May 31, 2005
Unseen in Japan
Actually, it works out well for him in a way. He's developed a "good" relationship with the man, who likes my friend and takes him to lunch and dinner at nice places. He gets to hear yakuza stories along with his sushi and unagi or whatever. I don't know if I should share the one story he shared, because I can imagine it coming full circle back to haunt me -- the yakuza was left in an embarassing situation at the end.
Getting back to my friend's job, I asked if he's able to save money, since he's working six or seven days a week, putting in 12 hours or more a day, and seems to have an important position. But he said, "no." Why, I asked. It turns out that my friend's job involves finding new contracts for his company in the industry that he's in. The problem is that in order to get these contracts, he has to make under the table payments, or kickbacks, to the people that he meets with. Although this is considered normal in his situation, there can't be any money trail of pay offs leading back to the company. The company simply 'doesn't pay kickbacks.' So it's up to my friend to come up with the payments himself, out of pocket. So far, his record payment has been about $10,000 (US equivalent).
All this is to say that there is much about Japanese society, the way business is carried out here, about economics and politics that is generally known but unseen. My friend's life is one example. You might wonder why he keeps the job. Why spend most of his waking hours working at a job that succeeds because he gives his own money away for the sake of the company? I don't know. He's loyal. He's needed. He's a worker there (it's in his identity). He's just a good guy (doing some bad things).
One way that I make peace with living in Japan is to stop trying to figure everything out, though I believe most things would make sense with more information. Most mysteries have answers, but not all people are in position to see them. As for my friend, he doesn't "like" his job and has decided to quit--in two years. He figures he owes the company that much... I'll be rooting for him to find something better when the time comes. He really is a great guy and could do better, I think.
May 28, 2005
The Rise of the Lesser Panda in Japan
Japan is experiencing a Lesser Panda boom. In case you didn't know, Lesser Pandas are also known as Bear Cats or Red Pandas. You've probably seen them before. Anyway, it's been in the news and all over the television. The reason: Lesser Pandas are standing up. This new and unreported fact came to light recently, and people have been flocking to zoos to see. Really. On the morning news today, they displayed a graph showing declining zoo attendance going numbers going back to the 1960's. Then the showed crowds of people at various zoos all watching Lesser Pandas standing up. That is, zoo workers inside the cages were tempting the Lesser Pandas with snacks, and the Lesser Pandas had obliged by acting like puppy dogs. The Lesser Panda boom, which is reportedly the #4 news story in Japan right now, started this week...and it's amazing how quickly the zoos, television and even the stores selling Lesser Panda merchandise responded.
I imagine that there are a number of boardrooms with people inside patting themselves on the back.
May 26, 2005
Warning to Change RSS Feeders
I have started the new photoblog at www.japanwindow.com (please check it out). This would be a good time to bookmark that page or get set up to see it via RSS. From now on I will post TEXT here and PHOTOS there. I will leave the current gallery as it is right now. Again, new photos will go to the new photo blog. I hope you will come and take a look.
If you normally read this page via RSS, it's probably best to change your RSS feed to the new location (see below), because what you are seeing now may stop working at some point. Please go to the following link(s) and then bookmark the page(s) or subscribe to RSS feed(s) from there.
Text blog -
PHOTO blog -
I hope you like the new blog. I sacrificed a lot of sleep in the past 48 hours to get it running, but it should make my blogging easier and more fun again. Peace!
May 23, 2005
This Blog is Changing
In the next few days this blog will change (note the date of this post in case you're reading this after the fact). I'll start posting photos to a more pure photo blog at this URL and keeping a separate text oriented blog. Here are the links you'll need to know:
Japan Window PHOTO blog -
Japan Window TEXT blog -
The second link is active now and fully functional, so you can change your bookmark or RSS feed any time and add the other bookmark when the photo blog is ready.
Why the change? I love taking photos and writing, but combining both in one blog has been self-defeating. Loading pictures in a text-oriented blog is really a pain. This makes me reluctant to take pictures sometimes, because I don't have time to deal with the ones I have. It also pushes me toward writing only when I have time to put together a complete post (with photos and text), which often keeps me from writing short posts when I have something to say.
I want to take better photos, and this photo blog will mark a step in that direction. If you come here for the photos, you should be pleased.
I also want to write well. If you come here for the writing, you should also be pleased (just note the new link above). And if you come here for both the photos and text, just be sure to check both blogs from now on.
May 18, 2005
DesignFesta 2005 - Seeing the Tokyo Art SceneDesign Festa, a semi-annual gathering of artists, illustrators and, well, anyone who can get a group of friends to rent a space and "do" something suggestive of "art." That amounts to thousands of exhibitors (5700 or so, according to the official website), and about fifty thousand people show up to shop and gawk. That's Tokyo Big Site in the picture above (Design Festa took place in an area to the left of the big "room with a view"). The conference hall was roughly the size of a football field and packed. I doubt that I saw half of what was there, despite spending some ten hours wandering and weaving through the rows.
By the way, I haven't even talked about the food, like the Indian curry I kept going back for. I haven't mentioned the ten hours I must have spent speaking in Japanese (a whole semester's worth of conversation time at a typical language school). Nor have I described all the clothing, jewelry and other handmade stuff on display. Or the bands playing outside. Or the cheap prices (mental note: art and design school students sell their work at cost). But I've used up my quota of words for the week. So if YOU went to Design Festa please leave a comment and a link if you blogged about it. And, as always, all comments are read and appreciated!
May 13, 2005
Karuizawa Chapels, Noodles & Trees
Karuizawa felt almost like a small town in Colorado. The woods were thick, main street was just a few blocks long and hills thick with trees rose up as the buildings ended. There was a great shortage of leaves on those trees, though, which gave me a renewed appreciation for evergreens -- especially the Ponderosa Pines of my favorite mountains. But the bare branches all woven together with air in between (and no buildings or wires) had a character I could appreciate, and the place will be entirely green by mid-summer (when we return for another quick stay).
Karuizawa is known for many things. Every locality in Japan must be known for some kind of food or craft. If not, they make something up. A quick walk up the Ginza revealed an abundance of shops selling Sagawa jam and assorted pickled finger foods (well, chopstick foods that you eat with rice). Those were the gift stores. When Japanese people travel they often buy a some local food/snack items to bring back to their friends and neighbors. For those in the mood to consume on the spot, Karuizawa is "known for" its mocha soft serve ice cream, soba noodles and oyaki. Now I'm not convinced that mocha ice cream originated in this mountain town, or that their mocha ice cream is necessarily better than anyone else's (though it was good...). The soba is another story, which I'll get to later. Oyaki are steamed "dumplings" (kind of heavy, chewy rolls) stuffed with a veggie filling, and I like 'em.
Besides food, Karuizawa is known as the place where the current emperor of Japan met his wife (at a local tennis club). Members of the royal family apparently still go to Karuizawa for getaways, although we didn't run into any of them. Too bad.
Finally, Karuizawa is well known for its wedding chapels, or wedding INDUSTRY. Everywhere you look there are bridal shops with white dresses in the windows and cute little church-shaped buildings next door. My wife and I went to Hoshino Wedding Chapel. We actually went there because the building has a memorial inside for Kanzo Uchimura, and I wanted to take a look at that. Uchimura was a man of sincere faith and integrity who, many decades ago, gathered Japanese people to read the Bible and follow Jesus together completely outside of organized churches. They called it the "non-church" movement. Anyway, they picked a strange way to memorialize this man and his life. The chapel building is surely an architectural wonder. It's like a giant armadillo sprawled amoung the trees. An ode to concrete (intended as an ode to nature, or unity with nature -- go figure). In the lower level there is a small room with several glass cases featuring information and artifacts of Uchimura's life (like postcards and an underlined Bible).
By the way, I read online that Hoshino Chapel is the busiest wedding chapel in the world. A wedding party emerged from the building just as we arrived. After our brief look inside the chapel, we walked across the hotel grounds and I took more pictures as people emerged from another "famous" wedding chapel over there. We returned to our car in time to see wedding party number three. It was an eventful 40 minutes.
Aside from wedding chapels and the outlet center, we drove up the road and hiked (200 meters) to a beautiful waterfall one day. Another day we drove and hiked (100 meters) to a hilltop with a view. You choose short hikes when you have two year olds. I loved those places, and I'm looking forward to seeing them again when the place is green. We shopped a bit in the tourist shops, which we found surprisingly cheap. We found an extraordinary sculpture gallery (Monozukin). It deserves a blog entry in itself. Most of the welded, metal sculptures incorporate movement and, therefore, sound. It was all dark clattering teeth and motion. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough light to take pictures of my favorite pieces.
I said I'd mention more about soba later. We took my parents to have soba noodles one evening. I like soba, but I admit it's somewhat wrenching to pay $6 for a small pile of cold noodles and some sauce to dip them in. But often Japanese people don't go to restaurants hoping for a quantity of food; they go for a taste experience. Good soba takes time to make, and it has a complicated texture and taste. Well, the restaurant that was recommended to us (where we entered and sat down without checking the menu first) charged $10 for simple zarusoba (cold soba and dipping sauce), and $18 to throw in a few pieces of tempura. We were all feeling pretty hungry, and filling up there was clearly going to be a budget breaker. Plus, my parents had already experienced enough "price shock" for the day, and they aren't impressed by cold noodles no matter how you chop, dip or slice them. In the end, we ordered the minimum we could get away with to avoid slinking out of there without ordering (our group couldn't slink very well anyway). The soba was very good, by the way--in my opinion. After making an exit we walked down the street and had our second course at KFC.
Fish roasting at a road side stand just below the waterfall hike.