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.