<![CDATA[All Over The Road - Japan]]>Sat, 18 Nov 2017 06:02:25 +0800Weebly<![CDATA[The Daruma Doll]]>Wed, 17 Jun 2015 06:05:40 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/06/the-daruma-doll.htmlJapan's Blind, Limbess Figure of Good Fortune

Spend a little time in Japan and you are bound to come across a peculiar sort of doll, a red and round human-ish creature with no arms or legs. He may or may not have eyes. He sports some pretty fancy facial hair. If you knock him over he’ll bounce back upright. And if you are lucky, he’ll grant your greatest wish.
Japan’s Daruma (達磨) represent perseverance and good luck. Imbued with symbolism, their origins are tied to the highest aspirations of Buddhism. People buy them – and burn them to ashes – every year. A quick peek 1,500 years into the past explains.
<![CDATA[ When Should You Not Be Giving Advice On Japan?]]>Thu, 04 Jun 2015 03:02:48 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/06/when-should-you-not-be-giving-advice-on-japan.htmlOne 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.'

"Another option, if you are married to a Japanese citizen, is a spouse visa."
-- Let's hear a huge 'Thanks Jean' for that keen, insightful bit. Those of us with Japanese spouses would have never thought of it. You're a life saver.

"A quick peak at a Tokyo apartment rental website..."
-- (That clickety-clack you hear is the sound of the spelling police riding in on their keyboards.)

"You can save money by being mindful of your water, gas and electricity usage."
-- I...smell...Pulitzer!

"You can apply for a Japanese visa at Japanese consulates and embassies worldwide..."
-- Thanks Jean, I've been having absolutely no luck at The Sushi Boat.

"...hospitals and clinics generally use the most advanced medical equipment and techniques available."
-- And people writing about things they have no clue about generally use the most basic and uninspired phrases available.

Which brings us back to that picture. What is it doing there? I was all excited about retiring to a Japanese castle, then Jean goes and crushes me by taking a quick PEAK at the exhorbitant rates on that Tokyo apartment rental website. $1,500 a month for a 440 square foot studio? I'll almost never be able to afford to live in a Designated National Treasure! That castle should be replaced - with a picture of a spouse visa, or a hospital with the most advanced medical equipment available perhaps.

Put that castle image next to Jean's piece about why Tokyo, Yokohama, Fukuoka, Sapporo and Kyoto are the best Japanese cities to retire in. No matter that the castle in the picture is in Matsumoto.

Considering the breadth of Jean's knowledge of Japan, it would actually be perfect.

Note: If I didn't live in Japan I probably wouldn't recognize that as Matsumoto Castle either. I wouldn't know much about Japan at all. Nor would I be trying to write about it like I did. Unless it paid well.
<![CDATA[Where Tax Increases Go When They're Born]]>Tue, 19 May 2015 14:16:20 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/05/where-tax-increases-go-when-theyre-born.htmlAbe's Massive Yen For Investment

In January of this year the Japanese government announced a budget of 96.3 trillion yen. If you think that sounds like a lot, you are right. According to today's exchange rate that amounts to a shade over 800 billion US Dollars. (Interesting how, when dealing in terms of government budgets, 2.6 billion dollars is a 'shade'.)

More salient than the amount, though, is the fact that this is the largest budget in Japan's history.

Waseda University Professor of Economics
Masazumi Wakatabe explains in this Forbes piece that Japan carries debt totalling 1,269.1 trillion yen. This tells me two things. One, after ten years in Japan there are still surnames I've never heard of. Wakatabe? Is that a typo? And two, Professor Wakatabe (sic), by virtue of his '1,269.1 trillion' remark, shows that he doesn't know the word 'Quadrillion'.

Professor Wakatypo goes on to state (in his only other sentence that doesn't go completely over my head) that "Japanese policymakers, economists, journalists, and the public are worrying about Japan’s fiscal situation. That is one of the major reasons why the consumption tax hike was planned and implemented."
Throngs of Japanese shoppers hit the streets, eager to do their part in the recent tax increase agenda.
So...what are the other major reasons?

Here are a few:
The Bangkok Post reports that Japan is set to build not one but two really, really long sets of train tracks in Thailand. One will be a high-speed railway running 670 kilometers from Bangkok to Chiang Mai - and, if those Japanese planners are on the ball, back to Bangkok. The other train set will be "a double-track line stretching 574 kilometres from Kanchanaburi through Bangkok and Chachoengsao to the Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri province, and to Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province next to Cambodia."

A double track line? Meaning the first one is a single track line? I knew it. Stay tuned for reports of a pile of trains stuck in Chiang Mai with no way to get back to Bangkok. Those Japanese planners better lay off the sake while they do their little planning thing on that first line. And on the second one too come to think of it. I've barely had any sake so far this morning and I'm already having trouble with the pronunciation of those Thai cities. The Japanese engineers start slurring those names and that double track is going to run like a squirrel trying to cross a busy street.

Then again our crew may already be too far sauced. The Bang-Post also states that, in planning this 670-kilometer catastrophe-in-the-making, "Japan would include its experience planning a Singapore-Malaysia railway project in its study on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route, Mr Arkhom said. The Singapore-Malaysia project last week was postponed indefinitely beyond its 2020 completion date."

Great. Japan is bringing its experience in not completing projects on time - in fact, leaving them to wallow indefinitely - to their train show in Thailand. This should all turn out real well.

Now about
this Tokyo Report in The Diplomat: At the summit meeting between the two countries' leaders (not really a summit so much as a date), Japan and India seemed bent on hooking up on a few fronts, two of them being more high-speed trains and - no I am not making this up - nuclear power facilities. This sounds like another solid plan. The holy sewage from the Ganges should perform miraculously as emergency coolant.

Picture"I know you're from Japan. My question is, what are you doing here?"
While he was in the neighborhood Japanese Prime Minister Abe decided to drop in on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, catching both of them by surprise as they answered the door in their bathrobes. PM Abe wants, for a cornucopia of reasons it seems, to ship more tax revenue over to South Asia, some of it as a bribe in the face of growing Chinese influence in the region and some as an investment in a coal-fired power plant because gee isnt nuclear power dangerous. Except in India.

Across the Bay of Bengal waters in Sri Lanka "Tokyo will finance a new passenger terminal at Colombo’s international airport by means of a $330 million development loan." That equals the tax increase on the sale of approximately fourteen billion packs of Pokemon playing cards. Prime Time Abe hopes of course for a solid return on his investments, further increasing revenue and returning Japan to fiscal robustness.

Picture"Tax Increases Are Fun!"
But just in case, he's hanging around Indochina where progress on the Dawei Special Economic Zone is picking up momentum. This SEZ, which will propel Myanmar into the 21st Century in terms of industrial waste, pollution and human rights abuses, "will cover over 200 square kilometres and have the capacity to hold 250 million tonnes of cargo, more than the ports of Los Angeles and New York combined" our busybody friends at the Bangkok-on-Post tell us. This despite the fact that most of the international trade community has no idea where Myanmar is let alone Dawei.

As of now Japan has no stake in this SEZ. But that didn't stop P-Maybe from going down to Myanmar for a visit.

That he found the place shows just how determined he is to spread his newfound tax revenue around.

I wonder if he knows where Fukushima is.

<![CDATA[Domo But No Thank You, Mrs. Robotto]]>Fri, 15 May 2015 16:39:54 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/05/domo-but-no-thank-you-mrs-robotto.htmlPicture
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.

When there is no designated greeter at the door (which is the exception rather than the rule in most commercial establishments in Japan, from pubs to banks to convenience stores) everyone in the entire place will shout out a greeting when you walk in, filling the air with a chorus of "Irrashaimase!" It's magical. I love it. And all just for using the ATM. Or the bathroom. And while it's out of an ingrained sense of duty more than anything else, still it is very enchanting. It is warm. It is human.

Mitsukoshi's Aiko Chihira, however, is not human. She's a machine that can "move in several ways". Meanwhile there is no shortage of sweet, demure Japanese girls willing to stand by an entrance or in an elevator and push my buttons in several ways. So really, I don't get it.
"I've believed that the most important role of robots will be as kind and emotional companions to enhance our daily lives," says Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran (Robotics)and, I assume, an extremely unpopular kid when he was in school. "To bring happiness, constantly surprise us and make people grow."

Make people grow? Through an encounter with a human-ish machine that can't even tell us where the bathroom is?

Thanks but no thanks. I'll take a sweet, demure Japanese human instead.

Even if she doesn't know where the bathroom is. Just keep pushing those buttons, honey. 
<![CDATA[What's Wrong With Spring in Japan?]]>Tue, 12 May 2015 14:52:36 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/05/whats-wrong-with-spring-in-japan.htmlPicture
This is what I saw today, from the top of my very short street, standing in a light drizzle, facing due east. (Why do we say 'due' east?)

The rice farmers have flooded their fields with the water that flows freely and endlessly down from the mountains. More rain is on the way as the first typhoon of the year approaches. The swaths of dark green climbing all over those mountains are forests of pine. The lighter greens are patches and stretches of deciduous, freshly-dressed in new leaves. The blue beyond the water is a grove of grape vines. They grow them by the millions all along the valley reaching into the distance right of center. Yet in places the vines have been replaced by rows of solar panels.

In August the faint but distinct smell of grapes will permeate the air, floating over rice fields that will be thick with the coming harvest. Our own garden too will perhaps be lush with the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, eggplant, watermelon and pumpkin the kids planted with their mom this past weekend. But for now we wait, and fall asleep to the gutteral cries of a thousand frogs, dormant all the long cold winter, now reveling, like the rest of us, in this season of regeneration and expectation.

Enough now of the gibberish. The family's all asleep, time to knock back a cold one and hit the sack. Looks like sun tomorrow.

Nothing wrong with any of that.

<![CDATA[A Royal Pain in the Monkey]]>Fri, 08 May 2015 09:05:53 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/05/aroyal-pain-in-the-monkey.htmlEvery 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.
<![CDATA[After lunch]]>Sat, 11 Apr 2015 13:35:02 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/04/after-lunch.htmlMy 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.
It was quite cloudy. And I don't like photoshopping my pictures. So what you see here is exactly what it was like for those of us up on top of Kobo-yama. Minus the cool breeze.
My wife snapped a few shots of the boys once she finally got them to stop running around like the monkeys that they are. Meanwhile my daughter was on a beautiful mission to see just how much uneven terrain she could conquer with her walker.
I lived in Matsumoto during cherry blossom season in 2003. Then too the weather was less than perfect. We might have waited until another day, to come see this amazing display under clearer, sunnier skies. But forecasts come with no guarantees. And the petals will soon start to fall. Bottom line though, the kids had a blast. And they got lunch.
Come to think of it, it was perfect.
<![CDATA[What's up the road]]>Wed, 11 Mar 2015 15:31:07 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/03/whats-up-the-road.htmlPicture
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.

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.
<![CDATA[don't embarrass yourself]]>Sun, 08 Feb 2015 15:07:56 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/02/dont-embarrass-yourself.htmlPicture
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.

<![CDATA[The Warm & Cold Japanese Winter]]>Thu, 29 Jan 2015 14:37:09 GMThttp://kevinkato.com/1/post/2015/01/the-warm-cold-japanese-winter.htmlPicture"I don't mind when it's cold out..."
The winter months get pretty chilly here in Matsumoto. And I'm talking about inside the house. Japan's aversion to breaking with tradition includes technological advances like home heating, and when the cold comes the community gathers at the gas station, lining up and waiting our turn to fill up our standard red-orange state-approved plastic cans with kerosene for the heaters in our living rooms. We keep warm this way, until it's time to take a bath in a bathroom that is not heated. Getting into the hot bath is heaven. Getting out is hell. Before we go to bed we turn off the heater. In the morning the air inside our homes, which are built without another recent invention callled insulation, is colder than the air inside our refrigerators. No joke. My heater has a digital display of the room's temperature. On most mornings in January and February it read 6 Celsius.

That's 43 Fahrenheit for you Americans. Yeah, you guys, the ones burning the heating oil non-stop. Wussies.
We don't heat our water either, not unless we're about to take a shower or a bath. And while my fingers go numb from the cold water I'm using to do the dishes, to me it's sensible and, dare I say, right. In our last home, in the States, we shut off the boiler when we weren't heating the house or the water. The thermostats and the water temperature dials only went so low, so after a while, even if we weren't bathing anytime soon, or we were going out for the day, the boiler would fire itself up, burning more heating oil for no practical reason. Before we moved out the oil heat people came out to check on the boiler, the standard maintenance check before the changing of the tenants. I told him that we regularly shut the boiler off completely, using the easily-accessible switch that was ostensibly accessible for emergencies only. "There's no problem turning the boiler on and off with this switch, is there?" I asked. After his incredulity faded enough to where he could speak he told me he didn't think so but in all his years as a boiler guy he'd never heard of anyone doing such a thing. Neither had my landlady, who was visibly concerned for no other reason that she couldn't understand why we'd bother.

There's an economy in the way Japanese people live. It's evident in the habits that persist. The house we live in now has double sets of windows throughout. Not just double-paned glass, but two sets of windows. I couldn't understand the logic when we moved in last August. Now I get the drift - and no draft, ha ha. But the walls are thin, like pre-fabricated partitions. The metal front door sports a permanent film of condensation on the inside. There's no dehumidifying system to speak of in the bathroom, so we have to open the windows, even in the dead of winter, to keep the walls and the fixtures and everything else from becoming coated with leftover moisture.

I wear two pairs of socks these days, along with thick slippers, to keep the cold floor from eating right through my feet. I take the clothes I'm wearing the next day to bed with me, tucking them down at my feet or along the edge of my four thick futon blankets. If I don't they'll be freezing in the morning when I drag  myself downstairs to fire up the kerosene heater again.

We keep the sliding doors to the TV room closed, to maximize the heater's efficiency as it hums and breathes away to keep our living room/kitchen space at a reasonable temperature. the good thing about this is it keeps the kids' television time to a minimum. The bad thing is, it takes away a major strategy of mine for keeping the kids entertained in a different room from the oone I am trying to enjoy. The solution involves a brilliant if not cramped invention called a kotatsu, essentially a coffee table with a heater mounted underneath and a removable top for installing the big blankets that hang down and trail out along the floor, enough to cover everyone's legs and still keep all the heat from escaping from under the kotatsu. With too many people, everyone is relegated to keeping only the bottom halves of their bodies warm. If there are only a couple people using the kotatsu, or if the three or four people using it are small like my kids, there's room enough for everyone to disappear up to their necks under those blankets. I feel fortunate in that my kids are fine with this set up for the times I let them watch TV - and also for the fact that I don't ever watch TV. I'll hang out by myself, next to this kerosene heater, thanks.

I've always said that I don't mind when it's cold outside, I just hate it when it's cold inside. Since moving to Japan I've had to change my tune. But I appreciate the mindset. I like the conservative customs. It's just sometimes I wish I lived in Okinawa.