Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Symbolism and the Modernized world

Thank god for this symbol:

I used to think "What the heck does that have to do with power? What am I buying here, some strange masonic machine?"

But now I realize. It doesn't matter. Sure, there's an interesting history to it (You can start here) What matters is that the symbol is the same everywhere. And it is.

What a wonder of modern life that is. What a relief to the traveler. It's the same if I buy a Camera in Kabul or a Computer in Kitanakano. I could buy a stereo in Shanghi or a TV in Toronto. That would be the symbol. There are other symbols like it that generally have the same meaning. Sleep. Percent. Bright.

The problem (and the negative that brought me to this positive joy) is that not all symbols are the same everywhere, especially when dealing with things that, unlike cameras, are not sold all over the world. Take, for example, the modernized Japanese home we are living in. A lot of things here are operated by button.

Buttons like these:

The Air Conditioner/Heater controls

The toilet controls (my sincere apologies to anyone who didn't want to see that)

The Washing Machine Controls

The bath controls.

And the oven controls.

With the result that, when I am turning on the bath, I'm never quite sure if I'm turning on the water, or heating the tub to a degree that, when I step inside of it, I will be doing the one-legged rain dance for a few hours.

 I don't know whether I'm telling the washing machine to fertilize my clothes or paint them blue.

So here's to standardization.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A White Christmas (Morning)

Now this is more like it. I've been away from white Christmases (Christmasi? Christmapodes?) for far far too long.

The view out our current front door: (click for full-size pics)

 Playing with the zoom on the camera Grace let me get for Christmas. Our old one was burning through two AA batteries every time we turned it on. Literally.

I really only notice them in the pictures, but power lines really are ubiquitous in Japan.

Chestnut fields we helped to harvest.

 The variety of trees at the farm.

Snow on Bamboo.

 The garden of our next-door neighbors.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A thought for Friday

I have the feeling God had the Japanese invent the Kotatsu for the same reason he gave the Scots Scotch. That is, simply, to keep them from taking over the world (though nothing about them trying...)

Funny verbal fact: Scotch is a capitonym (a word that has different meanings based on whether or not it is capitalisized). When Scotch is capitalized, it can refer to the people group or to the drink. When it is not capitalized, it is a verb meaning "to destroy".

Thus one may say with little exaggeration that God created Scotch to scotch the Scotch.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Apparently, how the Japanese Multiply

Catching up on some blogs. This is curious:

I haven't seen it done here, but I could believe it, and it's worth checking out.

Any one feel like making sure it works?

Have you seen this?

You probably have, because it's all over the internet (and in about two dozen of my google reader recommended items).

This makes me suspect that the travelling Grace and I are doing requires a certain bravery resourcefulness, and possibly foolishness that will soon be rare.


A thought for the day, and a quote

A thought for Sunday:
Even in a country where the wonders of a strange and alien world surround you, a day of rest is necessary and wonderful.

Japanese proverb:
A man in love mistakes a pimple for a dimple.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Quick Notes

France (and Europe) for that matter seriously needs to fix its train system. The proliferation of private train companies makes figuring out the actual cost (and availability) of any train ride insanely difficult (added to the fact that they want to redirect me to the more-expensive english site which, by the way, since I am in Japan, WON'T DISPLAY ENGLISH.)

I would definitely take this as an example of private competition being worse than government-run monopoly. These are way, way, way worse than Amtrak or any of the JR subsidiaries.

We plan on trying this trip without a rail pass, for a number of reasons - rail passes (especially in France) have reservation surcharges these days.

We should come out about even in terms of ticket prices, if not a little ahead. It will be interesting to find out.

Visited Matsumoto yesterday. That was awesome. Pictures to come.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feedback time!

My word (great BBC show, by the way) but it's been a long time since I've posted.

The disadvantage of being busy is that one rarely has the time to write about it as often as one would like...

So I'm wondering - I always hated the "I had _____ for lunch today" blogs, but would people enjoy some more scattered, diary-like entries? I can manage those in random times better than I can the longer posts.

Unfortunately, they would mostly contain exclamations of everyday sorts, like:

I can see the texture of the paper in the paper windows. The light is perfect.

Japanese houses are not built for fireplaces. I now understand why western fireplaces are backed with brick.

Stuff like that.

I really do mean to add more pictures, and will keep up with the more philosophical posts, but right now, time is short (though the next couple weeks (farming has a christmas slowdown... as opposed to rush) may allow more time to post.

Let me know if you want more of the incidentals. I will try to make them interesting, but they may sometimes just turn out:

Watching Japanese paint dry is... just like watching Stateside paint dry! Who knew!?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Good to know

Found out yesterday:

Australians don't call them "drug stores" - and they seem confused and offended when you suggest they would like to know where one is.

Yet another country we are separated from by a common language.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Haiku, literary criticism, ambiguity - an audio post!

An audio post this time, from this link:

Total time: 12:27

I hope you enjoyed that. If you didn’t, and don’t want to, here’s a quick summary:

Literature is complicated.

Literature is more complicated, the more of it there is.

We should all stop making literature (just kidding.)

Haiku is interesting stuff if you treat it right.

Haiku is annoying if you treat it wrong.

Treating it right involves picturing it, and recognizing its ambiguity.

Along with trying to feel what the poet felt.

I’m going to write some Haiku.

Oh, and I’m crazy.

Recommendations for more and better audio:
First off, - I couldn’t do it without Librivox. It used to be that the volunteer readers just weren’t that great, to be honest. These days, though, there are a lot of great readers. To name a few:
Adrian Praetzellis, who read this great version of Kim
Ray Clare, who is doing a fantastic job working his way through the catalog of GK Chesterton. He’s got a good voice, and it’s a project I can’t say enough good about.

If you want more than librivox, you might try - the Chesterton there is read by the fantastically deep voice of David “Grizzly” Smith.

For short fiction, try:
escape pod
and pseudopod
the fantasy, science fiction and horror branches of one organization. Generally professional, they do a good job. A few specific stories I recommend:

Something wicked this way plumbs from podcastle (don’t worry, it’s more amusing than scary)
Chemical Magic in pseudopod (actually disturbing. This is not Disney’s version of magical.)
The Nimble Men in pseudopod (an excellent story and great introduction to pseudopod for those of a weaker stomach)
and We are Ted Tuscadero for President in Escape Pod. Again, going for amusing, if disturbing... so... many... politicians...

also for Sci Fi you might want to try Clarkesworld Magazine. Some may not enjoy the reader’s tendency to be affected by the stories she reads, but I find it engaging.
You might try Laying the Ghost, My Fathers’ Singularity and Paper Cradle.

For verse, I must recommend the youtube channel “SpokenVerse” - some may not like the reader’s gruff and blank tone, but I do. Oh, he does recommend downloading his readings as mp3’s - and even gives instructions on how to do it on his webpage. That alone makes him a cool guy. The positive reviews from Roger Ebert, and the intelligent and friendly responses to my recommendations make him a really cool one.

To try one of those haiku, and then the picture I wrote it from.

 past pale yellow home we
leave for night, behind sunset
rich heavy hills, auburn.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bohemian Rhapsody in Japan... It's... different...

I just ate at a Japanese curry house (basically a fast-food place) It was an interesting experience, and the food was actually good.

Only one thing. Grace and I were sitting there, eating our curry, what should come on the radio but...

Bohemian Rhapsody.

But not as played by queen.

As played by a japanese woman.


and Slow jazz....

It was simultaneously terrifically weird and hilarious.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Peter's first video blog. Aren't we so 21st century.

So, just thought I'd try "vlogging" as its called. Sorry the recording quality is so iffy. Still getting used to the video thing. I like the medium, though, so I might try it again soon. In any case, expect to see more media in future updates.

I may have forgotten to mention in the video - my favorite thing about the rice paper walls is the glow in the morning. Waking up to light rather than sound is a good thing, in my opinion.

Side notes:
The okonomiyaki was actually rather good. Very interesting blend of textures between the softness of the eggs and the crunch of the cabbage. Kind of like a cabbage pancake... but way better than that sounds.

Katakana is, by the way, one of three Japanese writing systems, all in current use. That's right. Three. No complaining about 26 letters in the alphabet, kids!
The three writing systems are:
Kanji - Chinese pictographs. One for every word. Often very small differences between two very different words. Great way to fit a lot of information into a little text. Not a great way to have a highly literate populace. The fact that the Japanese are generally literate speaks both to the abilities of the mind and to the Japanese Educational system. If you want to try to imagine how difficult it is working with a writing system in which every word is one symbol, think about doing math in a system in which every different number has a different number (9 is nine, 99 is quibble). Thanks to the Borges story "Funes, his memory" for the idea.

Hiragana - what I mean when I say Katakana in the video. Hiragana is to Japanese what the Alphabet is to english. Except the Japanese one is phonetic. So instead of a b c d, you can fa, pa, da, ga, ka, etc - each used combination of consonant-vowel is a symbol (not all are used, obviously). And there are some symbols for just a vowel, and for things like a "repeat consonant"

Katakana - Finally, a separate alphabet used mainly for words from other languages. That's right. It's also phonetic. Never mind that much of the Japanese language is actually borrowed ancient Chinese. Never mind that civilized languages borrow words all the time. They need a whole different phonetic alphabet for other people's words.
Grace argues that this is a good thing - it allows one to see which is foreign.
I say that's a horrible thing to do to a poor language, what did it ever do to you?

Imagine. Just imagine if Shakespeare had to spell every word he borrowed from French or Latin or Greek - even every neologism from those languages - in a different alphabet. Imagine if Chaucer had to do the same. Our language would be much less varied and beautiful, I assure you. Before you jump to the defense of the Japanese with "oh, but the west is so different from the east! Chaucer using Latin and the Japanese using english, two different things! Okay, what about me being able to type "sayonara" or "assassin" or "anime" or "bonsai" or "karaoke." or "pariah". Brainwashing wouldn't be a concept without the flexibility of the English phonibarri.  Oh, and "Gung Ho" which is a particularly delightful phrase. Also, Rudyard Kipling never would have written, and I'm particularly enjoying his "Kim" right now. (which I highly recommend, along with the touching short story "The Celestial Omnibus" by E.M. Forster.

The point I will say is redeeming about the Japanese language is their love of all things onomatopoeic. It's more than any language I've heard before. Even the word for defication is a onomatopoeic - "ucchi" if you must know.

Others, graciously supplied by Mark Baldwin:
"Barabara" the sound of crunching something up, which becomes an adjective for "all messed up"
 "Jiiiiii..." the sound of someone staring. That's right. They have a sound. For someone staring silently.
"Chokon" is the sound of being small and quiet. Because quiet things make sounds all the time....

So yes. Lots of text for a 21'st century post... but that's me, I suppose.

Modern Complaints, part 1

I think we should always strive to do and be better - there are so many things in this world in vital need of fixing. Still, there are more than a few things that, while annoying, are still worth being thankful for.

This thought came to me when I had just finished making dinner tonight - and our young Japanese teacher showed up randomly to make us Yaki Soba. I thought the following - but only after realizing the inherent irony.

To all Japanese people:

Would you stop coming into my kitchen and interrupting my dinner to cook me your delicious cultural food. Thank you.

P.S. Of course not really.

Of course, it's still an interesting situation. Even with all the physical labor, I can't very well eat two dinners a night - I will still get fat. Ah well, tonight I eat two dinners. As I thought of this, I thought of a number of other modern complaints we could raise:

GAH! This magical line that connects me to %75 of the world, hosts untold trillions of pieces of information, provides, for free, more knowledge than anyone has had access to in the history of the world up to this point, exponentially faster (even on slow days) than anyone has ever had before - IS SO SLOW TONIGHT!

Or, alternatively, AHG! This magical line WENT DOWN FOR THREE HOURS. Holy Crap. I lived like everyone before 1980.


This skycraft that transports me through the air at near the speed of sound, which I can afford to take over the ocean on a below-national-average salary, is TAKING SO LONG TO TAXI!

AND THE SEATS ARE UNCOMFORTABLE. I mean, well, not like a wooden wagon seat for two months... but SO CRAMPED.

My goodness, but my desk is so full of cheap, high-quality paper. I wish I were back in the days of vellum. So much less to keep track of.

This eight hour work day, in which I've had two fifteen minute breaks, is TAKING FOREVER TO END.

These years, which my society has set aside to attempt to pack my head full of knowledge, and for which society is paying enormous amounts of money are TAKING FOREVER TO END.

This story which I am watching for free on Hulu, in a more powerful and multimedia delivery system than any before, save smellvision, HAS CONTENT OF WHICH I DO NOT APPROVE though I can now minimize this content, instead of it being on a vase in someone's house (ancient Greece) or done in a public play (ancient Rome). and IT COULD BE WRITTEN BETTER.

And finally:
Could we all just take a moment off of bombing people into the stone age to realize... WE CAN NOW BOMB PEOPLE INTO THE STONE AGE... and better yet, WE CAN DO SO SELECTIVELY, so long as our information is good.

Let's admit it. It's what we've always wanted.

Again, not saying any of these things couldn't be improved. In fact, they can and should be improved. One of the rare times I disagree with GK Chesterton is when he says "an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered, an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered." I would say an adventure is a challenge which we do not know how to overcome, and which demands of our strength and creativity, and repays us with wonder. An inconvenience is a problem which is not new to us (we may have experienced it or read about it) and which does not challenge us in anything more than the use of our time. I'm not saying that modern schooling is an adventure or that we should be thankful for all of it - we should be trying like the Dickens to change it - 


But, that said, I also move that we take a second and realize just how many conveniences we have. Modern schooling, for all its faults, beats child labor any day.
(though, in recognizing that, let's recognize that they were brought to us by people unsatisfied with the current level of inconvenience, and therefore not criticize the unsatisfied with our satisfaction.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wow. Just wow.

So, not to make anyone any more jealous or anything, but I want to share my joy - I hope it is joy I share and not envy or pride.

Tonight was amazing. We were fed a ten course Japanese dinner, the sort that would be a high-end tasting menu, with oysters, fresh tuna sushi salad, an incredible seared tuna, an amazing Japanese beef, potato, and radish soup, and so many other things. Then we were given a night out at the company bar. I asked for a Scotch. They brought me a fantastic 12 year old.

All of this was at a company event, and already paid for.

This trip was already amazing - and there are other things I like even better about it. But this is just insane.

Oh, and this event happens every month.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Origin of the Yeoman

The Yeoman I'm so recently obsessed with, as a concept, comes out of the so-called "Dark Ages". I was writing a friend about the dark ages, recently, and thought my thoughts just might possibly be worth sharing here. Hope you enjoy.

As far as the dark ages go, this wikipedia article basically states what I have learned in school: and read in other books, and what Chesterton argued.

Note the large number of references, and their quality.

Note also that the concept of "dark ages" as "unenlightened, tribal, and barbaric times"  is specifically propaganda of the anti-religious "enlightenment". The true irony here is that I would call Rome, toward its end, a far darker place than ever the dark ages were. The difference is simply this: Humility. The most striking thing about the dark ages - which are by some called the "age of faith" - is that there is so little written record of them. On the whole, from what we can tell, people went on farming, shopping, trading, slowly expanding their worlds, sometimes invaded, but rarely in fear, but without kings demanding their deeds be written down, without great popes and empires demanding future and present praise.

It was clearly not a time of silence, though. Look to the cathedrals. Look to Chartres. Made in the midst of that "dark age" it stands as, perhaps, one of the pinnacles of man's creation - and it is a humble thing, as Orson Welles said "without a signature." In fact, it could not be signed, for it was the accretion of time, it was a culture, slowly building up a building, over hundreds of years.

Welles' clip is here, and is well worth watching:

This is just one example, though perhaps their silence is the best example - that they did not think to raise their monument in stone or word does not necessarily indicate that they were dark, it may indicate that they were humble, and only a thoroughly unenlightened age would think that silence equals barbarity.

Perhaps they did not raise a monument because they knew their debt to the past, and did not want to claim it as their own.

So often we forget, in the midst of our obsession with private enterprise and private worth, that so much of our work, signed, owned, copyrighted, is such an accretion. We all build on the castles and cathedrals of the past. Every western musical artist is a son of Bach. Every western philosopher is a son of Plato - if a wisely rebellious offspring. Our medicines do not arise from the valiant work of a few, experimenting on into the night, proving everything - but from a vast machine, stretching back decades, sometimes centuries, sometimes to men who are dead, always to the acclaimed, the nameless, the fathers, the lovers, the brothers.

We are not alone. I think if any age understood that, it was this strangely silent time.

It had its problems. It had its wars. Its crusades. Its barbarians. As did Rome, and Greece. As we do now. The Enlightenment praised Rome - a place where emperors killed children - where even Harod had the power of life and death over the Children of Bethlehem, and praise it over the Dark Ages, out of which struggle the high medieval period and the renaissance arose - all with their particular problems, perhaps better, perhaps worse, who can say, but each, also, with their joys, and with their lights.

A poem fitting for the subject:
Curiously enough, written by Alexander Pope, of the Enlightenment period.


Happy the man, whose wish and care 
A few paternal acres bound, 
Content to breathe his native air 
In his own ground. 

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread, 
Whose flocks supply him with attire; 
Whose trees in summer yield him shade, 
In winter fire. 

Blest, who can unconcern`dly find 
Hours, days, and years, slide soft away 
In health of body, peace of mind, 
Quiet by day. 

Sound sleep by night; study and ease 
Together mix`d, sweet recreation, 
And innocence, which most does please 
With meditation. 

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown; 
Thus unlamented let me die; 
Steal from the world, and not a stone 
Tell where I lie. 

The Yeoman's Labors: Addendum

Sorry about the length of yesterday's post - I didn't have enough time to make it short.

As I thought about it, I realized there was one more thing I deeply enjoyed about the work I am doing now.


I've spent a lot of time thinking about success - and like most people, I've spent a lot of time looking for it, often in the wrong places. I can tell you what success isn't.

Success isn't Mt. NeverRest, as it was called in my parents' house.
Success isn't a job that keeps returning the same problems to you day after day, year after year.
Success isn't a job that you already know how to do - you just have to keep doing it.
Success isn't making a lot of money.
Success isn't graduating from a school that never really made you try.
Success isn't graduating from a school when you're just going on to more school.

Success is getting something done.

Success can be different for different people - but for me, right now, success is looking out at the harvested fields of buckwheat. I can see them. They're right there. They are done. I don't have to harvest them again. No one has to harvest them until next year - and while harvesting them, we learned things, and we made small changes that will make next year easier - that will make next year a year of less weeds.

But for now, we're done. No more harvest.No more work on that problem. That is success, and it feels wonderful every time I look at it. I'll look at this ebook I'm writing - and the website for it - that way when it's done. I'll go back to the page again and again - because it'll feel great that it's done. I think authors stare at completed books that way.

All you desk jockeys who come back to the same problems day after day, I wonder if you honestly have that feeling. If you don't, you're missing out.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Yeoman's Labors: What I'm doing most waking hours

Though it is not a word we often use, the word "Yeoman" is loaded with meaning. The word dates back to the anglo-saxon, where it was used specifically of a young man who fights but specifically for a purpose or ideal. In this sense, it was essentially synonymous with the word cniht, which, through much mutation, has become our word "knight." Sometime during the middle ages, these two ideas divided, and while the knights went on to their over-idealized stories of war, while the yeomen busied themselves about farms. Yeoman were, in large part, the first private landowners, and were renowned for their hard work - to the point that, today, the position of Yeoman is awarded "especially for work requiring great effort or toil."
To name a few who praised the yeoman: Thomas Jefferson argued strongly for the Yeoman farmer, and saw this agricultural gentleman as the backbone of a strong system of democracy or republic, and vital to the development of a voting culture. GK Chesterton drew analogies between the demise of the "much mourned yeoman" and the demise of the small shopkeeper. Professor of Theoretical Physics Michio Kaku praises the "yeoman work" of experimentalists who "keep theorists honest." 
So, what does this all have to do with what I'm doing? Well, first off, I'm working hard at agriculture, and trying to be a scholar at the same time. The agricultural work is a scholarship to itself - learning how to use various farming implements, re-learning how to use all the tools my Dad taught me to use in the garage (actually, Dad, those are rather fond memories, thank you), and learning about how to tell crops are ready, how to dry buckwheat without over-ripening it, and all these things I seem to have picked up without really paying attention to them.
At the same time, much of the work that must be done doesn't require a terrible amount of mental activity - and so it's the perfect time to use my ears. I have been almost constantly listening to audio books. It's amazing how much one can get through if one has some 8 hours of uninterrupted time listening to audio books (8 hours counting travel to and from the farm - we work about 6 hours every day.) I finished "Inherent Vice" by Thomas Pynchon, "Brain Rules" by John Medina, both in one week. Thanks Librivox and the LA county library system for having audio books available online....
Another thing I'm immensely enjoying about the work we do is the variety. Partially, this is due to the variety of weather, which I have also been enjoying here. I am also thankful that our hosts do not ask us to work outside in the rain - it would be plausible, even reasonable, but unpleasant, and injury and sickness would be more likely. Still, there are many jobs to do, and since it's a small farm, usually we finish up each job in one or two days.
Sorry, everyone who works in an office. I don't miss it, at least not yet.

As an example, this week's schedule (this week was an abnormally long week, as complications resulted in us having sat-sun off last week, and sun-mon off this week)

Sunday: Day off. Explored Obuse, went to the festival. Tried odd foods.
Monday: Rainy. Cleaned in the farmhouse.
Tuesday: Sunny. Weeded the vegetable garden, and sorted beans. (If I remember right)
Wednesday: Off and on drizzly. Worked in the fields, harvesting buckwheat and building stands to dry the buckwheat.
Thursday: More buckwheat (soba). Lots more buckwheat.
Friday: Our lead-worker (who takes us to the farm) had a day off, so we stayed in Obuse, clearing chestnut fields. Lots of picking up hulls, clearing branches, preparing for a small bonfire. 
Saturday: Felt rather emblematic of the work we do here, in that it was entirely dependent on rain. We were supposed to help with a whole-community trash-cleanup in Obuse. However, it started raining, so we went up to the farm. Of course, it finished raining just about as soon as we got to the farm. Still, finished sorting those beans, which felt good to finish this week. Did a bit more cleaning the farmhouse. Picked some veggies to bring back for the weekend. (Radishes, Spinach, Apples)

Many people think of working in the fields as backbreaking and somehow terrible, but so far it has not been such for me. In fact, I there are a few points I would like to bring up as a kind of argument for agriculturalism.
1. I did a lot to keep myself occupied working at a desk - but there was still a lot of mind-numbing repetition. Here, I get a lot of variety.
2. The view. This can't be emphasized enough. Nobody has an office like this. Fresh air. I can look up at the hills anytime I want (and they are gorgeous hills). When I get tired, no one is pushing a deadline on me. I just stand up, look up at the hills, and look and look.
3. Seasonal changes. We're working pretty hard now, because it's harvest. In about a month, harvest will be completely finished, and we will be working almost entirely indoors. I'm looking forward to the seasonal changes. Something about it feels right and natural. Besides that, no repetitive motion strain injuries!
4. Mindless work. There's actually something good about it. Mostly, that I can listen to my audiobooks and lectures without disturbance. Sure, my office work involved my brain more - but usually it was just enough that I couldn't actually pay attention to anything else, and little enough to keep me bored.
5. I'm getting my exercise. Really, it's awesome to get done with work and not have to go to the gym. Harvesting buckweat, gathering husks, you name it, you get about 6 hours exercise a day, and you can do it in a more or less athletic fashion (I prefer jogging point to point sometimes in the fields, others do not.) This level of physical activity has actually left me feeling more (not less) energetic on the weekends. Or maybe that's just the fresh air and cool weather. Did I mention that air?

I don't want to sound like I'm bashing office work or manufacturing work - just that I'm finding great happiness doing something else right now, and that I would highly encourage anyone else who is interested in trying it to try it. Try it on a small-farm, though, if you can. A big farm is quite a different matter, and there you will be doing the same thing day after day.

Anyway, I'm afraid I should get to sleep. Sorry this post isn't up to my literary standards. I've been working hard on an ebook, and a few research projects recently. Much to do, much to do.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quick note

Quick note: I just downloaded a 150Mb file from in under a minute, on a normal household internet connection. In a rural farming town. Japan has its charms.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Mountained Sphere, part 1: The hills of Japan

The hills here do not roll. Japanese hills leap.

One will be on a plain, the moist flatland of central Californian dreams, and there, not a hundred yards away, a hill rockets up in indescribable greenery.

This is not big-sky country.

You can get a crick in your neck without realizing it, you have to look up every time you want to see the weather. It can mess with your perception of the horizon. You will find yourself looking up at a 45 degree angle, and, suddenly, you realize, you aren't looking at a flat horizon. You try to look straight, and you realize that you can't from the very top edge of your eyeline, see the sky. You can't even see halfway up the hill, or thirty yards away.

I have never seen hills so vertical.

And it's not just in the country - the cities change elevation like they were built out of lego-blocks. Taking a train through the city, you look out the windows, and there's one row of houses, fifty feet below another, and nearly straight down, so fast you wouldn't want to roll down the side. You could throw a large sibling out the back door of a hilltop house, and he'd land on the front porch of the house below.

Incidentally, this corrects a misperception I had about fiction set in Japan. Watching the Last Samurai, I thought the village was set in some unreal city, the valley walls were just too perfect of razors, inspiration for swords. I thought surely this was the work of some high-paid location scout, probably found the spot somewhere in central Asia, and a team of Hollywood stagehands spent weeks stripping, shaping, and reassembling the hills. But no, all the hills are like that, sharp, but still wooded. I thought the hill behind the house in My Neighbor Totoro was an exaggeration - the animated movie form coming through to portray a child's-eye view of both wonder and unreality. But again, no, The hills really do require serious panning-up to get to the tops, and they are so covered with trees, you can't tell where the hill ends and trees begin.

The whole thing reminds me of Chesterton's comment that sometimes we forget culture can be older than nature - I wonder are these sharp hills cultural or natural. Are they the creation of some strange rocks and geophysical forces mashing things straight, or are they the creation of generation after generation of rock farmer, slowly chipping away at hillsides, desperate for just one more yard of workable earth, slowly wearing the hills into sharp peaks. Ultimately, I don't know - it's probably some combination of both, but a wonder, of nature or culture, is a wonder to behold.

Incidentally, the picture is right behind where we work every day. I certainly didn't have that view at my old desk.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Any Questions?

So, here we are in Japan. There is far too much to see and think about right now, so stay tuned. I do intend to post my observations of Japanese and farming society and geography here soon. I am trying to create something that captures the beauty of the landscape, the soft glow through rice paper walls, and the strange rainbow flowers of clothes drying behind almost every house and apartment. That'll take time.

Until then, I thought I'd open things up to questions. Please, if you have any questions, post them here or on facebook.

Brief notes:
Snow Monkeys. On the roof. Crazy.
I've eaten plenty of strange stuff already. Kimchi (kind of good, actually) Natto (salty, pasty, sticky... but quite edible), Stewed Octopus and Geletain on a skewer (from a street vendor no less), Spaghetti with pureed spinach as a sauce, and a number of other odd and interesting things.

My favorite dish so far has probably been the sauteed pumpkin in some indescribable soy-based sauce. Now I'm hungry.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Strange fact of flying west

Strange fact of flying west: The sun rose over California around 6:30 Sunday morning. It did not set over us until about 2 the next morning, California time.

Also weird: West is now east. - The "west" coast, the "western" culture, etc, is now largely east from us...

Two blogs, one trip!

For those of you interested in my wife's far more lucid and extensive notes on our trip, I recommend:

FWIW, It may be the eternal optimist in me editing my memories, but I honestly don't think things were as difficult as she makes it out to be. Sure, it was confusing, bewildering, and possibly dangerous, (more so than my trip to Europe) but there was a little tiny column of English on the train schedule... not that we were sure we were even reading that right.

My advice: Instead of trying to learn kanji (blech) see if you can find a few pictures of Japanese train schedules beforehand and familiarize yourself with the look and where the english sections are, where they can be found, etc. Of course, this may not help you out beyond Tokyo, where a surprising amount was still in english...

That said, she's right on about the hotels. Really, who puts their major airport an hour and a half from their major city? And it's not in the suburbs either. Woods surround Narita airport. It's a very bewildering feeling for the traveler expecting a world megopolis. Wait? Are you sure we're in the right country?

My Bones

This is a poem I came up with while pondering the dangers of modern flight.

Here is a (very boring) video of me reading it, as I like to include audio.

"My Bones"

My bones are not white.
My bones - not osseous honeycombs
That if I should die, while in the sky,
a sweating, nervous hand,
fingering trigger across the aisle,
an eternal rose of flame, for a moment in the sky,
breathless, and the people shocked
You will not honor my bones
With revenge.

You will not honor my bones
If I should die -
You will not honor my bones
with armies. You will not honor my bones,
more soldiers.
My bones are not flesh,
are not revenged with flesh,
They did not die with flesh,
They shall not perish.

Neither are my bones aluminum
My bones are not airplanes
nor science, stretched wings,
angelic and rippling with wind
stiff and thin, carrying American
and other across the seas.
My bones are not capital
My bones are not national
My bones - quote enquote - are ocean spray

You will not honor my bones
when I die
Will not honor my bones
with bombs. Nor space shuttles
nor skyscrapers
nor airplanes
nor anything you dream
or dreamed
in this state.
Nor are my bones a nation
My bones - not the grass
the moutains - purple, grey, or brown
white capped, overlooking the ocean
hidden in the heartlands
my bones are not a country
for old men or young
no Byzantium, Rome, England
empire, state, capital or law.

You will not honor my bones
If I should die - repeat! no honor with soldiers!
right, just, or effective,
Let them raise other men
If they can - Other dust make dust
raise Requiem in arms.
My bones, no flag, over coffin,
no nation died with me,
as with me no nation lived.

My bones - what held me up
My bones - what steadied the strain
of muscles and spirit?
My bones - what are they?
What can we honor, with me gone?
My bones, sediment in the deep
for glowing fishes to snap at
as I fall.

You may honor my bones with learning.
Honor my bones with thought
Not dry thought - Not profit thought -
Thought of other men, love even of a sweating hand
thought for him - afraid, yet resolute
Think - why does he hate -
And when you have found why you too would hate
Then you have found him,
My bones, no longer my own
They are not holy mixed with some things.

I do recommend that you not interpret this poem to mean that no one can be honored in death by soldiers, armies, war, etc. That is an entirely different discussion.