Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

It's Christmas Eve in Japan, and even though that means that it's a little too early for some of my friends in different time zones,I'd like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

If any of you celebrate some other holiday at this time of year, I hope you enjoy that, too.

For those of you who eschew celebrations related to religions for whatever reason, at least enjoy the pretty lights and music, and the happy faces of those around you. I don't believe in the Easter Bunny, either, but that doesn't stop me from eating chocolate.

Enjoy the holidays, remember moderation even though you don't practice it: you need something on which to base those New Year's resolutions. You know, the ones that you'll break long before the spring thaw. Maybe by the weekend after you make them.

Next year is the Year of the Tiger, my birth year in the Oriental zodiac. I'll probably have a brief New Year's message here when the time comes, but just in case I don't, have a very happy, healthy, and exciting 2010.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Power Flower

I wonder if any of my readers are knowledgeable about flowers. If you can help me identify these, I'd be grateful.

Since early September I've seen these flowers growing around the Shinagawa/Oimachi area. The flowers are about two to three centimeters across (about an inch), and vary in color from a fairly pale yellow to a very deep orange...I believe that they grow darker as they mature. They look like very small hydrangeas, but I've not seen hydrangeas in that color scheme, and around the Kanto Plains (which includes Tokyo), hydrangeas bloom in the rainy season, generally around late May or June. These have been blooming steadily and profusely throughout the fall, and as of this morning can still be seen in various places around the area.

I didn't notice these in last spring's rainy season, and I'm pretty sure that I would have: they're pretty vivid. Even if they haven't been hanging around since May, they have been doing very well throughout the fall, and they don't seem bothered by the increasingly cold days, so they're pretty tough.

I've liked hydrangeas for quite some time, as I've written elsewhere, and these certainly look like hydrangeas, but the size, color, and time make me wonder.

It's Another Exotic Oriental Mystery, and if anyone can offer a solution, I'd appreciate it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Puff, Leaving...

I'm sorry to see that Mary Travers of the 60s group Peter, Paul, and Mary has passed away. There's plenty of detailed information on the 'net for anyone interested in her, or the group's, history. I just thought I'd mention that even for a pretty hard-core hard rock lover like me, Puff the Magic Dragon and Leaving on a Jet Plane stand out in memory of the 60s and early 70s, and Mary's part of the three-part harmony stands out particularly.

An awful lot of my Vietnam War-era peers have memories, poignant or otherwise, with Leaving on a Jet Plane as the background music.

"I don't know when I'll be back again
Oh, babe, I hate to go."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cast Iron Memories

My first reaction was amusement when I saw a news story about a guy in Kumamoto who hit a "male relative" (bother-in-law, maybe?)for interfering in a fight with his wife.

The amusement's probably the result of having watched too many cartoons as a child.

Then, I noticed that the victim, although he had "injuries to his nose and face", was expected to take only a week to heal. That frequently used phrase in the Japanese media means quite minor injuries: scrapes, bruises, superficial cuts, and the like.

When I was growing up in San Francisco, learning to cook from my mother and grandmothers, "frying pan" or "skillet" meant a big, black, heavy, cast iron pan that required considerable strength just to carry, not to mention picking up and flipping to turn pancakes over. They were great for cooking all sorts of dishes, and very versatile, too. They weren't the sort of thing you'd want to get hit in the face with, though, for sure.

These days pretty much all the pots and pans in most kitchens are aluminum, with maybe a little stainless steel here and there, or copper for those who can afford the expense and the time to care for it. With the advent of practical non-stick surfaces, it has become pretty hard to find those heavy old cast iron frying pans, and I suspect that people who know/remember how to "season" those pots properly have become somewhat scarce, too.

I certainly don't see that sort of pan much in Japan; the closest thing is probably the ubiquitous Chinese-style woks, the best of which are indeed iron, and are seasoned similarly, but they're still a lot lighter than the pans I grew up with. I'm quite sure that I could find all the cast iron pans I could want on a trip to Kappabashi, but they'd likely be pretty expensive, and I don't cook as often as I used to, and storage space is a problem...and I'm lazy, too.

Anyway, I should thank the irate farmer in Kumamoto for reminding me of those great old skillets from my childhood. And his victim should thank whatever kind fate put a lighter frying pan in the hands of the assailant. I never seriously considered a cast iron frying pan as a weapon--there are many more deadly and easily used implements in a kitchen--but getting hit several times in the face/head by one, even if the wielder is drunk, could be expected to cause a lot more than minor injuries.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cycle Clowns

Twice in only about 12 hours, I encountered bicyclists who--had they been more competent--might have qualified as trainee clowns for the next circus that comes to town. Unfortunately, both had an audience of only me, but I tried to make up for the lack of numbers by my enthusiasm.

Last night, a 20-something bicyclist riding 15 or 20 meters ahead of me was busily engaged in a conversation on his cell phone as he pedaled along. He was, predictably, weaving a bit, so I kept well back on the narrow road, waiting for a wider, safer place to pass him. This gave me a good view of his unintentional acrobatic act.

Apparently he didn't see the line of meter-high plastic poles set fence-like around a roadside safety zone. At first, briefly, I thought he might be intending to do a slalom among the poles, but I should have known better. Oblivious, he rode right into the poles, getting tangled up among them while still pedaling furiously. His attention finally switched from his phone to his bicycle and the road, around the time that the bike went down and he went over the handlebars and into the rest of the line of semi-flexible posts, cell phone still clutched tightly in his hand, mouth agape in surprise.

I stopped next to him as he tried to disentangle himself from the bent but springy posts and his tangled bicycle.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered, "I guess so."

"That's too bad," I said, "because I was hoping you'd been damaged enough to learn a lesson from this." As I rode off he still didn't seem to understand how he'd gotten into his predicament. Maybe next time he'll drive off a cliff and do the human gene pool a favor.

Not too many hours later, as I was riding down a major thoroughfare to my office, another 20-ish bicyclist sped through a red light and right in front of my motorcycle. I barely managed to swerve, avoid him, and stop. He lost control of his bicycle and fell down with it tangled up with his legs. I suppose he was surprised to see this big, bearded foreigner on a big black motorcycle appear magically in front of least, I imagine it must have seemed that way to him, since he hadn't looked either way as he went to cross the intersection, and presumably either didn't see or else ignored the traffic signals, too.

I helped him up (not gently, but firmly...very firmly) and off to the side of the road; he wasn't hurt but was rather disoriented.

"What happened?" he asked.

"You stupidly went through a red light, and if I hadn't swerved around you I would have hit you. You seem to have lost control and fallen with your bicycle. You're lucky I didn't run you over. You're also lucky that my motorbike isn't damaged, because if it had been, I would have put you in the hospital, and it wouldn't have been an accident." I'm afraid that my tone was probably pretty vicious. My facial expression probably wasn't really encouraging and kindly, either.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I'll be more careful in the future and stop at red lights."

"Please don't do that," I said, as I got on my bike to ride away. "By all means run through another red light very soon, but please do it in front of a big truck, or better still an express train."

The memory of the look on his face kept me happy for the rest of the morning.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

False Economy

Sometimes what you think you have gained or saved isn't really worth what you had to sacrifice to get it.

How crass. How sad that our world, even this despicable little part of it, has come to this.

Japan Airlines Corp said Tuesday it will serve wine in plastic rather than glass bottles in the economy class sections of some of its international flights starting Thursday to reduce flight loads.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Can I Charge It?

There's a Mitsubishi car showroom near my office, and they've recently put a charger for electric cars outside in front, where they usually put a couple of display vehicles.
I'm not really sure if the charger--which looks a lot like a gas station pump, if you haven't seen one yet--is actually functional or just for display. I'm told that a "quick" charge takes about 30 minutes, though, and since that's longer than most motorists would consider spending in a gas station unless they're waiting for a wash and wax job, I rather doubt that it's intended for regular retail use. Maybe they use it to charge their electric car display models.

It got me thinking, though, about what happens if you're driving an electric vehicle and you happen to run out of power when you're not anywhere near a charger. I've known several people who ran out of gas out in the country somewhere, up in the mountains miles from a town, say, and had to walk or hitchhike to a gas stand to get a can of gasoline to take back and put in the car so they could drive to the station and get the car filled, or else had to call AAA in the States or JAF here in Japan, to get a road service guy to come bring some gas.

I don't see how it could possibly be that simple if your electric car loses the last of its charge in some remote spot. Do you have to push the vehicle to the nearest charging station? Since I have yet to see any charging stations other than the one in front of that showroom, that doesn't seem very practical.

Friday, July 17, 2009

High Risks

Earlier this week, I wrote my weekly article about the risks associated with climbing Mount Fuji. Just a few hours after I'd submitted it, the TV news began broadcasting the story of climbers trapped by sudden bad weather in the mountains of Hokkaido.

It sounded grim for the party of people, most apparently in their sixties but also mostly experienced mountain trekkers. Initial reports from guides by cell phone and e-mail were very discouraging, and with near-zero (Celsius) temperatures accompanied by 70 to 90 kph winds, that's not surprising.

Reports today when weather cleared enough for rescuers to reach them said a total of 10 people died, nine (including one of the guides) on 2,141-meter Mount Tomuraushi and one on another relatively nearby mountain.

Judging from the video clips, and statements from survivors and rescuers, it seems that the trekkers--even though some had as much as 20 years' experience--were too lightly dressed and insufficiently equipped to deal with unseasonably cold, wet, and windy weather, particularly after having already hiked for several hours. All of the details aren't in yet, and it's pretty pointless to reiterate all the statements of the many experts trotted out by the media every time some disaster takes place ("older people are more susceptible to hypothermia", for example). Older people climb Mount Everest, too, but they do it well prepared and well equipped.

I saw only a couple of small nylon alpine tents deployed in the middle of sweeping high altitude expanses with virtually no natural shelter, and Japan Self Defense Force rescuers mentioned that some of the climbers seem to have tried to stay warm with portable cooking stoves. It appears that the guides may have carried tents--they looked like one of my 4-person alpine tents--but not enough for all of the party, and apparently nobody had sleeping bags or even emergency "space blankets".

One of the survivors has been quoted as saying that the tour should have been cancelled, and he may well be right, but it does seem that the weather--often unpredictable and changeable in the mountains--closed in after they were well on their way. The guides apparently thought it safer to press on than to turn back.

I used to be a guide for mountain trekking tours, although both I and the customers were considerably younger and fitter then than these parties seem to have been. I sympathize with the guides,at least a little bit: it can be a tough call when you're trying to choose among bad alternatives for the most survivable one.

Hindsight's great regarding how one should be equipped, too, I know. They were on a pretty long trek in pretty high country, evidently intending to end up in an onsen (hot spring spa) rather than stuck up near a mountain peak, and carrying sufficient tents and sleeping bags for everyone would have meant risking debilitation of the customers...also not a real good idea on a long mountain trek.

But this still seems to have been a case of badly underestimating the potential risk, and I'm afraid that we're going to see more of this type of accident, since mountain trekking has become very popular, especially for retirees. Tour companies are naturally jumping aboard the trend train, and safety isn't always the first thing on their minds. Maybe this tragedy will cause some reconsideration of details--especially equipment and probably also time & distance planning--for future tours.

Incidentally, I don't mean to imply that the trekkers' age is necessarily the only--or even the main--risk factor involved. The only person I knew personally who died climbing Fuji-san was a young teacher, and the several times that the Grim Reaper's scythe gave me a near miss in the mountains were all when I was in my twenties. I was quite well-equipped, too, although probably insufficiently wary.

In any case, it's a bad idea to underestimate the mountains.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thieves, Tanuki and Turtles

I see that last week a fellow named Kimura was arrested for trying to steal a ceramic tanuki (raccoon dog) from the garden of a home in Toyohashi, near Nagoya. 

It seems that a homeowner caught him with a ceramic frog in his hands, and the 70 centimeter tanuki in his bicycle basket, late last Wednesday night. When the police later searched Kimura’s home, they found 15 more tanuki statues along with some ceramic dogs and frogs, for a total of 30-odd items.

Kimura, who lives alone, claimed to police that he was lonely since the deaths of his father and brother, so he had been stealing the animal garden ornaments for the last year or so, to have someone to talk to.

In another country, I suppose it might have been garden gnomes, or maybe the flamingos that used to adorn many lawns in California when I was growing up.

I haven't been in Toyohashi for many years, but I doubt that it has changed much since my last visit. At the time, as is the case with many Japanese cities, there were plenty of stray cats around. Befriending one of them and caring for it would seem preferable to talking to garden ornaments.

Actually, my first reaction to the story was that he should be put in touch with the people who found an alligator snapping turtle in nearby Nagoya the week before Kimura's arrest. Maybe they'd let him keep the 37 kilogram turtle as a pet, or enlist his assistance in catching the other one that got away.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dunder and Blixem

I've written elsewhere about the rainy season; the one that has just begun here in Kanto seems to have brought an unusual amount of thunder and lightning with it. I usually expect thunderstorms later in the summer, but there have been some pretty dramatic ones in the last couple of weeks, and some real downpours reminiscent of tropical squalls.

In the last couple of years the so-called "guerrilla rains"-- abrupt, violent, unpredictable, localized heavy rains--have caused several fatal accidents, and recently a lightning strike caused a fire that burned a house down. Not long ago I read of a fellow who was killed when lightning struck him on the highway as he was commuting by motorcycle.

So, although I'm not unaware that there's an..ahem...element of danger involved, in general, I really like thunderstorms. I like the feeling of charged tension in the air, and I like the flash and crash of the lightning and the rumbling of the thunder. If I'm inside, I like the pounding of the rain on roofs or the rapid-fire rattle of hail.

One of the most memorable experiences of my life was when, on one of many climbs of Mt. Fuji, I had the unusual opportunity of standing high up on the mountain, looking down into the top of a thunderstorm that was savaging the lower slopes. The grape-sized hail and the head-sized ball of electricity that slid down a mountain hut's phone line and destroyed the telephone came later that day, and were only slightly less memorable.

One of the most exciting experiences was driving over a pass from Aomori to Akita through a particularly aggressive thunderstorm, with frequent and close lashings of lightning making me wonder what would happen if one were to hit the four large, metal, full gasoline cans I had on the car's roof. The term "blaze of glory" came immediately to mind.

No matter how much I enjoy thunderstorms, though, I can't really say that I like riding a bike through one, particularly wearing only marginal rain gear. I usually try to avoid that, but I'm not always successful.

Yesterday the weather was forecast to have a 70% chance of rain in the evening. I decided to take a chance and ride the bike, because I wanted to have it available this morning for a doctor's appointment at a hospital that's really inconvenient to reach by train. When I left the office it was raining, so a couple of colleagues and I took shelter in a nice little wine bar/restaurant behind my office, to wait out the squall: I thought that it might stop later on for long enough to keep me dry until I reached my fairly close destination. It looked as if I'd made a good call, too, since after an hour or so it stopped raining and actually looked as if it was clearing, if you ignored some flashing and rumbling.

Regardless of the absence of rain, I should have paid attention to the flashes and rumbles. I only got about three kilometers down the road before the deluge began, and I was soaked through before I'd gone another klick. I almost made it, but almost isn't good enough. My waterproof vest (Why would anyone make a sleeveless waterproof garment?) kept out the water fairly well, as did the water resistant windbreaker I wore under it. This was no ordinary gentle shower, though, so water ran down the curve of my helmet and into my collar and down my back and chest. The rain also forced its way through the zippers on the pockets of the vest, soaking everything inside. My jeans were, naturally, drenched, as was everything in my pockets--my wallet looked as if it had gone through the washing machine--and as were my sneakers and socks.

This morning the weather was beautifully sunny and warm, and the air had that clear, clean quality that--in Tokyo, anyway--you only see after a major rain. As I rode toward the hospital, I admired all the hydrangeas in bloom (hydrangeas are a special favorite of mine), and tried to ignore the ominous rainclouds on the horizon. It's supposed to rain tonight, too, but I'm betting that I can get out of the office and to my destination before tonight's storm begins.

[If you don't understand the title, you might want to look here.]

Friday, June 5, 2009


My old friend and comrade in long-ago adventures centered around San Diego, California, and points south, is now a respectable retired naval officer working and living in the US Pacific Northwest. He astonished me by inquiring about the recent scarcity of my blog posts: I didn't think that anyone was paying attention.

Then my friend pointed me to a blog by a fellow here in Japan of whom I had been unaware, who mentioned my weekly column--a sort of quasi-blog--and whose post caused me further astonishment by saying that he'd read through most of the five years' worth of posts. He's good, and a much more prolific blogger than I am...and I'm sorry if that sounds as if I'm damning with faint praise.

There's no real reason for surprise, of course, but I still find it amusing that my old Navy buddy (who, by the way, lived in Japan for a while...a fact of which I was at the time unfortunately ignorant) on the other side of the Pacific came across a local mention of me before I did.

Not profound, I know. Nothing to see here. Move along...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Viking Bilking

There has been a Baltic Curry shop across the street and a little down the block from my office for years. I never bought anything there, although I often wondered how the logo of a viking and the Baltic Sea related to curry. Colleagues have said that the take-out curry's not bad for a change of pace lunch, but I never got around to trying it.

Now I see that they've gone out of business. The article makes it sound as if the owners of the chain were crooks, but it also makes me wonder how careless the investors in the 2006/'07 deal must have been, when Baltic already had a problem in 2003.

It's true that I hadn't heard about either of the problems, nor had I noticed that the chain failed six months ago. I did vaguely wonder why a completely different curry shop had opened last fall, right next door to Baltic. I rarely walk on that side of the street, though.

And I'm unlikely--even if I had the money--to invest in a chain of curry shops with a name like Baltic and a viking for a logo.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Surprise Birthday Present

I just received an e-mail message from an old and very dear friend with whom I'd lost touch for nearly 40 years. She came across my sister's name on (they went to the same high school) and got my e-mail address from her.

I'd been trying unsuccessfully to find her on the 'net for years, and hearing from her today was one of the best birthday presents I've had in a very long time. :)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Seeing is Believing

Although I'd already seen the story in several online newspapers I receive, the video clip of these two bozo criminals is no less hilarious for knowing how it turns out.

I'd told several friends about the story, and a couple of them couldn't believe that two handcuffed-together escapees would, while running from the cops, let a light pole come between them, so to speak.

Here's hilarious proof.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Another Book Closed

I found out just now that John Updike passed away a couple of days ago, on the 28th of January. I'm sorry to see him go; I enjoyed much of his writing and admired his intelligence and wit. Here is an interesting short piece from him, not his best but good nonetheless.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Curtain Closings

I'm sad to hear that Ricardo Montalban and Patrick McGoohan have passed away.

When I was a kid my elders were great Montalban fans, and as I grew older and watched his performances with a more experienced and critical eye, I could see why. Urbane and attractive, dangerous but charming, he was one of the best latino actors without being a caricature.

Patrick McGoohan will always be the epitome of the grim, gritty Danger Man/Secret Agent, John Drake, more realistic but in some understated way more suave than most James Bonds have been. Considerably more introspective and intellectual, too. He is probably better remembered for The Prisoner, and he did brilliantly in his fairly brief role in Braveheart, as well as in other roles, but I'll always remember him fondly as the sympathetic but implacable secret agent.

I'm going to miss both actors, but at 88 and 80 respectively, they each had pretty good runs. And the final curtain always has to come down, sometime.