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.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


Apparently my shipment from Canada will be delivered today. This means I will soon have my books, bike tools, cooking implements, towels, shoes, clothes and other things useful for living.

Because of the local respect for punctuality, deliveries here are quite convenient. Yamato simply called me up and asked me when I wanted the stuff dropped off.

Yesterday, I received some granola bars from Deborah - which is great because it's almost impossible to find anything remotely granola in Japan. I wasn't home on Monday when the postman first tried to deliver the package, and I found a note in my box when I got back.

I went down to my local post office, expecting the package would be there, but they told me that it wasn't and to call a central number. At first, I thought this very inconvenient, but I gave them a call. Eventually, I was able to get on the line with someone who spoke a bit of English, and we arranged for a drop-off the next day.

Somehow, I didn't hear my intercom when the postman first arrived, but that evening I found another note. I called and when I asked for someone who spoke some English, I was put on the line with the same woman who I had spoken to the day before. At length, I was able to explain to her that I had been at home at the time written on my second notice, but that I had not been notified that the postman was there. She was profusely apologetic and asked me if I was home at the moment. When I told her I was cooking dinner and would be home for some time, she told me the post man would come back at 9 pm. Moreover, she assured me that if he could not ring me on the intercom, she would call my cell and to this end took down my number. Sure enough, at 9, just after I had finished dinner, the postman returned with my granola bars.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Quick update

I'm still posting from internet cafes, so I'll keep this brief. I now have a couple of regular conversation partners for practicing Japanese. They both have very limited English and this is a great help. Most of the people I met for conversation in the first month were so much better in English than I was in Japanese, that we just stayed in English the whole time. If my conversation partner has very limited English, I am forced to try to make myself understood in Japanese. This means that I often have to try to say the same thing many different ways.

As some of you know, I love overpasses and fly-aways, which is weird now that I rarely drive on them. Nevertheless, Osaka has some spectacular ones. This picture is a bit of a patchwork, but it gives a good sense of the shear scale of the thing. Here, you see an intersection near my house where two large city streets meet underneath the merging ramps of two major highways.

Check out the way this freeway dives between the two buildings. The photo was taken from a low bridge over one of the northern canals.