Okinawa: in pictures worth 31,000 words… (click pics for larger views)

January 29, 2011

Fuji-san from the airplane window

An Okinawan delicacy

The roots of tie-dye

The flora was lovely

As was the fauna...

Glass bottom boats for exploring the reef

Tourists behaving erratically

From the tour bus window

Okinawan delicacy rears its ugly head again

At the butterfly preserve


And wow again; a real shark jaw

Sing along..."When the eel in the sea is much bigger than me, that's a moray!"

Bad day at the aquarium

If you're lying, he'll bite your hand off

This guy will bite you just for the hell of it...

Imagine trying to get a building permit for this

On the beach

Beneath the bridge

Going native

The coast near Naha

Sunset at Elephant Rock

Anatomically correct statuary

The feudal warlords lived well


Bottles o' Snake

There's really nothing I can add to this...

...except perhaps a closeup from a different angle

Much friendlier than he appears

Traditional Okinawa dance

The end of the tale...

Carshopping, Mark II

January 29, 2011

Hi again, apologies all around for not having written anything for the past several days. I have been on the road a fair bit (Okinawa, for example), writing the Whodunit column, resolutely combing the used car classifieds, and plotting my mandatory midterm exit from Japan (visas are good for only ninety days at a shot); somehow, I guess, the time has gotten away from me.

I got to thinking about the car purchase notion a little differently, not a complete turnaround, but a distinct tweak to my original idea(s). Cars have some truly unusual names here, and it would be just endlessly amusing to me to drive something called a Suzuki X-Head, or perhaps a Daihatsu Mud Master C. How cool it would be to be able to answer queries about my vehicle with a response something along the lines of “Why, Bob, I drive a Mitsubishi Guts!” These are all real car names, by the way. Seriously.

So, to that end, I did a bit of research on the choices available to the car or truck buyer in Japan. Some of the names will be familiar to North American buyers (Accord, Camry, Legacy, etc.), although they don’t necessarily apply to the same vehicle as they do stateside. Boring, ne? (“Ne” is Japanese for “eh”, the old Canadian sentence-ending standby.) Some other car names are just made-up words (Tiida, Demio, Altezza, etc.), but there’s not much fun to be had there, either. Time for a trip through a huge Japanese auto auction website, to see just what amusing choices might be on offer.

Almost immediately, I turned up an old favorite, the Mazda Bongo Friendee, which is a lovely name, but a less lovely vehicle:

Equally unlovely (perhaps more so) is the Toyota Deliboy, but, hey, what a name!

Same goes for the Toyota Avante Lordly, which sounds posh, but looks like a slightly tarted up Camry (the sharp-eyed reader will notice that the name tag says only “Chaser” and “Avante”; you’ll have to take my word for the “Lordly” part; how could I have possibly made that up?):

How about the Honda Life Dunk? (If you have an accident, it might be a Slam Dunk…) There is also a Life Dunk Turbo for those with a need for speed.

I don’t quite know why the name “Toyota Blit Mark II” appeals to me, but it does. It’s like calling a car a “Blecchh!” or perhaps a “Flurk”. Also, the “Mark II” adds just that soupcon of pizzazz.

This one is truly outstanding, in my opinion, a true “Godzilla” among contemporary car names, the Toyota Ractis, the name of which sounds to me either like a persistent skin condition or some sort of predatory alien life form.

Here are a few others I found along the way: Mitsuoka offers the Viewt (pronounced like “newt” with a leading “v”) and the Galue (like “galoot” without the “t”); Nissan shows up to the party with the Pantry Boy Supreme and the Prairie Joy; Mitsubishi, not satisfied with the Guts, also brings us the Active Urban Sandal, as well as the impressively monikered “Mum 500 Shall We Join Us?”; Suzuki joins in with the Every Joy Pop Turbo, characterized by a Singapore car reviewer as “a cute white automatic mobile fridge with steering” (apparently the a/c is first rate); Mazda has a plain Bongo, as well as a Bongo Brawny to go along with its Bongo Friendee; Isuzu offers a 4 x 4 called the Mysterious Utility Wizard (gotta love that!).

But at the end of the day, the one that speaks to me is a tiny Daihatsu called the “Naked”.

This one has real possibilities, I think. I could tell my friends “I’m going out driving in the Naked,”  or “I’ll pick you up in the Naked.” It is not quite like “in the buff”, but close. Disturbingly so. If only it came in a convertible…

My First Foray Into Car Shopping, Japan Style

January 22, 2011

Having lived in Japan off and on for several years now, and having relied first on public transportation, then on a bicycle, I finally graduated last year to motorized transport in the form of a Honda Today scooter, a Honda Today “F”, actually, although nobody at the dealer could tell me either what the “F” stands for, or how the Today F is different from the standard Today. In the end, I went for the Today F because I liked the color.

It is suitable for only one person, preferably someone smaller than I, but it is perfectly wonderful transportation in and around the city. Traffic in Tokyo moves at a crawl, for the most part, and that is fine, as a fast crawl is about all this scooter can manage. It positively sips gas, though, and I have to fill it up only once or twice a month, which costs a whopping three bucks each time. Still, one thing I cannot do either by convenient public transport, bicycle, or even by scooter, is visit the small off-the-beaten-track villages that line the coastal areas and the foothills of the Japan Alps, two locales I have been itching to explore. So, I think it’s time for a car. This is a decision that has been a while in the brewing, as I am only just getting comfortable driving on the left; even now, though, every brain cell on duty is shrieking at me to “GO RIGHT!” in bold italicized capital letters. You have a lot more room for error on a small bike than in a car; if you inadvertently get onto the wrong side of the road, you can simply stop, lift the bike onto the adjacent sidewalk and wait for the opposing traffic to pass, a task that is exponentially more difficult with even the tiniest car.

Still, if I am going to step up to the plate and buy a four-wheeled vehicle, a purchase plan would be in order, as I don’t want to be easy game for the first pastel-jacketed, white-loafered Japanese car dealer dude trying to flog an unappreciated back-lot hoopty to the unsuspecting gaijin. I have given some amount of cogitation as to just what sort of vehicle would meet my requirements. Basically, I want a car with the room of a minivan, the power and handling prowess of a Mustang GT, the gas mileage of a Prius, and a folding top for those sunny seaside days.  That doesn’t seem too much to ask. Oh, and if I could have it for about $5000, and with fewer than 50,000 miles, that would be a plus. Special bonus points would be awarded if the car was a model unavailable stateside.

A quick look at the classified ads shows some interesting possibilities. First off, although no cars met all my specs (and no car ever would) it seems that virtually every car fewer than ten years old has fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer; in fact, most have fewer than 50,000 kilometers! Basically a car is a weekend and holiday transportation device here; after all, when you can take the train anywhere in Tokyo (like to work, for instance) for three bucks or so, why would you take a car? Gas would cost more than the aforementioned three bucks, and parking could easily run another eight bucks…an hour! And that assumes that you can find a space. So, the upshot of all this is that there are just piles of cool used cars here (easy-on-gas convertibles, even) in lovely condition, and with “low, low actual miles”. Here are a few prime (and one not so prime) examples; click on the pics for larger images:

2002 Peugeot 206CC (Coupe Cabriolet, a convertible with a hard top); 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles); leather; a/c; automatic; $5000-ish.

2002 Opel Astra Cabriolet; 68,000 kikometers (42,000 miles); leather; a/c; automatic; $4700-ish.

2000 Alfa Romeo Spider; 44,000 kilometers (26,000 miles); 5sp; a/c; leather; $5000-ish.

1991 Nissan Figaro, while not exactly a true convertible, nonetheless pretty darn close; wins the Miss Congeniality contest hands down; 77,000 kilometers (48,000 miles); $6000-ish, but there are plenty of others that squeak into the $5000 range.

And then there is this one, an ultra-rare (gee, I wonder why?) Suzuki CV-1 powered by a (get this…) 50cc engine, the same size that propels (and I use that word loosely) my small Honda scooter. This little jewel has only 1724 kilometers on it, and it can be yours (or mine) for only(!) $3500.

Money for (Bleep!) No Way, Eh?

January 16, 2011

Canada, for many years the nation at the vanguard of the grating Political Correctness movement, has taken another strike at cultural insensitivity, this time targeting English rock band Dire Straits, who, in their song “Money For Nothing”, made a passing three-time use of an f-word. Not the f-word, mind you, but a rather less odious f-word referring to homosexuals. The word was not even used pejoratively in the song, but rather sarcastically, offering up a blue collar worker’s disgusted take on the easy and glamorous life led by rock musicians.

Context notwithstanding, a disgruntled Newfoundland listener got in touch with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and lodged a complaint; after due consideration, the CBSC found the song offensive, and issued a fatwa (excuse me, a ruling) requiring that the provocative word be stricken from the song, else it cannot be aired. The council’s statement said, in part: “The societal values at issue a quarter of a century later have shifted and the broadcast of the song in 2010 must reflect those values, rather than those of 1985.”

So now, in Canada, if you should hear the defining tune of the 1980s over the airwaves, it will go something like this:

“See the little (bleep) with the earring and the makeup; Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair;

That little (bleep) has his own jet airplane, that little (bleep) is a millionaire…”

I wonder how many Canadian listeners will take umbrage at the annoying bleep, compared to the numbers who found the original word distasteful (early indications show that callers have reacted overwhelmingly with disbelief and dismay at the editing: “Are you bleeping kidding me?!!”). I, for one, will simply change the station when I hear the familiar opening riff (which I quite like, by the way), and savor instead a quiet moment of resignation with regard to Canada’s ill-chosen area of world leadership.

Generally, it is the Canadian way to accept this sort of thing gracefully and move on; most stations across Canada have chosen to make the edits or drop the song from their playlists altogether. However, I am happy to say that a few rational souls in the wilderness have fired a salvo in the defense of free (i.e., impolite) speech. Edmonton, Alberta’s classic rock radio station K97 issued a rousing “No way, eh?”, announcing that it would play “Money For Nothing” repeatedly, unedited, for an hour during the popular Friday evening primetime listening slot, consequences be damned.

The director of the Fundamental Freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Cara Zwibel, had this to say: “I hope we won’t head down a slippery slope, because this opens so much up to question since there are many songs people could consider offensive. We think there needs to be a wide space for artistic expression.”

Cara honey, if you haven’t noticed, we here in Sensitivistan are already careening out of control on that selfsame slippery slope, well in the lead, with only Holland and a few Scandinavian countries barely visible in the rear view mirror.

(Here’s an idea: perhaps Dire Straits can reunite briefly to re-record that one word, changing it to “maggot”, which would work contextually, more or less, albeit with a different sort of bite. On behalf of the handful of normal people remaining in my homeland, I offer abject apologies to Mark Knopfler and Sting, both of whom must be deeply saddened by this recent turn of events. Or else they’re laughing their butts off…)

Masaki and Saika Go to the Store, Parts 1 and 2 (Don’t Miss This!)

January 10, 2011

Last night, Japan’s NTV aired a program called “Hajimete no otsukai”, which loosely translates to “First Errand”; this is a reality show that has appeared in several iterations over the years, not unlike Candid Camera, although with a much simpler set-up. The premise of the show is that real-life little kids get sent to the grocery store to pick up some items for their mother; the catch is that the kids are quite young, usually less than five years old. They are being filmed the whole time, and they clearly haven’t a clue that anything is out of the ordinary;  they carry on much as you would expect kids of that age to do, getting sidetracked here and there along the way. Parents in North America will cringe while watching Masaki (five years and two months old) and his little sister Saika (two years and ten months old) going off on their own, crossing city streets (and even walking in those streets when no sidewalks are available), and doing Mom’s shopping in several different stores in their Suginami neighborhood.

They have been sent out for five items: meat for beef stew; some beef suet; potatoes; a kiwi; and a stalk of celery. This will necessitate their going to the butcher shop for the meat, a vegetable shop for the potatoes, a fruit shop for the kiwi, and so on. There are a couple of moments of minor consternation, as Masaki tries to figure out the correct amount to pay, or as the two walk off with something that looks remarkably like celery—but isn’t. Also, the vegetable in question (a butterbur) is a fair bit longer than normal celery, making the homeward journey somewhat problematical for the intrepid pair, albeit hilarious to those watching.

So, if you are in the mood to be thoroughly charmed, and if you’re up for a good laugh as well (and who among us does not fall into at least one of those categories?), check out these two links, which are conveniently subtitled in English, not word for word, but enough for you to get the gist of what’s going on:

The Year Thus Far, Part II: Seven Gods Revisited

January 10, 2011

The Seven Gods, minus Snow White

Each January that I have been in Japan, early in the month, I have made the recommended pilgrimage to the temples of the Shichi Fukujin (the Seven Lucky Gods), to secure blessings in the critical areas of being: happiness; health; prosperity; wisdom; longevity; commerce; and of course, virility. An extra side benefit is that these gods also preside over some seldom considered aspects of life such as scourging (yes, that is actually a verb) evildoers, presiding over chess matches, and overseeing flood control, all handy attributes of a god, in my estimation.

These gods are altogether more jovial (and a good deal more earthy) than their main counterpart in the West. One, Juro-jin, is said to be a bit of a drunkard and a womanizer, somewhat atypical attributes for a deity; nonetheless, he is the god of teachers, scientists and mathematicians.  Another, Hotei, sometimes pretends to be a beggar, although his ever-present bag is said to contain everything necessary for daily living. He is a jolly fellow sometimes known as the Laughing Buddha, and the god of children, fortune tellers and bartenders (no, I’m not making this up). Benzaiten, the only female in the group, known for her capriciousness and jealousy, is the goddess of artists, musicians and gamblers. Fukurokuju, an ancient Chinese god, is the god of wisdom, also the go-to guy for athletes and watchmakers. Bishamonten, whose origins are in India, is the god of doctors, soldiers and priests, a dignified character charged with defense of the faith. Ebisu, one of the more popular gods, is a native Japanese, the patron deity of sailors, middle managers, merchants and foreigners. Last but not least is Daikokuten, the god of craftsmen, millers and businessmen; known to be a fierce demon chaser when not otherwise engaged. Also, he is the aforementioned flood control guru.

So, all over Japan the temples gear up for the pilgrimage, the nearby neighborhoods teem with impromptu food and souvenir stands, and the atmosphere grows festive and just a tiny bit boisterous (but of course in a very polite and not-even-slightly-in-your-face Japanese manner). The pilgrims purchase a shikishi card, a gold-rimmed cardboard sheet perhaps 8 x 10”, upon which are stamped the seals of the temples visited. Once all seven seals are duly gathered, the stamped card is displayed prominently near one’s front door, in case the gods should pay a visit during the upcoming year.

This year, I went to the temples of Kawagoe, an old town in Saitama, an hour or so to the west of Tokyo. The downtown area of Kawagoe remains much as it was before the war: the utility lines and pipes underground; narrow and sometimes winding streets; small stores and restaurants with their names prominently displayed on hanging lanterns or noren (curtains hanging in the doorways). Delectable aromas waft out from bakeries, yakitori stands, mochi stalls, and restaurants of every description (every description, so long as it is Japanese, that is…). The crowds were humongous, and there were long queues at several of the temples, but this was no hardship, as there were photo ops at every turn; I went through one memory card and three batteries in the space of just a few hours!

All in all, a lovely way to while away a sunny afternoon, meandering through one small corner of Old Japan, securing blessings along the way.

A two-tiered pagoda rises above the teeming hordes...

A quiet stroll on a deserted street...

Howzabout a chewy octopus on a stick for lunch?

The bell tower in old Kawagoe

Hotei and me...

Kawagoe has no shortage of weird hair salon names...

Here's another, just down the street...

Temple and sora aoi (blue sky)

Sign on soft drink machine

New Year's decorations

A sign advertising a detective agency; move over Sam Spayed...

And, while we are on the subject of dogs, how about this well dressed pair (click on the pic to see both dogs); as fashionistas well know, down is the latest thing in canine outerwear:

2011 Thus Far, the First Sunrise

January 10, 2011

On New Year’s afternoon, after returning from an all night bus tour to see the first sunrise of 2011 over Mt. Fuji, I sat down at my computer to take care of some odds and ends of leftover business from 2010. One of the things I did was log into Facebook for the first time in a while. I’ve been a Facebook member for the past year or so, as it has been the only reliable way of getting in touch with my daughter, who is a pediatric nurse and works a very erratic schedule (not to mention that her time zone and mine are ten hours or so out of synch). So anyway, I thought I’d log on to the social networking sight and see what was up with some friends and family. It turns out that my cousin Cindy was online at the same time, and she sent me an instant chat message to wish me a Happy New Year, and to see what sort of mischief I was up to in terms of celebration. I replied that I had gone to Kuonji Temple, in nearby Yamanashi prefecture, where, after a dead-of-night look around the temple grounds, I rode a cable car to the top of Mt. Minobu, from which vantage point I could watch the sun rise over Mt. Fuji. I say “over”, but in fact, it rose somewhat to the right of Mt. Fuji. Later in the year, thanks to the seasonal juxtaposing of the Earth vis-à-vis the heavens, the sun actually appears to emerge directly out of Fuji’s volcanic crater, creating the famous “Diamond Fuji” illusion, in which Fuji-san is crowned with a sparkling golden jewel. Anyway, I texted Cindy, and told her if she could wait for a few minutes, I would load some pics into the blog. “No need,” she replied. “You must have gone with Saki, right? She has already posted a bunch of photos in Facebook. Thanks, though.” Rats, I thought, scooped again!

So, several days late, as it has been an extraordinarily busy first week of the year, here are some pictures for those of you who are not Facebook friends with the much-more-timely-than-I Saki-chan:

Pagoda in Kuon-ji Temple Courtyard

A Predawn Prayer

First Glimmer

A bit later...

Finally, just before frostbite set in...

It appears I was not the only one with a camera...

Seeing the Emperor, Artist Renderings, and Weather in Dubai

January 2, 2011

One of my New Year’s activities today was to pay a visit to the Imperial Palace in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Emperor and his family as they made several brief appearances for their constituents throughout the day. I left home before 9am, taking a series of trains and subways into the heart of Tokyo, finally getting out at Tokyo Station just shy of 10 o’clock. It is a short walk from there to the Imperial Palace, which, incidentally, is said to be the most expensive piece of real estate on the planet.

It would appear that the Emperor gets the prettiest police officers.

Which line to go to if you have baggage but no bagagge?

Nijubashi Bridge, the moat, and a bit of the Palace in the background

The Palace itself is surrounded by a huge moat, and a beautiful open-to-the-public park, where, for some reason I have not been able to ascertain, all the deciduous trees are in full leaf, even in the dead of winter. It is as if they have been ordered not to litter, under penalty of some heinous Imperial punishment knowable only to those with hearts of wood, and so basically the Palace grounds appear to be fixed in a state of perpetual summer.

Each attendee was issued a red-on-white Japanese flag, for keeps if one desired, although there were receptacles at the exits so that the flags could be recycled.

Several folks from far off locations brought flags of their home countries. Brazil’s was one that I recognized, but there were a number of others in attendance whose identities eluded me. We were herded into the outdoor reception area, perhaps fifty meters back from the stage where the Emperor would appear, and pretty much dead center, all in all not unlike “Center aisle, Row Z” floor seats at a James Taylor concert, albeit without the mega-monitors on either side of the staging area. (And of course, at that distance, without the aid of said monitors, it could well have been, say, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yoko Ono up there, but I was repeatedly assured that was not the case.)

When the Emperor and his family made their appearance, the crowd went wild—Japanese style. We waved our flags in the air merrily,

yelled “Banzai” three times, and then the moment that the Emperor began to speak—whoop, down went the flags and the audience became instantly library-silent.

The Emperor conveyed brief wishes for a Happy New Year to everyone on hand, and then he and his family waved and walked offstage. Once again, the crowd erupted in cheers and flag waving—for about twenty seconds—then swiftly and politely exited to make way for the next group.

As we left, I found that it was all too easy to get separated from my friends, due to the undulations of the huge crowd, and the fact that, from behind at least, Japanese look remarkably similar to one another.

This got me to thinking: whenever I have seen a TV news report in Japan about, say, a bank robbery, the newscaster has never shown an “artist’s conception” of the suspect the way you might see on US nightly news, nor have they even given a description (“The suspect was about 5’8”, slender, dark hair, brown eyes; he wore blue jeans and a windbreaker…”) because basically that description would fit virtually every male in Japan. The people who do “artist renderings” in Japan must have a good deal of familiarity with the unemployment lines, not unlike weather forecasters in, say, Dubai: “It will be sunny and hot today, with a 0.0% chance of rain; winds will be from the desert…” I suspect those folks record their weather programs years in advance, swapping them out only when the meteorologist dies or there is a radical change in clothing styles (which pretty much hasn’t happened since Lawrence first set foot in Arabia). Or even more likely, there is just one weather program, by which I mean one episode of one weather program, that is recycled on an endless loop; if something truly untoward should occur, like an earthquake or tidal wave, the station would simply cancel the weather report, replace it with Scooby-Do reruns, and handle the anomalies as news, which of course they would be.