July 12, 2013

Glorious Lunch on Burnaby Mountain

Noticing sun outside, I grabbed my camera and climbed out of my basement office. Picked up some takeout sushi (don't tell my wife!), and headed up Burnaby Mountain for lunch. It was a good idea:

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Tancho crane eco-sculpture. Kushiro, Japan, is Burnaby's sister city.

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Kamui Mintara - Playground of the Gods - these Ainu "totem poles" are
another of Burnaby's connections to Japan.

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And not to worry, I will get the last four days of our Alaska cruise
posted here in awhile.

Posted by Paul at 08:09 PM

April 29, 2013

Balefire Says Goodbye to the Black Lion

Though I moved back to Canada from Japan over ten years ago, news like this blog post by a good buddy from my Big Mikan days still move me. Mike/Balefire and I used to tag team to produce the Tokyo PC Users Group newsletter for several years, and he's an excellent writer.

He says goodbye to a favourite pub in this post, a place I got to perhaps once or twice a month or so for a couple of years before I left Japan. I also remember D.B. Cooper's, another bar in the story. Yes, those were some wild and woolly days back when Tokyo seemed to float on wads of 10,000-yen bills, and I was younger and much less wise : -).

Posted by Paul at 12:39 PM

July 11, 2012

ESL Streets in Japan No Longer Paved with Gold

I occasionally get information and advice requests from friends whose kids wonder about going to Japan to teach English.

I went to Japan in 1985, taught for several years, and then moved into journalism. (I had degrees in Arts, Education and Journalism to back me up). After an initial tight year or two I eventually developed some great teaching gigs, all private contracts through personal connections. At one point I was teaching just three days a week (albeit leaving home at 6:30 a.m. and returning at 9:30 p.m.), averaging around C$60/hour, and enjoying four-day weekends.

That largesse is long gone. . .  In recent visits to Japan one and four years ago, I was shocked at the low wages on offer in ESL job adverts, accompanied by some high education requirements.

I've been back in Canada for over ten years now, so my knowledge of Japan's ESL market conditions are not what they once were, but when I got a recent request, I contacted a couple of buddies in Japan for insight.

Here is my initial stab at giving a Mom some advice for her daughter who was looking at teaching English in Japan:

It's been over 15 years since I was last in the English-teaching biz in Japan, and a lot has changed. A few of the leading chain ESL schools there have gone bankrupt over the last several years. I avoided the chain schools anyway (drudgery hours at low pay), lucking out with a private school that sponsored my work visa, and let me pick up my own contracts on the side. I'm not sure how well XYZ would get along without a degree -- that's been pretty much a minimum qualification for decent teaching work going back to the 80s. My sense is that TESOL qualification has also become more of an advantage since my heyday of the mid-80s/early 90s before I shifted to journalism. Please don't take what I say next the wrong way (but it's a fact of life, eh?) tall, attractive, young, blondish women have always done well in Japan... And while Japan is, relatively speaking, one of the safer countries in the world, it's also not that difficult to "stray" if you don't have a good grip on where you are, who you are, and, what you want.

To my gratitude, both friends in Tokyo responded to my e-mail plea for more up-to-date info within hours, confirming that the English-teaching boom that began in Japan in the early 80s and rolled along for 10-15 years, was over. The market is much tighter now, and higher qualifications are required for decent positions.

A succinct take from Kevin Ryan, a professor whose blog you can see at http://www.kevinryan.com/:

Had a friend with a daughter who just graduated university. She got a job at a chain school, and it was very exciting at first. She was able to get set up in an apartment, but ended up using most of her salary for rent and food, paying the "company store". She worked hard hours, about 30 contact hours a week, in a suburb of Osaka. It was OK, but she didn't have any time to do much else but work and live. She left after about 6 months. You need a solid MA in TESOL for anything more than that. The market has tightened up tremendously since you were here.

And a broader response from Mike Lloret, recently retired from corporate communication and training at a leading Japanese electronics firm. His blog is http://balefires.blogspot.ca/:

First, a quick response to the mother's points:

  • Experience working with children and tutoring is a plus; many schools, especially smaller private ones, derive more of their income than you'd think from classes for kids. Note that some of them can be very young kids, who may have little-to-no exposure to English outside the classroom.
  • Some sort of TESOL certification is becoming very important, as Paul notes. A degree is pretty much an unavoidable minimum requirement, and these days there is a strong preference for degrees in education, linguistics, TESOL, etc. Some employers are seeking those with Masters degrees.
  • There can be a little wiggle room with regard to the degree if the job-seeker has extensive experience, especially in Japan, but I wouldn't count on it, and that doesn't seem to apply in this case, anyway.

It might be instructive for the young woman to take a close look at gaijinpot.com, paying particular attention to the length of time the job offers have been there. Except for the openings in Fukushima and prefectures close to it--most of which are hard-to-fill replacements for teachers who fled what they saw as danger after 3/11--the openings represent employers holding out for better-qualified and/or cheaper applicants, not a lack of job seekers.

This might be instructive for background knowledge:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120703zg.html

Your comments about attractive blondes are accurate, as noted in this anecdote:

http://1000thingsaboutjapan.blogspot.jp/2012/07/will-miss-466-ease-of-getting-hired.html

and if the young woman is unaware of the Lindsay Hawker case, she should look it up.

The bottom line is that I don't think much of the young lady's chances of getting a decent job here, and definitely wouldn't recommend that she come over before getting a binding contract.

So, unfortunately, the good times seem to be over for "experience Japan by teaching a little English on the side." I'm not saying it can't be done, it just won't be as easy or fun as it was when money seemed to slosh around in abundance, and a ramen shop on the Ginza offered gold-dust garnish for your broth. . .

Posted by Paul at 08:34 PM

December 17, 2011

Gulliver’s Travels in Japan

My wife Yumi likes to call these the "Gulliver" photos. That's me with her dad, and me with her mom on our last visit to Japan in October this year.

Yes, I need to lose a few dozen pounds. That's why I'm signed up for the BMO Vancouver Marathon next May. My goal is to power-walk the half-marathon, and to lose 10kg (about 22 pounds) as I train.

Here we go:

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Posted by Paul at 10:17 PM

December 07, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 8 of Photos—Aomori

More photos from around Yumi's hometown in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan, taken in late October.

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Yumi with Eito, the family pup

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Eito on an access road out in the rice fields

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Early morning sun breaks over a forest edging the fields

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Colors get richer as the morning progresses

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Meito, the goat

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Reaching out for a nose scratch

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Papi the cat and I, love at first sight : -)

OK, a big, warm lap.

Something that strikes me about these animals is how they all instantly accepted me.

Yumi went to Japan earlier and spent a week with her folks and relatives before I followed, so she got to know these animals, all of them new additions since our last visit. Now, I know many animals are good judges of character, of whether or not someone is comfortable with them, or is a threat to them, or to their "family." But they are also fast judges of relationships. They're Yumi's parent's pets, but obviously they quickly grasped Yumi's place in the hierarchy, and then when I came along, they immediately understood my relationship to Yumi.

So there was no fear, no anxiety, no protectiveness.

Now I'm a nice guy, but I suspect I'd have gotten a very different reception if I'd walked into the yard the first time all alone.

Posted by Paul at 08:47 PM

December 05, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 7 of Photos—Hirosaki

A few photos from the small city of Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan, where my lovely wife Yumi went to university. I'm getting confused myself as to the numbering of these blog posts! I guess it's the 7th "day" that I've posted photos to this blog, but it doesn't correspond to the days of our October trip to Japan.

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The old library, constructed Western style in 1906

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Interior staircase

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Yumi by a display of Hirosaki historic buildings at miniature scale

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And moi by another model

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And here I am in front of the actual preserved building just a couple
of blocks away from the miniature display.
I love these perspective changes.

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Heading toward Hirosaki "castle." I put that in quotation marks
because while it's a lovely sight, it's not really a castle. It's one defensive
tower.

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Still looks imposing, and beautiful

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Posted by Paul at 09:17 PM

December 04, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 6 of Photos—Aomori Fall Colours

Continuing photos from our Japan trip in October, we finally made it up to Yumi's parents' place in Aomori, near the northern end of Japan's main island. We borrowed their car, and headed out to explore the autumn colours of the famous Oirase area.

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There are usually a couple of swans hanging around in this river near
Yumi's parents' place

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Yumi on the bank of the stream

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Two bees, or not to bee : -)

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A raptor soars near Lake Towada

Posted by Paul at 08:26 PM

December 03, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 5 of Photos

Back to posting more photos of our Japan trip in October. These are from Kakunodate, a town in Akita Prefecture that is known for its preserved samurai homes and thick-walled "kura" storehouses.

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Posted by Paul at 08:01 PM

November 25, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 4 of Photos—Part 2

OK, I'm finally getting back to posting more photos of our Japan trip in October. I'd left off with shots from Nikko, a World Heritage Site that I'd visited several times when I lived in Japan. It was great to be back, and as I mentioned, my wife Yumi and I arrived on the day of a biannual parade that re-enacts the transfer of the remains of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to the site hundreds of years ago. While folks in the thousands gathered for the parade, Yumi and I explored remoter parts of the beautiful shrine complex, then trotted back in time to catch the parade.

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Posted by Paul at 08:39 PM

November 09, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 4 of Photos

This next set of photos finds us in Nikko, Japan, a World Heritage Site, and a place were a few of Japan's founding shoguns are enshrined. It's a lovely place, with flamboyantly carved and decorated shrines, lush forests, and, often, crowds of people. Little did we know that we arrived on the day of a biannual recreation of a parade re-enacting the transfer of the remains of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to the site. That actually proved to be beneficial, as we wandered the further reaches of the lovely grounds in peace while most folks congregated along the parade route. No worries, I'll have parade photos up in my next post.

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Me in front of a fabulous gate

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The famous monkeys

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A lovely little rest area

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Yumi getting ready to board the bullet train : -)

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Nikko is famous for its water, and there are many public fountains
along the main road between the station and the shrine area

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Nikko Station

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And what's Japan without Hello Kitty?

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Mount Fuji from the bullet train as we zoom off back to our hotel
in Utsunomiya. Eerie scene is the result of a tiny pocket camera from
a train doing over 200kph at dusk.

I think this was my third or fourth time in Nikko. I believe my sister and I visited together when we first went to Japan in 1985, and then I went there at least once, if not twice, during the 14 years I lived in Tokyo.

There were gaggles of Japanese high school girls in their short plaid skirts on the local train from Utsunomiya to Nikko the morning Yumi and I went. It occurred to me that the first time I went to Nikko was well before they were born. And I had not a single white hair. Sigh. I whispered to my wife "would you like to be a high school girl again?" No way! The cruel awkwardness of youth is behind, and our best days are yet to come, eh?

Posted by Paul at 07:44 PM

November 08, 2011

Japan Trip—Day 3 of Photos

As mentioned, I am not giving exact dates to these photo collections. They are from my trip to Japan from Oct. 10-24. These are from Osaka.

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Approaching Osaka Castle

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Me, by a gate

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The canon is a signal piece from a later era

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The reconstruction shows the gaudy style preferred by Toyotomi Hideyoshi

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There are many massive stones in the moat and base, some weighing
over 100 tons. What's amazing is that often they came by ship from
hundreds of kilometers away, donated by vassal daimyo. Remember,
we're talking late 16th C technology here!

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A more modern building with fire/quake practice underway. Must
be quite the slide down one of those chutes!

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An electric Nissan Leaf that we passed on the street at a rental car place.
The proprietor was very friendly, giving us a tour of the car inside and out.

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It was our first time in Osaka, and in the evening we went to Osaka Station City to look for a place to eat. Took the escalator up ten floors to the restaurants. Each floor was 85% young women out shopping. Everything on the restaurant floor was $25/person and up. Not our style. We took the train one station over to Temma, figuring a smaller station would have cheaper eats. Found an amazingly long shotengai, or shopping street. Ended up eating too much for about $9/person. I had a Nagasaki sara udon set that came with five side dishes, while Yumi had champon noodles.

Posted by Paul at 07:45 PM

November 07, 2011

Japan Trip–Day 2 of Photos

As mentioned earlier, I am not assigning exact dates to these photo collections. They are from my trip to Japan from Oct. 10-24. These are from Izumo and Matsue.

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Yumi near the bottom entrance to Izumo-Taisha, one of the most
revered Shinto shrines in Japan. Unfortunately the main building
was under renovation, but we still enjoyed the trek up the hill, the
huge straw "ropes", and the other buildings.

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There is a series these "torii" or gates along the way

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The old Taisha train station is wonderfully preserved and evokes
memories of a bygone age.

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A fanciful, and somewhat phallic, turtle decoration on the roof tiles.
Turtles symbolize long life.

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And on to Matsue to visit the castle. Unfortunately is was raining steadily
but we persevered.

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Part of the moat

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The lovely keep

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View from the top

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Just starting to get some autumn colors

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Samurai helmet with devil motif. There's an excellent collection of armour
in the keep

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Though I've seen lots of samurai armour, I'm always surprized
at how small these fighters were. Few appear to be over 5'4" to 5'6"
or so. And slender - so the armour could weigh nearly half as much
as the man wearing it. No wonder some accounts of battles describe
mass slaughter when exhausted forces encountered fresh opponents.

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And one little bird with one big bug on the keep's roof!

We enjoyed Matsue, despite the steady rain. Ironically, the city is known for the wonderful sunset views toward the Sea of Japan. So tourist info centres, kiosks, hotels, etc., have signs showing sunset time, and the probability of clear weather - which was zero percent during our visit. I'm sure the scene below must be lovely during a gorgeous sunset!

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Izumo and Matsue are off the beaten tourist path, because it takes a good four to five hours to get there by train from the more populated and well-known Pacific Ocean side of Japan. But it was well worth the trip, and I hope some day we will personally experience a Matsue sunset!

Oh yes, it was also fun recognizing locations in Matsue used for photo shoots of Japan's NHK "Dan Dan" drama series, which we watched some time ago on TV Japan in Canada.

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Passing the time on trains is a lot easier when you pick up bento boxes
of delectable food : - ) Most major stations have "eki-ben" or "station
bento boxes," often featuring local delicacies.

Posted by Paul at 08:56 PM

October 30, 2011

Japan Trip–Day 1

Here are photos from the first day in Japan on our Oct. 10-24 trip. We walked and walked, from our hotel near Ochanomizu, around the Imperial Palace, past the Diet building, Roppongi, and to Shibuya. From there we walked to Meiji Jingu and Shinjuku, where we finally hopped a train back to the hotel.

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A view of the Imperial Palace moat

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Nijubashi at the Imperial Palace

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Sakuradamon

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Yumi by the massive gate

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Yumi in front of the Diet

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There's always a hefty police presence near the Diet to deter fringe elements

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Shibuya, famous for fashion

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Moi with Hachiko, the famous dog that always waited for its master at the station

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And in the Land of Cuteness, a Hachiko bus stop

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And a Hachiko bus

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Approaching Yoyogi from Shibuya

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Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Summer
Olympics. It has held up remarkably well in appearance.

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Entering Meiji Jingu from the Harajuku side. This shrine was one of my
havens when I was resident in Japan, and I walked through its grounds once
or twice a week on the way to work for several of the 14 years I lived in Tokyo.

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Donations of casks of nihonshu (sake) to the shrine from all over Japan

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The NTT Docomo Building as seen from Meiji Jingu

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Pond in Meiji Jingu grounds

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We love turtles!

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One of Tokyo's impressive jungle crows

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There were some pretty amazing spiders hanging about

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And a grasshopper.

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And some sort of wasp

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Walking toward Shinjuku. Contrast between NTT Docomo
tower and one of the few remaining old buildings around

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Our final destination on this day - Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku

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Where this Wako tonkatsu outlet was my destination :-)

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A happy Paul chowing down after a loooong day of rambling

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On our last several visits to Tokyo over the last 12 years since
we moved to Canada, we've always stayed at a reasonable business
hotel near Ochanomizu Station. There used to be one holdout, lovely,
w0oden house on this corner lot. We often wondered how long it
would last in a sea of hulking business towers.

Posted by Paul at 07:47 PM

October 29, 2011

Photo Stats from Japan Trip Oct. 10-24

The final photo tally from my Japan trip from Oct. 10-24 is: Nikon D300 DSLR - 1,604 shots; Canon pocket SD780IS - 465 shots. I will start selecting and posting photos to this blog over the next week. Rather than attempting to match blog entries to the actual Japan dates, I think I'll just use a "2011 Japan Trip - Day X" format.

Posted by Paul at 10:07 PM

July 27, 2011

Vancouver Japanese Powell Street Festival this Weekend

The annual Powell Street Japanese Festival is on in Vancouver this weekend.

Get a taste of the fun with my photos on this blog from last year.

Posted by Paul at 10:39 PM

March 18, 2011

Circles Within Circles

I have yet to write about the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The last week has been a blur, and I'll get around to it eventually. Immediately following the tragedy, after we eventually tracked down my wife Yumi's family and ascertained that they were OK, we decided we needed to refresh our quake kit here on the west coast of Canada where we've been living for the last 12 years or so.

We hauled it out of the front closet, and as I made my way through it, I realized that I'd bought the backpack that it was contained in around 1987 or 1988 while I was living in Japan. It's literally beginning to fall apart - signs of that hot, humid Asian climate that seems to eventually permeate backpacks with some impossible-to-get-rid-of mould that always rears its head eventually.

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Posted by Paul at 09:14 PM

Donation Option for Japan Aid

From my wife, Yumi:

My Japanese friends in Vancouver are calling for donations to this Japanese doctor, Dr. Norihiko Kuwayama.

He runs his own Tohoku International Clinic in Natori City in Miyagi Prefecture, but he is affected by the earthquake himself. Inside his clinic is all damaged and his nurses have lost their houses, so he even have to find new nurses. He moved his clinic to Yamagata Prefecture temporarily to continue helping people. He has been actively providing medical care in disaster areas around the world for more than 20 years, and he produced a film about his activities. I saw the film in Nikkei Centre in Burnaby last year.

His organization has non-profit status in Japan, but not a registered charity in Canada or US. His organization's name is Chikyu-no Stage (Earth Stage), but for overseas work, he uses the name "Frontline."

Website: www.e-stageone.org (all Japanese. I don't think there is English site.)
You can read some description about him: jccabulletin-geppo.ca/community-calendar/

The group that organized the film viewing event in Vancouver area has set up an account that accepts donations, and they said 100% of your donation will go to his clinic (no administration fee).

Stage Earth Earthquake in Trust
#9076-5212506
TD Canada Trust
Como Lake Shopping Centre, Coquitlam, B.C. V3J 3R3
PayPal: stage.earthvancouver@yahoo.ca

Since it is not a registered charity in Canada, they cannot issue a charity receipt, but if you would like, you can send a cheque to the following address to get a regular receipt.

Stage Earth Earthquake in Trust
c/o Tsuneko (Sue) Ishii
1957 Peterson Ave., Coquitlam, B.C.  V3K 1M2
If you have any questions, you can contact Ms Ishii: 604-521-4548

If you are more comfortable with a Canadian organization, and would prefer to get a charitable receipt, we are also donating to the Canadian Red Cross and its Japan Earthquake fund.

Posted by Paul at 12:25 PM

December 21, 2010

Adding Japanese Support to Ubuntu on IBM Notebook

The other day I installed Linux Ubuntu 10.10 alongside Windows XP on an older IBM T42 notebook computer. The Ubuntu install was flawless, and I can now dual-boot into either OS. Everything just worked, including wireless, and sleep and resume.

We've put that laptop on station on the main floor for easy Web access while watching TV, cooking, etc. My wife and I have our own offices, hers on the top floor and mine in the basement, each with our own tower computers, but for years I'd been lugging notebooks around the house. . .  Now there's one dedicated to the main floor Smile.

Anyway, she asked today if she could use Japanese on the Ubuntu notebook. Oops, I had forgotten to install additional languages. It took all of 5 minutes to install Japanese capability, and, OK, a reboot and bit of poking around to figure out the input method, but it worked.

She can now write in OpenOffice, email in GMail, and surf on Firefox, all in Japanese. Yay!

Oh, yeah, if you haven't heard, Linux, OpenOffice, Firefox etc., are all free.

Yep, free.

I salute the years of dedication by countless Open Source volunteers who made, and continue to, make it so.

P.S. Ubuntu appears to be smarter than both Windows XP and Windows 7 in one respect: I have a D-Link DNS-323 NAS (network attached storage) unit on my LAN (local area network). To get the NAS to show up on a Windows machine, the easiest way is to run a utility on the accompanying D-Link CD.  Ubuntu? It found the NAS all by itself. . .

Posted by Paul at 11:03 PM

December 11, 2010

Things to do in Tokyo

Friends of ours will be spending awhile in Tokyo, and I came up with a list of things to do. I lived in Tokyo for about 14 years, so the process made me feel very "homesick" for awhile. (Note that this list may be somewhat skewed toward an engineer who likes woodworking).

1) Railway Museum looks cool:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railway_Museum_%28Saitama%29
Yumi and I visited the old one when it was in a small building "downtown." We've never been to this new facility in the suburbs, which sounds impressive.

2) Akihabara Electric Town
The gizmo, gadget, computer, cell phone, electronic device capital of the world
http://www.akiba.or.jp/english/

3) Tokyu Hands - kind of like Michael's crafts, Staples and Lee Valley combined :-) South end of Shinjuku Station.
http://www.tokyu-hands.co.jp/en/index.html

4) Kinokuniya - bookstore with English-language section. One of the largest collections of books for sale in English about Japan.
As I recall it's next door to the Shinjuku Tokyu Hands store.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_Kinokuniya

5) Japan Traditional Craft Center in Ikebukuro
http://www.kougei.or.jp/english/center.html

6) Meiji Jingu
Beautiful park and shrine located about halfway between Shinjuku and Shibuya, two main Tokyo shopping/entertainment areas.
http://www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/

7) Omotesando & Takeshita Dori
Tree-lined shopping street in the famous Harajuku (at the south end of Meiji Jingu). Fashion, kid hangout, lots of fun to amble the streets on a weekend. Used to be a really funky area with old apts, pretty much all razed in the last decade and replaced with cutting-edge architecture, tho I miss the old atmosphere...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omotesand%C5%8D,_Tokyo

8) Asakusa Senso-ji temple
Huge temple with famous gate.
Shopping arcade
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asakusa

9) Ginza, the super-upscale shopping district, can be fun to amble around in. The Kabukiza theatre is in this area:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabuki-za

UPDATE: My Tokyo friend Mike passed on this article about Kabukiza-closing down.

People also like to hang out at the Sony building in Ginza to check out the latest gadgets:
http://www.sonybuilding.jp/e/index.html

10) Odaiba is the new shopping/entertainment area out in the bay that I was trying to remember the name of.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odaiba

11) Minato Mirai in Yokohama is a fun area.
Historic sail training ship Nippon Maru
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minato_Mirai_21

12) For a quiet getaway with a taste of hiking, there's Mt. Takao about an hour west by train from Tokyo. Relatively easy trail, temples in the woods...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Takao
http://www.takaotozan.co.jp/takaotozan_eng1/index.htm

13) Nice day trip to Kamakura
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamakura,_Kanagawa

14) Oh, yeah, there are several museums in Ueno Park. We haven't been there in at least 15 years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ueno_Park

Oops

15) How could I forget Yuzawaya in Kichijoji, another amazing crafts, toys 'n cool stuff store:

http://www.yuzawaya.co.jp/company/brochure2.html

Yuzawaya is in Kichijoji, right at the east end of the JR station. Kichijoji is a great dining, shopping area in western Tokyo where I spent a lot of time because we lived nearby. Inokashira Park on the south side of the station is nice, particularly in the cherry blossom season.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Tokyo/Kichijoji

Posted by Paul at 09:16 PM

September 24, 2010

Bye Ge-Ge-Ge No Nyobo

Japan's NHK (somewhat equivalent to Canada's CBC or Britain's BBC) has finished another of its 15-minute-per-day serial family dramas. I never watched these during my 14-year stay in Japan, but since we moved to Canada some 10 years ago, we signed up for TV Japan on cable and these serials have become a staple of our lives - a small thing that connects us to our previous lives in Japan.

They conveniently show at 6:45 p.m. our time, just toward the end of the local news, and because they're in 15-minutes bites, they're very digestible. . . and immersive.

In these drama series, NHK still lives in a world of extended families, hard-working men, long-suffering women, and all sorts of trials and tribulations that are modestly overcome through hard work and persistence. It's a combo of idyllic fantasy, and vestiges of WWII-era government-promulgated "sacrifice for the nation" exhortation.

It's a world in which the husband in a couple who have been married for several decades can hesitantly place his hand on his wife's shoulder, only to elicit an awed, loving response of "father!"

When the long-married couple in this last drama actually held hands in the final episode, my wife and I swooned - well, we giggled - but then the tears welled up for it just felt right in the context. . .

Somehow it all works, and makes for tear-jerking, compelling drama. Six days a week, for 15 minutes at a time, you get to know granddad and/or grandma, dad and mom, and siblings, kids, etc. There's no shying away from death and conflict and the changing of the years. . . If you can understand some Japanese, you almost feel like an extended member of the family.

I must admit I've shed a few tears over the last several years during several iterations of these dramas.

Now it's time to get to know a new family, and become immersed in their lives. . .

Posted by Paul at 08:33 PM

August 15, 2010

If You Can’t Beat the Heat, At Least You Can Wear a Yukata!

It's another hot one on BC's west coast today. Lots of high temp records broken. As of 8:00 p.m. the digital thermostat in the living room reads 28C. It's finally cooling a bit as evening falls, and we opened all the windows wide a few minutes ago. I'm sitting in my basement office, which is at least a couple of degrees cooler, sipping on a beer that spent the last 20 minutes of its life shifted to the freezer portion of the fridge to ensure tooth-dazzling coldness, and wearing my yukata.

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This light cotton robe-like garment is popular in Japan and is provided with one's room at traditional inns and many hotels, where it's a sort of loungewear that's also acceptable in public spaces, and also at festivals. This one's a fairly cheap touristy item, but I've also got a nice one that nearly sweeps the floor on my 6' frame.

I dunno why, but there's something about wearing a yukata that seems to make the heat more bearable.

Posted by Paul at 09:53 PM

August 13, 2010

Pride Kills: 25th Anniversary of Deadliest Single-Plane Crash Ever

I was surprised to see that it's the 25th anniversary of the world's worst-ever single-plane crash that killed 520 people and left only 4 survivors. I vividly remember news about JAL Flight 123 because it happened the year I arrived in Japan for what became a 14-year stay.

The memories also revive my anger at the Japanese government's response to the crash - something that you don't see much of in the news of the anniversary. US Forces were the first to pinpoint the mountainous site of the crash, and US rescue crews were standing by for insertion from helicopters, but the Japanese government refused all offers of assistance. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces didn't arrive on site until the next day.

One of the four survivors chillingly recalled how sounds from more survivors diminished through the night as the injured succumbed to shock and exposure.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions in this tragedy: at Boeing, at JAL, etc., but I still think that misguided national pride was one of the most stupid aspects.

To some degree I can understand the sentiment that Japan wanted to take care of its own, and didn't want to acknowledge that the always-contentious US bases in Japan had troops with the initiative, the training and the gear to accomplish what the JSDF could not.

But was pride worth those lives?

Posted by Paul at 08:25 PM

August 02, 2010

Wondering About a Canada Flag Pin

I was looking back at some recent entries on this blog, and the one on Lowe hiking and camera gear evoked a wonderful memory. It was one of those fragments that may have changed a life, perhaps nudged it a bit. I wonder what, if anything, came of that day when I literally reached out and touched another life?

It was a sweltering summer day in Japan nearly twenty years ago, give or take a few years. My good buddy Michael and I were heading home on a train after a long day hiking in the mountains west of Tokyo. Though we'd changed into fresh Ts and sandals from our sweat-soaked hiking clothing and heavy leather boots, we, and our steaming boots, still presented an assault on the olfactory senses of those on the crowded commuter train around us. I'm not a small guy, and Michael, who was then working toward his second-degree black belt in karate and regularly training with weights, was also imposing.

It was impossible not to be aware of us because of our race, our size and our big packs.

I noticed a small boy clutching his mother's hand and staring at us. He couldn't keep his eyes off us, despite his mother's embarrassment and hushed admonitions to look away.

What was going through his formative mind? He was obviously entranced by these two huge, hairy, foreign men. We must have looked like strange gods to him, albeit tired, sweaty, gods.

I smiled at the boy, which only made him grip his mother's hand harder, but he didn't lose eye contact. I wanted to do or say something, but what?

I recalled that I often kept a bunch of tiny Canadian flag pins arrayed on my backpack to share with hikers. I still had one left.

I unpinned it, and slowly stretched out my hand toward the little boy with the flag resting in my open palm. He looked up at his mother with a questioning glance, and she hesitated, then nodded and gave me a nervous, blushing smile, so he slowly stretched out his hand, and the pass was made.

I wonder if that little boy, who must be a man in his mid-twenties by now, also occasionally remembers that moment? Does he still have that pin in a dusty drawer somewhere?

Or perhaps he hikes the lovely mountain trails of Japan with that pin on his backpack.

I'd like that.

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Posted by Paul at 08:59 PM

July 31, 2010

Powell Street Japanese Festival Rocks!

Yumi and I took in the Powell Street Festival in Vancouver today and had a blast. It gets better and better over the years. It's so wonderful to revive "Japantown" for at least a weekend each year. The Issei and Nissei ancestors who used to populate this area of Vancouver would be proud!

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The main stage

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Love this recycling banner done traditional Japanese style

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Bring on Sawagi Taiko - Canada's first women-only taiko group!

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And now, the thrilling, exhausting Mikoshi!

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Posted by Paul at 08:42 PM

April 11, 2010

Happy to Find Old Friend’s Blog

I was happy to run across Balefire's blog today. Dunno how I'd missed it before. Balefire is a "live life to the fullest" character I knew back in my Japan days. For several years we were a tag team of editor and publisher of the Tokyo PC Users Group's monthly newsletter. I haven't seen Mike, er Balefire, in person in years, but his writing is as lively, perspicacious, and opinionated as ever.  A great read for anyone interested in life in Japan from the view of a gaijin who has lived there for decades.

Running across Balefire's blog also had me checking out the Tokyo PC Users Group website for the first time in years. It appears the club is thriving, which is great to see.

Posted by Paul at 08:26 PM

Burnaby Mountain – Kamui Mintara

We hadn't been up Burnaby Mountain in months and hoped the cherry trees would be in bloom, but most of the blossoms were gone already. I made up for the loss with a few shots of the "Kamui Mintara" poles carved by Ainu from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Burnaby has a sister city relationship with Kushiro, Japan.

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Posted by Paul at 08:10 PM

March 21, 2010

Saskatoon & Japan: Special Mention at 2010 Paralympics

"Saskatoon cross-country skier Colette Bourgonje and Japanese sledge hockey captain Endo Takayuki of Japan were awarded the special Whang Youn Dai achievement gold medals by International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven."

I nearly cried. Saskatoon is my hometown, and Japan is my adopted country -- the homeland of my wife. Those Japanese sledge hockey guys played their hearts out. Sorry, Canada--whose guys also played their hearts out. . . Sigh.

And now, it's really over. This Olympics doubter admits he had a ball. . .

Posted by Paul at 08:57 PM

March 18, 2010

Maclean’s Publishes Gross Errors on Korea, Japan

I am shocked at the March 22, 2010, issue of Maclean's. First, it somehow managed to place Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as dictators of South Korea (p. 9). Hello?

Then, in  a long article called "The Battle for Okinawa" the news magazine managed to turn decades of Japanese imperialistic expansion and military aggression (invasion and occupation of Korea? invasion and occupation of parts of China? Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbour?) and over five years of WWII into something it called the "1945 Battle of Okinawa, the Americans' 82-day long assault on Japan. . ." Apparently, according to Maclean's, "Japan fell to the Allies in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa." Uh, Hiroshima? Nagasaki? Japan did not surrender until the first, terrible, use the world has ever seen of nuclear weapons.

The errors continue to pile up. How about "Okinawa lost as much as a quarter of its civilian population (estimates vary)-both in battle and through mass suicides, propelled by rumours about the brutality of approaching American soldiers." There is plenty of documentary evidence that the rumours were just that - rumours - and that those rumours were purposely spread by the fanatical Japanese military defenders on Okinawa, who also had no compunction about mass-murdering their own citizens if they preferred to take their chances with the supposedly barbarian Yanks instead of "voluntarily" committing suicide.

Maclean's needs to have a serious meeting of its editorial staff and take a close look at the claptrap it's publishing. It's one thing to perhaps mistype "South" for "North" and have a series of writers, copy editors and editors miss the mistake, but ignoring and rewriting history is extremely worrisome.

Posted by Paul at 10:06 PM

December 29, 2009

Getting Into Hot Water

In response to a series of negative posts regarding on-demand water heaters on a mailing list:

While we have a gas-fired tank hot-water heater in our townhouse, I'm a bit surprised at the number of negative anecdotes regarding on-demand heaters.

As mentioned, they have been in widespread use for decades in Asia and Europe. I had several apartments in Japan with on-demand heaters and never experienced running short of hot water, or being subjected to spurts of cold water. And no matter what the outside temperature, it never seemed to take more than 10-20 seconds to get a steady flow of piping hot water -- certainly not any longer than it takes now for us to get hot water in the upstairs shower from the tank heater in the basement.

My wife's parents' place is in northern Japan, and it gets bloody cold up there for 4+ months each year, yet the suitcase-sized on-demand water heater in their house has never exhibited any such negative behaviour in 20 or more years of use.

If I may be so bold, I'd also venture that Japanese are among the greatest lovers of hot water in the world, and most have a tolerance, nay, an affinity, for soaking in water so hot that simply dipping a foot in it makes me want to scream :-).

Many Japanese shower/baths have faucets with a colour-gradated blue-red dial, accompanied by degree C markings. The top end of the red zone abuts a safety interlock button, which one can depress to be able to turn the faucet even further.

I wonder if some of this can be chalked up to a lack of experience in NA? I admit that when our hot-water heater died several years ago, we replaced it with another tank heater, but that was mostly due to the limited availability and greater initial expense of on-demand heaters here, combined with seemingly little knowledge or experience with them in local stores and among local plumbers.

Posted by Paul at 09:26 PM

November 25, 2009

Salmon Return to Japanese River

From the The Yomiuri Shimbun

This article is about salmon returning to the Chikumagawa river as flows improved after East Japan Railway Co. was directed to stop taking illegal amounts of water from the river to power trains in Tokyo.

Wow, amazing how one's life can change. When I rode the Yamanote Line in Tokyo on a daily or weekly basis for well over ten years from 1985 - 1999 I had no idea that some of the power was coming from a dam that was impacting salmon. Mind you I knew next to nothing about salmon, and nothing about streamkeeping back then.

Posted by Paul at 09:18 PM

August 31, 2009

Quick Musings on Japan Election Results

Someone asked me for my take on the results of the recent national election in Japan in which the opposition DPJ was victorious over the long-standing rule of the LDP. I haven't lived in Japan for some ten years and had not been following the election very closely, but here goes:

While in a sense the results are dramatic, I wonder how much change there will really be.

Many of the head honchos of the victorious DPJ are former LDP members who jumped ship over the years, hoping to get a shot at leadership. Many of the elite in both parties come from long political and even former aristocratic lineages.

Plus with the Japanese penchant for consensus and compromise, it's really hard to implement radical change. You also have the entrenched bureaucracy run by another fiercely traditional oligarchy from a very small coterie of elite universities and old boy's networks, and they're not going to be easy to move either.

Perhaps the DPJ victory is psychologically dramatic, but whether or not the party will be able to accomplish much is questionable. From what little I've read of their platform, it sounds like they plan to continue the long tradition of economic stimulus that hasn't worked much for the last couple of decades. While the LDP is viewed as being toward the right, and the DPJ moderately toward the left, I think in essence they're both of the "let's spend our way out of trouble" bent, and at this point that's like pushing on a string.

Some of the issues the J govt faces are intractable -- the rapidly aging population, massive underfunding of the government pension system, etc. I don't think there's much wiggle room for any party.

I think one of the main things that's kept Japan afloat is the massive cumulative personal savings squirreled away, for most part, in low-interest Japan Post accounts. Cheap money for the govt!

On our last trip to Japan about two years ago I was blown away by all the massive commercial/office tower developments recently completed or underway all over Tokyo. You'd never think the economy had been in a terrible slowdown for decades, or that the population had actually begun to shrink! I wonder who the heck is going to occupy all that space. Is it all really economically justifiable, or is much of it stimulus and cheap money gone mad? I suppose much of this Class 1 office space is being taken by firms upgrading from older buildings, but still.... I have this uneasy vision of huge, empty towers dominating a Tokyo with a shrinking population like some dystopic manga movie.... The lights are burning, but is anyone home?

But then again perhaps those towers have all been filled in the two years since our last visit and are happily humming away with life. I haven't read any Tokyo real-estate articles in ages.

Posted by Paul at 12:26 PM

June 02, 2008

Lovely Ukrainian Interpretation of Japanese Songs

My aunt Roma clued me in to these beautiful renderings of Japanese songs by Nataliya Gudziy, a Ukrainian singer, bandura player, and Chernobyl survivor. My Japanese wife was impressed with Nataliya's pronunciation and beautiful voice. I'd love to see Nataliya in a duet with Angela Aki!

Posted by Paul at 08:45 PM

January 01, 2008

Ringing In the New Year at Tozenji

Japanese traditionally go to a temple on New Year's Eve for a short service and then to ring in the New Year on the temple bell. For the last several years Yumi and I have been going to Tozenji Temple in Coquitlam. It's a beautiful facility, and the head priest always brings the service to a close with a funny, yet moving, sermon.

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Preparing to start the bell ringing.

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Looking into the temple from outside after the service.

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Posted by Paul at 07:03 PM

October 24, 2007

Aomori Pets

It was great to hang out with the pets at Yumi's home. Mukkun the dog, who is pushing 15 years, revived remarkably and was raring to go for walks, while Cat C -- yes, the other two are called A and B -- was a cuddly furball.

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Posted by Paul at 08:35 PM

October 23, 2007

Aomori Autumn Colours

The mountains near Yumi's hometown in the Japan's northern Aomori Prefecture are gorgeous in the autumn. Most of these shots come from the famous Oirase area.

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Yumi's mom taking photo of Yumi and her dad.

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Posted by Paul at 08:16 PM

October 18, 2007

Nagasaki Sara Udon and Champon

After the morning spent retracing the horrors of atomic weapons, we headed back to the Dejima area, and had lunch by the waterfront at Dejima Wharf. Two of Nagasaki's famous dishes are Nagasaki Sara Udon, or crisp noodles covered with a seafood and vegetable sauce, and Nagasaki champon, a succulent noodle soup.

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Nagasaki Sara Udon

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Yumi tackling a bowl of champon.

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Throughout our stay in Nagasaki we saw many of these impressive raptors soaring overhead.

Posted by Paul at 08:24 PM

Nagasaki Nuclear Bomb Memorial

Our first morning in Nagasaki we headed out to pay our respects at the atomic bomb memorial and peace park. With the sun shining brightly on the beautiful harbor city surrounded by mountains, it was hard to believe that 60 years ago much of it had been instantly rendered a radioactive wasteland with tens of thousands of dead and dying.

The peace museum was powerfully moving, with haunting images and artifacts. It also does not overlook Japan's imperial expansion and aggression.

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Preserved ruins of the Urakami Cathedral. The cathedral, then the largest in East Asia, stood near the epicenter of the blast. It is ironic that Nagasaki was likely the most "Western" city in Japan at the time, and had the highest proportion of Christians in Japan.

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I had never quite understood the symbolism of the Nagasaki peace monument until I read the plaque with the following words:

Words of the Sculptor

After experiencing that nightmarish war,
that blood-curdling carnage,
that unendurable horor,
Who could walk away without praying for peace?
This statue was created as a signpost in the
cause of global harmony.
Standing ten meters tall,
it conveys the profundity of knowledge and
the beauty of health and virility.
The right hand points to the atomic bomb,
the left hand points to peace,
and the face prays deeply for the victims of war.
Transcending the barriers of race
and evoking the qualities of both Buddha and God,
it is a symbol of the greatest determination
ever known in the history of Nagasaki
and of the highest hope of all mankind.

Seibo Kitamura
Spring 1955

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Nyokodo. It's tiny, yet so moving...

From the plaque:

Nyokodo (As Thyself Hermitage) is the sickroom and study used by Dr. Takashi Nagai, honorary citizen of Nagasaki City. Born in Shimane Prefecture, Dr. Nagai graduated from Nagasaki Medical College and majored in radiology. He was exposed to excessive doses of radiation while treating large numbers of tuberculosis patients with poor equipment. As a result he developed chronic myeloid leukemia and was given three years to live. Two months later he was injured in the atomic bombing and lost his wife, but he continued his selfless efforts for the rescue of the atomic bomb victims, finally falling bedridden. However, spurred on by his sense of scientific mission and also his Catholic faith, Dr. Nagai wrote more than ten books from his sickbed here. He named the building after the Christian maxim "Love others as you love thyself" and live here with his two children, appealing to the world about the foolishness of war and the importance of peace until his death on May 1, 1951 at the age of 43. Nyokodo continues to this day to serve as a symbol of Dr. Nagai's spirit of peace and brotherly love.

Posted by Paul at 07:41 PM

October 17, 2007

Kurashiki Charms With Canals, Crafts

We left Himeji around noon and took a side trip to Kurashiki on our way to Nagasaki. Kurashiki has preserved an area of town with charming canals, old warehouses, and lots of arts and crafts.

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The curry shop where we had lunch.

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Posted by Paul at 11:15 PM

Himeji Castle

OK, here we go with about a dozen views of Himeji Castle.

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Posted by Paul at 10:47 PM

137 Views of Himeji Castle?!

Yes, I took 137 pictures of Himeji Castle, and I'm having a tough time winnowing them down to, say, a dozen to post here. If we'd had more time, the shutter would likely have dropped a few more hundred times....

The castle is one of few in Japan to survive in original condition following the destruction at the end of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, and the bombings of WWII. While there are quite a few reconstructed castles around Japan, none compare to the sheer immensity and beauty of Himeji.

When I first experienced the castle 22 years ago, I was packing a Nikon F2 and Fujichrome slide film, so as I recall, I limited myself to a 36-exposure roll or two. This time I was packing several SD cards the size of the first joint of my thumb (but much thinner) in the 1 - 4 GB range that could hold anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand shots each at the highest 8MP setting on my Canon S5 IS digital camera....

That said, I think I'll return to editing photos later, and will leave this here as a teaser :-). G'night...

Posted by Paul at 08:27 PM

Himeji Hotel Breakfast Hard to Beat

Yumi did an excellent job of booking hotels in Japan on the Web, and one prize for its amazing breakfast buffet was in Himeji. The Hyogo Floral Inn Himeji was a nondescript business hotel, but for 10,000 yen (about C$83) who cares, particularly since the all-you-can eat breakfast included in the price was eye-opening in its variety.

Think Japanese breakfast: broiled salmon, pearl-like rice, salty miso soup, crisp nori (seaweed), assorted pickled vegetables, fruit...

Think Western breakfast: crunchy bacon, juicy sausages, scrambled eggs, assorted calorific pastries...

It had it all. Needless to say, I doubled up on Japanese and Western, with a few extra portions of the delectable miso soup to wash it all down. Groan...

Posted by Paul at 06:41 PM

October 16, 2007

Meeting Old Friend in Kobe

Our first stop on our way down to Nagasaki was at Shin-Kobe where we were to meet an old friend for dinner and drinks.

I'd met Michael in Tokyo 22 years ago, and over the years we'd witnessed each others' marriages to our wonderful Japanese wives, we'd established a business together, and had been staunch hiking partners exploring many trails in Japan. Michael and his wife Tomoko moved to the US a year before Yumi and I moved to Canada in 1999, and we'd only seen each other once in North America some seven years ago.

Fortuitously, Michael happened to be doing some consulting in the Kobe area, and when we discovered we'd be in Japan at the same time, we had to meet.

We had such a great time chewing the fat, drinking beer and eating scrumptious izakaya tidbits, that I plumb forgot to take a picture of our reunion :-(.

Oh, well, it was a wonderful few hours before he had to head back to his apartment, and Yumi and I jumped on a bullet train to get to our hotel in Himeji.

Posted by Paul at 07:56 PM

Bullet Train Trip Begins

After seeing a client for lunch in Tokyo on Tuesday, Yumi and I headed off on our travels. With Japan Rail Passes in hand, Yumi organized a series of bullet train tickets that would take us all they way to Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu with stops at Kobe and Himeji on the way down, Fukuoka and Hiroshima on the way back north to Tokyo, then all the way to Aomori at the northern tip of the main island of Honshu and back to Tokyo. The JR agent at Kanda Station in Tokyo where we made our seat reservations was amazed at all the stops we were making. The JR Pass is a great deal -- we likely did over 200,000 yen worth of traveling each on passes that cost less than a quarter of that amount.

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The shinkansen bullet trains are magnificent beasts that run like clockwork.

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Cleaners line up to ensure the bullet train is spick and span before passengers board.

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Posted by Paul at 07:42 PM

October 15, 2007

Tokyo Morning, Kichijoji Ramble, Akihabara Changes

We were up by 6:00 on Monday morning, and decided to head out to our old stomping grounds in the Kichijoji area in western Tokyo. We planned to walk around Inokashira Park on the south side of Kichijoji station until the stores opened at 10:00.

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Walking on side streets on the way to Ochanomizu station we got a glimpse of the Nikolai Cathedral among office towers.

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A holdout householder -- the land must be worth millions...

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A Chuo Line train pulls into Ochanomizu station.

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Inokashira Park with shrine, aeration fountain.

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A detail of the shrine.

The small park surrounded by the urban jungle had an amazing variety of wildlife.

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Yumi with binoculars in hand, pointing out another species of duck.

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After a couple of hours in the park, we headed back into the shopping arcades and streets of funky Kichijoji.

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The main shopping arcade.

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A shop selling traditional crackers.

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A kimono store selling the real stuff, not tourist junk.

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Personalizing cell phones is a big business.

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Blowfish swim in a restaurant's aquarium.

As lunch approached I began thinking more about food, so I headed over to the Seiyu department store, knowing the basement food floor featured an amazing variety of prepared items.

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A lineup of packaged meals.

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A mouth-watering variety of onigiri rice balls.

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More great stuff! I love Japanese supermarkets!

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This display of tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlets) reminded me of a tonkatsu restaurant nearby, so I headed out to find Yumi.

Yumi was shopping at Yuzawaya, a huge crafts store at the east end of the station, and I was to meet her there at 11:30. When I arrived, I found a large Halloween display -- I don't recall the event being such a big deal in Japan five or more years ago! Japanese retailers are experts at appropriating any sort of holiday from any culture to flog more goods :-).

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Hmmm. This costume looks like it's more suited to, ahem, tricks rather than treats!

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We were momentarily distracted by this sushi mountain plastic display...

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But ended up at our favourite tonkatsu place in the LonLon mall. Yum!

In the evening we walked over to Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics wonderland. When we arrived, I was completely disoriented -- the area has undergone huge development, and it took me 15 minutes of wandering around to gain my bearings. I was seeking a new memory card for my digital camera and the prices in the major stores were out of sight. I knew I could do better if I could find some of the teeny shops I'd frequented years ago. I finally tracked a few down, and sure enough, the prices were less than half of the major electronics retailers.

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A manga character billboard.

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Yumi checking out canned noodles -- a recent phenomenon that we'd heard about but not experienced first hand.

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We ended the long day back on the Kanda shopping street, where we closed out the evening with beer and munchies at an izakaya pub.

Posted by Paul at 07:23 PM

October 13, 2007

Off to Japan

I'm off to Japan today, and am not bothering to take a notebook computer with me, so this blog will be in hibernation for a couple of weeks. When I get back I'll start filling it in with photos and commentary starting from the beginning of the trip.

It's been nearly four years since Yumi and I were last in Japan. Since we moved to Canada some eight years ago, we've returned to visit family, friends and clients every one to two years; however, a series of events including my two-year MA in Professional Communication program at Royal Roads University conspired to make for a long gap.

I'm really looking forward to the trip. In addition to visiting Yumi's folks in Aomori Prefecture, we've got meetings set up with several clients in Tokyo (these short meetings and lunches are important in maintaining contacts and keeping the work flowing), and lunches and dinners scheduled with several friends.

We're also taking a week to ourselves to take a swing down all the way to Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu with several stops at key tourist points along the way. Neither of us has visited Kyushu and we're looking forward to it.

I'll start posting entries and plenty of photos starting around Oct. 29. See you later!

Posted by Paul at 10:57 AM

January 01, 2007

NHK Kohaku Music Show Surprises

My wife and I always watch Japanese national television NHK's (English site here) year-end Kohaku men vs. women singing extravaganza. I believe this year was the 57th running, and some of the singers haven't missed a show -- just kidding :-). It's a tradition, and while the music ranges from insipid to (rarely) inspired, it's a way to catch up on the Japanese music scene, see who is in and who is out, and rate the songs while giggling, and occasionally, sniffling at the odd tear-jerker.

Kohaku has also become a lifeline to the "good old days" when we lived in Tokyo, and often watched the show live while visiting Yumi's parents in cold, snowy, northern Japan.

The younger pop stars are usually not very good, to be charitable -- most of them are mass-produced by mainstream Japanese music companies, and it shows. It's gotten to the point that I almost prefer the traditional, overblown, sappy enka singers, mainly because some of them have real pipes.

NHK, staid as it is, has gradually increased the amount of flesh allowed -- perhaps ratings have been declining. Skirts have been getting shorter, blouses more plunging, bras more pneumatic, and one song this year blew the audience away with apparently topless female dancers. A few songs later, an announcer came on to apologize after a rash of telephone complaints, explaining that they were not really naked, they were wearing costumes that made them look naked. OK, whatever, the result was the same :-).

Anyway, there was a real gem in the show this time around -- Angela Aki (also see Wikipedia). I'd never heard of her, but she blew us away with her flawless, pitch-perfect singing, her capable piano playing, and, as if it matters, her Nana Mouskouri looks. I've already ordered a CD, and have been checking out videos of her on YouTube.

I really have to get back to monitoring music more closely!

Posted by Paul at 06:39 PM

January 20, 2005

Review - The Honorable Visitors

Review - The Honorable Visitors: The plot to assassinate Charlie Chaplin and other Tokyo welcomes...

by Donald Richie

"To visit Japan... even now, in the age of jumbo jets and package tours, a faint air of the exotic clings to the project. You are going to a land somehow strange, somehow other. This quality of the different, the unfamiliar, can be an attraction, something to be enjoyed, or it can be a discomfort, something to be complained about. It depends on you."

Richie puts his delightful insights and delectable prose to good use in this charming collection of stories about the visits of famous Westerners to Japan following the opening of its closed borders in the later part of the 19th century.

Ranging from Ulysses S. Grant to Rudyard Kipling to William Faulkner, we get a cross section of the cross, the enamoured and the factually observant.

A gem of a short collection, it should be mandatory reading for all prospective and practicing travel writers or cultural critics.

Posted by Paul at 07:33 PM

January 17, 2005

Review - The Ronin

Review - The Ronin: A Novel Based on a Zen Myth

by William Dale Jennings

This is a mind-bending tale. Violent and ribald, it is a pithy take on pride and human weakness. The language is taut, the perceptions of humain frailties are uncomfortable, the Zen mystique and way of the sword are thought provoking.

Not a novel for the timid, or those who cannot stomach a blunt, down-to-earth look at life, once hooked, you'll want to read it again.

Posted by Paul at 09:45 PM

December 24, 2004

Review - Zen in the Art of Archery

Review - Zen in the Art of Archery
by Eugen Herrigel

This whimsical tale of a European learning Zen through the practice of Japanese archery for six years between the great wars is a profoundly satisfying little read.

Just over 100 pages long, it chronicles the author's attempts to lose his "willful will" and become one with the art. A wonderful introduction by T. Suzuki ably sets the stage, and the reader is carried along with Herrigel's frustrations and gradual progress.

Posted by Paul at 12:45 PM

June 14, 2004

Cheerful Laughter Amidst Tragedy of New Denver

Continuing our trip homeward, we left Nakusp around noon on June 8 and headed for New Denver. We wanted to visit the Nikkei Memorial Internment Centre there.

The few buildings are the only existing remnants of all the internment camps that held some 22,000 Japanese-Canadians during WWII -- a shameful stain on Canada's history, as over 70% of the internees were Canadian citizens. They were uprooted from B.C., and then after the war ended they were not allowed to return home, but had to move east of the Rocky Mountains.

As we walked into the site, we could hear a happy male voice laughing and chattering away. We entered the reception area, and the man behind the voice looked familiar. My wife Yumi exclaimed, "I've seen you on TV!"

It was "Nobby" Hayashi, former bat boy for the famed pre-war Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball team, and we'd seen him in a documentary video that was produced when the team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame recently. Better late than never....

We toured the centre, and as we moved from building to building, my anger and sadness grew at what had transpired in a so-called democracy, and at the blatant racism. It was shocking to hear cheerful women's voices calling to each other in Japanese as we walked around the site, and to turn a corner to see beaming, beautiful, elderly faces in a place that to me seemed to hold such sadness.

I had many questions for Mr. Hayashi. He said there were only about 20 Japanese left in New Denver, all that remained of a handful of tubercular and family-less internees who were allowed to stay on in the town when the other 2,000 or so internees were forced to move east when the camp closed.

They must all be in their 70s to 90s.

I didn't ask what will happen when they're all gone.

I sat in the beautiful gardens created for the centre among the ghost-filled buildings, and pondered people's inhumanity toward other human beings.

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Yumi entering the building in which we found Nobby Hayashi manning the counter.

Posted by Paul at 08:59 PM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2004

Japanese City Councillors Visit Byrne Creek

Byrne Creek Streamkeepers hosted a group of seven city councillors from Okayama City in Japan this morning. They were in Vancouver and Burnaby on an unofficial visit and wanted to meet a volunteer group working on environmental issues.

It was interesting to see a group of men in suits with nearly no English-language abilities loosen up and have a great morning with a bunch of T-shirt clad streamkeepers. We are fortunate to count two Japanese volunteers in our group, Maho Hayashi, and my wife Yumi, who helped AK Travel Canada Ltd. owner Masaaki Kawabata interpret throughout the morning.

Our visitors quickly shed their ties as we explored the creek, and initial awkwardness on both sides blossomed into animated exchanges of questions and answers about storm drains vs sanitary sewer systems, flap gates and tides, city contributions and volunteer work, and even some mutual "testing" of playground equipment and a seesaw in Ron McLean park.

We presented our guests with our own brochure, a City of Burnaby storm drains brochure, and a Japanese-language streamkeeping synopsis and history of Byrne Creek prepared by Yumi and Maho.

Louise Towell and Joan Carne, streamkeepers and founders of the Stream of Dreams Murals Society, gave each councillor a small dreamfish. We were also pleasantly surprised when they all bought Byrne Creek Streamkeeper T-shirts!

This was the second time that Byrne Creek Streamkeepers have hosted a group from Japan through Masaaki's auspices, and we'd like to thank him.

Posted by Paul at 06:59 PM | Comments (0)

April 20, 2004

Silly Error Appears in Maclean's Japan Story

Why do western newspapers and magazines continue to publish cutesy stories about Japan without checking facts?

In the April 26, 2004, Maclean's, Steve Burgess writes: "Such unusual touches and jarring cultural snapshots have caused westerners to put Japan under a microscope for years." OK, one would assume that he would then have a passing acquaintance with his subject.

However, he later states: "Japanese writing features three different sets of characters. One of them is reserved exclusively for spelling out things that are not Japanese, such as the signs of foreign-owned restaurants." Not true.

If you look at the main photograph accompanying the article, it shows several Japanese companies displaying their names in katakana, the script that is supposedly reserved only for foreign words, or even in English characters, for huge outdoor advertisements.

I have beside me a Japanese-language catalog from electronics retailer Yodobashi Camera from my last trip to Japan a few months ago. The Yodobashi Camera logo is in katakana. Inside the catalog names of leading Japanese companies including Sony, Nikon, Canon, etc., are rendered in katakana, or simply in English characters.

Better take another look into that microscope!

Posted by Paul at 08:44 PM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2004

Is Sony Ripping Off Canadians?

Why is Sony charging substantially more in Canada than in the U.S. for the same products?

I saw a new Sony camcorder in a flyer today, the Digital 8 DCR-TRV460. Our old Sony Hi8 camcorder died nearly a year ago, and I'm interested in getting a Digital 8 model that can play back our old Hi8 tapes. The TRV460 can do that.

However, at Sony Canada, it's listed at C$699.99. At Sony U.S., it's listed at US$399.99. When I do the conversion, that's about C$530. Why is it nearly C$170 cheaper in the U.S.? That's outrageous.

I previously wrote about how much cheaper cameras and electronics are in Japan than in Canada, and I'm shocked to find such a huge disparity exists between Canada and the U.S.

Consumers ought to complain -- and loudly!

Posted by Paul at 05:46 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2004

SkyTrain Shops? It's About Time

The lower mainland's TransLink system has issued a request for proposals for retailing opportunities at SkyTrain stations. The idea is to generate revenue for the transit system while improving safety in and around SkyTrain stations by creating thriving retail communities.

I say it's about time.

Having coffee shops, convenience stores, dry cleaners, barbershops etc. at SkyTrain stations would greatly improve community life and safety. I lived in Tokyo for about 14 years, where train and subway stations are bustling hubs of activity.

I've never understood why that model has not been followed in the lower mainland. However, I would go further and implement more lessons we could learn from transit systems in Japan.

1) SkyTrain stations need gates. That would eliminate the flagrant abuse of the system as a drug trafficking and petty theft freeway. It would also recoup lost revenues.

2) Perhaps we don't have the population density for this proposal, but another feature of most train and subway stations in Japan is a "koban" police box that is manned 24/7 by officers who know their community. They take reports of lost and stolen items, do neighborhood bicycle patrols, respond to local incidents, and generally keep an eye on things.

Food for thought.

Posted by Paul at 04:36 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2004

The Language of Visible Minorities

My Japanese (born, raised, and still citizen) wife and I have noticed that visible minorities in Canada often get tagged with an un-hyphenated label, no matter how many generations they've been here.

"My broker is Chinese." "My real estate agent is Filipino." "My hairdresser is East Indian."

I grew up being taught to be proud to be "Ukrainian-Canadian" and though I haven't identified myself much with that community for years, I find this strange.

Why don't visible minorities at least get the hyphen? "My dentist is Chinese-Canadian." Nope, it's: "My dentist is Chinese," even if his great-grandfather helped push the railroad through the Rockies over a hundred years ago, well before my Ukrainian ancestors arrived in Canada.

My wife and I have never said, "Our real estate agent is English." It's never crossed our minds to say, "We dealt with an Irish woman at the bank when we got our mortgage."

So what gives? I thought we were multicultural and colour-blind.

I've got a lot more thinking to do about this, and so do many other people I've encountered....

Posted by Paul at 08:53 PM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2004

Canadians Ripped Off

I think Canadian consumers are being ripped off, particularly when it comes to high-tech products.

Let's take an example:

A Canon Powershot Digital Elph S400 goes for around C$650 at major Canadian retailers and webshops. Try London Drugs.

In Japan you can buy one for as little as C$460. Check out Kakaku, a Japanese comparative shopping site. If you can't read Japanese, take my word for it :-).

Does it really cost C$200 per unit to ship 'em over here? I doubt it.

Posted by Paul at 09:57 PM | Comments (0)