Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, March 31, 2008

E Kimochi!

I just received an unexpected honor. Someone recommended San's Life With a View blog for the "E for Excellence" (a.k.a. the Big E [ah-AH]) award. Considering both the wonderful content of her blog and its massive readership, evidenced by the many dozens of comments she routinely gets on her posts, I would say that the award was well earned.

Well, she chose to pass the award on to me. I am both humbled and flattered. (Well, flattered at least. You just know this is going to go straight to my head!) I guess that means I'd better start working to make sure I earn this thing! After all, one can't justify having the Big E [ah-AH] on a cheese-whiz blog, can one?

Speaking of which, one of the conditions of the award (wouldn't you know it?) is that I'm supposed to pass it on to others whom I consider worthy. Apparently the rule is ten...rather like one of those Facebook apps that demand you invite 20 friends before you can do anything, only less annoying. Actually, I can easily think of ten blogs I would recommend for the award, if they haven't gotten it already, and I'll happily pass it on. I've already mentioned them in a recent post, but here we go:

Snabulus - Don Snabulus was the one who first introduced me to computers back in our school days and gave me the most assistance when I finally bought my first PC. I guess it's only appropriate that he was also the one who first introduced me to blogging...even before Blogger came to be. The Snabulus blog site has gone through many turns over the years, from its politically-charged (and often bile-dripping) early years to the colorful life commentary, philosophy, and travelogues of the present. Considering the high number of referrals I still get from his site, his readership is obviously far larger than his comment threads would seem to indicate. At any rate, the site is well worth a visit.

Pacific Islander - Pandabonium is a fellow American ex-pat (and musician, among other things) living in my area of Japan. However, he has much more and broader life experience than I have. He also has a lot more time to explore and photograph the Land of the Rising Sun than I do. His "Pacific Islander" site, named because of his experiences and work in Fiji, is both informative and a feast for the eyes. The occasional posts from his dog, Momo, are also a lot of fun!

Kuching Kayaking - Architect and kayaker extraordinaire "Unker" FH2o has become something of a fixture in the Malaysian cultural scene, particularly in the Kuching area. His kayaking tours, ranging from introductory courses to advanced, have come to see a lot of publicity in recent years and even get mention in Malaysian travel guides. Fond of talking about his experiences in both the wet n' wild world and the concrete n' glass one, FH2o also fleshes out his site with lots of wonderful photography and even more colorful commentary. Come and take a trip with Unker!

Nikkipolani - This blog, which I've come to visit fairly recently, mainly features the author's photography, which in turn mostly centers on her garden, her cats, and her cooking. A skilled photographer (and apparently a skilled chef, too!), Nikkipolani never fails to provide a visual treat with every post. Her beloved cat Nikki, apparently her blog's namesake, died tragically not long ago, but it has been since replaced with two cats that have been an absolute kick so far! "I kan has Big E?" [ah-AH]

Olivia's London Dispatches - How does one describe the unforgettable Olivia? British yet American? Classy yet naughty? Posh yet down-to-earth? Velvety polite yet steely sharp? Industrious yet hedonistic? Lobster thermidore yet spam? One-of-a-kind yet often a kindred spirit? At any rate, though she seems desperate to flee London and switch gears back to American mode (with undetermined future consequences for her blog), her site has always been a fascinating mixture of art, history, culture, life, and the odd bout of random silliness. A fascinating if enigmatic blog by a fascinating if enigmatic individual.

Jestablog - Another friend from my school days, Kami is a writer, artist, musician, mother, gardener, animal keeper, store worker, subconscious social hub, and all-around interesting person. Her original main blog site was connected with the Nanopubye project and wound up getting shut down all of a sudden, but her revamped "auxiliary-turned-main" Blogger site and the new site she's working on are both well worth a visit. Just don't mention lime jello or the Barbie Lady!

Chiron Training - Rory is Kami's husband, and the two couldn't be more different. He has worked as a policeman and a prison guard and, though still technically the latter, his main thing now is teaching martial arts fighting techniques, mainly to policemen. Like Kami, he is a skilled (and now published) writer, but, unlike her, he deals strictly with non-fiction. His blog is highly reflective and often philosophical prose dealing either with his life experiences or matters connected therein. His topics tend to be things you won't find in most blogs, i.e. violence as a necessary evil (or necessary tool), criminal minds, the proper mindset in a life-threatening situation, and so on, but his writing is very engaging. I wouldn't call this a site for the faint of heart, but if you don't mind a bit of blood now and then it's extremely fascinating.

Quasar 9 - Cambridge-based astronomer and philosopher Quasar 9 has a wonderful blog dealing primarily with astronomical phenomena and recent discoveries therein. Posts usually include links to informative articles and/or photography including recent images and press releases from NASA. Those with scientific curiosity will surely find the posts rewarding. Those without it will still probably enjoy the fantastic pictures.

Atomic Romance - Swinebread lets you know in no uncertain terms that his passion is comics. Not surprisingly, that's what he mainly writes about...and writes about well enough even for the comic non-enthusiast to enjoy. There are other things to be found, as well. I've found "Atomic Romance" to be full of surprises, and I hope you do, too.

1979 - Malaysian blogger and world traveler @LOW@ hasn't been posting as often as he used to, but his site has always been a treasure trove of information and pictures concerning other cultures, often coupled to colorful tales of first-hand experience with a healthy dose of personal reflection. If you are at all interested in learning about how people do things in other parts of the world, this site is a very good place to visit.

Oh, I already at ten? I can think of at least another half dozen sites if not more that deserve to be in this list! Oh, well. I'll leave it at this for now. Meanwhile, I'll look at that Big E [ah-AH] in my sidebar and think, "Ii (E) kimochi!" (Japanese for "That feels good!")

Oh, and thanks again, San!

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Quickie Springtime Adventure

Spring Vacation this year is:
  1. much too short
  2. much too busy
  3. turning out to be no vacation at all
  4. which is no surprise at all
  5. but anyway...
We had a spot of nice weather a few days ago, and I miraculously found myself having nothing I really needed to do. The Mrs. was off slaving working at her school, so I loaded the kids into the car and took us out for a bite of lunch for a change. I then thought about taking care of shopping for my wife's upcoming birthday, but I realized it was still more than a week away. Therefore, I changed plans and decided to go on a random adventure. Basically, I opened up Navi-chan's monitor screen and asked the kids, "Okay, which direction are we going?" After a short debate they settled on southeast, so...

Stop #1: Ikisu Shrine
Ikisu Shrine is one of the Three Great East Kanto Shrines, which also include Katori Shrine and the oft-mentioned Kashima Shrine. I've been to the latter two many, many times, but for some reason I had never had a chance (or a reason, actually) to visit Ikisu. In fact, although I had long known of its existence and had a general idea of its whereabouts, I had never really known its exact location. Well, as I headed southeast and into the city of Kamisu Ikisu Shrine appeared on the screen. It was on a route I had never taken that just happened to be going in my direction, so I made it our first destination of the day.

I could tell just by looking at the image on Navi-chan's display something I'd often heard: Ikisu is by far the smallest shrine of the three. It is also the simplest. Kashima Shrine's mysterious forest, which is the true shrine rather than the buildings, covers a sizable chunk of the city of Kashima even though it is far smaller now than it used to be. (Actually, much if not most if not all of the campus of Ye Olde Academy is on land that used to be part of the shrine.) Katori's forest is only somewhat smaller, though it contains more development. By contrast, Ikisu's forest, which still looks eerily out of place in the middle of the residential area where it is located, is only about the size of a typical city block. It is still dense enough to obscure light and vision, however.

The difference in scale between the shrines can be easily summed up by looking at the rōmon, or Chinese gate, at the entrance to each. Actually, the presence of a rōmon at a shrine is unusual; it is actually an example of Buddhist architecture, and in the case of Kashima and Katori it hearkens back to the era when both served as Buddhist monasteries in addition to their function as Shinto shrines.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-3

In this picture, which I took during the New Year holidays last year, you can see the famous, red rōmon at Kashima Shrine, which is also the largest of its kind in Japan and a national treasure. It's hard to tell how big it is, but each of the squarish alcoves just above the mass of people holds a life-sized statue. The rōmon at Katori shrine is somewhat smaller but still impressive.

Ikisu Shrine 4

By contrast, here is the rōmon at Ikisu Shrine with my kids to show its size. Definitely a difference in scale.

There is also a very big difference in the haiden (worship hall). The ones at Kashima and Katori Shrines, which are similar in design, were originally built in the 17th century. Both designated national treasures, they are spared from the Shinto rule of tearing down all shrine buildings, burning them, and rebuilding them every twenty years and instead only have their thatched roofs replaced.

Ikisu Shrine 1

This is the haiden at Ikisu Shrine. It was apparently built in the 1950s. Definitely very different in size, design, age, and personality. Then again, the shrine itself hasn't been around as long; Kashima and Katori are both said to have been founded in 660 b.c.(e.). Ikisu was established in 807.

Still, despite its smaller size, younger age, and lesser impact (not to mention a rather iffy color scheme...), on the spiritual level Ikisu Shrine is no less significant. All three of the Three Great East Kanto Shrines are dedicated to Amaterasu no Omikami (a.k.a. the sun goddess, who is chief in charge of the deities of Earth), but each also honors a particular lesser deity. Kashima is dedicated to Take-Mikazuchi-no-Kami, a general of Amaterasu long honored by the Imperial family as a patron deity of samurai (and still apparently worshipped by practicers of martial arts, particularly karate). Katori is dedicated to Futsunushi-no-Kami, another general of Amaterasu and a patron deity of lightning and swords (also worshipped by practicers of martial arts, particularly aikido). Ikisu Shrine, however, is dedicated to Chimata-no-Kami, a deity whose purpose is to protect others from the ravages of evil spirits or demons. In this respect, it almost seems as if Ikisu has more relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

You wouldn't know it, though. Not only was the shrine smaller (and more tastelessly painted) than the other two, but its personnel was less friendly. The priests and acolytes at Kashima and Katori I've met have generally been very pleasant and eager to talk. At Ikisu I saw only one man, apparently both the caretaker and the seller of charms and talismans, but when he saw me coming with my kids he quickly shut his window and vanished into his back room. Oh, well. No sale today, mister.

I should be fair, though. Ikisu does have some interesting features. I didn't see it while I was there (and didn't even know about it until I started doing web searches for more details about the shrine), but over on the bank of the nearby Hitachi-Tone River there are a couple of ancient wells said to have been built in the 2nd century. The larger of the two, made of raised, white stone, is called the "male vessel", and the smaller, which looks like earthenware, is called the "female vessel". Apparently they both contain springs which still issue water. Known collectively as "oshioi", they are only visible at low tide. Another feature, which I DID see, was an Inari shrine near the main entrance. Neither Kashima nor Katori has one of those. Inari is a Shinto (and sometimes Buddhist) deity associated with fertility, agriculture, and commercial success. His/her/its shrines are all over Japan, and they are particularly popular with (surprise, surprise) people involved with business.

Ikisu Shrine 5

This is the Inari shrine in the Ikisu Shrine complex. As with most Inari shrines, its entry walk is enclosed by a number of torii (Japanese shrine gate). These are donated by individuals or businesses as offerings in hope of being granted success by the deity. The number of torii here is relatively modest; at more famous Inari shrines one can often see dozens of them.

Ikisu Shrine 6

Going closer, we can see another characteristic feature of Inari shrines: the attendant kitsune (spirit foxes). These are believed to serve as messengers relaying prayers to the deity. As is traditional, they are dressed in red yodarekake (prayer bibs). One tends to see a lot of the color red at Inari shrines as it has come to be seen as his/her/its trademark color.

Anyway, my daughter and I had fun poking around the shrine compound. My son, however, decided to act like his usual short-attention-span self. After he repeatedly went around barricades and into clearly-marked restricted areas (in search of playground equipment, or so he said), started kicking at a 1200-year-old foundation stone, and then tried to climb the sacred tree, I decided it was time to move on. We got back into the BLUE RAV4, fired up Navi-chan, plotted a course southeast, and went on our way.

That will be another story.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Using One's Noodle

In a comment on the last post, Selba asked me about the difference between udon and ramen. I started to write a reply offering an explanation, but as it got longer I realized I had an idea for a new post. Indeed, noodles are an important part of the Japanese diet, so the topic definitely merits some exploration. Anyway, the most common varieties of Japanese noodle are:

1. Udon

A bowl of "tanuki (raccoon dog) udon". Image from Japan's World.
Udon is a relatively simple, wheat-based noodle which is also noted for its thickness. As it is somewhat bland in flavor and easy to digest, it is often recommended as a gentle food for people with upset stomachs (and I heartily agree). However, it is also widely popular as a regular dish. There are many popular ways of serving udon, most of which involve the noodles served in a hot broth together with ingredients such as chopped scallions, herbs, mushrooms, wakame (kelp), or eggs. It is also common to eat it cold, particularly in the summer.

It is widely believed that udon was introduced to Japan by Kukai, a Buddhist priest of the Heian Era (late 8th to 11th century), after he returned from a trip to China. He brought with him a recipe for a Chinese noodle, known as cu mian, which was even bigger, actually more like a dumpling, but over time it came to be udon as it is now known.

2. Soba

Zaru (drained) soba. Image from Import Food.
Soba noodles are made from combinations of different kinds of flour, but the main ingredient (at least 30% by law) is soba (蕎麦 - buckwheat), which gives them their characteristic grayish color. They are usually somewhat larger in diameter than spaghetti noodles but still relatively thin and flexible. As with udon, soba noodles are usually eaten in a variety of different dishes combining a broth and a combination of other ingredients. In fact, many if not most traditional udon/soba dishes are interchangeable. Chilled soba is also highly popular, particularly drained soba noodles dipped in soy sauce (zaru soba). There is also a popular fast-food dish called yakisoba which consists of a special variety of soba noodles and various vegetables and/or meat fried on a griddle. The buckwheat flour used to make soba noodles gives them a stronger flavor than most other types, but they are also said to be much higher in fiber content and thus healthier.

It may be interesting to note that, as soba is relatively easy to make, it is not uncommon to have "soba parties" in which the guests start with a ball of raw soba dough and make their own noodles. I can personally vouch for the fact that it's a lot of fun!

The origin of soba noodles is unclear. It is widely believed that they came from the Yunan area of China, but it is known that people were eating them in Japan at least during the Nara Era (710-794) if not earlier.

3. Sōmen

Five different varieties of sōmen. Image from the Ehime Prefecture tourist information website.
Sōmen (そうめん) are very thin, delicate noodles made from wheat flour. They are distinct from udon and other wheat noodles not only for their size but also for the fact that they are stretched rather than measured and cut. Sōmen is usually served chilled as a summer dish, sometimes in cold broth or soy sauce, sometimes drained. There are many varieties available, some of which incorporate special flavorings.

The origin of sōmen is unclear (most likely China), but locally-made varieties were popular gift items in Kyoto and Osaka as far back as the Azuchi-Momoyama Era (1568-1603).

4. Ramen

A bowl of shio (clear-broth) ramen. Image from Just Hungry.
The term "ramen" properly refers to a dish consisting of boiled noodles, meat, and possibly other ingredients served in a meat broth mixed with meat or fish stock and possibly either miso or soy sauce. It is considered a Chinese food in Japan, and its origin is undoubtedly Chinese, but yet there is no direct traditional equivalent in China (and even the etymology of the word "ramen" is a subject of much debate!). It is unclear when and how it first appeared in Japan, but it came to be popular in the Chinatowns of both Yokohama and Kobe during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

There are many varieties of noodle used to make ramen, many if not most of which are local specialties. For example, the famous ramen noodles of Sapporo have a somewhat different flavor and color from the also-famous variety native to Asahikawa. A connoisseur can taste a bowl of ramen and identify what part of Tokyo or Yokohama it has come from, and if he's good enough he might even be able to name the restaurant. At any rate, many localities have their own style of ramen noodles, and the natives tend to hold them with great pride. Not surprisingly, the ingredients in the noodles are often a closely-guarded secret, but all of them are based on wheat flour, salt, water, and carbonated mineral water that may also contain phosphoric acid. They range in color from yellowish-brown to bright yellow.

Unlike the other types of noodle I have described here, ramen noodles are normally only used to make ramen, i.e. boiled noodles in a meat broth. However, there are many, many, many varieties of ramen, and new types are invented every year. And then of course there is the oh-so-familiar instant ramen...

There are other kinds of noodles to be found here, but these are the big ones (not counting spaghetti), so I'll leave it here.

Oh, now I've done it. My stomach is GROWLING...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Reflections on a "Spring" Day

This morning I crossed the Kitaura Bridge
And came into Kashima,
As I do every morning,
But my BLUE RAV4 was buffeted
By screaming winds
On this, a most troubled morning.
Yesterday we crossed the Vernal Equinox
And came into spring
As we do every year.
But this time the springtime calm was shattered
By the uncanny tumult
Of this, a most troubled year.

Nature is twitterpated, and yet grim;
Her palette shows an odd artistic eye.
Magenta plum trees beckon toward the gym,
And overhead a baleful, steely sky.

The wind is like a wendigo tormented
With driving rain, and it is bloody cold.
An insane end to March, or at least demented.
Perhaps the past year's story is being told.

We're gathered now to say a fond farewell
To this, school year ought-seven to ought-eight.
To many it is more like, "Go to hell."
It's finally done, and man...we couldn't wait.

Some years just seem to turn out to be cursed;
The problems that pop up are just bizarre.
The teachers sometimes find themselves immersed
In crises much, much bigger than they are.

Speaking of which, I have to wonder where
The other members of my grade have gone.
I look around but no one else is there;
I'm all alone with the 7th grade throng.

The speeches start; I think so far so good,
But soon I find it's too good to be true.
Just when I think they're listening as they should
I hear a *smack*, a head whacked with a shoe.

It happens once again and a third time,
But I can't interrupt the principal's speech
To put a stop to this ill-mannered crime.
For now at least it's well beyond my reach.

And now a boy in back has started flinging
Spitwads at a better-behaved lass.
I make a note of who I will be bringing
To the staff room; they're all in the same class.

The MC says, "Kiritsu (起立)," we stand as one,
Then, "Rei (礼)," and we all bow ; I heave a sigh.
But even before the last words are done
The fists have already begun to fly.

I dive through the spectators as they gather
And yank the two young miscreants apart
Then haul them to the wall knowing I'd rather
Just bang their heads together for a start.

But I can't do that, so I merely lead them
Back to the staff room for a conference.
My adrenal glands are there just when I need them,
But the adrenaline just fades away at once.

I finally leave them to their homeroom teacher
Then head off to the music room to drop.
9th grade graduation is the day's real feature,
But my desire to go fell with a plop.

The good 9th graders really were a blessing,
But sadly they were only very few.
So many were so unbelievably testing,
Enough to make most of the teachers blue.

Well, now they're heading off across the campus
To haunt the far halls of the senior high.
I'm sure they'll do their best still more to plague us;
Whoever deals with it will not be I.

I listen to the ceremony o'er my coffee,
And feel thankful this troubled year is done.
But as I sit here both relieved and weary,
I know another year has just begun.

Hopefully it'll be better than the last one.
And hopefully that near-typhoon screaming outside won't wipe out ALL the blossoms...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Little Bit of Spring Color

The plum trees along the lane are blooming fuchsia.
Here and there a crocus rears its purple head.
My car, still BLUE,
Stands covered with greenish dust,
While overhead the sugi (Japanese cedar) are a sinister brown.
The wind calls, they belch forth a yellowish reply.
My eyes and nose are red.
I am NOT feeling in the pink.

Yes, spring has arrived...

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

She Tricked Me With Technology...

The 2007-2008 school year is spiraling in to its (long-awaited but still somehow anticlimactic) end. As an added punctuation mark to that fact, last night was the farewell dinner party for my grade staff. Yes, it has been a very complicated year for us, and we had much to celebrate.

The party was to be held at a venue I didn't know; it was a relatively new traditional Japanese gourmet restaurant located in the hilly and less developed area near the sea. I told the teacher in charge that I wasn't familiar with the place, and she gave me a printout of a Yahoo map showing me where it was. The concept of online maps wasn't new to me. After all, I had used Yahoo maps on a number of occasions before then. Even so, I couldn't help being impressed and thinking what a wonderful era we live in where finding one's way is often a simple matter of clicking a link or entering a line of text.

When it came to be time to go to the party I looked at the map and couldn't help noticing that, though it showed the restaurant's general area, it didn't pinpoint its exact location. In fact, its name didn't appear on the map at all. That presented more than a little problem, so I turned once more to technology. I got in my car, fired up Navi-chan (ditzy computer-music fanfare), and entered the phone number...only to be told it wasn't in the database. That presented an even bigger problem, so I went back into the house, got on the internet, and looked up the restaurant. There wasn't much about it since it's still rather new, but I did get an address. Navi-chan was able to find that okay, so I was soon on my way following the little purple line on the screen.

As I neared my destination, Navi-chan showed me something strange. The restaurant was located on a major street, but the recommended course was to take a back road looping around the block from the other side. Things like that usually happen only if traffic tends to be heavy on the main road. Well, there wasn't much traffic at the time, so I decided to go ahead and approach the restaurant from the main road. I found it and parked without any problem.

The party was enjoyable. The food was excellent, and the members of my grade staff are all great people, so we had a really good time. (The only drawback was the fact that I couldn't drink. I had a 40-minute commute back home to worry about, and I really didn't want to dish out the money for a substitute driver. I tell you; it's not much fun being among people who are drinking while you're forced to remain sober.) When it finally came to an end, the group that was drinking decided to head to a karaoke studio for the traditional "second party", but I went ahead and took my leave.

That's when I had my real adventure. You see, I decided to take Navi-chan's advice this time and take that back road around the block instead of trying to back out into the main street. It started out as a typical Japanese back road, i.e. an avenue about a lane and a half wide threading its way between walled-off yards with a slalom course around parked cars. I really didn't mind when I went around a ninety degree bend and wound up on gravel. Gravel roads are still fairly common in the more remote areas. However, I began to worry when the gravel stopped and I wound up on a narrow, dirt lane that was becoming increasingly overgrown and full of potholes. Next thing I knew there was really no road to speak of at all; though Navi-chan insisted I was still on a street, it seemed more like I was trying to drive on an old hiking trail that hadn't been maintained in decades. I'm sure the distance I covered there was only about fifty meters, but it seemed like fifty kilometers of bumping, bouncing, and plowing through foliage. Once again I found myself wishing I had paid the extra dozen man (10,000 yen, or about $100) for the 4WD version of my BLUE RAV4, but I was actually far more concerned about the tree branches that were screeching against the sides of the car like a chorus of rhythmically inept banshees. I had a terrible image in my mind of arriving home to find a flat tire or two, a bent axle, and several deep gouges in the paint.

Actually, I came out of it without a scratch. So did my car. I did give it a good washing today, though...taking off at least a couple of millimeters of Gobi Desert sand. That means it'll probably rain tomorrow, but at least that will help fill the well.

In other news, tonight my mother-in-law ate all of her dinner for the first time since coming back from the hospital. That's definitely a good sign, but I know she won't make much progress unless she stops feeling sorry for herself and pushes herself a bit more. Giving up is the worst thing she can do, and she seems to be doing it. I guess all we can do is keep trying to push her, albeit gently.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Speaking of Alzheimer's, I only just remembered that Kami tagged me back in January.

The rules:
  • Link to the person who tagged you.
  • Leave a comment on their blog so that their readers can visit yours.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • Share the seven (7) most famous or infamous people you have met. Or go with the original 7 weird things about yourself. Or with Sandra's change and list your 7 favorite writing websites. Lots of choices!
  • Tag 7 random people at the end of your post.
  • Include links to their blogs.
  • Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Okay, anyway...I know this tagging thing can get really annoying, but I don't want to disappoint my longtime dear friend, so I'll go for it. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Seven Things tag post! I'll go with the first option, i.e. sharing the seven most famous or infamous people I have met. This may not be easy, though. I might have to reach a bit. Anyway, as far as I see it, the seven most famous or infamous people I have met are:

(Image from
1. Dizzy Gillespie
By "meeting" I mean I took a one-time seminar he taught on jazz improvisation during my first year of college. He did answer a question I asked (though I don't currently recall what it was). Considering the man's historical importance to the jazz genre and his indelible influence on it (I mean, the man co-invented be-bop, for crissake!), it was really bizarre to be sitting there listening to him talk as if he were just one of the guys in town. Suddenly the legend was very human. I also very much appreciated some statements he made concerning both pop and rock music and the use of electronic instruments. He said, "If it makes music, and it makes you feel good, I say use it! Music is music, man!" An awful lot of jazz enthusiasts I've met have tended to be very closed-minded snobs, so it was refreshing to hear one of the greats of the genre giving a seal of approval to being open-minded.

(Image from
2. Tex Beneke
And here we have yet another historically significant jazz musician! Tex was the lead tenor sax player in the original Glenn Miller Orchestra and the one who originally sang "Chattanooga Choo Choo", among other things. The director of my first college jazz band was a former member of Tex's own band, formed after Glenn Miller's tragic disappearance, so the two of them were acquainted. Apparently Tex had a strong aversion to performing with amateurs, but he was willing to make an exception for my director's sake. I performed a Glenn Miller tribute concert together with him, myself on second tenor sax. I think the experience had a strong influence on my own approach to jazz saxophone, which still tends to be more inclined to traditional swing than be-bop (sorry, Dizzy!). The man was really easy going, easy to talk to, and seemed unshakable, but after the curtains closed at the end of the concert he turned and dressed down our trumpet section for having rushed during the end of "In The Mood". Now, as a jazz band director, I make damned sure my own trumpets don't do the same!

(Image taken from the Whittler's Workshop website)
3. Steve Tunturi
The man himself has probably never been as famous as his creations, but I still consider him very significant. Tunturi is a woodcarver. I was lucky in that his studio/shop, the "Whittler's Workshop", is located in the sleepy coastal town of Waldport, Oregon, where my mother was born and my parents and sister currently live. It appeared in the early 80s, when I lived in the suburbs of Portland, but no visit to my grandparents' house in the same town was complete without a stopover at the shop. I wasn't just a window shopper, either; I own a number of his works, many of them here in my house in Japan including the "pen dragon" sitting atop this computer. I also bought a book on woodcarving and a set of tools at his shop (and yes, I did make a few works, most of them figurines for role-playing games...long since lost). I met the man himself in the early 90s, after I had already relocated to Japan. It was during one of my Christmas visits home. He happened to be at work there in the shop when I dropped in, and we chatted for a bit. I told him I had seen what looked like his work for sale at Tokyo Disneyland, and he proudly replied that I was correct. He was definitely an interesting chap, and he was very much the sort I had imagined considering the fantasy theme of most of his carvings. As a respected artist he has his pride, which has apparently given him a sort of mixed reputation in town (i.e. some people consider him something of a snob), but I actually thought he was a very agreeable sort considering the profile of his work.

The home page for the Whittler's Workshop, linked above, refers to Tunturi in the present tense (though the site's copyright date only goes to 2005), and I've found current info on his works and their display or online sale dating at least up till February of this year, but my mother said he either died recently or has been down with some sort of serious illness. At any rate, he doesn't seem to be producing any new works. However, his business has always been based mainly on the sale of limited-edition resin replicas of his works rather than the original carvings themselves, so his wife is keeping things going for the time being at least. (Maybe Philippa can give us an update.) I'm glad I got a chance to meet him when I did.

(Image from China Daily)
4. Princess Nori
Again, I'm not sure if my experience with Her Imperial Highness, Princess Nori (Nori-no-miya), now known as Sayako Kuroda, really counts as "meeting", but we did come face to face, and we did exchange words. It was in 2001, the first time that I accompanied our school orchestra to the All-Japan Selected High School Orchestra Festival. I had asked Mr. Ogawa how I should dress for the event, and he had said, "Not formal, nothing fancy, just decent with a necktie." I had therefore gone to the event dressed much the same as I always did (and still do) at work during the winter, i.e. a sweater and tie. Mr. Ogawa, however, wore a dress suit, and I arrived at the venue to find all of the other directors similarly spruced up. The reason, I soon found, was that Princess Nori was coming to open the event. That was bizarre (read "mortifying"). First they lined all of the directors up, myself included. Then a group of attendants started setting up all these very formal, classical Japanese trappings. Then the black limousine with police escort pulled up to the curb outside. The princess, looking quite diminutive in and amongst her massive entourage, made her entrance and was introduced to the directors in turn. Mr. Ogawa and I were introduced together, and I felt more than a little embarrassed. After all, I was the only foreigner in the line...and the only one not formally dressed. As all those people - and TV cameras - looked on, the princess made eye contact and gave me a polite smile before she answered my bow. Then she gave me a double-take as she moved on to the next director.

The story doesn't end there. Mr. Ogawa told me that there was going to be a short reception with the princess together with one teacher and two student reps from each participating orchestra. Guess who had to go? Very good! Still clad in my sweater, I went to the reception and stood along with the cordon of very nervous-looking teachers as the princess went around and greeted the students. I guess I looked especially nervous, for when the princess greeted the students nearest me (but not from my school) she stopped, looked around at the teachers, and said, "Please relax. I'm only planning to address the students now." Then she looked me straight in the eye and added, "Talking to me is really no different from talking to anyone else." As it turned out, though, I didn't talk to her after that. We were quickly hustled off to the opening ceremony.

As an interesting addendum to the story, Princess Nori wasn't present at the opening of any of the orchestra festivals I attended after that, but she did make one rather enigmatic appearance. This was about four years ago. I was in the lobby outside the performance hall when suddenly a group of students from our orchestra came over looking like they'd seen a ghost. I asked what had happened, and they replied that they had been in our assigned storage/prep room after their performance, and Princess Nori had suddenly walked in. Saying nothing but a quick, "Ohayou gozaimasu (good morning)," she'd just come into the room, looked around a bit, walked out, and headed straight to the elevator with her escort. There was never any announcement of her presence at the event, and to this day none of us have any idea why she came into our exclusive room or what she was looking for.

Sayako finally married last year and is now officially a commoner. Maybe it's a relief for her, but it's also a pity in a way. Far from an empty icon, she's an intriguing individual who has been actively involved with both music- and science-related functions since her school days. She's not known for her beauty, but her voice and speaking style are both extremely pleasant to listen to. She talks quite softly, but it's the sort of musical softness that makes people stop what they're doing and take note, as I witnessed first hand at that orchestra festival. I can only guess at what her life must have been like as a member of the Imperial Family, but during our brief meeting I think she tried to express some of the alienation she must have felt. That makes me wonder even more why she made that brief, mysterious appearance in our room four years ago.

5. Jeff Nicholson
Generally fun, quirkily musical, and terminally Canadian, Jeff came to Japan the same time I did as a participant in the same program and was assigned to the same prefecture. He didn't stay as long as I did, though; after only two years with JET he ended his service and relocated to the Tokyo area, where he continues to teach at St. Mary's International School and do various music and hockey-related activities. So why is he listed here? I'm glad you asked! It's because he is the composer and performer of the song known simply as "Hockey". Yes, it's a simple song, but I'd be willing to bet the overwhelming majority of the population of Canada has heard it at least once along with a good number of Americans. Several pro hockey venues have played it, and some apparently still do. Anyone who watched Monday Night Hockey in Canada last year saw the video. The tune is available for download from iTunes, and it is also available as a cell phone ring tone.

You can see the video here. What's really interesting is that, although I played keyboards (sadly buried in the mix) in the recording, in the video I'm the one playing Jeff's '50s vintage Ampeg bass! Man, do I look geeky in that thing...and all of Canada knows my face now! Actually, my geekiness in the video may have been partly because I was really sick at the time. For some reason, possibly a bad combination of Coke, Canadian Club, Kirin beer, and cigars, all of the nasal and sinus cavities on the right side of my face swelled so solidly shut that I seriously thought my skull was going to explode. The swelling was also pushing my upper right teeth out, so all of them were aching like hell. In fact, I went to the doctor the next day and was warned nasal surgery might be necessary. It cleared up, fortunately, but when we made the video I was NOT a happy camper.

I still see Jeff from time to time, and we still do music work together. I was a regular session artist on both of his officially-released CDs, BANG! and Who Do You Think That You Are? (though not on his first album, a tape-only album called The Blooming available only in parts of Canada) and I'm still technically a member of his band, Accidentally on Purpose, though we haven't played together for more than a year. Several of his tunes (with me included, usually on keyboards, sax, various whistles and/or backing vocals) have gotten airplay both in Canada and here in Japan.

I guess that makes Jeff qualify as "famous". Right, Jeff? Jeff...?

(I have no image of both of them to share...sorry!)
6. Kami and Rory Miller
Okay, so they're two people rather than one (so just sue me, alright?), but I can't really imagine separating them, let alone justify it, so fuggit! Here they are, the dynamic duo! Yes, it's the same Kami that tagged me for this thing in the first place. We went to the same high school and the same university and have been good friends throughout. She's a writer, an artist, a musician, and a generally very interesting human being. As a writer she has yet to achieve that elusive breakthrough into official publication, but she is still enough of a fixture in the Pacific Northwest literary scene, particularly of the fantasy genre, that she is often called upon to participate in events related to it, sometimes as a critic or clinician. Ironically, her husband Rory, adventurer, policeman, prison guard, police trainer, martial arts instructor, psychologist, philosopher, and someone who is as likeable and as fascinating as he is dangerous, has had publishing success. He has just put out a non-fiction work called Meditations on Violence which is exactly what the title states. I can vouch for the value of his writing, which is often both riveting and very thought-provoking. (Check out his blog here.) Kami and Rory are almost bipolar opposites, and yet they complement each other perfectly. I feel honored and blessed to be acquainted with them and to be able to count them among my friends. I'm happy that Rory is finally getting the fame he deserves, and I hope Kami gets some official backing to her already considerable literary presence!

(Okay, I'll go wipe my nose off now.) ;-)

7. Pretty much everyone else in my blog list
Go ahead and call me a cheater if you like, but I'm serious! What can I say? I look at the web-tracker stats for this site, and I see that more than sixty percent of the visitors are coming from referring links. Dozens of hits every month are referrals coming off of the Snabulus blog (includes both Don and Ladybug), second in volume only to Google. Interestingly, Pandabonium is currently second in line followed by new acquaintance Nikkipolani, followed not far behind by Mick, Swinebread, and Olivia. Another recent acquaintance, Santa Fe-based artist and writer San, gets many dozens of comments on every post on her blog, as does Cambridge-based astronomer/philosopher QUASAR9, a testament to both the must-read quality and the fame of those two individuals. Meanwhile, architect and kayaking hero FH2o (aka "Unker" Francis) and his Kuching Kayaking are now regularly featured in Malaysian tour guides and attract quite an international following. Bahraini composer/musician Hashim is apparently a much sought-after commodity for the film background music market in his corner of the world (and has had his work pirated for commercial use, unfortunately), and for a very good reason. Then there are people like Agus, Happysurfer, @Low@, Selba, Um Naief, and Wendy whose human qualities have earned them their followings, some like Robin who do it with religious and/or philosophical insight, and others like Shlemazl or Pa've who earn their fame through vociferous controversy. Sadly, a few very significant voices, namely Chris in Manitoba, Leilouta, Saba, and YD, have suddenly disappeared with little or no explanation, and their absence is missed.

If I missed anybody it's because you haven't been posting much lately!!!! GET WITH IT!!!!!!!

Now...who should I tag? about going in the order of blog referrals? That would mean:

Don and/or Ladybug - Maybe one of them will actually do this.
Pacific Islander - I know he doesn't like tags, but fair is fair. Besides, his answers could be interesting!
Nikkipolani - Since she has brought me so much publicity lately, I hope to get to know her a little better!
Mick - I also very much doubt he'll do this, but as interesting as his writing is, and with the incredible wealth of experience he's had, I really hope he does.
Swinebread - He has met a lot of names in the comic world, and I hope to hear about it!
Olivia - She has already talked at length about her unique and/or bizarre qualities, but I hope m'lady Olivia will share some of the famous people she has met.
Happysurfer - Anything to get her to lay off the commercial plug posts for a bit!

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Wet Sand

Winters are usually dry here on the Kanto Plain, especially when the winds are coming at us off the Gobi Desert or the Mongolian Steppes. However, this year has been particularly dry. People in our neighborhood have been having trouble with their wells getting filled with sand if not drying up completely.

For several years now we have only used our well for the clothes washer and the bath/shower. Our drinking/cooking/toilet water comes from the municipal water line. That is probably a very good thing. We are also having trouble with our well now. The piping keeps getting choked with sand. The washing machine seems to be working okay, but the oil-burning (non-tank) water heater that supplies hot water to the bath/shower keeps malfunctioning, and sand in the lines seems to be the culprit.

I've heard cold showers can be good for you, but...


My mother-in-law's health definitely seems to be on the upswing, which is a very good thing. Hopefully that means she'll stop being so %$&#* spoiled. She and my father-in-law have been treating us as their own personal restaurant. I know that we need to be patient, but it's still not an easy thing to deal with. Usually FIL will show up just as my wife is starting to cook, and then he'll give their meal order. If it happens to be something different from what she's making (which has been the case most if not all of the time), that quite often means our dropping everything and making a second supermarket run. Even then a good portion of the time FIL will bring things back uneaten afterward and say, "She decided she didn't want this," or, "She says this is too hard," or, "She says this has too much of a fishy aftertaste," or, "This has carrots in it, and she says she doesn't want carrots today," or the like. My wife has been EXTREMELY stressed out.

This morning I hoped to have bread for breakfast for the first time in over a week, but just as I was getting it out FIL showed up, said, "She decided she wants to have bread this morning," and made off with our entire bread supply. My wife, who had already started cooking a Japanese-style meal for them, was furious. I, being a bit fed up with having nothing but the same menu for breakfast day after day after day, was not happy, either. Maybe we should make them pay for the food to which they've been helping themselves this past week. It's not like they're using even half of the monthly "rent" I've been paying them, anyway.


The news still hasn't gotten off its Chinese gyoza obsession, and they're still going on and on about the JDS Atago incident. You'd think they'd have something else to talk about, such as celebrity gossip.

(Yes, that was meant to be sarcastic.)


The current school year is drawing to a close at Ye Olde Academy. Final exams just ended, and the end-of-the-year activities have begun. The various problems I've been having came to a sudden, ugly, snarlying head, but after a cathartic venting I decided to try to patch things up (i.e. mend fences) rather than fight. I just had a very difficult (and rather bizarre) discussion with my chief and closest working partner...with whom I've had so much difficulty getting along lately...and have hopefully worked things out to some extent. I guess I'll be continuing with the international program after all. Besides, if I don't do it, who can?

It actually made me feel a lot better being told that. I guess I'm really not so obsolete. Not yet, anyway.

This has been a very difficult and disturbing year. Maybe even a cursed one. I can't say I regret its passing too much, though I have no idea what the new school year will bring come April.