Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Working on Xmas

Christmas here really is Xmas. Christmas eve is apparently for couples - they have dinner out, eat a Japanese style Christmas cake and probably stop by a love hotel. But the day itself is just another day.

Strangely, the city has been lit up with lights for the last month, so I was expecting something more. But as you can see from the stars of David in these lights, there's actually nothing Christian about Japanese Christmas. It's just another excuse to light up the city.

Today, in keeping with the Japanese spirit, I worked. Nevertheless, midway through the morning my door bell rang, announcing the postman with a package. Christmas had arrived, and I was delighted to find cookies from Aiyana and a seat post from Jackie.

What with nuts and things from Tim and Deborah as well, I'll be stocked with hippie food for some time and I can finally ride the Nagasawa that has been sitting around, absurdly, unfinished for over a month.

In the afternoon I met with Ken to read some Greek and took care of University paperwork. (Actually, every time we meet we spend at least fifteen minutes taking care of paperwork - sometimes half an hour.)

In the evening, I met with Jon down near his place under the Tsuutenkaku. We commiserated about having to work on Xmas, ate some green curry and talked over some plans for studying together.

Monday, December 24, 2007


There's some kind of local election going on. No one I know cares about it in the slightest and a fair number of people don't even know what governmental seats are being selected. Nevertheless, it's annoying because there are election vans roaming the streets making broadcasts over giant loud-speakers. A few times an hour now, while I work, some van or another drives by my window promoting their candidate.

This van was just parked on the side of the road when I was getting my groceries today. All I know about the candidate is what you can see in this photo - his name is Umeda (梅田), and his color is green. All the candidates have colors. I guess if your electorate couldn't care less about politics, you can at least hope to capitalize on their love of a particular color. That's Umeda himself in that ridiculous green jacket. The guy in black is making a speech on his behalf. This division of labor seems to be standard. You can see for yourself that Umeda is a typical politician. There was no one around, certainly no one listening, but every 30 seconds or so he would wave and, when he wasn't waiving, he would look down on us in utter disdain.

Actually, speaker-vans are common on the roads in Japan. They're usually advertising something you don't want and don't need at high volumes. Once, when I was in Kyoto, there was some kind of Christian proselytizing organization that was running a van up and down one of the mains streets for over an hour with a broadcast on loop. I couldn't understand all of it but I got the basics. It said, "Everyone is bad ... Jesus Christ is your savior ... Jesus Christ is the only god," and other gems along these lines.

Now, when I ride by a speaker-van in the street, if the window is open, I've taken to shouting "Urusai!" (五月蝿い!) at the driver. This is basically the Japanese way of saying "shut up!" but it's much more expressive, because it literally means you're annoyingly loud. I picked up that trick from a guy named Nori, who I ride with sometimes.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Various places in Osaka

Today it rained all day, so I stayed inside and worked. I've finally started real work on a new paper and it feels good to be back at it. It's odd that in this strange world, separated from everything and everyone I know and love, I can still sink back into the familiar comfort of my work. There's something to be said for Mendeleyev's admonition that we must "look for peace and calm in work."

Here are a few pictures I have of various spots in Osaka.

This is an intersection at northern edge of Umeda (梅田), an upscale shopping and entertainment district. In the background, you can see the train tracks cutting through the middle of everything, as they invariably do.

Here you have a shot of Tennoji park (天王寺公園) in the south. This park was actually recently "privatized" so that now only a pathway is available to the public, while the rest of the park is behind tall steel fences, which in many places have some kind of razors at the top. It's hard to imagine how the cost of erecting these long, steel razor-fences was justified, since the land they enclose is literally just a park.

This is the local headquarters of one of the major broadcasting corporations, near Ogimachi Park (扇町公園).

These are some private houses built right up against the shore of a little lake in one of the parks south of Tennoji, near Hirano.

The next two shots are of commercial spaces which have a variety of different descriptive names.

This is a shoutengai, 商店街, or shopping arcade. They're actually just narrow streets between the shop buildings, but they're covered. They're ubiquitious in Osaka, but relatively less frequent in Kyoto and Tokyo. They come in all price brackets, but this one of the rundown ones in the south.

Here's an intersection in an underground mall (chikagai, 地下街, literally "underground passageway"). This fountain is directly below a major intersection. Below the fountain is the subway and above the intersection is the freeway.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Kyu-san's finale

For the last day of class we had a ridiculous party, with tea and much strained conversation in Japanese with our teachers.

Once again Kyu-san delivered. When it was his turn to take the podium, he told us all about his job as a fruit vendor. After a short, robotic introduction, almost his entire speech was based on this material. He told us all about the different things they sold, dwelling especially on the tangerines. He never once mentioned any of the many other jobs he has told us about over the last three months.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Editing in Kyoto

Yesterday Ken and I went up to Kyoto for editorial work and I got a chance to experience the cooperative work spirit of which the Japanese are so proud. Ken is the executive editor of a journal in our field that comes out once a year, and we went up to meet with the editor, Michio, and go over the page proofs for this year's book.

Michio's university is located in the foothills to the north of Kyoto in a beautiful countryside area that's charming but difficult to reach. We first met in his personal office (appropriately called a research room in Japanese, kennkyuu-shitsu, 研究室), which was actually a small library with a desk in the middle surrounded but the internal, free-standing bookshelves.

Since Michio is the head of his department, we then went to his other office (gakka-chou-shitsu, 学科長室), which was just a big empty room with one desk and a conference table. Myself, two professors, another postdoc, and a graduate student sat around the conference table proofreading, while Michio sat at the desk, working on his computer and talking to everyone. We read for hours and then took a long lunch. For some reason, it was decided that I wasn't needed for another hour, so I went into Kyoto to go to a bike shop Simon had told about.

Apparently, the guy who owns the shop was up in Tokyo at the time and it was closed, but I still got to wander around for a bit. Kyoto really does feel like old Japan, and it's full of universities, so everywhere you go, you see people studying. It seems like in every cafe people are reading journal articles.

When I got back to campus, there was of course more work to be done, and we stayed in that room, working around the table until about 7.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Conveyor belts

Now the true purpose of the conveyor belts is clear.

As they dig, they sift through the dirt in various parts of the site and drop the excess onto the belts. It is then brought, by this system of belts to the hole, which they apparently dug for this purpose. I wonder how much time they spent calculating how big the hole should be.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Sunday ride

I finally got the paper that Len and I wrote on the Planisphere corrected and sent into the editor, which meant that for the first time in a month, I got to take some time for myself on the weekend. On Sunday, Jon and I went for a long ride down into Southern Osaka. We took a winding route through parts neither of us had seen before with a vague destination of a bike shop I had been told about in Hirano (平野). I was told it was a good shop, but nothing prepared me for what we found.

This was far and away the coolest bike shop I've ever seen, and there's a real possibility that it is the coolest one I'll ever see.

It's fastidiously organized, and every cubic meter full of bikes and bike parts. The parts range from cheap and nearly worthless, to rare and sometimes priceless - but they are all sorted by type, color and value. Some of the bikes themselves have no price, just a hand-written description. There are bikes covering the whole floor but a narrow path, bikes hanging from the walls and ceiling, and between the bikes, in every available space, there are bike parts.

All of the bikes were made by the owner of the shop who's name I never learned, but who is very old and very tiny. He told us that the tall bike in the background stands at 2.6 m and that the only person who ever rode it without support was some crazy gaijin from Canada.

The pink bike in this photo is possibly the greatest tandem ever made. The front rider sits on the pink seat, the rear rider on the white one. The rear rider reaches over the shoulders of the front rider to grip the higher bars, while the front rider grips the lower bars and leans back into the lap of the rear rider. The bike was clearly made for lovers.

He told us that he has made over 400 different kinds of bikes but that he has never built a track bike, because he only makes bikes that can be ridden until you are 70 to 80 years old.

I would pay good money to see an 80 year old riding around on this little clown bike. (In related news, when I was on my way to Osaka University of Economics (大阪経済大学) the other day, I saw an old woman on an electric scooter that looked pretty much like this bike. By the time I had gotten out my camera, however, she had actually scooted away a block and a half and I didn't want to scare her by chasing her down.)

As well as all these freak bikes, he had a few perfect gems of European racing bikes, including a beautiful old Italian bike with wooden rims.

This freak bike has wobbly wheels that seem to be built onto hubs specially made for this purpose. Actually, those hubs were the rims from the wheels on some kid's novelty bike. He refitted the axles, drilled the the rims for spokes and laced them to another set of real rims.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


There's a Chinese guy in my Japanese class named Kyu. He doesn't speak any English and his Japanese is really weird because he has been living here for two years but he hasn't taken any classes yet. He knows a lot of words, but he often can't make himself understood.

He seems to work whenever he's not in class, and one time, when I got to class early, I found him sleeping on a collection of chairs that he had gathered together into a humanoid shaped oblong in the middle of the room. He always has stories about his job, but it's impossible to get a straight answer from him about what exactly it is he does.

My friend, Ben, has taken to asking him every few days what he does for work and every time Kyu has a different story. One time he worked in a restaurant cooking rice, one time he worked in a convenience store, one time he worked at the train station. Moreover, he does all this with a straight face. If you try to ask him if it's anything to do with what he was previously telling you, he just looks at you like you're crazy, like it's a complete mystery where you're getting these ideas.

For awhile, I decided that maybe he was hooked into the Chinese mob, because he does kind of seem like the type. Then he told me this long story about shopping in Namba with his younger sister. I really don't know what to make of him.

Today in class the teacher was asking if we had part-time jobs and if so what they were. Kyu was in his element. Here spent like seven minutes telling all of us about some job he has. At first no one had any idea what he was talking about but eventually it became clear that it was all to do with washing pillows. Actually, I was able to determine what he was on about before the teacher, because he was using the wrong verb for washing pillows. For me, unlike for a native speaker, one verb for washing is much like another. At this point, having studied the language for less than six months, I already know six verbs for various types of washing and cleaning, but I obviously don't understand the differences well.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


It's now clear that what I thought was a construction site outside my window is actually some kind of archaeological excavation. As you can see from this photo, they are working slowly and following the peculiar patterns of some former structure. This makes sense, because my area was the administrative center of the city during the Naniwa period.

The standard setup for construction workers here is for a crew to consists of some old guys who watch and some young guys who work. The crew outside my window is no exception. Here's a classic example of these two dudes watching a backhoe fill in a big hole it dug the week before. It's not that clear in the photo but the lower guy is just sitting on the top of the stairs below him.

Actually, since I spend a fair my time watching them while I try to think of sentences, I've gotten pretty familiar with their workday. They do stint of work for an hour or so, and then they take a half an hour break. When it was time to take a break from watching that backhoe, the guy in the white helmet went and took a power nap on top of that that thing that looks an I-beam at the bottom of the scaffolding. (They're actually conveyor belts for moving dirt around. I have no idea why they need to use conveyor belts, but I guess it has to to with the excavations. Last week the belts were set up to drop the dirt from a height into the hole that the backhoe is now filling.)

Here's a foreman at a construction site down by one of the big temples to the south of me in Shintennoji. He's got a special helmet and outfit that distinguishes him from the common riffraff. He seemed pretty stoked about his job and literally just stood there watching and smoking cigarettes while I worked in a cafe across the street. Sometimes pedestrians going by, usually old women, would stop and talk to him about the work. He would point things out to them, take off his helmet and gesture with it and then put it back on.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Autumn Leaves

The last few weeks have been pretty hard. I have been working all the time and I can feel a deepening sense of isolation. The weather has finally begun to get cold, although it is still quite nice by Canadian standards.

Last weekend, myself and a few friends decided to go to Kyoto to see the autumn leaves. This is a traditional thing to do in the autumn and there's a special term for it in Japanese (kooyoo-mi, 紅葉見, something like 'viewing the crimson leaves').

The leaves were indeed beautiful, but despite the impression of these pictures the place was mobbed with people and it was actually pretty annoying at times.

There was one incident as we were passing through this bamboo grove that to my mind was particularly odd. There was a train crossing about halfway along the path through this grove and, because of the number of people, we had to wait for multiple trains to go by before we could get through the crossing.

Somehow, the passing of these trains was source of great amusement - people lined up along the railway to take pictures, everyone around me was talking about the trains. And this in a country that's virtually plagued with trains. These people ride trains every single day of their lives, everywhere they look they see train tracks and stations, but on that day, in that place, for reasons that I could not understand, it was like they were seeing trains for the very first time.

That evening we wandered around the old neighborhoods of Kyoto, which are really quite pretty, especially at night. While we were walking, we happened to see a geisha, or maiko, being delivered by her driver to an appointment. This was regarded as an extremely propitious event by my Japanese friends, because of the rarity of sighting a geisha at work.

Apparently, a geisha sighting is not only fortunate in and of itself but also bestows luck on those who have made the sighting for some unspecified period of time.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nagasawa's Frame

Nagasawa promised me that when he emailed about the status of the frame he would use as little Kanji as possible. Nevertheless, when the mail came, it was written in standard Japanese and, hence, full of Kanji. I got basic message, which was, "I'm finishing the frame tonight, come by and pick it up on Sat or Sun, but let me know before you come." But there was some stuff in the middle that I didn't understand, even though it included Kanji that I had just learned. It said something like, "If you want a rearrangement, bring the bike, there's no charge for the rearrangement." I talked to some Japanese friends about it and they didn't really get it either. Finally, I realized that since I told him I already had the other parts, he must have assumed I had them on another bike and he was saying that he would swap them all over for free.

I wrote him back, saying that there was no need for an exchange, that I was coming out alone and reminding him that my Japanese sucked. I didn't hear back from him, but when I shot him an email en route he responded that he would be there when I arrived.

When I got there the frame was wrapped in protective cardboard sleeves that he took off in pieces to show me various things, such as the fact that he had put my name on the top tube. The frame was sweet and I could see immediately that the color was gonna be sick with my hubs. I actually never unwrapped it entirely and I'm gonna wait until the bike is all built up.

Nagasawa, his daughter and I chatted as much as was possible given my Japanese, and the fact that they only know individual works of English. His daughter asked me about what I do for a living, despite the fact that she had already talked to Ken and Jon about this. When I told her that I did research on the history of mathematics, she exclaimed with great excitement, "The history of mathematics?!?! Cool!!!" Which sounds as absurd in Japanese as it does in English (suugaku-shi?!? kakkoii!!! 数学史!?かっこいい!!).

Since I didn't need any labor for the parts, Nagasawa asked me if I needed anything else while his daughter filled out the forms. He ended up finding me some chain tensioners, a pair of MKS Unique Custom pedals, clips, and Fujita straps. He gave them to me tada, as he said -- which is the expression young people use for free. (Actually, in distinction from most people his age, he uses a fair amount of young people's lingo and words borrowed from European languages.)

The receipt they gave me is so cool I had to scan a copy of it. It's printed on some kind of anti-counterfeit paper that looks like a bond note. It has a special 200円 stamp on it that also appears on one of the forms for one of my bank accounts. (I'll have to ask someone about this.) It is then stamped twice. There is the small circular stamp with a name in Kanji that all Japanese people carry with them, and then the abstracted square one that was engraved on a large piece of stone. The stamping of the receipt was and serious affair and since there was excess ink, it had to be hung up to dry.

Like most Japanese people, they preferred my middle name, and as you can see they made the receipt out to Camillo. (I smugged out my last name in the image.) Somehow, however, Nagasawa determined that my first name would me more appropriate for the frame itself.

Here's a picture of the frame, still in wraps, surrounded by some of the parts that will be on the finished bike.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Wheel building

This week was really busy. I received the referee reports for the last paper Len and I wrote and was told I had about three weeks to get all the corrections done. Since the paper is over 100 pages and the corrections mostly involve suggested changes to the edited text, everything has to be double checked against the manuscripts. Also, there are a number of suggested changes that need to be done globally and with care that every instance has been changed. Moreover, since I will do all the changes and then send the text to Len for a final once over, I really only have a couple weeks.

In order to take some breaks throughout the day from these kinds of academic details, I started to build the wheels that will go on the frame Nagasawa is making. This will be the fifth or sixth pair of wheels that I've built but the first with such well made parts.

Tonight, I finished truing the front wheel. It's has radial lacing and spins forever. I think that purple will really look sweet with the light blue frame.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Jon and I went out to Nagasawa's shop to officially put in an order for a frame. He was as cheerful as the first time I met him, and despite initially pretending like he had no memory of ever having met me, made references to the last time I was there and remembered a number of trivial details about me.

After looking over all the measurements, making numerous suggestions and reminding me that I was crazy to ride a pista on the rode, he asked me if I wanted a brand new frame or a refurbished one that was my size. He pulled out a damaged frame that he had made in the beginning of the 80s from Columbus steel and said that for 85,000 he would replace the damaged tubes, repaint it and put in a new headset and bottom bracket. Since his lugs were beautiful in the 70s and 80s and you can't get a new frame made from Columbus steel, I decided to go for it. He got out his old files and looked over all the original specs on this bike. There were a number of details he wanted to go over with me, such as the fact that the stay ends are spaced at 123mm to allow for a 1.5mm chain tensioner on each side. He wanted to make sure he doesn't see me riding this frame around without tensioners.

After we had covered the technical details of the order, we went upstairs and had some tea while he put my contact info into his keitai. This took him a good 15 minutes while Jon and I watched, sure that he forgotten about us. Finally, he sent me his contact info from his phone and told me that the frame would be ready in about a week. He required no deposit but assured me that he would make it well and from good parts. After a round of thank yous and bows, his daughter drove us to the JR station in the pouring rain.

When we finally got back to Osaka, we had some duck udon in Shinsekai (New world, 新世界), one of the poor neighborhoods in southern Osaka and the home of Biliken, the god of things-as-ought-to-be.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Commies in Osaka

My friend Jon works as a translator and does a lot of freelance interpretation for people doing various political projects in Japan. Today he invited me to a meeting where he was going to be doing the interpreting. It was a strange deal.

The presentation was by two old school communists from Europe whose organization had helped in the recent strikes in France against the CPE - an anti-labor bill meant to undermine job security and facilitate labor outsourcing. I went because I wanted to hear more about the anti-CPE strikes. In fact, the Europeans were mostly interested in having a discussion about Marx's view that capitalism as inevitably doomed, and the Japanese weren't really interested in discussing anything. The presenters were fairly theoretical and didn't really have much in the way of practical suggestions. It was a small meeting, but I got to learn more about the history of the left in Japan. Actually, I've been hearing a fair bit about this, because Ken's father - who was quite traditional and only ever owned one or two western things - after becoming disillusioned with the socialists, consistently voted for the communist party.

In other news, now that I can understand a bit more Japanese, I realized that if the postman brings me a special delivery, he will actually take it right to the door of my apartment. A guy came to my 10th floor apartment on a Sunday evening at 8:30.

Friday, November 2, 2007

More Canals

Here are two more shots of some of the many canals in Osaka. The first is taken in one of the poor southern neighborhoods, which now has a large Korean population.

Back in the day, before the introduction of trains, when Osaka was Japan's most important mercantile city, canals were used to ship goods to all the major markets in the city.

The second shot is of one of the two canals that run to the north and south of the major government buildings in the northern part of town.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Hearing aids

My Japanese class begins everyday by listening to a dialogue over and over again until we can all repeat it. Because of my hearing loss, this is almost impossible for me to do. In desperation, two days ago, I finally started wearing my hearing aids, but it's still quite difficult. I think my brain is just not used to processing sounds in this way. I constantly get syllables mixed up and mispronounce things in ways that produce entirely different meanings than what I intend. The weirdest part of this phenomena is that my mouth often makes different sounds than the ones my brain and my ears think it's making, as I find out when I am constantly corrected.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pink, the perfect temperature for chocolate

According to the labels on these bars, the people at Dars have decided that the ideal temperature for enjoying their bitter chocolate is 22º C. In case you aren't carrying a thermometer but you also don't want the disappointment of eating some chocolate that's off temperature, they've thoughtfully equipped each box with a gauge that changes color as a function of the average kinetic energy of the molecules in that circular dot in the upper right-hand corner. The device isn't all that precise but purple is too cold, white is too hot and pink is just right.

These packs are actually both too cold because, being a philistine in such matters, I kept them in fridge. I got the white one to warm up by covering it with my hand.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


This was probably the most surreal night in Japan so far. There are no second-hand places here to buy a costume, so I went with a friend to two department stores that have Western goods and holiday sections. The selection was pretty bad, but I managed to find a costume that I now regard as my best Halloween costume ever.

The main piece was a strange thing described on the package as "full-body tights" (zenshin-taitsu, 全身タイツ). I bought it mainly for the picture on the packaging, since you couldn't actually see the costume itself.

I thought the little bulges on the dancing men were just a whimsy of the artist, but these are actually a selling point. The text in the blue bubble reads "tight-fitting, bulge" (picchiri, mokkori, ピッチリ、モッコリ). I also picked up a green wig.

There is supposed to be a tradition in Osaka of Gaijin getting decked out in costumes on Halloween and riding the JR loop line. The JR company, however, has decided that this is a public nuisance and had taken measures to stop it. The rumor is that they sent letters to the executives at a number of the language schools and asked them to forbid their employees to ride in costume. They said they would be taking photographs of anyone who did so.

I don't know if this is true, but I do know that there were a huge number of private security guards and a bunch of JR employees in gray suits with ear pieces and walkie-talkies trying to keep order. But there really wasn't anything going on. Hardly anyone in costume showed up, and most of those who did left without riding the train. Myself and a hand-full of others decided to ride the train and see what all the fuss was about.

These guards may look unconcerned by my presence, but it turned out they were assigned to follow us the whole night and they spent most of that time trying to pretend like they weren't standing right next to a guy in a ridiculous pair of red full-body tights.

When we got down to the platform, there were about ten JR employees around us talking into walkie-talkies and fidgeting with ear pieces. One guy kept coming up to us and asking where we were going and would we please move along. Then he would hold a piece of paper over his mouth while he talked into his phone.

As I was walking around, one girl had to adjust her ear-piece as I was approaching her. Somehow, she believed that I didn't know what was going on, panicked that I might find out and actually tried to hide from me behind an old guy who was standing on the platform, waiting for his train. When I peeked around his shoulder and said konbanwa, she was mortified but managed to smile and say hello in reply.

On the train, not only our security guards, but very nearly everyone else as well just tried to pretend like it wasn't happening. We got off at a few other stations on the loop line and they were all full of security guards and plain-clothes company employees. At one point, when we transfered trains, we were trailed by seven guards. We never saw anyone else in costume.

After the train got boring, we went down to Amemura, where there were a fair number of people in costume.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Back in Osaka

I'm now back in Osaka and the pace of life here makes the respite of Denman Island seem like a dream. My days are again a blur of reading and studying. I didn't get out much this week, but last night I joined some friends for drinks at a German pub in Tennoji (天王寺).

We stayed at the pub until last call and then went to karaoke. The trains stop running at about 12:30, at which time almost everyone is stuck wherever they are. I think this must be part of the huge success of karaoke here. The place we went to was seven stories about 20 rooms per story and packed at 2:30 AM. This is because staying in a karaoke room all night is cheaper than staying in a hotel. Moreover, you can order cheap food and drinks to your room. I only stayed for a couple of songs before heading out to my bike, grateful I wasn't stuck there all night.

Today, I went to the Osaka History Museum (Osaka-rekishi-hakubutsukan, 大阪歴史博物館). The holdings were a bit disappointing but the displays gave a good sense of the different periods of the city. For one thing, I learned that the historic site that's visible from my window, is the remains of the Naniwa Palace (Naniwa no mia, 難波宮), which was the Imperial seat for a while before 655. During this time, Osaka was the political as well as financial center of Japan. Although, the Imperial seat never returned and the Shogunate was only briefly centered in Osaka, the city remained the center of commerce until the rise of Tokyo in the 19th century.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Denman Island

In a strange turn of events, I'm writing this post from Denman Island, BC. On what was my Thursday afternoon, I received an email from my mother saying that my grandmother Estelle was being released from the hospital the next day, so that she could die at home sometime in the next few days, and that if I wanted to say goodbye, I should come as soon as possible.

The next morning, I rode through the pouring rain to the the immigration office near my house to apply for a reentry permit. After 45 minutes of navigating the bureaucracy of this office, I had the permit. I returned home and began calling travel agents and airlines. Eventually, a travel agent in Umeda found me a convoluted trip leaving that day. Since he did not take American Express, he asked me to bring cash to his office.

I went to the nearest conbini, withdrew 200,000 in cash and took the subway to Umeda. After I paid for the flight, my travel agent walked me to the bus I would have to take to the airport. The bus left a few minutes after I boarded. I went first to Itami Domestic Airport in the north of Osaka and from here to Haneda Domestic Airport in Tokyo. From Haneda, I took a one-hour bus to Narita International Airport in the outskirts of Tokyo. From Narita I flew to Vancouver and then to Comox on Vancouver Island.

I had left some messages and sent some emails about my arrival time, but I had not actually talked to anyone, so I was happy to be picked up at the airport by Don and my mom. We got some groceries and took the next ferry out to Denman.

When I got Estelle's house, the first thing she did was make some wry comments about how I shouldn't have come so far. I held her hand and we talked for about 15 minutes. When I left to go get Jackie from the ferry, Estelle said goodbye. I told her I would be back later. She squeezed my hand and said it again.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Spending grant money

Because of the terms of my grant, I have a fare bit of money to spend on things that I will use for research. If any individual item costs more than 100,000円, the university will keep it when I go, and I have to spend half of the total funds before the end of the fiscal year in March. Last weekend I bought this multi-function printer, scanner, copy machine. It's all in Japanese, but I was able to download the English drivers and manual and it all works fine with my computer.

For the the last three days I was in Tokyo for an orientation organized by the agency that brought me over. Since it's by far the largest science funding body in Japan, bringing international researchers into Japan is only a small part of their general purpose. Most of the talks were about overall science funding policy in Japan and their role in it. Naturally, they have a substantial budget and they put us up at a nice hotel.

There were also talks on working in Japanese labs and learning Japanese that were pretty interesting. The hotel was located fairly near the Imperial Palace, so we did some tourist excursions to the palace and other nearby places.

My experience of Tokyo was a lot different this time. I can read enough Kanji now that I just bought a normal Japanese mapbook and was able to use that to navigate the two train systems and get everywhere I wanted to go with no real problem.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Languages ... again

My Japanese classes have started and this means the language situation has reached new levels of absurdity. The class is only two hours long, but at a much higher level and faster pace than the class I took over the summer. Everything is done entirely in Japanese, so that I only understand about half of the answer to any question I ask. The class is small: three Koreans, two Chinese an Austrian and myself.

The Austrian is a guy named Ben. He is fluent in German and English, I'm sure his French is serviceable and he seems to have done quite well learning Japanese on his own before arriving here. I hate people like that, so I decided to enlist him as a study partner for an hour or two after class. Once, I'm wiped out on Japanese, I go home, eat lunch and then read some theorems of the Spherics, first in Greek and then in Arabic. In the evening, if I'm not going out, I work on Japanese vocabulary.

Here's another shot of Osaka-jo. Apparently, the stones in this outer wall are original. The construction of each part of the wall was entrusted to a different samurai family. The structure is held together simply by the weight and the shape of the stones.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Under the Tsutenkaku

Southern Osaka is considered to be a bit rough. Here you find everything you aren't supposed to think of as Japanese: homeless people sleeping in the streets and parks, used clothing vendors hawking their wares on the sidewalks, low-level Yakuza - or Yakuza wannabes - shuffling around in tacky track suits covered with embroidered dragons, tyranny streetwalkers strutting the arcades and red-light districts where the girls look out on the streets from doorways lit by the unforgiving glare of florescence. Most of my Japanese friends wont go there and, having never been to say South Chicago or Cuidad Juárez, they consider it unsafe. Naturally, I find it fascinating.

I've finally met some expats who speak fluent Japanese, and this means I'm meeting more interesting Japanese people. Today a friend of mine named Shoko told me she was going down to her favorite bar to see if they would be willing to show a documentary she made, and she asked me if I wanted to come. She said I couldn't miss the spot because the bar was located right under the Tsutenkaku (通天閣, the tower passing to heaven).

The Tsutenkaku is a huge broadcasting tower that advertises Hitachi in many changing neon lights. Once you get into the general area of Tennoji (天王寺), you can't miss it. (I'll let you be the judge of how well you think the name suits the structure.) Shoko met me under the tower and led me into this tiny bar, upstairs in one of the buildings on the square surrounding the tower. I had some very good, very hot Thai green curry served with brown rice and a fried egg.

The place is owned by a couple and, since we were the only customers, we sat at the bar and chatted with them. Since only Shoko spoke more than individual words of English they mostly just chatted in Japanese and I tried to follow.

The owners were really into Thai food and spent a lot of time trying to tell me where I could go to get good Thai food in Osaka. This involved me taking out my map, to shuts of sugoi, and them pointing out various spots where they were pretty sure there were Thai restaurants. I have yet to meet anyone here who can give more than the vaguest directions anywhere.

The girl I bought my furniture from was the worst by far. She gave me a hand drawn map for a store she was telling me about that consisted of the circled name of a steak house that was then unknown to me and three lines near it that were supposed to be parallel streets. There was then an arrow that pointed up between two of the streets. She told me the shop was somewhere around there between those streets. I tried to save that drawing because it was easily a contender for the most worthless map of all times, but I seem to have lost it.

At one point, I actually saw that steak house and rode around for a bit in what may have been the general direction of the arrow she drew; but this was in Umeda, so of course there were many streets, many of them more or less parallel.

Monday, October 8, 2007


My internet service has finally been turned on. The process was fairly complicated and, of course, there were many forms. This time, the situation with the forms became truly absurd. I had been calling the company on a regular basis, so I knew when the modem was set to arrive and when they were scheduled to come over and actually make the connection. Nevertheless, two days before they came, I received four forms in the mail. I can now make out enough Kanji that I could tell more or less what most of them where about. One was to set the appointment for them to come check the connection, which I rightly assumed we had already covered over the phone. Another was to set up automatic deductions from my bank account and a third - which requires my name and address not once, not twice, but three times - was to combine the bills for my keitai and my internet service. The fourth was mysterious to me.

Despite the fact that I could basically tell what they were about, on each of the forms there were check boxes that appeared to be important and which I did not understand. I called the company to discuss these matters, but the English speaking staff told me they did not have access to such details and they would have to transfer me to the appropriate department. I was then connected to an interpreter with an Indian accent to whom I described the situation in terms such as, "Well there's a yellow form and it's about payment methods and there's a section for personal information, one for bank information, credit card information and so forth. I understand all this but below there are a number of boxes and a large red arrow that points at them so they seem to be important. I can't read the Kanji but for example near one there's the Kanji for to enter and some that I don't know and then the one for to come and so on." The interpreter would then talk to someone in Japanese who sounded like a woman to me but whom he always referred to as "The Man in Charge."

The Man in Charge would then ask various questions about the color of the form, the boxes and such and would then look to see if he had the same form. This went on endlessly as he checked various forms. Twice The Man in Charge put us on hold while the translator and I tried to have a conversation over the obnoxiously loud musac. I asked him if he could turn it off, but he said it was out of his control. During the second musac session, he kindly offered to call me back once they thought they had the right form. About ten minutes later they called back. I imagined that for the duration The Man in Charge had been shuffling through great stacks of forms - all different but all equally intricate - which they were preparing to send out to their customers. Eventually, they decided that the didn't have the same forms that I had received and that the thing to do would be to send me the new forms, which they did have. That way, if I called back with more questions, they could help me.

Here are some of the view from my new apartment. My balcony faces east and a small street runs between my building and a construction site. To the south of the construction site is a small school. In the photo to the left you can see the school and, south of that, the part of Osaka called Uehommachi (上本町).

In the photo below, you see the view to the east of my apartment. The large building on the left is one of the major hospitals, which is in the process of expanding into the lot directly below my balcony. In the backgroundm you can see a forested area, which is some sort of sacred ground. Ken assured me that it's protected and that I wont have to worry about any construction on that land during my stay in Japan. If the new hospital building is sufficiently large, however, I won't be able to see it anyway.