Dateline: 04-01-2010, 8:00am, Japan Time; Something New to Worry About

March 31, 2010

An article in the Japan Examiner this morning posits that we have more to fret about than simple global warming. It seems that cultural geologist Vikram Patel, of the Mumbai think tank Interactive Geoterra has issued a paper documenting that not only is the planet heating up, it is also flattening out at a rather distressing rate. Initial, albeit anecdotal, reports suggested that global warming was causing significant ice melt at the tops of several of Nepal’s highest mountains, Kachenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu, thus rendering their summits several meters lower than previously recorded. In one case, that of Annapurna (8848m), which has no peaks nearby to block intense alpine sun rays, the pinnacle has shrunk by close to 30 meters, roughly one hundred feet. As it turns out, however, it is not simply solar-related meltdown, but a sandification of the underlying rock and soil which causes huge runoff during precipitation and contributes strongly to avalanches of epic proportions compared to landslide activity from as little as five years ago.

Patel came to Japan in 2008 to study the effects of sandification on the Japan Alps, most particularly Japan’s highest mountain, Mt. Fuji. Fuji, which is typically snowbound year round at the peak, has seen broad patches of bare earth showing through the snow cap in summers, particularly on the west side, for the past several years (the first time in recorded history). Patel’s study was an eye opener: previously measured at 3776m (12388 feet), Fuji-san’s summit had slipped alarmingly, close to fifty meters (150 feet) to a corrected altitude of 3730m (12237 feet). Anecdotal information from local growers suggested that their topsoil had become increasingly sandy and infertile over the previous three seasons, which squared with Patel’s assertion that the venerated mountain is inexorably eroding into the plains below.

The following two years found Patel in such diverse mountain locations as Colorado, Kenya, the Urals, and the Andes, and in each case, both the objective data (measurements of summit height, examination of runoff) and subjective data (observations by Patel and his research team, interviews with local residents) support the notion that the world is indeed flattening at a disturbing rate. “I should not be surprised to see Mt. Fuji lose 300 meters more in the course of my lifetime,” opined Patel, who is now forty-nine. “At that rate,” he continued, “assuming even a simple arithmetic progression, we could expect Mt. Fuji as we know it to exist no longer in 200 years.” The ramifications for smaller mountain ranges, like the Eastern US Appalachians, are even more dire. “No one can say with certainty what the weather patterns might look like with the diminishment or absence of mountain ranges, but it would seem to be a foregone conclusion that US Midwestern weather fronts would have no natural barriers to prevent their eastward migration, thus hammering eastern seaboard cities with a barrage of both Atlantic and Plains States storms on a more or less constant basis.”

Patel shrugs off suggestions that he is painting a worst-case “doomsday” scenario. “This is not a case of ‘the sky is falling’,” he points out, “but rather a case of ‘the sky is rising’, as the ground continues to erode away dramatically at the points where it reaches closest to the heavens. This rivals global warming as one of the most difficult challenges to be faced by the human race in the latter part of the 21st century.”

What can we do, if anything, to stem the tide? Patel’s suggestion: “Well, I would say to mountain climbers, please do not take souvenir rocks from the mountaintops when you reach the peaks. Perhaps instead you could bring lowland soil with you on your ascent, to leave at the summit upon arrival. Any small change one can make in one’s behavior has the potential for moving (or rebuilding) mountains when repeated at a global level.”

In closing, Patel offered a short message of hope and comfort he learned as a child at the knee of his Spanish governess: “Feliz Dia de los Inocentes. mis amigos crédulos.” (For a literal translation of Patel’s exceptionally important closing message, please visit, and paste the text into their translator program.)

It’s Sakura Time Again in Edo!

March 31, 2010

On the Tokyo evening news every year around this time, the piece of information that everyone tunes in to discover is: “what percentage of sakura (cherry) blossoms have opened thus far?” The reason for this is that the Japanese, the world’s pre-eminent amateur photographers, want to be on hand, tripods at the ready, at the absolute most propitious moment for snapping pics of the pink explosion that defines Tokyo every spring. The weatherman (it is always a man, although he quite often has a comely female assistant to flip the charts and hang on his every word as he dispenses pearls of meteorological wisdom), armed with a nothing more than a pointing stick and a highly scientific-looking blue screen, hijacks perhaps a third of the news half-hour, giving the rundown suburb by suburb, with the seriousness of one describing, say, a mining accident: Saitama, 54% open; Yamanashi Prefecture, 51%; Yasukuni Shrine, 53%; Shakujii Koen, 52%. It is a fragile balance, the cherry blossom pageant, easily disrupted by rain, wind or an unseasonal frost, but the TV weatherman is on top of it, rest assured. If you don’t get decent photos, it’s your fault, not his.

I have little need of a weatherman to keep me apprised, for I have acquired a sensitive instrument of my own for detecting the onset of cherry season; actually, I have had this instrument all my life, but until coming to Japan, I had never used it to measure cherry blossom activity, to the best of my recollection. It is as plain as the nose on my face; in fact, it is the nose on my face, and its passageways close down like the 101 Freeway at rush hour just as sakura season begins, and stay that way for a couple of weeks until the last straggling petals flutter their way down to the curb side. As an added bonus, the pink of my eyes accurately mirrors the percentage of blossoming; by the time the cherry trees are in their full glory, there is scarcely a pinpoint of white to be seen anywhere in the vicinity of my irises.

Still, masochist that I am, I follow the blooms just like every other sentient being in Japan; with wide-angle lens at the ready to document the broad swaths of roseate blush that stipple the parks and gardens of Tokyo,

51% and counting...

and close-up lens in reserve to catch the most minute details of petal, pistil and stamens, all rendered against an artfully soft-focused background of foliage.

Sakura Zoom!

Are these identical to the photos taken by a hillion-jillion other amateur photographers, all of whom have gathered outside Kudanshita Station at the same moment as I, the elusive 100% moment? Oh yes, except they all have better cameras. And do I have literally thousands more pictures just like these from years past? Oh yes, stored in my computer, on memory chips, flash drives, and CDROMs. And next year at this time, all other things being equal, will I be doing it all over yet again? Oh yes. I must be a fan of mouth breathing.

Japanese Women on Walkabout

March 30, 2010

No matter that I find Japan endlessly intriguing, there is a subset of the local population, most particularly post-collegiate women, who find their homeland hopelessly buttoned-up and boring, and who queue up by the exit at their first opportunity. There is none of the “see the home country first” nonsense with these pragmatic folks; they want to get as far from Japan as possible, and for as long as possible, both of which run counter to the rank and file of traveling Japanese. Case in point: I was looking forward to spending some time with my friend Masumi upon my return to Japan last fall, but it was not to be. Over the summer, Masumi had managed to land a position in a school in Frankfurt, and was off to Deutschland in search of adventure and greener pastures.

Over the Christmas holidays, I met Natsue, a thirty-ish Japanese woman with a good command of English, and a wicked sense of humor. Problem was, I met her less than a week before she boarded a plane to Fiji (of all places!), where she would study English and teach Japanese for the next half year.

It occurred to me that I know virtually nobody in North America who does this sort of thing; perhaps I run in the wrong circles, but still, I think it must be much less common with American women than with Japanese. Several years ago I was in Central Turkey, kind of a long way from anywhere, really. I was hanging out in a small town in Cappadocia called Urgup. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it was clearly a prime destination for Japanese travelers, virtually all women, and mostly in the thirty-ish age range. I was the only North American on hand.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the differences in societal structure (vis-à-vis travel) between Japan and the West, and this is what I came up with (disclaimer: it is entirely anecdotal, and not scientific at all, but it has a feeling of rightness about it): the cultural norm in Japan is for women to marry by twenty-five, and to start families within a year or two after that. The girls who sail past this use-by date still single are statistically very unlikely to marry at all. This is not the huge predicament in Japan that it would be in the Americas, as Japanese tend to live with their parents until they get married, the corollary being that if they don’t get hitched, they go on living at home basically forever. So there is something of a support system in place, and there is always somebody around to talk to. There is much less of the sense of loneliness and desperation among unattached Japanese “of a certain age” compared to their Western counterparts, at least in my experience. So, if they should decide to quit the day job and go on walkabout for a year, in most cases there is a place to come back to, and people looking forward to seeing them again when they get back. Imagine being thirty-ish in the US and trying that; it is doable, to be sure, but it takes a level of bravado, commitment, and possibly sheer lunacy that not many possess at that stage of their lives.

In my perfect “if I were king” world, foreign travel would be a requirement for young people, particularly Third World travel, perhaps for a year or two between high school and college. It would be done solo, so each person would have to make new friends upon arrival wherever. Something with a volunteer component would be ideal, like being conscripted into the Peace Corps. What a concept, a peacetime draft! IPods, internet, and cell phones would not be allowed, although pen and paper would be provided to those with the skill set to compose letters to friends and families. Stamps even, let’s be magnanimous! The draftees would live like the locals, eat the local foods, learn the local language, listen to the local music, and so on. At the end of their tour, one of two things would likely happen: 1) they would echo the sentiments of Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz, so happy to get back home that they would never want to leave again, but (and this is a big “but”) they would almost certainly have an increased measure of appreciation for the happy accident that granted them a First World life, or 2) perhaps, just perhaps, they would find within themselves an affinity for cultures different from their own,  and learn new ways of problem solving, relating to others, and being global citizens. This is, in fact, what some Japanese women are doing on their own, and I admire them deeply for it.

Nissan Be-1 Prototype

March 29, 2010

Small cars are what Japan does best, and the Nissan Be-1 is no exception. It debuted in 1987, and well kept examples, usually painted a strident canary yellow, can still be found with great regularity on the streets of Tokyo. Mine is a prototype, a very early rendering that possesses many experimental features that never made it to the production Be-1. The first photo illustrates the car in its entirety, with its optional glass moonroof:

The first of its James Bond-like special features is the underhood eraser and brush, cleverly disguised as an engine block:

Flanking the hood are a ballpoint pen and mechanical pencil, accessed by rotating the front tires slightly forward, and causing the faux headlights to extend dramatically:

Convertible fans, among whose number I count myself, will really like the removable hard top:

Under the hard top can be found a staple gun, a “spare tire” tape measure (metric, naturally), and a compartment for paper clips, staples and a staple remover:

The back bumper ejects, and turns into a pair of scissors:

And finally, when straight-line speed is required, simply turn the car over, and you will find a cleverly stored clear plastic ruler:

Is it any wonder that Japanese cars continue to lead the pack?

The Diagram Prize

March 29, 2010

If you’re a mystery/suspense reader, you have undoubtedly heard of the various awards for achievement in that field: the Edgar, the Shamus, the Anthony, and many others. Romance writers of note might win the RITA award, or perhaps a Christy award for Romance Fiction. Sci-fi writers may be eligible for a Philip K. Dick award, a Hugo, or a Nebula. And of course there are the really prestigious ones: the Pulitzer, the Man Booker, and even the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I have to say, my personal favorite, the one I wait for with giddy antici………pation every year, is the coveted Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year.

Originated by The Bookseller magazine, and brainchild of The Diagram Group, a London-based information and graphics firm, the Diagram Prize has been entertaining bibliophiles for more than thirty years, since its inception at the 1978 Frankfurt Book Fair. That year, the winner was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, a scholarly tome published by the University of Tokyo Press. 1984 brought us The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today, undoubtedly as gripping as its title suggests. 1985’s winner was perhaps the longest title to date, and undoubtedly the most titillating: Natural Bust Enlargement With Total Power: How to Increase the Other 90% of Your Mind to Increase the Size of Your Breasts. The theme seemed to repeat itself in 1993, with American Bottom Archaeology, but alas, that was another scholarly treatise, this time on the cultural history of the Mississippi River Valley. A particular favorite of mine was 1996’s Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers; I can scarcely wait for the movie.

The 2000s brought some racy themes to the forefront, ‘02’s Living With Crazy Buttocks

and the following year’s The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. Another invaluable reference book for the Renaissance Man (or Woman) is 2006’s The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America, A Guide to Field Identification. If that is a bit too pedestrian for you, perhaps you would find intrigue in the 2008 entry, The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. And for 2009, the winner is (drum roll, please…): Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, which, to judge by the cover, looks pretty darn fascinating.

Among the runners up were: Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich, Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter, and the The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, all certain to be found on bedside tables across America and beyond.

CODA: my research for this article led me to another arcane literary competition, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants are invited to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”. Named after English novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who penned the infamous “It was a dark and stormy night…” to which all bad opening lines are inevitably compared, the Bulwer-Lytton has spawned (there really is no other word for it) some worthy pretenders to the throne. Consider this one, from 1986 winner Patricia E. Presutti: “The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn’t heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn’t reacting yet to let you know.”

Or how about this one, from the following year, penned by the uncompromising Sheila B. Richter: “The notes blatted skyward as the sun rose over the Canada geese, feathered rumps mooning the day, webbed appendages frantically pedaling unseen bicycles in their search for sustenance, driven by Nature’s maxim, ‘Ya wanna eat, ya gotta work,’ and at last I knew Pittsburgh.”

For more examples, check out their website at , “where www means Wretched Writers Welcome.”

One Westerner’s Take on Kabuki

March 17, 2010

Kabuki, for those not acquainted with it, is an ancient form of Japanese play, in which there is virtually no action, comparatively little drama, and not a great deal of dialogue. There is set design, makeup and costume art in spades, however, and oddly enough, that carries the day, although it takes a bit of acclimation for the first time viewer. I had managed to avoid the Kabuki-za (Tokyo’s iconic kabuki theater) for years, other than snapping the requisite touristic pictures of its imposing façade, until I heard that it was due to be torn down after the spring 2010 season, so I reckoned that it was one of those cultural things I really ought to take in, despite the fact that it sounded boring past redemption.

Naturally, I did a bit of research before attending, in hopes of seeing the coolest show, perhaps something with swordplay, a beheading or two, or if I got really lucky, one featuring seppuku, the ritual Japanese suicide by disembowelment. As it turned out, I was not the only one with this clever idea, and good seats for any performance were quite limited. How about bad seats? Yeah, well, pretty much those too; the best shows had been sold out for months.

So there I was, in the nosebleed seats, the cheapest of which cost $50-odd, I might add, and that was for an 11am performance!  In my hand was a transistor radio-looking device with but one corded earpiece, from which a soft voice explained in English what was going on onstage. The narrative was delivered in a timbre not unlike that of a television golf announcer, explaining in hushed tones why the lead actor’s face was tiger-striped in blue and white (because he was a villain) or why the little old guy stage left was clapping blocks of wood on the floor (because it was evocative of the noise made by a river). Admittedly, these were things I would not have intuited, never having connected blue face paint with villainy nor clapping with rivers, so I was glad to have spent the extra money for the translation.

The show was broken into three twenty-minute vignettes, with roughly twenty-minute intermissions for bathroom breaks, grazing and socializing. Many of the attendees were in kimonos, some as elaborate as the actors’, although their makeup paled in comparison to that of their onstage counterparts. Which is reasonable, I suppose, as kabuki actors are all men, but some of the roles they play are women, and I imagine it takes a fair bit of foundation to transform a sixty-year-old dude with a five o’clock shadow into a blushing young bride. Not to mention a good sized dose of imagination on the part of the audience.

Anyway, well into the third vignette, my soft-voiced radio friend told me that I was about to witness the absolute funniest moment in kabuki, a perfectly side-splitting sketch in which the heroine would summon the theater manager onstage to help her heft a heavy sword, and to demonstrate for her the ritual movements that would draw the show to a close. So I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting for this Charlie Chaplinesque moment of oriental slapstick, and immersing myself in a warm bath of self-congratulation at having chosen this particular play as my introduction to kabuki. I waited. And then I waited some more. Apparently I was not the only one waiting, because there were no peals of laughter to herald this uproarious moment, just the library quiet that had greeted the entire performance up until then. I waited just a bit longer, during which time pretty much nothing of note took place; then there was polite applause, and the actors left the stage. Still no laughter, though. Did I miss something?

I know I am going to hear about this from my more cultured friends; I can envision the eddies of mirth making their way around the web as each kabukiphile passes it on to the next. One in particular, the artist Paul Binnie, is a devotee who has dedicated much of his career to painting and making woodblock prints of contemporary kabuki actors in the roles that made them famous. In fact, I have Paul’s huge kabuki print, Genroku Mie, hanging in my living room; it garners more interest and comments than anything else in my house.

The voice on my hand-held translator made the observation that if you took photographs of the kabuki stage at 30-second intervals throughout the performance, each snapshot would be perfectly arranged, and would look like an early Japanese woodblock print. In that, at least, the voice was right.

Declan Hughes: All the Dead Voices

March 17, 2010

While en route from Tokyo to Shanghai, I had a couple of books stowed in my carry-on to while away the hours in the airplane. Airplane travel is, for me, a somewhat boring undertaking, and that is as it should be. I never want to be on an airplane that offers me the excitement of, say, being a passenger in a brakeless car careening haphazardly down a narrow mountain road. But clearly the folks who say that the journey is half the fun were not talking about air travel, so I always bring a book or two and get lost in some alternative world for the duration of the flight. Outbound, I was afoot in Dublin, with Declan Hughes’ most recent thriller, All the Dead Voices. Hughes is one of those authors whose books I truly enjoy reading (and reviewing), but would never ever want to be a character in, because everyone, the hero included, suffers endlessly from beginning to end, seemingly without respite.

The book is set in modern-day Ireland, although flashbacks take the reader back to the times of “the Troubles”, when the violence and mayhem of Ulster regularly found its way through the permeable border with Ireland proper. Nowadays, the country is overlaid with a veneer of peace and prosperity, but it wouldn’t take a lot of prying to uncover some very embarrassing skeletons, even among the wealthy and well-placed. And prying is what private investigator Ed Loy does for a living; needless to say, this has rendered him distinctly persona non grata with folks on both sides of the law.

In All the Dead Voices, Loy is put in the unusual position of having to work two jobs at one time, but it quickly becomes evident that there is some overlap between the two. The first is a cold case investigation of a murder from fifteen years prior, a tax official about to go public with some damning information about several potentially dangerous men; the second case concerns the violent death of a rising soccer star, a personal acquaintance of Loy’s, whose talents on the field by all rights should have elevated him from the rough trade crowd with whom he grew up.

Loy himself is an interesting piece of characterization, a walking contradiction, not unlike Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor character in The Guards. He is something of a womanizer, a street fighter, a drinker; on the other hand, he is doggedly determined, loyal to a fault, and smart as a whip (when not sidetracked by the aforementioned boozing, brawling and babes). The minor characters are well drawn, too, each demonstrating some form of Irish ebullience overlaid with the “dour and brooding ghost that rides on their shoulders and peers in on their thoughts” (thanks to John Steinbeck for the snippet of quote). The pacing and the violence are relentless, so if you are susceptible to hyper-realistic dreams, All the Dead Voices might not be the best choice for bedtime reading.

A passing knowledge of the history of the Northern Ireland strife would serve the reader well, even a simple brush-up on Wikipedia, as some of the references are a bit obscure otherwise; that said, the writing is first rate throughout (and don’t just take my word for it; Hughes won the coveted Shamus Award for Best First Novel with the first Ed Loy thriller, The Wrong Kind of Blood.)

Day Trip to Suzhou

March 15, 2010

One of my day trips from Shanghai found me in Suzhou (sometimes known as Soochow), about an hour and a half away, along the exotically named Yangtze Riverine Expressway. Suzhou is often called “The Venice of the East”, a reference to the ubiquitous canals crisscrossing the city; it even has a leaning tower (which by all rights should make it the Pisa of the East, but that’s another story for another day). Marco Polo is quoted waxing poetic about Suzhou (although it was “Suju” to him): “It is a great and noble city; it has 6000 bridges, all of stone, and so lofty that a galley, or even two galleys at once, could pass underneath one of them.”  I stopped counting at a couple of dozen, but I have no reason to doubt Marco Polo’s account; there are graceful arched stone bridges at every turn.

Since the tenth century, Suzhou has been the center of the Chinese silk industry, a position it jealously guards even today. There is a fine silk museum displaying antique and modern renditions of traditional designs. Countless silk factories, embroidery workshops, and tapestry makers offer tours to visitors, in hopes of separating them from copious quantities of their yuan. I am no connoisseur, but to my untrained eye the workmanship is unparalleled, and the prices reflect this. A small embroidered picture could easily set you back a simlar amount to what its creator makes in a month.

The fine thing about Suzhou, though, is the complete lack of boutique-y pretentiousness about the place. Sure, there are some touristy areas, but for the most part, the city is unashamedly charming, lovely almost by accident. The colors of the city are the colors of working people and nature: the sky reflected in the water of the canals, the flowers that break forth in cracks of old concrete, the drying clothes hanging from every window, the whitewashed walls and black tile roofs. Just a marvelous place to while away a few hours…or a few years.

A Few Random Shanghai Notes

March 15, 2010

There is a saying  in China that Chinese will eat anything that swims except a submarine, anything with four legs except a desk, and anything that flies other than an airplane. These delicacies adorned a table top  in the waiting room of the day one lunch stop:

I opted for something a bit more mainstream, steamed fish with vegetables.

You’d almost think that you were driving in 1950s Detroit, the way Fords, Buicks and Chevrolets dominate the Shanghai automotive scene.

A big Buick I have never seen before

A Buick Firstland minivan

A quite attractive midsize Chevy

Sure, the taxis are largely made by VW, an updated 80s Passat, locally produced and known as the Santana:

And then there is the usual complement of Volvos, Beemers and Lexi, but by and large, the “it” car for the Shanghai glitterati is (get this!) the Buick Regal (yep, the same one that is a mainstay of US rental fleets), usually a black four-door.

GM displayed a moment of rare insight (or, if you prefer, a rare moment of insight) in locking up the China auto market even before most Chinese realized they wanted a car. It was a prescient move, as last year China edged out the US as the number one car market in the world. The car companies haven’t done such a good job on selling the Chinese on the notion of the romance of an open car, though. In the better part of a week in Shanghai, I have seen only one convertible, an Aston Martin; sadly, it was just a picture on a billboard, but at least it shows that convertibles are (apparently) on sale. It’s just that nobody wants them. Another quick note about cars in China: based on my admittedly limited observation, I would hazard a guess that brakes must last the life of the car in China, although horns likely must be replaced about every six months.

Regular readers may remember a Mysterious Orientations column a few posts back, in which I described my upcoming Shanghai lodging, as depicted on their website. Their catchphrase: “It’s just too good to be true!” Well, yes and no. The room was perfectly okay, perhaps even a bit better than okay. The breakfast was in the acceptable range as well, although this time it erred slightly toward the lower midrange, with indifferent breads (although real butter), none too special meats, and a variety of casserole-style dishes with Asian overtones. Oh, and coffee that in no way resembled the beverage I have come to know and love, except perhaps in color. What made it all work was the wacky early morning soundtrack: sixties and seventies hits like Smile a Little Smile For Me Rosemarie, Brandy, It’s So Nice to Be With You, Winchester Cathedral, One Tin Soldier, Wasted Days and Wasted Nights, and Rhinestone Cowboy (I’m missing some, I’m sure, but you get the idea). Most of these were tunes I was none too crazy about the first time around, but as I listened to them again I began to notice subtle differences from how I remembered them–a bit of difference in the phrasing here, a slightly different voicing of the instrumentation there. Now, as I have pointed out before, my memory is flawed at best, but I am pretty good with songs. I began to pay closer attention, and sure enough, these were not the originals, but rather some Chinese wedding band doing credible cover versions. As I was the only non-Asian in the place at the time, and one of few on hand who was even alive when these songs first topped the charts, there was nobody with whom to share my insight and amusement, sad to say. Still, it went a long way toward making me look forward to my morning grazefest.

Shanghai by Night

March 13, 2010