Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The End of a Blue Era?

I started driving when I was 18 (though the driving age in Oregon is 16), but I didn't get my first car until I was 26, about a year and a half after arriving in Japan. It was one of those tiny, 3-cylinder mini cars you'd never see in the US, though they're quite common here. Specifically, it was a Suzuki Alto, red in color, and already very well used by the time I bought it from a friend for less than a week's pay.

( looked just like this!)

You have to understand; those things are not built to last, and considering it was a first generation model (meaning it was at least ten years old when I got it) with a lot of mileage on its odometer, it got howls of surprise every time I took it in for a tuneup or oil change. It did have its share of problems, though, and after I'd loved it, nursed it, and cursed it for a few years it finally just died. (Actually, I have reason to believe that a vindictive punk at a gas station put sugar in my gas tank, but whatever...) Thus I came to buy my second car, which was...another well-used Alto, white in color. Actually, it was an "l'Epo" model, which was a little larger, fancier, and included such luxuries as air conditioning and a tape deck, which were both very welcome.

(It looked more or less like this...though not in such good condition.)

Nevertheless, though I'd bought it from a very reputable mechanic on the recommendation of several people, it turned out to be a bigger headache than the older Alto had been, and repair bills for such things as an exploding timing belt (and related catastrophic engine damage) added up. When its battery died while I was at work, I made the perhaps fortuitous mistake of letting my American manager at the time take it in for repairs while I taught my classes. He allowed the mechanic he'd picked at random to "improve" the car (so he could sell me a larger battery), and it wound up frying the electronics. Next came the Daihatsu Mira, another bare-bones (white) mini car but bought in nearly-new conditon.

(It looked just like this!)

It turned out to be a very good machine, and it never gave me any trouble in three years of use despite my abusive treatment (read "frequent trips to Tokyo on the expressway cruising well above its rated speed"). I probably would have used it for far longer if passenger and cargo space hadn't become an issue. Finally, in 2000, I bought my first new, full-sized car. That was the BLUE RAV4. It has been my faithful friend ever since.

(Here's a snowy shot of my BLUE pal on a snowy day 5 years ago)

Now, perhaps inevitably, it is starting to show its age. After a decade virtually free of any need of repair, let alone major repairs, problems are starting to appear. I guess it all started exactly one year ago, when a broken fan belt pulley required seriously complicated repairs right on Christmas Eve. Now this year, no doubt to some extent because of my having to drive on all those earthquake-damaged roads, I've so far needed:
  • a complete overhaul of the steering mechanism, which was bent out of shape and partly broken. Some parts had to be replaced,
  • a thorough examination and adjustment of the brakes, which were making weird noises and not working well. They never did find the cause, and though they're now working better, they're still not quite right...and still making noise,
  • realignment of the wheels after only a couple of months,
  • replacement of all four tires, which had become deformed,
  • a refill of the oil, which was more or less empty only two months after the last change.

Once all these repairs were complete, I was warned in no uncertain terms that, now that the BLUE RAV4 is more than ten years old and has more than 250,000 kilometers on it, the problems are going to start multiplying. This was coupled with a not-so-subtle hint that I should start thinking about getting a new car.

I admit that I have been thinking about it, and now I'm thinking about it more seriously. The question is what model to get. I suppose I could get a new-model RAV4, but there's another type that I'm seriously eyeballing right now. It offers a number of advantages, would be more convenient overall, and would be more economical even with 4WD. I won't say what it is unless I decide to get one. There's just one problem: they don't currently offer it in BLUE.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Catching Up a Bit

Good grief (if there is such a thing) has been more than a month since I've updated this blog. I guess the Okinawa posts wore me out. Either that or I'm spending wayyyyyy too much time on Facebook. Actually, it's probably both. For now, at least, I'll just try to catch up on recent events for the sake of my readers here who DON'T use Facebook.

Part One: Kashima Jazz vol. 8
They stopped calling it the Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival last year; now it's simply "Kashima Jazz". This year's installment happened on November 19th. As usual, it was a six-hour marathon of music combining pro and amateur acts. As usual, I gave the DJ-style opening greeting. As usual, my school jazz band, the Flying Eggheads, made an appearance. As usual, by sheer dumb luck (though it seems to happen every year), the event coincided with an important event at Ye Olde Academy, making our participation a complicated, migraine-inducing mess.

There was one important difference this year. Although I've always participated in the Festival as director of the Flying Eggheads, and have done various things in support of the event and its staff, this was the first time that I was actually a member of the staff. I was asked to join after last year's event, and though I told them my participation would be limited at best, I've still appeared with them in a number of small concerts over the past year. I also took the stage with KSJ Special Project, the staff band, as the opening act. We had a professional rhythm section, and I stood in the front row together with our band captain (a saxophone teacher and quite a talented player) and a pro tenor sax player. I suppose I had cause to be a little intimidated, and I can't really say it was my best performance, but I had a very good time.

The other acts included a couple of combos, some of whose members were part of the KSJ SP performance, a rather avantgarde ensemble that included violin, accordion, hand percussion, piano and poetry, among other things, and a civic youth band from Shizuoka. The headlining act (which wasn't last) was a well-known pro pianist who graduated from the Berklee College of Music. Backed by an excellent trio with an American drummer, she played long, complicated arrangements of well-known tunes that often included several pieces stacked together if not mixed. The concert bill was finalized by my own Flying Eggheads who, though they are rather weak and inexperienced now, turned in by far their best performance of the year; they were clearly excited and in the groove, and I could tell they were thrilled when it was done.

Part Two: Speaking of Music...
I've been putting as much time into my home studio as I can, and all the new gear I've bought is getting used quite a bit. I'm still not satisfied with it, and will probably get a few more items in the near future, but I'm still able to do a lot more now than I used to be. Even so, I have yet to come up with anything that I'd consider suitable for next year's Torycon (All Japan Amateur Recording Contest). After having been selected as a Judge's Pick this year, I'm giving it a lot more thought...though that might end up working against me. Maybe I'll try remaking some older stuff.

Part Three: Down in the Old Homestead
Frankly speaking, I'm fed up with being an education family, which was never my idea to begin with. All those trips hauling the kids back and forth between home and their cram school lessons are eating up a helluva lot of time, not to mention gasoline. Those still earthquake-damaged roads in the Hinode area near the cram school haven't exactly been good for my BLUE RAV4, either. I've already had to have bent stabilizer rods for the steering system replaced. Five months after my mandatory vehicle inspection, my alignment is clearly off, there are friction noises coming from one of the wheels, and the brakes are being goofy. The cram school headmaster says that both my kids will have no problem getting into Ye Olde Academy, but I have to say I hope it'll be worth even have the cost.

There has also been a price in terms of family stability. My wife in particular is very stubborn about my kids' study habits (read "She won't let them have lives until the tests are done"). The kids, on the other hand, are clearly fed up. We basically can't do anything. We can't even watch videos. My "to be watched" pile is still piled high and will probably only get higher until the entrance exams are done with. It has been kind of frustrating, and there has been a lot of tension.

Meanwhile, my wife's stress over her job has been mounting, while my own job situation has also been very tense. She keeps having other teachers' work dumped on her, for which she rarely gets any credit, and the products of those efforts quite often wind up being ignored. In my case, all the reasons for which I was initially hired by Ye Olde Academy, my main reasons for being there in the first place, are slowly and quietly being taken away. Right now I have no idea at all what I'm going to be doing next year, and I don't like the way things are shaping up. The work atmosphere at the school has been sucking, too, and the tension is seriously starting to get to me. I can't really imagine doing anything else at this point, but to be honest I'm not sure how much of this I can take.

Don't even get me started about my father-in-law...

Anyway, if something post-worthy comes up, I'll put something more substantial on here. For the time being, however, this will have to do.