Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Simply Wow...

I just listened to a rebroadcast of the President's speech to Congress and I have to say I'm impressed, blown away even, by the candor put forward there. It was realistic and concise, not written for cheap applause and simply told the American people "this is how it is and this is what needs to get done". Owing, I'm sure, to my experiences in Kusu I especially liked where he told parents to get off their asses, take an active role in their childrens' education and be there for them.

So here I am asking myself So this is what it's like to have a President? Really, I never knew.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Mother Nature's Nothing But a Tease

Recently, while loitering in a book store, I picked up a book provocatively titled something like Nihon no Jisonshin, “Japan's Pride”, and read part of the introductory chapter. The author spent some time in England and marveled at how similar it and his home country are, if only on the superficial topic of each having a strong sense of tradition. The intro continued with the lamentable tale of how the author took his new found individuality and confidence to express opinions and criticisms back to Japan only to be (well, duh!) socially and professionally ostracized, but the tradition part got the cogs in my noggin spinning. What traditions do Americans hold in high esteem? That thought was right around the time Puxatawny Phil got bandied about for his annual prediction and I tell you I audibly, unconsciously, groaned. Is this what passes for our tradition?

I never believed the little bastard's prediction—or payed much attention to it, really—preferring to rely on gypsy rumor and the ramblings of old banjo-playing men and what their knee was telling them. Those and whether or not it was freakin' 20-degrees outside in mid- February and the spring bloom was upon us a month early, as were both the cases this past weekend.

Memes infiltrate and travel through Japan at near the speed of light, and you either get aboard and start proselytizing or you pretend to in the name of social acceptance. Asinine comedian one-liners, the ongoing “metabo syndrome” craze, loving the black enka singer, Jero and now blaming anomalous weather on global warming are the prominent ones of the day that I can think of off the top of my head. Whether this odd February weather is a sign of warming or not is entirely unknown, but I will say that it's three days later and the weather has snapped back to winter conditions as it's snowing outside the window while I type this.

Maia and I certainly took advantage of it all and enjoyed most of the sunny Sunday. I say “most” because it didn't start out too well. We'd been invited to the Dazaifu area near Fukuoka by one of Maia's coworkers, Hayashiuchi-sensei, to see a temple off the beaten path, but nearby the huge and perennially popular Tenmangu Shrine. I'd never been there, oddly enough, even though it's one of the Kyushu's main attractions. Wait...that's precisely why I'd never been there. Anyways, Maia and I were going to be maybe five or ten minutes late for our meeting with Hayashiuchi-sensei at Dazaifu Station when we hit The Snarl. I've been to the Kyushu National History Museum located directly behind the Tenmangu Shrine three times with hardly a whiff of what traffic could be like on a day like this. Later we'd learn that the combined good weather, desire to see the first ume blossoms of the year, desire by students to say prayers for success in the upcoming examination season and the opening day of a new exhibit at the history museum all mixed together nice and frothy to overload the pitiful road and parking capacity of the city for a few kilometers around. It took us thirty minutes to get the kilometer from the highway to the shrine turn off. We were forty minutes late and something was wrong with Hayashiuchi-sensei's phone. He wasn't picking up for whatever reason.

At this rate we wouldn't arrive at the shrine for another hour, and a gambit I tried only exacerbated the situation, so we decided to ditch the car in the parking lot of some closed music store/dance studio and walk. We were, on foot, much faster than everybody in a car. The whole experience up to now hit home yet again how unnecessary car ownership is in a dense urban area and (now for a bit of unabashed back-patting) how awesome bikes and motorcycles really are.

An hour late for our meeting, we arrived at Dazaifu Station and didn't find Maia's coworker, no surprise there. The atmosphere was electric at the shrine and our spirits were raised by it. Festival food stalls were set up all over and we each found something to suit our palettes: I with the most tasty butabara skewer I've ever had, Maia a juicy ear of roast corn. And it was while eating that a curious thing happened. A man approached us—both of us—and asked if we could model in front of a particularly in-bloom ume tree. At first the two of us were a tad annoyed to be interrupted while eating, but the man was nice enough. He did his thing and shuffled off, but no more than a minute later another man came up and asked the same thing, which we laughingly obliged. Then a third! The whole thing reminded me of a curious incident fifteen or so years earlier at Nepenthe in Big Sur when a stringy, funny-accented Eastern European man ran up to my sister, my cousin and I, yelled out “I love American kids!” and promptly took a few snapshots. The brain hardly has time to react and it's only in the aftermath one has the leisure to wonder “Just what the hell happened there?”

We got out of there after that, but not before grabbing some of the best soft serve ice cream I've had over here and seeing a cheap concession stand t-shirt with a picture of goya arrayed in the shape of a marijuana leaf over which the phrase "No bitter melon, no life" were emblazoned. The temple Hayashiuchi-sensei intended to take us to was nearby and we stalked around there for a few minutes on our way back to the car and a pleasant remainder of the day in Fukuoka. Pleasant except for the fact that my girlfriend trounces me every time at Puyo Puyo. She's like the Genghis Khan of the arcade, it's kinda creepy.


Matt Cares Deeply About Sports

Sure he does.

Now, two things have really got my heart racing: the current Tour de California and the 2009 rule changes for F1. For the Tour, more than being excited that there will be a world-class cycling event for me to watch live when I return and all the economic good it will do the people of the towns it's rolling through, I'm just tearing out my hair that I'm not there to see it again! It's only, what, the second day and already Lance Armstrong's TT bike has been nicked, Floyd Landis was called out by the race announcer for the drug scandal and the Spaniards are kicking ass and taking names. I should be the one pilfering bikes! I should be the devil on Floyd's shoulder telling him to juice up! And I should be the one jamming a bike pump into the Spaniard's spokes yelling about Basque liberation! Am I cursed only to dream of such things?

As for F1, the rule changes are going to mean batshit insanity on the circuits this year. If you don't believe me check out this video by Team Red Bull Racing that's impressive in its own right. The breakdown is basically this: virtually no aerodynamic stabilizers allowed other than front and rear down force wings and some variable driver-controlled gadgets (more on that in a below); engines must last 3+ races; no tire warmers pre-race; slick tires allowed once again; and a braking energy recovery system like on a Prius that powers a small electric "boost" engine.

That last one is really exciting as it opens up a whole new universe of fast-paced overtaking action, the likes of which haven't been seen in twenty years. That, and it's also like a friggin' video game nitro boost! Whee! Oh, and the variable aerodynamic option is interesting as well. The driver can actually control parts of the bodywork to do their bidding for different track situations! Whether it's something like pressing a button and raising some vents or warping a wing for different handling effects I don't know, but it's an exciting avenue.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fun With Bamboo and Irradiated Yuzu

Yes, usually when I'm not taking Japan's semi-privatized rail network to task and spewing bile at other hallowed institutions I am indeed having fun and generally riding the winds of adventure over here. Exhibit A: my trip to the Kyushu Folkcraft Museum a few weeks back.

On recent weekends visiting Maia in Kitakyushu I think it's fair to say the two of us have started to hear that terrible dull thud and soft chafing sound as we scrabble around at the bottom of the city's activity barrel with our tin cup. The typical Japanese thing to do when bored would be either to go shopping, drop coin after coin into a pachinko machine or maybe just smoke a pack of fags in a cafe somewhere, but we can't abide by any of that. Unfortunately, museums (all museums, not just here of course) rotate exhibits only every so often, there are a limited supply of really delightful sit-n'-drink-n'-stare cafes, very few game centers have the much sought after Puyo-Puyo 2 cabinet and onsens are virtually non-existent/constantly booked in advance.

On a recent weekend though I did, in a flash of divine recollection, remember that we'd never been to that darn Kyushu Folk Craft Museum, despite the plethora of signs pointing towards it. So up into the hills we went and around the Kawauchi Reservoir, which, were I an eviler, Snidely Whiplash sort of fellow, say sits poised to take out a good quarter of the population of Kitakyushu were it ever to break its dam. Somehow the sight of this reminds me of the junior high and elementary schools that occupy the slopes of Sakurajima in Kagoshima and how the unfurling ticker tape of human history contains so many proverbial instances of us taking cover under that big oak tree during the thunder storm while telling ourselves the lightning could simply never strike here. Never, no way.

After several kilometers the twisting reservoir road and trusty ol' Cartrain deliver us to a daper brick building that reminds me faintly of a train station--either that or the setting of an Agatha Christie novel. This is the Kyushu Folk Craft Museum. Somehow I was expecting something, I don't know, more wafuu (Japanese-style) with the architecture. It's cool though, there are tasty crackers from Hita in the lobby, bamboo battleship models and the ticket ladies are a nice bunch. Several buildings dot the grounds, each one a studio and sales floor for each of the handcrafts of Kyushu: bamboo carving and shaping, glass blowing, metalworking, ceramics, lacquer ware, mother-of-pearl inlaying and, uh, the art of the packrat.

Things like ceramics are best left to the mountain villages like Onta and Arita, both of which are world famous, so I wasn't so much impressed by that hut as I was with the others. Metalworking, bamboo art and the eclectic collection of artifacts from yesteryear were, I thought, the most impressive areas. The old man working his industrial lathe in the metalworking building was incredibly kind and had a mind and spirit that reminded me of my own grandfather so much it was eerie. The galaxy of goods he created using only bits of milled metal, PET bottles, mason jars, test tubes and other odds and ends speaks of an unrecognized, working man's genius. Best of all though was easily the bamboo house, for it was there that I found a handsome old-timey Hobbit/Chinese Kung Fu Master pipe for the reasonable price of 500 yen!


Maia and I headed back with high hopes to Tsuetate Onsen last weekend to see if we couldn't sample some more of the twenty or so different rent-by-the-hour rooms available there again...and snap towels at each other in peace. We browsed the big board and found a couple nice rooms, but after riding the rickety "monorail" down the slope (I gave our chances for surviving the ride 50/50) the attendant told us those rooms were either occupied or out of service today. I think the exact marking for those rooms was kyujitsu, which means "day off", or "vacation day", but that brings up a whole new host of questions. In the end we decided the room we had before was the best way to go--not a bum deal, even if we weren't exactly walking a knives edge of adventure. Oh, but how wrong we were.

You may recall from my previous post that this onsen room--room #17, if memory serves--contained the grapefruit-like yuzu citrus fruits floating ever so merrily in the bath. Well, this time the yuzu were still there in force...and I mean IN FORCE! The damn things were the size of volleyballs! These fruits, obviously the subjects of bizarre Japanese experiements into growing human beings from plant matter, were nevertheless amazingly fun to toss around the bath. We even invented a game involving the yuzu and a floating hula hoop that's like a cross between basketball, water polo and curling. Good times.

And though we still love Tsuetate Onsen the truth as of this past weekend is that we've found yet another, even more amazing place to soak the ol' bones in. Unfortunately we have no pics to back up the claim, but soon enough you'll see them here, for even a pack of Clydesdales couldn't hold us back from this reasonably priced, conveniently located paradise. Whoa nelly!


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Profound Thought

"A beer bottle's still and beer bottle, even if you put a rubber nipple on it."


"Rock of Love Charm School: a bildungsroman...for sluts."


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Achievements Unlocked!

I've been meaning to post about this for a while. I reached a personal Kyushu travel milestone some time ago when I realized I've driven the every kilometer of the Kyushu Expressway and driven or ridden every kilometer of highways 3 and 10, the two major north to south roads on the island. Yet another thing I think most Kyushu residents have never done...though why would they?


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Not Quite Jesse James, But Getting There: Cheating JR

For the grand occasion of the official resumption of blogging I was hoping for a whopper of a tale to tell, seeing as how I've had over a month to incubate...something. Well, I've got a two-fer for you tonight: criminal confessions and sideshow freaks. Hope you like it.

First on the menu is the issue of Japan Railways, a.k.a. JR. Japan is world-famous for its trains, whether it be their shinkansen bullet train fleet or their Swiss time-like punctuality or how you can drink a beer/flagon of mead/glass of absinthe on any train. Well, I'm going to poke some holes in the magic and myth today because I've got a message for the world: JR sucks.

Let me be more specific with that vitriol. JR is not, in fact, always on time. Recently Maia and I have noticed a spate of train tardiness on the Kitakyushu lines the likes of which neither of us could conceive of in this nation. In snow or a driving rain it's understandable, but twenty minute delays on clear days, day and night? I'm not saying it's perennially late, just that it's not as infallible as everyone thinks it is. The main complaint against JR, however, is its price--its bend you over and do you up the pooper price. Dear god is it pricey!

For years I used to think BART was quite possibly the world's worst mass transit system, but in recent times it's really pulled up its socks and gotten on board with new technologies, operational strategies, train renovations etcetera and is looking pretty OK. It's also cheap as sin. Now, let's compare BART with the JR trains operating out of Kokura Station since I now know that area so well. From Castro Valley BART to the Embarcadero station in SF is a distance of approximately 45 km, costs $8.60 round trip and takes about 32 minutes. From Kokura Station to Ushima Station (which I never use, but is convenient for this example) the distance is also 45 km and, depending on whether one takes the express or the local, takes 28 and 52 minutes, respectively. Now here's the zinger: for round trip tickets the local will set you back ¥1,820 ($20.41) and the express costs a massive ¥3,620 ($40.60)! Uh...WHAT?!?

It's railway robbery and, damn it, I won't (sometimes) take it (if I have a chance). While there are cunning stratagems online involving countryside stations and ticket shenanigans Maia and I prefer two simpler methods. The first we can implement on our return trip to her apartment from anywhere as long as it's after 8PM, which it so often is anyways with us. The station nearest her house has no attendant after that time and no camera so we simply buy the cheapest ticket (¥100-something) and hop the barricades. No fuss, no muss. The second is much more fun and for the craven adrenaline junkies of the world: hiding on an express! As the demonstration above proved, express trains are on the order of twice as expensive as normal trains and thus each train employs ticket checkers who hop from car to car. They are fastidious in their duty and have uncanny memories of faces and who's sitting where, so it's no use to hope they didn't catch you lounging there in their peripheral vision. But there are two loopholes here: they won't check sleeping passengers or the bathrooms, so and those are your safe spots. Buy a local ticket for the place you're going, if it's night pretend to sleep, daytime hide in the crapper and arrive at your destination way earlier than you would have otherwise. This doesn't save you a dime over the local trains, just time...and the satisfaction that you've stuck it to The Man in a completely inconsequential way. And if you happen to be trapped in a bathroom with a beautiful female companion, well, all the better.

Oh, another factoid about the suckage of JR, to get from Fukuoka to Osaka via bullet train takes about five hours and takes a chunk out of your pocketbook to the tune of about $200 one way. An airplane will cost about the same and take only an hour. Unless people are in the know about the environmental impacts of air travel there's absolutely no reason to take the famous shinkansen. Simply wow.

And now onto other, happier news! Yay! Eyepatch women! Yay!

WHAT?! Well, the eyepatch fetish--yes, there is a fetish surrounding them--has been well documented in Japanese culture and is old hat to many, but it finally took a sort of critical mass of cumulative observations to understand where this is coming from. It hit me in Fukuoka last week before Maia and I went to the "Capsule" concert (more on that fiasco in another post) when I saw yet another woman wearing a white, obviously medical eyepatch. I thought to myself "man, you never see this many women in The States wearing eye patches." And suddenly I realized that Japanese women must--MUST--be genetically predisposed to eye injury! So, as part of my ongoing community service in the gerbil-in-pants gambling case here is PSA list of no-nos for all Japanese women:

--DO NOT drop a pencil or eating utensil near tables or office equipment featuring a sharp corner.
--DO NOT look end-on at your chopsticks to see if it's really really straight or ever so slightly wobbly.
--DO NOT take up knife juggling.
--DO NOT take up knitting.
--DO NOT engage in a "who can stare at the sun the longest" contest for a prize of less than ¥5,000 or a goat of average size.

I'll get to the bottom of this eye thing before it's time to leave, I swear it!