Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

My Second Trip To Japan: Impressions

September 10, 2016

I really enjoyed this trip. It was much more fun than my first one, perhaps because it was longer and covered more ground. But every trip has lessons learned and things one wants to do better and random observations. These are mine.

Japan Rail Pass

A must-have, if you are going to be there for a week or so, and are not in a tour group. A number of vendors sell the Exchange Orders, all at about the same price. I used Japan Experience. At the time I’m writing this, a week-long general seating pass is $275, while a reserved-seat green pass is $365 for an adult. You have to buy it before you get to Japan (they FedEx the order to you so it arrives fast), and you have to be there as a tourist. Some hints on use:

  1. Its primary function is to get you past the JR train station turnstiles and onto the platforms. You have to show it to the guard coming and going, so you don’t go through the turnstiles themselves. Then you are good to go on any JR car with general seating.
  2. If you have a green pass and you want a reserved seat, you have to go to the Midori-no-madoguchi (Green ticket window).
    Look for this sign

    Look for this sign

    and make a reservation. Then you show your JR pass to get on the platform, and you show your reservation (it’s a small, green ticket), and your pass, to the conductor on the train. NOTE: Midori-no-madoguchi is also where you go to swap your JR Exchange Order for a real JR pass when you first arrive.

  3.  The pass works for Japan Rail trains only. There are many private train lines in Japan, and they don’t take the JR pass. For example, there are two ways to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Ueno station. The JR train is free (with the pass) but is about 15 minutes slower. The Keisei Skyliner runs just between those two locations, and is faster, but it will cost you $15. In Tokyo, the JR Yamanote line runs a big loop around the heart of the city, but most of the suburbs are fed by local lines. Plus, you may find you have to pay an extra $5 or so on the train, when it runs over non-JR rails.
  4. It pays to plan ahead. I had a first class green pass, but couldn’t get a reserved seat on half the JR trains I travelled on, because I booked the individual tickets too late. That was my fault, because I kept changing my travel plans. If you need flexibility, the green pass is probably not the way to go.
  5. The company that sells you your JR Exchange Order may also offer some other products. I rented a portable Wi-Fi unit for about $10 a day. It was worth it. I’d turn it on, turn on my Nexus 7 tablet, and I had maps and translation services pretty much wherever I was. They also sold me a Pasmo card.  More on that in the section on money.

Even if you are travelling the length of Japan, the JR pass can save you a lot of money on the long distance routes, at the cost of a little time. For example, the standard recommendation from the HyperDia train schedule site, for a trip from Sapporo to Tsu (equivalent of going from Portland, ME, to Charleston, SC), is to fly from Chitose to Nagoya and take the train from there. Time is 5 hours (plus security, which, admittedly, is a lot more efficient than TSA’s), and the cost is $470. If you take the shinkansen, it’s 12 hours and $360, but JR pass saves you $350 of that, and you get to look at the scenery, instead of the tops of clouds.


Bring cash. Yes, the hotels and big restaurants in the big cities will take credit cards (check with your card company before you go), and yes, many shops (mostly combini), and the train stations, take money cards, like Pasmo and Suica, but a surprising number don’t. I took $400 in cash, burned through that, borrowed $120 and spent most of that, all in 10 days of not living extravagantly. Meanwhile, less than $1000 went on the credit card, mostly for hotels. The crafts shop I visited in Iga on Day 9 sold goods that were in the $30-$50 range, and took only cash.

Exchange your money before heading off into the hinterlands. In 2012, my hotel in Kobe had no trouble turning dollars into yen. In 2016, the drug stores I saw in Sapporo had a machine that would do that for you automatically. In Tsu, a somewhat provincial city — about the size of Spokane, but on the unfashionable side of Ise Bay — the only place to change dollars to yen was the main bank, and it took three people and twenty minutes to do so.

Trash cans

There aren’t any. Japanese friends of mine say there’s two reasons. First, the Tokyo subways were subject to a nerve-agent gas attack, back in 1995, and many of the devices were placed in trash cans. Bureaucratic solution, remove all the trash cans. Second, Japanese cities are big on recycling. They do this by forcing residents to buy multiple trash bags, one for each kind of recycling. For those who resent this, the easy solution is to take a bag along when they go to work, and drop it in some public trash can on the way. Shop owner solution, remove the trash cans. Workaround for foreigners, go into a combini and ask them to dispose of it for you.


A note on children in Japan. They have remarkable freedom of movement, unthinkable to US helicopter parents. These five boys were doing the equivalent of taking the train from Washington DC to Portland, Main. No parents, no conductors checking up on them, they just got on, found their seats and sat down. Presumably their parents dropped them at the ticket turnstile and let them find their own way two levels down to the shinkansen platform, but having seen younger children navigating the system, they might have just bid their mothers goodbye at the front door and headed out.

Not a parent in sight

Not a parent in sight

There’s an anime currently running called Sweetness and Lightning, about a young child and her single parent father. In one episode he gets sick and she goes to a friend for help. The friend’s house requires a trip across a good chunk of the city, not just to a neighbor. Here is how Michael Vito, over at Weekly Review of Transit, Place and Culture in Anime characterized it. The article is pretty far down a pretty big page, so when you get to the link, hit <Find> and search for Sweetness.

Nobody minds

Talk about free range kids…

The point is, she’s a pre-schooler, walking alone in an urban environment, and nobody is bothered, nobody is worried. It’s a normal thing. For all our talk of independence and spirit of adventure, that would never fly in today’s America. I note that in the first half of an earlier century, I was allowed to ride my bike anywhere, with the only requirement being that I had to make it home in time for dinner.


In November of 2012, Kobe was cold and damp, but not freezing. In August of 2016, Tokyo and Tsu were around 90 and humid, and Sapporo was in the upper 70s. Not sure how much of the humidity was due to the two typhoons that pounded everything from Tokyo, north while we were there. My conclusion is that August is not the time to be visiting Japan, unless it’s the far north.


You really need to know some Japanese phrases, and being able to identify some key kanji also helps. Much of the time, only one person in a shop speaks English. At the hotel in Sapporo — big hotel, right next to the central train station — nobody at the desk spoke any. If you have a little Japanese, it gives them something to hang their answer on.

Japanese TV

Japanese TV is, to my western taste, terrible. Every program, even the news, seems to have a panel of C-list actors commenting on it, with their pictures in little inset frames off to the side. Here’s the reporting on the typhoon-induced flooding on Hokkaido

jp16sapporotv02sm jp16sapporotv01sm

And here is what is available in my hotel room at 8:30 on a Sunday night.
1. An infomercial for some sort of cleaner
2. Coverage of some boat race that took place in January with a male sportscaster, a male color commentator and another fat male commentator who looks like me might have been an entertainer of some sort, and then a woman who was another sort of announcer.
3. Some police procedural documentary with shaky cams and hidden cams and all kinds of discussions of evidence, and real life chase scenes and so forth with faces blanked out.
4. A reality show where it looks like they have taken a family of New Guinea Aborigines and have brought them to Japan to see how they react to modern life. Right now the aboriginal father has just had his first experience with with chopsticks and what he did was put them through his nose.
5. Another reality show where we see cars crashing on security cameras and shots of race cars turning over right out of the gate.
6. what might be coverage of the Sapporo Marathon, with the news announcer and a support group or running along in the rain and the usual collection of commentators is looking at them from the from the corners of the screen.
7. Some sort of historical artistic docudrama like you might see on the History Channel. Looks like it was a perhaps a history of Christianity in Japan and finally
8. Another historical docudrama with lots of replays of things that went on in the samurai era and now we’re looking at everybody’s gravestone to the modern era. When I first saw it I thought it was a regular Samurai Western if you will but it appears to be educational instead.

Only 7 and 8 did not have the Greek Chorus off to the side.


This is Part 4 of 4.  Here’s links to them all:

Part 1  Days 1 to 3

Part 2  Days 4 to 6

Part 3  Days 7 to 9

Part 4  Final Impressions


My Second Trip To Japan: Days 7 to 10

September 9, 2016

Day 7
Up early and off on a run to the south. First leg was Tokyo to Nagoya via the Osaka shinkansen. I could really get used to that way of travel.

jp16shinkansentonagoyasm jp16shinkansenseats

Nagoya to Tsu was by local train again. I sat up in the first car, and got to watch the driver. Like many Japanese workers, he’s trained to physically enact all his decisions. When he came to a branch in the rails, he would first point straight ahead, and then at the branch he would take. When he changed speed, he would first point straight ahead, then at the speedometer, and then reach for the throttle. Same way when passing checkpoints — physically mark them off on a board. His whole body was involved, not just his brain.

jp16southtraindriver01sm jp16southtraindriver02sm

I’ve seen platform attendants doing something similar when walking the platform right before the trains came in. Point at a gate that should be closed. Put your hand on it. Say ‘yes’. There’s less chance of forgetting that way.

If Sapporo was like upstate Maine, Mie Prefecture was like South Carolina. Rice was still growing in the north. In the south, it was harvested, and the fields were plowed in anticipation of a second crop.

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The hotel was, finally, a big, modern building, with roomy rooms, and a nice lobby,

jp16tsuhotellobbysm jp16tsuhotelroomsm

and a good view, front and back. In the view to the east, over the harbor (click to embiggen), you will note what looks a little like a tree-lined lagoon to the left of the centerline on the coast. That’s actually a large solar array. Tsu is very big on renewables, with solar and wind power sites popping up all over.

View to the east

View to the east

View to the west

View to the west

Tsu, by the way, is the capital of Mie (pronounced mee-ae). The kanji is 津, which means sanctuary, or harbor. It’s part of the word, which means harbor wave.

That night was dinner with students and faculty from Mie University. Everyone ordered what looked good to them, and we all shared. I found out that burdock root is normally served shreded, and is pretty tasteless.


Day 8
We had a tour of the Mie University campus. Very nice, in a subtropical sort of way.

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Student Services

Student Services

Student Workshop

Student Workshop

Then we had the workshop, with grad students talking about their proposed projects. Very interesting work being done there.

That night was dinner with students and faculty from Mie University. Dinner was a set piece affair, delivered in increments. Seven or eight courses. Very good. Many of the ingredients were identifiable.

jp16tsudinner02bsm jp16tsudinner02csm

We each had a glass of ninja sake, which is served in a glass in a traditional square sake drinking box. The glass is filled until it overflows into the box.


Day 9
Two superb grad students from Mie, Yamada Koji, and Takigawa Yuma, gave us a tour of inland Mie, including the famous ninja town of Iga. We had demonstrations of ninja techniques, and visited the ninja museum.

Ninja walkers, for walking in swamps

Ninja walkers, for walking in swamps …

The History Club knows how to find old things

… not walking on water.

Ninja crafts

Ninja crafts

Afterwards, we visited a crafts shop that let you make your own accoutrements. I didn’t buy any, because they (a) were expensive, and (b) would only take cash. No Suica or credit cards.

Non-ninja crafts

Non-ninja crafts

Iga beef. The only meal where they offered extra salt.

Iga beef. The only meal where they offered extra salt.

Lunch was the world-famous Iga beef, and the students ate like grad students the world over. It makes one’s heart glad.

They ate their own, and part of mine

They ate their own, and part of mine

That night was dinner with students and faculty from Mie University. In the most traditional Japanese …er… tradition… it was all laid out on the table when we arrived.

Last meal

Last meal

Day 10
Up early, and home. One last wave to the local schoolgirls. One last local train from Mie, one last shinkansen from Nagoya, one last JR train from Tokyo to Narita.

Last schoolgirls

Last schoolgirls

Last shinkansen

Last shinkansen

Went through customs at Denver, which meant we had to claim our bags and re-check them. That happened without leaving security, but TSA Denver still decided they needed to loot my checked bag to make sure the bottle of Plum Sake wasn’t something nefarious. I hope they enjoyed unwrapping the used underwear I padded it with.

All told, a very successful trip. Except for the part about my hips and back having deteriorated to the point where my two grad students insisted on following me back to my room every night to make sure I made it. It was the hostel what done me in, and I’m in much better shape now than then. But I do appreciate the concern and assistance they showed.

I’ll wrap this up in a final essay with some impressions and lessons learned. More words, fewer pictures.

This is Part 3 of 4. Here’s links to them all:

Part 1 Days 1 to 3

Part 2 Days 4 to 6

Part 3 Days 7 to 9

Part 4 Final Impressions

My Second Trip To Japan: Days 4 to 6

September 8, 2016

The next three days were spent attending the conference, wandering around Sapporo, and returning to Tokyo. I’ll be talking mostly about Sapporo.

My first meal there was a nabeyaki dinner — thick udon noodles, tempura shrimp, vegetables, and a lump of mochi flour (I thought it was a potato dumpling) in a bubbling broth in a stone pot. When I say bubbling, I mean it was still venting steam bubbles minutes after they brought it to the table.



There are little specialty shops like this all over. Nothing but noodles. As with many such small places, they only take cash.

Sapporo has lots of places to shop, including a covered market that morphs into a covered shopping mall. Hokkaido is where Japan grows much of its produce, including softball-sized peaches, on sale in the market.

jp16sapporoshoppingmall02sm jp16sapporoshoppingmallsm


Since a yen is very close to a penny, the peaches are $3.00 each, and the apples only $2.50.

Since a yen is very close to a penny, the peaches are $3.00 each, and the apples only $2.50.

The city has a fair amount of snowfall. As they put it, yes, they get close to twenty feet of snow per year, but there’s rarely more than three feet on the ground at any one time. To ameliorate this, they’ve built a vast underground shopping complex, attached to their underground. You can walk from one station to the next, with shops all around, including specialty shops like Hello Kitty and Mr Donut.

jp16sapporosubleftsm jp16sapporosubrightsm
jp16sapporohellokittysm jp16sapporomrdonutsm

My last night there was the Conference Dinner. It was a half hour walk from my hostel, through a warm Saturday night filled with couples of all ages, romantically out hunting Pokemons. The dinner was a multi-course affair, involving Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dishes. We also had speeches, and drumming. The drumming was the only noteworthy thing.


Up early, cab to the train station, and off on another whistle stop tour of the villages of rural Japan. I managed to get a nice photo of a volcano within a volcano.

jp16hokkaidovolcanosm jp16hokkaidocountrysidesm

Rolled into Ueno Station in the late afternoon, unloaded at my favorite Tokyo hotel, and headed for Akihabara, the technical heart of the world — think of Frye’s, spread out over an entire city district.

jp16uenostationsm jp16tokyoakihabarasm

Unfortunately, it was hot, Sunday afternoon, just dripping with sweat and otaku. I managed to spend $60 or $80 on light novels and such, but drew the line at spending $100 for the Girls und Panzer movie, with no subtitles.

This is Part 2 of 4. Here’s links to them all:

Part 1 Days 1 to 3

Part 2 Days 4 to 6

Part 3 Days 7 to 9

Part 4 Final Impressions

My Second Trip To Japan: Days 1 to 3

September 6, 2016

Another year, another conference. Four years ago I went to Kobe, Japan, with a side trip to Kyoto. This time the trip was more wide-ranging, from Tokyo to Sapporo in the north, to Tsu in the south. A conference, a workshop, and a couple of hours in Tokyo.

That 20 hours is the car time. Train time is less than 12.

That 20 hours is the car time.
Train time is less than 12. An equivalent distance in the US (Portland, ME, to Charleston, SC) is 24hrs by train.

Day 1
Since MJ’s shoulder would not let her drive, a good friend picked me up at 4:30AM to take me to the airport.

Security was no worse than usual and soon I was in the air flying southeast to Denver. In Denver there was a four-hour layover and then I flew back northwest, passing within a hundred miles of Spokane on the great circle route from Denver to Tokyo.

The immigration and Border Control process at Narita was very easy and then the rest of the procedure was pretty much as I thought it would be: up to the 4th floor to get my wireless repeater, over to the bank to change money, down to the basement to pick up my Japan Rail Pass, and since Japan Rail to Tokyo was broken because of the typhoon I had to take Kaesai railroad which was $24 but which was faster. About 40min from plane to train.

In less than an hour, we go from the flat rice fields surrounding Narita

In less than an hour, we go from the flat rice fields surrounding Narita the Sky Tree Metropolis

…to the Sky Tree Metropolis

When I got to the station I went directly to Japan Rail ticketing for the shinkansen and found that I could not get my 6 a.m. train, but that I could get a 9:40 train out of Tokyo Station which was one stop south, the biggest and most complex railroad station in the country.

The weather in Tokyo, only be described as hellish. It was in the mid-to-upper 80s with a hundred percent humidity because of the recent typhoon and of course I was dressed for Spokane and a chilly airplane and very nearly died getting to the hotel.

Typhoon Mindulle hit Narita the day before I arrived

Typhoon Mindulle hit Honshou the day before I arrived at Narita

Tropical Storm Kompasu hit Hokkaido the day after I left

Tropical Storm Kompasu hit Hokkaido the day after I left Sapporo

The hotel was strangely built. Think of a standard multi-story motel with an external walkway to get you to the rooms, and then take that hotel and wrap it around in a square so that the walkways are facing in and build some building supports around them so that you would think you were in a building except that the center park was open to the sky and it did not feel like you were outside.

JP16UenoHotelFrontSm JP16UenoHotelInsideSm

The room was very small — about the size of a double bed with enough room to sit on the side of the bed and rest your arms on the dressing table. It had nice HD TV, but they used the what appears to be the now-standard approach of having to stick your room card into a slot in order to get electricity. Which means that the air conditioner is not on unless you’re in the room so you can’t cool it down, and the plugs don’t work so you can’t plug in your electronics and leave them to charge while you go to dinner. The bed itself was okay but it was the pillows that were interesting — one side was like a multi-segmented rice bag as if they wanted to keep it up off the bed so that the whole pillow stayed cool.


Of course both that night’s reservation and one I had made to stay there when I came back down South was messed up but they very graciously offered to put me up for the night and make a another reservation for my Southern trip at standard room rates, not at the rate.

I went out to get dinner and could not stand the heat so I went across the street to a Lawsons and bought a bento box, brought that back, and ate it in the room. Then I collapsed into bed about 8 o’clock and slept through until 6.

Day 2
Up early and ate an $8 hotel breakfast which was mostly rice with little tablespoon size servings of garnishes like chopped daikon or pickled ginger.

The walk to Ueno station was relatively pleasant because it was only about 75 degrees at 8AM. The ride, one stop to Tokyo Station, was crowded, as Japanese trains tend to be during rush hour. I found the right platforms but the wrong track and if I hadn’t asked I would have seen my shinkansen disappear into the tall grass.


The shinkansen ride was pleasant but not as good as it might have been. They could only get me into standard reserved seat instead of the first-class seat the Japan Rail ticket authorize me to get, and in fact my seat was not even a standard JR/airline seat with the tray in front of you — it was one of a set of 6, 3 and 3 facing each other, and the other five occupants was a set of 5 middle school boys who sat down and linked their Gameboys and played Super Mario racer for 4 hrs.

Shinkansen North

Shinkansen North

I called my brother from the train because how often do you get a phone call from a shinkansen? We had a nice little talk until we hit the tunnel and were cut off it was the tunnel from northern Honshu to Southern Hokkaido and it’s like 33 miles long and even at 85 miles an hour you spend an awful lot of time underwater.

Northern Japan. Bigger fields, fewer towns

Northern Japan. Bigger fields, fewer towns

We changed trains at Shin-Hakodate station from the shinkansen to a local milk run that stopped at every other fishing village along the coast. Five years ago, Google Earth shows Shin-Hakodate as a wide spot in the tracks, and today it’s not much better. Surprising as a shinkansen terminal.

The view from Shin-Hakodate

The view from Shin-Hakodate

and then cut across the island next to a very pretty volcano, which I did not get to photograph, and finally arrived two hours later in Sapporo. There, a very nice JR lady who had studied in America in Los Angeles help me to get my suitcase and tickets for the trip back on the 28th.

It was getting late so I took a taxi to the hotel. It’s an obscure little hotel, and the driver got lost several times. He did manage to clip two bicyclists made a turn across traffic and a good time was had by all. It was getting dark by the time we finally found the hotel.

Day 3

My hotel was a standard hippie dippie youth hostel crossed with a traditional Japanese inn. You left your shoes at the front door and there was almost no furniture in the rooms.

Khaosan Sapporo Family Hostel

Khaosan Sapporo Family Hostel

I had a standard six mat room with a six-mat antechamber. The room was designed for two. It had a bunk bed with a top bunk but the bottom bunk was a floor bed with a futon (a 1 inch thick cloth pad) plus a duvet and a couple of pillows. The furniture was one low Japanese style table and two Japanese style chairs. That is to say if you took a straight-back chair and sawed off the legs and let people put a cushion on it and sit on that, that was their concession to Western sensibilities.

My room. Hugin Panorama Creator had a hard time with my camerawork

My room. Hugin Panorama Creator had a hard time with my camerawork

The partition between the rooms was exactly 6ft high. I am 6ft one half inch tall in my stocking feet.

The place was full of youth and family groups and everybody cooked their own meals in the communal kitchen and hung out in the coming with dining room living room with a big TV. I spend most of my time either in the room or out and about.

Between sleeping on the floor and the summer heat (they have a window air conditioner in the room but it only worked in fan mode), I almost died. My back and hip bones never did recover for the rest of the trip.

This is Part 1 of 4. Here’s links to them all:

Part 1 Days 1 to 3

Part 2 Days 4 to 6

Part 3 Days 7 to 9

Part 4 Final Impressions

Japan in Transition

May 10, 2016

I have always been intrigued by situations where an artist is working to portray one image or idea, but also captures another. The classic example is Cennini’s description of 14th Century housekeeping when he thought he was talking about painting.

Less than three generations after Commodore Perry, at the end of the Meiji Era, Japan was undergoing rapid industrialization and modernization.  In 1908, three years after the Russo-Japanese War, and two years after his famous photos of earthquake-destroyed San Francisco, Arnold Genthe visited Japan and caught some images of this transition to modern life.

These photos are from the Vintage Everyday website (you should really go there, the clickable pictures are much better), and there are more available at the Library of Congress Genthe Collection (the reproductions are not as good).

Most of Genthe’s photos were of people in traditional, everyday garb carrying out their activities on typical streets with typical traditional architecture. But if you look over their shoulders, or at the edges of the photos, you can see the modern creeping in.

Here’s an everyday street scene of a market stall, with what looks like a family collected around it. The man is wearing a yukata (I think, I’m not good on various forms of dress) and wearing geta footwear. Over his shoulder is a sign  [氷] the kanji symbol for ice. This traditional scene has some form of refrigeration.

Ice for sale (also brooms)

Ice for sale
(also brooms)

And of course, they have the refrigeration because they have electricity. You can see the power lines and the pole transformers here. (more…)

Happy Tanabata

July 7, 2013

Here’s a picture from Muza-chan.

Cloudy and rainy in Tokyo tonight, so you won’t be able to see the Milky Way from downtown. Not that you’ve been able to do that any time in the last fifty years.

My Trip To Japan

January 10, 2013

I have scrubbed and expanded my description and have now enshrined it as a permanent page. You can find it in the column on the right.

Japan Trip Update

December 15, 2012

I promised to add pictures and backfill with detail when I had a chance and a useful keyboard. I have now done that for days Three and Four. Next up, Day Five, parts 1 and 2!

Trip To Japan: Japanese Toilets

December 15, 2012

Not the traditional style,

Watch where you put your feet

Watch where you put your feet

but the more modern ones. That is, more modern than they have in countries like, say, the U.S.

Not the rocket science version

Not the rocket science version

My limited experience is with the simple toilets you will find in an economy-class Japanese hotel that caters to travelers more than tourists. This one had three knobs on the side. One to start the hot water (otherwise you get quite a shock), one for the bidet function, and one for the …er…standard…cleansing.

Right is warm, Center is stream, Left is bidet

Right is warm, Center is stream, Left is bidet

Here is what the setup looks like inside.

Do not operate in this position.

Do not operate in this position.

If you bend down and turn one of the dispenser knobs, a funny little arm pops out from the square extension at the back of the bowl and sprays hot water in your face.

When used as directed, it has a surprisingly good aim. The difference between the stream and the bidet settings is that the bidet produces a softer spray, not a high pressure needle sharp stream. Consider yourself warned.

Does it work? Not particularly well. Maybe for … um … post-wipe cleanup, but if you do that, you find the cheap hotel toilet paper dissolves on contact when it comes time to dry. I think I’d rather use the old-fashioned kind. And maybe the U.S. isn’t missing out on that much after all.

Japan Trip Day 7

November 26, 2012

Final day and so home. Got up early, went out for one final walk, and stumbled onto the start of the Kobe 2012 Marathon.

Kobe Marathon

Kobe Marathon

More marathoners

More marathoners

Hundreds of people running past, helicopters overhead, dozens of semi-uniformed crowd control workers with batons and traffic cones and bullhorns. wonder it was hard to get a room this weekend

…no wonder it was hard to get a room this weekend

Also found a complete shopping mall — two parallel streets that had arched roofs installed on top, and pedestrian pavers laid down underneath — that I hadn’t seen before. It being a Sunday and 9AM, nothing was open. Another missed opportunity

Checked out of the hotel at 10AM, caught the Portliner to Kobe airport (a small regional field, similar to Tri-Cities, WA, or Santa Maria, CA), and transferred to the high-speed ferry trimaran.

Kobe Airport

Kobe Airport

Travel time from the hotel to Kansai Airport was about an hour (including half an hour on the boat).

Kobe to Kansai, half an hour

Kobe to Kansai, half an hour

They didn’t allow us up on deck, so it wasn’t as much fun as it might have been.

Kansai is a huge barn of a building, like being inside an unfinished transport aircraft. It’s all metal, with lots of exciting industrial art — mostly flat surfaces that reflect sound efficiently, and garble announcements beyond recognition. I packaged up the phone and WiFi and sent them back. The WiFi package was so thick it almost didn’t fit through the slot in the Japan Post mailbox.

I wanted something in the way of a Kansai regional dish for lunch, so I went to a restaurant that specialized in okonomiyaki – (whatever you want) + (grilled food). It’s a savory pancake in which (to extract from Wikipedia) “the batter is made of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs, shredded cabbage, and lots of green onion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter)”. The place was crowded, so I left my big bag out front, with all the others left there by diners. The Japanese have a less hysterical approach to airport security than does the US.

The flights home were uneventful. I rode in a Dreamliner again and was very comfortable. Flying west we had head winds and took 12 hours. Flying east we had tailwinds and took 9 hours. At SFO, the TSA helpfully found and confiscated the juice box I had bought in Osaka airport to drink on the plane and which had slid down inside my backpack. They also presumably saw the tag on my checked baggage, showing it had originated at KIX, and decided to do an inspection to see if there were any dangerous lootables. I found their greeting card inside when I got home.

But that’s OK. My dogs were happy to see me.
<img src="" alt="This was your chair” width=”300″ height=”224″ class=”size-medium wp-image-8171″ /> “This was your chair”

So that was the trip. I’ll backfill on the multipart entries, and load up some photos as I get the time. When I’m done, I’ll move all the entries over to page status, where they can be archived for all time.

Japan Trip Day 6 Part 2

November 24, 2012

2012-11-24 15.00.57_1So after one final look at the panorama, I started downhill, through the herb garden.

2012-11-24 15.27.53_1Past the gardener

2012-11-24 15.27.44_1and lots of flowers I don’t know the names of

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2012-11-24 15.20.55_1

2012-11-24 15.19.44_1 and lavender beds

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2012-11-24 15.15.42_1and the kitchen garden, with really big asparagus

…and a melon you can almost see

2012-11-24 15.14.27_1…and some squash

2012-11-24 15.13.11_1

2012-11-24 15.09.40_1…and I think Rosemary

2012-11-24 15.09.31_1

2012-11-24 14.49.26_1…missing the turnoff to the greenhouse

2012-11-24 14.37.04_1but finally making it to the awaiting mid-mountain cable car stop, and so home.

Japan Trip Day 6 Part 1

November 24, 2012

My last full day in Japan, and I was still worn out from Kyoto. I went out at eight, and it was raw and windy and no fun at all. Back inside, to hang out in the room until the stores opened at 10. Bought gifts for almost everyone.

Manga, as far as the eye can see

Manga, as far as the eye can see

They had lots of manga, but very little anime.

and candy

and candy

They did have a whole section of the store devoted to candy. More floorspace than the books.

For lunch, I decided to do something that the average Japanese would consider out of the ordinary, so I went up to the hotel restaurant cluster for lunch. I found that about a thousand Japanese had the same idea, and all the venues were packed. All except the maid cafe. Well, not a real ‘Welcome Back, Master’ Kaichō wa Maid-sama-style maid cafe. This was a tea-and-cakes shop, with real English tea-shop style maids. With the help of a nice Japanese lady, the first one I’ve met who could speak English better than I speak Japanese, I ordered a Japanese pasta plate. It was one of several similar, and the alternative was pizza. It turned out to be tuna casserole, with broccolirab-like greens. Not bad at all, for what it was.

Then off up the hill to Kobe’s main claim to historical fame, the foreign quarter, with homes built by the various commercial counsels back when the city was just opening up to international trade. Did I say up the hill? 2012-11-24 14.14.27_1I meant UP,

2012-11-24 14.09.21_1and UP!

The Weathercock House

The Weathercock House

Each counsel built their home in the then-current style of the home country. So you have a multi-gabled German home of the mid 19th Century,

The Italian Consulate

The Italian Consulate

and a more modern-looking Italianate one from half a century later.

Nice view on the way up

Nice view on the way up

I had some matcha soft ice cream (an acquired taste, and not at all sweet), and climbed further still, to the Mt. Maya cablecar.

They call it a ropeway, but it's cables

They call it a ropeway, but it’s cables

The view from the top was sweeping, if a little misty,
2012-11-24 14.49.34_1

and the biergarten played stein-clunking German music, mein Schatz.


Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, Der Gemuetlichkeit!
Eins, Zwei, Zuffa!

A brief stop to play German drinking songs into MJ’s voicemail, and to take some pictures, and I was off down the hill through the herb garden. But that’s for Part 2.

Japan Trip Day 5 Part 2

November 23, 2012

At the Kyoto Station I was met by my friend and former student Ayu-chan, and we went on a walking tour of the city.



Now, I’ve read a fair amount of Japanese history, about how Kyoto was the national capital for a long long time, and how it had many historic buildings that were spared the bombings of WWII. I had a picture of Kyoto as a quiet, tree-lined, almost university-town-like atmosphere. Not at all.

Kyoto is bigger than you think

Kyoto is bigger than you think

It’s a bustling city that just happens to have a bunch of shrines and temples, and those are so scattered that it takes days to see them all on foot. We had an afternoon, so we saw two. The Higashi Hongaji, near the station, and the Kiyomizu-dena, on a tall hill complex in the center of the city.

The Higashi Hogaji was mostly closed for renovation. Covered with a large metal shed, it looked more like a light industrial complex. There were a couple of sub-temples that were worth photographing. One with me in the frame, somehow.

Higashi Hongaji and Me

Higashi Hongaji and Me

Another subtemple, this one without me

Another subtemple, this one without me

The Kiyomizu-dera was a goodly walk, across the Kaomagma River and up a fairly steep hill.

Kaoimagama River

Kaoimagama River

It being a national holiday — Labor Thanksgiving Day, killing two with one weekend — there were thousands of locals and tourists who took the trek with us. At the top were more temples,



autumn leaves,

Autumn in Kyoto

Autumn in Kyoto

and a beautiful view of the city.

See that tower? We walked from there.

See that tower? We walked from there.

A view which many others appreciated as well.

Leaf-peepers of Kyoto

Leaf-peepers of Kyoto

Japan Trip Day 5 Part 1

November 23, 2012

This is as multi-parter, because so much went on. I took the Shinkasen from Kobe to Kyoto and spent the day being shown around by one of my former students — sometimes perfesserin’ really pays off.

The Shinkasen is everything they said it was. The train was more like an airplane inside, with comfortable 3+3 seating (and little rubber bedknobs on the aisle side of the seatbacks for the standees to hold on to). The trip up was extra-crowded, because it was the start of a three-day weekend. I was the last person on, and ended up standing next to the door in the connecting compartment for the first part of the trip. This was no problem, because the train is fast.

The front end looks like a fast racing car

JapanTripShinkasen2012-11-23 17.18.22_1

It spends two or three minutes in the station

Quick turnaround

Before accelerating away

JapanTripShinkasen2012-11-23 17.16.03_1

And the back end looks like a racecar as well

JapanTripShinkasen2012-11-23 17.16.20_1

Hey, did I just miss my train?

Round-trip cost was ¥5,400, or about $66. Road distance and travel time direct from Kobe to Kyoto is 73km / 1hr 17min, Kobe to Kyoto via Osaka is 90km / 1hr 45min. Coming back on the train, it was 10min to Osaka, and another 20min to Kobe. We left at exactly 5:30PM and got in at exactly 6PM, so our average speed was 180km/hr. Stops for trains passing through Kyoto were about 2min each. I got home and called my student to let her know I’d made it OK. She was still shopping in ShinKyoto Station.

While ShinKobe was simply a train station,
ShinKyoto was quite a bit bigger

JapanTripShinKyoto2012-11-23 11.19.49_1

With Christmas decorations

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and lots of people

JapanTripShinKyoto2012-11-23 11.16.32_1

My only complaint is that between standing jammed into the connecting compartment on the way up, and coming home after dark, I never got to see the countryside whiz by at 180kph.

Trip To Japan Day 4

November 23, 2012

All of Day 4 was spent at the con, the poster session, and the stand-up banquet.

Bell tower, Kobe Portopia Conference Center

Bell tower, Kobe Portopia Conference Center

I did get to surprise MJ by calling her just as the clock at the con site let out a peal of bells.

Not only did they have a bell tower, but they also had a collection of figures that marched around in a little house at the base of it

World+Dog at the bell tower

World+Dog at the bell tower

I wanted an authentic Japanese lunch, so I went to the nearest Lawson’s kombini and bought a collection of bento items, including three different kinds of rice balls (really triangles), and a small loaf of curry bread. The rice balls were about as I expected, except that one of them had a tomagoyaki roll inside. The curry bread was a flat loaf, curry-flavored, stuffed with a small hot dog and curry paste. Sadly, there were no photos.

At the banquet I found out that Kobe is also famous for sake and for Japanese wine. Their red is a not-very-full-bodied Cabernet; the sake was mild-tasting and inoffensive, certainly better than the brands they carry at Safeway, but nothing to write the world about….um.

A drum-shaped sake container, with dipping cups

A drum-shaped sake container, with dipping cups

As the banquet was in the final stages of preparation, I noticed a kimono display.

Kimono at the Kobe Portlandia Hotel

Kimono at the Kobe Portlandia Hotel

That reminded me that I had promised to buy my grand-niece-in-law one. Well, I’m not prepared to shell out what’s needed for a kimono, but I can afford the lightweight summer version, the yukata. There was a nice hotel lady seeing to the preparations. I asked her if she knew of any places I could find yukatas, and she said she’d see what she could do. Half an hour later, she dug me out of the banquet. She didn’t have a list of places. She had a couple of samples and wanted to know if this was what I wanted. We then slipped up to the hotel shop that sold them, and I made my GNiL happy, along with the shop staff. That’s the highly helpful Nishio san on the right.
Nishio Tomoko and shop staff

Nishio Tomoko and shop staff

Japan Trip Day 3

November 22, 2012

Proof of Attendance

Proof of Attendance

After the opening of the conference, which I will report on separately, I skipped out, caught the train back to downtown, and wandered around some more.

The arrival times are all digital but the actual times are analog

The arrival times are all digital but the actual times are analog

I wanted an authentic Japanese lunch experience, so I stopped at a noodle bar, the kind where you stick coins in a machine and it gives you a ticket that you give to the heavily made-up counter lady, who gives you your udon. For 280yen I had something called ‘kitsune’. kitsune means ‘fox’, but I think it was really beef. I later learned that it’s a Kobe region specialty. It was very good.

The Udon Lady

The Udon Lady

My main target was ShinKobe, the Shinkasen station for Kobe.

ShinKobe Station, home of the bullet train

ShinKobe Station, home of the bullet train

It’s about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. One of the interesting things about Kobe is that they have lots of pedestrian walkways,

Pedestrian crossovers, behind the hat

Pedestrian crossovers, behind the hat

so that you don’t have to wait at the intersection, and some of them are quite complex because if you have 6 streets meeting, you need a bunch of different walkovers.

Walking up, I took the main street, Flower Street.

Flower Street

Flower Street

It’s a typical Japanese thoroughfare (he said, based on 36hrs of observation), with typical stores and shops and public art.

Children may play here

Children may play here

Japanese stores remind me of old junk stores, only much cleaner and brighter. Narrow aisles stacked ceiling-high with an incredible array of goods,with everything marked bright signs with big block letters. Most of the places I went into were in narrow narrow buildings, and the shop went up four or five stories of 15×15′ display rooms. I bought a couple of kids manga, nothing ecchi, to practice my translating on.

Other buildings are not what they seem. According to other blogs, many of the buildings that look to be Christian churches are really just commercial shells, available for rent by couples who want a Western Style wedding, presided over by whichever of their foreign friends owns a black suit. Here is a fake Greek building. You’d think it might be a bank or something. It’s not. It’s another wedding center.

The Marriage Center

The Marriage Center

The Shinkasen station backs right up against the hills. From that aspect, Kobe reminded me a little of downtown Portland. The building to the left is the start of the Mt. Maya ropeway, of which more tomorrow.

ShinKobe Station and Portland-style hills

ShinKobe Station and Portland-style hills

The station was a little confusing because nowhere could I find a map of the system to tell me what train to take to Kyoto. It turns out it was the Tokyo train, I think. I figured I would find out on Friday. Returning to the hotel, I wandered the back streets and residential districts. You can get a car in here, but from one direction only.

Hillside homes

Hillside homes

Japan Trip Day 2

November 21, 2012

Day two started with a comedy of errors. I took the Portliner train out to the conference center about 9 o’clock, but I could not find any sign of the conference. Well, I found one sign.After fighting with my MiFi and my mobile phone I discovered that the con didn’t start until 6 o’clock that night.

SCIS-2012 Big sign, no people

SCIS-2012 Big sign, no people

So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Kobe. Kobe is an interesting city. You have the usual wide thoroughfares

JapanTripNorthPlainsHillStreet2012-11-20 11.31.32_1

Here we are on Northfield Hill Street

but instead of medium sized side streets you have a collection of very small 1 way streets designed for tiny Japanese vehicles. In between those is a maze of twisty passages, all alike. The only vehicle you can get down them is a motor scooter.

JapanTripKobeThereAreNarrowerStreets2012-11-21 13.51.28_1

There are narrower streets than this

They are home to hundreds of small bars and restaurants. I wanted an authentic Japanese experience for lunch so I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The highlight of the afternoon was the visit to the Ikuta Shrine. It’s right in downtown Kobe and is one of the oldest in Japan, almost two thousand years old. It is dedicated to Wakahirume, younger sister of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.

Ikuta Shrine, main entrance

The sign out front said something about a 753 Pilgrimage, and their website talks about a 753 ceremony, blessing the children. That might be what this was about:

JapanTripIkutaBaptism2012-11-20 11.55.23_1

Shinto baptismal? ceremony

There are other shrines on the grounds of the main one. This one is dedicated to Inari, a gender-neutral god of rice and good fortune. The gods messengers are kitsune, foxes, and they are often shown holding scrolls.

JapanTripInariShrineKitsune2012-11-20 12.05.03_1

Well trained fox guardian of the Inari Shrine

I ended my visit at a little gift stand run by this shrine maiden. She convinced me to buy a number of charms for luck and health and protection for children, to send to various relatives, but I drew the line at the one that ensures successful pregnancy.

JapanTripIkutaShrineMaiden2012-11-20 12.22.02_1

Ikuta Shrine Maiden

On the way home, I saw my first Japanese high school students in uniform. The boys were wearing very severe Navy Blue uniforms that make them look like junior versions of Admiral Yamamoto standing on the bridge of his battleship. Of course some of them are wearing them in the most slovenly way possible, with their jacket sleeves pulled up so they can show their shirt sleeves rolled up, shirt-tails out, and trousers pulled down far enough to be baggy and draggy. The girls were more Catholic school girl look than sailor suit. Knee-high socks or hose with short plaid or navy skirts and dark navy blazers. The layered look was in for women in general — high-heeled boots, long socks , leggings , hose with short skirts that could be anything from frilly to denim, topped with jacket over sweater over sweater vest. The men wore guy-stuff and suits that looked like the business suit version of the student Navy uniform.

Japan Trip Day 1

November 20, 2012

Off to Japan!

I have had two papers accepted for the SCIS-2012 Conference in Kobe. This will be the first in a series describing my trip and observations. I’ll post it as I go, using the totally inadequate keyboards of my Nexus 7 and Inspiron 10. In some places I’ll stick a placeholder for a photo to be filled in later — my phone takes 2MB pix, and I don’t intend to use up my WP allotment in one go.

As with any trip, getting there is half the fun. My plane left GEG for SFO at 5AM. To make things more fun, MJ wasn’t getting back from an AKC trip ’till 11PM. I parked the car at the airport and left it with a white towel tied to the bike rack.

The flight out was a typical 21st Century flight. TSA was no more intrusive than they usually are. SFO to KIX (Kansai International, built on an island off Osaka), was on a B-777 Dreamliner. Comfortable, with a surprising amount of leg room. Food was just like Mother used to make — when she was in a hurry and there was nothing fresh in the house.

Got in at 4PM, and it was 5PM and dark by the time I’d cleared everything. The most direct route KIX to Kobe is to take the high speed ferry, but they said I’d have to wait an hour and suggested I take the bus. I was surprised at the length of the trip — 90min — but then I realized this wasn’t just a jaunt around Osaka Bay, this was a run down the coast of the Inland Sea.

My room in the Sannomiya Terminal Hotel

My room in the Sannomiya Terminal Hotel

The hotel isn’t the con hotel, which is a big, modern, expensive place out on the port island. Sannomiya Terminal Hotel is run by Japan Rail and sits right on top of the railroad station. The room is small – think cruise ship cabin – but cheap, and convenient.

A while back I did a post on The Smell of the Country, talking about what smells hit you when you first arrived. Japan…doesn’t smell. KIX is clean, modern, antiseptic. The bus had a faint air of fresheners about it. The hotel doesn’t have the typical hotel smell, the city streets don’t smell of diesel, and there’s not as much smoking as I thought there’d be. UPDATE:Finally, a smell. My room is non-smoking, but someone who just moved in on this floor is a smoker.

The view out my hotel window is interesting, be it day

Downtown Kobe on a cool Autumn day

Downtown Kobe on a cool Autumn day

Or night

Downtown Kobe on a crisp Autumn night

Downtown Kobe on a crisp Autumn night

And if you stand across the street by the big office building, this is what the hotel looks like:

Sannomiya Terminal Hotel, Kobe

Sannomiya Terminal Hotel, Kobe

My room is in the bottom row of windows, about sixth from the left.

Fun With Vocabulary

August 14, 2012

Swap kana:
きゅうりょう (kyu.ryo) 給料 means salary.
きょうりゅう (kyo.ryu) 恐竜 means dinosaur (lit. scary dragon).
As you can see, the kanji are nothing alike, so that’s alright then.

Fun With Vocabulary

June 6, 2012

I never cease to be amazed at the way Japanese characters change pronunciation and meaning, depending on how they are used. The kanji 女 is pronounced, and means ‘woman‘. The kanji 子 is pronounced ko, and means ‘child‘. When used together 女子 they are pronounced jo.shi (unless the reader pronounces them, and are sort of a group reference to ‘young women‘, but when combined as radicals of a single kanji 好 they are pronounced (この), which means…’good‘.

Fun With Vocabulary

March 15, 2012

Not content with having three alphabets (or two syllabics and a logographic if you’re picky) the Japanese also have a formally formal way of speaking, and a formally informal way. These are not to be confused with the informal formalities, which are mere period pieces and regional dialects. So, one learns the baseline dictionary form of verbs and adjectives, and how to conjugate those forms into formal language. Then, in Chapter 18, they tell you that nobody talks like that, except in letters, and that in real life they use informal conjugations. On the positive side, despite the fact that they are very different from each other, these conjugations are extremely simple and logical…both of them. Oh, did I mention that the adjectives are conjugated almost identically to the verbs? And that these verbs and adjectives climb an intertiwined ladder of additional complexity from present positive to past negative? So った (tta) is the past positive form of a verb. And かった (ka.tta) is a past positive adjective. And なかった (na.ka.tta) is a past negative verb. And くなかった ( is a past negative adjective. See? Easy!

Decision Tree for Conjugating Japanese Informal Verbs and Adjectives

In an attempt to keep myself from going mad, I’ve built a key, a decision tree, based on my woefully inadequate understanding of how this works (we’re only on Chapter 18, remember?). Be warned that there are many exceptions, and there are words that look like verbs because maybe the word itself ends in た before ever you start conjugating it. We’ll just ignore that part. This graphic works on 90% of the words I am…currently… working with. As people correct me, and I learn more, I’ll update this.

Meanwhile, don’t follow me — I’m lost.

Picture Stories from Earth: Tohoku Earthquake

March 11, 2012

Tohoku (東北) is the name of the six prefectures that make up the northern end of Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. The name is made up of two kanji: 東 (ひがし, meaning East, and 北 (きた ki.ta), meaning North. In typical Japanese fashion, the symbols are pronounced one way when alone (kun pronunciation), and a different way (on pronunciation) in a compound word (とうほく to.u.ho.ku). Today is the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It seems a lot longer.

The land is torn
but cherry trees still bloom
in Tsutsujigaoka Park

Here is a discussion of what it’s like, living in coastal Tohoku today.

Here is a set of satellite images (before, after, and now — reading up) of the damage to the city of Nagatsura, and the Kitakami River. The city is permanently changed because of changes in the level of the land.

This is a photo-essay of the region in the immediate aftermath.

And here is a set of interactive photos, showing how the debris clearance is going.

Meanwhile, the local Toyota plant (inland, but still impacted by supplier outages), is just hitting its stride again.

In another month, there will be cherry blossoms.

Fun With Vocabulary

January 23, 2012

I am working on different ways to remember Japanese kanji characters. Often, as the experts will tell you, it helps to break them up into their different parts. For example, the symbol 女 means woman. The symbol 末 (not to be confused with 未) means, among many other things youngest child. So the combination 妹 means younger sister. Similarly, 姉 means elder sister. And what does 市 mean? Mostly it means city. So while the younger sister is youngest woman, the older sister is a city girl. Of course, you could look on them as women who wear different shapes of dresses.

I’m getting into kanji because when I try to translate anything that isn’t in the textbook I find that probably half of the words are in kanji, with the hiragana used for punctuation and parts of speech and stuff. I’m putting it up here ’cause it’s fun, not because it’s any great insight (after all, it could be wrong), and because it’s my way of recording my thoughts on the matter.

Don’t follow me. I’m lost.

Fun With Vocabulary

January 9, 2012

Declassified prizewinning NSA essay (pdf) on translating Japanese.
In other news, there’s a Crypto-Linguistic Association.

Fun With Vocabulary

December 26, 2011

Over at Japan: Life and Religion, Doug points out that the old Japanese name for December is 師走 (, from 師 (priest) and (走), to run, probably because in the month of 師走, the Shinto and Buddhist priests are busy getting ready for the pre- and post- New Year ceremonies. This is a little like some of the Old English activity names for months, like ƿēodmōnað, or ‘weed month’.

Fun With Vocabulary

December 14, 2011

There’s a new anime out called I Don’t Have Many Friends. I haven’t seen it, and know nothing about it, but it’s inspired a certain amount of discussion amongst fandom, not for the plot, the characters, or the art, but for how the title of the show is abbreviated.

The Japanese name is 僕は友達が少ない, a typical mix of kanji and hiragana, which transliterates as Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai. In English, we might abbreviate it as BoToSu, or even BTS. The ‘take the first syllables’ apporach is common in Japan, but another possibility is to just drop the kanji portion and leave the hiragana, so you get はがない, or

Note that the は symbol is pronounced “wa” when used as a particle (indicating that the preceeding word is the object of the verb…I think), but “ha” everywhere else, and I guess there’s a bit of a bunfight going on over how to pronounce the abbreviated title.

I don’t know if this really is clever word use by the Japanese, or clever marketing by the anime company.

Pearl Harbor Part 3

December 7, 2011

Indications And Warning (I&W) is an obscure corner of an otherwise esoteric Intelligence discipline. It specifically deals with predicting a country’s intention to go to war through observations of their preparations. It was born of the Intelligence failures of the first half of the last century — Pearl Harbor and Korea (and the Chinese intervention there). It grew of age in the second half, watching the Soviet Union and North Korea. It was then subject to a major identity crisis when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the problem became one of predicting the terrorist actions of non-state organizations. Most of that is fodder for a different post.

I want to wrap up my Pearl Harbor coverage by looking at the I&W aspects of the problem. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 2

December 6, 2011

Earlier, we talked about the Japanese decision to go to war. Actually, it was a chain of totally logical decisions (aren’t they always?):

Phase 1
1. Japan has the capability to be a major world power, but in order to be a major world power, Japan must acquire overseas colonies

2. Korea and China stand in the same relation to Japan that Africa does to Europe, so that’s where the empire building should occur

Result: Japan starts a land war in Asia September, 1931. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 1

December 5, 2011

Iguchi Takeo was the young son of a Japanese embassy functionary, living in Washington, DC, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He went on to a distinguished career of his own in the Japanese Foreign Office, serving as ambassador to several countries and teaching at universities both in Japan and the US. As a serving diplomat, Iguchi had access to the Foreign Office files concerning the days prior to Pearl Harbor, and he writes a very interesting book on the topic, titled Demystifying Pearl Harbor. This essay is based on much that is in the book, plus many of my own speculations and opinions. It’s not really a review.

As is well-known, the Japanese embassy delivered their diplomatic note breaking off negotiations well after the attack had started. The traditional explanation was that the embassy did not get the last part of the message translated in time, due to lax administrative procedures. Iguchi is not a disinterested observer, nevertheless, his new evaluation makes a compelling argument that the delay occurred on the Tokyo end, and that it was deliberate.

The general impression one gets from popular US culture on the subject is that the Japanese got up one morning and decided to conquer Asia, and what better way than to attack Hawaii? What comes out in this book is a clash of cultures between the US and Japan, and of priorities between the Japanese military and the Japanese Foreign Office (JFO). The US was woefully wrong in its estimate of Japanese reactions to US actions, while the Japanese military was manipulative and duplicitous, and the JFO was spineless. (more…)

Fun With Vocabulary

November 8, 2011

One source of fun are expressions where the words say one thing, but the meaning is something more. We say a day late and a dollar short, for someone who hasn’t done something in time. In Japanese, it’s とおかのきく (, a ten-day (とおか) chrysanthemum (きく). It turns out, there’s a chrysanthemum festival on the ninth day of the ninth (formerly lunar) month. If your ‘mum blooms on the tenth day, you are, you know, a day late and a dollar short.

Fun With Vocabulary

November 1, 2011

Thanks to Sakura Wars, I figured out why the Japanese write top to bottom, right to left. It wasn’t just a historical accident.

In one scene in the OVA, Shingūji Sakura is writing a letter in the traditional (i.e. original) way, with a brush on a scroll of paper.

Shingūji Sakura writing a letter home

This is everyday writing, not calligraphy on a banner. She’s holding the roll of paper in her left hand, and writing with her right, top to bottom, on the roll. When she gets to the bottom of the roll, she uses her left thumb to push the written-on part out to the right, exposing more paper, to the left of the line she just wrote (and leaving the wet ink in the air to dry). The sheet of paper on her right is a scratch pad where she practices a kanji before writing it. Evidently the Japanese can be just as confused by their characters as we are.

In Europe, writing was done on relatively small sheets of parchment, not rolls of paper, so things were done differently – if you didn’t want to drag your sleeve through the wet ink, and you were right handed, you wrote left-to-right/top to bottom. And among the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, until recently also known as Free Fire Zone Iraq, they did it with the cut ends of reeds on wet clay tablets, and they did it as the ox plows.

I knew there was more to anime than just fanservice.

Fun With Vocabulary

October 25, 2011

Sakura Taisen, AKA Sakura Wars, AKA Cherry Blossom Wars, is a game/anime franchise that I will be reviewing Real Soon Now. It’s a dieselpunk story that takes place in 1920’s Tokyo and involves a group of young women who perform in the opera by day, and control steam-driven mechs in combat at night.

Adapted from the Wikipedia entry on Sakura Taisen:

The Japanese words for “Imperial Floral Assault Force” (帝国華撃団) and “Imperial Opera Troupe” (帝国歌劇団 ) are pronounced the same way (Teikoku Kagekidan), and only the characters used in writing are different, resulting in a clever pun. Thus, the Flower Division performs as one during the day, and “changes characters” come time for battle.

BTW, the last character appears to be pronounced as two syllables: dah.nn, not dan. In the opening song, that phrase gets a ten-count.

Fun With Vocabulary

August 29, 2011

The Japanese love to do what programmers would call overloading their language. Words mean different things depending on context. The kanji characters they got from China usually have at least two ‘readings’, or pronunciations: the on reading (loan word close to the original Chinese pronunciation, the way we use Latin words), and the kun reading (a Japanese word close to the original Chinese meaning). In Western terms, imagine that the Romans had a special symbol for a horse. An on reading would be equine. A kun reading would be horse. Then the symbol might be paired with another one to give the meaning horse holder, and be pronounced assistant.

But even a simple character can have many more readings, and meanings, than that. For example, the character 分. If you go to nihongodict, it will say that:

1. 分 is read ぶん and is pronounced bun and means part/division (the u is like a oo, as in Dan’l),
2. 分 is read ふん and is pronounced fun and means one minute, or 60 seconds,
3. 分 is read ぶ and is pronounced bu and means one-tenth of a wari, or 72 seconds.

And what, might you reasonably ask, is a wari? Well, among many other things, a wari (わり) is a sumo match, which, if you do the Wiki, you will find lasts no longer than twelve minutes, not counting the bowing and throwing of salt and stamping parts. So a tenth of a wari is 72 seconds.

See what fun you can have with vocabulary?

Moon Viewing

August 12, 2011

…is the literal translation of Tsukimi (月見). I originally thought it was also the basis for one of the character names in Kanon — Tsukimiya Ayu — but her name (月宮) translates as ‘Moon Palace‘. Moon viewing is the autumnal equvalent of the springtime Hanami ceremony, the viewing of cherry blossoms by moonlight, only there are no special floral arrangements, other than pampas grass (and no, pumpkins don’t count). The full moon is celebrated on the 15th of August (actually, this year it is full on the 13th), people wear Yakutas, and special moon-shaped foods, like dango are served. There are many varieties of dango.

Fun with vocabulary 2

July 14, 2011

I was rewatching Moshidora last week. The opening theme is quite nice, and has a cute play on words. The Japanese use a lot of English loan words, including nooto, ノート (with a stretched vowel pronounced something like, not for a notebook. On the other hand, their own similar words have different meanings: の (no) is a possessive, and 音 (oto) is a sound. Yume means dream. So the opening line of the song: yume, yume no oto, is talking about the sound of a dream in a dream notebook.

Happy Tanabata

July 7, 2011

Tanabata, — pronounced, as far as I can tell, as TAnabata, not tonaBAta, and at eighth-note speed — is also known as The Festival of the Weaver, and celebrates the two sky-bound lovers, Orihime (Altair) and Hikoboshi (Vega), forever separated by the river of the Milky Way. The festival is held on the seventh day of the seventh month, which is July 7th, 2011 in the modern calendar, or August 8th, 2011, in the Japanese lunisolar calendar.

Wikipedia print of Tanabata in Old Edo, 1852

Traditionaly, people write wishes for improved skills on pieces of paper called tanzaku, and attach them to bamboo stalks, as this picture from Muza-chan shows.

Tanzaku tree at the Asakusa Shrine. From

For Tanabata festivals, people, and others, also dress up in lightweight kimonos, called yakuta yukata.

In Season 2 of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Haruhi points out that it takes light 16 years to get to Altair and 22 years to get to Vega, so it will take that long to get the wishes answered (they’re gods, so the answers, of course, are instantaneous).

Fun With Vocabulary

April 10, 2011

So, I am studying my Japanese vocabulary, and I get to a phrase ikura いくら, which means “How much?”. Fine, fine, always good to know how to ask that. It also has a kanji, that looks like a bad game of pickup sticks, or maybe a medieval escutcheon, with quarterings.

A little later, I get to another phrase, ikura いくら, which means…. “Salmon eggs”.

Hmmm. I know the Japanese overload their words with multiple meanings, but this is a little much. So I go to my nihongodict and type in “salmon eggs”, and it gives me back ikura イクラ. Ah, it’s in katakana, and I had mistyped it when entering it — katakana is like italics, it is used for foreign words and emphasis. I note also that the word has no kanji associated with it, which means it really is foreign.

Now, where would the Japanese have gotten a loan word for salmon eggs? Anybody nearby who does a lot of salmon fishing? China? No, too warm. Korea? No, not enough rivers. Russia? Google translate gives me ikroĭ, икрой, which seems close enough (particularly since the u in ikura might be silent).

See the fun you can have with language?

Sendai flood from Space Update

March 13, 2011

Actually, Sendai doesn’t appear on the latest NASA images, it’s off the picture to the north. These new pictures confirm that the southern extent of the flooding is roughly at Ukedo. On the right-hand image that’s on the north edge of the small puff-ball white cloud sitting right on the coast.

NASA image

These look to be near-Infra-Red spectrum, false color images, where foliage is pink-to-red (depending on its development), deep water is blue (unless turbid), and shallow water is dark-to-light grey. Judging from the lighter shading, the two patches of flooding there are not as bad as elsewhere, but if your home has water up to your knees, it’s not much consolation to think that at least it’s not up to your waist.

If I am map-matching correctly, the Fukushima nuclear plants are further south still, right at the bottom of the image.

Sendai flood from space

March 12, 2011

Here’s a before and after from NASA’s Earth Observation Satellite. Note the clean curve of the coast in the 26 February shot, compared with the jagged appearance from the 12th. BTW, If you click on the pix to get the blown up version, you get a 9MB shot of the whole archipelago, but not much more detail at Sendai. What the blown up version does show is that the flooding appears to have run all along the coast, from Matsushima Airbase, all the way south to Ukedo, about 70 miles (note: Google Maps only recognizes Namie township, inland).


For a different view of the undisturbed coast, here’s a radar mapping image.

And here is a more recent update.

Twitter in Japan

February 25, 2011

According to reports, Japanese has become the second most used language on Twitter, after English. I suspect one of the reasons is that written Japanese can be much more compact than most languages. In English, “secondhand book” takes up fifteen characters, including the space. In standard Japanese hiragana, the word is ふるほん (, four characters, and in the borrowed-from-Chinese kanji symbols, it’s one reading of 古本, only two twitter characters. If you can pack an entire word into one character, 140 of them become a useful way to impart information. Of course, there’s a lot of context that’s needed to pick out the meaning of the words. Depending on the kanji, the Japanese word さんか (sa.n.ka) can mean participation, obstetrics, mountain villa, or a specific group of mountain tribes that were resistent to pacification. Since Chinese is the source of kanji, you’d expect Chinese to be a major player in the Twitter arena. It isn’t, probably because there are …ah… political …um… implications … that make China not a tweet-friendly nation. That may change.

More Tales of the Heike

July 3, 2009

The 12th Century in Japan was one of civil war and great deeds by warriors. Writers were as fascinated by the appearance of the individual warrior as we are of celebrities today. You can just hear the color commentator whispering into his ink-stone:

“Ashikaga no Matataro is attired in a coral damask undersuit, a suit of armor with dark-red lacing, and a high-horned helmet. At his waist, he is wearing a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, is a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers. He is holding a rattan-wrapped bow and riding a white-dappled reddish horse, whose saddle is edged in gold and decorated with a golden owl in an oak tree. Let’s listen while he announces his name…”

The Tale of the Heike

June 24, 2009

Reading a translation of the 12th Century Japanese epic “Tale of the Heike”, about the fall of one of the great houses. Some parts are unintentionally funny. At one point, an army of militant monks is approaching the palace to demand justice for wrongs done their members. Troops are stationed at all entry gates to defend them. The North gate has a renowned military leader, but few forces, so that’s where the monks go. They stop at the gate, and the leader’s deputy comes out.

“Look,” he says (I paraphrase), “we agree with you, but the Emperor says you can’t come in. If we let you in, we fail our Lord. If you fight your way in, against such a small force, you’ll win, but you’ll be embarrassed, and everybody will be looking at the ground. Our commander has never lost a battle, and it would be embarrassing all the way around. Why don’t you go to the East gate, where they have a force worthy of your attention.”

The monks thought a bit, and some said “You know, he’s right, there’s no glory in it. And the commander is from a good family. Besides, he not only is a good commander, he writes excellent poetry. Remember that one about the cherry trees?”

So, the monks went to the East gate, where they were defeated, abandoned their petition, and went back to their mountain, crying.