Saturday, December 17, 2011

Long time, no write, ne?

Wow, I realize it's been a really long time since I last write on this blog. Sorry about that.

The main reason is that I have been working a lot on a new project related to my teaching. This year have introduced a spaced repetition flash card program into my classes. Based on user feedback about how well a card is known, the program adjusts the time interval until the next review. In this way, you see the card again just before you are likely to forget it. You only study what you NEED to study WHEN you need to study it. We use it to study Japanese every day. The name of the program is Anki.

So, I am qtr ying to get my students to use it in and out of class, with some successes but mostly failures. I've been busy writing a paper about my first semester's experience for publication in our university's in-house journal. I also started a blog as a venue to shares ideas and information with other teachers:

And to find more people out there doing similar things, I actually started a twitter account... It's all bee rather exciting but it me consuming. My Japanese studying is definitely suffering!

So, that's anut all that's new. We are going to Hokkaido for snow and cold weather for the new years holiday. We also bought tickets to come home for a visit in February. Hopefully we will see you then!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Volunteering in Ishinomaki

This weekend we went to the orientation meeting for the volunteer trip next week up to Ishinomaki in Tohoku (northern Japan) during our week's vacation from the university. Ishinomaki was greatly damaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsumani. Approximately 20% of the population was killed. Some of the more dramatic tsunami video footage you may have seen came from Ishinomaki. Even more than six months later, the recovery, restoration and rebuilding efforts are still ongoing and desperately needed.

We are going with Peace Boat and their "Emergency Relief Operation" and will spend a week with many other volunteers, international and Japanese, helping as best we can. Our friend, Chris (another Asia University teacher) participated in the same program in September and gave it a rousing endorsement

Peace Boat's work is focused on three main areas: general clean up (drainage ditches along the sides of roads, flooded homes, etc.), construction of temporary housing, and helping the fishing industry (salvaging equipment, cleaning up the shore, etc.). At this point, we don't know which one we will be helping with.

The group will take a night bus from Tokyo on Friday evening. On Saturday, we start work. Our shared accommodations will be a large, unheated room on the second floor of a now defunct cleaning business. Basically, we will be camping and need sleeping bags, sleeping pads, etc. Peace Boat will provide a brown bag lunch and a bento box dinner; we are responsible for breakfasts and miscellaneous snacks. There is a convenience store ten minutes away by foot, but they encouraged us to bring everything we might need or want. There should be access to showers (an onsen?) every other day, but it will be dirty work with no access to laundry facilities.

We are a little nervous but excited about this trip and are really grateful for the chance to help. Even though we can only do a little bit, it is important that people affected by this disaster know they are not forgotten and that people still want to help.

Stay tuned for photos and info (although we may have limited access to electricity and won't do much with the Internet).

Monday, August 8, 2011

Relaxin' in Hokkaido...

For the past two summers, we have traveled to Hokkaido for various adventures. The first summer was backpacking in the northern portion of the Daisetzuan national park and then exploring the Abashiri in the northeast corner of the island. We also met Toby and Maiko, who were building a rice straw bale house in Higashikawa. The second summer, we stayed with them in their new house and then ventured to the southern side of Daisetzuan.

This summer, we flew to Hokkaido to house sit for Toby and Maiko while they are traveling,
enjoying the cool breezes and some down time to catch up on Japanese study, reading and writing. One of the real joys of staying here are the three cats. It has been wonderful to hang out with friendly animals - and torment them with feathers and other flappy objects.

We will be here for about a week before taking off for Kushiro in the southeast corner of Hokkaido for bike touring along the coast and couchsurfing with Japanese hosts.

One nice side story: on Saturday afternoon, when we were riding around the town, checking things out, when we saw a group of people bustling about with tents and tables in a parking lot. We couldn't tell if they were setting up or taking down. So later that evening, at the end of a long bike ride out into the rice fields, we swung by to see what was going on. There was a small crowd with meat on the grill, onigiri being made by hand, and a keg of beer. We stopped and asked what was going on, everyone turning to see the foreigners. It turned out to be a "tanabata" block party - a Japanese star festival that usually happens on July 7th where the deities, Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are lovers, are able to meet once a year across the Milky Way that separates them.

"Oh. Ok. Thanks," we said and started to keep on riding. There was a flurry of conversation
behind us, and a voice called out, "Oh-ni-san, mat'te kudasai!" (Older brother, please wait!) We turned back, and not surprisingly, they invited us to join their party. We had a wonderful time eating yaki-niku (grilled meat), the handmade onigiri, and cold draft beer. We sat with a younger couple and their baby (Keisuke, Keiko, and Taise), talking in a mixture of Japanese and English. Many elders, in various states of inebriation, stopped by to welcome us and ask questions. Looking around, it quickly became apparent that the four of us
(not counting Taise, who was three) were the only "young" people there by 20 to 30 years.

At the end of the festival, we exchanged emails with our new friends and made plans to get together during the week. We rode home in the dark, full of that happy glow (and beer and grilled meat) that makes Japan so awesome!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dangerous ground...

As many of you know, I go to a local izakaya (bar) on Monday nights to practice my Japanese, with Hiroyuki, the friendly insurance salesman who befriended me on my first visit.

Well, last week, we met again, along with a different Japanese friend of mine, who shall remain nameless. The night took an interesting turn, which is why I must protect his identity... Let's call him “Mr. X.”

So, Hiroyuki was a little tired that night and left the izakaya early. Mr. X turned to me and said, “Ri-chi-san, I want to take you to Kichijoji. To the dangerous part...” Well, it was a Monday night with an early class on Tuesday, but it was only 7:30.

We headed to the nearby train station; on the platform, I bought a bottle of sports drink from the vending machine and quickly drained it. I didn't know how this night was going to go.

At Kichijoji station, we headed northeast toward the “dangerous” part of town. There are clubs, hostess bars, snack bars, strip clubs, and, I think, an infamous “Soapland.” I think you can guess what happens there. Now, I don't really know how “dangerous” these places are; this is Japan after all. Yet, I was still kind of nervous because I didn't want Mr. X to put me in “harm's way,” if you know what I mean...

Dodging past all the slickly dressed touts dressed as yakuza wann-bees, Mr. X stopped in front of Club Spacia and definitely declared this was the place. It was a “kaba-kura” - katakana English for “cabaret club.” Next to the stairs was a display case with large photos of overly makeup-ed, beautiful young Japanese women. The doors opened into a large bar/club area with lots of lights and mirrors. We were escorted to our seats and a waiter explained the costs per hour and what it entailed. Luckily Mr. X seems to be independently weather and insisted on paying. Let's just say it wasn't cheap.

Soon, two young women were escorted over and sat down between us.

Now, for the official record, it was all quite tame and nothing inappropriate happened. Also, as much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of this part of Japanese society, it still felt really weird and kind of creepy, similar to strip clubs in America (not that I've been to any; I'm just well-read...).

They very carefully put ice in our glasses and filled them with whiskey and soda. Using small towels, they delicately wiped the condensation from the glasses before handing them to us. It was a very much part of the show, a modern geisha thing. We engaged in small talk – where are you from, how long have you been here, what is your favorite Japanese food? It was excellent Japanese practice. After 15 minutes or so, a man appear and dramatically gestured for them to stand and leave. They quickly scribbled their names with little hearts, gave them to us and said goodbye.

Soon, two more young women were escorted over and sat down next two us.

Of the three sets of young women that we met that night, I don't remember who was from Aomori, who was 23, or who spoke the best English, but they were all very nice. Mr. X got the last laugh when he suddenly leaned over mid-conversation with his partner, “Ri-chi-san, she is Asia University student!” My heart sank. “Joke! Joke!” he continued. We had a good, hearty laugh. He'll pay. My revenge will be cold and sweet...

After an hour, we escaped that den of iniquity, our morals intact. I later asked a different Japanese friend, well versed in these matters, how this experience ranked on the grand scale of things, “If staying home with your wife and kids is a '1' and Soapland is a '10,' what does a 'kaba-kura' rate in Japan?”

My friend sucked air past his teeth, a quintessential Japanese thing to do, “Well, I'd say a '6...'” He paused, “Maybe a '7.'”

Once on the street with pure, wholesome, fresh air in our lungs, I hoped for a quick retreat. It wasn't yet late and there was hope for a happy, productive morning. Nope. Not to be. Next was off to a famous ramen shop for a large, wonderful bowl of sesame ramen with tender, delicious slices of pork.

Ok, now, maybe we are going home? Nope.

“Ri-chi-san, I want to take you to a different club. Don't worry; this one is safe!”

Off we went to a small establishment, maybe a “hostess bar.” It was much smaller and more sophisticated: no bright lights and loud music. The “mama” of the bar, maybe in her 50's, welcomed us and escorted us to our table. In the other corner, some salary men lustily sang away at karaoke while two women in their 30's refilled the glasses. Soon, we had our own drinking partner, curiously inquiring about our lives. It turns out she spoke almost flawless English from years of self study and was a born and bred native of Kichijoji. She entertained us with stories of Kichijoji before it became extremely popular and how the changes have affected it.

However, like all good things, it came to an end, and it was time to go home. We bid our farewells and wobbled to the train station. I'm sure our swaying on the train looked like just like everyone else's.

At the north exit of the Musashisakai station, where we parted ways, Mr. X admonished me, “Ri-chi-san, don't tell Joan-san. She will be verrrrrrrry angry...” Promising full confidentially, I pinballed home where I promptly confessed my “sins” to Joan. She laughed at me and tucked me into bed. It really unfortunate that the next day was one of the hottest so far and perhaps the busiest of the semester. However, the night was totally worth it. Not sure I'll do it again soon, though...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Lending a helping hand

To find some relief on a very hot and windy day, I dragged myself out of the apartment and up the street to Saizeriya, an Italian chain restaurant. One of the best things about it, besides the air conditioning, is the 270 yen “do-ri-n-ku-baa” or “drink bar” - all the teas, coffee, juices, and sodas you can consume.

Even with the increasing temperatures and humidity, we have stubbornly resisted turning on

the air conditioning. With the projected power shortages coming due to the loss of Dai-ichi “gen-patsu,” the nuclear power plant damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, we are trying to help in our small way. However, when walking past a store with the front doors open and frigid air pouring out to entice customers inside, one quickly realizes that there is still so much waste and inefficiency built into modern society. Right after the disaster, everyone in Japan was so energized and enthusiastic to help and to make difficult changes/choices, but sadly, like in many other situations, that resolve has faded somewhat.

However, I did not start this blog post to rant and rave about the coming energy problems.

Related to the disaster up north, I had an interesting experience last week I wanted to share.

A Japanese friend of ours is involved with a nonprofit organization that is helping with relief efforts up north, providing direct aid and resources to people and communities, separate from the government and all the restrictions of bureaucracy. There are disturbing stories of people still in difficult situations up north while huge amounts of money and resources are tied up in red tape.

A local, large onsen/spa had gone out of business and is to be torn down. I don't know the details, but our friend's group had one day to salvage as much as possible. The plan was to fill a very large semi-trailer truck with things that could be used for reconstruction efforts or to bring some relief and pleasure to people who are still suffering.

With classes later that morning, I only had a short time to help but still wanted to show my support. Ten of us met at eight o'clock and received a whirlwind tour of the cavernous, multi-story building. Basically everything was still in place: sheets and towels on the racks, reclining chairs waiting for tired bathers, beer mugs, menus on the tables, even the cook's clogs waiting just inside the kitchen door. All of it was up for grabs, and it quickly became obvious there was no way it would all fit in the truck. So some quick prioritizing got us started on the tatami –

traditional, Japanese-style floor mats.

From the first room alone, we pulled up and stacked over 70 tatami near the front door. There

were many more rooms to go. With no electricity in the onsen, we relied on headlamps and flashlights to find our way into deeper rooms.

Quickly, I ran out of time and had to bid farewell, leaving them to a long and sweaty day of hauling and loading. Joan was able to stop by later that afternoon to see for herself and gather

information for a potential article. The truck was already loaded and gone, but she was able to meet some of the people and see the shell of the onsen itself. Hopefully, she will be able to meet the director of the organization and learn the whole story. Stay tuned for more details...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Helping our furry friends (Part II)

On our first day at Animal Garden, the name of the hotel/shelter in Niigata, I offered to help with whatever they needed. It turned out that the next day, Toshi, one of the co-owners of Heart Tokushima, another shelter that is part of JEARS, was heading across the island to Fukushima Prefecture on the east coast. A homeowner had contacted JEARS about a stray cat. Also, a rescue team on an earlier trip had spotted a group of dogs inside the evacuation zone but had not been able to catch them.

As it was a eight-hour round trip and potentially many hours searching, I was offered the chance to accompany Toshi and provide what help I could. Joan and I both looked at each other; we had talked about this as a possibility and had decided it would be ok to go if given the chance. To be honest, as much as I wanted to help with the animals, I was also very curious to see the situation on the ground in Fukushima. Other groups had gone in before with Geiger counters, and the authorities were letting residents return briefly to their homes to retrieve belongings and animals, so we were not greatly concerned with the short-term risks. The majority of radiation had been released in the first three days of the reactor failures, and we didn't plan on staying inside the evacuation zone for more than a few hours.

So, with a van full of animal food, cages, and other supplies, we left on our long journey. The drive to Fukushima through the mountains was beautiful. I could tell we were headed in the right direction as we joined all the convoys of utility and other emergency vehicles going the same way. At every rest area, we saw tankers full of drinking water, power line trucks, military vehicles, etc.

The first sign that something had happened were the many blue tarps on the roofs of many old homes. The earthquake dislodged many of the heavy, clay ridge tiles, exposing the crest of the house to rain and snow. Also, the roads would occasionally have a strange pitch or a bump/dip that seemed more than the usual.

Our first stop was near Minamisoma, north of the evacuation zone by about 20 miles and two miles in from the ocean. We attempted to contact the homeowner and/or spot the cat but with no luck. This is not an atypical occurance. While not directly related to the earthquake , it is the type of rescue that Animal Garden does on a regular basis. The disaster(s) obviously increased the need.

We turned south and drove closer to the coast. At first, the area looked fine, and I had to
pay careful attention to notice anything amiss. Then suddenly we came around the corner of a road, and there in front of us was a huge, flat basin of destruction. There was nothing left but mud, ridges where road and embankments used to be, and a horrible, jumbled mass of flotsam and jetsam of what used to be farms, houses, and people's lives. The photos don't really capture the scale of it all. We were silent for quiet some time as we drove closer to it and through it on roads that had survived. Crushed cars, tractors, even a fire engine were scattered about. I'm sure we've all seen the footage on
television and the Internet.

As the land rose and fell, the watermark of the tsunami was clearly visible. It seemed that luck and topography made all the difference.

Using a map and Toshi's Iphone Google Maps, we carefully made our way through and out of the tsunami affected areas, heading toward the evacuation area.

On a related side note, we spoke with our friend, Shuji, about why so many people died in the
tsunami. "Why didn't they evacuate? Did the tsunami come too fast? What happened?" we asked him. He pointed out that there are many tsunami warnings in Japan and that many people had not taken it seriously. However, the largest factor was the sheer size of the tsunami. It exceeded all the projections and planning. People had evacuated. They ran to predetermined safe areas. And the waters still took them.

As we approached the evacuation zone, we encountered our first police check point. After Toshi explained our purpose, we were told that only residents and those on official business were allowed in. We drove further inland and met another check point. After that, Toshi turned onto a small road and drove up into the hills. Scouring the map and zooming in on Google Maps, he found what turned out to be a gravel, two-track road across a forested hillside that connected with a paved road on the other side. As we drove down the valley, passing many empty and shuttered houses, we wondered if we would find any animals.

Almost immediately, we spotted a dog trotting up the road toward us. We stopped and fed the
dog but were unable to determine if he was a stray. It was also obvious that he was not interested in being rescued. We checked the nearby houses, but no one was there, so we pushed on to the town of Odaka. While in the evacuation zone, we saw almost 10 dogs, most of which we were able to feed and none of whom we were able to capture. None looked emaciated or injured; they had been able to survive for at least a month already.

If you want to see a map of the route from Niigata to Odaka, try this link. The fourth and southern marker is the location of the Fukushima Daichi power plant, about 12 miles south of Odaka.

In downtown Odaka, we saw some serious earthquake damage, with many houses collapsed or tumbled into the street. The power was on, so the traffic lights eerily changed as no cars passed by. While not completely empty, it was quite eerie and felt like a ghost town. We finally reached the train station and cast about for the dogs. It was obvious from the mud on the road that the station, near the river, had flooded but not too deeply. We called out for the dogs and shook bowls full of food but to no avail. As it was growing dim and starting to rain, we decided to head north back out of the evacuation area. We had been warned about not being out in the rain with the potential fallout being collected in the drops of water.

We traced our route back, peering into yards and at houses, looking for animals that might need help. We were not comfortable with potentially trespassing, and media chatter of looters made us even more uncomfortable with our position. Once we scrambled back up the much more slippery two track, we breathed a sigh of relief as we left the evacuation zone.

As we drove away, sharing our thoughts and observations, we saw a bedraggled, wet dog walking down a sidewalk. Quickly stopping, we gave him some food and tried to assess his status. He had a collar but no tag. He was hungry and had an injured paw; he also had a cut above his eye and a gash on his nose. He was friendly and did not object to a leash. Again, we tried to contact nearby homeowners to see if he was a local dog but with no luck.

So we decided to load him in a cage and take him with us. It is a difficult decision. There have been cases where volunteers have accidentally rescued dogs that didn't need it. An irate phone call from an owner can result in a long and embarrassing return trip.

We turned west toward Niigata for a long trip home. It was even
longer thanks to the slow-moving convoy of Kobe police vehicles that completely hogged the road. Then the horrendous traffic jam in Fukushima made it worse. We didn't get back to the shelter until 1:00 am; a 16-hour round trip.

And, to top it all off, while we were stopped at a convenience store to get a drink and use the rest room, there was a 7.1 earthquake right under our feet that violently shook the van back and forth.

While it was a long and stressful day and we were only able to rescue one animal, I'm glad I had the opportunity to help and to see that area of Japan. It is definitely the strangest road trip I have ever taken...

Oh, you're probably wondering what they're calling the dog. It's "Benji" - short for "benri" (convenient) because he was rescued in the parking lot of a "conbini" (convenience store).

And if you want to see more photos, click on this link.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Helping our furry friends (Part I)

In the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, many lives were destroyed and many families were torn apart. Just as in many other countries, the Japanese people have pets that are considered as members of the family. Both owners and pets lost each other to the onrushing, unstoppable waters.

Then the nightmare of Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant occurred. Thousands of households suddenly had to evacuate, leaving everything behind in the belief they would return very quickly. Pets were left with a bowl of water and a bowl of food, or they were turned loose. It has been almost a month.

Obviously, this has created a situation where many animals need help. Our friend, Ulara, first made us aware of this when she went north with a group of animal activists a few weeks ago. They rescued the animals they could and provided supplies to overwhelmed animal shelters and vets. A Facebook page was created, and suddenly, a coalition of animal shelters came into existence: JEARS (Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support).

When Ulara's work as a journalist took her out of the country, she asked Joan to take over her duties with JEARS. One of the main organizers of JEARS, Isabella, who runs an animal hotel and shelter in Niigata, was on the phone to Joan almost every night, downloading the information of the day, with Joan frantically scribbling notes.

Like many foreigners in Japan, we desperately want to help. However, with our limited
Japanese, there is little we can do that the thousands of Japanese volunteers can't already do better. Obviously, in the face of these overwhelming problems, most of the rescue, recovery and restoration efforts are going towards helping humans, and not animals.

As Joan wanted to personally interview Isabella and others involved with JEARS and get better photos of the operation and animals, we asked if we could come up to Niigata and volunteer for a few days - maybe we could at least help a little bit in our own way.

An early morning express bus soon got us to Niigata where Isabella picked us up and drove us to
Animal Garden, her hotel/shelter. We quickly realized how serious the situation was as we saw their modest facility overwhelmed with more than 200 hundred animals: cats, dogs, and yes, a chicken. We helped as best we could with walking dogs, petting cats, and other chores.

I cleaned the cages of eight cats that had been left in a house in the Fukushima evacuation area by a "hoarder". I won't go into the details, but after a long time trapped in the house with no food and water, it was about as bad as you could imagine. Apparently it was a very difficult and traumatic experience for the rescue team.

These poor cats, now kept isolated due to fear of radiation, were
desperately unhappy and wanted affection. As I changed the absorbent pet sheets from the bottom of the cages and cleaned up any other mess, they frantically pressed themselves against the wire, meowing and crying. I started to cry. I'm crying now as I type this.

But, to be honest, it is hard to clean up cat pee and poop while crying, so I had to shut down that part of my heart. Similar to when I worked for the ambulance service and fire department, you cannot let the pain and suffering interfere with your work. You have to compartmentalize and do what you have to do. I couldn't stop the cats suffering, but I could damn well make sure they didn't have to crouch in their own urine and feces. It wasn't fun, but it felt good.

We spent the night in a simple, unheated cabin down the road. A good neighbor had donated the use of it for volunteers.

The next day was to be a big one for me as we were driving across the mainland to the earthquake and tsunami affected areas to rescue animals.

I would like to write more in this post, but it has been extremely difficult and somewhat painful, and has tired me out. I'll continue tomorrow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Weirdest. Hike. Ever.

Our plan was to go backpacking and snowshoeing when we got back from our month's trip to America, but Joan's leg injury from walking in bad boots and then an impromptu Nitendo Wii Dance Party competition put her out of commission.

I had been chafing at the bit to get out and do some backpacking as the weather was quite warm and pleasant. To the west of us, still technically in Tokyo, are some mountains (really big hills) that have a lot of trails and some mountain huts. Hiking is very popular in Japan, and on weekend mornings, the west-bound trains are full of people fully decked out in way too much gear on their way to day hikes.

On topographical maps I had purchased earlier, I had identified some emergency huts where one can stay for free. We had stayed in similar huts up in Hokkaido and wanted to see if it was the same down here. Eventually, there is a four or five-day backpacking trip that I want to try in the Okutama region. I also had bought new hiking boots - big, Italian, full-leather monsters - that needed to be broken in. I had done hours of walking in flat Musashisakai but nothing uphill.

So, with a good forecast, I picked out an ambitious overnight route that would visit a hut midday with an overnight in a second one. The next day would stop by a third hut before descending back into the valley to catch a train home in the afternoon. This would be perhaps my first solo trip.

I will let the photos do most of the talking about what I saw. They can be seen here at this link:

The main problem was that I started developing a blister on the heel of my right foot from the new boots - rats! I decided to switch to my Teva sandals and kept pushing up the trail. It was fine until I hit the snow; the sandals don't have much traction. So, I put the left boot back on and struggled up the steep trail, slipping and sliding. This combined with about a month and a half of not much exercise and a backpack was quite slow and exhausting. When I finally made it to the top of the snowy, icy ridge, at least two hours behind schedule, I was tired and a little shaky. I decided to change the plan and just continue to the first hut to spend the night. I could reassess in the morning and decide then.

Well, when I reached the area where the emergency hut was supposed to be, on the side of the mountain, it wasn't there. However, there was a newer toilet hut, as well as a lot of weird buildings and structures - but no people. I pitched my hammock on what I assume is an old helicopter landing pad, based on structure and painted markings to catch my breath and enjoy the last of the sunshine - also to experience some of the most excruciating leg cramps I have ever had.

After awhile, I put my sandals back on and started spooking around, thinking about where I might sleep. I had not brought a tent, just a sleeping pad, bag, and hammock for relaxing. The mountain tea hut looked all raggedy and run down from the outside but seemed functional on the inside. Almost everything was still in place; it really felt like aliens had suddenly abducted everybody. Nothing was locked. Just down hill, there was another building that was a small ryokan (inn) with a dining room, dismantled kitchen area and sleeping rooms upstairs, with closets full of futons and blankets. I initially thought about making a nest up in one of the rooms.

Then I went down to the larger building, which looked like a 1970's commune retreat center.
From what I could see, I think it is a temple or retreat center for a Daoist religious group. While mostly empty, most of the building is in fine shape. However, in the central, round tower room, where many alters and other religious items where still on full display, the roof was leaking and causing extensive water damage. It was weird, weird, weird!

I spent a full 30 minutes exploring the warren of rooms and hallways before decided to stay in a
sun-warmed, carpeted and dry room with a fantastic view of Tokyo and closets full of futons and blankets. The room had some items (rolls of toilet paper, flashlight, box of clothes, etc.) that made it look like some had been staying there somewhat recently. I found some religious publications from as recent as 2008.

With my stove on a low table in front of the windows and sitting in a lawn chair I found in a storage closet, I made a dinner of instant ramen and watched the night fall on Tokyo. As it grew dark, the lights below began to create a sea of sparkling colors. It was completely silent and weird, weird, weird.

Finally around 8 pm, exhausted and, quite frankly, bored to death, I crawled into my nest of futons and blankets and fell asleep, listening to the unknown creaks, drips, bangs, and other sounds of the building.

I awoke at dawn and made coffee. Wrapped in a blanket, I watched the sun rise over Tokyo and
enjoyed its heat. Feeling much about the prospects of the day, I made a plan to hike to the second hut to check it out and head down from there. It was too far to make it to the third hut, and I didn't want to push my luck with the new boots. I had found a roll of duct tape in the tea house and was able to tape up the heel enough to hike the rest of the day.

Starting around 7 a.m., it was a great hike along the snowy ridge on a beautiful and sunny day. After about four hours, I reached the other mountain, where I cooked lunch and tended to my heel. From there, I headed down a trail

to the Okutama station, about three hours away. The downhill section was great as it took any pressure or friction off my heel, and I made good time.

Along the trail down the valley, I found some other excellent waterfall swimming opportunities and other interesting sites. And yet, another weird thing. I was striding along a flat section of the trail, at the base of a cedar-covered slope alongside the river, when seemingly out of nowhere, a large dead animal was just lying on the side of the trail, really
startling me. It turns out it was a "kamoshika"- a rare goat-antelope. There were no obvious signs of injury or decomposition: old age? sickness?

Eventually, I reached the end of the trail and started hiking along the road down to the bottom of the valley. It eventually joined a larger road that followed the Tamagawa river and led to the train station. With relief, I caught a train and sank into a seat.

Overall, it was a good but weird trip. I am excited to go back to explore the area and go deeper into the mountains. However, I need to figure out the boot situation and will try to drag someone else along next time. Many of you will not be surprised to hear that solo hiking is not for me!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Back to normal?

Perhaps it's sign of returning to normal...

I went with Shuji (a friend who works in the international student office next to mine at Asia University) to Koganei park with his dogs, Mei and Kopi.

Of course, we had to schedule a trip to a ramen shop! In Musashikoganei, near the park, there is a street nicknamed "Ramen Dori" - (Ramen street). Among the many ramen shops is Jiro ramen, famous for the size and taste of their ramen - mostly their size, though. With 33 shops in Tokyo, it is a kind of White Castle of Ramen.

We arrived around 3 pm to find not an empty seat. So, we ordered the small, basic ramen and settled on to the waiting stools. As we watched people tuck into their ramen, we saw some patrons served their ramen - huge, heaping, steaming bowls of ramen. We looked at other each with fear in our eyes. Shuji said, "Oh my God, I hope that's a large!"

Nope. It was the small. Delicious. Ginormous. Distended-belly making.

We struggled through the ordeal, groaning and whimpering like everyone else in the shop. Finally, we declared a partial victory and fled to the sunny street. Luckily, we were headed to the park after lunch and were able to walk some of it off.

While I would recommend the experience, we may have to wait awhile before we can muster the courage to do it again!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tokyo update

In general, things are good here in Tokyo. We arrived back just as the news was flashing around about the radioactive iodine found in one water treatment plant. Of course, there was a run on bottled water and even vending machines seem to be out of small bottles, as well.

So, our solution? We'll just stick to beer! It's a sandwich in a can anyways... However, it may make the coffee taste funny. A Japanese friend was telling us about buying what she thought was a bottle of plain water that turned out to have a fruity flavor. She didn't realize it until she tasted the coffee she made with it...

Tokyo, overall seems normal. However, there are just enough small things to let you know that things are not quite... Our first sign up returning to Tokyo was that the lighting in Starbucks was at about half strength. Most stores just have minimal lights on; it is more than enough to see but definitely not the glaring, surgical brightness. Many of the external lights and signs of stores and restaurants are turned off at night, too. It's quite nice and makes one think about how much light we actually need...

On a side note, tonight is third annual Earth Hour, where everyone is asked to turn off as much electrical use as possible from 8:30 to 9:30 pm. Candles and beer? Sounds romantic...

Another thing was that the escalators at the train stations are turned off. The elevators work, for which Joan was thankful - still on crutches but getting better.

A friend in the restaurant industry says that business is way down. People are going home right after work and staying home.

There was a tweet today from someone who spoke with a Tokyo taxi driver who reported that fares were down 50 %. All of this is unfortunately going to hurt the Japanese economy just a little bit more, as people become even more cautious about spending. Deflation is a big concern here.

The supermarkets can be kind of disturbing, too. There are open shelves for the first time. And if there is bread, milk, or water, it is gone quickly. In fact, I went to Hanamasa grocery near our station and could not find any milk and cream - what's a coffee drinker to do? For a variety a reasons, I could only get about half the items on my shopping list. Even the fruit and nut muesli was out! However, a lot of it has to do with disrupted supply chains as roads and shipping is still snarled from the earthquake/tsunami; plus, a great deal of those resources are helping those up north, as they well should. We are more than happy to accept a little suffering in light of conditions up there.

The size and extent of the disaster is truly overwhelming. We are not sure what the Japanese government is going to do. Many areas along the coast were completely wiped out and will require a complete rebuilding, if they decide to build. Like many places in America, some areas were economically stagnate and only afloat due to government subsidies or because people have always lived there. Should the country rebuild what was there or try to design/re-imagine a new way forward? There will have to be some serious soul searching here in Japan. With a horribly clean blank slate to start with, anything is possible...

We hope for the best and are hopefully positive that Japan will find a way to recover.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Going home to Tokyo!

So, the plan is to head back to Tokyo tonight on an night express bus. My university has pushed back the start of school two weeks, so now we have a set date to plan our lives around.

We have been talking with our friends still in Tokyo, Japanese and American, and the word is that everything is OK. Things have calmed down, and the supply of food and other things have somewhat stabilized. There have been some blackouts but not many or sustained. A friend who works for the U.S. embassy says that all their experts have given Tokyo a thumbs up.

Also, there is electrical power to all the reactors in Fukushima, and the systems (control and cooling) seem to be operational. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric and Power Corporation?) seems to finally be in somewhat in control of the situation with people and resources in place. For awhile, it appeared that they were just reacting to an unfolding situation, and that really made us uncomfortable.

However, those pesky afterquakes keep happening (a 6.0 and 5.8 in the Fukushima area this morning), so that is a little disturbing...

Well, hopefully Joan's leg will get better soon, and we can go for a trip to take advantage of the extra vacation!

We'll keep you posted! Mata ne! (See you later!)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Boring update - thank goodness!

Thought I'd just write a quick blog post to keep everyone up to date.

Luckily, there is nothing much to report! We are still in Osaka with Seth and Haruna. We went to a small "record" bar in the downtown area where Seth was one of a couple of guest DJs and listened to a lot of good music. It was a nice change, but we stayed up fairly late for this pair of old farts.

The weather has finally turned for the better with a high of 61.
We dragged ourselves out to the river bank today for a picnic lunch and welcome sunshine. Joan's swollen foot finally felt the rays of the sun. It shone bright pink, scaring fish right out of the river! She's now able to stretch it and put a little weight on it. We're pretty excited and
looking forward to crutch-free days.

As I said before, we hope to return to Tokyo this coming week. We desperately want to be home, just doing our regular things. This limbo of not knowing what is going to happen next or when we should go home is killing us! It's hard to focus on anything productive, such as studying Japanese, exercise, or writing - very frustrating...

If you have been following the reactor situation in Fukushima, today is hopefully the day they will be able to bring electrical power to the plant. Hopefully, they will be able restart the cooling systems and get some sort of control of the situation. Today could be reactors #1 and #2; tomorrow would be #3 and #4. Here's hoping...

It is so hard to truly get a feel of what is going on there. Media, both international and Japanese, seems all over the page and inconsistent. There's talk of not being able to trust the information coming from TEPCO (the Japanese power company) nor the government. Obviously they have to be very cautious with what they say. A panic would be horrible, but so would not telling the public what they need to and should know.

We talked to friends in Tokyo today, and they report that all is OK in our area and Tokyo in general. There are still some shortages of perishable foods, toilet paper, gasoline, but it is getting better. Trains are running. Life goes on. But.... Everyone is watching the situation in Fukushima.
And the worse thing is, it is taking the focus away from rescue (unfortunately, mostly recovery) efforts up north. The magnitude of what happened up there is still being assessed, and it looks to just get worse and worse. It will be extremely difficult and expensive to recover and rebuild; no one seems sure how it will be done, but everyone is resolute that it must be done.

We hope all is well with you and yours. I can't wait for our life to get so boring again that I'll forget to write on this blog for a looooong time...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Fleeing" Tokyo

I have been following developments in Japan via my wife's twitter account; it has been an excellent source of information.

However, there have been some tweets, mostly dismissive or scornful, about people who are "fleeing Tokyo," as if they are being panicky, thoughtless, or cowardly.

Well, Joan is on crutches from a leg injury. It is very difficult for her to move. If something were to happen (and I don't think that it will), there is no way that I want to take the risk of evacuation or panic. With a population of over 30 million people, any "incident" would be a nightmare situation to deal with. Our controlled departure to Osaka by night bus last night was extremely difficult and stressful, compounded with that 6.0 which occurred while in the basement of a skyscraper. It was horrible. Should I wait because someone called me a "chicken?"

The situation in Tokyo over the last few days has been a combination of earthquakes, tsunamis, reactor issues, decreasing food and utility supplies, and general upset of daily life (trains, etc.). In my seven years as a volunteer fire fighter and four years as an EMT, I have seen and dealt with many terrible situations. I have seen many people wait too long to make a decision. I also know how hard it is to make the right decision with so much uncertainty.

As much as I didn't want to leave the city that we love as our new home, after a great deal of painful deliberation and discussion, we made the difficult decision to leave Tokyo until things calm down. It was a risk I could not and would not take. It was not a decision we made lightly, and I resent the implication that it wasn't.

While I understand that emotions run high in times like these, I think it is very inappropriate and unhelpful to judge and criticize others for the decisions they make in difficult situations. It is even harder to make the right decision when feeling that one might be judged unfairly for it.

A teacher friend has recently gone to Nagoya with her young child to stay with her in-laws at the request of her husband. He has a long commute from home, works long hours until late and does not have the luxury to be there for his family. He is constantly worried about what is going to happen and what will happen if he cannot be there, if, God forbid, "something" happens. Should he have kept his family in Tokyo because some people might think he is overreacting, panicky, or cowardly? Perhaps we should consider the complexities of the situation before making snarky tweets?

While I cannot speak for everyone who has left Tokyo, I can only assume, they, like us, feel horrible and guilty about leaving friends, families and their lives behind. I question the decision every minute I am here, but I can't - and shouldn't - feel bad about it.

As Joan said, "I'd rather feel silly about leaving than stupid about not leaving."

These are difficult times for everyone, and we should spend more time supporting each other and less tearing each other down.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Safe(r) in Osaka!

We arrived in Osaka this morning after 7 am. Our arrival was delayed by...

You guessed it... Another earthquake!

After Takashi-san and C-chan, Joan`s farmer friends, dropped us off at the bus office in Shinjuku, we met with Kristina and Tim, who were also going to Osaka to visit friends. Kristina is a fellow teacher at Asia University, and they, too, had been looking for an excuse to get out of town. A night express bus in business class seats didn`t sound like a bad way to travel, and it would get us there relatively cheaply and efficiently.

We arrived somewhat early, so there was an hour or so of just hanging around in the basement waiting room - of a 54-story skyscraper, mind you...

Suddenly, there was that becoming all-too-familiar wiggle underfoot. The whole room, with probably close to 100 people, suddenly became silent as everyone looked around. The shaking got stronger, and some staggered a little. The hanging light fixtures started to sway. People began to make those little movements that showed they were seriously considering diving under the benches and tables. It was a looooooong moment....

It eventually subsided, and there was an audible sigh. Conversations started again with some nervous laughter.

Apparently it was 6.0 earthquake in the Shikouku area, southwest of Tokyo, onshore and directly in our path to Osaka. Up until now, most of the significant ones have been out to sea, and NONE have been in the Shikouku area. Reports later said that there had been some injuries and damage, but nothing too serious.

We left on time but were delayed in the night during the drive due to unknown conditions that were being assessed. Quite a nerve racking way to start our trip and perhaps further reinforcement that we kind of wanted to get out of town.

And let me tell you, being outside for the large earthquake on Friday was no way near as scary as being in the basement of that tall skyscraper. Your mind can really get you twisted up.

First thing on our cold, sunny morning in Osaka, we found a Starbucks and gratefully settled in chairs, sipping coffee and checking new reports via iPhone. Kristina and Tim left to go meet their friends, and Joan, on crutches, and I limped to the subway station to head to Nakatsu, Seth and Haruna`s nearest station.

With me carrying two biggish backpacks - one in front and one in back - and Joan on crutches, we were a slow, painful pair. That is one reason why I had wanted to leave Tokyo under our own volition. If there was any kind of panic or evacuation (which I 99.9% don`t think will happen), there was NO WAY I wanted to deal with that with Joan on crutches.

It has been very pleasant to hang out with Seth today at their apartment while Haruna is at work. It has allowed us to relax and get our heads straight. Sitting around in our apartment, watching all the disaster porn on the Internet and having the same nervous conversation with fellow teachers time and time again was really getting to us. Even though Osaka is probably just as likely to have an earthquake as any other random place in Japan, it is a welcome change.

We are not sure how long we are going to stay here. My university hopes to start up on time, which means the end of the month for me. However, with the reactors in Fukushima, unreliable electricity, gasoline, food and toilet paper supplies, and the whole earthquake/tsunami situation, everything is up in the air. We`ll just have to see how it goes for now.

For those who don`t know Seth and Haruna, he is the son of friends near where we lived in Michigan. He has lived in Japan for a total of almost four years. Haruna is his girlfriend who he met at Antioch college in Yellow Springs, Ohio; she is from Osaka.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquake update followup

Well, I'm sure you have been following events here in Japan just as we have.

As if the earthquake and tsunami has not created enough suffering, death and destruction, the situation with the reactors in Fukushima has unsettled everyone.

And this morning, there was another explosion at one of the reactors. It is very difficult to keep track of what is going on there from all the different news sources. One seemingly significant piece of news is that the Prime Minister announced that the evacuation area around the reactors has been increased to 30 kilometers. It was 1o km at first, then expanded to 20 km when the second explosion occurred.

At this point, there is no direct threat to Tokyo. However, it is unclear and uncertain at this time.

Due to all of the above situations, many supermarkets are low or out of certain types of foods. There have been planned electricity blackouts that have not happened. Other utilities are fine, but there is concern for those, as well. There is limited train service which has severely jammed up Tokyo's daily life.

That all being said, we think that it would be a good idea to go to Osaka to visit our friends, Seth and Haruna. Things are much more stable down there in many ways. I still have vacation, so why not take a little trip?

We are leaving tonight on an overnight bus with three other teacher friends who have people to visit in Osaka, so we will have a little safety in numbers thing going on.

My main concern is being in a city of 35 million people if things get weird, wacky or downright dangerous. Especially since Joan is on crutches. I would rather proactively get out and have nothing happen here in Tokyo than any other option.

To be honest, I am less concerned with the physical threat of radiation and earthquake than I am with how the general population and situation of Tokyo could react if things get worse, which they very well could do.

Hopefully, it will just be a nice trip to Osaka where it is warmer and the cherry trees are blooming earlier...

We will keep you posted!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake update

Sad that it takes this horrible disaster to get me to write again...

Yesterday morning, I had a conversation with Chris, fellow teacher, about earthquake emergency kits and what you need. And the day before, I went through and updated our own emergency kit which is stored in a backpack on a shelf above the door of our apartment. I even finally finished stocking the bare bones kit I keep under my desk at work.

All kind of horribly ironic. Maybe it's my Boy Scout "always prepared" thing or my time in the fire department and ambulance service where we trained for the worst case scenario. I think a lot about earthquakes here. I think about where I'm going to take cover when I'm inside. I try to identify the safest place from falling glass and buildings when outside.

After lunch, I rode my bike to check out the stock at a used bicycle auction down in Eifukucho, about 10 kilometers away. They had some really nice bikes that will be available, first come - first serve, that will be for sale on Monday.

After checking out the bikes, I started riding home along the Kandagawa canal toward Kichijoji and home. I was really excited and was debating with myself about all the different types. I pulled up to a cross intersection where I had to pause to check for traffic when I heard really loud splashing in the canal next to me.

"What the hell? Is it those really big koi (carp) thrashing down there?" I thought. I leaned over the railing and saw water sloshing back and forth. Still confused, I looked up to see the trees start to sway back and forth.

Oh. An earthquake... Oh. A big earthquake... Oh. A really big earthquake and it's not stopping.

I quickly staggered to the center of the bridge to get away from the buildings on either side and laid my bike down on its side. The shaking got worse and worse. The ground heaved underneath me. It swayed back and forth, lurching me forward and backwards. I went to one knee and put a steadying hand on the ground.

A mother with a young toddler was crouched down near me but up against a building. I called her to her and motioned for her to come out in the open, pointing at the building and pantomiming it falling down. With a look of startled understanding, she scrambled over to me, pulling her child along. We crouched there, telling each other how much we don't like earthquakes and how much we wanted it to stop.

Eventually it did. The whole city seemed to hold its breath and stand up at the same time, looking around. People started pouring out of their houses, clutching pets and cell phones. And, of course, the cell phone system immediately jammed up.

People seemed to shake themselves back to reality and got back to what they were doing. The nearby construction workers went back to constructing. The shopkeeper resumed sweeping in front of her store. It suddenly seemed like it had never happened.

I picked up my bike and said to my new friend, "Kiyo tsukete" (take care) and took off fast. I knew that Joan would be freaked out and wondering if I was OK. I came around a corner at the foot of a hill, stood up on the pedals, and pushed down. CRACK! The pedal crank arm stopped moving.

I looked down and saw that I had bent and broken the large sprocket. I was done riding. Crap. I was still five kilometers from home.

It was a long, strange walk home. The trains were shut down, and as I pushed my bike along the Inokashira line, I could see trains stopped on tracks, still full of passengers. Outside the stations, there were large crowds of people milling around. I don't think people knew yet about how big the earthquake had been at it's epicenter or where it was.

There was a 7.1 aftershock while walking home. Normally, it would be considered a big one, but people hardly seemed to notice. I stopped and found a safe place just in case.

I finally made it home to find Joan standing with her crutches outside the building with some teacher friends, all suited up with the emergency kit backpack on. There was some hugging, and there was some crying.

We spend the rest of the day answering emails and facebook posts about our status, as well as glued to media sources to see what had happened up north. At this point, you probably know as well as us the details and extent of it. One of the worst things to watch is the repeated video footage of the tiny cars trying to escape the fast moving wall of dirty, flotsam covered tsunami water and to see them inevitably overtaken and disappear. We're pretty sure this is going to be as bad as it looks.

There were aftershocks all evening and night, which kept waking us up. There's is always that hesitation and uncertainty - "Should we slide out of bed and under the desk?" One of the aftershocks was large enough for us to do that, but it was over before Joan was able to join me. We climbed back under the blankets and went back to fitful sleep. The shaking would wake us again, and we'd lie there thinking, "Is this it? Is this the big one?" Then it would fade away.

Sunlight and coffee this morning were never so good...

I feel guilty when I think about all those poor people up north in the cold, wet ruins of their lives. I'm just glad it wasn't us. In a city the size of Tokyo, it would be inconceivable... If that that an 8.9 from 230 miles away, imagine what it must be like at the epicenter.