*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I, cyclist.

I once wrote a 'cyclist profile' for another website, but had to ask them to take it down, as some of my views were not popular with the suburban parents whose children I taught.  I had not yet learned that there is nothing too uncontroversial for some student's idiot parent to take offence to: thus my name is not on this blog.  I wrote it, so I think I can reproduce it here without it being counted as plagiarism.  I have also changed some of the content, as my attitudes to cycling have changed over time.

Japanese versus N. American Streets: Differences

I read a great article in Grist this morning by Charles Marohn: "Confessions of a recovering engineer".  If you have an interest in urban spaces, you are probably familiar with how zoning requirements sterilize our cities and facilitate vehicle movement, rather than human pleasure or safety.  The long history of missed chances and plain idiocy in road zoning is better explained by Steve Munro than me, and in some of the links to the right.  There are arguments that the N. American attitude is romantic-pastoral, and that the people who plan cities do not like them.  The results would not differ much if it be true.

I can't help but compare two neighbourhoods I know with a similar demographic:  Tokyo's Shimokitazawa, and Toronto's Kensington Market.


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Kasukabe, thirteen years after JET.

I can't believe I lived in this hellhole for three years, and was glad of it.  Probably helped that I was decently paid, drunk several times a week, and had... companionship.  I went back on a whim, without meeting up with anyone (or having contacts to do so).  I ended up walking ten kilometres with a bad chest cold, but I can't say there was much for me to see.  It was a lot of, 'there it is', 'it's smaller than I remembered', 'they haven't even bought a new sign?'.  I found out my memory is good, and unreliable.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Original Nakagin Capsule Tower Units for Sale

The units are in poor shape, but this is the original and you can buy one of the pods for $50K! It's another case of Japan not foreseeing the value of its architectural heritage (private or public money is another issue, but someone ought to spend it). Only since the '90s did people in Japan worry about preserving traditional houses, and now there are renovation shows about this. This loss of this is going to be regretted, too late. As witless as Toronto about architectural heritage, except they have some volume of interesting.

I don't seriously imagine you'd buy one and have it put on a container-ship, though there are worse investment ideas. Can you imagine 'Falling Water' torn down because of its design flaws? As I said, this is the original, though the present version are coffins, not like these, the size of a Toronto condo.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

"The Man in the White Suit"

As your child grows into idealism, and suckerdom, you need to show this old Alec Guinness movie: "The Man in the White Suit".  In fact, when you begin to ease into second-year-in-Japan culture shock and are convinced that the Japanese are the most obstructionist, incurious and passive-aggressive people on Earth (passive-aggressive may be true), watch this British movie from 1951.  Puts things in perspective.  A good thing too, because when you go home you are going to be astounded how obstructionist and incurious everybody is.  Welcome to the human race.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Abuse of the Language

"Jesus Hands"(sic)?  Thank god it's a hair salon in Kameari, and not on one of the two soaplands in the neighbourhood.  The top line means 'beauty salon', and the bottom line spells out the middle with Japanese' few phonemes: "jeezazu hanzu".  I have no intention of turning this into another blog about abused English, but with a million foreigners in Japan, you couldn't find someone to edit for idiom?  Mind you, there are thousands of idiots with bad kanji tatoos, and their 'artwork' is posted online.  There are even examples of stupid Hebrew.  Let's hope they don't make aliyah.  How cheap and lazy do you have to be to spend thousands of dollars to put up a sign, or sully your skin, and not be certain you won't look an @$$?

"Nemawashi Cluster%$#@"

"Nemawashi Cluster%$#@" is a phrase I have borrowed from someone's comments on some Japan blog. Click the Nemawashi link, if you are not familiar with the word. It is an essential concept here. The Wikipedia definition is pretty weak, because in practice 'nemawashi' is synonymous with 'cluster%$#@'. So is 'wind-sucking': confronted with anything that should be dealt with in a way obvious to the Gaijin, tilt your head, clench your teeth, grimace and suck in air in a sibilant manner and say, "That would be difficult", or "It's a little different", or "There's nothing to be done about it". Whether you say each phrase in English or Japanese, are Japanese or a tame-Gaijin, they really mean: "Your tidy solution is still something I don't want to make the effort about", "Were we to do it we'd have unwelcome responsibility", "Please do not challenge my sloth and cowardice". Passive-aggressiveness is not unique to Japan, but perhaps one thing that is unique about Japan is that the entire society can act like a union-protected bureaucracy. If you have dotted all the t's and crossed all the i's, or something, everything will go very smoothly, but should you require the smallest irregularity expect gridlock. A few of my own experiences follow, and I would love to hear yours.

How not to come off like an @$$ in Japan.

Get something straight. All the compliments about your Japanese, your skill with chopsticks, how much you understand the culture, your resemblance to Brad Pitt, and your prowess on the mat (futon or dojo): get over it. You're getting compliments not because you are a young god, but because compliments are a form of social lubrication in Japan. Pay attention, because they do it to each other, and they do it when they are nervous. You make them nervous, your Japanese is indecipherable, you hold chopsticks like a palsied child, you don't know $#!+, you look like Steve Buscemi, and you can no more defend yourself than please a woman. Instead of misunderstanding the intention of the compliments, thank, deny, and return the compliments. Try something believable, like the clarity of their accent; if that's hopeless, the accuracy of their grammar. Be as circumspect about physical compliments as you should be at home, unless everyone's drunk: you can say nice things about her tatas.

National Pulchritude

This is going to be hard to write without being vulgar, so I am going to make it about both genders, rather than some vulgar itemization of orientalist conquest, like "Pictures from the Water Trade". You can make your time in Japan much like that book. In fact, if you are a man in his twenties who got too little attention in high school and university (alas), I can assume you will. For foreign women, it shouldn't be much harder, but you'll have to take the initiative. If you prefer your own gender and can find where to go, you'll get as lucky as you could want.

If you are bored of Tokyo, kill yourself

When I am bored of Toronto, I've spent an hour out of the house; when I become bored of Tokyo, it's time to kill myself. I can get tired of the crowds and frustrated with the concrete, but that's not boredom. I can solve that by sitting on a train until I am hiking or in an onsen. That's a plane trip in Toronto. Even a Canadian train ride somewhere else boring is going to break down. Never mind what I think of the Toronto character (not much!), how can there be anything left to surprise me in a city of two-million? I lived outside of Tokyo for three years in the nineties, thought I knew it passably well, but only heard of an entire neighbourhood, Shimokitazawa, fifteen years after I left! I know there are a dozen left for me to find, or never find. Shimokita does not have one of the big temples, parks or skyscrapers that would get it into the Lonely Planet or JNTO, but it is one of the best places to take a visitor for that "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more" moments.

Put that between your legs!

A bike. This is the country to ride in! If you hit someone with a car in Japan, you're %$#@ed! There are almost no bike-lanes except along levées. Most people ride crap bikes, and none of them will fit height over 5'9". You cannot get your size. You have to pay a dollar or two to leave your bike at a train station. That bike is going to get scratched-up. Umbrellas and bikes are 'borrowed' freely by drunks (but only the crap ones, and you'll do it too!). Most streets are narrow, have no sidewalk, but have car, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. What sidewalks exist are used by cyclists with an umbrella in one hand, and their cell in the other. Not even the police know that sidewalk-riding is against the law. The streets have no names, are lain out without perceptible logic, and each corner is blind and acute. None of that stuff makes a country a great cycling destination. I won't suggest it is my idea of justice, but despite the abject stupidity of parents, pedestrians and cyclists here, few cars hit people, because Japanese drive in fear! What keeps traffic fatalities at a half in Japan compared to N. America, despite the fact that they drive as much, and on more crowded roads in mixed traffic, and poorly supervise their children, is that if you hit someone with a car in Japan, you're %$#@ed!

Things to take from Japan

No, the picture is not meant as a suggestion to take home a wife: 'that way lies madness'. Look at the halo above 'Lady Shimano' for the clue. If you have a Japanese artistic or martial hobby, I will leave this up to you. If you have a thing for manga, anime, modern Japanese fashion, electronics, or neonatal porn, I couldn’t care less. Here's the rest.

Things to take to Japan

What do you need to bring? There are the obvious things, deodorant and condoms. That an entire country can be devoid of deodorant and condoms boggles. They have both, but neither is workable for a red-blooded westerner.
There is also a shoes and clothing issue, if you are bigger than average. Japanese are not so small as they once were, so there is less worry than used to be. If you are a man up to six feet, under one-hundred and eighty pounds, with shoes up to size ten, you’ll do fine. As a rare N. American male thin enough to have a smaller waist measurement than inseam, I find it easier to find clothing that fits in Japan! My BMI is dead-centre, which has to mean that the vast majority of the rest of yours isn’t. You might want to put down that milkshake. For women, I can only tell you to extrapolate; however, if you are middle to low on the BMI, you’re gold (ain’t that the truth for us all). I can't tell you anything about products women need, because of my own gender, and because my wife grew up using Japanese products.
The deodorant doesn’t work, comes in tiny bottles, costs a fortune, and is unavailable when you need it! Can the Japanese ignore it? Many can; maybe not so many as think so. If you live in E. Asia it is unavoidable to notice that, ‘all things being equal’, E. Asians smell less. (How things are not always equal I’ll get back to.) The short explanation includes a smaller average body size, fewer sweat glands, less hirsute, and a different composition of the two human sweat gland types. Take the average E. Asian and N. European, of the same gender, and give them the same diet, exercise and washing regimen, and the N. European is going to come off worse if both do not use deodorant. Generalizations are only generally true. If the N. European washes more, he’s better off than the Asian. If he has a less mammalian diet, also true. Should he have less body hair, by nature or design, so much the better. The proof is that a sardine-packed rush-hour train is not vomit-inducing (the evening train full of drunks seems to be). I won’t say it smells great, but it’s beyond imagining a train as full of my native city’s Torontonians.
Yet ‘all things being equal’ is of limited usefulness. There are Japanese who smell as strong as N. Europeans, and bullied in school for it. In contrast to the tenets of ‘Nihonjinron’, the Japanese are as polygenous as British Islanders. Something like one in ten have the same sweat gland pattern as N. Europeans and have wet earwax . Is this Jomon or Ainu genetics, or something older? Maybe something more modern? Japan has had more interaction (and exchange of DNA) with Russian E. Asia and the Dutch through Dejima, much less with all nations since the Meiji-Shin, five-years of American Occupation and ongoing occupation of bases, than 'ware-ware nihonjin' accounts for. One in ten Japanese cannot get the underarm deodorant that they need. Can you imagine ten-percent of our population not getting a needed hygiene product? For example: no maxi-pads, no adult diapers, no wax-strips, or choose an 'ethnic' hair-care product and eliminate it from N. America. That's just the way it is here: conform or '$%^& you'.
This is a nation of evening bathers, which does keep the bedding cleaner. On the other hand, one does sweat as one sleeps warm… I find I need to bathe evening, to keep the wife happy, and morning, from habit, but that is eccentric. Did I mention that people skip their bath as ‘unhealthy’ if they have a cold? Don’t colds often last a week or more? Despite general cleanliness, on Tokyo trains you end up beside the middle-aged mouth-breather with a dental abscess, or the middle-aged smoker. There is something wrong with middle-aged male hygiene, unless their wife mothers them into decent habits. Too many of these men have oily skin and less than floral scent in the morning to believe some did not skip both an evening and a morning bath. Alas, in Toronto that would be a higher proportion.
But deodorant is about your habits, not theirs. You are used to one that works throughout a moderately active day. You may even prefer anti-perspirant, which there is no hope of finding. Forget Japan’s weak deodorants, and forget underarm pads. They have such a thing: it is a characteristic to find a more difficult solution when a simpler one is available. If you take nothing else, take enough of your preferred unguent to last until you return, or you can have a visitor bring more. It may be possible to find something online in Japan, but I have had little luck with unscented anti-perspirant. Do not bother with the trip to the 'American Pharmacy' in downtown Tokyo: it's neither. If you have a friend in the American military, send him to the base P/X.
You can't help what you discover if you have tried to use the local version. They don’t fit. Do not flame me for these comments, because I really have no opinion of the Asian male member, because I don't sleep with men. I do know most Gaijin complain about the local shower cap, and I doubt we're all liars. There are stores where the hung can buy what they need, but I suggest you bring your own. You better take your own when you are lucky enough to have company for a 'love hotel'. Is your Japanese equal to the task of calling down for bigger, or asking your new friend to do so? And you'd better use a wet-suit, because there is a lot of Hep. B around (and more!). With Japan’s abortion rate a lot of Japanese men aren't wrapping up. Assume you’re in a public pool.
I brought back an optimistic amount for my third year, which would have been sad, except I sold them off at a premium to desperate friends. I've never had my luggage opened, but if yours is when you bring in a gross of condoms, I’m curious to know the Japanese for: 'what are you planning to do to our women?!'
'She, who…' could help me, but I am not going to ask her for help on the allergy front. It's just going to degenerate into a 'your medical system is more idiotic than mine' argument, and you can only win that against an American. (Not true: a Democrat will agree; a Republican will not have a passport, so you’d have to fly to Kansas for the argument.) If you want to Google or try figuring it out in a second language at a Japanese clinic, more power to you, but I do not have that kind of patience in the remaining half of my life. All of my presumptions may be wrong, so here they are! I presume useful anti-histamines are 'under the counter', and that even these are too low-dose, or too full of side-effects, to want to use. Bring your own; I do. Do not advertise this at customs, as last I heard (15y ago) you were not to bring them in without a proper prescription. Never had trouble myself, though I'd suggest you keep them in original packaging as Japan is anti-narcotic crazy. On a side note, stick to alcohol: the consequences aren't worth the buzz of the rest.
Men's Shaving Products
I forgot this one on my return after fifteen years. Electric shaving is more common than wet, and I have no doubt they have great shavers that can also give you a hand-job (with a safer attachment?). You can get most of the brands you are used to from home, though it is harder to get old-style 'safety razors'. You can also get most of the can shaving creams you are used to, but you know that can shaving cream is for schmucks (not literally!). If you know to use a shaving soap or cream you are SOL if you are not near a city. A string of four which I bought here were awful: did not lather and/or had menthol. I am very happy with the moderately expensive Body-Shop men's shaving cream, but that is all that I have found. Buy that or bring your own. If you have sensitive skin or sloppy shaving habits note you won’t find styptic pencils here.
Not had any real trouble, but I did need the help of 'She, who…', because I haven't the patience to use my kanji-dictionary to decipher the fantastic claims of dentistry. It is an adventure if you experiment with new products. My first Japanese toothpaste did wonders for my sensitive teeth, but left enough calcification on the enamel to use my teeth to scour my way through concrete when the next 'big one' entombs me in my 8th floor hutch.
You can't expect to take much of this. You can get more western food here, than you can get Japanese food at home: so ‘suck it up’. My favourite is Kaldi, and these are everywhere in Japan. Forget Omotesando Kinokuniya Food, Ginza Meiji-ya and Hiro-o National Azabu in Tokyo: none have a lot more than Kaldi, all cost a lot more, and are not for mortals. Leave them to those with an ex-pat package, bottle-blonde hostess 'companions' of yakuza, or anyone with a trust fund.
My bigger issue has been finding, and cooking, joints of meat. It's a rare home that has a real oven. You can get a small electric oven, for $300 to $2000, or a large gas oven for more than$2000 new, or you can look for a used one from a ‘Gaijin sale’. You'll need to look around for roasts and fowl, but these can be found with persistence, or ordered from an online retailer with foresight.
Duty-Free Alcohol
Forget it, if you’re coming from Canada. Duty-free looks cheap compared to Canadian mark-ups, but when you compare to the cost of same in Japan, it is not worth the trouble, unless you want to have something on-hand as a gift. Too bad, because Japan’s import restrictions are generous, and unenforced. If you are coming from elsewhere, I am still not sure airport duty-free is going to save you much money. There are a lot of good bargain liquor shops about.

About me

It’s all about me! Writing is self-indulgent. The blog is presently about Japan, cycling and hiking, and anything else topical. If it lasts longer than my stay here, the subject matter changes.
I welcome your comments if: they are funny, they are interesting or informative. I might check and delete any crap comments, but I don’t guarantee I can keep up the motivation, so if someone succumbs to ‘Godwin’s Law’, flames, trolls or what have you, don’t blame me. I want to say I won’t reply to any negative comments, but promises are made to be broken. It’s my blog, so I’m not going to humour a %$#@wit, but ban them.
You don’t want to know about me, and I don’t want to give you enough details for my students in Japan or at home to find my blog, because then they’ll show their parents, and their parents will be offended that I have my own mind. That’s not popular among parents, in their teachers or their own children. Causes people to question why some idiot is making bad decisions for them, yet has made so few good ones for themselves. If you respond to me with my name, because you know me or by wild coincidence, your comment is gone. I have to protect the guilty.
Don’t give me any $#!+ about my spelling. I use Canadian spelling, but Microsoft blows so badly that with my dictionary thus set, it still lets me ‘misspell’ in American, and after a lifetime of reading American, British and Commonwealth literature I am supposed not to get confused?
In contrast to the tone of what I write, I am not always disgusted by human venality: that’s when I am amused by human idiocy. N. America has a fatwa on being a sceptic, because nobody wants you looking behind the curtain, or noticing how little the emperor wears. They share that with Japan. Hell, they share that with all but a few grumpy cultures, and my family is from one of them. Some of what I write is going to offend you: “Life can sometimes be that way”.