Wednesday, December 31, 2008


On the way back to Osaka, I stayed in Beijing. It was my first time in China, but luckily my friend Carlos's friend Joy was able to show me around a bit.

I was only there for a bit and everything took longer than I had expected so I wasn't able to see that much. But we tripped around here and there and had some great food.

The best meal we had was probably the hot pot at this Muslim restaurant. The water was heated by that big cone filled with burning coals.

It was basically like Japanese nabe except the stuff you put in the pot was a bit different and, obviously, there was no pork.

Beijing was a strange experience in the winter. It was freezing and I could see that all the standing water was frozen as we flew in, but there was no sign of any snow. The city is basically flat and in the middle of an endless flat plane, sectioned into rectangular fields and cut through with wide irrigation canals. When you come in from the air, you can see at once that Beijing was constructed as an imperial city, laid out around a central palace. In the winter, however, everything was just brown and gray and cold.

Most of the streets are wide and the buildings massive, clearly designed to impress. Throughout the city, there are mammoth structures of every age, including those just finished this year for the 2008 Olympic Games. There is a vast sense of history, but somehow I found the feeling of history in Beijing unnerving. It seemed as though it little matters what I say or what I think ... as though there are great, ineluctable forces at work ... that they will sweep over me and swallow my whole life up.

I don't know. Maybe I'm just going through a strange period.


This Christmas I took the opposite of a vacation. From relatively warm Osaka, where I had been riding my new bike everyday and wrapping up my projects for this year, I went to Vancouver, where it snowed nearly every day, riding for pleasure was of the question and I spent a week doing manual labor.

Aiyana and Jackie are opening up a restaurant on the drive called Bandidas. They got the place sometime in December and hope to open in early January. I guess when we got there they had already been working on the place nonstop for weeks, but it still seemed like an impossible job.

Somehow, the magnitude of the project and the fact that we were all there, just feed into our family's mania for work. We pulled most of the standard moves - working all day without eating, working into the wee hours of the morning and thinking that it was still like 11 or 12, working for seven hours when we meant to just drop by for an hour or two.

I didn't think it was possible when I first got there, but now it actually looks like they might get it done in time. Most amazing is that fact that, with the exception of some electrical work, it will all be done by family and friends for no more than free food and booze.

So, for another year in a row, I worked on Christmas. But this time, it really felt like Christmas. The whole world was blanketed in snow and there were Christmas carols playing everywhere, not just at Starbucks.

But hey, there's nothing like painting, cleaning and stripping glue off of tables with toxic goo while wearing cold, wet shoes day after day to make you really happy to get back to the quiet warmth of your Osaka apartment.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Maiden Ride

I finished building up the Miyuki the about a week ago, and since I know of no other, she will now be called, simply, Miyuki-chan. Most of the parts, I had around - except the hubs and the toe-straps, which I obviously bought to suit the frame.

Above is a picture taken in front of a Pachinko parlor on her maiden ride. I put a drilled fork on it so I can put a break on the front, which I probably will do. But right now, the ride is just so fun I might not get around to it for a while.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Nara and such

John was in town for a bit, so we did some touristy stuff. Probably the most impressive thing I saw was this gigantic Buddha in Nara (奈良). We spent all morning in a museum full of Buddhas and I was pretty sure I had seen enough Buddhas to last me for quite a while, so the impression of this one was really something. I can only imagine how I would have felt if I came at it fresh, so to speak.

It's difficult to appreciate in the pictures how big it really is, or even when you're there in person. In fact, to help you get a grip on the size of the thing, the monks have cut a hole in one of the pillars of the building that's the same size as one of the Buddha's nostrils. The whole is big enough for school children to craw through; and so they do. While I was there, I watched a 10 year old kid go through with no problem.

The Buddha is guarded by various fierce looking figures. This one is a scholar. You can see his brush and his scroll.

Probably the best way to get a sense for the size of the Buddha is to see the building that houses it surrounded by tiny people. The Buddha's seat reaches all the way up to the roof of that building.

On a different day, we went for a bit of a hike in a town called Mino (箕面), north of Osaka. At the end of November, the leaves were turning here, so it's the best season to see the red leaves.

The area where we went was actually packed with people, but you could get off the busy paths pretty easily and have a quiet hike.

And, just so you don't think these days it's all about Buddhas and autumn leaves, here are some other random shots.

It's the x-mas season here now, so these sample girls, at one of the big stations in Umeda, are dressed up to match the season, as - Oh, I don't know - sexy, black Santas. They're handing out free samples of luxury, high-end cat food. You know, 'cause nothing says Christmas like giving your cat gourmet food that you got from a sample girl dressed in a sexy French maid costume that's really a Santa costume.

And then, out by the docks near the international convention halls, we have an ominous building somewhat vaguely called "Service Center" - where everything is yellow.

A few weeks back, I took another friend out to Nagasawa's shop and on the way out we walked by a sort of suburban stripmall. Below, you see the shelves in the parking lot where a liquor store keeps all it's bulk beer. There was no one around and no sign of any security, but there it was, just sitting there, right by the road - cases upon cases of booze. In the plastic cartons to the right, there are individual bottles of beer - again, let me reiterate, within easy reach of anyone who happened by.

Finally, a picture of a host, before going out on Saturday night, saying a quick prayer at a local shrine. After he threw his money into the container, he tucked his white Louis Vuitton bag between his legs, bent his head, pressed his hands together and said whatever it is one says under such circumstances.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election 2008

I've been out of the States for the last three elections. In 2000 I was in Toronto. I was a bit let down by the result, but I kind of expected it. Also, I had no idea that Bush was going to be such a disaster. After all, in his first campaign, he ran as a moderate conservative.

The 2004 election was pretty heartbreaking. All day, while I was working in the basement of Massey College, Toronto, the exit polls were showing a Kerry win, but when I went out at night to a bar to watch the coverage, the reality began to become clear. Then Ohio and Florida fell and it was all over. I remember feeling like the floor was falling out from under me. I was surrounded by Canadians, who cared but didn't care nearly enough, who had not voted and were already showing signs of retreating to their precious moral high-ground from which they could smugly claim that such things would never happen in the safer, saner Northern America.

Japan was a great time zone to watch from but it was a bit strange culturally. Ken was aware of the historical significance of the election, but a lot of my Japanese friends just didn't understand why it was so important - why I was so excited. The East Coast polls started to close about midday through my workday on the 5th. By the time I was done with work, it was clear that Barack Obama would be declared the president elect of the United States.

When I got off work, I went to an international bar to meet some friends and celebrate with other Americans. Everyone was excited and it was the first time in years that I felt really proud to be an American.

While I watched Obama giving his speech, I cried. I also heard a line that made me realize why I felt so proud - that reminded me what it is that I do believe in about America. Obama said,

The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but from the enduring power of our ideals - democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

In fact, for regular people who aren't American citizens, maybe even for a lot of regular American citizens, these are the only things that can really be regarded as America's strength. When we move so far away from these ideals, appearing to turn our backs on them - as has happened often in our history - we become a hollow mockery of ourselves.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
- W. Shakespeare

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Waseda Interview

This weekend I went up to Tokyo to interview for a professorship in the history of science at Waseda University.

Now I have interviewed at wealthy private schools in both the US and Japan, and the experiences were very different. At Caltech, everything was paid for by the school, at Waseda, I paid my own travel expenses. At Caltech, the interviewing process lasted from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, at Waseda, it was over in an hour and forty five minutes. At Waseda, I was never told any one's names, at Caltech, I learned the names of over fifteen people and struggled to try to remember them. At Waseda, I wore a tie, at Caltech, I did not.

This picture below kind of sums up my feeling about the whole thing. I went into the front office and bumbled through a conversation in Japanese in which they used various words that I didn't understand, but eventually we got everything straightened out.

Then they took me to a lecture room so that I could set up my laptop for overhead projection. After everything was set up they took me to another classroom to wait by myself while the selection committee went into the first room. They told me it would be about half an hour, but since I forgot my watch in the other room, it felt like an eternity. It was, in fact, as I found out when I was shown back into the original room, exactly half an hour.

Everyone was seated when I went in. I was asked to introduce myself, which I did. Then I gave a 30 minute mock lecture that I had practiced every evening for the preceding week, and which, consequently, went well. This was followed by a fifteen minute question and answer period. There were a few simple questions in Japanese, that I answered in Japanese and one more complicated question in Japanese that I answered in English, but thankfully most of the questions were in English. But the fifteen minutes went by in a blur and then it was over. Everyone filed out. On the way out, one British professor (who had been sure to point out that Eton is spelled Eton, not Eaton), asked me if I was going back to Osaka that night. I said I was, and that was that.

In the main Tokyo station I noticed these annoying benches. They reminded me of some benches that Mike Davis talks about in his social history of Las Angeles, City of Quartz (1990). Apparently, the city of LA was trying to discourage homeless people from sleeping on the benches in certain parts of the city so they designed them with curved seats, so that you could sit on them but you couldn't lay down on them for any length of time.

Well, the Tokyo transportation system has taken it to a new level. Here you see some benches that you can lean on but they're specially designed so that you can't actually sit on them. Tokyoites, however, can sleep standing up on a crowded train so they should actually have no trouble sleeping on these leaner benches.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A shoemaker

The other evening a friend and I were looking for a restaurant in my neighborhood and we ran across this place that seemed to be selling a pair and a half of shoes.

I could see some leather rolls in the back, however, so I pointed out that it was probably a shoemaker's and, of course, we proceeded to get into an argument about the place of hand-made shoes in the modern world.

Eventually, the shoemaker saw us out there carrying on this discussion and invited us in to see his shop.

He seemed to me to be pretty young for a shoemaker. He was definitely younger than me, although, speaking frankly, this can no longer be regarded as much of a criterion for youth.

Apparently, he was trained in various famous shoemaking shops in Italy and England and he seemed to care as much about shoes as anybody who has taken the time necessary to develop real skill in something cares about that thing for which they have given so many of their hours.

He was able to talk endlessly about the various leathers - where they come from and what they are best suited for - the machines - all of which came from Germany - and that each pair of shoes is entirely custom made based on a cast of the client's foot. His shoes start at around 100,000円.

My friend asked him what was the most difficult thing about being a shoemaker and he said that all ladies want an elegant shoe - something that is slim and graceful - but the ladies who could afford a 100,000円 pair of shoes tend to be both fat and ugly, and it is only with great skill and diligence that a shoe that looks slim and graceful can be made to bear such a lady.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Tokyo Trip

I went up to Tokyo last weekend to give a talk at a small conference on history of mathematics at Tsuda College (津田塾大学), a girl's school famous for its superior mathematics program. I stayed at a friends house that night and the next day, before I went home, I did some shopping and took a walk around the campus of the Waseda University (早稲田大学).

Here are some shots of the interior of Blue Lug, a specialty bike shop in Tokyo kind of near Shibuya Station that has the endearing motto It's only bicycle, but we like it.

Here's a apartment building near Waseda. The front has a some shops, including this hair salon.

The entry to another store goes over this wicked tiled demon with a big, long tongue.

The demon looks like it has some kind of piercing with an ornament in its tongue. Or maybe that's just a bug.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Miyuki Frame

I bought this Miyuki frame in a little shop under Shinimamiya Station (新今宮駅), down near Kamagasaki. The shop used to specialize in BMXes, but lately they've been getting a lot of old track stuff in. I picked up this Miyuki for a number of reasons. I've been meaning to get another frame for a commuter and this one was pretty suitable. It's a handmade steal frame and it was a reasonable price (20,000円).

I had never heard of a Miyuki frame before and that was one of the reasons I decided to buy this one. From what I have found out, Miyuki was a small factory in Tokyo that has since closed down. Apparently one of the frame builders went on to work at 3Rensho. This frame is marked 130 on the BB and is probably the 130th frame they built. It is made of Ishiwata Croston 019 double butted cromo tubes.

Aside from having a cute Japanese girl's name, or rather a name that you could imagine belonging to a cute Japanese girl, there are a number of other endearing features to this frame. The logo, for instance, is somehow strangely incongruous with the name and appears to be a snooty rooster starring off into the middle distance.

There are also a number of platitudes stated on the frame in various places. For example under the striped Miyuki label on the seat tube, in Italian, it reads, Campione del Mondo.

In a number of places, and shown here on the top tube, we find the English phrase GAZING AT THE IMPOSSIBLE, which appears to be a sort of motto. One wonders, then, if the rooster is perhaps not so much a snob as somehow transfixed by this act of constant gazing over such vast distances. Or perhaps, long hours of such gazing has lead to a certain frustration, and in turn a sort of anger at the pain and absurdity of it all.

Finally, we have a personalized adaptation of a John Lennon lyric, You may say we are dreamers, someday you will join us, which is signed by the frame builders or the owners of the shop. I don't really know what a statement like this means in the context of being stuck on a non-drive side chain stay. I guess it's more to do with the impossible and the kinds of responses they had been getting for staring at it all the time.

I don't really know what to make of it all, but I couldn't say no to riding a bike called Miyuki rocking an angry rooster.

If anyone has any real information on Miyuki, drop me a comment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Some pictures from Kyoto

One of the malls attached to Kyoto JR Station.

The grounds of Ryoan-ji (龍安寺), widely regarded as one of Japan's most beautiful temples.

The rock garden inside Ryoan-ji, made up of fifteen rocks and white gravel. This garden is considered to be a masterpiece. You can buy a booklet about it in Japanese that has over a page devoted to each rock.

Some pictures of Ninna-ji (仁和寺), which was at one time an imperial palace and is now the headquarters of one of the Buddhist sects.

Another temple complex called Myoshin-ji (妙心寺).

Here's a guy playing golf in park. It was pretty small park, so I'm not sure how he was really able to play.

A night scene in Yasakajinja (八坂神社).

The main gates of Yasakajinja.

Looking out from the gates onto the Kawaramachi area (河原町).

This creepy looking thing below, was actually pretty creepy.

I don't know what its called, but it's to help people put an end to bad relationships. You write about your relationship on a slip of paper from the lighted desk, paste it onto the blob, with all the other descriptions of bad relationships, and then craw through that dark hole.

I tried to read some of the slips. Most of them seemed to be about people, but there were also discussions of smokes, booze, gambling and such. I was then told that it was in bad form to be reading the slips.