Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Search for Self

It was looking to be another one of those nights.

I suppose it was only fair, since it had been one of those days.

It was the first time in ages that my wife actually had a Saturday off, so guess what? It was the first time in ages that I ended up having to work on a Saturday. PTA general assembly and the first parent-teacher conferences of the new school year. In other words, there was no way out of it while conscious with all my extremities and internal organs intact.

I'd thought I could make it back home quickly. After all, all the PTA events were scheduled to end at 3:00. However, I hadn't heard about the meeting of the central committee of the Band Parents Society. I also hadn't expected that meeting to drag on and on and on and on and on and on...

By the time I made it back home, it was getting dark, there was a huge pile of laundry, the kids were trying to kill each other and the cat at the same time, and the Mrs. was totally wiped out. When she finally came to, she uttered those words I always dread:

"I'm too tired to do anything tonight."

In such circumstances it's perfectly easy and logical to suggest going out to eat, but then you have to deal with the problem of agreeing on a place to go. Mrs. Minstrel announced for what was probably the third time in a week that she wanted ramen, and only ramen. You have to understand; that would be like an American couple deciding to take the family out for dinner on a Saturday night only to have the wife/mother insist on going to Taco Bell. Much as I like ramen (and Taco Bell), it's not something I want to have for dinner repeatedly during a given week. Besides, unlike Taco Bell, ramen isn't very filling. There is also the matter that ramen is on the list of no-nos in my doctor-advised diet, which I'd already violated pretty heinously by eating the pork and egg bento lunch which my school had so graciously provided.

Unfortunately, my sense of chivalry is often stronger than my will. Fortunately, the ramen place was packed solid.

In the end, we wound up going to a place we had talked about going to ever since it opened about five years ago but somehow never made it there. It's a quaint, little cafe/pub/restaurant just across the border in Itako City. It's built to look like a Western-style house, and it has the smirk-inducing name "Ameri Kan" (kan in Japanese means "hall" or "lodge"). As it turned out, the interior, which was almost totally devoid of clientele, was an interesting mix of Western and Japanese styles. So was the menu. The Mrs. was able to get her ramen, and I was able to get a very good fish-entree dinner.

While we were waiting for our meals, I noticed a Japanese newspaper clipping on the wall whose title included the phrase "Oregonian sky". It was much closer to my wife, so she had a look and informed me that it was apparently an article about a novel of the said title. Not long after that, the kids noticed that a nearby bookshelf full of comic books, magazines, and children's books also included a whole stack of that novel. Curious, I took a copy and had a look.

The cover showed a picture of what definitely looked like the rugged, pine-forested area of Central Oregon. There was a very simple map of Oregon just inside which only showed Portland, and placed it about where Salem should be, but I was willing to forgive that. I had never, ever tried reading a novel written in Japanese before (despite having been here for 15 years), but I gave it a shot. To my amazement, though my pace of reading was a bit slow and labored, I was able to read several pages understanding every word until I finally ran up against a kanji (Chinese character) I didn't know. I was actually feeling proud of my achievement when the arrival of my dinner interrupted it. I had my daughter return the book to the shelf, and I happily attacked my salted mackerel.

Afterward, as I was paying the bill to the waitress/host, a man who must have been the chef/manager came out and asked me where I was from. When I informed him that I was from Oregon, his eyes lit right up.

"You know," he said, "I have a friend who spent several years in Oregon, and it really changed his life." He gestured toward the bookstand and added, "It inspired him to write a novel. This novel. I highly recommend it. It is a very inspiring book."

Both the man's words and his oh-so-very-warm tone of voice set off all kinds of alarm bells in my head. Only a few days before, I had blown up at a very polite but obnoxiously persistent telemarketer. I was also filled with horrifying images of religious (cult) proselytizers I had had to dissuade in the not-so-distant past. However, the chef/manager went on to explain:

"My friend and a friend of his went to Oregon together to study marketing, but he ended up finding himself instead. It was everything about life in Oregon, not in Portland, but in the rural areas. The culture, the way of life, the attitude of the people, everything. It's really a "take charge of your own path" sort of thing. It completely changed his view of himself and his direction in life. Now he's back in Japan, and he works as a career guidance counselor and also does work for a number of different non-profit organizations, especially ones dealing with troubled youth. His friend is still in Oregon, where he works for a group that tries to coordinate development with environmental concerns."

As the man went on with his description, I started to become intrigued, but just when I started to think about asking to buy a copy, he handed me one and said, "Here. I'll give you one. It's mainly directed at youths of high school age, but you might as well have a copy. If you're a teacher, maybe you can let your students borrow it. Besides, when your children get a bit bigger, maybe they can read it, too. Believe me when I say it can really inspire you."

I thanked him, paid my bill, and went home wondering about how my life often tends to take such strange turns. After getting home, I immediately got on the internet and did a bit of Japanese web surfing to see what I could dig up. As it turned out, there was quite a bit about Oregonian's Sky, and not just at Apparently the book, which came out in paperback only last February, is now widely recommended reading among high school and college guidance counselors.

Not only that, but it appears that a large and growing number of such counselors have adopted a term from the book, "Oregonian journey", to refer to a journey of self-discovery. It seems that, thanks in part to both this novel and a famous series of TV dramas set in Oregon back in the 80s and 90s, Oregon is coming to be seen in Japan as a place to go to escape the world and find your true self.

That's extremely ironic.

You see, in classical Japanese, dating at least back to the 8th century, the term for that sort of thing, i.e. escaping the world to find one's true calling, was "Kashimadachi". The term literally means "standing/being in Kashima". Yes, that's right. That Kashima. Home of the Kashima Antlers. The Kashima in which I do most of my working and playing.

So, now that I've experienced both Kashimadachi and Oregondachi, my true path in life should be about as clear as the skies in Central Oregon (blue most of the year), but it's more like those of Western Oregon (various shades of gray most of the year).

Am I missing something?

Maybe I need to go out into the woods somewhere and spend three full days meditating and fasting like Nez Perce men used to do to find their spirit guides. I'd do it in the eerie, sacred forests of Kashima Shrine, but my school is right next door...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Guest Post: A Bridge Too Far

Yesterday we drove up to a place in the low mountains of Northern Ibaraki called Suifu Village (known as "the treasurebox of nature"). The weather was beautiful - warm and clear - as you know. The area is even more rural than Naka and the hills or low mountains are lush with trees and bamboo. The wisteria trees are in bloom and look like a lavender version of Hawaii's shower trees. We only drove 60 miles, but it took over two hours as the fastest road we were on had a limit of 50 kmh or about 30 mph, and we had to go through surface streets of Mito city as well. Our average speed for the trip was 25 mph. [I am not complaining. I am very glad we don't have the mess of freeways here that the USA does. I hate to think what the countryside would look like if we did. Growing up in the 50's, I saw freeways destroy Southern California. And now days, it takes just as long to drive from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego and it did when I was a kid. Maybe longer.]

Our destination was a gorge where a flood control dam is located. Above the reservoir, spanning the gorge, is a steel suspension foot bridge a little over 1,000 feet long(!) called Ryujinkyo (god of the dragon) bridge. It is the longest pedestrian foot bridge in Japan. It goes to, well, nowhere. Why did the chicken cross the bridge? To fly a carp streamer I guess. It was built simply as a tourist attraction so people could enjoy the views of the otherwise unscarred natural beauty. (Inscrutable logic, like those people who want to put an arial tram across Haleakala on Maui. "This is such a beautiful place, we should build a tourist attraction here!"). The bridge has a nice wide walkway and plexiglas panels at a few points that allow you to stand on the plexiglas and look straight down at the lake some 300 feet below your feet.

They had two cables stretched across the gap, one on either side of the bridge about fifty to a hundred feet out, with hundreds of koinobori - carp streamers - on each one. It was pretty. The sound was neat too, like sails luffing. The bridge was closed for an hour just before we went across it due to the wind being too high. Comforting thought.

They also have a restaurant and shop to take your money. It costs about $3.00 to get on the bridge. There is a demonstration of solar and wind power by Mitsubishi Electric - a solar voltaic array and a small wind generator with large digital readouts to show the watts being generated. The solar array was cranking out a steady 1500 watts, even with carp streamers shadowing it at times, the turbine was producing 100-450 watts.

We also went below and walked across the dam which is not hydro electric, but strictly water management in nature. It has some impressive gates that weigh about 17 tons.

It was a great day out and an interesting blend of natural beauty, traditions, and engineering marvels.

(by Pandabonium)

One hell of a footbridge - 310 meters! Posted by Hello

Carpe diem. (Sorry, it was too obvious a pun to pass up.)  Posted by Hello

Comments from the Minstrel:
I have been to the bridge in Suifu. My wife was doing something up in Mito at the time and, just for the heck of it, I took a "quick" solo jaunt over to Ryujinkyo. (Actually, I've heard that translated as "Celestial Dragon Bridge" before). It was autumn, so there were no carp streamers, but there were some autumn leaves to be seen.

When I went across, I passed what was evidently a small family group as it consisted of a middle-aged couple, a younger adult couple, and a teenage girl that looked like the younger adult woman. They had been conversing very animatedly, but when I passed by they immediately stopped and stared at me.

The middle-aged woman muttered, "What in the world would a gaijin be doing here?" When that got a laugh out of the others, she followed through by saying in a louder voice in my direction, "Hey! This isn't Kyoto! There are no temples here!" That got an even bigger laugh out of them.

Evidently, they hadn't thought I could understand Japanese, because when I then said in that language, "This is very beautiful scenery," the laughing came to an abrupt halt, and they quickly hurried back across the bridge. That left me to enjoy the scenery all by myself until it was time for me to go back and rendezvous with the rest of my family.

I'm such an evil barbarian.

Friday, May 06, 2005

When Gourmets and Darwin Collide

How many countries do you know that have a gourmet dish that is potentially lethal? Well, here in Japan, we have the fugu, or puffer fish (shut up, Eric). Yes, I have eaten it before. Yes, I am still alive. However, people do die from it...rather quickly, I might add...from time to time.

The problem is that the puffer fish has a couple of glands that produce a deadly neurotoxin. Cutting just a little too far can lead to the succulent (well, actually, it doesn't have all that much flavor...) dish quickly turning into a deathtrap. That's why only specially-licensed chefs who have received very thorough training are authorized to prepare fugu.

Unfortunately, every once in a while you get someone who is either determined to tempt fate or just plain stupid.

Like the guy in the linked article.