*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.


So where would rather go?  Shimokitazawa of course.  Before we figure out why, I think it is interesting to see what is similar about them.  Primarily, they are both organic neighbourhoods such as Jane Jacobs championed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Kensington was a Jewish enclave, and Shimokita was a cheap student-ghetto.  Although their original histories differ, both have been taken over by a 'bohemian' element: usually young and often of student age.  As they have become popular, both have been under threat from gentrification.  There are a wealth of inexpensive places to eat and drink, or to shop, in each.  They have both survived by being ignored by city planners.  They are each one of the best pedestrian attractions their city has, and each a showcase of the value of urban environments.

So why do I find Shimokitazawa far more interesting?  You might think it is because it is 'foreign' to me, but though I'll never pretend fluency in Japanese I am a multi-year resident of Tokyo, not a visitor.  Is it because Shimokita is much bigger?  No, it is about 150% the size, as seen on a map.  However, there is a much greater number of establishments in Shimokita, both because Japanese shops often use a smaller floor area, and because more building space and less blacktop is used in Japan, and especially in this neighbourhood.  Cultural differences are subjective; the objective difference is density.

No, there is one more objective difference, but I wonder if you noticed it.  There was a big hint in the Kensington video from the 1:05 mark.  Yeah, it's the cars.  Kensington is cluttered with them, and the streets are designed for them.  Shimokita is not a designated car-free neighbourhood, nor do I know if they have any 'Pedestrian Sundays'.  Ginza and Shinjuku, and Kensington, have.  Shimokita does not have a designated car-free day, because it doesn't need one: it was designed before the car.  Shimokita is one of dozens of Tokyo neighbourhoods that are like the Dutch 'Woonerf'.  You can drive there, and deliveries are made by motorized transportation, but cars are lower on the pecking order than people: there's nowhere to park, and getting through by car is slower than on foot.  When cars are overwhelmed the pedestrian rules.  It also helps that there is a commuter rail station in the heart of Shimokita.

Jane Jacobs needed an entire book to address the fallacies of the urban planning of her time.  I am going to need another post to gloss several fallacies of ours: automobile prioritization and the intentional and unintentional preservation of low density.

Three postings in this series:

Japanese versus N. American Streets: Differences
Japanese versus N. American Streets: Density
Japanese versus N. American Streets: Cars

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.

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.