Saturday, January 23, 2010

Looking for Adventure

Recently I've been having, with unusual frequency, dreams that share certain characteristics. Although not identical enough to accurately be called recurring dreams, they have been notably similar both in "plot" and overall theme, and that has made them memorable and thought-provoking.

They all involve rushing around, by motorcycle, by taxi, on foot, or all three. With a constant sense of urgency and dogged determination, I'm striving to accomplish something while overcoming irritatingly frequent obstacles. All of this harried and exasperating activity takes place in a sort of stylized version of familiar yet oddly changed places. Shibuya, Aoyama, Akasaka, and Yokohama--all places where I've lived, worked and played for many years--form a recognizable backdrop to all this frenzied activity, but they are all considerably different from reality...they all resemble something you might see in an adventure movie set in Asia in the '20s or '30s, dramatic in mood and stunning in detail, exoticized and romanticized into scenes from an Indy Jones or Charlie Chan movie. The Dragon Lady or Fu Manchu would fit right in.

They're not nightmares, but they're certainly not restful or calming dreams, either. Since I've been having these dreams four or five times per week for several weeks, I've been wondering what's been going on in my subconscious to produce them. My current theory is that I'm feeling a lack of adventure in my life lately, so I'm looking for it in Dreamland.

There's no denying that the days of flying bottles and breaking rattan in dockside bar contretemps are behind me. It has been well over 30 years since I was dancing in illegal after-hours clubs with a sentry/doorman whose warning sent us all scurrying back to our tables when the police approached (drinking was OK after the arbitrary--11 0'clock?--time, but dancing was not, for some reason).

Explaining to a very skeptical cop that I had missed the last train, was therefore attempting to borrow a boat to sail down the bay from Yokohama to Yokosuka, and that I'd be returning the boat the next morning before the owner even missed it...that's definitely another memory from the dim past that wouldn't bear repetition these days.

So is racing around the circle route on the Metropolitan Expressway, virtually deserted after 10 o'clock in those days. You had to be very good, and pretty much stay entirely off the brakes, to do it in under 16 minutes. That's not even remotely conceivable with the kind of use the expressway gets now.

Times have changed, and so have I, I guess. Car chases, knife fights, scuffles with thugs in dicey low dives, really wild parties...all of those and much more are pretty much things of the past. Fond memories, but few if any of them really suitable for repetition in my current circumstances.

So, I've been thinking, maybe I sort of miss adventure. Maybe life is feeling a little too tame to me lately. It has become a subject for reflection.

And I reflected upon it somewhat differently the other night. Riding the bike in a really strong and bitterly cold wind, I got a much stronger and longer adrenaline rush than I really needed, as fierce gusts continually threatened to push me out of my lane and into guardrails or other vehicles whose drivers were struggling, too.

An hour or so of thrills doesn't really qualify as an adventure, I suppose, but I admit that once I'd arrived and parked the bike, I--briefly--thought to myself, "be careful what you look for".

On the other hand, the dreams haven't stopped.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Head Out on the Highway

Most of Japan's expressways now are offering the weekend and holiday deal whereby one can drive for a flat rate of 1000 yen regardless of distance if one uses the ETC (Electric Toll Collection) system.

The idea is to increase tourism in the hinterlands and stimulate the economy, and it seems to have accomplished this to a limited degree. However, TANSTAAFL.

Predictably, this has caused traffic jams even worse than the usual ones...and the usual ones commonly run to tens of kilometers of barely moving vehicles for hours at a time during holiday peaks. There seems to have been some mitigation of traffic jams at toll gates since the system was introduced; it's said that about 30% of congestion occurs at toll gates, and that's reduced somewhat by the no-stop ETC toll collections. On the other hand, service areas and exits appear to have become more congested than before in many cases.

This should surprise nobody. It was predictable by anyone observing the very similar results of offering late night and early morning ETC discounts, introduced a while back apparently mainly to encourage truckers to drive at night and thus reduce overall congestion on the expressways. What it actually did, as far as I can determine, is push a lot of truckers, particularly long-distance ones, into waiting around on the normal roads until discount time, then onto the expressways. There seems to have been an increase in accidents due to sleepy/fatigued truckers, and congestion appears to have been moved around time-wise without any significant reduction overall.

In addition, the weekend and holiday all-you-can-drive-for-1000-yen ETC discount isn't quite as good a deal as it seems. There are some significant non-participant areas in the expressway system, notably the metropolitan expressways, where some token discounts are available but the 1000-yen cap doesn't apply.

This means that, for example, if I were to go from my office to my house in Kumagaya, I'd pay around 1000 for the combination of Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway (usually 700 yen) and Gaikan connecting ring road (usually 500 yen), then 1000 yen for the Kanetsu Expressway trip to one of the two exits near Kumagaya. At full fare this journey costs 3100 yen, so the saving isn't that significant.

Also, it's a one-time deal in its current implementation. Once you leave the expressway, the deal is done; you pay another 1000 yen when you enter again.

This is particularly significant for motorcyclists with passengers,who aren't allowed on some sections of the expressways, depending on local traffic safety administrations. They have to get off and travel on the normal roads until they reach a place where they can reenter the expressway...and then pay again. Since it costs around 12,000 to install the system on a car but about 20,000 on a bike, I won't be doing that anytime soon.

The current ruling party has talked about making expressways free, but frankly I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. The responsible cabinet minister has announced that the current system will be changed soon , with wide-ranging caps on tolls, but I'll wait and see whether that actually happens next June as planned, and how it's finally implemented if/when it is.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Get Your Motor Running

With the temperature hovering around freezing, it has become somewhat difficult to start the DragStar lately. Since it has only an electric starter, a certain amount of patience is required lest I run the battery down too far. I suppose it's good practice, although I've never thought of myself as being unusually impatient.

Once it is started, it's wise to wait and let it warm up a bit before starting off; it can be disconcerting to have the engine quit in the midst of Tokyo rush hour traffic.

This is also true of the scooter I keep in Kumagaya, mostly for getting from the station to the house and back. It does have a kick starter, though, and that's something of an advantage since even new motorbike batteries don't seem to hold up real well in the cold.

I can sympathize, or identify (although I guess neither term is really very suitable for application to an engine without rather extreme anthropomorphism): I find it pretty hard to get myself started these mornings as the winter cold sets in.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Enter the Tiger

Happy New Year!

May the Year of the Tiger bring you all of the health, prosperity, happiness, love, adventure, and excitement that you could possibly want, even in your wildest dreams...and then some more on top of that.

Too much is never enough; it may be wiser to be moderate, but it's not as much fun.