18 January, 2007


somewhat alarmingly, i once more feel the need to utter those most unbelievable of words, "i don't usually do this sort of thing..."; at least this time it's something about my blog, rather than dead economists. i generally only read the personal blogs of friends, and find that most blogs that are subject-specific tend to be pretentious and derivative, pronouncing on every current event as if the world really needed a whole bunch more Matt Drudges. as a result, i don't have that little "blogs i read" heading in my sidebar. i still won't, but there will be a new link placed somewhere, since i recently happened upon a blog that i think is quite entertaining. it's advertised as being "thoughts on design, science, art, and the places where they all meet"; i'm not really sure what that means, but it sounds cool and the otherwise-anonymous "Spurgeon" collects some pretty interesting stuff from who knows where to put on there. my favorite posts, and the ones that convinced me to do what i usually don't, are the entertaining ZIP scribble map and the very interesting periodic table of visualization methods. so check out spurgeonworld and see what you think. then try to forgive me for doing so many unusual things lately.

16 January, 2007


October 8th dawned sunny and clear, if a little chilly, in our neighborhood--conditions that could have been taken to portend well for this big day, one that marked the end of an era around here. just 50 kilometers or so down the road to the Southwest lies the usually sleepy town of Suzuka, home of the internationally famous circuit bearing the town's name, and, for the last 20 years, host of the Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix (not to mention the world-renowned 8 Hours of Suzuka motorbike race). perhaps the Honda-owned raceway finally succumbed to the pressure of living in the shadow of Toyota Town (Nagoya), or maybe its contract with the F1A was up, but either way next year the race moves to Toyota's spanking new Fuji Circuit near Shizuoka (about halfway to Tokyo from here).

the view from our house (showing the beautiful weather of October 8th, 2006), clockwise from top left: what you see if you walk out of our front door and turn left; what you see straight ahead; the view if you turned right; and another view of those mysterious paper lanterns straight ahead...

hoping to be a part of the history in the making, i made Jill hop on our own Honda with me and we rode along the very windy coast until we hit a town that had become swollen with a very international-looking horde of pedestrians and scores of suddenly-busy taxi cabs. we did not have tickets to the actual event, but got to the just-out-of-town circuit with plenty of time to find the scalpers. feeling confident there were enough of them, and wanting to mull over the $100 apiece price tag, we went for a little lunch. though we didn't really say it, i think we were both a little relieved that doing so made the ticket decision for us: there were none left when we got back to the track, so we had to look around for another spot from where we could experience some of the action. luckily, that spot wasn't too far away, and took the form of a bypass road about half a mile to the East of the track. fortunately we were pretty early, as this became a very popular spot when the race itself began:

the road outside the circuit where we set up to watch what we could of the race, and my quite decent vantage point.

from here we got a pretty good view of a couple of discreet sections of the track and could watch the high tails of the cars as they literally flew past the nearest wall. the phenomenal thing about it however, was the noise the cars were making: it was almost earsplitting, even at our considerable distance. we had heard the cars revving in the paddock when we had been over by the entrance earlier in the day, but now, going full speed around the circuit, the cars' V10 engines literally screamed from their furious workload. turn your speakers up all the way and the video below will still only give you the slightest impression of all that sonic energy.

don't get distracted by the visuals, though you may be able to see a tail or two here and there; even now it's hard to believe how simply loud these cars were.

feeling like we'd had the experience, and happy that we saved a couple of hundred bucks on it, we decided to see if there were other good sections of track for outside viewing/listening. we weren't disappointed; Suzuka is shaped like a very stretched out figure-8, and close to where the track crosses itself there is a section where we and the other masses could come within a few feet of the tarmac. since this section was set up on a high bank and we poor ones were still limited to lightning fast views of car tails, the thoughtful Japanese officials had erected a huge screen on which we could watch the race, as Jill did for some time, a little to my surprise:

Jill watches racing legend Michael Schumacher (lower car) as he (very quickly) nears the close of his final F1 season. the track itself is about 40 feet behind Jill.

there may have been a good reason for her attention, however. just a few laps after we had pulled up a section of grass to sit on we watched as perennial F1 champ Michael Schumacher's hopes for another title, along with his bright red Ferrari, go up in smoke, ending his career in a decidedly less sunny manner than that in which the day had begun. i'm not really sure what happened, and i never bothered to check, but as i remember the car rolled off the track in a slightly less than dramatic manner, and old Mike just hopped out and walked away, removing his helmet and waving as he did so.

and that was it. his tight points race for the season championship was lost and he has moved on presumably to watch his career being endlessly dissected by commentators in all types of press, most of whom seem to be trying to answer that all-important question: "was Schumacher a racing deity or simply the track bully?" i'm going to let you decide that one, my opinion now somewhat unbiased. but while the day didn't end so well for the Germans and the Italians, the morning's weather really was a good sign for us. this was the same day we enjoyed the strange charms of Nagoya's Villagio Italia on the way home, and the day we found out what all those paper lanterns were doing hanging outside our house. but more on that later.

Jill and i at Villagio Italia, clockwise from top left: the entranceway, apparently supposed to resemble something in Italy; the canals, complete with gondolas (not punting, however, due to wind); some more imitation structures behind me; and a favorite Japanese pastime: dressing up like other people and getting "fotografoed" to prove it.

10 January, 2007


one of the best parts of our Beijing trip was not even really part of our Beijing trip. towards the end of our week there we managed to secure sleeper berths in a very nice train that ran overnight to the famous ancient city of Xi'an--"Western Peace". famous to Westerners only since the 1970s, really, because at that time some Chinese peasants digging in the dirt of their (or the Communist Party's) fields came across what has been hailed as the archaeological discovery of the century: a mass army of terracotta warriors all buried near the tomb of Emperor Qin.

the sign on the side of our train that told us we were going from the Beijing West (Beijingxi) station to Xi'an, and the train itself, one of the newest (and i’m sure nicest) in China.

not wanting to appear commercialistic, the Party took its sweet time in excavating the site, possibly to make it look like they weren't pandering too much to the needs of the bourgeois pigs that began flocking to the huge new tourist site. in any case, 30 years on the area is still not completely excavated, though there are now three different buildings covering up separate digs. all but one of these are actually fairly unremarkable, the viewing areas are high above dimly lit pits in which lie only broken fragments of warriors, for the most part. but in the main building, which resembles a very large Quonset hut, the treasures really abound, and are illuminated by bright sunshine streaming in the high windows. this is where all the pictures you see in National Geographic were taken: rows upon rows of soldiers, all in their ranks and ready for battle. it really is quite an awesome sight.

the army of Qin arranged in their ranks.

Xi'an itself is about 800 miles Southwest of Beijing, and the warriors are about an hour's bus ride out of town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. apparently Xi'an was an ancient capital of China and Qin had himself buried at the foot of some hills a couple of kilometers from the amassed army. i gathered that they plan to excavate the large grass-covered mound that marks his tomb as soon as they can figure out how to do it without destroying all the artifacts in the process. that should guarantee a steady stream of tourist dollars for many years to come. along with a great deal of Chinese cultural education being disseminated to the capitalist peoples of the world, of course.

the rest of the warrior compound is fairly unremarkable, with a very strange "movie" which seeks to reenact some of the ravages that time and the occasional crew of pillagers have exacted on the statues, along with a couple of gift shops and more of China's ubiquitous hawkers and "official" tour guides. the small museum-ish areas are of little help to those who don't read Chinese (or have an official guide...), and once you've seen the warriors, you've pretty much seen it all. it's not really an all day type of thing, but it may be when the hordes of new shops they are constructing on the site are completed, probably just in time for the 2008 Olympics.

various views of the treasures at Xi'an, including one of the replica soldier Jill and I were thinking of adopting, and a close-up of the famously unique warriors. each has his own individual features and was uncovered holding a weapon befitting his rank and station, though the site administrators have taken them all away for "storage" or the Olympics or something like that.

so Xi'an was a whirlwind trip, but we were left with some time after the warriors to explore the city itself before our train out the very evening after our train in. as it turned out we would have been grateful not to have had that time, Xi'an being really just another large city whose major distinction may be that it was somehow even dirtier than Beijing. it's a little difficult to sleep on a moving train unless you start out pretty tired, so our wanderings around town were slow and sluggish, and led us only to the "Small Bell Tower", pictured below.

Xi'an's Small Bell Tower, an apparently fine example of those found in many Chinese cities.

there didn't seem to be a whole lot to see in Xi'an, but we got a pretty decent view of what there was from the guy who gave us a ride to the bell tower in the back of his three-wheeled scooter, which we later realized was actually his motorized wheelchair being put to profitable use. after another McDonald's lunch we made out several hours early for the train station on foot, not feeling like we would be missing much if we just sat there waiting. we were fortunate to have bought some kind of tickets that allowed us to wait in what I suppose was meant to be a VIP lounge, which we welcomed after having seen the unruly crowds amassing around the station. though we were used to Beijing manners by this point, I don't think we had seen people spit on the floor inside a building until Xi’an station.

but we had a good time in our VIP-type lounge. we met some folks from the States--Southern California even--and my favorite, some from right back home in Japan. there was a large tour group that filed very quietly past us, so we knew they weren't Chinese, and the travel agency stickers on their suitcases confirmed their nationality. we said hello, in Japanese, to a group of about four older ladies, and then I asked them, again in Japanese, where they were from. one of them leaned forward and, obviously proud of herself for so quickly ascertaining that we were not actually Japanese, said: “Japan”. well, it was very nice of her, and in any case, pretty soon we were onto our train, in a nice clean sleeping cabin, where this time we passed the night's journey back to Beijing quite restfully.

09 January, 2007

the日本語 (nihongo)

for some time now i have wanted to write something about the Japanese language for all the folks back home; it's something that we deal with every day and i have thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast it with the Chinese language, which i wrote a little about while we were in Taiwan.

apparently linguists are either unclear or undecided about how Japanese developed, but in terms of its writing, much has been borrowed from the Chinese. these characters, many of which appear quite complex, are called "Kanji" in Japan, and can, confusingly, be read in different ways, often several, depending on the context. a given character in Chinese has only one way of being read, but the same symbol in Japanese will have at least one borrowed (from Chinese), or on reading, which will sound similar to the Chinese pronunciation, and a few kun readings—the local reading. for example, the Chinese character山, read shan, and meaning mountain, looks exactly the same in Japan, and means the same thing, but could be read san, zan (on readings), or yama, (a kun reading), depending on the context. the wonderful thing is that there aren't really any hard and fast rules about which reading to use in a given situation; you just have to know.

for the would-be student of Japanese, all is not lost, however. while both languages (Chinese and Japanese) have phonetic character systems, only schoolchildren ever get to see the Chinese one, which is known as "buh-puh-muh-fuh", after the sounds of the first four characters. there are 33 more after these, and many are not nearly as easy for an English-native mouth to pronounce, which is one reason Chinese can be so hard to learn well. the sound of each Chinese character (of which there may be around 30,000) is usually made by combining two or three of these phonetic sounds. perhaps because they only borrowed some two or three thousand "Kanji", the Japanese make much more extensive use of their phonetic alphabets.

yes, alphabets: they have two. both are comprised of fairly simple-looking characters, and both have symbols that correspond to the same 46 sounds, which can be (and usually are) presented arranged in a very typically Japanese organized fashion, as the table below makes clear. the character on the left of each cell is the hiragana one, which generally is more curvy and has historically been thought of as a more feminine script. on the right is the katakana, which is more angular and now serves almost exclusively to denote words of foreign origin that have been adopted into Japanese. each Japanese sound consists of at least a vowel, which are the same as ours, and usually a consonant or two as well. the Japanese vowels, however, come in the order a, i, u, e, and then o, and always sound the same, much as they do in Spanish, for example. thus, a is always pronounced as in father, i as in ski, u as in flu, e as in they, and o as in hot. so the first line of sounds are simply those, while the next line are the vowels preceded by a k, so ka, ki, ku, ke and ko. the exceptions to this simple pattern begin in the very next line, the s line, where sa is followed not by si, but by shi. the exceptions are mercifully rare, however, with just four more in the whole table: ta is followed by chi and then tsu, not ti and tu; hi is follwed by fu rather that hu; and wo is really pronounced as just o. there is one more character, which looks like ん in hiragana and ン in katakana, and which serves as a nasal n sound, occurring only after one of the other phonetic sounds. thus n is the only consonant sound in which a Japanese word will ever end. Chinese is fairly similar in this respect, with n and g forming the only consonant endings.

the Japanese phonetic character systems
あ アい イう ウえ エお オ
kか カき キく クけ ケこ コ
sさ サし シす スせ セそ ソ
tた タち チつ ツて テと ト
nな ナに ニぬ ヌね ネの ノ
hは ハひ ヒふ フへ ヘほ ホ
mま マ
み ミむ ムめ メも モ
yや ヤゆ ユよ ヨ
rら ラり リる ルれ レろ ロ
wわ ワを ヲ

so these are the symbols that we see all about us every day. before we came to Japan i learned how to recognize and write all of the hiragana characters, but took the advice of several website authors to not bother with the katakana since it was less frequently used and would be easily learned as and when needed. i am glad i learned the hiragana but have found i would counsel learning the katakana first if coming to Japan, especially if the visit is a short one or if learning Japanese is not the immediate goal. though i am quite competent to make the sounds indicated by a given hiragana text, i still have very little idea what all my noises mean, so my ability has little practical use, at least in the short run. with a working knowledge of katakana however, you can often deduce some very useful things when you're out and about. looking at the dazzling array of rice balls in one of Japan's ubiquitous convenience stores, for instance, you would forgivably be unable to determine which one would actually be edible to your Western palate unless perhaps you found the one with シ—チキン on it. translating these symbols into their romaji (ostensibly yet another Japanese script, but really just the characters written in their roman letters) counterparts gives shiichikin, which might start to sound a little like "sea chicken" if you say it to yourself with enough imagination a few times. and we all know that sea chicken, or chicken of the sea is actually the very safe and quite palatable tuna from a can, so you just saved yourself from a rice ball stuffed with things like leathery seaweed boiled in sugar and soy sauce, for example.

so it's pretty simple, but there are a few more things we have to get to grips with, like what happened to all the other consonants? a good question, and one for which the canny Japanese have a ready answer: ten-ten. why it's called that I have no idea, but ten-ten involves the incorporation of another tiny symbol into the kana (the collective name inclusive of hiragana and katakana characters), either a small quote mark, ", or a degree symbol, °. only the h row can be ten-tenned with the degree symbol, but the quote symbol can be added to the k, s, t and h rows. doing so changes the sound of the consonants to g, z, d and b, respectively, while adding the degree symbol to an h row character changes the consonant sound to a p. (for the sake of completeness, it may be worth mentioning that the irregular sounds in the s and t rows come out sounding as follows: shi becomes ji; chi also becomes ji; and tsu becomes zu.) further, any phonetic in the a column that starts with a consonant sound can be written followed by a slightly smaller ya, yu, or yo to make another sound. thus, ha plus one of these sounds can become hya, hyu, or hyo.

the "ten-ten" characters
gが ガぎ ギぐ グげ ゲご ゴ
zざ ザじ ジず ズぜ ゼぞ ゾ
dだ ダで デど ド
bば バび ビぶ ブべ ベぼ ボ
pぱ パぴ ピぷ プぺ ペぽ ポ

so there is great scope for making different sounds, and it's all fairly straightforward, especially if you can see how the kana scripts are written. it does seem a little overwhelming though, given that there are at least 92 characters to memorize, and that's just for the phonetic systems. nevertheless, there are no capitals, which, if counted as their own symbol when looking different than their lowercase variant, would give the roman alphabet at least 37 characters, depending on who was deciding what "different" meant. plus, as i mentioned in the post on the Chinese language, while it seems a little burdensome to have to do so much memorizing with these languages, we actually do end up memorizing most of the words we ever use in English anyway.

anyway, that's enough of the mechanistic nitty gritty and the system defenses; let's look at a couple of examples of the 日本語 (nihongo, or Japanese), especially katakana, in action. first, my name. as with Chinese, family names come first in Japanese, but rather than directly translating my name into the literal Japanese for ball, or transliterating it into something that sounds remotely like ball, as bao (保) apparently did to the Chinese, Ball has simply and effectively been katakanatized into ボール (the dash after bo indicates the vowel sound should be doubled in length, so booru). then jay simply becomes ジェイ, the e in the middle having diminished size to indicate that it replaces the i part of ji, so you get jei. another good name I saw was of a baseball player imported from the States. タイロン ウッズ, or tairon uzzu in romaji, is actually Tyrone Woods of Nagoya's own Chunichi Dragons. then the place I last wrote about, the Little World. part of the reason it was so hard to find was that the signs to the place said simply リトル ワ—ルド: ritoru waarudo. wonderful. then you run into the problems of sounds that Japanese mouths can’t make, like th, for example. so you still have to pay attention to context to know whether バス (basu) is a bus or a bath: stay on your toes.

but all this talk about Japanese itself leaves out the best part: the unholy things the Japanese do to our own mother tongue. in China there was "Chinglish", here it's "Engrish", and examples are abundant. basically they both amount to English done badly or, as is often the case in Japan, just things that don't make sense or would never be said. one of my favorites, though not strictly incorrect, I saw on the back of a t-shirt here in Nagoya. it read "I hate myself and I want to die." who knows? we have a friend at church with a large collection of Engrish shirts, though most are decidedly sunnier than the one just described. Ryouta is pictured below sporting my favorite of his examples of the genre:

Ryouta and his shirt, which says: IT SEEMS EASY TO PLACE / YOUR WORK IN THE TRADITION / KKK / Keep Smiling / WHY DO YOU / THINK IT'S USE / LESS TO TRACE / Are You / Talki'n to me? / Thanks You

many more examples of these kinds of hi-jinks and just plain desecrations of the Queen's English can be found at the amusing Engrish website, while you can learn more about the Japanese language from the following websites I have found helpful in my studies. as if this post hasn't made you into an expert already...

the Japanese Page
learn Japanese
Japanesepod 101

disclaimer: the information in this post is accurate to the best of my very limited knowledge of the subject, but may be incorrect. please use appropriate precautions.

02 January, 2007


putting up all this stuff about China and Korea kind of makes it seem like we haven't done anything right here in our own backyard. we've been in Japan six months now, and by the time we'd been in Taiwan for six months there were literally only a couple of things in the guidebook we hadn't seen. Japan is a much bigger country of course, but we still haven't kept pace with our Taiwan days; we haven't even been to Tokyo yet, and plenty of wise souls have informed us that "you haven't been to Japan if you haven’t been to Tokyo". that may be stretching the truth a little, because we have managed to see quite a few cool things despite prohibitive travel costs and lack of appropriate time off work. then again, much of our off time of has been spent in foreign lands, and even some of the things we've done in Japan have had more to do with the world outside. one of the coolest places we have visited so far was in fact very international in scope, as the name attempts to make clear: The Little World Museum of Man.

welcome to the Little World.

Nagoya is sort of the industrial heart of Japan and is not really close to so much interesting stuff, but the Little World is one of the few attractions in easy driving range of the city, so we decided to check it out. despite their obvious fondness for travel, the Japanese also seem to relish having foreign things brought to them, and i'm not talking about imported candy bars and cars. there are apparently several theme parks around the country that replicate, often in miniature, various sights from around the globe, including one dedicated to Spanish buildings and culture and another to assorted wonders of the world. we hadn't heard much about Little World, and its website is of scant help to non-Japanese speakers, so we just expected it to be basically a series of small replicas of world monuments. we anticipated it would be extremely cheesy, just like the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village we had visited in Taiwan, and in fact spent the whole ride there making fun of the place before we’d even seen it.

houses from around the world (and in full size, too), with Japanese and Taiwanese house pictured below.

given that i'm writing a whole post about this place, you will no doubt have deduced that the Little World exceeded our expectations. not only were all the buildings full-size, but they had examples from all over the world--some very unexpected spots, too--and the whole place was really quite interesting. oh, and as a nice cherry on top, many of the buildings were distinctly not Asian smelling. this will seem a strange thing to say to those who have not been here, and indeed i cannot quite put my finger on what makes Japan or any other part of Asia smell the way it does. nevertheless, when you smell something that does not smell Asian, as we have done only this once since coming to Japan, it is an unmistakable sensation, and quite disconcerting.

Jill and i outside a surprisingly authentic-looking Samoan fale, and the most impressive (and unexpected) of all the houses: those from Burkina Faso.

the Samoan fale, pictured above, was one of two they had which were quite like some of the real ones i have actually seen in Samoa. it was quite hard to tell whether the buildings at Little World were brought there and reassembled or if they were just built there in the first place; some of both i suspect. the compound of houses from Burkina Faso was probably built on the site, and it was a very interesting area. that compound was supposed to house an entire family of four brothers, each with about three wives, and all of these adults having their own hut. the males' huts are square and the females' cylindrical, and very difficult to get into. the doors are very low and the hut floors deeper than ground level, so that standing up inside is possible despite the low profile the buildings cut from outside. it was a way of living that i had never before come across, much less seen up close like this.

a friend and i admire the interior of an Alaskan inuit home; below is seen the statuary guarding the Indonesian compound.

then there were a lot of houses from places we had been before, or that were at least familiar to us. there was a very authentic Taiwanese farmhouse, several North American teepees, and a bunch of stilt-houses from Thailand, along with buildings representing a few European nations. most of these were farmhouses or churches, but in the German area there was a restaurant serving several different kinds of sausages, of course. i had happened to wear my Volkswagen Japan shirt on the day we went, so it seemed like taking it home to be "in Germany", and i felt almost compelled to have some of the fare (though i cheated and had Austrian Wieners).

i had some fun being in "Germany", and enjoyed their (or the Austrians') delicious sausages.

altogether in any case, we had a very good, and quite educational time. at many of the areas you could dress up like the natives, a pastime that appears to be very big with the Japanese; though Jill really wanted to do as the locals, i declined to participate. many of the signs and explanations at Little World are in English and it was interesting to see how many similar developments appear to have evolved in separate cultures, such as the raised granaries found at many sites (and pictured near the top) and the separate male-female housing used in many areas. indeed, in several countries they even had separate toilet and cooking facilities.

we even learned how they got around in olden times, but had to remember modern innovations like the passport. we were given a Little World pencil for our diligent efforts to get a stamp from each country.

nevermind that to buy a Little World passport was about five bucks--it was well worth it, as was the park itself. but i want to make clear that this is not the only thing we have done since coming to Japan, indeed we have undertaken several fun activities that didn't involve leaving the country. down by the Port of Nagoya some (probably Italian) investors have built a very popular spot called Villagio Italia, or Italiamura in Japanese, at which the locals can get a sense of the home of Catholicism. actually it's not very Catholic at all, but rather a flashy shopping mall with a cover charge--still cheaper than going all the way to Italy though. they've built some replicas of Italian monuments and have even included real ocean water-canals for gondola rides, though they weren't operating when we went, due to high winds. a pretty cool place, but no Little World for sure.

one place that was almost as cool was a theme park we visited just after Japanese school started again in the Fall called Nagashima Spaland. where Magic Mountain has Marvel Comic characters and Knott's Berry Farm has Snoopy, Nagashima is presented by Peter Rabbit (?), but also boasts the longest (and absolutely the most rickety) wooden roller coaster in the world. this is quite a thing to have built in the country completely obsessed with ferris wheels--they are literally everywhere, there's one on the side of a mall in downtown Nagoya--but it doesn't half hurt. they also have one of the longest steel coasters in the world; too bad the line for it is even longer. the best ride though, which almost made me throw up, is called the Frisbee, and looks like a giant steering wheel dangling from a column held by two uprights. you can see a picture of it on the website i believe. basically you sit facing outward on the wheel, which then spins while the column is rocked back and forth like one of those pirate ship rides. it goes over the top once i think, and that's about where you lose your lunch, though you could probably catch it again on the way back down. after that the only thing to do is go over to the other side of the park, the waterpark which lends the spaland part of the title. there you find some pretty standard water rides, but also a few cool things, just like you do in Japan.