Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Man, I can't believe I forgot to tell you all about the happenings of, oh, three weeks ago. I mean, Beppu in flames, priceless works of art in Fukuoka and rare indie J-rock...what was I thinking?

First, on the final day of spring break I took a day off where I would otherwise be in the town office doing the backbreaking job of sitting and reading a book (it was Ayn Rand, so that sort of constitutes work) to jet over Fukuoka way with my friend Chizuru and generally get some damn culture into our bloodstreams. Chizuru, I think, has it worse than me in this respect--she's had to move back to Hita to help her parents at the family music shop after almost a decade of living in Tokyo with a rock star boyfriend. Harsh. Anyways, we specifically wanted to visit the Asian Art Museum, but regretfully found out it's closed every Wednesday. Why is that exactly? Instead of that we were forced to take in the Fukuoka City Art Museum since it's the only other one we knew of and it's easy to reach by subway. I don't think either of us were disappointed with the decision since the museum is stocked with some damn impressive works. What is the Fukuoka City Art Museum doing with, like, three Marc Chagalls, a massive Salvador Dali, one of the Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans and a bunch of other cool crap that I can't remember? I think someone's got too much money and nothing to spend it on...

Lunch at my favorite place in Fukuoka, the Riverain Building rooftop greenhouse park thing. Decent lattes, tasty panini, sublime ambiance. That's Chizuru on the left mugging for the camera and, if you're British, telling us all to go f**k ourselves.

From the museum it's a short hop over to Fukuoka's shopping mecca, the Tenjin district. The air around here and in the neighboring district, Nakasu, during the evening is filled with a good deal of electricity. Tenjin is in essence the crossroads of Kyushu pop culture and sees all types. Everywhere you look the space is filled with fashionistas, posers, political extremists, drop-outs, the religiously penitent, punks, bums, "Ze Germans", Mr. and Mrs. Respectable Businessperson and any other category you can think of. But I make the mistake of coming within a kilometer of Tower Records and Chizuru, a craven music junky, smells it and locks on. She spends almost every penny she has in there. I buy a Sergio Mendez album and a rare PolyABC (a mostly defunct indie J-rock band out of Tokyo) album. I love this damn city!

ZOMG, a CLOCK FOUNTAIN!!! The Central Fukoka City Hall sure knows how the spice up boring old time.

OK, moving on to the other event of note that week: The Burning of Beppu! No, not the whole city, just a mountainside behind the city. And, uh, they do it every year. Not much to say about this, I think the pics will speak for themselves. I wish I'd gotten some closer shots, but the city was bedlam that Friday night as you'd imagine when such a spectacle is put on.

Yes! I finally figured out how to use the night exposure command on my camera! Maybe it's not such a piece of crap after all. No, wait, it's a total POS. What was thinking...


Saturday, April 26, 2008

I Seem To Have Inadvertently Hiked Up the 5th Tallest Mountain in Kyushu

In sandals with no socks (thanks for those, Kelly!).

With no water.

And it's a couple kilometers from a steaming volcano.

Right. So, I think I'll go into the self-help racket because I've found out the secret to achievement. First, set out to do nothing. Well, almost nothing--at most make it something mundane, like taking a bath. Then go to do said thing and get sidetracked by something entirely different that is shiny (and thus pretty). By the time you emerge from your stupor interesting things are bound to have happened.

That's a very general description of how my day went, allow me to hash it out more. I was restless and bored at 1PM this windy Saturday, my breakfast of eggs and sausage doing little to nothing to inspire me. I would normally default to a bike ride somewhere were it not for a new bike being in the mail (yes, I ordered it, but she won't arrive for at least a month) and pedals on order for the ol' Trek. Why do those things preclude me riding? I don't know really, except that the thought of new, better toys casts a pall on the older ones. It's a horrible game of perception and life in our modern ago, I know, still I feel helpless to escape. Anyways, a bike ride was right out so I decided to buy some sakura mochi from a friend's manju store and head up to the Handa Kogen--my great "damn, I'm bored" fall-back and home of the best onsens 'round these parts.

Oh, and I took my last Shanghai cigar along too. That figures prominently into this as you'll see. So I'm driving up route 40 in Kokonoe thinking I'll stop at the hot dog man for a bite, sit on his deck watching the bridge while smoking a cigar and munching Japanese sweets, then head to Kizuna for a dip. I came dressed for the occasion too, what with the aforementioned easy-to-kick-off sandals, jeans and ratty shirt covered by one of my comedic Japanese track suit jackets. Not hiking gear for sure.

Wind-swept tall grass and a perfect vista of the Handa Kogen, this spot was an ideal place to enjoy my cigar and sweets. Nah.

Well, hot dog man was closed (Still?! Winter's past man--open up!) so I decided to head up to the town directly under the Kuju Range, a little hot springs cluster called Chojabaru. I didn't get a good vibe from the place. Virtually every onsen is either A) part of a planned retreat community for out-of-town big wigs or B) attached to a gaudy, if not well-concealed, hotel. I needed an EPIC spot to enjoy my final cigar, damn it! I find a little trailhead parking lot just up the road and think I'll just sit on the hood and watch the view while partaking, but some scraggly trees block a clear view. Fine, I'll walk over here a bit to the trail and maybe find a better spot. No, more trees and now high bushes in the way too. I'll have to climb a bit for better results. The trail isn't much of a trail, more like the wakes of mudslides that wiped out the brush. Black mud. Like walking on midnight.

Mt. Mimata, fifth highest peak in Kyushu.

The "trail" turned into a cracking concrete road (how did they get a mixing truck up here to lay this?) and it was there that I finally found a magnificent vista...only to be sidetracked by a sign. "Danger!" read the sign, "the volcanic gases you will encounter after 300 meters may be harmful to your health. Take caution. Signed, the Western Oita Forestry Service." Do you seriously put up a sign like that and expect people to stay out? Oh fuck that, I'm going! And so it was that around the corner I was staring at a mountain--and entire mountain--with water and sulfur vapors oozing out its every crevice. Cool. I walked on.

Mt. Iwo is a steaming, scorched, lifeless mound of rock. Damn is it cool to stand next to.

The problem with judging things at a distance is scale, obviously. Something, anything, is needed for reference whether it be a man, tree, car, building...anything! The area around Mt. Iwo, that smoking peak I just mentioned, is 98% devoid of life. It's like walking on fucking Mars or something except every now and then you'll notice a tiny weed scrabbling for life in the gravel to remind you where you're at. Well, the "trail" (again, the path around here is tenuous) to the pass didn't look too far so why not. Here the path is only a series of painted rocks and one must jump from stone to stone to advance. Stepping off the volcanically deposited stones means your foot sinks deeply into ash and/or mud. Where is all this water coming from? It's a good 18 Celsius outside and the entire mountain seems to be, well, sweating. The sweat of the Earth, born in its dark bowels. That's pretty metal, man.

Part of my treat, courtesy of the Iwashita family of Tsukawaki (my 'hood in Kusu). Yes, you eat the leaf too!

By this point I'm not really tired, not energetic, not sweating, not aching, just shambling on and up. I pass some alpine hiker types kitted out fully in ridiculous amounts of gear. I wonder what they must have made of me with my sandals and messenger bag. On and up, on and up. And then, unceremoniously, I arrive at the top, 1,678 meters (5,505 feet). It's like a hurricane up there and I have to lean into the gale to stop from toppling over. I find a nook and crouch in to light up the cigar and crack open the sakura mochi. It hits me this is a just about the strangest shit to be putting in my body after what I just did--a cigar I bought off a street woman in Shanghai for a couple bucks and pink Japanese confections wrapped in a leaf. Actually, maybe I'm just bringing my quirky SF eclecticism to bear on Japan, in which case I'm being a pretty good cultural ambassador. Yeah, I like the sound of that.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Let's Wrap This Up: The Road Warriors, Part Three

OK, final push! The "easy" day it was billed as, and I suppose they were right from a terrain-oriented perspective. The only difficult stretch was the narrow-yet-extremely steep range between Ume and Mie that was only fifteen kilometers away from the start line, so at least I'd get it out of the way early. No, the real challenge of the day was going to be conquering myself--my body was in bad shape after two days of riding.

For the ladies.

Throughout winter I'd been heading to Hita once or twice a week to hit the gym, been jogging and riding around Kusu whenever the weather permitted it and had been eating healthier in the weeks leading up to the ride, so it wasn't cramps, stamina or the normal kinds of muscle pains getting me down. Specifically it was my ankles, knees and crotch: ankles because I was wearing the wrong sized riding shoes (I don't know what my friendly neighborhood bike shop owner was thinking with his sizing suggestion) and they were cutting into the skin there hard; the knees may have been weakened a little from the jogging, in retrospect; and the crotch problem is a combination of simply too much time in the saddle and improper frame sizing (since my trusty Trek 1500 is a hand-me-down).

Doing a bunch of stretching and making sure everything was just right with my gear ensured I was the last one to leave camp again. Heading out of Ume was more of the previous day's steady uphill and I was taking it as slow as I could to preserve my legs. Just off the highway into Mie is one of the area's quirky little tourist attractions, Totoro's Bus Stop. Totoro, the beloved namesake of Hayao Miyazaki's classic anime My Neighbor Totoro, is theorized to live around these parts based solely on the fuzzy similarity to a single scene in the movie. It's so damn adorable though.

When will that cat bus come?

Past the photo op I took another wrong turn before the major uphill segment of the day and and added perhaps three kilometers to the ride. Not too bad. The road around here is hellish with generous portions of gravel and farming detritus strewn about the road, potholes and sharp rises/drops. We finally reached a section of road so steep I was having trouble powering up in my lowest gear without doing wheelies and I finally had to get off and walk up, which I'm not proud of. I passed several people around here having similar troubles or who were nursing injuries of their own sustained over the weekend. Finishing the mad hills, coming down the backside was downright dangerous. Word is that one of the riders' brakes went out here and she had to steer into a hedge to stop. This area of Mie--a town I used to come to very often to meet up with an old friend--was completely new to me and miraculously beautiful this season with sakura and plum trees simultaneously in blossom, lots of clear swimming holes along the river and rows upon rows of interesting rock formations.

One of the many swimming holes along our route through Mie. I don't even think this is one of the really good ones.

The beauty, however, was marred by the pain. Only concentration and very delicate, deliberate leg movement could mitigate the knee ache and prevent a strange rising pain in my achilles tendon. Downtown Mie was about the halfway point of the day and I felt like I couldn't throw in the towel now, so I soldiered on through town, into Inukai to meet the Ono River that would take me into Oita City. I stopped at some random ramen shop on the riverside and ate one of the best bowls of noodles EVER! Maybe it was mediocre and I was just famished, but it will always stay in my mind as one of the tastiest Kumamoto-style tonkotsu ramen bowls I've had yet.

By the time I reached the outskirts of Oita City, around noon, I hadn't seen any of my fellow riders or the support cars in hours. Again I thought my mediocre pace and sit-down lunch cost me enough time to be passed, and today with my leg troubles I didn't care, but again I was pleasantly surprised to roll into Sakanoich Station and find nobody waiting for me. It was 1:30PM, meaning I'd done about 75 kilometers in four hours. I kicked off my shoes and took a nap until Guy showed up an hour later to give me some company.

I'm in more pain than this photo lets on, but I can't begin to describe how great it felt to cross the finish line under my own power--Not everyone on the trip was so lucky.

So I messed up my legs pretty badly this trip: I couldn't run for several days after; stairs had to be taken slowly for a week; and I was completely unable to ride my bike for almost two weeks. Even now there's some kind of strange, ummm, "squeaking" in my ankles. I'm taking it easy still and things are returning to normal (three weeks after the event). Two things are readily apparent from the experience, the first being that I'll need to do more training for the next long ride like this, but something lower impact than running, and the second being that I need a new bike fitted for me. So after weeks of researching I've decided on this...

It's a Cervelo Team Sport from Canada. Although the frame's aluminum, modern design and materials tech allows it to be lighter and stiffer than the carbon fiber frame on my current Trek. Go figure.

Well, I made a handful of new friends on the road, solidified existing connections and have a lot to look forward to this summer as long as I take the initiative and get my butt out there to the beaches of Miyazaki and into the mountains around Kusu.

I hadn't thought about it until just now that I've never been more serious about or stuck with anything in my life as long as I have with things involving two-wheeled vehicles. I've been riding a motorcycle for ten years now and a bicycle for four--that's longer than I played soccer when I was a kid or kendo as an adult. So far no really nasty flaming crashes on either conveyance, though it'd be interesting to see how I could pull a flaming wreck out of riding my bicycle. Yeah...that sounds like a challenge. Anyways, I hope this isn't saying something about me having an anti-social, lone wolf personality, it's just that things are much more simple when the world is whizzing by, your face is in the wind and all the issues of work, women, money and family (not that you're a burden, mom, dad, Kelly) are left standing in the dust far behind.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

We're All Going to Fu**ing Die

Sorry, hyper-nerdy post here.
I saw the following picture of the soon-to-be-completed Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva and had a good laugh.

Every time the scientific community comes out with a new big honking high-energy physics gadget groups emerge from the woodwork to denounce it as the one that's going to end the world. Sure, it's theorized the experiment to unleash a boson will create micro black holes at a rate of one per second, but they'll dissipate. Probably.

More info here.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Times They Aren't A Changin'...In Japan

I suppose it was the Baby Boomer generation that'll be the last to clearly recall the golden days of door-to-door salesmen, full-service gas stations and the humble milkman. Sure, I've been proselytized at and offered Girl Scout cookies, but I've never seen a real door-to-door saleman.
I've also got vague memories of full-service gas stations in my pre-teen years, remembering the last one in Castro Valley was a Chevron on Heyer and Center, but recalling it is like watching a yellowing film reel. Milkmen? No damn way.

Japan has them all though. Full-service gas is the norm here, not an exception, and one only pays a one or two yen premium for the experience. My friend in Hita, Luchie, is a milkman who wakes up early everyday to deliver that sweet sweet dairy. While riding around Hita with a friend last week I saw door-to-door insurance salesmen making their rounds, and just today a bread salesman just barged into our teacher's room at Kitayamada JHS and hunkered down with three trays of goodies. I bought three loaves.

Noticing that all these things that once were institutions of a bygone America I wondered just why Japan was still practicing them. They're all wildly inefficient, of course: gas attendants don't make the pump go faster, we can do the same work in the same time; door-to-door salesmen invade the tranquility of our homes and may or may not be trustworthy; and milk can be bought at any store while one buys their other groceries. Are these also institutions in Japan that the nation stubbornly refuses to loosen its grip on? Are these companies operating inefficiently or at a loss to provide make-work jobs? Are they creating such jobs to reduce unemployment? Is it mandated by the government or part of some wider social conscience?

Ah, such strange and ephemeral interests have I.


Monday, April 7, 2008

Blog Name Change

On a whim I decided to change the name of this blog to "Odds and Yens", because, you know, it's all clever and stuff. Oddly, it seems nobody (on the interwebs, at least) have ever thought of how somewhat-similar "yens" sounds to "ends". Hooray for me, a world's first!