-season climbing is very dangerous, indeed.

It sounds as if the Shirouma climbing party was just unlucky; you can't really prepare for or avoid an avalanche. In hindsight, perhaps they should have been more wary and chosen a different place to climb, but it probably looked safe enough at the time. Yatsugatake is still pretty cold this time of year, and although it's not as tough a climb as many other spots, nor usually considered as risky, I know the area fairly well and it wouldn't be a place I'd go climbing this early in the year, myself. Certainly I wouldn't go alone.

I wrote around this time last year about Golden Week climbing accidents, in summer of 2009 about climbing accidents increasing, and elsewhere about the risks of climbing Mt. Fuji. The high country is beautiful, and trekking or climbing are really fun, but one has to be prepared, and sometimes even then things can go badly awry.

One can't live in fear, and avoiding all risks would make life rather too tame in my opinion, but at least I hope that this year I won't hear about any more mountain climbing deaths due to insufficient preparation or bad judgement.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Farewell to the Black Lion

The Black Lion pub in Meguro has been my "local", my favorite urban refuge from madness in madness, for most of the time since it opened in 1996.  It closed its doors for the last time a week ago, and I'm going to miss it, a lot.

I heard the bad news too late to attend the official  farewell party on the 16th, but I went instead to the last evening, the night of the 23rd, starting outside with canned beer brought by the early arrivals at 16:30, then moving inside at 17:30 when they opened the doors, finally staggering off into the morning sunlight at 06:30 or so.

The place filled up as the sky darkened; as many of the old and new regulars as could make it packed the place, and made a brave effort to drink up whatever stock was left. All of the draft beer was gone before midnight, most of the bottled beer disappeared soon after, and those of us who could not--or would not--rush for the last train and instead elected to stay until the bitter end...well, we managed to do away with most of the spirits. After the last of the scotch and Irish (and JD, too) was gone, as it became fully light outside, I finished up with several pints of "Parachutes", tequila and grapefruit juice, which had been the signature drink of D.B. Cooper's, an Aoyama tequila bar, another much-mourned now-defunct hangout from the late '90s. It seemed fitting, somehow. Besides, there wasn't much else left to drink.

I drank the last one standing at the end of the back bar, where I used to park the bike, among the sawhorses and lumber, back when the Black Lion was still under construction. At the time, since they didn't have their liquor license yet (or a bar or tables, for that matter), we pulled beers from a cooler and left money in a bucket labeled "construction fund donations". Having the last drink where I'd had the first provided a nice symmetry, it seemed to me.

It also seemed fitting, in a call-back to days of yore, that I had to go directly from there to go teach a class (I drank lots of coffee on the two-hour train ride). I was pleased to see that I can still manage that with acceptable aplomb and decorum. I don't think that I could still do it several times a week as used to be the case, back in The Bubble Days and their aftermath, back when the Black Lion was brand-new, back when I was somewhat younger, and only a little more  foolish. Well, I still could, I guess, but not as well or easily, and not always with appropriate decorum. Nor with impunity. It's my birthday today, and not my twentieth nor even my twenty-fifth nor fortieth, more's the pity. But the Black Lion, even after a great run, didn't make it to eighteen.

So what was the last night at the Black Lion like?

The evening was a kind of microcosmic recapitulation of the entire history of the bar, a fast-forward déjà vu multi-memory-mimicking  montage compressed into a little more than a dozen hours: long-suffering stalwart barman Scott presiding over a steadily rising tide of revelry and weirdness...lots of booze flowing...the usual scattering of hopeful predators and more-or-less coy prey, doing the hunter/hunted dance with varying degrees of discretion and of success and some on-the-fly role reversal...lots of laughter...lots of crying...lots of booze flowing...lots of "have you met my best friend in the whole world?" utterly senseless fight or two to break up...lots of music including a couple of apparently impromptu live singer/guitarist performances...lots of booze flowing...tales retold of escapades and adventures reflected in the bar mirrors and fueled by the bar stock...hugs and backslaps and handshakes and bites...shouts and whispers...lots of booze flowing...lots of declarations of undying friendship/respect/love...lots of booze flowing...and failed plumbing, mercifully near the end of the

And the hard bright low-angle unforgiving dawnlight at the end.

An appropriately epic final farewell friendly frenzy. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

But I'll miss the Black Lion.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Years and Counting

There are about 315,000 people living in temporary housing today, two years after the earthquake, tsunami, and multiple nuclear power plant meltdown spread destruction across Tohoku and fear even further. I've seen some of that temporary housing, and it's aptly named. While far better than the school gym or public hall alternatives they replace--and there are still people living in emergency, not temporary, "housing" as far away as Saitama--they're neither fancy nor inexpensive to build, as you can see in Phil Brasor's and Masako Tsubuku's article in their Yen for Living blog. Two years is a long time to live in cramped, mostly pre-fabricated places, thrown into communities very different from those in which you've lived most of your life, with little more charm than the refugee camps they are.

There are also many areas at least partially reliant on volunteer donations of food, water, and labor, such as the Minami-Soma area with which I'm most familiar.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to speed up reconstruction, but he's also pretty clearly aiming at restarting the nuclear power plants around Japan as part of his "Abenomics" policy. My best guess is that the former will be viewed skeptically and the latter disdainfully at best, particularly among the 57,000 people who have not yet returned to Fukushima, as well as among those who live there but cannot return to, or rebuild, or in some cases ever even approach their homes. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party made lots of promises during its decades-long run as the ruling party, and has been an integral part of the "nuclear village" which through arrogance, denial, misinformation, mismanagement, naivete, falsification, cover-ups, and outright lies was largely responsible for the position in which, for example, the one-time residents of Futaba, Fukushima--now living in a defunct high school in Kazo, Saitama, find themselves.

That's the same LDP whose party politics of obstructionism is at least partly to blame for the delay in reconstruction. Yes, I know that they were then the opposition party. I also know that "reaching across the aisle" and "consensus building" and "keeping the greater good of the citizens" only really plays in speeches, not in the real life of Nagatacho. I consider myself a cynical realist, and I suspect there are a lot of people in Tohoku who share my view of politicians and--especially--bureaucrats, but the victims of the disaster deserve considerably more common decency from the government, even though based on experience they have precious little reason to expect it, particularly from the LDP.

The right to live in temporary housing has been extended for another year. Few if any of the residents have much real hope of being able to find better housing anytime soon, even if they can somehow gather the funds with which to do it. There is plenty of determination still, and plenty of tough people committed to somehow getting along, getting better if at all possible. There are not a lot of reasons to harbor hope, and plenty of reasons to despair...which makes their determination in the face of relentless stress all the more admirable.

Much of the debris from the disaster has been hauled away. "Much" is not "all" by any means, however: there are still ships perched atop seawalls, vehicles rusting in the middle of what used to be rice paddies, gutted shells of buildings, vast areas scoured of all but foundations, and fast-filling "temporary" storage spaces for trash, not a little of which is contaminated to various degrees by radiation. An NHK documentary recently showed contaminated topsoil and debris being disposed of by being wrapped in vinyl sheets and "temporarily" buried in private gardens, for lack of space elsewhere.There are insufficient resources of people, equipment, and money for clearance, much less rebuilding. There is also very little progress on finding space for and building facilities--even interim, much less permanent ones--for storage of more seriously radiation-contaminated debris.

Nevertheless, in many of the devastated areas people are working to rebuild their businesses and provide jobs for themselves and their neighbors. The efforts are often hampered by difficulty in attracting labor and investment.They are also hampered, much less forgivably, by red tape of all sorts, often exacerbated by bureaucratic turf wars and/or inertia.

The excellent Shisaku blog has a collection of useful, and at least to me disheartening, statistics. I sincerely hope that both he and I will have much better news to report at this time next year. Meanwhile, I will continue to do what I can to help. I wish that it were more, and I really wish that the government could be relied upon to match their promises with swift and decisive action.

It has been two years, and the Tohoku victims are still counting. It's a pity that they can't count on their government.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Winding Ahead, Not Down

May all of you have a very happy, healthy, and especially prosperous New Year!

This is--or soon will be, if you follow the traditional oriental calendar--the Year of the Snake. Specifically, this will be the year of the Water Snake, when the Snake is said to be influenced by the element of water. I'm not a believer in astrology, whether Eastern or Western, but the association of the Snake with prosperity, and with a resolute cunning geared toward success, is a good match for my hopes for the coming year.

The winding progress of a snake doesn't always make it obvious what direction it's taking, or how soon it will reach its destination. The most direct route isn't always the best one, though, to reach one's goals.

I hope that both your and my relatives, friends, and loved ones find prosperity and happiness in 2013. May it be filled with good fortune and excitement every day.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas to all of you, and my very best wishes for happy, healthy, prosperous, exciting holidays for you and yours!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where's the Dessert?

The end of the year approaches and my posts have been much less frequent than I had intended. Several readers have attempted to encourage me to write more, for which I am very grateful. I'm not going to apologize, but I will offer a sort of explanation. I could claim factually that I've been very busy seeking more sources of income, and even that the few jobs that I did find occupied quite a lot of my time. Factually is not necessarily the same as truthfully, however, and it would be more truthful to say that I have merely been insufficiently motivated: priorities shifted over this past year.

Many of my friends have heard me say that life is all about desires and priorities. You have more or less desires of various kinds and go about your life shuffling the priorities you attach to each, and--with luck and whatever skill you can muster--acting to fulfill them accordingly. The tricky part, of course, is that the time and effort required for each is rarely a good match for its place in the hierarchy. Too often, the lower-priority desires take less time and effort than the higher-priority ones. This entails a risk of devoting one's life to fulfilling one's desires in reverse priority order, and in the worst case scenario running out of time altogether before ever getting to the ones highest on the list.

Attempting to entertain my readers and informing them of what I've been thinking about is relatively easy and consumes little time. That's true of many other items on my list of desires...particularly the ones of relatively lower priority. In an ideal world, I could set in motion whatever is necessary to achieve the really important, time-consuming ones, use spare/free/dead time to accomplish some of the ones lower on the list and easier to accomplish, and have them all done, like a holiday dinner prepared by an accomplished chef, at the same target time.

I've been concentrating on basting the turkey, so to speak, to the detriment of preparing the dessert. So, to those who have been asking for more posts: I'll try to  improve my time management and efficiency next year.

I'm an unrepentant carnivore, but I, too, appreciate a good dessert now and then.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I freely admit--before relatives and friends from those days point it out to me--that in my much earlier youth my Spanish grandmother occasionally used to call me "sinvergüenza"...meaning "shameless".  Well, perhaps it was more often than "occasionally". She meant it in the sense of "rogue" or "rascal", and typically I had earned it by attempting to talk my way out trouble by a combination of feigned injured innocence and of tortuous reasoning. It rarely if ever worked: she was much too sharp to be taken in by chopped logic and equivocation.

For pretty much all of my adult life I've been living in a culture in which shame is a very important factor in social behavior and personal interaction. Although identifying cultures as shame-based or guilt-based is not nearly as popular among social anthropologists as it once was, and although some of the books that popularized the view of Japan as a shame-based culture (e.g., Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) have been strongly criticized, it is impossible to live here without observing how shame is used to, for example, control children. You won't hear "Stop that, it's bad!", but you will hear "Stop that, people/the other passengers/that lady/whoever will be angry". Even among adults, there's a great deal less of, "Stop being such a jerk", and a lot more of "Think of what the neighbors/your colleagues will think".  You're more likely to hear "What if someone I know sees me doing this" than you are "This isn't something I should be doing".

It's easy to carry this too far, and to conclude that in Japan the only sin is getting caught. That's not exactly true: there's plenty of both regret and remorse among the Japanese, although perhaps rather more of the former than the latter. I realize that generalizing about an entire population or a whole culture isn't a sensible pursuit. There is, however, a case to be made for "shameless" being considered essentially equivalent to "antisocial", and certainly to "irresponsible".

All of which is a rather long-winded attempt to put into perspective why even I--the sinvergüenza--am enraged by the news that so much of the budget that was supposed to be used for reconstruction of earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku has in fact been spent on projects that only bureaucrats vastly more shameless than I could characterize as related to their original purpose.

Even as far back as last December, some people and organizations---not surprisingly including Greenpeace--as Philip Brasor mentions in his Japan Times column, took exception to the use of reconstruction funds to find ways to defend "research whaling", with the rationale that whaling was an important part of the economies of some of the towns in the affected area. More recently, as Mr. Brasor mentions, national broadcaster NHK looked into just how the money is being spent, commissioning an outside (i.e., neither government nor NHK) expert to investigate.

Keep in mind that 10.5 trillion yen of the 2011-2015 budget is supposed to be funded by a 25-year increase in individual and corporate tax increase, and the remainder by government spending cuts

A reasonable--or naive--person might expect that the government would be careful to use the money efficiently and in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. That is, someone with limited experience of the various ministry bureaucrats' typical behavior might expect so. Instead, as indicated in Mr. Brasor's article, in this article in the New York Times, and in this article in Japan Today, money has been spent on or earmarked for such projects as vocational training for inmates of Saitama and Hokkaido prisons, construction of a seawall in Okinawa, an overseas exchange student program, renovations for Tokyo government offices, promotion of the Tokyo Skytree, and (4.2 billion yen worth, with another 4.8 billion worth requested for 2013) research into nuclear fusion

I'll bet that last one went down really well among the folks living in temporary housing in Fukushima or forced to live elsewhere in Japan, many of whom will never be able to return to their homes inside the contaminated exclusion zone. Or among the fishermen who watch reports on continued contamination of fish. Or among the people who used to raise cattle in Iitate.

A combination of vague wording and acquiescence by the ruling DPJ party to demands from the (notoriously pork barrel-prone) opposition LDP-led coalition for making the reconstruction budget available to a more general "reinvigorating Japan" purpose facilitated  this situation. There's plenty of shameless behavior to be seen in the endless obstructionism by the opposition for political advantage (i.e., forcing an election that they are now likely to win) instead of actually cooperating or at least discussing with the ruling party measures sorely needed for the country in general and Tohoku in particular.  Unsurprisingly, though, it's the ministry bureaucrats who, true to form and without a shred of decency, have been avidly pursuing their own agendas to try to get their pieces of the pie that was supposed to be used for Tohoku reconstruction.

The rationalizations they've used to try to justify even the most tenuous of connections between their pet projects and reconstruction of Tohoku would have elicited nothing but disdain from my grandmother.

"Shameless", she would have called them, and shameless they are.