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2017-09-25 07:03 pm

September 25: Travel home From Tokyo

One last buffet breakfast at the hotel, and it was as good as the previous day, plus there were a few new things (fried noodles, roasted rather than fried potatoes). Then back up to the room for near-final packing. "Near final" in this case meaning that we were going to be hauling a ton of baggage later in the day, and it was both sunny and hot, so by the time I got to Haneda Airport, I figured I'd be swimming in sweat, and would want to change into new clothing. Also, some fragile stuff that was fine to leave in the big backpacks while we were walking to and between trains would not survive Air Canada's baggage handlers.

We left our bags with the hotel's left-luggage people, then walked about 45 minutes to the Asakuse Taito City traditional crafts museum. (It would have taken half that time if we just walked, but we were irresistibly pulled into a bunch of kitchen supply stores and other distractions. Reminded me of my undergraduate days, when I used to hit the bargain Chinese import shops for cups and plates, and so on, only with much higher quality. It would be a lot of fun equipping an apartment from these stores. Interestingly, the shops seemed to cluster in mini-districts: for example, half a dozen kitchen stores side by side, followed by three knife stores, followed by a handful of slipper stores, and so on. No idea whether they're cooperatively owned or managed so that they don't compete or whether there's some complex etiquette of coexistence that prevents knife duels on the sidewalk.

The crafts museum was more a showroom than a museum, but showed off many beautiful crafts that Japan is known for—lacquerware, ceramics, fabrics—and some perhaps that it's not known for, such as worked leather that looked like carved wood, including a purse that looked sufficiently like a log that it even had annual growth rings on its two ends and a "carved" leather owl. No volunteer guides, only two small floors, and minimal English signage, but they did have a looped movie that showed some of the techniques. Worth the walk, particularly if you're in Asakuse District, as a low-pressure museum for our final day.

From the museum, we headed off to the Sumida River and Tokyo Sky Tree, which is like their version of Toronto's CN tower. The river is thoroughly domesticated, with concrete banks and no wildlife, and the Sky Tree is interesting but not worth much time, so we quickly turned back inshore. As we were passing through one of the older temple districts, a trio of young Japanese (one woman and a man) bearing a movie camera asked if they could interview us. We were in no hurry, and agreed. The questions were completely off the wall (about dental hygiene and whether we'd ever had hangovers, and what herbal or other medicines we took to cure the situation). But they were polite and enthusiastic, so why not? When they were done, they asked us to sign a typical model release form—for NTV, which (if memory serves) is Japan's national TV network. No idea what this was about, other than that it might be one of those "weird things those weird foreigners do" TV shows.

It was a hot and thirsty day, so we went in search of beer. We found two new ones—in one of those ubiquitous vending machines this time—and tried them out when we got back to the hotel lobby. The first, Yebisu Premium Black, was a delicious black ale. The second beer was from the Sapporo company, and that was the only English on the can. But from the autumn leaves in the image and the year 2017 prominently displayed beside them, it seems likely it was an Oktoberfest ale. Not as good as the Yebisu, but still tasty and reinvigorating on a hot day. All the mass-market beers from Japanese brewers are good, particularly as a restorative on hot days, but they're starting to produce some more interesting offerings that we look forward to sampling next time. And thus far, I've liked the Yebisu beers best.

We headed back to Haneda Airport on the relentlessly efficient Japan Rail, repacked our bags to move the breakable into our carry-on luggage, and then I went to change into some dry clothes. We'd hoped to rebook to an earlier flight from Toronto to Montreal, but after 45 minutes waiting in line to see an agent and check our bags, the agent told us she couldn't change our tickets. It might have gone faster if instead of having 2 ticket agents and 4 agents working together to reposition the lane markers leading to the counter, they'd reversed that ratio. We had plenty of time before our flight, so it was more irritating than problematic.

We figured it would be a while before Air Canada fed us, so we stopped for a last Japanese meal before boarding. More on the fast food side of the quality scale than most places we'd eaten, but acceptable for airport food. I had beef curry with rice, and it was nicely spiced, though oversalted; Shoshanna had noodles with pork and shrimp, though the shrimp were on the homeopathic side in terms of size and quantity. If there are "jumbo shrimp", then these were "microshrimp", and they were probably dried rather than fresh.

And so (probably) ends our Japan blog, as we're writing this in Toronto Airport, waiting for the last leg of our flight home. I might have time for some musings in a couple days once I've gotten caught up on accumulated responsibilities—or earlier if I need an excuse to avoid those responsibilities.

Thanks for sticking with us thus far!
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2017-09-25 08:04 am

September 24: Last full day in Japan

Today was a day for winding down and easing our way back into post-vacation life. As a result, we planned to take it easy and just do a few things, while still putting in our daily miles. After all, we're going to be spending 16 hours on airplanes tomorrow and we've consumed a lot of delicious calories during the past couple weeks..

Given the trouble we'd had finding places that were open for breakfast and that also provided Japanese-style breakfast rather than imitation Western food, we decided to try out the hotel's buffet. It proved to be a really good choice: the hot table included broiled fish, chicken scrambled in egg, sweetened omelettes, French fries, a stir fry of mushrooms and tofu, plus a tureen of miso soup. For the cold table, there were three types of sweet pickles, nori (seaweed), seaweed salad, and two types of fruit salad. Also some white bread products that we both ignored. Last but not least, all the coffee one could want.

Suitably stuffed, we headed upstairs for an e-mail check, then headed out on our day. First stop was at the Shitamachi Museum, at the end of Ueno park nearest the train station. Outside the museum, two young women were playing modern music, ranging from folksy to rocky, on a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument, the s(h)amisen. We stayed to watch them for several songs, and they were good. The instrument seems to be played like a cross between a slide guitar and a fret-less banjo. One one finger of her uppermost hand, the one near the neck of the instrument, the musician uses a ring on one finger to slide up and down the strings to control their length and both the note and how it quavers, while her other fingers pluck the strings. Down at the body end of the instrument, she also plucked strings. But rather than using a pick or a tough fingernail, she uses something that looked rather like a hairbrush, presumably with a pick on its underside. (Just looked it up: it's called a "plectrum".) Interesting fusion of old and new!

The museum provides an excellent reconstruction of the state of Tokyo at the turn of the last century, for the periods spanning the decades before and after the 1923 earthquake and subsequent fire that killed more than 100 thousand people and destroyed large parts of Tokyo. (The fires were worse than they otherwise might have been because the quake struck at lunch, when most people had kindled fires to cook their lunch.) We were met by a charming volunteer, who took us through the reconstruction, telling us many details of daily life of the time. (Including useful things you never hear about in most tours or histories, such as the toilet and kitchen locations, and the fact that the people of the time had developed a handy hand wash station outside the toilet: a bucket filled with water and suspended at head height, with a hole in the bottom stoppered by a small stick. Poke the stick upward, and water flows down from the bucket so you can wash your hands. Pull it down when you're done to close the hole and retain the remaining water.

The only real drawback of the museum is that our guide had to remain on the first floor to help other English visitors, and most of the upstairs exhibit space, which showed Tokyo's reconstruction during the next half century, was not translated.

From the museum, we wandered over to the lake that takes up a substantial portion of the southwestern end of Ueno Park. It's filled with lotus plants, which rise out of the water to nearly head height, and stretch several hundred feet to the far side of the lake, where there's a pleasant pagoda. At the southern end, there's enough open water for small fish, a few larger fish, and a fleet of turtles. We watched them for a while, as they've clearly learned to hang out in hope of handouts. There were at least two species of turtle, include the red-eared turtle familiar to most North Americans as a childhood pet. Some of these guys had been around quite a while; they were nearly a foot across.

For lunch, we went to a brewpub that made or sold a variety of Tokyo craft beers. Unfortunately, they were out of the imperial stout and "real ale" that we'd been hoping to try, but their YoHo Ale and summer orange ale (a typical red) were both good, and went well with a savoury bowl of soba noodles and chunks of roast duck.

From there, we headed over to the Ameyoko shopping arcade right next to Ueno station (indeed, it runs under the tracks in places), both to graze on anything that looked interesting and just see all the weird stuff people sold. Plus, people watching, as it was Sunday, and everyone plus their cousins was out for a stroll.. The Japanese don't seem to be big on eating out for breakfast, but are big on lunch and dinner in restaurants, particularly when combined with shopping, so the arcade was packed with people. There's an amazing amount of stuff for sale, from high-end clothing to cheap tat, not to mention a bewildering variety of food—ranging from the expected sweet shops and stalls selling skewers of fresh-cut fruit to fish markets. Interestingly, several shawarma restaurants, which were also selling hand-churned Turkish ice cream. We sampled some dry fruits, shared a green tea ice cream, and shared a chewy fish-shaped cookie (taiyaki) covered in caramelized sugar, possibly with some maple in it.

We lasted until about 3 before the noise and fuss wore us out, and headed back to the hotel to put our feet up and recuperate before dinner. After a bit of research, we found a tempura place about 20 minutes from the hotel that looked promising. We've been using Google Maps on Shoshanna's phone to navigate when a location wasn't perfectly clear, and though it got us to the okonomi place the previous night, it led us a bit astray tonight. We did eventually find tempura place, but the restaurant reviews neglected to mention that it only sold shrimp and prawn tempura—not at all my thing. But they did have a few other dishes, of which I selected a bowl of sweet pickles (cabbage, cucumber, turnip, daikon, and onion) and a big plate of eggplant sautéed in a thick black sauce similar to, but better than, hoisin sauce. Since they offered a new beer we hadn't seen before, we tried it: Asaha Extra Dry Black. Not my favourite black beer, but a nice change from the lagers et al. that we've been having most of the time.

We wandered home through a busy shopping area, still packed with people at 8 PM, though less crowded than earlier, with brief stops to explore a local supermarket, restock our dwindling chocolate supply, and get an ice cream for dessert.

Tomorrow is our last day in Japan, and we really only have the morning. We'll wander over to a local crafts museum, possibly check out a shopping area that specializes in cooking supplies, and maybe wander through Ueno park. Probably have one last meal before shouldering our packs and heading to the airport for our flight home. Stay tuned!
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2017-09-24 05:48 pm

September 23: Kawaguchiko to Tokyo

Breakfast was the supermarket food we purchased yesterday. The okonomiyaki was pretty good for warmed-over supermarket convenience food, and I also sampled the dumplings, purely from a quality-control perspective. I judged them eminently suitable for lunch after a long walk.

Our plan for the morning was to finish packing, dump our bags in the left-luggage room, and walk as far around the lake as we could go in the time available to us, before returning to the hostel for lunch (the surviving dumplings) and a bathroom break before catching a bus to the train station.

The weather was perfect for walking, with low clouds brushing across the mountaintops and creating enough shade that it remained cool throughout the hike. There were enough breaks in the cloud to create constantly changing light on the mountains, which is always one of the pleasures of mountainous areas. We walked to the bridge that spans the eastern end of Kawaguchiko lake, crossed the bridge, then turned west along the lake shore. Lots of fishermen, feathered and otherwise, out for a morning fish. We paused to sit on a dock and watch a white stork (heron?) fishing amidst a flotilla of squabbling ducks, and a nice Japanese gentleman offered to take our picture. So there will be at least some documentary evidence that I was here.

We walked for a little more than 2 hours before reaching the end of the lakeshore walkway, then caught a bus back to the bridge so we could walk east and south around the part of the lake we hadn't seen yet. Where the western lake is less poplulated and more natural, this eastern part is the luxe hotel district, which contained the accommodations we hadn't considered staying in. They're undoubtedly more luxurious than our hostel, but also considerably pricier, and much farther from the station area, so they would have been logistically far less convenient. And K's House Hostel was a lovely space with very friendly staff, and easily walkable into town when necessary or convenient.

The walk back to the hostel was about another hour, and the dumplings were a nice light lunch, washed down with Kirin beer from a machine in the lobby. (We need more beer vending machines in the West. *G*)

Had a nice nap on the hostel couch after lunch, and took some time for blogging before we headed for the bus. We left our last gifts (maple sugar candy) with the hostel staff as a small thank you. We had one for the daughter of one of the staff, who was hanging out watching TV while her mother cleaned house for the next wave of guests. She was probably about 6, and knew enough to say "thank you" in English.

No significant trouble training to Tokyo. We caught one last glimpse of Fuji, coyly baring a shoulder through heavy cloud, then off to our last stop before home. Graham, if you're reading this, you really need to come to Japan and ride the rails. Japan is like Disneyland for railroad engineers.

This time, we chose to stay at Hotel Mystays Ueno. It's a chain hotel, about 100 times the size of any place we've stayed thus far, and nowhere near the swank end, but clean and modern and very convenient: about a 10-minute walk from Ueno train station, near lovely Ueno Park, and close to a great many restaurants and museums—though mostly art museums, as it turns out. Nothing against art museums, of course.

The room at the Mystays was tiny. No, really... Tiny even by Japanese standards. The double bed fills all of the room except a 6-inch gap between the foot of the bed and the window; a 1.5-foot gap between the bed and the wall that supports the world's smallest and cutest desk, hugging the wall; and a shoulder-width corridor leading past the bathroom to the door. On the plus side, the bathroom is one of the biggest we've had thus far, with ample head and shoulder space for me. And the shower is great: a ton of pressure and endless hot water.

Took time to shower and relax a bit, then headed out in search of dinner. Shoshanna checked TripAdvisor in search of good local places, and conveniently, the one that was both top-rated and close to us was an okonomiyaki place. Only about a 15-minute walk too. So we headed there through the gathering dusk, and found ourselves at a tiny old wooden home, with room for fewer than 30 people. It's one of those places where you squeeze your feet under a low wooden table, and cook your meal on a grill mounted in the table right in front of you. That means it's hot—particularly with a dozen or so open grills scattered through the one-story structure. And they have no air-conditioning. They have a warning at the door to warn off anyone who might have troubles with the heat.

It was cool enough outside that with whirring fans everywhere, the temperature wasn't too uncomfortable. After ordering, you're handed a bowl of glop: an egg, the ingredients you specified, and some batter. You mix 'em up, drop them onto the grill, flatten everything out with a spatula, and then relax while it cooks. Periodically, you peek under the edge to see how it's doing, and when it starts browning, you flip it. When you're done, you quarter it with the spatula, scoop a quarter onto your plate, and leave the others to stay warm on the grill. You paint the pancake with tangy BBQ sauce, squirt on a little mayo, and then devour it. Excellent, and washed down nicely with Sapporo beer.

Fractured English of the day: the menu states that the staff will deliver your beer, but that you have to "make your own water". We assume they mean that you have to fetch your own pitcher of water, as there's a rack of pitchers at the back of the restaurant, but the purpose of not serving water eludes me. Maybe they hope you'll buy more beer?

Wandered home through dark, mostly deserted streets, very glad to know that Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. I wouldn't call the area "seedy", but it is dark, not well populated after dark, and off the beaten track.
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2017-09-23 08:06 am

September 22: Kawaguchiko Area

Neither of us was terribly fond of the food at Gusto, so we skipped breakfast. It's not as if we were suffering, as we were still stuffed from last night. If we weren't doing so much walking and luggage carrying, we'd need to stitch together two outfits into one to fit into our clothing. Also, we figured we'd get food along the way as we toured, since most tourist sites have at least vending machines for coffee and an assortment of snacks, including samples of all or many of the sweets for sale in the gift shop. When we travel, we adopt the hunter–gatherer lifestyle.

We hiked down to bus station to get a bus pass, since we'd be on and off the bus several times in the coming day, not to mention on Sunday when we need to haul our luggage to the bus and train station for our return to Tokyo. There are three Kawaguchiko bus lines (red, green, and blue) that let you hop on and off the bus to visit the many small tourist attractions scattered through the area. The blue route goes much farther afield, and is more expensive, so we opted for the less expensive pass that covers only the red and green lines. There was too much to sea for one day's touring, so we picked a couple sites that we figured would be most interesting, and decided to focus on them. We'll just have to return again some day to see the others, and particularly to see if we can spend some time on one or more of the five lakes.

We took the green bus along Lake Kawaguchiko (the "ko" part means "lake", so the name's a bit redundant). It's a large and lovely lake, nestled among mountains that look like someone took a vat of mashed potatoes and doled out huge lumps in the land surrounding the lake. Covered in green forest, so perhaps the food metaphor is best not overextended. Had we come during the summer, I think we'd have made an effort to find kayak rentals, though they may not exist; we saw no brochures for any water excursions other than an overpriced 20-minute power boat ride around the lake. And most of the boats on the lake seemed to be either powerboats or fishing rowboats.

Since the land around Fuji has periodically been buried under lava flows, there are many caves that developed within the lava. Not so many caves back in Montreal, so we decided to fit in a couple caves that seemed most interesting and logistically feasible. We started with the oddly named "bat cave", as there was no evidence any bats had ever lived there. (On the plus side, the guest shop did have several vintage posters from the 1960s Adam West/Burt Ward TV series.) The managers will provide rubber boots (wellies) if so requested, but we had good hiking boots that were sufficient. And the cave floor is sufficiently rough and wet that I do recommend bringing good boots for both safety and comfort. They do insist you wear a plastic helmet, which is a wise choice; the roof is quite low in places, and despite my best efforts, I occasionally straightened out too fast and tapped my helmet on the ceiling. You get to the cave via a 5-minute walk through a beautiful forest that has developed atop the lava. It was a gloomy day, with dark clouds and rain threatening throughout, but still a beautiful forest. It would have been spectacular in bright sunlight.

Despite the lack of bats, it was lots of fun scrambling through the cave. There are several galleries with enough room to stand, but more areas where you have to bend over or even squat down and crabwalk to get through narrow passages. Not even remotely like real spelunking, which often involves crawling through gaps too narrow to pass with a lungful of air, but close enough for my tastes. I'm not claustrophobic, but suspect I might be with both my belly and my back scraping along stone simultaneously. Very different from the caves we've visited in Australia (much limestone, so a fascinating range of flowstone types) and Hawaii (volcanic, but seemingly with more soluble minerals to produce baby stalactites). Nonetheless, it was still a pleasure to be poking about underground in something that once carried lava hot enough to fry you from a distance.

Our next stop was at Saiko* Iyashi no Sato Nenba, which is a reconstruction of a Japanese village that was wiped out by a landslide in the aftermath of a typhoon in 1966. Now, its mostly a shell of its former self, though the buildings are beautifully restored and some of them are still used by community groups or for meetings. Now, there are stalls selling foods grown or created by locals, and a great many crafts (paintings, paper, silks, mobiles, ceramics). There's some beautiful stuff and some really yummy food. We ate far too many samples of mochi (sweetened glutinous rice with various fillings) and cookies, but also had a nice corn on the cob (for about $3, which is high, but far less outrageous than the corn on Fuji, at twice that price) and a mochi filled with bean paste and a herb whose name we can't recall. We need to remember to use the notebooks we both carry to record such details.

* "Saiko", the region name, is pronounced "psycho", so I amused myself all afternoon about visiting the psycho village and the psycho bat cave. Fatigue has clearly begun to take its toll.

Next stop was the "wind cave", a lava tube that occasionally has significant air movement that the signage claimed was driven by differences in relative humidity between the inside and outside of the cave—before electric lighting was installed, the wind was strong enough to blow out the candles that were often used for illumination. I've studied boundary layer climatology, so I understand how environmental gradients can move air, but I don't have any clear idea of how that humidity difference would generate significant wind. Maybe on really dry days outdoors? I suspect it's really the temperature difference that drives the wind, as it's very cold (near 0°C) inside the cave. Cold enough that even now, in September, there were significant deposits of ice that formed in the previous winter still present in one of the lava chambers. It's cold enough most of the year that local peoples used the cave to store silkworm larvae to delay their development (to allow silk production during a longer period of the year) and to warehouse seeds against future need. It's a much smaller cave than the bat cave, and requires much less stooping to get through narrower passages, but it's also much deeper in the Earth—maybe 30 feet below ground at the start, and a bit deeper in other areas.

By now, 10+ days of walking and touring had tired us out pretty thoroughly, so rather than trying to squeeze in another tourist site, we gave up for the day. Instead, we got off the bus at the Ogino supermarket, foreign marketplaces being a tourist experience in their own right. It's about a 10-minute walk from the hostel, so very convenient. I needed to stock up on snacks (chocolate, of course; my first potato chips in Japan*, because why not?; cookies because we found chocolate chip cookies good enough that even Shoshanna ate a batch**) and we also wanted to explore the possibilities for tomorrow's breakfast***. We settled on two packages of gyoza (Japanese dumplings), with no idea what the contain (because there was no English on the package) and a similarly mysterious okonomi. Tomorrow, we'll nuke them in the microwave, and anything we don't eat, we'll bring onto the train for road food. The hostel apparently sets the coffee machine in the commmon room on a timer so that it brews up a fresh pot every morning at 7, so we'll be well caffeinated. Wish we'd noticed this earlier.

* Unremarkable, but satisfied a craving for crunchy potato.
** Shoshanna maintains a wary distance from snacks.
** We belatedly got a clue and remembered that Japanese supermarkets sell a wide variety of ready-to-eat foods.

Back to the hostel for a nap and shower, then off to the local tempura restaurant for a feast. They had a wide selection of ingredients, including a few unusual ones, and also provided sashimi (raw fish), but the real attraction was the tempura. We each ordered a dozen or so servings, mostly vegetables (squash, green pepper, eggplant, onion, boiled egg!, cherry tomato!, mushrooms, and shrimp for Shoshanna). In addition to the usual sweetish dipping sauce, they had a lovely sesame paste/mustard sauce combination and a sweet but moderately hot chili sauce that went very well with the food. Shoshanna also tried their lemon salt, but reported there was too much salt and not enough lemon.

Home and preliminary packing, since tomorrow we head to Tokyo in mid-afternoon, where we'll spend two nights and our last full day in Japan. Where the heck did all the time go?
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2017-09-22 07:50 pm

September 21: Kawaguchiko

We started our day with breakfast at "Gusto", which reminded me a bit of a Denny's or Friendly's in the U.S.: undistinguished food in a bland setting. But they offered three stellar virtues: they were open at 7, they were a 5-minute walk from the hostel, and they offered bottomless coffee. Hallelujah to the latter! The cups are still too small, but you can have a great many of them. I had a salmon set meal, with a small but tasty slice of broiled salmon and the usual pickles, miso soup, and rice. Nothing to write home about (present missive notwithstanding), but tasty, filling, and economical.

Our goal today was to reach Mount Fuji and do some hiking. The weather dawned a bit hazy, but with bright blue skies—enough so that the summit of Fuji was clearly visible, which is not something to be taken for granted as it's more often concealed by clouds than not. So we carpe'd the diem and rushed to catch the first bus, a little before 10. In theory, you can climb Fuji—if you're young and still have young legs, or old and have spent your life climbing mountains. But in practice, it's nearly 3800 m tall (more than 12 000 feet), and though it starts out as a gentle slope, it rapidly steepens. One map we saw of the trails to the summit zigzagged like the trace from a seismograph. Such switchbacks would be only slightly less painful than the parallel route that climbs straight for the top. Sane folks do the climb in 2 days, with a stopover just below the summit on the first day, rising the next day to catch the sunrise, then descending. I think I'd opt for 3 days.

All of which is to say that we had no plans to summit. Instead, we took a tourist bus to the highest point reachable by road, which is the 5th station. There are 10 stations in total, at roughly equal spacing, so we were at about 5400 feet above sea level. From the 5th station, you can hike for hours at roughly the same elevation, parallel to the contours, or hook up with one of the summit trails. (By September, the summit trails are closed because the weather is too unpredictable and it's routinely too dangerous to use them.) We opted for the Ochuro trail, which runs west for about 2 km, followed by a pause to rest and then a short sashay along the Yoshida trail to the summit, just to say we'd done it.

The tourist centre is huge and sprawling, and designed to separate tourists efficiently from their cash. For example, there's a stand where a young woman was boiling sweet corn—at about $6 for a small cob. And we bought a couple steamed pork buns for about $4 each, roughly twice what I'd expect to pay in any non-tourist town. Even though it was mid-week during the off season, the place was swarming with people. There must have been 30 tour buses parked in the lot nearest to the visitor centre, and more farther downslope, not to mention the city buses that arrive every hour or so. I can't imagine what the place is like during the summer high season. Oddly enough, not a lot of people were on the trails; we only met a couple dozen hikers once we were out of sight of the visitor centre.

The weather was still excellent by the time we'd hit the bathroom and gotten ready to start our walk, with beautiful blue skies, cool but not cold air, and little breeze. Clear views of the peak throughout, which was a special blessing. As noted earlier, the peak is concealed by cloud more often than not.

The Ochuro trail is a lovely hike, starting out in woods filled with Japanese larch, fir, some species of paper birch, alder, willow, and lots of low greenery, including barberry with pretty orange-red berries, moss, and lichens. The trail is paved with crushed lava, with occasional chunks up to baseball size but mostly smaller than a pea or bean, and with flat paving stones (about 12 by 8 inches) running down the centre. I suspect these are present to help keep you on the trial if you're unlucky and a fog or heavy rain descends. Easy walking for the most part, with the lava pebbles relaxing on the feet after much time spent walking on pavement—a bit like walking in sand.

You soon leave the woods and begin catching glimpses of the long, sweeping slopes leading to the summit. (There's a clear demarcation between the forested slope, which extends a bit past our present elevation, and the scree slope above it.) It's awe-inspiring to realize that you're still about 1800 vertical metres (more than a mile) below the summit, and that all of the surrounding mountain ranges, which are impressive enough when seen from ground level, are at or below your height.

But what's really impressive is the scree slope that rises above the trail once you reach and pass the tree line. If you know what to look for, you can see landslide tracks everywhere—and they run the length of the slope in places. We saw slides that had buried the trail (leaving only a few paving stones projecting under a metre or more of scree) or swept away a 10-m-wide (about 30 feet) swath of forest as far as the eye could see. The biggest looked (judged using the distance to the summit as a crude yardstick) to be about half a kilometre wide, and stretched from just below the summit down a couple kilometres (measured along the slope) and well past where we were standing.

At this time of year, hiking on Fuji at our elevation isn't an extreme sport, or they'd close the trails; I suspect most landslides occur in winter, during heavy rains, or during earthquakes. Nonetheless, the folks who manage the site have installed landslide diversion structures—basically, oblong steel-reinforced bunkers that rise 3 metres (10 feet) or more above the surrounding slopes. They're mostly there to protect patches of regenerating forest, since the odds are slim of reaching one of the widely separated shelters if a landscape happens without warning.

When we reached the point where the trail began to descend towards the road, well below the visitor centre, we paused to consume our last pork bun and some trail mix and cookies before heading back. The disadvantage of an out-and-back hike is that you see fewer things than you'd see in a loop; the compensating benefit is that you get to see the same things from both sides, and spot things you'd missed. Both have their merits; I don't regret not doing a loop.

Back at the visitor centre, we stopped for a light lunch, keeping a cautious eye on the weather. Mountain weather is (in)famously changeable, and you need to keep your wits about you. We shared a bowl of roasted pork and cabbage on rice, with a small bowl of miso soup as clouds began to roll in. Pleasantly recharging. We still had an hour and a half before it was time for the bus we wanted to catch, and the clouds weren't looking too menacing, so this time we headed east along the Yoshida trail—only to find that after a couple hundred metres, the part of the trail that ascended towards the summit had been closed for the rest of the year. We debated for a moment about whether to go anyway, but when we spotted another hiker descending the trail, we figured it was worth the small risk. We'd continued to keep an eye on the weather, but as the dark clouds were showing no signs of raining yet, and the forecast had been for no rain, we agreed to walk only until we saw signs of rain—at which point we'd get the hell out of there asap. (There were many large erosion gullies running downslope, and the trail itself showed clear signs of scouring by running water. This wasn't a problem in the areas of packed lava gravel, but some of the steep parts of the trail were rock-covered, and would have been impassable because they'd be too slippery to be safe with water running downhill across the stone.)

We topped out at a landslide diversion structure that was also a shelter; the downhill side was a tunnel with open arches looking downslope, where you could hide to wait out rain or a landslide with some hope of returning home to tell about it.

The weather continued to hold, but we needed to return to catch our bus, so we made our way back. A pleasant, though sleepy, bus ride back to town. We'd been walking for about 4 hours in total, but the air was thin enough at more than a mile above sea level that we both felt a bit breathless during the hike. Reluctantly, we were forced to admit that we were not even close to being in good enough shape to summit, at least not without considerable long-term training. We both exercise as often as we can (usually several days each week), and it's served us well during our hikes, but clearly not enough intensity for such an expedition.

Back to the hostel for a shower*, then off to dinner at a local izakaya called "High Spirits", run by a Japanese chef who had studied in the U.S. and who therefore had excellent English. Like many of the places we'd eaten, a tiny place: three tables with room for 12 people, and a bar that runs alongside the kitchen. Itseated 6, including us. The chef was all alone in the kitchen, and he raced back and forth between his various preparations (frypans, refrigerator, spice racks, bowls of prepared stuff, a dozen or so bottles of various alcohols, etc.) like a martial artist practicing kata. Fun to watch someone really good at their work performing.

* The bathrooms in Japan tend towards the small side. The hostel bathroom was about the size of an airplane bathroom, but with a tub and shower added. The tub is wide enough that my shoulders only touch the wall or the shower curtain (not both) simultaneously, but there's only about 2 inches between my head and the ceiling. I've also noticed that my legs are too long for me to fit in standard bus seats; as a result, I have to sit sideways, with my legs sticking into the aisle. I'm not particularly huge (just 6 feet), so really bug guys beware! Japan is not built for people like us. On the other hand, the Shinkansen trains have ample legroom and headroom; I spotted one Westerner who must have been 7 feet tall who fit comfortably.

The chef did have someone helping out with the dishwashing and food delivery, but the guy was a trainee on his second day, and not yet up to speed. We had "Cajun" pork ribs, which were delicious and tender enough that I could pull them from the bone with chopsticks, but not very spicy, and a side of cold sautéed eggplant, also delicious and nicely al dente. Shoshanna had five pieces of sashimi that she loved, along with real wasabi that packed serious heat (not the diluted stuff we get in the west). We liked it all so much that we ordered an additional main course: lettuce leaves that we used like taco shells, stuffed with savoury roasted ground beef with a delicious oil/spice sauce mixture. Messy to eat, but amazingly good. The evening's alcohol was potato shochu (like sake, but made from potatoes), which was interesting but not nearly as good as sake, and Kirin beer.

Home to bed to prepare for another day of hiking tomorrow.
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2017-09-21 09:00 pm

September 20: Nara to Kawaguchiko

We ended our stay in Nara on a high note, with a delicious breakfast. The main course was beef stew, with the beef glazed with a salty-sweet glaze before roasting, beside perfectly cooked potatoes and onions in a thin broth. The main side dish was half a small Japanese eggplant, roasted and covered with a salty sauce. Miso soup and pickles (carrot and possibly bamboo, dusted with sesame seeds), as usual. Really good green tea, and a cup of coffee to end. Yay, coffee.

Final packing proved to be a bit of a challenge due to the aforementioned gifts. Everything should theoretically fit with a tiny amount of room to spare, but like one of those circus clown cars, you want to be careful about poking the seams lest they burst and propel the contents everywhere. Note to self: next time, don't pack so damned many clothes, and leave more room in the pack for acquisitions.

We also brought maple syrup for our hostess, Madame Adachi, so our departure was delayed slightly while we gave her this gift. She recognized it at once, despite the unclear cursive script on the label, and was pleased, as she loves maple syrup.

Today, we're off to Kawaguchiko, where we'll spend 3 days in one of Japan's most lovely rural/wilderness areas. We chose this area (after 9 days in cities) so we could enjoy the lakes and mountains. The area's name is Fujigoko, which means "the five lakes area of Mount Fuji". We don't have firm plans, as mountain weather is unpredictable and may require some last-minute schedule changes. But at least in principle, there are some interesting lava caves to explore (one called "the ice cave", another called the "wind cave"), several interesting hikes (including one that takes from 5 to 7 hours and includes a total elevation change of 4000 feet uphill and 3000 feet downhill, plus several smaller ones), and, of course, the elusive okonomiyaki. Oh yeah: did I mention Mount Fuji?i

As always, Japan Rail was a pure delight: clean, fast, efficient, and with a little planning, you can get anywhere quickly. However, to get to Kawaguchiko, we needed to switch to a tourist bus once we'd arrived in Mishima, the most convenient rail station. Shoshanna had reserved our bus tickets well in advance, so we got seated at the front, directly behind the driver, for a pretty good view.

Today's interesting details: Japan Rail is very conscious of the need for handicap accessibility, so they make great efforts to help out. Announcements in train stations are clear, despite the cavernous spaces, which is a marked departure from most places I've traveled. I have some sense that in England, for example, they're called "tannoys", with emphasis on the part after the "t". Japan Rail has also installed raised yellow floor tiles that create a rough strip the blind or sight-impaired can easily follow between platforms or between the ticket office and the platforms. (There are similar guides in most sidewalks, suggesting this is implemented via a national law of some sort. Braille is common on trains, including in toilet stalls in the Shinkansen, where Shoshanna noted that inside the door, there's a map of the toilet compartment in Braille so users don't need to grope around to find the toilet. In a welcome nod to hygiene, the unisex bathrooms have buttons beside the toilet that automatically raise and lower the seat so you don't have to touch it. This may be a primary reason why the bathrooms are so clean and tidy, unlike most Western washrooms that men are allowed to use.

We'd seen occasional glimpses of Mount Fuji, wreathed in mist, from the Shinkansen, but from the bus, the mountain positively loomed as we drew closer. There are certainly bigger mountains, including several lovely ranges in the land surrounding Fuji, but Fuji stands out as a single object, and thus seems so much bigger by comparison. It's also a stratovolcano, and easily twice the height of the surrounding mountains. There are perspectives where you're still many miles away, and yet the mountain seems to occupy a huge proportion of the horizon. Its near-perfect conical shape also helps, since the other mountains are more mountainy, which is to say, they're all rumpled and asymmetrical. As you draw closer, you can see a few lumps and deviations in Fuji, but that actually enhances the mountain's beauty. We're here before the snows, so no white crown on the mountain yet.

Kawaguchiko is a smallish town, dominated by its bus and rail stations, and apparently rolls up the streets shortly after dark. (The tourist buses stops running around 6 PM, and most restaurants are closed by around 8.) We found two main choices of accommodation: the Station hotel, right across from the station, was very convenient, but seemed a little soul-less and I had some concerns about noise from buses etc. (In hindsight, that probably wouldn't have been a problem.) Instead, we chose K's House, a hostel with private rooms. It's newish, clean, and offered a charming tatami room with a great view of the mountains north of Fuji from our window. The only real downside is that it's a walk of 15 to 20 minutes from the bus station. Not a horrible problem, as it was quite cool (around 20°C) and cloudy, so schlepping all our packs wasn't as sweaty as it could have been. But I foresee a day in coming years when we decide to switch to more ritzy accommodations closer to the train or bus station to eliminate the walk.

After dumping our bags and settling into our room, we headed out for dinnner. Our guidebook (and the helpful staff at the hostel) suggested a teppanyaki place that turned out to be a tiny hole in the wall, with about ten seats in total, of which we seized the two at a bar beside the chef's tiny cubicle. I was tall enough to see him work, but Shoshanna couldn't. Here, we finally found post-Hiroshima okonomi, and it was decent, though not the best I've had, and we paired it with a decent grilled salmon. We shared, as we usually do, so that each of us got to try two different things. We may return tomorrow, or we may try out the tempura place next door. Tempura is fairly ordinary, but deep-fried yum from a restaurant that specializes in this food is hard to resist.

More tomorrow!
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2017-09-19 07:43 pm

September 18: Nara with a guide

Today, we had our first breakfast at Hotobil, and it was excellent. Raw egg that we blended into the rice, miso soup, roasted fish (some anonymous but really good white fish), fried tofu, pickles, and really good green tea. Enough of a feast that the standard Japanese phrase gochisosama deshita ("that was a feast") was no exaggeration. We ended up not eating lunch or much of anything else at all the rest of the day.

We took the local JR train to Nara Station, where we were to meet our local student guide, Yuko, at 10 AM. While we waited, I struck up a conversation with a silver-haired older man (maybe 70?) who was also a tour guide, but for pay. He approached us offering his services, but was very pleasant about accepting our refusal when we told him we already had a guide. When Shoshanna went off on a few errands, I chatted with him for a bit, and wished him the pleasure of a good tour in honour of the national holiday today, "respect for seniors" day. Mr. Ozawa seemed like a very pleasant guy, and if we hadn't already booked a guide, it would have been fun to spend the day with him.

Yuko arrived at the agreed-upon time, and off we went. She's a young woman from Aichi Prefecture, about 2/3 of her way through a degree in English literature at Nara Women's University. She was pleasantly surprised I knew about her school, but I told her that I had a couple clients who teach at her university, though on the science side. She confessed to always having a case of nerves starting the tour, but Shoshanna and I both described our own nerves before giving a lecture (me) or performing a ritual (Shoshanna). She relaxed soon enough and we had a pleasant conversation about a great many things in between stops on the tour.

We started out at the five-tier pagoda we'd visited the previous day. It's apparently the second-tallest pagoda in Japan, exceeded by only a few centimetres by a similar pagoda in Kyoto. It's topped by a golden spire with nine levels (10 being the perfect number, so falling short is a reminder of the human lack of perfection and need to strive for more) and spikes intended to ward off sin. It's a short distance across a square from the Nan'en-do Hall, a beautiful temple dedicated to healing. It's an octagonal building, supposedly because the goal of a perfect circular structure was beyond the skills of architects of its era, and eight sides was as close as they could come to such perfection. (I suspect the more important reason is that this shape relates to the Buddhist "eight-fold path".) Unusually, the "piping" on the roof (the downward-sloping row of tiles that covers the seam where adjacent sections of roof meet) were doubled, with an additional layer atop the lower layer. It looked rather like—if you'll forgive the irreverent simile—two copulating caterpillars. Which unfortunate imagery detracts not at all from the beauty of the design, which is elegant and symmetrical, as is typical of Japanese temples.

From there, we wandered up to the most spectacular temple complex in Nara, the Daibutsuden complex. This is the site of what is apparently the largest wooden building on Earth, the imposing Daibutsuden hall. It's so big it projects this sense of enormous gravity even from a distance of hundreds of yards when you enter the temple complex—and amazingly, the current version is only eight pillars wide across the front. The original that was destroyed and that it replaced was 50% larger, but budget constraints apparently prevented the rebuilders from fully recreating the original. Inside, there's an enormous bronze stature of the Buddha, stretching to the ceiling. It's so big that the palm of its upraised hand is 2.5 metres long all by itself; the overall statue is more than 16 metres tall (more than 50 feet). It weighs on the order of 450 imperial tons. The roof surrounding it is supported by pillars some three feet in diameter, and is so high up it's almost celestial in its own right. An exceptionally impressive space.

One of the amusing bits, proving that the human sense of humour is universal to all cultures and times*, is that one of the pillars behind the Buddha has a hole carved in it at floor level. If you can squeeze through it, the story goes, you can achieve virtue. It's an easy passage for children, and a couple women managed to squeeze through without any help, but I can't imagine even fitting my shoulders into the hole, let alone making it all the way through. I found myself wondering how many stubborn Western tourists have to be forcibly extracted with winch and axle grease each year.

* Though, of course, there are variants. The Viking sense of humour, for instance, probably wouldn't play well in New York.

From the Daibutsuden temple, we stopped at the Todaiji museum, which had a small display of archeological artefacts from the site. Particularly impressive were 500-year old scrolls, beautifully illuminated and with colours still as vibrant as ever. Much like the book of Kjells in Ireland.

Next, we wandered uphill, a stiff climb to the top of the low mountains on the northeastern side of the valley that contains Nara. Most of the ascent is shaded by trees, which is fortunate because it was hot and humid. After a sweaty climb, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the whole valley. You get a sense of how densely built-up the city is, but there are also nice green spaces, particularly on the slopes of the surrounding mountains. My understanding is that the Japanese revere their mountains, and thus don't cover them with high-priced homes, unlike in many Western cities. The result is beauty.

After pausing to cool down and soak in the atmosphere, we descended back towards the city. It was just after noon, but lunch was not really in the cards, none of us being hungry enough. Instead, we stopped at a café near the eastern end of Nara Park for a drink and to take a load off our feet for a bit. Shoshanna and I tried a couple local microbrewery beers (a Kölsch-style Pilsner-type beer, and an "altbier", the former a familiar but tasty golden ale and the latter a red ale with a nice hint of caramel and a slightly bitter finish). Sadly, neither of us thought to write down the name of the brewer. Yuko would not have any alcohol, as (from her description) her family lacks the gene that lets one process alcohol. But, with some persuading, she did accept our offer to buy her a mango drink. We sipped and chatted while we watched the ubiquitous Sitka deer shopping (two of them were clearly browsing the sidewalk wares at a tourist gift shop at the foot of the park, nosing among the souvenirs) and mugging tourists (whether or not they had deer cookies in hand).

From the café, we wandered downslope through a densely forested path lined by shrines and stone lanterns. The path starts out towards the southeast, bends south, then bends back west as it wends its way through Nara Park, eventually ending near the large pond at the southwestern end of the park. It's lovely woodland, and a nice break from the sun on a sunny day. It's also densely populated with temples, all in good repair and quite lovely.

Our last stop on the day's tour was at a large merchant's house in Naramachi district. It's beautifully laid out, with large and airy tatami rooms, though a bit low-roofed for someone my size. Pleasant courtyard and backyard, large kitchen, and what Yuko described as a "danger room" in the top floor, reached through a tiny door at floor level that I barely fit through on hands and knees; to get though, I had to do one of those "scoop" pushups—the kind where you swoop your head downwards until your shoulders almost touch the ground, then push your head up as your butt and low back swing through the spot your head formerly occupied. Basic notion is that if you're a rich merchant and thieves break into your house, you can retreat to this room and defend yourself more easily, because it would be hard to get through the small door while the residents are trying to poke you with a spear. Not sure I buy that explanation, as the house is all wood and rice-paper walls, which would burn easily.

Yuko left us after we'd seen the merchant's house, and we sent her on her way with a gift bag containing a tin of Quebec maple syrup. (That's our standard travel gift because the tins survive rough handling and it's a very Canadian taste of home.) We hope she enjoys it! She had expressed an interest in our editing work, so I gave her my business card and suggested she look up all the editing-related material on my Web site and contact us if she wanted to learn more. And, of course, we told her that if she ever wanted to come to Montreal, we would be happy to show her around the city.

We were tired enough after 7 hours of walking that we agreed on an early dinner rather than having to walk all the way home and then back out again to find a restaurant, but not much was open at 5 PM. So we walked most of the way back to the park before we found a place that was open. It was tiny (only two tables and half a dozen seats at the bar that overlooked the kitchen), and at least initially, it was a one-man operation. No English menu, but between us, the cook had enough English and I had enough Japanese to figure out together what was on the menu. It was an udon (thick, chewy wheat noodles) place, and he made the noodles fresh while we watched, rolling them out and cutting them using a pasta machine. I chose a bowl of udon with fried tofu and seaweed; Shoshanna optedfor the shrimp tempura set meal. Because we were at the bar, we got to watch as he threw the noodles into a vat of boiling water and performed a graceful dance among three or four pots (broth, oil, a couple others) and the refrigerator (Tupperware containers of vegetables, shrimp, other stuff) and two batter bowls, not to mention three gas burners he used to set the broth to boiling. Battering the tempura, stirring the noodles, testing the tempura for doneness, and so on kept him constantly in motion. (By the time we were done, a woman arrived to share the work, and the dance then became a pas de deux as the two shared the cramped space behind the counter.) Yummy, filling, and a nice end to the day.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a national holiday today, with the goal of celebrating the elderly ("respect for the aged" day). Japan's government apparently used to give everyone who reached the age of 100 a silver sake cup, but may have recently discontinued the practice when the number of people reaching this age began approaching 30 thousand! Lots of people were out enjoying the fine weather, and we saw a small fireworks display on the way home.
blatherskite: (Default)
2017-09-18 07:38 am

September 15: Travel to Nara

Still no photos... iPad issues that don't bear going into, but that boil down to dumbass design choices. Will continue looking for a solution.

Today's primary job was to flee Hiroshima before the typhoon hit, and relocate to Nara, where we'll be spending 4 days. It was raining lightly when we left, but we have backpack condoms that keep our stuff dry, so it wasn't a problem. Caught the Japan Rail shuttle bus about 5 minutes from our ryokan, and made it to the Japan Rail station with enough time for a decent breakfast at one of the station restaurants: a huge bowl of thick, chewy udon noodles in broth for me, and cold soba noodles with tempura for Shoshanna. (Of course, we always share, so we get to try a bit of everything.) We were tempted by the station's okonomi restaurant, for one last try of the Hiroshima style, but they didn't open until too close to our desired Shinkansen, and by the time we finished breakfast, the line outside the okonomi place was nearly 30 people long. Nope!

Made it to our Shinkansen with time to spare, but for the first time, the cars with unreserved seating that we usually take were already full, so we had to stand (Shoshanna) and sit (me) in the space at the end of a car, between cars, but still indoors. So if you need to be sitting in the car, a word to the wise: reserve a seat if you don't know in advance that the train won't be full at your desired departure time. Anyway, lesson learned, but it wasn't a huge issue because several seats opened up about 15 minutes later, at the first stop after we got on, and we grabbed a pair. (We work well as a team: Shoshanna ran and grabbed the seats, and I schlepped the big backpacks.)

Transferred to a local train an hour and a half later, and made it into Nara after another half hour or so. We transferred at Osaka, and the station platforms were packed with people. But by the time we got to Nara, there weren't many people at all. By the time we arrived, it was raining heavily, although the main body of the typhoon is expected to bypass Nara. We have reasonably good rain gear, so we got to our hotel with only one small problem: we walked past it in the rain. (In our defence, it was offset about 30 feet back from the street, and not particularly well signposted. And it was raining hard. Did I mention the rain?) Fortunately, there was a tourist information centre just past the hotel, and when the stopped in to ask, they set us straight quickly.

For a last-minute, "any port in a (literal) storm" choice, the Washington Plaza (!) hotel proved to be a good choice. Only about 5 minutes walk from the rail station, and as clean and tidy, as all Japanese hotels etc. that we've stayed in thus far. Tiny, though: maybe 10 feet square, plus a bathroom just large enough to turn around in tucked between the (small double) bed and the door. The bed is a nice change from the tatami mats + futon ryokan experience: in a tatami (straw mats) room, it can be hard to get up and down from floor level after a long day walking. I foresee that in a few years, we may have to give up on the ryokans and go for rooms with western-style beds.

For dinner, we went to a small izakaya (a pub, sort of) called "Washoguya Happo". The head waiter told us there would be a half-hour wait, but we sat for only 5 minutes by their indoor koi pond (which contained two extremely skeptical-looking koi that maintained a safe distance*) before being shown to a table. Turned out to be much quieter than the other izakayas we've eaten at, which catered mostly to a younger and louder crowd. We ended up ordering about eight small dishes—some meat (pork and beef), some not (tempura veggies, deep-fried tofu), and some both (cold chicken on salad greens). None of it was spectacular, but it was all tasty. And it accompanied a warm carafe of local sake quite well.

* Koi have surprisingly expressive faces, and the look on their eyes was clearly "sure, you're just looking now, but we saw what happened to Fred last week, and we're not ending up as sushi for gaijin".

The rain had stopped by morning. We walked down to the train station, along largely deserted streets. The station has two of the few places that are open sufficiently early for breakfast. We opted for the one opposite Kotoka, which was the other open place; it didn't seem to have an English name. It was another one of those places with a meal ticket machine by the doorway, so you feed the machine coins, make your choices, and print meal tickets before entering the restaurant, and then present your tickets to the waitress once you're seated. We both chose the "silver salmon" Japanese set breakfast: a tiny filet of grilled salmon (with skin on, hence the silver part of the name), miso soup, fermented adzuki beans, nori (crisp, dry seaweed in little cellophane packages), and a raw egg. Feeling adventurous, I dumped the egg into the rice (as is the practice), stirred it around vigorously, added the beans, and topped it with a generous helping of pickled (onion?). Glutinous, but tasty, and the raw egg isn't horrible once you get past the Western aversion to eating uncooked egg. The adzuki beans are somewhat tasteless, and when you remove them from the bowl, they remain firmly attached to the beans in the bowl by these hair-thin, endlessly extensible strings of bean paste, but they mix well with the other stuff. I also tried them alone, but this time with hot mustard and a bit of soy sauce. The taste and eating experience is much improved. For a special treat, we ordered hot coffee with our breakfast. It was weak and came in a tiny cup*, but it was a nice change from vending machine coffee.

* Only North Americans drink coffee the way God intended, namely in mugs large enough you could take a bath in them.

On our way home, we stopped in at a supermarket attached to the train station. (That's actually a great location, since you can catch all the workers coming home as they step off the train.) Did a bit of food tourism, which is always fun, and picked up some Japanese snacks (caramel corn and a chocolate bar), plus some peaches for snacking on later. Also, canned coffee, which (cold tip!) is significantly cheaper in the supermarket than from the machines. The caramel corn was sort of like Cheetos with a thin coating of peanut infused caramel, and exceedingly addictive. The Ghana-brand chocolate bar was luscious dark chocolate, though perhaps on the sweet side of semi-sweet. Forgot to mention that we also picked up a handful of momiji earlier. These are trademark Hiroshima snacks: soft, cakey cookies, with a range of fillings. Think "fig Newton" and you'll get the idea, but with much better cake and more interesting fillings; we tried and enjoyed green tea and chestnut, and have a sake momiji left for later today.

Back to the hotel for e-mail check and typing up the blog before we walk (about half an hour) up to Hotobil, the home-stay where we'll be staying during our planned time in Nara.

Update later: Hotobil was an easy 20-minute walk, though carrying 50 pounds of luggage made it a bit of a sweat. Thank God it was overcast and reasonably cool! Typhoon Talim hit Miyajima hard, and everyone inshore is under storm watch, but at last check, it's only a category 3 storm, and the Japanese have long experience with these storms, and aren't panicking. The storm should mostly miss us here in Nara, though as I'm writing this (5 PM local time), we've got a good windstorm blowing outside our room. But really, nothing scary.

Though check-in time wasn't until 3 PM, our remarkably cheerful hostess let us drop off our bags around 11, then turned us loose for the day. We're just south of one of the oldest parts of Nara, so we spent the first part of the day wandering through old streets. Most of the homes have been updated to 20th century standards, but there are a few from the 19th and early 20th century that are still around, not to mention much older temples scattered here and there among the homes. Nara is very dense with temples, and we'll probably see a bunch of them tomorrow, when we'll be walking around with a local volunteer guide. (Hint: These guides are surprisingly common in big tourist cities in Japan, and usually guide you for the pleasure of meeting foreigners, polishing their English, and just being a good host. So if you're going anywhere you don't speak the local language, it's worthwhile googling for "volunteer guide" to see what turns up.

We wandered up to the tourist information centre just south of Nara Park, where a remarkably cheerful volunteer guide offered his advice on things to see and do. Though we're between festivals, there was a sake festival a short walk from the park (in practice, really more of a product marketing thing by a local brewer), so we went to have a look. There were free samples of one of the host company's products. We liked the Harushika sake enough that we went back for seconds and then thirds, and finally bought a bottle. It's nicely fruity and sweet without being cloying, has flavor from start to finish, and has nice body. After having our first sample, we took a short tour that led through the production facilities and showed us some of the things we'd only heard about in Saijo. Only in Japanese, but the colourful cartoon posters at each stage made it easy to see what was going on.

We tried out a bit of local food while there. The first was a small can (about the size of a can of tuna) filled with (pork?) meatballs. Tasty, but overpriced. Then we discovered the "food court" we'd missed, just beside the Harushika factory, and had the local equivalent of fried chicken nuggets, which were really rather good. Clearly fried, but not dripping grease or soaked in brine like KFC.

From there, we wandered up to Nara Park, periodically stopping to check out the various souvenir shops. At the first one, the proprietor offered us cups of iced coffee, which were lovely. He was an importer of tchotchkes from all around Asia, and we found a few suitable cat options that we'd like to use to thank our vet for all her help with Ben. We eventually settled on a cute pair of cats sitting on a bench, imported from Bali.

At Nara Park, we mostly stayed near the entrance, figuring that we'll see more of the place tomorrow. (We're scheduled to spend the day with a local student volunteer guide, Yuko. We told her to show us places that she likes and that aren't necessarily in the tourist guidebooks. No idea what will result, but it should be fun anyway.)

There's a lovely 5-story pagoda, originally from 710 CE but restored//rebuilt in the early 1400s, and an even lovelier temple. But what Nara Park is probably most (in)famous for is its deer, which are tiny (not much bigger than a golden retriever), delicate, and absolutely unafraid of humans and unashamed of mugging us for food. (Of course, the park managers sell deer-friendly food.) They're so tame Shoshanna and I sat down beside one and petted it, which it allowed even though we had no food to feed it. These deer clearly know who butters their bread, so to speak. Then we sat for half an hour and people-watched as an unending series of people came up to sit with "our" deer and take selfies or have someone photograph them. Through it all, the deer lay calmly on the ground, with the world-weary look of a celebrity grudgingly acknowledging its fans.

We wandered home along one of the main crafty/restauranty streets, peering in windows, and found some really nice ceramics. The shop we bought some souvenirs at had some of the most amazing glazes (autocorrect tried to turn that into Amazing Grace *G*), ranging from near-transparent to silvery metallic. Japan is justly famed for its ceramic arts. The really amazing specimens were an order of magnitude more than we wanted to pay, but we found some quite lovely pieces for a reasonable price.

Returned to Hotobil around 4 PM for a nap, chocolate break, and shared peach. Our second round of Japanese peaches was every bit as good as our first. At about $3 per peach, they're definitely not cheap (though they are about 2 to 3 times the size of a typical North American peach), but they're definitely worth the cost. Firm white flesh and subtle peach flavor.

In theory, we'll be going out for dinner, but the wind is starting to blow harder, so we may exercise the better part of valor and stay close to home.

Update: We didn't exercise the better (and wiser) part of valor. A quick check of the weather forecast suggested thunderstorms and winds reaching 60 miles per hour starting in a few hours, so we headed out early (a little after 5 PM) in search of food. We had a blustery but safe powerwalk up the main drag in search of any place that was open, and finally found one: "Take no Yakata". It's a moderate-sized place with massive old wooden beams and a high wood lath roof. We sat at the counter in front of the cooks, who worked over large (about 2 feet in diameter) boiling vats of soup broth. Into the broth went a bunch of interesting things: what seemed to be turnips, slices of some kind of squash, sausages, and a variety of mysterious round things.

They did have an English menu, and when we saw that they had six kinds of dumplings, we decided "why choose?" and asked for two of each. Turns out that "dumplings" really meant "small things what you can boil in soup", not the gyoza we'd expected. So we ended up with thick-skinned tofu slabs, potatoes, burdock root wrapped in something very much like sausage meat, a hard boiled egg, seaweed gelatin (very, very chewy), and mysterious disks about 2 inches in diameter that resembled some chewy kind of rice flour patty. It was all good, but the nuclear yellow mustard they provided made it quite wonderful. That and the thrill of running out into a growing storm that we occasionally heard howling outside the door. Still, I was reassured at the number of locals who were eating in the next room; clearly, they weren't worried by the storm.

Paid in a hurry and rushed home, because we wanted to beat the thunderstorm. GoreTex is all very well, but in a heavy rain driven by gale-force winds, it can only do so much. Best line on the way home goes to Shoshanna: "So we turn left at the parking lot and continue on until the talking poo?" (The telephone pole at the corner of our street has a poster instructing dog owners to clean up after their dog; it's a cartoon, and the dog is delivering the message, presumably "please stoop and scoop", and the poop emoji beside it is undoubtedly replying "no shit!") Made it home with nary a problem, despite the growing wind (sometimes strong enough to stop us in our tracks) and occasional rain. A surprising number of bicyclists, presumably returning home or running errands with no fear of being blown to Korea.

And off to bed early, since we need to meet our local guide tomorrow.
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2017-09-16 08:08 am

September 15: Hiroshima/Onomichi

Today our goal was to take a day trip to Onomichi, a bustling port city on the coast of Japan's inland sea. They have developed a long tourist-friendly walk along a well-populated hillside that takes you up and down the slopes and past a series of a dozen or so temples, with ever-changing views down onto the city and its port.

Before leaving, we decided to hit the bakery near our ryokan that we'd discovered yesterday night on our way to dinner. They had a wide range of pastries, many "savoury" (i.e., with meat or other forms of protein in them), so we figured they'd be a good choice, not to mention something new. We spent a while trying not to drool on the many yummies, and eventually settled on a small selection: a chicken and basil and cheese pizza slice, a beef curry bun, a ham and eggs bun, and for dessert, a red bean paste pastry and a chocolate pastry. All delicious, and devoured swiftly and washed down with good machine coffee.

It was a toss-up whether we'd get to the train station faster if we walked or took the shuttle bus, but since it was cool enough for me to walk without turning into a puddle (which tends to happen when temperatures rise above about 24°C), we decided to walk and enjoy the city close-up. No special discoveries, but a pleasant long walk before sitting on the train for 45 minutes .

Shoshanna was looking for insoles for her boots, since the built-in padding wasn't very good, and we found an L.L. Bean store and a Timberlands store on the same floor of a big department store building. They wouldn't open until after 10, so we continued on to the train, but planned to return on our way home. As usual, Japan Rail provided a swift and comfortable trip, and we were soon on our way up into the hills.

There were some flashbacks to our endless stair-climbing during last year's hiking vacation in Amalfi (Italy), but this time it was much easier: not as many stairs, nor as high an ascent. However, after the first temple, we missed a turning point and found ourselves climbing uphill on a wild temple chase. The map wasn't very good, and the route we took appeared to be clearly headed for a particular temple and observation point that clearly indicated on the map. The position didn't look quite right on the map, but it seemed like the only way to go, and the map wasn't so great. In the end, it the temple and viewpoint at the top of the hill turned out to be only a distant cousin of where we were really supposed to be headed. We probably spent an hour wandering down a series of back alleys and into dead ends that got us no closer to the actual trail. All very interesting, particularly since we got some nice views down the hills and into the sea, and got to watch a local painter producing an oil painting of the scenery from the viewpoint.

Eventually, we gave up and returned to the first temple, where we found the turn we'd missed and bent our course back on track. Saw several nice temples and one really spectacular one along the way. One interesting thing was the large number of cats. Apparently, cats are a "thing" in Onomichi. One of the highlights of the walk was watching three kittens playing pounce and wrestle in the vegetation outside one of the temples.

As the day wore on, we took a closer look at the map and saw that we wouldn't likely be able to complete the full temple tour, so we chose a reasonably midpoint: there was a ropeway (cable car) leading up to the viewing point that we'd incorrectly thought we'd reached earlier in the day. The view was rather nice, particularly when washed down with a nice local beer, eponymously named Onomichi after the city. Like most of the Japanese beers we've tried, it had a nice, light, crisp taste that was perfect for cooling down after a long and sweaty hike in the hills. But it was also unpasteurized and unfiltered, so it had a pleasantly funky yeasty aftertaste. And it's one of the very few microbrews we've seen. Asahi and Sapporo seem to have pretty much locked up the beer market.

After admiring the view, we took the ropeway back down the hill, then continued on foot into the port area. Spent some pleasant time exploring the publicly accessible parts of the central port area, then turned inland and spent some time browsing in another covered outdoor shopping mall. This one was definitely less ritzy than the Hiroshima mall, but every bit as eclectic. Also, mostly closed; it was mid-afternoon, and thus between the lunch rush and the dinner/post-work rush. We stopped in at a tiny outdoor store, maybe 10 feet by 30 feet, to see if they had insoles suitable for Shoshanna and me. (My boots are also not very good for pavement or standing around.) Nope! The lengths the shopkeeper had in stock were good, but not the width. We westerners have different foot sizes from the Japanese.

We continued our stroll, and found a small crafts shop, even tinier than the outdoor store... maybe 8 feet by 8 feet? They had a bunch of cat-themed things, which we thought would be a perfect gift to our vet for keeping our Ben Venue alive long past his predicted expiry date. The shop was open, and had a nice little porcelain aneki neko (waving/welcoming cat) sculpture that would have been perfect, but there was no sign of the shopkeeper. We waited about 5 minutes, hoping they'd return, but they never did. I love a culture where the crime rate is so low you can just wander off and ignore your store for however long.

As I was writing this, Shoshanna just chortled with pleasure: her Fitbit recorded 24 thousand steps today. Seems about right; we'd been walking fairly steadily for going on 5 hours.

We arrived back at the train station in time to stop in at the station bakery for a snack (sausage roll and an iced peach smoothie). Japanese peaches are huge, white-fleshed, and delish, but we've only had them once; prices approach $4 each, and we're reluctant to splurge too often. But the peach drink was something new, so what the heck!

By the time we made it to our train's platform, school was out and the platform was aswarm with kidsT the most charming part was the small groups of 6-year-olds, who were beyond cute—but also completely unselfconscious about being released on their own to take the trains home, completely unescorted and unworried. I love a culture where kids can be raised to be this independent and this safe! Interestingly, the boys clumped together and the girls clumped together, with no mingling.

Finally made it back to Hiroshima around 5:30, in time to hit the department store and look for insoles. Shoshanna found a pair that fit her, but although I found a pair long enough for my feet, there wasn't a pair wide enough for me. It's not like I have unusually large feet—quite the opposite, really. It's just that westerners have bigger feet than Japanese. Forgot to mention earlier that we'd visited several pharmacies in search of insoles, but they apparently are not a Japanese thing.

Shoshanna was craving oysters, a Hiroshima-prefecture specialty, so we stopped in at a restaurant (Coeur del Pesche = heart of the fish) that looked promising. She had her oysters, I had a nice steak braised in red wine sauce, and we wandered home through Hiroshima's considerably swankier open mall. Ice cream shops were missing in action, and I was craving some, so I eventually gave up and tried a 7-11. These stores are everywhere, sometimes within a couple blocks of each other, and usually within spitting distance of "Family Mart", which seems to be their main competitor. Also interestingly, they have a large liquor selection—not just beer, but half an aisle of the hard stuff.

Note to Japan travellers: the 7-11 stores also have an ATM, which is apparently one of the best places to get cash out of your account. This is necessary because Japan seems to be a very cash-centric society. You can definitely use your credit card in many places, but thus far, it seems like less than half the places we've shopped—unlike the near universality of credit card acceptance in North America.

We were supposed to go to Miyajima Island tomorrow to spend a night and a day, but the forecast wasn't looking great: supposedly, heavy rain and strong winds, which would be inconvenient for hiking, but not a deal-breaker. However, the place we'd be staying asked the booking site to contact us earlier this morning and suggest we not come... turns out the weather guys were sugar-coating things: a typhoon will strike the island and most of the surrounding coast this weekend, and it's supposed to be a big one. Since we didn't want to compete with Sean and Tony (my brother and his husband, who just survived Hurricane Irma in Florida) for attention, we cancelled our trip. We're going to Nara a day early instead.

Off to bed early after a long day of walking.
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2017-09-15 05:58 am

September 14: Hiroshima

Today was intended to be a close-to-home day, finishing our exploration of this part of Hiroshima before leaving for a day trip to Onomichi and then heading north to Miyajima.

The Japanese breakfast we'd had the previous morning at Ikawa Ryokan (roasted salmon, fermented adzuki beans on rice, nori, pickled ginger and plum, and raw egg—which we didn't eat) was okay, but nothing special, so instead we chose to go further afield. We'd found earlier that with the exception of a few American chains, where we didn't want to eat, breakfast out doesn't seem to be a Japanese thing the way it is back home. But a little Googling turned up a 24-hour ramen place that was well-reviewed, so we decided to try that instead. (If your only experience with ramen is the half salt/half noodle/comes out of a package stuff that is the manna of graduate students everywhere: this is not your gradfather's ramen.)

Ichiran, the ramen place, is interesting in that its whole shtick is about privacy and savouring the ramen experience. So the staff is unobtrusive. At the door, you feed a machine coins, select the specific food you want (e.g., bowl of ramen, extra pork, soft-boiled egg, extra onions) from buttons on the face of the machine, which counts down your remaining credit, and then the machine spits out food tickets. Tickets in hand, you then enter the restaurant and pick a seat from a long row of barstool-type seats with vertical privacy dividers on the table between seats. (These fold inwards if you want to share space with the person beside you, as we did.) At your seat, there's a menu card that lets you specify details of your order, such as the firmness of the noodles, the richness of the broth, and so on. So I chose firm (al dente) rather than mushy noodles, more robust broth, more spices, and moderate to high heat (chili paste). There's a narrow slot between you and the wait staff, who roam a narrow passageway between the rows of seats; it's just high enough to pass food through, and you leave your meal tickets and specifications there. A few minutes later, a piping-hot bowl of noodle-stuffed soup arrives and the waiter pulls a privacy curtain across the slot so you can eat in peace.

The ramen was predictably salty, but more importantly, it was rich and savoury, with really chewy noodles and significant heat from the chilli. It was delicious, warm, filling, and a really interesting way to eat. The illusion of privacy is just that, since as soon as I left the table to go blow my nose in the washroom*, someone opened the curtain and began to take away my dishes. But then they saw my camera and backpack, and were very confused. Shoshanna explained, and all was well. For desert, we had a kind of pudding made from almonds and green tea. Small but very tasty.

* Public nose-blowing is frowned upon in Japan, so you're best off withdrawing somewhere private, like the washroom, if you want to blow your nose.

Hiroshima Peace Park's museum is currently undergoing renovations, so only one of the two buildings was open. We finished our exploration of the Peace Park by touring the open wing. I won't go into details, as they're pretty much clear from the previous day's narration. The story remains horrific, particularly when I saw the letter from 10 or so of the Manhattan Project scientists urging the military not to drop the bomb without enough warning for civilians to evacuate. Of the signatories, I recognized the names of Leo Szilard and Thomas Seaborg—serious brains who recognized that whatever the military justifications for the bombing (and Hiroshima was a fairly significant military city), the only good reason for specifically targeting the centre of the urban area was to see what the bomb would do to a civilian population. Given the number of children slain, and how horrifically they died, I find myself hoping that there's a special place in Hell for people who believed that the bombing was a good idea and should proceed.

After the museum, we sat for a while by the peaceful riverside, watched carefully by a bold pigeon who was hoping for a handout. I threw him some oat grains from our trail mix, and he pecked up a few, but clearly was accustomed to better fare. Eventually he got bored with us and moved off. He was followed by an equally bold sparrow (black-throated, so maybe the Japanese equivalent of a song sparrow?), who was equally unimpressed.

Next, we hiked up to the shopping district both to decompress and in search of gift-wrapping services. Gift-giving in Japan is a sophisticated thing, and we both recognized that our sloppy efforts would not inspire admiration. Since we want to thank our volunteer guide in Nara and the woman whose home we'll be staying at with gifts (Canadian maple syrup), we'd like the presents to be presentable. Some department stores have special wrapping desks where an expert will wrap a gift for you in a way appropriate to the occasion (e.g., to say thanks when someone saves your life vs. the janitor's annual Christmas present). We started out with SOGO, one of the bigger stores. Before doing the wrapping, we roamed the department store's underground levels: the first level down is the supermarket, where you buy various foods that you'll prepare at home, and the second level is like the food court at a mall. There's a stunning variety of prepared foods ready for eating, each looking more delicious than the last, and we couldn't resist. Shoshanna went for sticky rice wrapped in mustard greens, whereas I chose a savoury pastry with a cheesy surface layer and walnuts. Apparently, you can get quite a decent meal by asking for samples, but we restricted ourselves to the few samples that were clearly on offer. Both the paid foods were yummy. Should you find yourself in a big Japanese city on a rainy day when you don't want to be outdoors or museum hopping, you could do a whole lot worse for entertainment than spending several hours in the food area of a big department store.

"Gift wrapping" was outside my vocabulary, but Google Translate suggested "gifutu rappu", clearly a loan phrase from English. The first desk we tried, which looked like an information desk, turned out to be something more like the place where you apply for a store credit card, but they nonetheless tried gamely to figure out what we wanted. (Google wasn't as clear as it perhaps could have been.) Nonetheless, they discussed the concept before helpfully taking us to the Information counter. There, we tried again, with no more luck; neither of the staffers was familiar with any such department. They called a manager who spoke better English, and she was able to confirm that they had no such department.

Undaunted, we returned to a bookstore I remembered from the previous day, and though they didn't have a wrapping department, they did have wrapping paper and gift bags. So we picked up some gift bags, and we'll do the wrapping ourselves. it won't be elegant, but as Westerners, we'll probably at least get points for trying.

Tired, we returned home for a nap. Afterwards, rather than trying to go somewhere special, we went to a local dinner joint only a couple blocks from the ryokan. Their specialty was big bowls of rice topped with mounds of meat and veggies. I chose beef; Shoshanna went for pork with a single shrimp hood ornament. Both were tasty and very filling, but nothing to write home about. (Except that I just did, so there you go.)

On the way home, we passed by a small bakery (panya) that was just closing down for the evening. When they saw us peering through the door, they offered to let us in, but we told them no, we were just looking, but would probably return the following day for breakfast.

And that's all for today. Very sleepy from the ongoing emotional roller coaster of the Peace Park, not to mention spending most of the day walking around and being bombarded by images.
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2017-09-14 09:20 am

September 13: Hiroshima and Saijo

Today's goal was to go to Saijo, one of Japan's three best-known sake production areas. They've been making sake here for hundreds of years, and like scotch in Scotland, the secrets are handed down from master brewer to apprentice over the generations.

Trains into the countryside aren't Shinkansen, but seem to run just as smoothly. The main difference from the faster trains is the speed, but on the plus side, these slower trains give you a more leisurely view of the countryside as it passes by. On a rainy day it would be fun to just take one to the end of the line and back again. Another difference is that they're less well announced in English. On our outbound train, announcements were entirely in Japanese, though the station platforms were clearly signposted in English, with little arrows on the signs telling you which station you just came from and which one you're going to. So if you plan your trip in advance, and know a couple station names before and after your destination, it's not hard to figure out when to get up and head for the door or to detect when you've gone too far. And some trains are more up-to-date and have alternating English and Japanese text on the scrolling displays to tell you where you're at. So it takes a modicum of courage to strike off into the unknown, but really only a modicum.

Speaking of the countryside, Hiroshima's is lovely. Lushly forested hills, some a few hundred metres high, plunge downwards to river valleys covered densely with houses or filled with even lusher fields of rice and other, less recognizable crops. Lots of bamboo, with bright, pale green leaves and feathery crowns interspersed among the more abundant cedars and pines. It's a refreshing break from the city.

Saijo has a bit of an industrial look and feel, as its main industry seems to be sake. The sake plants are easy to spot from a distance, as they're large warehouse complexes, each with a single very thin and tall chimney. Our first sake brewery was Kamotsuru, which started our visit with a nice film overviewing the brewing process. Seems much more complex than making beer or whisky. A few points of interest: They use a special rice cultivar, Nishiki, that is optimal for fermenting. Polishing the rice can take as much as 100 hours, with the goal of removing the protein-rich outer layers and leaving only the concentrated starch at the core. (No idea what they do with the residue; my guess is animal feed.) They use two fungi at different stages of the process: one is a "mold" (aspergillis) that breaks the starch into sugars, and the other is a yeast to produce the alcohol. No tours of the actual production facilities, as I imagine the risk of bacterial or other contamination that would ruin the sake is too high.

Kamotsuru is a great place to start, as they offer tasting of 10 different liquors: 9 sakes, ranging from fairly sweet and fruity to quite dry, and one plum wine. Their sakes were very different from the Gekeikan and Hakutsuru brands we've tried at home: they were very thin, without much body, and had a very slow "start" before the flavour appears, but followed by a surprising and strong finish with many subtle taste variations among types. Obama tried some of their special product at a state dinner with Prime Minister Abe when he visited Japan, and Kamotsuru makes very sure you'll notice this—photos everywhere. All of their sakes were interestingly different, but on the whole, not to my taste. On the other hand, the other brewery that we had sufficient time and sobriety to visit (Saijotsuru) offered only two samples, but they had much more body—almost oily, though in a good way—and with stronger flavor throughout the tasting process. Of the two, I preferred the unpasteurized one, but both were very good.

On the way back to the train, we stopped for late lunch at a pleasant little restaurant with no English name that specialized in meats served in savoury gravy. I had what was basically a pork hamburger with a fried egg on top, and Shoshanna had a dish with two breaded chicken cutlets. Both came with a savoury miso soup, soba noodles cooked deliciously al dente in a light coating of tomato sauce, and a platter of sticky rice. Both meals were much bigger than they looked in the menu picture, and very filling. We decided that we were sufficiently ippai i-desu (full) we were unlikely to want dinner, though we saved enough room for an impulse buy at an artisanal bakery: a deep-fried rice ball crusted with sesame seeds and filled with intensely grape-flavoured bean paste.

After making it back to Hiroshima, we returned to the peace park to visit the victims' memorial, a fairly spartan place with two main features of interest: The first is a library with digitized information on as many victims and witnesses of the bombing as they were able to obtain, plus records of everyone known to have been killed based on government records. This didn't include Korean labourers (most of whom were probably slaves captured during Japan's military adventures on the continent before the war) and American POWs, but otherwise seems to have been quite comprehensive. The other was a hall of memory, reached by a ramp that spirals downwards quite some distance until you reach reach a large, open hall. At the centre is a peacefully trickling fountain, with the top carved in the shape of a watch with its hands frozen forever at 8:15, the time when the bomb detonated. The walls are a mosaic tiled with 140 000 tiles, one for each person known to have died within the first year after the bomb. In addition, two movies play upstairs: one explains (and shows) the horrific nature of the wounds caused by the bomb, and another re-tells the memories of survivors that were recorded 5 years after the bomb for a commemorative book that was never published. The movie is narrated and dramatized by actors, like Japanese shadow theatre, set against a background of photos and paintings. Truly horrific what these people endured.

Needing something a bit lighter, we stopped in at a roofed but open-ended semi-outdoor shopping mall—for me, mostly just to see people doing normal "life" things. Very different from the mall we went to in Kyoto several years ago, which was more about offering endless samples of all kinds of food. This one was designed for victims of fashion, including a great many young folk out shopping for cool. As an example of the different focus from what we'd expect in Canada, there were many brand-name shoe stores, like Asics and Reebok, that in the west would be stores for athletes. But here, they only sell dressy shoes. Some of the color palettes have to be seen to be believed; drugstores, of all things, are particularly garish. Some of the names are—ummmm—"unusual", like "Womb", for a clothing store. There's a surprising amount of English naming, presumably because English is still a sign of cool. Lots of fun eye candy if you've got a high tolerance for crowds.

On the way back, we stopped in at a tiny fruit store (the first one we'd seen) for some peaches (momo). They'll be breakfast or snacks tomorrow.

Our last tourism for the day was to be the Hiroshima kagura "theatre" troupe. They provide full-dress performances of traditional mythological stories, accompanied by musicians (this night, two drummers, a flutist, and someone playing small hand cymbals), much like kabuki or the kathakali performance we saw in India. Gorgeous and highly elaborate costumes and masks, with highly stylized movements and poses and very precise positioning. The first story was about Shouki, the god of protection from plague, defeating a demon who brings plague. Highly repetitive and seemed overly long and repetitive to accomplish that simple goal, though with graceful and smoothly polished work by the actors, but because we don't speak Japanese, I can't say what the actor was saying or what the lead musician was singing. That narrative might explain the repetition, or it might be an artistic statement about the frequent return of plague. The second was stronger, with more actors and tighter plotting (according to author/editor Geoff), and told of two samurai sent to capture a mother and son team of bandits. The good guys win, of course, defeating the bandits in a well-choreographed fight. When the samurai are about to execute the son, the mother offers her life if they will spare her son. The samurai take pity on her and instead adopt the son, turning him into a samurai himself.

Exhausted after a long day, we schlepped back to the ryokan and were asleep by 10. I barely remember getting horizontal!

No pictures of the performance (they asked that none be taken), but many other pictures I'll try to publish in coming days, as time permits.
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2017-09-13 08:42 am

September 12: Travel to Hiroshima

Had a decent night's sleep, despite frequent waking, but couldn't manage to stay asleep much past 5. Around 6, we gave in to the inevitable and started our day with a quick e-mail check. Very, very relieved to hear that Sean and Tony and the boys and dogs came through Hurricane Irma with only minor issues. Here's hoping the other two that are currently brewing in the Gulf of Mexico will be equally kind to them.

Also, Ben Venue (our boy cat) seems to be surviving without us. He even came out of hiding and hung out with Bryana, our Catsitter. We're not sure if he's getting brave with old age, or just senile, but either way, it's a good thing that he's no longer quite so scared of her. He'll get through our absence much more easily if he has company; he's a very social guy and prefers to hang out with us.

After e-mail, we went out for a walk around the neighbourhood in search of breakfast. (Our ryokan doesn't offer breakfast, which is a big negative in my books. I have fond memories of a full Japanese breakfast from our last visit.) The hostess had told us the night before that if we wanted breakfast, the nearest possibility would be a local Denny's. Nope. We didn't come to Japan to eat bad American fast food . We had some hope that there would be little neighbourhood places, but the ryokan is in a primarily residential area, so the picking were slim. There were a few café-type places and bakeries, but they were all closed at 7 AM.

Some pleasant discoveries along the way, including tiny temples sandwiched in between residences and many tiny but pretty windowbox gardens. Ueno also seems to be the city of ravens (or possibly crows... didn't get a close enough look at their beaks, but they looked pretty big). They're everywhere. Ueno park was overflowing with them—or perhaps infested if you don't like corbids. But they were also abundant in the residential area. We also saw some funky parking lots with what seemed to be either anti-theft barriers or tools to ensure that you pay before leaving, sitting in the middle of each parking space. Basically, you drive over one, and a metal plate pops up, making it difficult to drive away without paying. Once you pay, the plate falls back down and off you go.

When we arrived back at the ryokan after our walk, we met a woman from close to home (St. Bruno) sitting in the entryway, waiting for her husband and brother. What are the odds? They're also going to Hiroshima, but after we've left. Chatted briefly with a young Australian man who was entering our ryokan as we were leaving, and he wished us a good time. I pointed out that given the city's history, "good" was perhaps not the right word.

We packed quickly, then caught the local shuttle bus (only 100¥) to the train station. Managed to confirm (with my limited Japanese) that this was the right bus. At the station, we picked up our Japan Rail passes, good for the next 2 weeks. We also bought a ticket for the train home from our final destination in Japan, from rural Kawaguchiko to Tokyo. It was important to get this early, because if the train was full, getting back would involve a long series of buses, resulting in much travel and not much tourism. The train is much more convenient.

Shoshanna was a bit anxious about getting on the train for Hiroshima, because we first had to travel into Tokyo, and then had to find our train at Tokyo station. Her anxiety is well-founded. Tokyo station has something like 24 Shinkansen tracks, covering many different lines, not to mention all the commuter rail lines—probably a couple dozen more. Fortunately, it's all very well signposted, but not a good place for those who hate crowds of people all moving quickly. We found the track for our train, found a place close by that sold boxed lunches ("eki bento") that we took on board the train, and reached the waiting lines outside the cars with only about 10 minutes to spare. (There were other trains later in the day, but taking them would have cost us at least an hour better spent touristing in Hiroshima. We both ended up with chicken rice bowls—yummy!—washed down with a shared Asahi beer.

Shinkansen are lovely, and are amazing bits of technology. We took the Hikari train, which is the garden variety high-speed train—Nozomi trains run faster, if you can imagine. Shinkansen sometimes feel smoother at 300 km/hour than Canada's Via Rail trains feel as they coast to a halt. It's amazing to think that we'll be traveling nearly 1500 km in only 5 hours! Makes it possible to span widely separated destinations in a wide swath of southern Japan in a single trip.

Our transfer point from the Hikari was to Shin-Kobe, where we planned to board the Sakura (cherry blossom?) high-speed train that would take us on the last leg to Hiroshima. It's slightly slower than the Hikari, not that you'd notice. We were expecting to miss our first possible connection (only 7 minutes between arrival and the next train), but the Sakura turned out to be on the same track, and we barely had time to hit one of the vending machines for a couple tins of ice coffee. Since I haven't mentioned the vending machines yet: they're a very Japanese thing. Every neighbourhood has one, and often several. Each is provided by one of the major Japanese drink conglomerates, like Asahi and Kirin. They contain a variety of drinks in several popular categories, like tea, coffee, cola, and energy drinks. Haven't seen any lately that sell beer and sake, but we saw them last trip. More importantly, there seem to be dozens of Japanese coffee brands, with milked and black varieties, and they're all excellent. You can sometimes get them hot, but more often cold, and very tasty—a nice balance between bitter and sweet, but with far less sugar and fatty milk than a typical Canadian-style commercial coffee drink. And they're reasonably priced, ranging from 100 to 150¥, versus 2+ times that onboard the train or at a café.

I'm writing this first part of the blog on the Sakura en route to Hiroshima rather than at the end of the day, as is more usual. But we have time to kill, and it's easy to take breaks to enjoy the scenery.

A good starting point for the remainder the blog: So why does Hiroshima call to me? For one thing, it's always seemed like standing at ground zero would be a profoundly moving experience. It's not like Europe lacks for sites where as many people died in a single day—restricting that category to civilians alone doesn't even narrow the number of examples dramatically, witness the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg several months before Hiroshima. And it's hard to argue that Hiroshima was more horrible than either of the German cities. Perhaps the most significant difference is that Hiroshima (and later Nagasaki) was unnecessary. The war was essentially over, and whatever the supposed military virtues of bombing Hiroshima, it's always seemed to me this was mostly about the American generals wanting to try out their shiny new toy. Nuclear weapons represented something qualitatively different.

But Hiroshima is also an example of human resilience, and the ability to rebuild something beautiful from the ruins of something horrible, and that affects me deeply by somewhat mitigating the overall horror. So it will be very difficult to be here, and yet, it seems somehow necessary that I do it.

Because we made such a fast connection between Shinkansen earlier in the day, we arrived with plenty of time to go to the Hiroshima Peace Park the same day we arrived.

Even at 4 PM, the day was hot and humid, enough so even Shoshanna was sweating. Definitely not my preferred weather. But once we got going, we just persevered for the next 4+ hours.

So what was it like, actually being there? Powerful and sobering and tearful for both of us. It's hard to imagine the horror of such an event until you understand the thousands of people who died instantly, vaporized or blown to bits by the force of the explosion. And the tens of thousands who died shortly afterwards from wounds or long afterward from radiation sickness. The atom bomb tower, the only relic remaining from the bombing (others were torn down and replaced), is eerie. It's been preserved to remain much like it was immediately after the explosion, complete with twisted girders, brickwork protruding at weird angles, and blown-out windows. But that's just overt horror, no different from any other ruined building. The true horror is seeing things like the children's memorial—and what has me tearing up even now is the clock that's been installed atop twisted girders and that chimes every day just after 8 AM, the time when the bomb went off. And then there are the chains of origami cranes contributed by visitors from around the world. Heart-rending.

And yet somehow, the survivors built a beautiful modern city, clean and neat as any Japanese city we've visited, with a ton of greenery. And they don't seem to hate or resent western tourists or give us the evil eye. I'm not sure I could be that forgiving—one very big reason I've been unable to visit any Holocaust memorial site. It would reinforce parts of my personality I'm not proud of or fond of.

The park that has been planted along the river that runs through the memorial is beautiful, calm, and restorative. It does not conceal the horror so much as remind us that life continues afterwards, and that's surely a good thing.

Afterwards, we wandered along Peace Boulevard in search of dinner, a broad swatch that runs east to west through the centre of the city. We were headed for a place where something like a dozen okanomiyaki restaurants are packed into the same building. In case you're not familiar with these ambrosial creations., the basic notion is to start by imagining the love child of an omelette and a pancake and combining the best features of both, mixed with chopped cabbage, bean sprouts, and onions, fried on a grill with meat of your choice if so desired, then slathered in barbecue sauce and topped with a dollop of Japanese mayo. The Hiroshima equivalent is very different. The fillings are sandwiched between two very thin crepes instead of mixed into the batter, and topped with noodles that are fried into the whole mess. Having no way to choose among the dozen or so restaurants, we simply went with the first one. It was tasty and filling washed down with Kirin beer, though not as good as the traditional type. Shoshanna had pork and squid as her protein; I just had pork.

Afterwards, a bit footsore, we walked home again down darkened streets that never felt unsafe. Lots of others out taking in the refreshing night air, a nice change after a hot and sticky day.
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2017-09-11 07:28 pm

Travel to Japan

Leaving Sunday morning is convenient because there's no traffic to speak of, and thus, an easy passage through Security. An easy flight to Toronto with barely enough time for the coffee cart to go around, and no delays landing in Pearson airport. Had a nice hike to the international terminal and our gate, and lunch at Lee's Kitchen, an "Asian plus burgers" place. Vastly overpriced, even for airport food, and though I enjoyed the steamed buns we ordered, Shoshanna wasn't pleased and left most of it to me. She got sushi later—tasty, but a pale shadow of the real thing that we'll be having in Japan. We'll be boarding in about 20 minutes, so this is the last note before we make it to Japan.

Now in Japan, 10,500 km (!!!) and 12 hours later. Nothing special to report about the flight, other than a bit of turbulence at the end. Enough that they had to stop serving breakfast midway through to protect the flight attendants. Fortunately, we'd already had our meal, but many others weren't so lucky.

Tokyo Haneda airport is clean, clear, and efficient, and well sign-posted in English, so we made it through Customs and Immigration in no time—though they scanned our fingerprints and our faces. We picked up our SIM card for Shoshanna's phone, so in a few hours, once we've had time to put our feet up, we'll be able to install it and have Japanese phone service. Hardest part was waiting in line, because we bought the card from Japan Air's baggage forwarding service (!)—great deal, but an odd marriage of services it seems—and they were quite busy with baggage. We decided not to get our Japan Rail pass until tomorrow, since we can apparently do it at the commuter rail station in Ueno, near where we'd be spending the night.

We're both sufficiently experienced travelers that managing a foreign train system on near-zero sleep wasn't a problem. Though I can't really take full credit for that: it's also really well sign-posted, and Shoshanna did a lot of up-front research. The only tricky part was navigating through Ueno Park once we got off the train, as it lay between us and our ryokan. It's a beautiful park, but lots of windy paths, so it took a bit of stopping and checking signposts to figure out where we were and where we were going. In the end, no problem reaching Katsutaro ryokan, though it was an extremely hot and humid evening, thus quite a shvitz getting there. It's a small and not particularly elegant place, but clean and comfortable. The older lady at the desk didn't have more than a few words of English, but we managed to communicate what was necessary.

We were fed well enough on the plane that I'm not at all hungry, so we probably won't go out for dinner tonight. The ryokan doesn't offer breakfast, so we'll probably eat at the train station tomorrow on our way to Hiroshima —which, given that this is Japan, isn't nearly so dire as it might sound.

Tomorrow will be our first actual day of tourism. More later!
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2017-08-06 10:51 am

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors

(with abject apologies to Robert Frost)

So it looks like the concept of Trump’s wall between the United States and Mexico isn’t yet dead. But there may be a solution that makes this palatable from both economic and humanitarian perspectives, for Republican values of “economic” and “humanitarian”. At dinner last night, a friend told me about a standup comic (please provide attribution if you know his name) he’d heard joking that it would be cheaper to build the wall from illegal Mexican immigrants. That is, to line up Mexicans to serve as the wall, not to have Mexicans build the wall. Completely implausible anywhere outside a comic’s performance, but then so was a Trump presidency a year ago.

In any event, you can imagine I couldn’t let that statement pass without a challenge. So let’s do some scary math. Apologies in advance to the Americans in the audience, but I’ll be using metric units. Doesn’t matter... just wave your hands and mutter rhubarb rhubarb every time you see a unit you don’t recognize. I’ll get to American dollars soon enough.

First, how many Mexicans would we need? Google tells me that the border between the United States and Mexico is about 3200 km long. Since 1 km = 1000 m = 100 000 cm, we need to cover 3200 km × 100 000 cm = 320 million cm. Let’s assume that a typical moderately large person like me, standing next to another typical moderately large person and linking arms with them, occupies about 75 cm from left ribs to outstretched right arm. (I based this on a quick tape-measurement of my shoulder width, then added a few cm for breathing room and to simplify the numbers.* We want moderately large workers because of the intimidation factor and the “good at grabbing” factor. After all, a wall isn’t much use if it isn’t intimidating or effective.) Dividing the total wall length by 75 cm gives us just under 4.3 million Mexicans. If we make the unrealistic assumption that said Mexicans would only work 8-hour shifts, rather than the more realistic 12 hours, we’d need 3 times that many, or 12.9 million people, to cover a 24-hour day.

* We could instead econonomize by leaving a one-worker gap between adjacent wall workers, on the plausible logic that it would be difficult for anyone to sneak through if the wall workers were trained to grab anyone passing through this narrow gap and paid a bounty for doing so.

Next, what would this cost? More quick Googling suggests that illegal immigrants earn as little as US$1.21 per hour, but that US$7 per hour isn’t unreasonable. Let’s be generous and use the higher number. We are, after all, good-hearted colonial bastards and would-be slaveowners. At that hourly rate, our Mexican wall would cost US$90.3 million daily, or $32.9 billion annually. Since the Great Wall of Trump is estimated to cost a (highly optimistic) minimum of $15 billion (about US$46 for every living American; accounting for the fact that the 1% wouldn’t be paying any of this would increase this amount by less than US$1) and as much as US$25 billion.** Even if we use the higher cost, to allow for inevitable scope creep and the probability that the work will be done by a defense contractor, we clearly can’t rely on this human-centric solution to save money. We can come close, though if we revise our assumption to account for a 12-hour workday for our Mexicans. The wall’s cost would then drop to a more reasonable US$22 billion annually.

** Let’s adopt the broadly accepted economist’s principle of ignoring maintenance and other miscellaneous costs as externalities to avoid unnecessarily complicating our analysis.

We still don’t have an economical solution, but a little of the patented Trumpian labor management magic comes to our rescue: If we assume that these Mexicans will be contract employees of a federal government contractor, we can establish contractor-owned barracks, mess halls, and base exchanges to serve the needs of our workers. Using this traditional American “company town” approach, most of this salary can be recaptured by the American economy—or at least by that one contractor, which is close enough for a Republican—thereby restoring to the U.S. economy some of the estimated US$27.6 billion that Mexican migrants send home annually.

So apparently, not only is it realistic to ask the Mexicans build the wall for Trump: it’s realistic to assume that they’ll pay for it too.

A note for the tone-deaf and sarcasm-blind: In case it wasn’t perfectly clear, this is political satire. Only a monster would actually implement this solution. Oh... wait...
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2017-07-17 03:47 pm

Fecal transplants

This one will soothe your inner 10-year-old boy.

So Madame and I got to discussing fecal transplants, like you do. You’ve probably heard about fecal transplants. The TL;DR version (in case you’re reading this on the toilet): some intractable and possibly fatal illnesses (e.g., a Clostridium difficile infection) can arise when the balance of your intestinal microflora is disrupted. That is, the natural bugs that inhabit your gastrointestinal tract offer significant protection against unnatural bugs that don’t belong there. If the natural bugs are (ahem) knocked on their ass by some unfortunate event, such as a course of oral antibiotics to cure an infection somewhere outside your gastrointestinal tract, you become more vulnerable to other infections.

Some bright light realized that maybe, if you transplanted healthy stool from a willing donor, you could restore that microbial balance. It worked, and the rest is medical history.

I am not making this shit up. Vade mecum* for a moment.

* Latin for (ahem) “go with me”.

I’m imagining the medical ethics committee meeting:

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“No, I’m quite serious.”

“Were you volunteering?”

“Do I look that stupid?”

“Nice weather we’re having.”

“[fumes quietly to himself] So do I have your approval to go ahead with the procedure, strictly on a trial basis?”

“I don’t suppose we’ll ever hear the end of this, but sure, whatever. How are you going to persuade anyone to try this?”

“Have you seen the shit they put up with once we’ve got them in the hospital? This is small potatoes by comparison.”

We draw the veil of discretion over what happened next. Bottom line: So now that fecal transplants are a bona fide medical procedure, which leads the inquiring mind to wonder: Where will they get this stuff? “No, Madame. You want the Red Cross clinic next door. We’re the Brown Circle clinic.”

There will undoubtedly be celebrity product lines, advertised madly during late-night TV. “Sorry, Sir, we’re out of the Jennifer Anuston. But we’ve got a nice new shipment of Colon Firth for your wife.”

Spas that formerly offered cleanses will now offer the reverse:

“I’ll have the dark roast venti, Maurice.”

“Very good, Madame.”

(So what is the opposite of a cleanse, anyway? A foul? A debauch?) We’ll undoubtedly see slogans like “the enema of my enema is my friend”. And, inevitably, “Made in America” or “Make great, America”. Indeed, this gives the Dump Trump “movement” a whole new meaning.

They’re working on developing this in pill form, like probiotics. That’s got my vote, despite dissenting voices from the “half the fun is the anal probe!” crowd of former alien abductees.

Ah, science!
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2017-07-07 09:04 am

Words as weapons

A colleague recently wondered about why we can't recapture the use of the word "handicap", which prompted a long response worth repeating here, revised so it works better as a standalone post:

I've worked as an editor for nearly 30 years now, and have had occasional opportunities over the years to discuss this issue with "ability" advocates. From these discussions, I've taken away two important realizations:

First, and most important, most of these people are in no way disabled. They are eminently able to do a great many things, including some I'm incapable of doing without a great deal of training and practice. As a result, many deeply resent being referred to as disabled, which literally means "unable to do something".

Second, many, but by no means all, prefer the term handicapped. This means that, whatever has gone "wrong" with their body, it only makes it more difficult for them to achieve certain things -- the original meaning of a handicap. But I have also met many people who consider "handicapped" to be a hugely pejorative term, for good historical reasons, and these people much prefer disabled. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing which camp a given person falls into until you ask them. Often, there's no good way to do this without being offensive, and all you can do is make your best effort not to offend.

Bottom line for me: I used "handicapped" whenever it's really necessary to describe the problems that a person faces rather than the person. I avoid both terms when the handicap isn't relevant to the subject of discussion. And I accept that despite my best intentions, some people will yell at me for my choices, no matter how well reasoned. I can live with that.

On a side note, the problem originates with the overuse of any word in a pejorative sense, and there are many similar examples. For example, Oriental used to be a perfectly good word to contrast with Occidental, but it has been so often misused as a racial slur that you can only safely use Oriental nowadays to quote someone who used the word in a historical context; instead, you have to use Asian. Say any word with enough venom, and it becomes an insult; say it often enough as an insult, and that usage will begin to stick, overriding the original meaning. In this way, the knuckle-draggers rob us of the ability to use a perfectly good and useful word, while also strewing our road to communication with a range of verbal landmines we may not even know enough to avoid.

I imagine the next area where we'll see this linguistic dilemma arising will be in the modern debates over gender. There's a whole raft of new terminology that has evolved to communicate this complex issue. For example, we can now use the term cis-gendered to describe people whose sense of gender agrees with the gender they superficially appear to be; I am cis-gendered because I have a male sense of identity, and also have a body that includes male genitalia. In contrast, we can use the term trans-gendered to describe people who feel a strong mismatch between their sense of gender identity and the identity that would be assigned to them by most people based on their physical body. I'm not aware of whether there's terminology for people who feel caught somewhere in the middle of this binary possibility, though we do have the term intersex for people who fall between the two physical extremes that are distinctly male and distinctly female.

As in the case of the handicapped/disabled binary, you never know ab initio how someone wants to be referred to: based on their anatomy, based on their gender, or based on some other principle. Again, all you can do is act with good intentions, aware of the possibility of offending, and be prepared to adapt your responses to avoid giving offence again in the future.
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2017-06-04 02:49 pm

Literature, or speculative fiction?

Conventional wisdom claims that the various subgenres called speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) are subsets of literature. I call this the hegemonic perspective, since it sometimes seems more focused on reflexive staking out of territory and importance than on shedding light on an interesting topic: “our genre is better written and more important than your genre, and therefore must have potential that goes beyond your genre”. Less cynically, this can be seen as nothing more than pragmatism: we have to give what we’re discussing some label, literature was named before speculative fiction became a thing, so speculative fiction must therefore be enrolled under the banner of literature.

However, seen from a different perspective, the opposite claim is true: Speculative fiction can include any story from conventional literature, provided only that you add a speculative element: that element may be something scientific (e.g., arcane physics theory), something technological (e.g., often a MacGuffin*), or something fantastic (e.g., vampires, ghosts). It is often called the literature of “what if?” because it begins with a question: What if the consensus reality is incorrect? What if we change it for the purpose of exploring the consequences of the change?

* MacGuffins are plot devices pursued by the protagonist for reasons that may not bear close examination. The term is most often used in a pejorative sense, because authors may use it lazily or as a sometimes-literal deus ex machina to write themselves out of a plot corner. In speculative fiction, they may be the aforementioned deity, whereas in science fiction, they’re more often some device or technology.

But wait a minute. Nowhere in the “rules” of literature does it say that technology can’t be a factor in a story. Cell phones, not considered even remotely science fictional today, would have seemed implausible “sci fi” to the literati of the early 20th century, and in 100 years, if we’re still here, they may seem charmingly antiquated elements of a story.

Hmmm. We seem trapped in a Moebius strip debate, in which the answer to whether something is speculative fiction or literature seems to depend entirely on where on the strip we begin our analysis—and if we carry the logic far enough, we eventually return to our starting point to begin the debate anew. Such paradoxes are usually a clue that the real situation is far more interesting than the literature versus speculative fiction binary admits to.

Being a pragmatist, I think the key difference between these genres is simple and practical, and relates more to the author’s goal than to any superficial trapping of genre:

  • If the goal is primarily mimetic, and dwells on a historical state or the present state (a consensus reality) without interrogating whether that that state is correct or where it leads, then the story is probably literature despite any presence of science, technology, or fantastic elements.

  • If the goal is primarily speculative, and asks whether the consensus reality of a given time (past or present) is correct or asks where that state might lead, then (almost tautologically) it is speculative fiction. Even if it seems mundane on the surface.

Seen from this perspective, the debate over whether speculative fiction is a subgenre of literature or vice versa is largely pointless. The more important and interesting point is what the author is trying to achieve, and the tools they have at their disposal to achieve it. There’s much of interest to explore via the concept of intertextuality, in which authors engage in an internal debate between the conventions and tropes of two contrasting genres in ways that alter one text’s meaning through a consideration of the meaning of parallel texts, but those waters rapidly grow murky, and are best left for another essay.
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2017-03-29 06:26 pm

A few humble proposals to make the U.S. government more efficient

Donald Trump has apparently appointed a “SWAT team” of business executives in an effort to make the government more efficient. Great idea! Who doesn’t want more efficiency? In that vein, a few humble suggestions on how the U.S. federal government could become more efficient by learning from the private sector experience:

  • Offshore all jobs below the C-level (chief executive officer, chief financial officer, etc.) to India and China.

  • Create a Department of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) and empower its Secretary to buy underperforming countries and fire their leaders. Past experience has shown this to be far more economical than conventional warfare.

  • Spin off all profit-making government divisions (e.g., Department of Motor Vehicles, Internal Revenue Service) as limited-liability companies (LLCs), then float an initial public offering (IPO) for each LLC using a reputable Wall Street brokerage. (I’m sure they exist—just can’t offhand think of one.) Award senior staff large numbers of shares in the LLC to reward performance. Junior staff can buy them at a fair price from a broker. That’s the power of the market!

  • Require all remaining (post-spinoff) government divisions to operate with a balanced budget. Where funding is inadequate, said divisions will be required to sell bonds and use the proceeds to cover their expenses.

  • All government divisions will be treated as legal “persons”. As a result, all C-level staff will be immune to prosecution for their mistakes. Not that they would make any.

  • To discourage M&A activity by hostile competitors (e.g., Russia), the United States should take on a massive debt load (a so-called poison pill). Hey... this one’s already accomplished!

  • To increase economic efficiency, the top 1% of government wage earners will pay no taxes. To encourage greater efforts by said individuals, incentive pay will also be provided: said earners will receive 25% of the departmental budget surplus as an incentive to improve budgetary performance.

  • Establish offshore accounts for all minister- and secretary-level posts and all deputy- and assistant deputy-level posts to facilitate tax audits.

  • Establish a Confucian-style competency test for all minister- and secretary-level posts and all deputy- and assistant deputy-level posts, as was done during the greatest age of China. Dismiss any prospective employee capable of passing the test. Status: good thus far, but a work in progress.

  • Rebrand the Environmental Protection Agency by changing its name to E’ to reflect the agency’s new focus on protecting the environment in all cases where such protections don’t reduce corporate profits.

  • Establish lobbying offices in the executive suites of all Fortune 500 companies to encourage the implementation of policies favorable to government leaders.

  • Insist on private sector–funded protection of all government employees who are conducting business in potentially hostile foreign countries where the private sector operates.

  • Empower the NSA to wiretap all cell phones used by government employees, and to implement random confiscation of personal cell phones so that their contents can be inspected for treasonable activity.

  • Empower the Department of the Interior to implement random cavity searches of all visitors to federal workplaces.

  • Eliminate the glass ceiling by 2020 by eliminating all female employees.

  • Rather than building demonstrably ineffective walls to exclude undesirables, purchase Mexico and Canada and deport their citizens. Maybe France will take them?

  • You know what’s really scary about these suggestions? (1) They’re not beyond the realm of possibility in the alternate reality Trump has thrown us into and (2) some readers of this blog post will actually take them seriously and try to implement them. The horror!
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    2016-11-27 05:50 pm

    How I write book reviews, and why

    A cursory glance at the bibliography on my Web site shows that I write many book reviews. The feedback I receive suggests that I do this well and that the reviews are appreciated both by the authors who are being reviewed and by my audience. So it seems worthwhile spending a few moments to share how I review a book to produce something that is both fair to the author and appropriate for my audience.

    When I begin a review, I start by trying to understand the author’s stated goal and the audience for whom this goal is relevant. This provides important context for the review, since it’s unfair to (for example) review a self-proclaimed comedy as if it were a tragedy—unless, of course, the author was completely blind to irony and completely misunderstood what they were actually writing. (This does sometimes happen.) Because I am reviewing the book for my own readers, I spend a few moments figuring out how what the author has attempted to achieve relates to the needs of my audience. That provides focus for the review because it tells me what points I must emphasize to make the review relevant to my readers—a kind of lagniappe to what the author is providing to their own audience, since it broadens the appeal of their book. For example, I’m currently reviewing a book on the concept of system that is written primarily for readers who are experts in the field of cultural studies. However, the history of systems-based thinking is also relevant to the audience for my review (technical communicators), so I’m looking for ways to make the subject relevant to that audience too.

    Having defined the relationship between the author’s goals and those of the one or more audiences, the hard work begins: trying to pin down the essential message or messages the author is trying to communicate. As I read, I keep a notepad with me so I can record notes—often copious notes—about what the author has done and how it relates to their various audiences. But I also record things that interest me, since a good book should excite the reader by teaching them new things, even when those things are not central to the author’s goals, or leading them down intriguing paths they haven't yet explored. In my case, my goal is to look for insights that I can share with my own audience. (More on this latter point anon.) As I take notes, I summarize what I’ve read, boiling down hundreds of words or even whole chapters into a few key points that will fit within the constraints provided by my editor and eventual publisher. This usually means 500 words, and rarely more than 750 words even when the authors has many important things to say. Where a book is too fascinating to fit within these constraints, I’ll usually create a longer and more comprehensive review on my blog. If the author has a particularly pungent or exciting turn of phrase, I’ll record it to provide some sense of the author’s thought process, unique insights, or sense of style.

    When I’ve jotted enough notes to justify some time at the computer, I transcribe my notes into Word, reshaping the recorded version of my thoughts (which have fermented into tasty and potentially intoxicating liquor) as I fit them into preliminary groups of related ideas. This grouping process often follows the logical sequence in the book itself, but more often, because of the need to simplify hundreds of pages of thoughts into a few hundred words, I need to develop a new sequence that makes sense of the vastly condensed body of information I’m creating. I build in transitions among the groups as I work, to remind myself how one group of thoughts leads inevitably to the next.

    The end result of this, once I’ve finished reading the book, is a long (often very long) list of thoughts that must be summarized by boiling down several thousand words into the few hundred I’ve been allotted by my editor. This is a process of identifying the key points both for the author and for me. Many of these points are never explicitly stated by the author, and are instead revealed by synthesizing widely scattered notes that did not, initially, seem to belong in the same group of ideas. I find this process of examining a large body of information fascinating, holding it all in my head simultaneously as I try to integrate it with what I already know and what new and exciting things I’ve learned along the way. And once I’ve got that task under control, I strip away the superfluous flesh to reveal the bones that support the whole structure. Along the way, I try to communicate why something that might not seem immediately relevant to my audience actually offers them a considerable reward for sticking with me for those few hundred words.

    Why do I do this? Because I try to choose books that will stretch my brain in directions it hasn’t been stretched by my usual preoccupations, including my daily work. I learn so much new along the way, and the learning process is so exciting (often rekindling my enthusiasm for a subject that has grown a tad too familiar), that I feel an irresistable urge to share that excitement with others. The process of collecting data, organizing it into a system, and boiling it down to a synthesis that gives the book relevance, enriches me—and hopefully my readers. In many cases, I share the results of those musing with as many people as I can via the bibliography on my Web site. The best reward for this effort is when I see the light turn on in someone else’s eyes and I know that I’ve stretched someone else’s brain and kindled some of the same excitement that I felt.
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    2016-09-28 09:41 am

    Terry Pratchett's "Raising Steam"

    Just finished Terry Pratchett's "Raising Steam", which is a pleasant if not outstanding read. This is late-career Pratchett, which means it's less about the funny and more about the profound.

    Front and center is Moist van Lipwig, former con-man who's been reformed (forcibly) by Lord Vetinari, de facto ruler of Ankh Morpork, and who's had his criminal tendencies redirected into more socially useful pathways, including the banking system, the postal system, the clacks (telegraph) system (now ably run by Moist's wife), and in this book, steam-powered railways. Many other favorite characters return to play important roles, including Harry King, the "king of shit"* (literally, since he became rich building a business to remove the city's excrement and turn the waste into gold). The basic plot is that a plucky young Heinleinian inventor archetype invents a safe and efficient steam engine and promptly begins seeking help to turn it into a continent-wide railway; "Raising Steam" is all about the economic and cultural revolution that railways created. Harry's the financier, and Moist is the troubleshooter and problem solver. Needless to say, not everyone is happy about the new invention and troubles ensue.

    * There's some interesting stuff going on beneath the surface that arises from the British class system, and the differences between those who were born to wealth and those who achieve it through the sweat of their brow. This is almost never foregrounded, but it's definitely working to shape things in ways that seem a bit strange to a North American reader who's paying attention.

    The best things about the book involve how Moist (building on the work of prevous protagonists, including the beloved Sam Vimes, leader of the police) is slowly spreading the gospel of treating people like people, even if they're goblins/trolls/dwarves/whatever. It's not Utopian by any means (here, for instance, a large component of the dwarves are behaving like terrorists, and particularly thick ones at that*), but it's aspirational in a way that's rare in fantasy. Leads me to wonder aloud whether utopia are boring because there's no conflict, whereas aspirational novels (striving for utopia but not quite getting there) are more interesting because the conflict continues.

    * Yes, there's clearly an Islamic vibe here (modernism vs. traditionalism butting heads and creating enormous collateral damage), played out in interesting and intensely human -- or perhaps dwarvish -- ways.

    Ironically, the downside of this book results from its positive side: as Roddenberry did with the Ferengi in the Trekverse, Pratchett takes what was a potentially powerful source of conflict ("us versus the other") and tames it. Some readers won't like the result because it blunts the book's edge and in so doing, softpedals some of the very real issues related to learning to just get along and work together to make the world a better place. I'd love to read a critical analysis of Pratchett by someone (e.g., a cultural anthropologist) who really understands British culture and can explain how it's playing out in Pratchett's books. I catch tantalizing glimpses now and then, but they're definitely an outsider's glimpses. Here, for instance, this widespread and strong surface acceptance of "other races" overlying simmering and unresolved issues struck me as very British. But again, that's an outsider's view.

    Not much more to say other than that even subpar Pratchett is still better than most other books. Worth a look, particularly if you like railroads.