Friday, March 13, 2009


One of the members of my ESS club at Akashi Senior High School belongs to the school's prestigious art course. She has an online portfolio, and her work is pretty amazing. Here is a sample, but you can see many more on her website:

Source: siloly

Source: siloly

Once again the outstanding talents and creativity of Japanese high school students shine through. I can't wait for bunkasai!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A belated travel post: November 2008 trip to Shimane

Well, Emma certainly struck gold with her go-between at Maiko High School, Shibata-sensei. Not only has he been an immense help in organising holidays for us and finding the best deals, but he has himself taken us on two road trips. The first, last May, was to the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, and you can read all about it here. The second, last November, was to Shimane. (On both occasions we were accompanied by Iwao-sensei, another Maiko teacher who has also helped us out with travel arrangements.)

Japan is a very train-friendly country, but travelling by car has definite benefits. It can be a lot faster--unless of course you're travelling by bullet train, which can't take you everywhere. And a car (or in this case, van) can get you to those "hard to reach" places for which train and bus travel just won't cut it--not unless you enjoy wasting a whole day just getting from place to place. Part of the reason for this is that Japan is a very mountainous country. West of Hyogo, where we were headed, lies the Chugoku region, which is serviced by two major JR routes (though that's not to say there aren't lines running between them): the San-yo, which lies on the south (Seto Inland Sea) side of the mountains, and the San-in, which lies on the north (Sea of Japan) side. Stick to the trains, and there is a lot in this country that you miss out on.

Day 1: Hiruzen-kogen Highlands and Mt. Daisen

Hiruzen-kogen (Click image for slideshow)

Case in point: our first stop, for coffee and a bite to eat, on the Chugoku Expressway not very far west of Kobe. I made certain to scribble down the name of the place at the time, intending to blog about our trip as soon as we returned, but you know what they say about good intentions. (UPDATE: The name is "Gongenko," and it lies north of Kakogawa.) Suffice it to say, I don't remember (it might have started with an "O"), but here at a truck stop very far from any train line was a beautiful lake, glimmering in the morning sun, and framed by susuki, Japan's national weed.

(Actually, in the slideshow attached you will see a weed with yellow flowers. That isn't susuki--it's an introduced species--but it's gorgeous all the same. And my not being able to remember stuff accurately will be a regular occurence in this post, given that the events described happened five months ago. Sorry.)

Our first major stopover for the day was the Hiruzen-kogen Highlands in Okayama Prefecture--another place that would have been difficult to reach by JR. In the Rokko Mountains behind Kobe there is a hobby farm--a kind of theme park where the locals can see and touch cows and sheep and horses, in a land bereft of that kind of agriculture, owing to the lack of grazing land. Hiruzen is similar, but on a far grander scale, where you can see herds of Jersey cows grazing on lush green fields nestled against the red mountains of Daisen-Oki National Park. There is even a small horse farm (the farm is small, not the horses), complete with country and western music blaring through the loudspeakers.

Mt. Daisen (Click image for slideshow)

A stupendous ghost!
Looking eastward from the great bridge over those sharply beautiful mountains, green and blue, which tooth the horizon, I see a glorious spectre towering to the sky. Its base is effaced by far mists: out of the air the thing would seem to have shaped itself--a phantom cone, diaphanously grey below, vaporously white above, with a dream of perpetual snow--the mighty mountain of Daisen.
--Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan

After lunch at a soba restaurant nearby (the buckwheat flour which is used to make soba is grown in the area), we proceeded to Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture. With an elevation of 1,729 metres, Daisen dominates the region in the same way that Mt. Fuji dominates its surrounds, and can be seen from as far away as Hiruzen. It seems to be a well-kept secret: before coming across it that day Emma and I certainly had never heard of it (but what would we know?), but its gentler slope seems to be popular with local skiers in the winter months. Incidentally, did you know Daisen is a hermaphrodite: its gentler slopes apparently constitute its "female" side, its rough, cliffy face is its "male" side. Make of that what you will.

Day 2: Shimane Winery and Izumo Taisha Shrine

Matsue and surrounds (Click image for slideshow)

We spent the first night in a very narrow (but comfortable) hotel in Matsue, the capital of Shimane Prefecture. After a seafood-intensive izakaya dinner we had coffee in the lobby of an upmarket ryokan, where the English-speaking waiter proceeded to regale us with tales about Lafcadio Hearn, a gaijin legend in the area, of whom I'll say more later. By Japanese standards Matsue is a small city, nestled on the shores of Lake Shinji. And though in the morning we didn't have a lot of time to explore the city, it does have a picturesque riverfront area, somewhat reminiscent of the view from the Peace Park in Hiroshima.

Heading west for Izumo, we made a brief stop at a bird-watching park on the lakeside, equipped with binoculars and telescopes for the purpose of--yep, you guessed it--watching birds. Continuing, Shibata-sensei noticed a winery by the side of the road, I guess somewhere in Izumo, and we thought . . . why not? The free guided tour of the facilities was mercifully brief, and then it was on to the proper business of our sojourn: wine tasting. There would have been maybe twelve giant-sized punchbowls full of the various wines sold or manufactured by Shimane Winery, an ample provision of plastic cups, and no upper limit on how much you could sample. Put simply: FREE NOMIHOUDAI! Only in Japan.
(How to get there if you don't have a car: take the Ichibata Dentetsu train (the Taisha line) from Matsue to Hamayama-koen Kita-guchi Station. I just found the scrap of paper where I wrote that down!)

Izumo Taisha (Click image for slideshow)

Izumo Taisha Shrine, a.k.a. God Central, is one of the oldest and most sacred Shinto shrines in Japan. During October, so it is claimed, all of the gods gather there to party like it's 999. The shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god of marriage, and we actually saw one (a marriage, not a god) during our visit--though I suppose in Japan the local shrine is as good a place as any to have one's wedding photos taken, there being no Kings Park within easy reach. Whenever I visit a historical site in Japan I always shudder at the thought that I am standing in the presence of something older than many European nation-states. Izumo Taisha dates from the middle of the 7th century, but, as is the way with wooden structures in a humid country, it has undergone reconstruction since then, and the present structure was built around 1744, practically a spring chicken. (Apparently the original sturcture was much bigger.)

Matsue historical precinct (Click image for slideshow)

In the afternoon we returned to Matsue to explore the historical precinct, including a museum dedicated to Lafcadio Hearn. Lafcadio who? I hear you ask. I'll give you the thumbnail sketch. Hearn was a Greek-Irish journalist and writer who moved to Japan after working for 20 years in the newspaper and travel-writing industry in the United States. Though he wrote for a Kobe newspaper and taught English Literature at Tokyo University, and introduced Japan to the Western world through his writings, he is most famous for his 15-month stay in Matsue, where you might say he became the first JET. It was in Matsue that he taught in a middle school, and also married into a local samurai family, becoming a naturalised Japanese citizen and taking the name Koizumi Yakumo. He is, as I mentioned previously, the bomb in Matsue. The Hearn museum is located in the old samurai quarter, so we were also able to catch a glimpse of how the ancestors of Hearn's in-laws used to live.

That evening, we did as Japanese teachers do and stayed in a hotel that resembled a police headquarters in a 1970s crime drama. But the rooms were cheap, clean, and massive, and offered a good view of Matsue. Actually, I think the building is operated by the teacher's union, and the rooms serve as lodgings for teachers who attend conferences there. The receptionist, who sported neither sideburns nor mutton-chops, recommended a good restaurant in a nearby hotel. There, for a very reasonable 2500 yen or so, we enjoyed a delicious kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) and played Taboo and fool with our Japanese companions. Anytime's a good time for an English lesson, right?

Day 3: Matsue Castle and Sakaiminato

Matsue Castle (Click image for slideshow)

Reading up on Matsue Castle for this post, I was surprised to learn (from Wikipedia, so you should have a grain of salt handy) that it is the second-largest castle in Japan. I was certain that, of the other castles I visited, both Himeji Castle and Osaka Castle were larger. Actually, Matsue is the second-largest of the few orginal castles still standing in Japan--those that haven't been burnt down and reconstructed over the centuries (and Osaka Castle falls into the latter category). And to tell you the truth, while it certainly is beautiful, Emma and I made the mistake of visiting Himeji Castle first, and after seeing Himeji-jo all other castles tend to elicit a resounding . . . "meh". Still, there were cats there.

Our main port of call on the last day of our trip was the fishing town of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture, where we encountered another one of those "Only in Japan" phenomena: an entire street dedicated to the work of a local manga artist, Shigeru Mizuki. Statues of various characters from his GeGeGe no Kitaro manga series lined the street, someone in a Nezumi Otoko ("Rat Man") suit walked around schmoozing with the tourists and passing out his business card, and even the police station and local JR train were decked out in Shigeru Mizuki's manga motif. And if that wasn't surreal enough, in the midst of all this, across the road from the police station we saw a car-park full of bogans (or yanki as they are known in Japan) showing off their hotted-up cars.

Sakaiminato (Click image for slideshow)

Sakaiminato, which lies on the Sea of Japan, is famous for its fishing, and our Japanese companions wanted to visit a fish market to pick up some of the local produce for their families. I'm not a fisherman myself, and I don't know what the local fisherman are using, but those fish (and squid, and crabs, and octopus) were BIG! Revoltingly, disgustingly big--especially the octopus which was almost as big as me, and from whose Schwarzenegger-proportioned tentacles I imagine you could fashion takoyaki the size of beachballs. I can't remember what gargantuan sea monster Iwao-sensei bought (it wasn't an octopus), but I think Shibata-sensei bought a buri, which set him back about 8000yen and had to be cut into smaller pieces before it could fit into the space behind the back seat of his van. All those grotesque, outsized cephalopods gave us quite an appetite, so we stopped for lunch at a kaiten-zushi restaurant, where I learned the meaning of the phrase sakana o tabesugita!

So once again, Emma and I must extend a big thankyou to Iwao and Shibata-sensei, whose companionship and local knowledge has enriched our experience of Shimane and the other places we have visited together.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Science of Japan: Hana mizu

If you've spent any time in Japan during the colder months of the year, you will undoubtedly have fallen victim to a phenomenon known to the locals as hana mizu ("nose water"), and to Westerners as a "runny nose." Actually, "watery nose" would be a more apt description, given the consistency of the nasal discharge which tends to be far less viscous than the common garden-variety greenie. As you doubtless will also have discovered if ever you have fallen prey to a bout of hana mizu, the watery drip often makes a stealthy and unwelcome appearance at the most inconvenient of times and locations, being marked neither by the weight or pressure of normal mucus which usually gives the sufferer fair warning.

We in the West have a mortal fear and disgust of bodily fluids. Their proper place, we maintain, is inside the body, and should they make even the briefest of appearances on the outside of the body, such that (gasp!) other people can see them, well that constitutes a social faux pas for which there is almost no recovery. It racks us so with shame and guilt and mortification, that other people should learn that our bodies contain mucus and blood and urine and faeces; we can no longer look our fellows in the eye, but must walk with our heads downcast, disgusting, vile wretches that we are. We can feel the stab of their pointing, accusatory fingers in our backs as we pass: "See that guy? He gets boogers! EWWWWWWWWWWWW"

The Japanese don't seem to have this hang-up quite to the same degree. Just the other day on the train I saw a man in a suit, perhaps on his way to an important meeting or to sell mobile phones, casually brush the tip of his nose, and (picture this in slow-motion if you will, for that's certainly how this shellshocked Western onlooker apprehended it) as his gloved hand pulled away from his face to turn the page of the book he was reading, there appeared a bridge of mizu spanning the chasm between his fingers and his nose, glinting in the morning sunlight. Didn't seem to faze him. But then these people do eat natto.

So, like, what's the deal with hana mizu? Let's start by looking at the malady known as rhinitis, of which there are two kinds. The first is called allergenic rhinitis, and it occurs when an airborne irritant triggers the production of antibodies. These antibodies bind to special cells known as mast cells, which in turn release histamine; and histamine causes inflammation and mucus production in the eyes, nose and sinuses.

The other kind is non-allergenic (or vasomotor) rhinitis. Inside your nose you have blood vessels which contract or dilate in order to control congestion. Sufferers of vasomotor rhinitis have particularly sensitive blood vessels, and certain factors--including changes in weather, certain chemical irritants (e.g. smoke or aerosol sprays), spicy food, and even emotional shocks--can cause overreactions.

(Thankyou, Wikipedia.)

But since not everybody suffers from allergies or hypersensitive nasal blood vessels, why is it that our noses run in cold weather? Julie Mitchell, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin explains:
While the obvious job of the nose is the sense of smell, the nose's other big job is to ready the inhaled air for the throat, voice box and lungs. The nose warms up and humidifies the air, and it filters out dust, germs, smoke and other particulate matter. Inhaled air picks up heat and moisture as it contacts the inside of the nose, which has grooves and ridges to make a large surface area.

The lining of the nose has glands that secrete water and mucus and, just under the surface, there are hundreds of yards of blood vessels that supply a constant source of heat. (You can see why it's easy to get a bloody nose.)

Under ordinary circumstances, the nose and sinuses produce as much as four cups of mucus every 24 hours. This mucus is constantly being swept back into the throat and subsequently swallowed. On a very cold day, when both the temperature and relative humidity are low, the nasal blood vessels dilate so more blood reaches the nose and thus its mucus and heat machine. Because more liquid is being produced in the nose than can be swept back into the throat, the nose "runs."
On one occasion while I was in Beijing and the outside temperature was in the vicinity of minus 10 degrees Celsius, about a cup of the aforementioned unexpectedly exited my nose as I was stepping down off the tour bus. Luckily nobody saw it happen, and I didn't see where the liquid went, but Emma was reduced to fits of uncontrollable giggling when I told her about it afterwards. A cautionary tale.

(BTW, IANAS, nor am I a doctor.)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Power of Fruits

Having graduated with a Bachelor degree in English Communication and Cultural Studies, I consider myself relatively well versed in the politics of political correctness and importance of symbolic meaning. Matt and I were very amused, then, when we saw this ad on a Japanese train.

I will now hazard an explanation with an aim not to offend.

Firstly, in Japan, the way of looking manly, for the younger generation at least, widely differs from that of the typical Australian man. In Australia, applying a bit of wax and the odd spritz of cologne is now considered only slightly “poofy” for Y-generation males. However, the shaved and sculpted eye brows, carefully arranged and meticulously maintained hair-dos, and highly stylised and fashionable clothes sported by the young Japanese men in this photo would definitely land an Australian boy with the title “gay.” Of course, in Japan, dressing in this way is not an indication of your sexuality, it simply means that you care about your appearance or that you want to look like your favourite music idol. Secondly, in Australia the word “fruit” means homosexual when it is used to refer to a man.

So, when we saw these effeminate (by Australian standards) looking men coupled with the slogan “Power of Fruits,” our giggle buttons went into overdrive.

Turning our giggles into full-bellied laughter was the realisation that the purpose of the ad is to advertise a gift that can be redeemed when a particular number of wrappers have been collected. The gift, or rather the “Power of Fruits,” being a diamanté encrusted gum case. What else would you expect, really?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Beijing trip--December 2008

Forgive us, readers, for we have sinned. It has been about two months since we lasted updated this blog. Gommen! Unfortunately, work and travel commitments being what they are, not to mention the time it takes to edit and organise photos, we won't be able to update as regularly as we like. When we do, you'll hear about it through Facebook.

On Christmas Day 2008 we flew to Beijing. We were with a tour group, we were the only non-Japanese guests, and the tour guides spoke only Japanese and their native Mandarin. We'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but we had a fantastic time, though Emma did end up catching some kind of flu on the way back and was laid up in bed for the following week.

Click here to see the photos. (The tab on the left runs the slideshow.)

I hope, but I won't promise, to put up photos of other trips in the near future.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Science of Japan: Is it really dangerous to use your mobile phone on the train?

If you take a bus or train in Japan you will nearly always see a “No Keitai” sign, and for good measure the bus driver or announcer will usually remind passengers to switch their phones to “manner mode” and to refrain from using them. I recall taking the bus home from work about a month after I arrived here, standing in the aisle and nattering away on my newly-acquired phone . . . only to realize—the ambient noise having dropped from its usual silent to “deathly silent”—every other passenger staring at me, and the bus driver furiously waving the dame! wave. And if the endeavours of the public transport personnel fail to persuade you, other passengers—particularly senior citizens—can be relied upon to enforce the no-keitai rule. One morning on the way to school I saw a young woman thumbing an email message into her phone, only to be greeted by a sharp “Gommen!” by a grumpy old man seated nearby. With nary a glance at the complainant, she calmly put the phone away.

Why is mobile phone use proscribed on public transport in Japan? Well, for one thing, it’s considered “rude” (as is talking at the boisterous volume to which we barbarous Westerners are accustomed) . . . and over here that should be the only reason you need. But it is also believed that the radio waves emitted by cellular phones can interfere with heart pacemakers, and therefore passengers are asked to switch their phones off in the vicinity of priority seats. Is this concern justified?

It is true that mobile phones emit electromagnetic energy. Many things do, including the Sun and the earth, as well as televisions and radios. Electromagnetic radiation is non-ionizing, meaning that it does not have sufficient energy, unlike ionizing radiation such as UV rays, to detach electrons from atoms and cause tissue damage. Exposure to very high levels of electromagnetic energy can cause tissue damage, according to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), but such levels would be well above what the general public encounters (in Australia at least; I can’t say whether it holds true for Japan). And worries about the risk of developing cancer from long-term exposure are generally what inspire people to protest the installation of towers or the use of handsets by children, but the jury is still out on how well-founded these concerns are. Nevertheless, the risk of tissue damage isn’t the main concern on Japanese buses and trains.

Concerns about cellular phones interfering with pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) are well-founded, but the nature of the risk requires a little teasing-out. The purpose of a pacemaker is to ensure that the heart beats at an adequate rate, while a defibrillator will monitor the rate and rhythm of a heart and correct it if it is beating too slowly or too fast. Both essentially work by delivering electrical impulses to the heart muscles via electrodes, which in the case of the ICD is also used to detect heart activity. According to ARPANSA, both the signal transmitted from the phone’s antenna, and any magnets inside the phone can affect the operation of implanted medical devices, if the phone is held and operated sufficiently close to the implanted device. The organization therefore recommends that phones be kept at least 15cm from the pacemaker or ICD, which can be achieved if the patient avoids storing the phone in a pocket over site of the device, or if the patient uses the ear furthest from the site of the implant when he or she uses the phone. ARPANSA also notes that electromagnetic interference from mobile phones appears to be temporary; the device can be returned to its normal operation by simply moving the phone away.

So unless you’re on a really crowded train or bus, or unless you are actually sitting next to someone with an implant, it seems that he or she is unlikely to be harmed by your using your phone. Still, the host of the dinner party is unlikely to be harmed by your refusal to remove your shoes—unless you have been wading in toxic waste—and yet in the interests of maintaining peaceful and harmonious relations with your fellow creatures, and not looking like a complete and utter jerk, you are best advised to do as your host requests and take off your shoes. It is a good idea to do likewise on the train (put the phone away, that is; you can keep your shoes on), and save yourself much embarrassment—not to mention the ire of the ojiisan and obaasan, who can be far more intimidating than their diminutive appearance would suggest!

Matthew Stott, IANAS*
(*I Am Not A Scientist)