One Woman Gives Us A Clear & Unwitting Clue
Recognize this castle?

If so, then you (a) live in Japan, (b) have been to Japan, or (c) have some knowledge of Japan.

Or (d) you read Jean Folger's 'The Best Cities To Retire To In Japan', a pile of presumptive rubbish that I recently deconstructed on Jeopardy!

This castle has nothing to do with that article. Rather, this is the exact image that appears after the article, next to the title of another recent Jean Folger fart, 'A Foreigner's Guide to Retiring In Japan'.

In that piece, the Far-East-facing retiree is fed the following inspired morsels:

"While Japan is an easy country to visit..."
-- Easy how? Easy to get to? Easy to get into? This is about as helpful as saying 'The Pacific is an easy ocean to swim in.'

She has life-like skin. She can speak Japanese and Chinese. She can't answer any questions.

Sounds like a few of my former students but in this case we are talking about a robot who is waiting to greet me when I walk into Tokyo's Mitsukoshi department store the next time I go there, which will be never.

The concept of having a greeter at a department store is not new in Japan. But they are able to pull it off here with a bit more style, grace and dignity than the blue-vested specimens at Wal-Mart. When I do find myself walking into a department store in Japan - likely to use the bathroom - my knees go weak with the smiling, the bowing, the precise, sweet words of welcome from the girl standing by the entrance who seems genuinely delighted that I have come to use the bathroom.

I'll then head for the elevator for more of the same from another sweet, demure Japanese girl whose job it is to make me feel safe and comfortable as she puts a practiced, protective hand in front of the not-yet-closed elevator doors, totally pushing my buttons. Plus she will answer me when I ask her where the bathroom is.

Every year the Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden has itself a bit of fun by letting the general public vote on a name for the year's first new monkey. At last count there are over 1,500 monkeys running in circles, pissing on each others heads and spitting up the wasabi-flavored crackers the kids keep on feeding them. And quite frankly, the zookeepers are having an increasingly hard time coming up with new names. I believe it, I only have three monkeys and by the time the second one was born I was already out of good ideas.

According to this AP article 853 votes were cast, almost a full third of them by the monkeys themselves. Apparently there was a voting surge after the new British princess was named this past Monday, and on Wednesday, once the ballots had all been counted, it was announced that the first Takasakiyama-born monkey of 2015 would be named Charlotte.

An uproar ensued.
"Please, do something! Demand a recount! Pass a law! File a suit, anything! Just don't name me after a bloody human!"
Zoo officials (who double as monkey cage cleaners) reported that they were " flooded with angry calls and emails " about the decision. The article further states that "many critics said giving the princess' name to a monkey was disrespectful to British royals" and that, "according to zoo official Akira Asano, some said the Japanese people would feel offended if a monkey were named after Japanese princesses."

On the zoo's website the following was posted: "We deeply apologize for causing trouble to many people over the naming of the first baby. We take these opinions seriously."

So seriously, in fact, that they didn't even wait for any input from the British Royals themselves, who, we might rightfully assume, were not even aware of what was going on in the monkey house on the other side of the globe. They've got their own voting riot to contend with right now.

Zoo officials, along with unnamed (at their request) city representatives, are reportedly still discussing what to do about this monkey, now destined for a life of identity crises. Following the time-honored Japanese tradition of not being able to make a decision, "the zoo now plans to seek advice from the British Embassy before making a final decision."

That decision-inspiring piece of advice, I suspect, will go something like "For God's sake, it's a bloody monkey, name it whatever you bloody want you spineless bowing bastards!"

And with that the Japanese will be relieved. This monkey-naming stuff is hard.

*** NOTE: In the days following the initial uproar a few things were decided.
1. William and Kate did not appear to be offended by the naming of the monkey. Such was the assumption since William & Kate did not appear to know about it.
2. The British Embassy in Tokyo had no comment on the matter. Because, we will assume they didn't care about it.
3. The monkey's name will remain Charlotte. A huge relief to all Japanese as no one knew what to do about it.

Source: Just about every newspaper in the world but I'm ready for a beer after all this so here.
My sons, ages 7 and 5, have absolutely no sense of priority. You guys want to check out the cherry blossoms first then go eat lunch, or go eat lunch first and then check out the blossoms?

Actually, I was kind of hungry too.

We could see Kobo-yama from our table in the restaurant. That might have lent some consolation to my wife.
Kobo-yama (弘法山) has two claims to fame. First, it is the home of a tumulus that dates from the late 3rd or early 4th Century. This grave-marking mound of dirt sits near the top Kobo-yama, and bears a resemblance in shape to Kobo-yama itself - at least from this angle. The path to the peak of mighty Kobo runs directly over the top of this tumulus, with no signs screaming out to me in English what I'm actually walking and spitting on.

I didn't realize until after the fact that I was walking on top of a pile of dirt someone made 1,000 years before Columbus set sail. Therefore I have no pictures of it.

That it was eminently unstriking may be of some consolation to you.

Kobo-yama's other point of interest is slightly more apparent, as seen above and below.

These guys look cold to you?

Of course not, you say. They're made of flipping stone, idiot.

That may be true, but they've been sitting out there for a while.

Since 1331 to be exact.

These guys reside a couple miles up the road from my home in Matsumoto, Japan. They sit on a terraced, 8-foot-high stone thing.  They have this peaceful, Zen thing going on.
I ain't buying it.

Still, living in a place that was established at the same time the Bubonic Plague was running rampant across much of the civilized world is pretty damn cool. I'll take a wild guess and say that these guys haven't been here quite that long but I bet they were here a long time before I ever showed up - and will be around long after I am gone, and possibly almost until the time I am forgotten.

Toku-un-ji sits in a quiet place, along a road that runs up into the mountains of eastern Nagano. Only one other person appeared while I wandered the modest grounds. He didn't seem as taken with the place - or the age of the place - as I was.

I can't adequately relate how it feels to walk in an ancient place. But I can show you a few pictures.

Everyone knows that karaoke is big in Japan.

How big?

Actually that is a trick question. Nothing is big in Japan (unless you count my headache, borne of the endless string of English conversation students telling me they 'went to shopping.')

But all things are relative, and this sign stands as proof that karaoke is relatively big.

In case you are illiterate, the sign is for karaoke classes, taught by a woman by the name of Ito. Yes, there is, right down the road from me, someone who is ready (for some ridiculous amount of money I'm willing to bet) to teach me how to be better at karaoke. I can only assume she understands that the places I go to sing karaoke also offer all-you-can-drink deals. Not that a gallon of beer makes my singing any better but it sure helps my friends think so.

Of course, if karaoke were food I'd be eating at Bob's Big Boy. Ms. Ito, I think, is catering more to the Peter Lugar crowd. I sing karaoke in places with private soundproof rooms with people who know I have also had a gallon of beer. Ms. Ito's students sing karaoke in places with only one room, where everyone in the building can hear you and there is no vomit on the floor.

There are even karaoke competitions, with the regionals and national finals broadcast on television in the afternoons when the old folks are still awake. So while I may poo-poo the idea of karaoke classes as I ride my bike past Ms. Ito's place on my way to Bob's Big Boy, the reality is that Ms. Ito is into helping people better themselves in their own way.

Meanwhile the people in my classroom just keep going to shopping.

The girl in this photo may never see her bicycle again...

Sounds like the opening to an episode of The Twilight Zone: Japan. But this is not sci-fi. And as far as I know the late, great Rod Serling never visited Japan.

But he should have.

It's plausible to think that (a) since her bicycle looks like everyone else's bicycle, and (b) since there are about eleven thousand of them parked in theoretically perfect parallel fashion, she could grow old walking the aisles. That her bike is the one with the furry, marble-sized Hello Kitty thing hanging from the bell on her handlebars doesn't help because every other bicycle has a furry Hello Kitty thing too, even the boys' bicycles (another TZ: Japan episode).

Notice too that she is wearing a high school uniform. This is a solid indicator that her young mind is jam-packed with standardized test questions and answers to the point that she may even forget she has a bicycle. She would be saved, however, by the vague recollection that she has a furry marble-sized Hello Kitty thing hanging somewhere.

No, the reason she might never see her bicycle again is actually very simple (for Japan).

PictureNakano-Fudohson Shrine.
No apologies for that last post. Being sarcastic is one of my strong points and doesn't Tony Robbins say we are supposed to develop our strengths? And anyway, you can take a kid out of New Jersey but you can't take New Jersey out of Da Kid! (Brand new nickname for myself there.)

Ever since I got married there hasn't been a New Year's Eve where I haven't wished I hadn't gotten married. (Stay with me here.) Think about it, this is the last big hurrah, an immeasurably valuable opportunity to get a little crazy with a few (or a few dozen, or few hundred) other people who also realize this is pretty much it until St. Patrick's Day. But my wife, being Japanese, isn't in tune with the concept of last hurrahs. To her, life is just this one long Zen Buddhist continuum that doesn't cater to age-old traditions of sophomoric insobriety and so we always end up waiting for midnight by sitting on our asses in a room with a TV.

The one consolation is that the entire rest of the country is doing the same - except for the ones standing around outside, near a shrine, freezing in jackets too thin for the weather and clinging to their cell phones with curled, half-frozen fingers. Which, now that I think about it, seems a hell of a lot better than standing around in Times Square. At least the shrine has toilets you can get to.