Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Over 1,000 people hospitalized in Japan for heatstroke | The Japan Times

Over 1,000 people hospitalized in Japan for heatstroke | The Japan Times

Now is the time to take care of yourself and do everything you can to avoid overheating.  Here in Hamamatsu we're getting a little respite.  This morning temperatures were in the mid-60s (that's F).  Light rain and more on the way.  But we're on the cusp of full-blown summer and it's going to be rough (although a friend of mine assures me the predictions are for a mild one).

Mild or not, summer in Japan is a sticky time where chocolate bars soften at room temperature and lucky office workers get to go tie-less for the duration (they call it Cool Biz).  Not wearing a tie does cool you off a bit, but if your office is also cutting back on running the A/C because of energy concerns in the wake of the mess in Fukushima, then you have to take extra measures.  Get some cooling pads and slap them on your body where they won't show, drink lots of water, keep a fan handy.

I have three fans at my desk.  Whenever I pass someone handing out advertising fans, I always take one.  I don't care what's printed on them.  The best ones are the plastic ones, but even the paper ones that look like artist's palettes come in handy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Finally, some family is coming to Japan

It only took nine years, but finally two family members are coming to visit Japan.  My brother and his daughter will be here in July.  They have a jam-packed itinerary that includes time in Tokyo, a visit to Disney, taking in a baseball game, spending a little time with my wife and me and a trip to the mountains.  We're very excited and happy they're coming, but at the same time it's making the two of us a little travel-hungry ourselves.

I worry a little about how my brother and niece will get around in Tokyo.  I'm pretty used to it by now, but the train stations are crowded and confusing, the trains are even more crowded and July is a miserably hot and humid time here.  You can't always choose the optimum time for international travel-- a lot depends on work and school schedules-- but my recommendation is to come to Japan in May or October, not in winter or summer.  Well, winter if you like skiing or snowboarding, because there are plenty of places to have that kind of fun.

I've made a few trips to Tokyo in August because at my jobs we have fixed holidays, some at New Year's, some during Golden Week and again in August.  Each time I've sworn never to do it again, but some time off approaches and I get antsy to hit the big city.  I should have explored other parts of Japan by now, but I have a thing for Tokyo.  Probably because I'm from a small town and I've always felt kind of hemmed in by small town life.  It reminds me of those computer adventure games from the early days of computing, when 64k of memory seemed like more than you could ever use.




>G N






















Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The heat and humidity of Japan

People here love to tell me Japan has four seasons.  Just to simplify things on my end, I love to tell them my little part of Georgia has only two.  After having lived here on and off for about a decade, I've come to appreciate Japan's seasons and their nearly clockwork-like regularity.  They really do tend to start and stop right on schedule.  That's probably confirmation bias rather than empiricism but usually if I hear spring starts on a particular date bringing with it its characteristic weather, then come that date and BOOM!  Spring.

It's rainy season now, which usually begins in mid-June and lasts about a month, after which we get boiling heat until September.  My first year in Japan rainy season started in May and lasted until July, but the others have been more accommodating to the yearly plan, give or take a week.  Rainy season means steamy apartments when it's not actively pouring down outside.  Rental saunas in which you eat and sleep and watch TV.

In fact, we were watching a drama just last night about a family that's falling apart.

"They have a sauna," my wife said.  On TV, the dumb, depressed dad (fired for embezzlement) was steaming himself before getting dressed and pretending to go to work to keep up appearances with the neighbors.

"We have one, too," I said.  "You just open the door and go outside."

By July, it will be inside.

I'm pretty sure our apartment isn't insulated, and I'm absolutely certain we don't have central heat and air.  We had to buy a wall-mounted A/C unit when we moved in.  This is pretty common in Japan, which is so modern as to be positively futuristic in many respects, but surprisingly tradition-bound in others.  In winter, people tend to wear layers and rely on kerosene heaters and comfy kotatsu (heated tables) more than blasting heat from a lot of vents.  In summer, you open screened windows, run fans and eat shaved ice.  Houses and offices have small A/Cs up on the walls in individual rooms.  This works well for single room heating and cooling and for small studio apartments.  Not so much for places like ours, with two bedrooms.

The A/C.  It's expensive to run, too.  We ran into a little cultural problem during the winter over its use.  I'm from warm climes and would spend my summers beach-side if I could.  My wife is a mountain girl who is used to cooler air.  She would run the A/C to heat if I looked miserable enough or my nose and lips turned blue, but she was perfectly comfortable in sweatshirt and sweatpants on all but the coldest mornings.

But while Georgia's temperatures usually average higher than Japan's in summer, Japan has Georgia beat by far in humidity levels.  Georgia can be a swamp when you're outside, but who goes outside?  It's a quick dash from the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned Wal-Mart then back.  Farmers sweat, and cops and convicts cleaning the roadsides.  Everyone else stays cool.  Still, I'm more used to summertime heat and damp underarms than my wife is.  We're in agreement our A/C will be a necessity at some point, but I'm in favor of economizing and ecologizing and trying to put off its activation until we can no longer survive without it.

I go shirtless around the apartment, she asks me, "Why are you naked?"

"I'm not naked," I reply.  "I'm wearing shorts."

She rolls up her sweats and eats fruit ices.  We're fine until bedtime.

Enter a really cool invention, which we used for the first time last night.  The cooling pad.  I'm not sure how this baby works, but my wife ordered one for our bed.  It's a mattress pad with a plastic sheath in the center and inside this sheath are pouches with some kind of chemical goo that turns cold when your body presses against it.  You can put it in the freezer to chill it even more, but that's not really necessary right now.  The only drawback is the cooling power doesn't last.  While it felt very nice at first-- although it gave me the sensation the sheets were slightly damp-- sometime during the night the goo gave up and the sheets went back to room temperature.

We're going to order smaller ones to put inside our pillow cases, too.  Plus some covers that also promise a cool sleep.  And we're buying fans.

Another way we beat the heat here is by taking cold showers.  During winter, we turn on a little gas meter in our shower room and set the water temperature, usually to 37 degrees C.  Last week I took that down to 35 and last night and this morning to 32.  After rainy season I anticipate not turning on the gas at all and just blasting myself with cold water.  Which will probably be more like lukewarm even without gas.  You really need to cool your skin as much as you can while showering because with the humidity being what it is and your pores opened by the warm water you end up working up a sweat while dressing.  Some summers here I average more than two showers a day in July and August.

So much for that...

Inter-Korean talks scrapped over negotiators dispute | The Japan Times

Since I posted about this earlier in the week, I have to follow up on it by posting this link.  North Korea backed out of the high-level talks with South Korea.  Disappointing but not really surprising.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Jiroemon Kimura, oldest man in history, dies at 116 | The Japan Times

Jiroemon Kimura, oldest man in history, dies at 116 | The Japan Times

This makes me sad.  Longevity is an interest of mine.  Whenever somebody hits the century mark, I feel inclined to congratulate him or her.  Mr. Kimura managed an extra 16 years past that fabulous mark and I always felt there was something beautiful about his face whenever he showed up in the news.  Maybe he reminded me of my own father, who considered himself an old man before he was 50 and left us far too soon.

Records should be broken, even this one.  The tragic aspect is, in order for someone to become the oldest person in the world, the previous record-holder has to die.  So I picture this as a line of centenarians waiting patiently for the one at the head of the line to pass away.  Then they all move up.  Some fall before taking their place in the record books.  I don't aspire to this position myself, but I'm always going to be fascinated by people who beat the actuarial tables if not the Reaper.

Goodbye, Mr. Kimura.  Congratulations on such a long life.  I hope it contained more happiness than sadness.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I would love for peace to break out between the Koreas...

Two Koreas agree to high-level talks | The Japan Times

Every few years North Korea agitates for attention.  I don't know if the world holds its breath in anticipation of an all-out war on the Korean peninsula, but every time this happens I do.  It makes me nervous.  It's like having an especially troubled family in your neighborhood.  It's bad enough if they're on the corner or three houses down on the cul-de-sac, but we live right across the street from North and South Korea, so to speak.  And Japan isn't exactly tops of the pops with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  They have a funny tendency to shoot missiles in our direction whenever they remember we're over here.

While I don't have much hope anything of any lasting value will come of these latest talks-- maybe a concession or two to quiet the ruckus for a year or two-- I'd love for these two countries to come to some kind of terms.  Back in 2009, North Korea decided it was no longer bound by the armistice that ended the worst of the fighting in 1953 and started asking for a peace treaty.  I feel the North is sincere in wanting an actual peace treaty, but I don't think they have the political finesse to get it, at least not the way they try.  You know, claiming the right to pre-emptive nuclear strikes, shelling an island here, sinking a destroyer there, reneging on a nuclear agreement, launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A huge fear of mine is they'll take it too far one day-- not really intending to ingnite all-out war-- and set Asia on fire.  And like in a cozy little neighborhood, a fire like that is sure to spread from house to house until it burns them all to the ground or someone manages to put it out.  I don't know who these days has the fire-fighting ability to save the neighbors.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Taibatsu-- this letter to the Japan Times really shook me

Trained to just put up with it | The Japan Times

Taibatsu, or corporal punishment, has been in the news a bit recently.  Can you imagine a coach slapping a junior high baseball player and getting away with it?  It happened to Hideki Matsui and kids in my English Club just read a brief bio of Matsui where he praises his junior high coach as "demanding," with the strong implication this is why Matsui achieved professional success in Japan and the U.S.  The slapping part of being demanding is left out, but if you're an athlete in a Japanese junior or senior high, you probably know a lot more about these kinds of demands than I do.  You don't need to be told about Ichiro Suzuki being forced to kneel with his knees on the rim of a trashcan for the minor infraction of burning some rice.  You may have done this yourself, or have watched someone else being forced to do it.

What really disturbs me is to read quotes from players crediting this abuse for helping them achieve, without realizing they may have achieved despite the abuse.  It's like crediting a lucky coin or some other totem.  In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it probably seem reasonable.  I was slapped, I threw a great game after being slapped, therefore the slap was the cause of my great game.  Is there any thought to what might have happened if the coach had simply talked to the player without resorting to violence?  Maybe, but the coach didn't use words; he used violence and it apparently worked.

This one letter gets to the heart of it in a way I can't because I was never abused by a teacher or a coach.  My middle brother was.  He came home from football practice with cleat marks all over his back, part of his punishment for not giving "110 percent" or some stupid ass sports thing.  My parents went ballistic, as they should have.  But he kept playing.  Why?  He had his reasons.  Maybe they were somewhat the same as this 53-year-old man's.  I can't know what they were.

But what I do know is I do not want to be part of a system that condones or in any way appears supportive of slapping kids around.  And I can't even fathom adults-- professional adults-- being slapped on national TV and reacting with sheepish smiles.  This may be a cultural split between my upbringing and that here in Japan, but I'm not going to get with this program.  Respect for others includes not laying hands on them.  This shakes me to my very core.

Watching my hometown on TV in Japan

There's a huge Southern Baptist church in my hometown of Albany, Georgia, and they're not only buying up all the houses in the neighborhood where my old elementary school still stands, they're also  making low-budget message movies with largely amateur casts and the occasional ringer.  You may have heard or even watched the one starring Kirk Cameron, the erstwhile Seaver family member.  For some reason known only to God and the people in charge of programming Star, their most recent effort aired here in Japan yesterday afternoon, and I was home from work in time to catch it from just after the opening credits.

The first thing I saw?  Pine trees.  Even before I knew what I was watching, they created in me a strange sort of deja vu.  Albany is a town with a lot of pine trees.  No matter where I am in the world, I can't look at a pine tree without immediately thinking of home.  I thought, "Huh.  Familiar.  What is this feeling of familiarity?  What am I watching-- a slick indie or a random episode of a crime drama I've seen before and forgot about on the movie channel for some reason?"  

Before any scenes featuring dialogue, it was certainly action-packed enough to be an episode of Bones or NCIS.  A guy gassing up his truck ends up hanging on for dear life when a gang member tries to carjack it.  He falls off, the truck hits a tree, the gangster flees, people stop to help.  They are earnest but amateurish, and there's no mistaking those accents.

I ended up watching about half of it before the novelty of seeing places I know wore off and boredom set in and I had to turn it off and get on with my life.  This well-intentioned little movie wasn't made with an audience of me in mind.  Despite its having the fashionable jittery camera and saturated-colors look of a secular film and pulling off its modest action sequences with a certain panache, the story, dialogue and acting weren't quite competent enough to keep me watching after I lost interest in the backgrounds and yet it wasn't bad enough for me to mock in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way.  Still, I wished my wife had been with me so she could see the place where I was born and fled as soon as I was able.  Since this is Star, it'll probably be on ten thousand times this month and next so she'll have plenty of chances to see southwest Georgia before she visits in person this August.

Speaking of movies (and I'm rarely not), the Star Classic channel has an amazing line-up this month.  Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, Dr. Strangelove, Sabrina and at least one more I'm forgetting.  I really hope my wife and I have time to watch some of these together.  Well, not Dr. Strangelove so much as the other ones.  I hope she wants to watch some of them.  I'm movie-crazy.  She enjoys them, but I'm a buff with way too much trivial knowledge about them and way too many opinions than are strictly healthy.

Where do our tastes overlap?  Disney and Ghibli films ( we both love Spirited Away), West Side Story, Seven Year Itch, Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways.  These are a few we've watched and enjoyed equally.  I have a hopeful feeling we'll find more if we explore the classic together, especially musicals, comedies and romance.

Roman Holiday would be a good one.  My wife likes Audrey Hepburn a lot.  Hepburn maintains an iconic status here in Japan.  I don't know about women below 30, but many women 30 and up-- at least the ones I've talked to-- still love her.  To them, she's simply Audrey.  That name suffices.  Gregory Peck they couldn't care less about, but Audrey still leaves people breathless.

One of the strange effects of an aging Japan

Hey kids, keep it down — graying Japan annoyed by children's noise | The Japan Times

Noise, noise, noise!  You can grumble that and sound like the Grinch atop Mount Crumpit all you want, but the simple fact is, Japan needs more kids.  And kids mean noise.  I'm extremely noise-sensitive myself, but even so I enjoy hearing the kids playing in the park across the street and coming and going.  They shriek and giggle or shout in earnestness whatever the heck it is they're shouting.

Japan is a noisy place anyway.  As the Japan Times article mentions, there are political trucks and cars every election season-- which, in Japan, is about every two weeks-- loudly thanking you for support even if you don't plan to support them, the crooning guy selling baked sweet potatoes, video screens broadcasting commercials and movie trailers and all kinds of musical street crossing signals and warnings and beeps and boops.  Vending machines talk to you, our gas heating control panel in the shower talks to my wife and me whenever we change the temperature, we have a small Oto-san figure that spouts gruff fatherly phrases in Japanese whenever we activate it.

And while a squalling infant in a restaurant can drive me nuts, I find it amusing people might single out the noises children make out of this endless cacophony.  As long as the kids in the park are happy and not killing each other, then I'm fine with hearing them.  I guess that's the American in me.