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.