31 December, 2006


ringing in the new year can be a lot different depending on where you are in the world. up until 1993 i'd only seen how it was done in the UK, mostly at family parties. after that we learned the ways of the Americans, usually celebrating with friends; one year a couple of mine and i went to Las Vegas to see how it was done down there. then three years ago i got to be among the very last people on Earth to welcome 2004, passing midnight at a very sticky hot party in Samoa.

for two of the last three years, however, including this one, i've been over here in Asia, being among the first to see the new year in. in Taiwan it wasn't a very big deal, given that the lunar calendar is followed there, making Chinese New Year the big event; i can't even recall what happened just a couple of years ago. this year Jill and i engaged ourselves in a truly memorable celebration, in Seoul, Korea. by the time we showed up in the Jeonggak area of downtown about an hour before midnight, the roads had been closed and were crammed with pedestrians, all of whom seemed already to be firing off hundreds of roman candle fireworks almost indiscriminately, loading the air with debris and threatening the safety of all around. Jill and i were awestruck by this chaotic display that would surely never have been allowed to take place in Japan.

of course, we had to be involved in the frenzy, so we stumped up many thousands of Won for some roman candles of our own, sold to us by the vendors who had each brought suitcases full of the explosive sticks, and had as good a time as anyone shooting off projectiles just over the growing crowd with reckless abandon. Each firework carried about a dozen or so charges, one of which Jill managed to capture perfectly on film.

when the party was all over, we were both covered in ash and smelling like fireworks, and the streets were strewn with roman candle casings, but the atmosphere of fun and merriment still hung in the air alongside the smoke. but the party itself was a lively one. there had been all kinds of groups dancing and banging various drums when we had arrived, and it looked as though they were broadcasting a national show from the stage they had set up for famous performers. for much of the time we in the live audience had a hard time hearing those performers over the din of the crowd, despite the car-sized speakers they were using. it was a pretty surreal scene, all that chaos in the trendiest part of Seoul, then literally ringing in the New Year with a bell hung in an ancient Buddhist temple just behind the stage. for a better idea of just how excited a Korean crowd gets over a new year, check out the video below, taken by Jill just seconds either side of the big moment, and then please accept thejayfather's wishes for a very happy one of your own.

18 December, 2006


no trip to Beijing would be complete, one supposes, without a visit to the Great Wall of China, one of the alleged wonders of the modern world. i understand that many people also allege that said Great Wall can be seen from space, but according to the sources i consulted, either those people had never been to space or had been relying on powerful optical enhancement devices while they were there. i imagine the former is generally the case, and while i, too, fall into this category of person, i can say that at times the smog was so bad that it was difficult to see the wall half a mile away. so i suggest that the common perception may be a myth.

the wall itself, however, is most certainly not a myth; nor, unfortunately, are the epic crowds that ply it day in and day out. we went on a weekday in November and there were so many Chinese tourists that some sections were almost impassable.

Jill and i on a mercifully uncluttered section of the Great Wall, and then a section that was, at this moment in time, visible some distance away.

the Great Wall is classified into various geographical sections, and in order to avoid the dozens of "student" tour guides who offered us a private car for the day, we took the bus and had to go to the most crowded (and least-authentic) section of all, at Badaling. oh well, we just wanted to say we'd seen it. of course, just because we'd managed to steer clear of the "tour operators" didn't mean to say we didn't get taken a couple of times. even the official city bus we took pitched us tickets for this weird "cable car" that was was more like a chain of plastic toboggans that hauled us up to the base of the wall. upon arriving we discovered we could have walked in a matter of minutes. still, we would then have had to traipse past dozens more sidewalk vendors trying to sell us all manner of junk, from Chairman Mao quotation books to near-life size brass replicas of the wall. on the way back down we did indulge ourselves in several of their wares, including a couple of Mao hats and some awesome T-shirts. one of them had a screen printing of Mao's head on it, which image came off in the dryer, and another dyed all my clothes in its bright red ink when i threw it in a regular load. i can't remember the last time i bought a garment that wasn't color-fast, so i was pretty upset about it. given that the shirt only cost a buck, i guess i should have known though.

clockwise from top left: Jill rides the cool toboggans to the base; the hordes of tourists even on an "off day"; an artisan prepares a traditional Chinese watercolor of the wall; and a remote view of a high section of the wall. too many others lay between us and this section for us to bother trying to reach it.

in any case, the Great Wall was pretty cool. it snakes over the hills as far as the eye can see, occasionally punctuated by watchtower-looking structures. it's hard to imagine how it could have been continuous actually, but since so much of it has been reconstructed it makes sense that there is much missing. among the high points of the trip, though it wasn't actually on the trip to the wall itself, was having a picture of it painted on a scroll later in the day.

our Great Wall scroll being painted, and us with the artist who produced the work for us very much on the spot.

the bus back to town dropped us near a kind of trashy shopping area which we decided to exploit, and where we found a place selling traditional Chinese watercolor scrolls. already having a couple of those from Taiwan, we weren't really in need of more, but thought it would be a good way to memorialize the Great Wall trip since the souvenirs there had been so awfully gaudy. the only picture they had of the wall however, was on a loose piece of rice paper that had not been fastened into a silk scroll, so we made for the door. not wanting to lose a sale, the woman who sort of ran the place without really seeming to do anything herself quickly volunteered a guy to paint one for us, on the spot. as he prepared to do it, we both thought he was going to back out, because he kept making like he was going to begin and then stopping. but the lady gave us each a handful of sunflower seeds and pulled up a couple of chairs and pretty soon the guy was knocking out a very impressive rendition of the picture that obviously he had originally painted on the rice paper. i'm a bit bummed we didn't get his name, but we did get a picture with him, and the picture he created now hangs on our wall to remind us of what you really don't need to go all the way to space to see.

27 November, 2006


back to Beijing. before venturing farther afield to see the Great Wall and the terracotta army (details coming soon), we saw some of the other big draws in and around town. one of the most impressive was the Summer Palace, a place as big or bigger than the Forbidden City, that would equally take a day or more to see in its entirety. situated Northwest of town, the palace is a complex of buildings set mostly on two edges of a large lake. not surprisingly, given the name, the imperial families would come here during the summer to escape the brutal heat of the city, and though many of the buildings are quite samey looking, the whole site is quite beautiful.

clockwise from top left: one of the palace buildings as seen from the lake; a marble replica of the boats that used to ply the lake for the emperors; Jill and the sunset from the tops of the mountains; and the chairlift up to the top of Fragrant Hills Park.

from the palace complex, however, we ventured further out of town to what became a highlight of the whole trip: Fragrant Hills Park. just why they're called the fragrant hills i'm not sure, something to do with what happens to the armpits of the many thrifty souls who try to climb all the way to the top i guess. as for us, we took the chairlift that is apparently the pride of homegrown Chinese engineering: there's a big sign at the top that proclaims it to be the first all-Chinese built, made and installed ever. it is pretty impressive; we were not expecting it to cover so much distance or take as long as it did--about 20 minutes--to get to the top. the view from there was worth all that time and the five bucks or so we bourgeois pigs spent on the ride. Beijing is a huge, and a sprawling city, extending as far as the eye can see in about a 150-degree arc. of course, with the filthy smog the eye can't see too far, but there again is the beauty of Fragrant Hills park: you know you're above that thick layer of grime that otherwise would be the constant fodder for your poor, blackening lungs. mine still haven't forgiven me for taking them on this vacation.

Jill looks so happy not only because she's with thejayfather, but because she's taking a brief break from breathing all that crap in the Beijing air below Fragrant Hills Park. smog this bad makes the idea of sucking on a Peterbuilt exhaust seem appealing.

truly, even Japan's surprisingly dirty air was nice to come back to after inhaling Beijing's for so long; i really can't say enough bad things about it. they may be able to slap a few coats of paint on some key structures by the time the Olympics roll into town, but i'll dance naked through the insanely chaotic streets of that city if they're able to clean up the air in time for the games. one of the reasons it can be so bad is that China's capital is quite rapidly being taken over by the Gobi desert, whose incursions from the North even the great Great Wall hasn't been able to check so far. each summer, apparently, the city suffers from near-drought conditions and violent sandstorms sweeping through town. we didn't experience anything as dramatic as described in the guidebooks, but we were often able to taste the grit in between our teeth. we saw numerous people walking around with their whole heads covered by thin linen or silk scarves to keep the debris out.

what that means is that Beijing is reliant on other parts of China for its water and food needs. it wasn't always this way, and the new forced humility for the proud capital may be explained by the hard line the conquering Communists take against religion. one of the great symbols of Beijing today is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, located in the quiet Temple of Heaven Park, to the South of town. once again, the ruling party was foresightful enough to appreciate the tourist revenues this place might generate in spite of its religious purpose, but perhaps if they allowed those prayers that were intended to be offered there, the city would struggle less for food and water needs. who knows?

Jill and i stand in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, at the Temple of Heaven, one of the few sights already looking ready for the Olympics; and me contemplating the Hall's greatness, and perhaps offering a prayer of my own...

in any case, the Temple of Heaven complex is one of the most enjoyable in Beijing, if only because of the small entry fee they charge, which seems to have the effect of keeping out most of the hawkers and hustlers--a seriously welcome break. there are so many scams going on in Beijing, all of which we were fortunate enough to avoid. one that almost got us on our first or second day was the well-meaning, struggling college student who is having a display of his artwork and will get credit if you come along and look. apparently, once you go into wherever they are set up, you are virtually held hostage until you can come up with a way to fork over big bucks--like thousands of them--for seriously bad "art". but hey, you get to use their phone to call your bank or credit card company or whatever. the weird thing was that the scam artists would be everywhere, inside legitimate tourist sights and everything.

as were the street sellers, though they are a whole other issue, and just one of the reasons i kept having bad flashbacks to Tijuana the whole time i was in China. more about them later; for now i leave you with a few more views of the beautiful sights described (so beautifully) above:

a bamboo forest at the Summer Palace; the nighttime view of Beijing from the top of Fragrant Hills Park; and a larger than life decorative knot hanging at the Temple of Heaven. you can't really tell, but this thing is about two or three times my height. some kind of boyscouts they have here.

23 November, 2006


it's a little hard to trust statements that begin with "i don't usually do this sort of thing...", but really, i don't usually do this sort of thing. that is, comment on current events. mostly that's because the news is so inane: not really news but the same old thing being done again by different people. and though the man pictured at right is getting his fair share of glowing tributes in the papers right now, Milton Friedman should have received many more of those in life than he has done since his death a week ago. a rather good article in the rather good magazine Reason will elucidate the finer points of why that is so, while i will say that of all the economists i have read, Friedman's ideas are consistently the most persuasive. his is the most lamentable public death since that of the great Hugh Nibley early last year, whose excellent book Approaching Zion was, incidentally, the first thing that prompted me to a formal study of economics. to my two favorite scholars: thanks, and a fond farewell.

20 November, 2006


our first Beijing outing, and the subsequent staging ground for most of our trips, was to Tian an men square, or the square of the gate of heavenly peace. like Beijing itself, the square is much bigger than you can gather from looking at maps beforehand, and beyond its own borders it seems to merge almost seamlessly with the Forbidden City to the North.

the main attraction of the square proper is the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, which sits roughly in the center. it's free to go in, which i did, only to learn that the freeness is a scam designed to nickel-and-dime unwitting Chinese tourists to death. even after all Mao did to... sorry, for, his countrypeople, they still line up in droves to be hurried past a glass case that contains what looks suspiciously like Madame Tussaud's vision of the Chairman, draped in a Soviet flag. before going in, however, the faithful are supposed to pay ridiculous fees to leave their bags at an off-site storage facility (for security), spend three times an ordinary bus fare to buy a yellow flower to drop at the feet of Mao's statue (which flowers i'm certain are collected up and resold later), and then splash out another whole bus fee on a flimsy propaganda pamphlet. and that's all before you get to the huge shop full of the gaudiest and tackiest Mao "souvenirs" and are then ushered back out into the daylight. i can understand why the Chinese go there, but i can't really fathom why there aren't more people cursing the Chairman's infamous name than paying homage to a ridiculous statue of him. the whole time i was in there i struggled to think of someone else who had perpetrated greater crimes against his own people. in vain.

Jill stands outside the Chairman Mao Mausoleum, much oversized to match the man's ego.

so there's no love lost between Mao 'n me. but the size of his personality cult is amazing, as is the picture of him hanging over the famous Gate of Heavenly Peace. that's the same heaven, i suppose, that those practical Commos aren't supposed to believe in, unless of course they smell future earnings from tourists. most of the big tourist sites in Beijing are of a religious or some other such quality strictly anathema to the Communist credo, but they don't seem to have a big problem buying off their consciences with your dollars. in fact, there's a sense of the money grab going on everywhere, and they certainly are good at planning for future sell-outs. take the Olympics, for instance. to look around Beijing you'd think the Chinese were related to Homer and Plato, the amount of propaganda they have up about the games. the canny observer will note however, that the average "man on the street" doesn't seem to care one iota, so to speak, about les jeus, or about the official bid to bring some credibility to the otherwise integrity-bankrupt nation.

the characters in marble say Tian an men, which has been translated to mean Gate of Heavenly Peace. then there is the strange inclusion of a Tibetan monastery with the Olympic exhibits ornamenting the square.

nevertheless, i do have to give some credit to the Olympic planners for the clever names they gave to the five mascots. there's a beibei, a jingjing, a huanhuan, a yingying and a nini, all different colored bear-like animals. if you take just one of the syllables from each name and put it together, you get beijing huanying ni, which means "Beijing welcomes you". okay it may well be that the names are less clever than i think i am for figuing that out, but you can make your own mind up about that.

across the main street to the North of the square stands the Tian an men itself, which is, to my mind, the symbol of Beijing today. adorned with Mao's image it, like the Forbidden city beyond and all else in this part of town, is heavily guarded by very young-looking men in shockingly ill-fitting and ragged uniforms. or multiforms, since there are so many different official security services with a hand in ensuring your safety.

our visit to Uncle Mao at the Heavenly Peace Gate, and various scenes from inside the Forbidden City that lies beyond.

the gate is quite impressive, but not like the sprawling Forbidden City behind it. it would literally take a day or more to explore the whole vast campus, even allowing for the number of buildings that were shut down for Olympic refurbishing. these included the biggest and most important ones, of course, so we were able to race through in a comparatively scant few hours. it really is a city in there, though no actual Chinese people were ever allowed in there while the emperors were still around. quite a playground, and one that the new Communist emperors wisely stayed out of, giving the overwhelming bourgeois connotations of the place. nevertheless, they now all live in what is often referred to as the New Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai, right next door. that and much more on the apparent contradictions in official communist policy still to come.

05 November, 2006


thanks to China's impressive countrywide internet firewall, i haven't
been able to check the blog the whole time we've been here--too many
references to Taiwan on it, i assume. nevertheless, i did want to
give a little info on what we've done here, if only to remind myself
which pictures to put up when we get back.

we stayed mostly in and around Beijing, visiting the big sites like
the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven, but we did manage to get out
to Xi'an, a city about 750 miles Southwest of here that is famous for
its underground army of terracotta warriors. they date back about
3,000 years, to the time of the Qin (say "chin") Dynasty, and they are
buried near the tomb of one of the Qin emperors. it is quite a cool
site, and was worth the trip despite the distance and the near dearth
of other things to do in Xi'an.

and despite the air quality, which is just as bad there as here in
Beijing. for all the complaining that people in Southern California
do about the smog there, one trip here would be enough to shut them up
forever. it's unbelievable. but there are many cool things to see
and do, and many great bargains to be had, like our "North Face" coats
and our "Sony" memory sticks. good times and good prices--bargaining
is fun. we also went to see a cool Chinese acrobatics show last
night; not quite like the Amazing Chen from the movie Ocean's 11, but
very entertaining nonetheless. pictures from that and all else soon
to follow.

28 October, 2006

therightofway (or, thehonda)

it's long past time that i should have put a serious post up about our new motorcycle. but before i get into the specifics, it's worth establishing the context in which riding is done in Japan. first of all, the road system is a lot more orderly than Taiwan's: people actually stop for red lights here. having said that, those lights (and red ones in particular) are so numerous that a person couldn't easily be blamed for running them. coming to America from England one is surprised at the prevalence of traffic lights as a control device; roundabouts and other such complicated inventions don't seem to have made the transatlantic trip. nevertheless, let me assure you that Japan has one-upped the United States in this critical measure of infrastructure--traffic lights are absolutely everywhere, sometimes several sets per couple of hundred meters.

further to that, they can be somewhat confusing, to say the least. as the picture below shows, not only are the lights set on their side, but often they consist of more than the typical three lights, several of which can be lit at the same time, including conflicting signals. for example, the top red light may be lit and the straight arrow on the bottom row, meaning you can go straight ahead but may turn neither right nor left, to name one of many possible combinations.

i like traffic lights, but only when they're green...

and left, of course, would be akin to turning right in America, given that we drive on the left here. growing up, i had always people say that only England and Japan drove on the left, but having done a little research into the matter i have found that there are many more who favor right-hand-drive. from our travels in Southeast Asia last year i had learned this by personal experience, with all of the countries we visited (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Macau) taking the left-side approach. Indeed, there are more still, some 74 countries in all, though as you will see they make up just a small portion of the Earth's surface area:

the leftist world of driving.

so getting used to driving on the left was a bit of a challenge at first, but now it's hard to contemplate how things would be the other way around. the biggest problem here is figuring out the real, unspoken rules of the road. visitors to America from England are often bemused by more than the number of traffic lights; the deference paid pedestrians by drivers is often well over the top. as a child i remember being taught road safety at playschool, and we three-year-olds were left with no doubt that it was the responsibility of the pedestrian to watch out for himself. it makes sense, i think, given that a car would probably do the most damage in an altercation. anyway here, once again, Japan has upped the stakes and presented new absurdities to the world of transportation. when we were insuring our motorcycle a few months ago, we were assured that collision insurance was generally unnecessary, since the practice is typically to assign blame to the larger vehicle in the event of a collision. which works out well for us driving a fairly small bike, but i do have to carry tens of millions of yen worth of liability insurance in case i hit anything smaller than me. including bicycles, which are the true kings of the road in Japan. as the scooter was to Taiwan, so the bicycle is to Japan; they are everywhere, and with their little bells they control the flow of all movement from the sidewalks to the large city streets. it really is something to see. as is our new motorcycle, shown below:

thehonda, and a collage showing (clockwise from top left): another view; the old Yamaha of Taiwan; the Japanese license plate (with a few numbers erased); and the engine, showing a displacement of 249 mighty ccs.

in Taiwan i had a 150cc Yamaha, but here i went for a slightly bigger 250cc Honda. i had wanted a 400cc Honda, but you have to pay a pretty large shaken fee for anything over 250. anyway the VTR, as it's called, has been quite honorable, being quite a bit faster than the Yamaha and having taken us all the way to Kyoto and back in July. it's a nice ride, though a bit dirty in terms of emissions (as are, surprisingly, most of the vehicles in Japan) and we're glad we bought it. then again, the Yamaha had distinct pluses: it cost the equivalent of about $320, and i sold it for the same after six months of riding. the Honda followed Japanese custom by being about six times more expensive. needless to say, i'm hoping the resale value will be more in the Japanese style, too.

16 October, 2006


as is usual, i am quite behind in blog posts (i still haven't put up anything from the Southeast Asia tour a year ago), so in a vain effort to catch up, i'm going all the way back to the end of July to post these pictures from our big trip to Kyoto. we had a week off but not much money, so instead of taking the shinkansen (bullet train), we decided to save ourselves several hundred dollars and ride the bike. it worked--that is to say, we still had money for food when we got there--but it took almost six hours in the saddle to go less than 150Km (about 90 miles). and Jill was carrying one of our huge backpacks loaded with stuff for both of us for the week, not a happy start to the trip.

anyway, we got there and the bike did very well on its first big outing, and then the fun began. it really seems that if you only go to one place in Japan, it should be Kyoto. back in the late eighth century, at right around the time Buddhism was becoming a great force and winning the minds of the emperors, Kyoto was the imperial capital and so was built up with all manner of very spectacular temples and shrines. there is one (that we somehow missed) that is entirely leafed in gold and is aptly named the "golden pavilion temple". we did make it to the silver temple, but how that one came about its name is still something of a mystery. Japan tends not to mix its religions quite as much Taiwan does, so temples, which are Buddhist, and shrines, which are Shinto, are quite different affairs, and all are somewhat less ornate and lively looking than Taiwanese offerings. Shinto shrines are quite easy to spot as they are almost always equipped with a number of o-torii, or very big gates, like those i'm pictured standing beneath here:

doing my best impression of Sayuri at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.

these ones are actually at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine a short way south of Kyoto. if you have seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha (which was released here as Sayuri), you will recognize this tunnel of o-torii as one of the ones the young main character runs through near the beginning. indeed, we understand that this part of the movie was actually filmed at Fushimi Inari; many of the gates do look fairly recently painted. though there are fewer of them, the o-torii at the impressive Heian shrine, pictured below, are much bigger. this shrine is well visited and well maintained, though i'm still not sure what all the sake barrels at this and every other shrine are for.

the imposing Heian-ji, and a small sampling of its liquor, which i can only assume is kept for when the Shinto priests feel like cutting loose on a weekend. or for the souls of departed ancestors or something.

the one thing i can say about Shinto is that they don't seem to charge you to see any of their stuff, which is to say that all to often the Buddhists here (as opposed to in Taiwan) are looking to make a quick yen--or several hundred of them. we went down to Nara, which was the capital from 710 to 794, just before Kyoto was. there sits the largest seated Buddha in Japan, housed in a quite special (and would have been very old, if it hadn't burned down several times) wooden building--for entrance to which you must pay ¥500. even though Jill and i have seen more Buddhas than you can shake a very large stick at, i guess we're suckers for claims of superiority (which, strangely, all the Buddhas seem to make in one area or another...) so we went in and saw... a very large Buddha:

the very big Daibutsuden in the very old city of Nara, and the extremely old buildings of Horyu-ji, just outside Nara.

at a site just South of Nara sits another large temple complex, which is said to have the oldest wood buildings in all Japan, dating to the early 700s. the temple is called Horyu-ji, and was probably not worth the drive, since it was really hot and they're a bunch of, well, buildings that look like many others. you can't tell they're old, and they want money to see the really good ones, but i guess they should be congratulated on having saved some structures from fire for so long.

we had hoped to see another great temple up on Mount Hiei, to the Northeast of town. Enryaku-ji, as it is called, is famed for being home to the "marathon monks", who train for spiritual enlightenment by running some absurd distance every day for so many years. we didn't see them, or the temple either, because after having paid about 30 bucks apiece to take the tram and cable car up the mountain, we found that there was a road that we could have ridden up and still another bus to take to the temple, so we somewhat angrily bagged the whole thing and went for pictures of the view instead. which was quite good, on an uncharacteristically somewhat clear day.

the view from the top of Hiei-san: Kyoto.

the large wooded area just visible in the centerish of town is the imperial palace, which we toured with mild interest at some point during the week. probably not visible at all is the Daitoku-ji temple complex, which is home to a small, but quite attractive zen-style garden, of which Jill surreptitiously took this and a couple more pictures:

a lone figure about to achieve zen at Daitoku-ji.

one of the other attractions of Kyoto is that it is home to the famous Gion district, noted for its Geisha. Jill had heard that you could be made up like one, so we found a studio and hey presto--two hours of me wandering around small alleyways later, they were done packing her in makeup and ninety layers of clothes and i got to take a brief walk with what may be the tallest Geisha Kyoto has ever known.

my very tall Geisha friend and i, and me waiting for Captain Kirk to beam me up.

as for me, i settle for simpler pleasures, like playing around under installation art at the ultra-modern Kyoto train station. oh and eating, of course. while in Kyoto i found some of the scariest food ever at a small festival market we stumbled across, but we also found our favorite restaurant yet in Japan, maybe the world! it's called Kushya and it specializes in yakitori, or small pieces of various food skewered and cooked over live coals. Kushya has a cool atmosphere, and is on a very hidden side street so the guys cooking were very entertained by our being there, especially the second time when we went back. the food was delicious, everything from chicken gizzards to bacon-wrapped asparagus, and even a new favorite: natto and fried cheese on a stick. even though natto, or partially fermented soybeans, is quite nasty and to be avoided (even by the Japanese, it having been about the only thing that was available to eat after the war), the combination was not at all bad, and we ordered them the second time we went. no doubt we will do so again if we go back to Kyoto, which was worth the ride, even on the way home.

festival food: scary, delicious, or both? Kushya food: definitely delicious.

05 October, 2006


a few weeks ago, doing our bit to promote the local economy, Jill and I visited one of the few bona fide tourist attractions in the fair city of Nagoya: its castle. well, supposedly bona fide: it's only been standing in its present form since 1959. the original castle dates from the Muromachi Era of the mid 1300s, however, and it is reputed to be among the great castles of Japan.

the main part of the castle, known as the donjon, was completed in 1612 on the orders of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first and founding ruler of the Tokugawa Shogunate. the castle was also home not only to a branch of this Tokugawa family, but to the most prestigious branch. now though, the main donjon only houses an unattractive mass of concrete and steel, along with respectable quantities of shogun-era artifacts and replica artifacts; there's not a very historical feel to the place. except, of course, for the numerous signs bemoaning the fate of the original building which, like so many other of Japan's national treasures (and most of Nagoya), was destroyed by allied air raids towards the end of World War II. the signs convey more than a hint of pique at these cultural losses, but no sense of an understanding that national treasures might be part of what you risk losing when you begin a major campaign of military aggression against neighboring countries.

in any case, the important bits are at the top of the main donjon, on the sixth floor. there you find spectacular... lines for the cashiers at the bustling souvenir shop. oh, and pretty spectacular views of the city of Nagoya. and a bunch of snacks, and some more souvenirs. not that i'm one to be talking about the strange Eastern devotion to cheap trinkets: i bought a couple of them myself. one was a small golden "unko" (うんこ) sitting on a pillow of scarlet satin. we asked a Japanese friend what an unko is, this little wonder that looks like a swirl of soft-serve ice cream, and she replied, without hesitation, "crap". literally, unko would be the stool itself, which is why i'm still not sure why anyone besides a gastroenterologist would want to actually own such a thing. so I sent it to my mother. because I knew she would be wise enough to figure out its meaning, you understand. the best i've come up with is that if you're prosperous enough to gild your feces, you must be financially secure. which security is among the things i wish for my parents, and i hope that she will infer that sentiment from my gift.

thejayfather in front of Nagoya castle's main donjon, and then the typically overcast view of downtown from the top of that donjon.

along with that delightful little item, i also sent Mother a small golden "dolphin", which looks more like a Chinese dragon; a replica of the two that sit atop the castle's main donjon. known as "kinshachi", these golden dolphins have become a symbol of Nagoya and supposedly were first placed on the original castle back in the 14th century.

here we see the lengths the city has gone to to draw tourists: the castle "dolphins" are now rideable!

so a rather mixed review of this tourist sight, but contrary to what most guidebooks will tell you, there are some things to see in Nagoya. the castle, for one, sits on ample and attractive grounds just North of the city center, and when enough donations have been collected, the city plans to reconstruct the "Hommaru Palace" next to the main donjon. this structure was used to house visiting shoguns back in the day, and was considered among the two best examples of "Shoin" style palace architecture. it, of course, was destroyed by fire in WWII, as were a staggering number of Japan's important places. since much traditional building involved the extensive use of wood and paper, many of Japan's cities were like tinderboxes; perfect fodder for invading bombs. Nagoya castle was worth visiting, if not so much for the site itself as for the contemplation of what it represents. and now I've done my bit to boost Nagoya tourism, too.

22 September, 2006


most readers will know that Jill and i belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon church. when we were in Taiwan we attended a small branch of about 50 people, all of whom were English speaking, but here there is no such congregation available, despite Nagoya being almost twice as big as Taichung. so we travel all the way across town to attend the Japanese speaking Meito Ward, but we have made some good friends and had some good times there.

thejayfather himself before the sign on the Meito Ward chapel, which is the stake center for the Nagoya East Stake. the sign says, approximately, Matsu Jitsu Sei-to Iesu Kirisuto Kyo Kai, the name of the church in Japanese.

some weeks ago we began helping the missionaries to teach their English conversation class, called Eikaiwa, which is held on Wednesday nights at the chapel. after class there are sometimes people playing badminton or volleyball in the cultural hall, and joining in with these games is how we met the young lads pictured below, Shinji and Junta. when we first played badminton with them they appeared to be deeply suspicious of us, or nervous at least. since then we have played a few times and have finally even figured out the bizarre scoring system they use, which would be slightly mysterious even without a language barrier. in any case, now they are our very great friends, though we still can't say more than a very few words to them, nor them to us. every Sunday finds them diligently searching for us and emerging with wide grins on their faces as they greet us and enthusiastically pump our hands. then a round of inquiries into health ensues, "o-genki desu-ka?" "Hai, genki desu," which is followed by a few minutes of enthusiastic head-bobbing.

Jill and i with our badminton buddies, Shinji and Junta, all making the requisite "V" sign.

a few weeks ago we did get a welcome break from the language barrier at church, however. a small group from the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii, came to do an evening show called a fireside, in which they danced and sang in a variety of Polynesian styles and languages. each of the performers, like the one below, who is Samoan, also spoke a few words, in English, that were translated for the assembled Japanese audience. it was very nice to be able to get the jokes before the translational delay, but it's kind of a strange sonic effect to hear the main body of laughs seconds later.

Jill and i with a Samoan (i think) performer from the PCC.

then last week the Meito Ward was visited by a general authority of the church and his wife from Korea, a President Ko. we were hoping for the ultimate in translational nightmares: them speaking Korean, which would be translated into Japanese at the pulpit, which would then be translated into English by one of the missionaries for us to hear on our headsets, which last is how we usually take in the meting. unfortunately, we were deprived of this long linguistic loop due to the Kos speaking quite good English, but it was fun to think about anyway. later, since we had earlier been asked to serve as advisors to the young single adults in the ward, we were set apart to that calling by a counselor in the bishopric--in Japanese. it was very strange to have a blessing given in a foreign language, being whisper translated by one of the people participating in giving the blessing. The calling itself will involve some fun language problems, but thanks to the church placing an emphasis on its Japanese missionaries learning English while they are serving, even in Japan, we should have plenty of translators available. it's weird too that we're being asked to advise those whose ranks we've only just left, because in the States they typically call a much more, well, seasoned couple to that role. still, given that we don't have a phone, we might be kind of hard to get hold of for advice, translated or otherwise.

06 September, 2006


no, it's not Thanksgiving in Japan, and we haven't suddenly come across any gobbling fowl in the Land of the Rising Sun; the title of this post has reference to the biggest thing to happen in thejayfather's sporting life in decades: a turkey in bowling.

the other night Jill and i drove out to an alley we had seen and proceeded to get our game on, after renting our shoes. from a vending machine, that is, as with everything else you buy in Japan. i may have mentioned the curry restaurant we went to where you order at a vending machine and then the food is practically waiting for you when you sit down. at a theme park a couple of days we found the lines for the food ticket vending machines too long to stand, so we were going to ask a lady sitting at a window by the machines where else we could get food. it turned out that she was selling the same tickets as could be had at the vending machines, but nobody wanted to deal with her. perhaps all the rules of social interaction here make people reluctant to want to deal with humans. in any case, you can buy alcohol and cigarettes from vending machines that litter the streets here, and i've been told that there are more vending machines per capita in Japan than anywhere else on earth. i believe it.

bowling shoes from a vending machine, naturally.

so after we had done all that with the shoes, we began to bowl, putting up pretty poor scores in our first game. in the second game, unusually, i was beating Jill, and this put me in the zone. as the following photograph proves, my strikes started in the seventh frame, but they didn't stop anywhere near there. even after securing a turkey, which is three strikes in a row, i felt sure i could keep going, and for one more ball, the first of the 10th frame, i did. maybe the pressure was too great after that, or maybe it just seemed i had nothing left to prove, but the streak ended at four. which is just as well, really, because i don't know the correct term for a double turkey.

pretty much the best bowling score ever.

so now that bowling has effectively been conquered, i guess thejayfather will be moving on to master another sport, though i don't know what that will be. feel free to send your suggestions, and then watch this space...

26 August, 2006


a couple of days ago, in a post about our Japanese home, i made a reference to the cool toilet seats they have here, lamenting the fact that we don't have one. i realized that not everyone would have seen these things before, so now i'm back with photographs, the first of which, as an action shot, i'm especially proud of:

the bidet function in action, taken at great personal hazard and sacrifice; below, the rather involved control panel for this amazing device.

many of the toilets, or o-toire, here are fitted with these seats that are plumbed in and electrically powered, and that provide not only bidet but heater/drying functions and apparently others as well. as you see, there are quite a lot of buttons, along with a dial for bidet intensity. not to put to fine a point on it, but a high powered go on one of these things a day would be sure to keep the proctologist away. i don't think they're cheap to buy, but i do believe that importing Japanese techno toilet seats would be worth a possible addition to the trade deficit.

finally, another good toilet idea that me be worthy of imitation, if not importation, is the variable strength flush. in the picture below, you will see two characters on the flush lever, which mean small and big. push the lever the small way, and you only use a small amount of water. after a big movement, which is actually what it's called, you get more water. pretty clever idea anyway, which may be more than can be said for this post...

the clever lever: small on top, big at the bottom.

21 August, 2006


though there are foods in Japan very reminiscent of some of the foul monstrosities in Taiwan, we have had some quite good meals here. i will admit that we have had to resort to some evil American-type joints, like the dreaded McDonald's and even KFC, but we have enjoyed local fare too. one of our favorites was a shabu-shabu place we went to shortly after arriving here. there is basically a pot of boiling water and then for 90 minutes they bring you as much meat, thinly sliced, and vegetables as you can throw in the water to cook and then eat. actually, you are supposed to hold the meat in your chopsticks and swish it through the water twice, while saying shabu, shabu (some magical incantation, perhaps?), and then eat it. most people found this length of cooking wasn't enough, but i think the beef is delightfully tender at this stage.

at the shabu-shabu, and below devouring a mammoth (and mammoth-priced) sundae at the Hard Rock Cafe.

anyway, like everything else in Japan, most food is quite expensive, but at least in some places you can get a lot. like the brownie sundae above, which we got at the Nagoya Hard Rock Cafe. it cost the better part of nine bucks, but it was pretty good, as were the burgers there. some friends have also shown us where there is a Wendy's in town, and the other day we found a Subway quite close to us.

and the edible food discoveries are continuing apace: this morning i saw a Red Lobster down by the Nagoya Port, and last night Jill and i enjoyed (smallish) brownie sundaes at a Baskin Robbins we found. so as with cold waters to a thirsty soul, so with good news from a far country: Mother, we are not starving, but rather eating quite well--BR here even has Jamoca Almond Fudge...

31 edible flavors.


though we have ever so many, i thought i'd just put up a very few of the pictures of our little house here in Nagoya, which is actually 名古屋 if you speak Japanese. it's got two bedrooms and comprises the bottom floor of a two or three storey building, and, like all else in Japan, is very narrow and quite deep--a "shotgun" apartment as Jill likes to call it. this means that there is one sort of hallway that goes front to back and all the rooms are arranged on one side or the other of that. what you see in the picture below is actually about the whole width of the place:

the front door of our little homestead, which is actually quite Western in many ways, like the mailbox, for example. please don't fail to note the rather attractive motorbike in the foreground...

inside, our house is cozy, but quite spacious by Japanese standards. i'm told that many young salarymen live in apartments with nothing more than a bed and a toilet, owing to the handy profusion of restaurants and public baths, or onsen. like most Asian kitchens, ours is far too small to be very useful, so we've put a little barbecue grill on the porch, but our bathing facilities are second to none. first of all, the toilet itself is kept in its own room, which is a wonderful idea and only lamentable for the fact that that room is right next to the kitchen. and the toilet is sadly lacking one of those amazing Japanese bidet toilet seats, which are as cool as they seem and maybe even more, by the way.

but the bathroom--which really is that, a room for a bath--is where it's at. you probably won't be able to get the full sense from the picture, but the tub itself is huge, and very deep. the little box on the wall behind it lets you set the temperature and then with one touch fill the tub to a preselected volume. another button will heat the water back up if it starts to cool, though there are covers for the tub to keep the heat in if you want to pre-fill the tub. the rest of the room is watertight when the door is closed, so the shower, which has excellent pressure and is detachable from the wall, can be used to devastating effect--for the dirt. you may be thinking to yourself that the mirror on the back wall is too low to be of any use to man or even very short man; this is a clever observation but know that it is positioned in this way so that the Japanese bather may, while his bath is running itself, seat himself on a stool and actually do the washing of himself in front of the mirror before showering off and soaking, clean, in the tub. this is the preferred method of bathing here, and is either a symptom or a cause of the endless fascination with cleanliness. in either case, behold my amazing bathroom:

thebathroom, quite literally. the little control box even talks to you to let you know its plan, though it's all in Japanese. below, the noren that neatly conceal our little laundry and sink area.

just outside the bathroom is a small area with our washer and quaintly named "dryer", which is actually more of a spinning heater. we also have a little sink there, neatly recessed into the wall, but altogether this room comprises the ugly bits of our house. for this reason, it is sectioned off using noren, short, sectioned curtains that historically have been used to indicate shopfronts, and in many cases bear the marks or symbols of the particular establishment. even today, they are put up over the door of many small shops at the start of business and then removed at the end of the day. the ones that hung when we moved in were a bit dull, so we updated with the noren pictured above, which we bought in Kyoto and depict Mt Fuji under a tsunami--a famous work by the very famous Japanese artist Hokusai.

so that's about it. we use one of our bedrooms as an office of sorts, and the other we use as a bedroom. because even though they don't do it on mattresses per se, the Japanese do sleep.