Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Nissan Leaf

I don't usually get exited about cars.  The primary school Ford v Holden debates never made much sense to me; I was hard pressed to tell which was which.  And still now the brand of a car never impresses me. But... concept cars on the other hand....  in Ginza the other day I walked past the Nissan show room on 4 chome crossing which  had a prototype of the Nissan Leaf in the window. Wow!  Too cool - straight from the Jetsons.

It is a zero emission electric car which can go 100miles before needing to be recharged. (At high speeds though this decreases to more like 60miles).  According to Nissan it will not need regular maintenance,  though  after five years it will need the batteries replaced.  According to the Guardian newspaper it will  be comparatively expensive at   28,350 pounds   but  running costs will be about  0.3 pence to the mile.
 It also has gimmicky functions like being able to use your mobile phone to ask it remotely to start warming up and a continually updating GPS that tells you among other things were the nearest recharge places are.

Over time, presumable battery life will get longer and recharging time shorter.  There seems to be consensus that long term success will depend on both of  these being achieved, as well as a big increase in the number of    recharging stations. 

It's a pity the real cars, available from next year,  won't look like the prototype, 

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Decision making at Tokyo Met govt

I was having a chat the other day to a high school teach who teaches in a  high school run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (Tocho).  Tocho has finally addressed the problem of lack of computers teachers have access to, by issuing each teacher with his/her own laptop.   Hurrah for Tocho!  A long overdue move.


Apparently there are restrictions on the computers.
The computer network is operated from the Tocho office in Shinjuku and works on Tocho hours - 9am-5pm Mon Friday.   Oops... schools start at 8 here...  Ooops - most high schools  work two Saturdays a month.... Ooops - teachers often don't finish club activities till five and are frequently at school till 7. Ooops - teachers work in the evenings and weekends...

Futhermore the computers allow people to copy from the hard drive onto a USB, but don't allow someone to copy from a USB to the hard drive....To bad if you want to use your home computer at night.....

Apparently the laptop makes a good placemat.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Dark days in Japan's beef industry

A dire sense of desperation has fallen across the Japanese beef industry. Foot and mouth disease, which appeared to have been eradicated, has come back on a devastating scale.  The outbreak began before the Golden Week holidays, and emergency measures such as halting livestock movements with in a 10km radius, limiting livestock movement in a 20 km radius, culling all cattle and pigs on affected properties were introduced immediately.    The measures to date have not been effective and the government made a decision yesterday to cull all cattle and pigs with in a 10 km radius.  Reports are saying 200,000 head will be vaccinated against FMD, and then culled to prevent the spread. The numbers of pigs are much greater than cattle; however it is in the cattle industry where the devastation is being most felt.

Miyazaki is one of Japan's most important areas for cattle farming; it has its own premium beef label 'Miyazaki Beef' and is a important centre for cattle breeding.  Almost half of the cattle  from Miyazaki are shipped to other prefectures for fattening as high end beef.  According to Asahi newspaper Miyazaki cattle become much of the the Matsusaka beef of Mie prefecture,  the Omi beef of Shiga prefecture and the Saga beef of Saga prefecture.    The impact on the supply chain  will start to be felt in months.  In the long term, more troubling  than the disruption to the supply of feeder cattle, is the loss of genetics.  The Miyazaki Livestock improvement Association,  which is responsible for developing all the stud bulls for "Miyazaki Beef"  has also been infected. They hope their six "ace" bulls, which currenlty account for 90% of stud bull genetics  have been isolated in time, but the remaining forty nine stud bulls will be slaughtered.   Theres is apparently a years supply of frozen bull semen (I hope they have a generator attached to the freezers....), but the damage is extreme - there is nothing close to a final figure of economic damage, though reports at this stage are of around  $200 US million dollars.  The psychological damage is immeasurable. Herds built up and improved over generations have been killed en masse.  Hiro has dealings with Miyazaki at work, and says people there are completely gutted; carcases are pilling up and farmers feel utterly without hope.  To quote directly 'it's like they are in hell'. With an election coming up, it has become a hot issue - hopefully it means support will be put in place to enable the people and the industry to recover.

The map below is from a branch of the World Health Organisation and shows outbreaks of FMD in Asia since 2009.   It is definitely on the increase. It seems like a lot of research on transmission and prevention is needed.

*** Update - one of the 6 stud bulls has tested positive. 
Foot and mouth disease outbreak

Map of Miyazaki from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The unheralded flowers of Tokyo

With the exception of cherry trees, Tokyo isn't really fame for being flower city.   After the plums in February come the cherry blossoms in March, then the azaleas,  the wisteria, hydrangeas then  irises.  It's kind of a set menu.  Wandering around the local neighbourhood, many, perhaps most,  houses have pot plants outside their home. In the absence of a 'real' garden, Tokyoites take pride in maintaining their colourful pot plants - you don't tend to find dead stalks on a plant. It's these unheralded flowers of  Tokyo that inject life and colour, taking an edge off concrete grey.  Many shops also have flowers out the front and local governments put time and effort into maintaining  hedges, parks, and gardens.   No-one seems to steal them;  perhaps even would be flower thieves appreciate how bright and happy they make a megopolis look :)

A rice / sushi shop in Yanaka,  not a flower shop as it might appear .

Daigaku Imo

On Kototoi dori in Asakusa, there is a charming little daigaku imo shop selling, naturally enough, daigaku imo, a  Japanese sweet potato treat, covered in a light syrup and a  staple food of festivals. This daigaku imo shop has thin sliced sweet potato chips, as well as the more conventional wedges.  It also avoids selling distractions like sweet potato puddings and cakes, and is committed to excellence in daigaku imo :)
Daigaku means university.  Imo means of the broad potato family.  University sweet potatoes?  The name apparently comes from the fact that they are common food at university festivals; sweet potatoes are  most plentiful around October the traditional festival time for  schools and universities.   I am not sure about it's history, but I assume it's food culture that originated in Manchuria as I often ate it in the North East Dumpling Restaurant in Ashfield (Sydney's Mainland Chinese Chinatown - or one of them anyway).  
We bought some and took them to a nearby park to eat them.
 There is a recipe below.


2 small sweet potatoes 
a little salt
Oil for frying
2 teaspoons black sesame

6 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons mirin
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1.5 tbsp water
1. Cut sweet potato into bitesize pieces & Soak in salt water for 1o mins.
2. Put oil into a deep fry pan, add potato to room temperature oil and cook.
3. At the same time add the sugar, mirin, soy and water in a small  saucepan, heat until they thicken a bit.
4. When the sweet potato is cooked through (check with a bamboo skewer)  and has a slight brown tinge on the outside, put into a new pot.
5. Pour the syrup over the top and sprinkle black sesame seeds.   The recipe comes from here, it's in Japanese, but it has some pictures :)

This recipe is much better.

Ubiquitous Uniqlo

Uniqlo - Japan's biggest and most profitable clothing retailer - continues to expand. It started off as a small clothes company after the war in Yamaguchi, western Japan, but in 1984 reinvented itself as 'fast clothes' shop selling clothing basics, with an aim to fill the gap between cheap shoddy clothing and expensive high quality clothing.

Although they have had a few hiccups they are monumentally successful; about 100 shops in Tokyo, including at most of the main JR train stations; they've expanded into east Asia, the US, UK, France and Russia and now have more than 900 shops; their forecast net profit for the year is 71 billion yen ( .75 billion US)*

There are no doubt lots of reasons for their success.    It's vertically integrated so the can control the whole production process and  production responds quickly if it is a longer winter or a hotter summer than expected.   It also gives them massive economies of scale.     For the quality, they are very cheap - proper down jackets for around 50$ US, non iron cotton business shirts, $25, t-shirts for 10$.   They have employed noted designers to keep clothes fresh and fashionable, while at the same time keeping a basics range that appeals to all generations. In addition they seem to spend a lot of money on fibre research - washable downs, 'heat tech', improved fleeces.     In contrast to many companies who opt for the cheapest part time labour, they also treat their employees well.   I read a while back that they had decided to employ staff on full time contracts with benefits rather than have them as minimum wage part time workers, quite a radical decision in a country where employees are not usually seen as assets.    According to the British Uniqlo site,  benefits for shop staff include: monthly store target bonuses, store campaign bonuses, monthly travel allowance, company pension Scheme, private medical insurance, 4 x annual salary Life Assurance, 50% staff discount , 28 days paid holiday per annum.   They also have tried to make themselves an 'eco' company and three or four months of the year they encourage people to return any unwanted Uniqlo clothes for recycling.   Their stores are also in prominent, high prestige locations.

Although there are lots of reasons why they are successful, and appealing,  the fact remains they are a budget clothes mega chain. And it was with some surprise that I saw their newest shop in Tokyo is inside Takashimaya, a high end Shinjuku department store. Perhaps a bit like Fosseys moving into a corner of David Jones?

A sign of the times.
Takashimaya Times Square Shinjuku

                                                                       Uniqlo Ginza Uniqlo's Japan website, which goes through google translate reasonably.
** this figure is so staggeringly high I have tripled checked and it seems to be right.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Rules III

Another rule, or at least so it seems, is that if giving flowers on Mother's Day, the flowers must be carnations.  More beautiful, more expensive tulips or daffodils or roses or orchids or any other flower do not cut it; cheaper, uglier carnations are much more appreciated....

Rules II

Another rule I really like is the rule not to pee in public...

But I really wonder why a proportion of the Japanese male population have such
difficulty conforming to it.

A couple of months back there was a medium ranked policeman arrested for peeing on the platform of Minami Senju train station.  In Hawaii, there was a JAL co-pilot arrested, resulting in the cancellation of his flight, for the same a few weeks ago.

The other day in Yamanashi at Shosenkyo, we walked past a public toilet (ubiquitous in Japan) next to it were two old geezers - perhaps 80 - perhaps more - peeing simultaneously on the concrete next to it.... 
There was even grass nearby....
It is not the first time I have seen someone peeing with in sight of a public toilet.
I just don't get it.
Hiro thinks it's a good way to remind people Japan is part of Asia...
But to be fair to China and VN where public peeing is common place, they don't have ubiquitous public loos!!
More manji chan to enforce public peeing rules NOW!
Or at least more lemon trees....

Rules I

I like rules.  Good rules make for a peaceful harmonious society.
Take for example the rule here that people shouldn't talk on a mobile phone on a train,  in a library or other place where it might cause irritation to the general public who isn't at all interested in the trite mundanities of a stranger's life.  The rule makes train travel so much more pleasant.  There is also a rule that it's ok for children to stand on seats on the train, but they should take off their shoes.  It keeps children happy that they can look out the window and at the shinkansen hurtling past,  and at the same time it keeps seats cleaner and less susceptible to wear.
A rule that said any political campaign vehicles have to have their loud speakers set to 60 decibels or less would  definitely be a good rule, dramatically improving quality of life during election campaings.

Some rules however are are just dumb: ill conceived,unreasonable and very irritating...

Some recent examples....
My work rules:

- non full time teachers may not use university computers, including for work related matters.
- non full time teachers must not keep anything beyond  what fits in a 15cm deep, A4 size drawer  at the university 
- teachers must keep exam papers of students (two semesters) for one year after the test has been done, but the exam papers must not be kept at the university...
- teachers must dispose of exam papers in a way that maintains the privacy of students, but teachers are not allowed to use the university shredder.

Hiro's work rule
- starting times are staggered - either 9 am or 9.30 am - but starting earlier doesn't mean your finishing time is earlier.
- a person going on a business trip by plane may not go to the destination early or return later
even if it is a weekend and using their own time.  For example if there is a meeting in Kagoshima (south of Kyushu island) at 10am, the employee alsmost always has to get up super early to be on the first plane of the morning to get to the meeting on time.  Going to Kagoshima, on Sat,  spending a leisurely weekend and being bright fresh to go to the meeting on Mon. morning, is not permitted - because the rule is that if you are enjoying yourself it might be a junket - even though you are paying your own accommodation. .  If a business trip ends on a Friday afternoon,  the return plane ticket must also be on the Friday.  And yet the rule also says if there is an overseas trip like to S America - an employee will go on Sat, will arrive back Sun, will go to work Mon, and will not get time off in lieu.

- workers cannot keep frequent flier points for work related travel,  but at the same time, they don't
save them for the company's use either...

Friday, 7 May 2010

Biking home

Up early to beat the traffic... we left on Wed am.  It was a  640km or so in 10 hours including breaks - a break every 80kms or so makes for much more comfortable bike travel.    Mostly the traffic flowed well.
This is a picture of Mt Iwate from the Iwate san petrol / rest stop a bit over  100kms from Odate.

The coast road - Tsugaru peninsula

From Shirakami sanchi we continued north.  There is a an alpine road that goes east towards Hirosaki but it's only traversable in the late spring and summer.   The road we took  follows the  coastline closely much of the way to the tip of the Tsugaru peninsula.  In parts it is a very thin strip between the coast and the mountains and much concrete has been used to reinforce the escarpments / embankments to prevent landslides.  The road along the coastal strip was notable for the lack of convenience stores, lack of pachinko parlours and lack of conspicuous? temples and shrines. * Once we were north of the rice growing area, the main industry seemed to be squid fishing and selling.  Lots of shops selling yaki-squid,  with squid hung out on drying racks  next door.
Looking north from the top of Akita prefecture.  The black soil seemed to be natural and not the result of any immediate pollution.... That said though,  Japan Sea coast gets a lot of debris washed up - that which doesn't originate locally is mostly from Korea, Russia and China. 
Looking south down the coast.  The land behind is steep, the precipitation high making the area vulnerable to landslides and in need of reinforcement.
Very pretty coastline, the Gono line railway runs parallel to the road several metres away.  The escarpment  or should that be embankment next to the road is a concrete grid to stop landslides.  There is an awful lot of concrete used along the coast in particular, but also in general.  Dogs and Demons, a contraversial and perhaps cynical book written by an American in Japan, is a detailed expose of the motivation for concreting and public works.
Rice fields next to the sea
Squid boats - identifiable as squid boats by the lanterns on the side - squid are attracted to light.
Squid in a fish tank at a tourist information / rest centre
Bense Wetlands   - Apparently this kind of wetland is unusual in its close proximitiy to the beach. Clicking on the link will take you to summer pictures that are more impressive.  Winter is only just over on the Tsugaru peninsula. Much of the area around here is used for greenhouse melon and strawberry cultivation.

Cape Tappi - the northern most point of  Tsugaru hanto (peninsula).
There has to be a t-shirt in this!

* Tsugaru does have a major shrine -  Takayama inari jinja -  but I left my camera in the car....  It attracts donations from nearby prefectures as well as locally,  mostly from people who are wanting good fortune in their business... judging by the state of northern Tohoku's economy I wonder at its efficacy...

Shirakami Sanchi

A trip to the onsen, and early night and we woke bright and early to Hiro's mother's breakfast mostly on the table.  Mountain vegetable picking season has begun and we feasted on local foods  that aren't found in Tokyo..... I really should have made a better note of them...Mountain veges can be quite bitter, but prepared well they are a treat.

We were up early to go to Shirakami sanchi mountain area  and beyond, up the Tsugaru peninsula of Aomori province. Shirakami is the triangle on the south west (BLHS) of the map. Tsugaru is the large peninsula in the north west (TRHS).Odate is off the map, just south of the dotted yellow line that shows the border between Akita and Aomori.
Shirakami Sanchi is pristine beech forest, and without doubt the most natural nature i have seen in Japan. It is also Tohoku's only UNESCO World Heritage site. It's somewhere I have been wanting to go for years, but had only made it as far as the visitor centre on a cold and wet day on a trip back from Hirosaki....  Looking at pictures of trees isn't really the same as walking through them.

We took a back road  to avoid holiday traffic, and passed through countryside, where the roads were straight and the farming paddocks large. Quite unusual in most of Japan - and indicates relatively recent agricultural settlement.  Traditionally most roads in the countryside are narrow and windy and trace the edge of rice paddy borders and rivers.    I assumed it was because the winters there are so severe - utterly vile in fact. Blizzards, snow,  blizzards,  snow, inaccessible roads... Much of the the 1800mm or so rainfall each year comes in blizzards....   According to Hiro that's unlikely to be the reason - much of the settled parts of  the Japan Sea coast have similarly severe winter - rather it was more to do with lack of a year round water source to enable rice cultivation.    

Possibly in the past it was an area inhabited by semi-settled bear hunting clans.

We took the turn  off the coast road to Juuni ko (12 lakes) though actually there are more than 30 lakes there...It was really pretty.  Much of Tohoku used to be beech trees - their leaves are cope well with heavy snow falls - but cedar trees, the staple of the plantation industry, now dominate.  Shirakami sanchi area was too remote, too inhospitable, and too far from a port to make planations feasible. Surprisingly though the beech tree forest is only 800 years old, a product of the thawing of the last mini ice age.

I would like to go back in different seasons, in part because it looks remarkably different depending on season,  and in part because the Shirakami skyline road was still untrafficable due to snow making it impractical to go through to the other side of the forest.  This is a link to a video made by Japan's national broadcaster, NHK,   showing the park at different times of the year.

One of the Juuniko lakes
Aoike (the blue lake... rather aptly named)

Beech forest of shirakami coming into spring
Beech forest of shirakami
We were lucky enough to see a wild monkey!  It had no fear of humans at all.  It stayed there quite happily, aware that there were people there.  In more heavily touristed areas / areas closer to human settlement monkeys can become very unpleasantly aggressive in demanding food.
A lake
Better not miss the bus! Train connection information is indicated in the right hand column.   The bus timetable on the Konan Bus company website.  a blog with beautiful autumn pictures of shirakami

Tamagawa onsen

Tamagawa onsen, steamy, sulfurous,  radioactive, draws crowds from across Japan.  It's Japan's most acidic onsen - ph 1.1  and also the only one that is radioactive.   It looks post nuclear holocaust - barren rocks, devoid of greenery - moonscape comes to mind but I am sure the moon doesn't steam and splutter.  It would be fitting backdrop for Dante's inferno.
In the 'olden days' it had barrack accommodation and was popular among Akita and Iwate farmers as a place to rest, relax and recouperate for a few weeks after the rice planting season. If I remember rightly,   Hiro's grandparents used to bring their own cooking equipment and spend the daytimes  soaking.   With such acidic water, it should avoided by anyone with cuts or bruises, unless utterly masochistic.   These days Tamagawa attracts people from across the country.  TV programs have touted the curative properties of the radiation and the outdoor area had large clusters of people lying down, baking themselves on thin bamboo bedrolls,  covered by sleeping bags, blankets and other layers to keep the heat in... Some people had pitched tents... 
We skipped a dip in the onsen, even though some baths there have diluted water, and the acid wouln't have been much of a problem, onsens aren't much fun when they are crowed, and the number of cars in the carpark suggested they would have been.  At some stage I'd like to return to try it. :)
And so to arrive before it started to get dark, we pushed north, through the Hachimantai national park towards Odate.

This website has good info. on Tamagawa Onsen.
Settled in for the afternoon
or perhaps the night?

Steam coming off boiling water
Sulforuous steam
Steam rising with snow in the background
Snow and steam
Some water was icy cold from the melting snow, some was boiling furiously. I only dipped my hand in the former ;)\
Dante's inferno

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The road to Tamagawa onsen

Leaving Tazawa ko with obligatory souvenirs, we made our way north. Dams were a feature of the trip at the beginning, notably  the Tamagawa dam.   Traveling along mountain roads, with piled by the side of the road almost three metresin places, we made our way towards Tamagawa onsen.  (No photos of this as it would have been dangerous to stop, even on a motorbike).

A dam just south of Tamagawa Dam

The dam that everyone seems to call the Tamagawa dam, as it dams the Tama gawa (river)  though that seems not to be the official name.

Tamagawa dam:    I wonder if this is the clearest dam in Japan? Stunningly so.

Tamagawa dam - kind of reminds me of Halong bay - only about 20 degrees difference in water temperature.  And actually the fact that there is clear water probably ends the similarity if I think about it...

Tamagawa dam with a research centre and library in the distance.... I don't think it cynical to suggest pork barrelling on that one.  I don't imagine many people travelling to a remote dam in the Akita countryside to study dams....

A "carrillion" with one functioning bell...
what a pity only the bears will hear it being rung...
Pork barrelling..... why oh why don't they spend govt. money on projects that will facilitate growth of long term, sustainable jobs instead of short term public works... the economy of  much of Akita is in a dire state...

A perfect river for trout fishing - except the natural acid levels are probably too high

The beginning of May and snow is still to melt

Melting snow, ice cold water, and spring flowers emerging
Spring flowers