Tuesday, January 31, 2006

My Complex Feelings Toward $400

Good news is always slow in arriving. I had been reading the internet intently, watching for news of the Alberta Government's release of cheques to every Albertan due to windfall oil revenue. The news came in the form of an email from my parents. I suppose in some way its part of a social contract to keep the population from revolting and just passing the pure profits straight to big business but I'm not complaining. If there is anything positive about the free market I can say about this little exercise, it is that I rather see the funds be spent from the bottom up rather than funneled into the ridiculously inefficient trickle-down effect (an issue talked about openly in Japanese economic circles). I do, however, wish that more thought was put into how it was spent. I would have liked to see at least some of it save with the future in mind. I would have stressed education, universities and research, and ultimately innovation, myself; and too that end I will be spending most of the cheque on paying off my student loan.

I had an interesting conversation trying to explain the whole situation of high oil revenue and the sending off of private cheques by the government of Alberta with one of my teachers. Japan, by itself, lacks many natural resources when compared with other countries. And so what we in Alberta might consider the next logical step are completely foreign to many Japanese. An issue tightly coupled with this, throughout Japan's history, is food importation. At the moment, Japan is on the extreme high end of any measurement of food importation and on the low end of self-sustainability. Japan produces no where near enough food; meaning around 70% of all food is imported. Most of this is made up from trade with China. To complicate the matter, the importation of this food is tightly coupled with the price of oil. Any increase in the price of oil, causes an increase in getting the food to market thus the overall price to increases. One always thinks of Japan as a very advanced country (which is not misplaced) and so it is counter-intuitive to consider a large food deficit.

Some dedicated readers may wonder why I move the same picture from yesterday to the top? Besides not taking any pictures today, I believe having a picture at the top, instead of just text, draws readers in. I have been doing this forever now but a recent story on Slashdot.com confirmed my reasoning. Slashdot.com ran a story saying that people judge a website in a fraction of a second. Which I can certianly believe because when I surf blogspot.com if you have a stupid, unnatural layout I'll always hit the next button before the page even finishes loading. I'll let a Swedish or Malaysian website load before I let some stupid pic of fairies with white type on a pink background fills my whole Safari window. Is this not just common sense?

Going out tonight for a bit (after I get a haircut). It been warm, but overcast, today and Kevin and I are wondering if it is going to snow.

Monday, January 30, 2006


As promised, I have included my favorite picture from yesterday below. I quite like the shot especially because it was shot blind without looking at the LCD screen (because I was carrying one of my students on my back). I was only able to view the shot later at home and thought it was quite striking. The student's body is interestingly posed, sort of twisted, looking out of frame, and is very engaging visually. The sunlight, casting long shadows, also plays an interesting role. You will probably be surprised to learn that the shot was not taken late in the day but right around noon; thus the nature of (low-angle) winter-season light is revealed. I had some hestitations about posting the image; partly because I am perturbed that only random lucky shots of mine turn out and partly because the style - solidly post-modern - may not be to everyones' liking. Which is fine - we don't all have to like the same thing - but I don't want to add to people's daily onslaught of unsolicated, and maybe unwanted, images. In the spirit of full disclosure: The picture only has some slight post-processing. Some tweaks to the curve and also some different sharpening procedures. I also added a tiny bit of noise, which does two things; adds character to the image and also hides the hideous noise native to the tiny Sony digi cam. I also quickly removed some of the changes to the ledge on the right-side of the frame to keep it darker and bluier (this is just a stylistic preference on my part). Oh, and some lens correction to straighten the curved lines. The tiny lense of the tiny Sony produces a lot of distortion and I abhor it (probably due a deep seeded love of architecture). Some may question why I didn't rotate the image slightly to make the all lines parallel to the frame. I just didn't see much gain in correcting this, I liked the quailty produced by the angled lines in the composition. I have posted a small version of the original for comparison sake.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006


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Very sorry about the rambling post last night. I'm not sure what I was thinking. I don't know why I was so tired despite having a very restful day. Today I was felt genki and wasn't tired in the slightest. I feel much less tired during the day now than when I was in university. I would definitely characterize it as a change for the better. Who wants to be tired all the time? Plus, the idea of having to face my students sore and tired fills me with dread. I need my wits about me. Now I only face them sore. Haha. The final thing I will say about getting enough rest is how fast the day flys by when you're not dragging your feet. Loving it.

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These shots are from today, plus one more really good one that I will have to touch-up tonight. I will try and post that image tomorrow. I'm a bit nervous about posting it because maybe it will be very underwhelming - not everyone shares my tastes - but I liked the image. If you look closely at the above image, you can see the grade five class speed skating. I tried to include the plant to add a little colour into an otherwise barren arctic-like scene. I swear it was only overcast for the one moment I took the shot. The rest of the day has been filled with bright warm sunshine; snow is melting everywhere and it feels like Spring. But, of course, I know far better than to get my hopes up.

I had the grade fives (pictured above) just before lunch, and it was a lot of fun. Again, the level of noise was probably rather significant, but it kept their attention well enough. It seems like everyday is filled (to the brim) with laugher. The only thing that gets to me sometimes is the grinding 5-9 nature of the job, which, from what I understand, some people manage to do through forty years of employment. I try to focus on traveling when this aspect gets to me. Trips to Sapporo and such help break up the day to day routine and make time spent in Shikaoi all the more valuable.

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I'm just about to head off to bed because I have school tomorrow. I had a very slow weekend; I found myself doing dishes twice a day. The weekend was very relaxing, lots of time to nap on the couch in the sun, thus I am wondering now why I am so tired at the moment. I was able to go for nice long runs both days at the sport center. And I took a long walk this afternoon because it was so nice out, there was barely any wind. Read lots too. I was happy to be able to touch base with my parents on Saturday morning. I think the rates have decreased since my last trip to Japan and the quality is amazing - just like talking to someone across the street. It's nice because then the conversation can flow much more naturally. We had lots to talk about plan future visits here. I have been making contact with Koriyama, Fukushima-ken, where I was hosted as a Rotary exchange student in 1999-2000. I am in the early process of planning a trip down there for May. I am very excited about this prospect. I would love the opportunity to reconnect with many there and also see my old high school. Also on the horizon is a trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival. It's a festival, larger than the Calgary Stampede, where they make huge - huge - snow sculptures right in the middle of Sapporo. I am giddy with anticipation. For the week of the festival, for which I am only going for the weekend, Sapporo becomes an international city with many visitors and international participants.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


I have noticed recently a sharp rise in the price of fruit and vegetables at the local grocery store here in Shikaoi - Fukuhara. As many know, Japan already has a reputation for expensive produce. An example of this would be in Sapporo at the Mitsukoshi department store, considered one of the more upscale department store chains in Japan. On the basement level, where, traditionally, Japanese department stores have housed their groceries sections, one can find a small kiosk that specializes in fruit and vegetables. This site must really be seen to be believe. Many across the whole have heard of 10 000 Yen watermelon, 6000 Yen cantaloupe, and 1500 Yen apples and pears; but it is quite another spectacle to see them all in one place, wrapped up like priceless china, looking absolutely perfect, as if just recently plucked that morning from the Garden of Eden itself.

To bring this around back around to Fukuhara. I have been noticing the slow drift up of produce prices since December. But this week there was barely any produce below 100 Yen. That's harsh. What am I suppose to do for vegetables? I don't want to exaggerate; there were some different types of mushrooms imported from China that were under 100 Yen. But since I don't know their names finding recipes to use them in will be difficult. I guess this is my excuse for buying more meat this week since it calculates out to be cheaper. Everyone is promising that prices will fall to more rational levels come spring. I just can't justify buying 200 Yen spinach or 300 Yen green peppers; and I love spinach!

A very warm day here today, but so to Edmonton from what I hear. The kids at Urimaku Elementary School seemed happy to see me. Especially the grade three and four class. We always have a good laugh and I think they are very motivated students. Those kids brains are like sponges. Today we were learning different actions used everyday. "Get up. Eat Breakfast. Go to School. Yadda yadda yadda." My classes, in general, always tend to be more on the chaotic side, and certianly this class seems to do well under those conditions because it keeps their attention very well (although it is loud). In any case, one of the actions was "Play" and everytime, through out the entire class, when it came to that word, everyone would yell. Too funny. It kept cracking the teachers up that I could get them so wound up. I think next weekend I am going to the Urimaku Speed Skating Taikai. I have been promised there will be Hot Chocolate, here called CoCo, and if it is this warm it will be nice to be outside. I have also been playing lots of badminton, but I really love it so much I wish I could play more.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thursday at Urimaku

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I've just been feeling so tired the last couple of days and my mind feels cluttered. I know exactly the reason: being back in school, after a month off, has taken its toll. Take yesterday for instance; I had the grade fives and the two grade six classes. It's not that they are exceptionally bad kids (quite the opposite is true); there's just a lot of them. And play always exacts a price. Some of the grade fives had spare time and came and found me in the school - and boys being boys - it was not long until the play got rougher. I didn't hold back - these kids are much bigger that the grader one'ers - and I would certainly characterize it as a good workout. Later I was quite sore. I don't fault them, I remember being that age and loving rough games, furthermore, kids that age have so much energy, it has to be burned off or else they will explode. My mind only worries about someone being seriously injured, but in fact, yesterday, I was the only that ended up as a cautalty.

Today was more sedated at Urimaku Junior High School. By the time most kids hit grade six or seven, they are far too cool for playing. Consequently, finding games that engage them also becomes increasingly difficult.

I have heard some of the post-election coverage and find some of Stephen Harper's recent comments disturbing. I had noticed a strong trend in the last election of him trying to gag the party's more radical elements. Is this becuase he is a moderate or because he has a hidden agenda has yet to be revealed, but comments he made asking "God bless Canada" run counter to my intial impressions of him. I had considered him firmly secular like Ralph Klein, a popular conservitive that has never, nor needs to, strongly court the religious' vote. However, these comments seem to drive him firmly away from Canada's strong values of the seperation of Church and State and toward evangelical conservatism. There's lots say about the topic of where social conservatism and economic conservatism meet that will have to wait because I don't believe it's constructive to oversimplify the issue.

Tomorrow is Friday and I will, of course, be be at Urimaku Elementary School and probably also be stopping at the Urimaku kindergarden too. It was very calm this morning, but sadly, during the warmest part of the afternoon, it became very windy (very windy). Now as I am about to go home for the day, this have return to their normal levels. I made fried rice last night for dinner with bean sprouts, which I have done before, but this time I decided to add tomatoes. I have now come to believe that perhaps tomatoes are not native to ancient China. Things kind of went downhill and it because more like a risotto or stew than what has traditionally been called "fried rice". Still, it was quite tasty if I do say so myself.

Monday, January 23, 2006

This is today's post.

Hmm... I had planned to do many things tonight but now as evening approaches I feel less motivated to complete them. Everything slows down over winter to the point that if affects your character. I'm really stumped over dinner; it's not that I'm too lazy to make anything, I just don't know what I want to eat. I have even considered eating out, to minimize the predicament, but I still don't know what I feel like eating. Sigh...

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I just had to post this car I saw last night left running in front of the grocery store. I decided to snap a pic with my always present Sony Camera. It just cracked me up. It was some type of uber-modified Japanese compact and it had everything (click the detail). The owner came out and found me; leading to a slightly ackward moment. He was probably more surprised to find a foreigner there and I simply backed out of with my rudimentary Japanese. The owner was obviously not a local because I would have remembered a car like that had I spotted it before. Back to the studying.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Grade Ones and Twos

I barely had any classes today, except that the ones I did have included the most energetic grade ones and twos on the planet. I really didn't mind though because I wanted ask how their holidays were. Their answers would have been clearer had they not all replied at the same time, but it was still nice to visit. I am back at the office now and feel very tired; physically tired because the kids constantly climb over me like I am a chair. I don't know what I am going to do tonight but I am sure it will entail going to bed early. We were going over the alphabet today and it seems as though they have forgotten all their English over the holidays. Hopefully things will start to click again. I also posted a picture (to the left) taken in the street in front of my house. Well it has scarcely snowed lately, every afternoon we have been hovering around zero which is just long enough for the surface to melt and then it freeze over night, again and again. I regret admitting that the image fails to show how polished the surface really is. My car is like a curling stone whenever I exit my driveway. I have to finish some emails before I return to studying kanji.

Sunday Sumo

I was able to quietly watch the last day of the New Year's tournament today. It's over now and they are in the process of giving the champion (the Yokuzuna did not win, in case you're keeping track) about twenty different trophies from varoius organizations. It will probably be all over the news later tonight.

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Last night I brought along my small Sony Camera and was in the mood to take a lot of pictures; so I guess I will let them represent the evening. It was a lot of fun; the girls got all dressed up (just look at those boots) and later I bought them roses becuase they are princesses. They knew exactlly where all the best places were. At the bird shop, a popular foreigner hangout (where Kevin and I were the only foreigners spoted) we played fooze ball, boys versus girls. I have a feeling it was their first time. Yuki and Natsue would have had a fighting chance if they had stopped giggling long enough to keep there players faced down. I was also surprised how busy a kareoke parlor is at midnight. We ended the night, before we headed home, by having some really good ramen at a local shop. I have a feeling this is something we will be doing again, hopefully when it's warmer.

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Got up today, did the dishes, ran, and then vegged while I watch the Sumo coverage. Hopefully I can get Jared Dimond's Guns, Germs, and Steel finished tonight. School tomorrow. Talk to you later.
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Friday, January 20, 2006

Getting Set

I was going to sit and read but I decided to post. Cleaned house this morning and then went for a run at the Sport Center. Temaki sushi for lunch, probably better known in Canada as 'California rolls'. I was delighted to sneak in a nap this afternoon, which will serve me well because I am going in to Obihiro with Kevin, Yuki and Natsue for dinner. The last time we talked we had settle on 'enthic food'; let your mind wander and you won't be far off the mark. As soon as I get up for the keyboard I will be hopping into the shower, ironing a shirt for tonight, and then settling down to watch the second last day of the New Year's Grand Sumo Tournament, which ends at six, exactly when I am getting picked up. Everything is well with the World.

Not much else to report. I have been feeling very well rested lately (despite going for a fifty min run today) in consquence to sleeping well and regularly. The weather has changed, no wind and a warm sun, much like the Chinooks experienced in Calgary.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Happy Birthday Dad!

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Just trying to busy myself for the rest of the day. Things are very slow around the office. The telephone has barely rung. I was at Kamihoronai Sho Gakko and Kindergarden this morning. The kids were, as expected, particularly riled up returning from winter holidays. Thus, I am very tired. On a side note; I am rethinking now how smart an idea it was to teach some of the grade three boys to bodycheck Canadian style last year. Kids have great memories. The wind is just now starting to slow down and return to normal levels after three days of expectionally strong wind. Par for the course here - but the resulting drifts were startlingly big and quite dangerous if encoutered uprepared on back roads. Whole snow banks were moved by the wind and now my driveway is slightly narrower. My plans for tonite is a run at the Sport Center and then some dinner, I don't know what I am going to eat yet. I was thinking I would make Yaki Soba, which would leave me with left overs, but that seems like so much work for how tired I am. It may sound to some readers as an uneventful evening, which I don't denie, I want to read and tomorrow we at the office have plans to go to Obihiro for dinner and drinks. Should be fun. Maybe it's just me; but I have never seen icicles form sideways because of strong easterly winds (image below taken at Kamihoronai Elementary School).

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Finally, I would like to extend a Happy Birthday to my father, who will be waking up a year older this morning. I know only the fuzziest outline of his day, by I am sure it does not include anything fun without me. Happy Birthday.

Oh my goodness..

... It is getting very windy here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Well, the story of my life continues unabated - even though it's a new year. I was scheduled at Shikaoi Elementary school today, but, again, I was the last to know that there would be no actual classes today. The only thing going on was just random New Year's activities with the kids; house keeping kind of stuff. I made the best of it, as is my motto: "Salvage Whatever" and participated in the formal New Year's Welcoming Ceremony. (Interesting, but I unterstood little.) This to had its quirks; Kyoto-sensei, the vice principle, put me on the spot, asking me (in front of all the kids) to do an aisatsu, a formal greeting. What else was I suppose to do but comply? At least I was able to get a laugh out of the students so it was worth it. My job was made easier by the fact that the students were actually in amazingly high spirits today, having just finishing their New Year's holidays. I also stuck around the morning, playing a grade two kanji game - learning lots in the process - and getting my picture taken. All in all, the morning was not a wash despite not going how I thought it was going to go, now I am back at the office, just about to study my kanji and then lunch. Very windy today, but if you can find a sheltered spot in the sun, it can actually be quite warm. My knee started to hurt 35 minutes into my run yesterday so I stopped. It was the first time that ever happened but I think I know the cause (going in one direction around the track, which I normally try to mitigate). I think I will pass on a run tonight, deferring it to tomorrow, and catch up on dishes instead.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Federal Election Post

Well, I just sealed and mailed my ballot; just in time too because tomorrow I'm back in class. (After being out of the classroom for just under a month I am excited to head back.) Props to Elections Canada for making the whole process relatively easy. I was even able to vote in my home district of Stony Plain.

It was a very tough decision; I even included the option of spoiling the ballot if I was unable settle on a choice. The difficultly arose because in my district, even with four parties running, I still felt as though no one was talking about my top issue. While I believe issues surrounding healthcare and gun violence to be important, I do see them as 'the' pressing issue for me, nor the defining issues for Alberta. I found this election to be very ugly, which was just depressing and pitiful and only fault of the parties - what polls are they reading? - because certainly I didn't want to see this stuff. Why the fear tactics? Liberal Entitlement! Neo-Cons! I know I have been saying this for years, so for some this will be old hat, but when I look at the type of people Alberta as I do not get fearful, in fact the opposite, and I am skeptical toward anyone that tells me otherwise.

I dislike the election for the very start; when each party tried to blame the other for triggering an election. The problem with that is that I don't mind elections. Yup, that's right, I have no problem voting every eighteen months. In fact, I don't mind voting more often on more issues. I don't mind spending energy researching issues important to me nor spending four dollars on postage. And while I like Harper's style of Conservatism - I appreciate how he doesn't end every speech with 'God Bless Canada' - he was like a broken record this elections about Liberal accountability (I'll get to the Liberals in a second). I hate to tell you Harper, but the public isn't dumb, and if they perceive the Liberals as trustworthy, this is a democracy, and you are just going to have to live with it. Furthermore, Harper is completely untested in the international arena. For example, in regards to the soft-wood lumber dispute, he said he would hold meetings. Great, the U.S. takes what four-five billion dollars out of the Canadian economy (to give back directly back to American industry) and you're going to hold meetings. The current administration has only every shown a desire to move unilaterally, and you're going to hold meetings. I'm not Anti-American, if the administration puts out a good policy, by all means, follow it, but Harper shows every sign of either being Bush's lapdog or clueless about foreign affairs.

Liberals. Yikes. I was pissed about Chrétien losing that money. I am a poor student, I have no money, and here he is just giving it away to his friends. Not cool. (My theory on this is that this is what happens, Liberal or Conservative, when a party has been in power for that long.) I thought it appropriate this election that all Liberal candidates got grilled by their constituents on this issue. And while I fully believe Gomery, and agree with the Liberals saying there is no evidence that the Prime Minister knew anything about it. That's exactly the problem for me: He was the Finance Minister, it was a lot of money and he should of bloody well known what was going on. And the Liberals are clueless about gun violence, with these universal proposals for something that must, and can only be solved on the community level.

The NDP guy in my riding was some social justice advocate, and well I agree with and support social justice causes, it's far too narrow a background to run a government. Don't you think that it's odd that both the Conservatives and NPD promise balance budgets that are tentative and risky at best? What could it mean that that these two polar opposites are agreeing?

Lastly the Green party: I will start at the top and say that their leader, Jim Harris, is a freak and I don't trust him (thankfully he'll never get elected). Their candidates range from upstanding, intelligent and innovative citizens (with a grip on reality) to freaky narrow-mind, power-hungry sycophants. That may sound harsh, but I think it's accurate. There is probably potential in this party, but not with it's current power structure. Many of its members have, in my opinion, highly suspect motivates.

So what do I want to see from this election; firstly, I would like to see a minority government (Liberal, Conservative, doesn't really matter to me). As I have already mentioned, I have no problem voting often and researching details. I think I minority government, with all it's pity falls, is the only sure way to hold government accountable. My last desire is more abstract; I hope see the public turn away from (any sort of vestige of) a two-party system. I know this is more abstract than concrete party policy, but I consider it an essential factor in the health of Canadian democracy (and thus essential for Canadian innovation). It is shear madness to entertain the thought that the entire diversity of Canada can be contained within two opposite parties. For example, my views are - I don't think they're radical - but most of my views are shared evenly between all the political parties: My point being that more Canadians would find themselves in this situation in a two-party system. That idea of Canada having only two parties is a specter that keeps me awake at night. I think back to the turn of the last century when the Canadian parliament was filled with thirty-plus different parties; a time of tremendous economic growth in Canada too. The only wish that can really be measured is the first and we'll see how it unfolds on election day.

I promise there won't be anymore political interpretation on this site until the next election (but it is my blog after all). So who did I vote for? That, my friends, will not be revealed, because I value and tressure in Canada the use of the secret ballots.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Early in on Monday

Work doesn't officially start for another half an hour but I normally try to make an effort to come in early. It seems like the Japanese thing to do. I really don't have any reason what-so-ever to come in early, but my Dad has always gone in early to work for years and it doesn't seemed to of hurt anything.

Things are looking very slow for the next couple of months. No really big events. I guess the idea is to enjoy winter; but I don't know of any cultures that practice this. The idea has always been to surive.

So because I came in early I treated myself to a can of iced coffee. (Tastes just like a Starbucks frappy thing in a bottle.) I have been trying to cut down because of all the sugar in them, and the ice tea here is really good, but I went for two really good runs this weekend at the Sport Center and thus they are guilt free. The runs were only 40 min but I was able to keep a blistering pace so I was happy. I was surprised I had than in me. I would run today after work (and before dinner) but the Sport Center is closed so there's my excuse. I also hope to find a badminton game somewhere this week.

Friday, January 13, 2006



Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Part Three - Friday's thoughts on Tokyo

The neatest store in Shibuya, a must see, and, possibly, one of the coolest stores in Tokyo is "Tokyu Hands" (seen left). It is run by the monolithic Tokyu department store chain, discussed earlier, and is dedicated (loosely) to everything hobbies. But in reality, anything you can't seem to find turns up here, including stuff you never new existed (that's the interesting part). I had only ever been to the Sapporo branch before, but the Shibuya store is twice as big and three times as confusing (because they kind of took three separate buildings and retrofitted them together into one big one). It's one of the cheaper stores you will find in Tokyo and there's no way anyone could walk out of there without buying something (I bought a silicon kitchen spatula for 400 Yen).

I'm a bit disapointted about the pictures I brought back. I felt I was not able to convey the rush of exciment Tokyo is known for. The pictures don't represent the cacophony of thing overwhelming all your senses. The noise of music and Japanese advertizing drench Tokyo. One picture, while typical of Tokyo, also illistates my discourgment. Below is a picture from Ueno, it gives a rought impression of the urban landerscape of Tokyo. If you focus on the raised walk-ways you can notice they look nearly empty. Most of my pictures that I tried to capture the din of Tokyo seem to have achieved the opposite, portraying the same empty, frozen feeling. In reality, standing there, the side walks are filled with people - they're all just moving. So, besides the noisy din of Tokyo, my photos fail to convey the degree of dynamic and consant movement Tokyo offers. I think there is a lot of depth to this topic but that is something to be extended upon about elsewhere.
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I really love traditional Japanese cultural, and I love studying Japanese Shinto and Buddhist architecture. I can't wait to go to Kyoto to see districts that haven't been changed in hundreds of years. However, Japanese modern architecture is worthy of praise too. In the end, I love Tokyo: its safety, its character. I'm in my element when I'm there. I think it is because I was just born a post-modern child, not of my direct choice, and over-hyper-stimulas just doesn't faze me. Furthermore, I think if one's goal is to really see Japanese culture, you couldn't do better than see where most of the population lives. For most Japanese, gaint, sprawing cities is their culture (most of the population lives in five cities). I would like to add, finally, that I competely understand the sentiments of some visitors to get out of Tokyo as quickly as possible. It is not for everyboby. That many people in a constant state of motion can be overwhelming. Just look at the subway; some people probably only want to see trains that crowded in their nightmares. Standing still back at home now, while I love visiting Tokyo, I wouldn't want to live there.

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Part Two - What does Tokyo Sound like?

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Something you don't see everyday in Shibuya is a major road closure. It was a surreal experience to walk over six lanes normally packed with cars. The exact reason for the road closure escaped my keen intellect; I'm assuming it was either some kind of corporately-sponsored advertising blitz or holiday cultural event. Because the stage erected in front of Shibuya 109 (another department store owned by the Tokyu corporation, the title is a play on their name) was blaring live J-pop, I am leaning toward the former. Although there were traditional taiko drums set up on the stage too, which might have made the J-pop bearable had they blended the two together. But I digress, the road closure started from the intersection I referred to in my last post, up a block past the "Y" intersection at Shibuya 109, and continued both directions for a couple of blocks. I read a sign that said the road was closed from 12:00 to 5:00. I found it surprising that they would even consider closing that thoroughfare, so I think it was pretty extraordinary to see.

Other areas I visited this trip were Ueno, which is home to a really cool, old-school, shopping district housed under the raised train tracks. I would recommend for anyone visiting to check it out. Wandering through the narrow streets peaking into all the tiny - and I mean tiny - shops was really fun. I had ramen here in a shop with only five seats at the bar. Too funny. Before I had set off for Ameyayokocho (the name of the spot) I had built up a sizable appetite at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Museum, another thing Ueno is known for. There are four different museums situated in a large park opposite the station. The Tokyo Met was especially good if you like modern art. The image below is of the National Museum.

Also not to be missed is Shinjuku. This is a fast paced area of Tokyo were shopping and culture meet business as many corporate offices are located in this district. Shinjuku station is probably one of the more intimidating stations. The station itself seems old (if mid 70s is old) and is not very well laid out for visitors. The thing is just plain labyrinthine. Another inundating factor is all the people rushing around that now what there doing and where they are going. One really has to keep their wits about them at this station (if they don't want to be knocked over). With more time I would had loved to have seen Chinatown and also a small camera district, both located in Shinjuku.

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To return to thoughts of home; it has reached my ears that my father and brother are buying all sorts of interesting electronic gadgets that I, while here, am unable to enjoy. So in an effort to push back I paid a short visit to Akihabara. This area is known as electronic city. Amazing place, just as big, just as busy, but dedicated to everything electronic. Again the narrow streets dominating the are area hard to explain, not only in the brightness and gaudiness of their signage but also in the narrowness of their specialization. I loved the little shop that sold nothing but TV's for cars. The cell phone store as big as Chapters was pretty cool too, but I didn't venue to far inside because of the din coming from inside. Akihabara is not only home to small specialized sellers but also the biggest of the biggest electronic stores. Yamada Denki and Big Camera both have flagship stores in area, but none competes with Yodobashi - Akihab. They say if you can't find it at Yodobashi, you can't find it in Tokyo. This is a huge electronic department store that is hard to imagine until you visit it. I'm just gasping at things to compare it too. Their headphone section had every model from every maker in Japan and abroad- all demonstrable I might add. They had the best selection of high-end stereo equipment I have seem assembled in one place. They had so many specially items too; want to build you own speakers? Even their Apple computer area was larger than the Apple store I had seen in Shibuya. I only bought a camera bag there, but it was a hard choice. It was like an online store. They had every model from about seven companies. If you are going to be the best in Japan you don't mess around.

The picture directly below was taken at the end of the block my hotel was on. It was taken just before 9:00 PM. Other random pictures follow. And extended part three comes tomorrow.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Part One - So you want to stay sane in Tokyo?

Driving back from the Obihiro Airport last night was an odd experience. It wasn't just the light snow falling. Where were the multitudes of people? The cars permanently parked in traffic? The constant noise? Buildings lit up like stars? I am back at the office today and bring you this description of Tokyo in two parts. Today I will introduce context about Tokyo I feel is important and detail Shibuya where I was staying. I am treating these posts as descriptions that will hopefully prove useful to anyone planning a trip to Tokyo. As I drove back, I was carrying around an unusual feeling that I had been away for ages. There is so much one can do while in Tokyo it seems to have a strange effect on how one perceives the passage of time.

Most of this post will be focused on Shibuya, a busy and populous district in Tokyo, one out of many with the same characteristics. It is the small differences, worth elaborating on, that draw me to Shibuya every time I come to Tokyo. My hotel was excellent, very well located off major roads, but still within walking distance to everything. (Very affordable too, but this is because I can now receive Japanese package discounts.)

To understand Tokyo, in my opinion, one only need look at the public transportation system. It is in it's own class. There is a lot one could say about the system, but here I am force to focus only on the stations because of there societal and architectural significance. Any subway station in Tokyo inevitably creates an astounding amount of development and density around it. Stations such as Ginza, Roppongi, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and on and on. This does not include what I would label mega-stations such as Tokyo Grand Central Station (over 180 entrance/exits) or Ueno, only because they have Shinkensen train lines added to numerous subway and train lines entering into the station. (A station like Shinjuku may be equally big but lacks Shinkansen lines.)

Train stations in Tokyo (and this can be extended to many other cities in Japan) are analogous to blood vessels or nerve centers in the human body. Leading directly out of the station in all directions is a dense concentration of stores, hotels, bars, apartments. Once one leaves the main routes in these areas, the streets become narrower, but not necessarily always quieter. It should be noted that some of the best finds in Tokyo are off the main drag, hidden away. The density of a city such as Tokyo can support a very high level of diversity.

This brings me to one of the great difficulties of staying, shopping and partying in Tokyo. For someone who has only ever had to deal with West Edmonton Mall: There's too much choice. Anyone of a handle full of districts is capable of their own guide books. And a guide book about all of Tokyo, while attempted, is never completed. So why do I continue to return to Shibuya?

Shibuya, as you probably have already deduced, is centered around Shibuya station. I circumnavigated it once during my stay, walking around the entire structure. It's big but doesn't take an hour or anything like that. But the density around it is mind-boggling. They just have to keep building up and up. It also nice to remember that Shibuya is not alone in this regard. (Only in the most far flung suburbs do you get detached housing.) Also of note are the huge departments in the area, all originally train companies that building the present system: Parko, Marui Marui, Seibu and Tokyu. (And for the record, if your thinking West Edmonton Mall Bay big, you'll need to think bigger. Think maybe seven-eight-nine times bigger, contained in several buildings. And then remember that there are not the biggest in Tokyo. The chains own bigger stores elsewhere.) Are there differences between department stores Probably. I guess each has its own market - more expensive, more mature, more cutting edge, but I can't really tell.

To continue, I don't stay in Shibuya for the shopping. (Even though I did by some stuff at some of the smaller indie stores.) It's almost overwhelming to see that much choice. It's humbling to think there's nearly nothing to buy at West Edmonton Mall. But the subject of shopping, leads me, at least tangentially, to why I really love Shibuya over the many other cool districts. It is the shear force of the area as a cultural generator for the whole country that draws me here. To be open, this fact is arguable and arbitrary in many ways. Other's may think Shinjuku or Harajuku is king of cool, and that's fine. Tokyo is a big city and can handle these differences of opinion. If someone loves Harajuku more (a district long known for setting counter-culture trends) I would probably love to go out and have said person show me around.

My last point about Shibuya, and to start winding up this post, as soon as you exit the main entrance of Shibuya one knows that they have stepped into the cultural generator machine for Japan and feels like they are in the center of the world. In my opinion Shibuya station is the number one place to people watch in Tokyo. Because it condenses many of the other, more narrowly defined, areas into one ubur-mis-mash matrix of culture. Shibuya in particular, and Tokyo in general, has a lot of foreigners, this is what makes people watching at Shibuya station so rewarding. Not only does one see a complete slice of Japanese society (from kimonos to wannabe gangsta's), this area is truly globally representative; Italy, Brazil, football teams, rastafarians, tourists with there mouths hanging open, power-walking business men and women, families, and my favorite from this trip, a group of orthodox Jews.

I have focused on the context of Tokyo rather than images in this post. I leave you now with some photos of the major intersection of Shibuya. It may be helpful to think of Time Square, but I prefer Shibuya any day. (Shibuya is both less fake and less pretentious.) The first and second images below are meant to illustrate, what I believe, to be one of the great wonders of Japan. Every three minutes, 3000 people cross the intersection in front of Shibuya station. To put this in perspective; that's three times my high school. One day, waiting to cross, luckily with my camera near. I noticed, as did everyone else, maybe 300 people dressed in white coats and wearing little fake-gold gilded hats that looked like brain. Hard to explain and even weirder to see in person. They were also clapping and chanting something I couldn't catch (there's a lot going on at one time at that intersection). It was some kind of protest and they continued to wind their way through the narrow streets of Shibuya. Shibuya seems to motivate people to doing all sorts of weird things at any hour of the day. This sort of odd behaviour is par for the course. (That particular image was taken on a Sunday morning around 11:00.)

Some maybe be wondering about the lack of photos in this post. Tomorrow I will focus on image of other areas that I visited and share my comments about them.

Tokyo Preview

For now, I am working on a larger post about Tokyo. What I did and why I loved it. The image that follows shows me in Ueno at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in front of a large installation piece outside. It holds many interesting modern art exhibits that I was able to study at my leisure. The drive home was very interesting; already my perception - and heart rate - are slowing and returning to normal. I survived and thrived.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006


So I noticed on Google News that Canada won the World Juniors. I must say that I was not too surprised. I did think the Russians would put up a closer game would but I guess Sutter can do no wrong as coach. Albertan too I believe.

Anyway - as you may have surmised - it is a quiet day at the office. It is both Monday and Friday, heading into another three day weekend. This time though, I am off to Tokyo tomorrow to try and shock myself in to writing something worthy. I also hope to contact old family friends, have some good eats, hit some museums and art exhibitions that I have found and maybe take some pictures. Sadly, shopping is completely out of the question because everything is so expensive. The weather looks amazing for the weekend, in contrast with Shikaoi which took a turn for the colder last night, dipping for the first time to -20 C. It was surprising because it had been mild all week, with day time temps in the sun reaching +5 C.

I am literally taking every piece of electronic equipment I own which means I have to organize all the cords and wires as well. When did preparing for a weekend away become such a process? I will also have to be vigilantly, when carrying this arsenal of gadgets, of where I place my feet because I am such a klutz. It would be an expensive lesson otherwise. I assume that every hotel has free wifi but I will be busy and so my updating schedule is unknown. For the record, I am staying the heck away from Roppongi.

Monday, January 02, 2006


I apologize for my sketchy posting this week. I have been very busy. The various pictures in this post represent what I have been up to this week. What impressed me the most was how welcomed I felt in so many different Shikaoi homes. After three days, I finally found the time to look over my pictures, do some laundry, read and lastly - recharge before the holiday ends.

At the Usui's this week I was treated to hand-made sushi - which was quite a treat - I must say. It was made by Mrs. Usui's sister and niece. For the record: it was delicious and fresh and just perfect for oshogatsu. My Dad probably doesn't care; but I have no idea where they got such fresh fish on New Years because it looked - to me - like everything in town was shut down. I promised I would post an image for them so they could see it after the fact. And to the left is an image of their final product. I am quite proud of the image directly below of me pouring Mrs. Usui a drink. In Japanese culture it is traditional to pour the other person's drink out of respect. Most days I am not fast enough (because I am really clueless). But that particular day, I was on the top of my game and had Kazeteru snap this shot of my proud moment. I am proud of the shot because it is one of the only small ways that I can ever repay the kindness I - and my family - have received from the Usui family. The next image I personally like; it illustrates family and friends gathering around to listen to Mr. Usui talk about his late brother's guitars. (Interestingly, the one he is holding in the image is particularly rare.)

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At the Suzukis we were treated to an absolute feast of Japanese delicacies. I also tried my hand at a Japanese card game and doubled my money given to me by Mrs. Suzuki; much to the other players' chagrin. (Now I can buy some ice tea - maybe two.) I promised Mr. Suzuki that next time I would partake in his outdoor traditional Japanese hot tub. This is not just lip service. I love Japanese onsens. (It's actually heated by a wood fire; how cool is that?) And even though the risk of being cooked alive creeps into my mind, I really - really - want to try it in winter.

It was great to meet Fukiko Sakaguchi's whole family, even her eldest son from Osaka came up (who oddly enough knows Sean from his 2000 trip). Another great spread was put in front of us with delicacies from all over Japan. The real prize was giant cold water crabs from Russia, lightly steamed to perfection by Fukiko. Note the image of Mr. Sakaguchi taking charge of serving everyone, making sure everyone gets as much as they can eat. The family had also decorated the outside of the house by placing candles around the property. The process was interesting, they had first made containers out of ice and then put the lit candles in them; creating the interesting contradiction of fire and ice. A light snow that evening added to the tranquil atmosphere. (The candles remind me of something the Gardners use to do.)