Sunday, September 09, 2007

"Hiroshima, August 27th/28th 2007"

Twenty-three years in Japan and I finally went to see Hiroshima City. Other than the Peace Memorial Park (with the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall, now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome), there is nothing in the city (that I could see during my two-day stay in any case) that indicates what happened to it on August 6th, 1945. Still, places have their atmospheres and echoes from the past, so I looked around and tried to comprehend how the city is now and how it was in the past; with that day in August 1945 being a wall between normalcy and a hovering horror (you might not mind the idea of vaporized cities in another country, but imagine it happening to your own city - one device in the sky - boom - city gone; it's much too easy).

The Atomic Bomb Dome is something just about everyone has seen a picture of at one time or another, but I hadn't realized what the building was originally for and that it was originally a much larger building. Most of it was knocked down in the blast, with only the central part remaining. It seems to be have been a combination of brick and wood -there's no trace of any flooring left at all - just the walls of the central part of the building. Here's a history of the building (from a Hiroshima government website):

The history of the Atomic Bomb Dome

1915 April Hiroshima Products Trade Fair held.
1915 August 15 Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall opens.
1921 January 1 Name changed to Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall.
1929 Showa Industrial Exposition held.
1933 November 1 Name changed to Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.
1944 March 31 Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall functions suspended. Subsequently used by government offices and the distribution control union.
1945 August 6 Atomic bomb explodes nearly directly above. Mostly collapsed, completely burned. All persons in building killed immediately.
1966 July 11 City Council decides to preserve the A-bomb Dome.
1966 November 1 Beginning of fundraising for Dome preservation.
1967 August 5 First A-bomb Dome Preservation Project
1989 May 1 Beginning of fundraising for Dome preservation.
1990 March 31 Second A-bomb Dome Preservation Project.
1995 June 27 The Dome was designated as a National Historic Site.
1996 December 7 The Dome was registered on the World Heritage List.
2003 March 31 Third A-bomb Dome Preservation Project.

After visiting the dome, I walked on, turned right and crossed a bridge, and then noticed an old concrete three-story building that is now a Tourist Information Center. On my own, I would have walked in, but I was with a few people, so as they walked on, I followed them and went through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. At my hotel later in the day, I was looking at some pamphlets I'd picked up and I noticed that building again. The pamphlet said:

Rest House in Peace Memorial Park

The former Taishoya Kimono Shop. The basement has been preserved just as it was when the building withstood the A-bomb. Now this building houses a visitor's center and [has] shops selling products you can't buy anywhere else.

The "basement has been preserved just as it was" bit caught my attention and I went back the next day and had a look. More on that later....

That first day, after riding the street cars, seeing the Peace Memorial Park area and Hiroshima Castle, and then walking back to the hotel, I was bit tired. After relaxing in the hotel for a bit, I went out to a local convenience store and bought a few cans of seasonal (fall) beer and took them back to my hotel room. I drank the beer, ate some mixed nuts, watched TV, and fell asleep on the small sofa near the TV. Waking up at around 4:00 a.m., I took a long shower (kicking myself for not having done so before falling asleep on the sofa), put on a hotel bathroom and went to bed. It was a little stuffy, so I opened the windows (which were with chains that only allowed them to open a few centimeters) and lay down thinking about Hiroshima.

What with seeing the remains of the ruined building and the museum, I had naturally been thinking about August 6th, 1945 a bit, but it was mainly regular-process thinking - you know, you see a picture and you take in the details, or you read a story and think about the words and what's between the lines - just normal thinking. Then, as I lay there on the bed around 5:00 in the morning, beginning to drift halfway back into sleep, a non-regular-process... feeling/image/concept/perception came to mind. It's impossible to explain properly in words, but it was a sensation of a horrendous force slamming into the ground. All day I'd been seeing photos and whatnot, and thinking about them, but mainly my thoughts were of burns and buildings knocked down with a horizontal force. The conscious realization of the sensation jolted me wide awake - ending the impact perception.../something, but like a fleeting memory I still have from the middle of rolling a car back in 1977, I can recall a fraction of the feeling when thinking back to the moment.

So, did I manufacture that sensation? It seemed more like a memory of an event than something I thought up myself, but then again, people's imagination is powerful, so I don't know....

After checking out of the hotel, I headed over to the former Taishoya Kimono Shop and its waiting basement. (Being made of concrete, the building survived mainly intact - with the roof collapsed, but otherwise intact.) Walking into the Tourist Information Center, I didn't see any evidence of stairs leading down, so I asked a woman at the counter about it, and she said that it could be seen by request only, and gave me a form to fill out (in Japanese). After filling it out, she called somewhere and said that a visitor was on their way to see the basement, and then lead me outside of the building and back in through a side entrance that led to stairs going up and - at the end of a dim hallway, stairs going down.

Opening a metal cabinet with several hard hats in it, she took one out and handed it to me, saying that I was required to wear it when visiting the basement. I took it, dutifully put it on my head, and she hurriedly went back outside. As people generally will guide you all the way to a destination here, I thought it odd, but proceeded to the top of the stairs and took a picture of the old wooden handrail and narrow stairs leading down. Walking down, I was struck with an acrid smell... my first impulse was turn around and get out of there double-time, but I wanted to see what was in the room and I continued on.... Looking ahead, I saw an exhaust fan that was in one of the small windows up against the ceiling, so I walked over towards it stupidly thinking that it might be blowing air in - it wasn't, but by then I was in the space, so I took some pictures and looked around.

It was an empty basement basically, so I was initially surprised, as the words "has been preserved just as it was when the building withstood the A-bomb" led me to believe that there were still things in there from before August 6th (not logical, but...). The strange thing is that as I took pictures, it almost seemed like any old concrete basement that could use more ventilation, but after leaving the space and thinking back, that space and that acrid smell scare me. Suddenly I understand why the woman didn't go near the stairs leading down and got away from there in a hurry. And the lack of ventilation... how long does radiation from an atomic bomb blast at ground zero hang around in a poorly ventilated underground space? (The exhaust fan was turned on and the door opened after the phone call I presume.) I was only in there for two or three minutes, but somehow the memory of the place seems to be growing into something more... scary? Frightening? Dangerous? For some reason, I thought I really wanted to see that space, but I think it conveyed more to me than I bargained for somehow. The next time I visit Hiroshima, I don't think I'll go back - once was enough.

Back upstairs in the Tourist Information Office I heard that everyone in the building had been killed in the blast, save one person who was in that basement - the unanswered question in my mind being (I didn't have the courage to ask) "how long". It's hard to imagine that they would have escaped the effects of radiation in the ground-zero area, even though they escaped the effects of the blast by being in the basement of a concrete building....

After that I went to Miyajima and was quite happy to visit an old wooded temple there that has been there for hundreds of years. That is as it should be. Cities shouldn't be erased from the map in a flash. They can be rebuilt, as Hiroshima was, but it's just such a horrible thing - taking out an entire city. One side or another may win a war, but we all lose.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"Walkways & Carways"

Within Tokyo, it's not practical to go most places by car, but when you get away from the larger cities, Japan has become very much a car culture, with two-car families quite common and people depending on cars for their daily transportation. Yesterday, riding down a back road in a car, I spotted a woman walking down the road with a white parasol, looking very much like a 19th century painting. I took a picture - which is at the top of this page:

- and I've been thinking how it feels to walk down a road compared to how it feels to ride down a road in a car. It's comfortable riding around in air-conditioned cars, just sitting there at speed, but there's something to be said for walking and being in touch with the landscape as well. The thing about being comfortable all the time is that you end up not appreciating things as much. After a long walk in the hot sun, cool shade and a cold drink at your destination are more appreciated than after stepping out of a chilled car interior.

Retro-traditional culture. After decades of traditional Japan slipping away with new things nearly always being bland-international, there seems to be at least a slight trend back towards traditional design, as evidenced by a new traditionally styled retro-traditional restaurant I ate at soon after seeing the woman from the 19th century painting (see "Walkways & Carways" in the Photo Gallery):

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Pockets Here & There"

Although it's still possible to find some trace of "old Japan", it's becoming ever more difficult. The building material of choice is concrete far more than wood now (even many of the traditionally shaped shrines are temples have been made with concrete), and many parts of Japan could be a modern city in any advanced industrial economy on the planet. That's not all bad of course, but it's a bit boring sometimes. Whatever happened to the exotic aspect of this country?

But then that's what 23 years of living here does as well - everything just seems normal. I guess it's still an exotic country to newcomers, but not much in the external style of things.

All that by way of introducing a new page I've put up:

Even here, not much of it is authentically old - it's sort of a theme area in a way, marketing itself as one of Tokyo's (very few) traditional neighborhoods.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Still Seeking..."

On the principle that all it takes to write is to sit down and begin writing, I entered a coffee shop in Asagaya and pulled out my schedule/notebook.

Music - at first I thought they were playing Joni Mitchell, but it seemed watered down and... wrong. Yet another spineless combination of business, and a singer without the talent to write their own music. In the days before recordings, it made more sense, but... wait... it's the other way around, isn't it!? I've spent the past few decades happily listening to music I like - over and over - the very same recordings, and really hating it when someone did/does a bad imitation of a song I like, but when you stop and think about it, the situation of listening to the very same recording of a song is weird.

Now I Imagine the music I'm listening to in this coffee shop as a live performance, it doesn't seem odd that the singer is singing known songs. She has a good voice.... The first song I heard as I sat down at (a window seat) was such an old favorite that I would rather have heard the original and gone on a nostalgia trip, but the other songs don't sound bad.

Stop and smell the flowers. Why... naw... never mind. I was going to ask why it's so hard to stop at a coffee shop like I have done this evening and get contemplative, but the rarity of it is what makes it sublime? No... not that either. I guess I'm still seeking something. I guess we all are. Here's to finding it - and enjoying select moments along the way!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon
Asagaya, Tokyo

Saturday, June 30, 2007

"No-Entry Zone?"

There's this weird thing that often happens on crowded trains... the people standing on the side away from the opening doors (which open on one side of the train or the other, but tend to open predominately on one side for a given direction), stand directly under the line of hanging straps in front of (and parallel to) the door there and get huffy, puffy, and irritated if any pressure is put on them from the mass of people on the open door side smashed together like proverbial sardines in a can. So you have this mass of people smashed painfully together in 85% of the space between the doors (on either side of the train car, generally four doors per side - eight per train car), and then a line of people standing and hanging on to the straps by the far door acting like they're in a 1st Class reserved section where no one may enter or come too near. The pressure from the two or three dozen people smashed together makes contact absolutely unavoidable, but then these far-side idiots cast irritated glances over their shoulders at the poor souls that are forced into involuntary contact with them. These mutant bipeds hang on to the straps with their arm muscles flexing (and sometimes legs braced forward) as they fiercely guard the empty space in front of them (between themselves and three or four people up against the far doors) - while those three or four people lazily lean against that far pair of doors (two doors per opening) and look out on the human misery beyond this barrier in happy contentment, or lazily look out the window in glorious no-one-is-touching-me free space.

Is there something about that happy contentment that the fierce strap holders feel must not be infringed upon (do they know those happy people against the door)? Or do the strap holders dearly love having a strap directly overhead and are willing to fight tooth-and-nail to maintain their wonderful spot below the strap? I wish I could be more sarcastic, but words fail me in the flabbergasted state of mind induced upon confrontation with these mutant commuters. Just this morning, one of the worst of them - a man I've had the misfortune to stand next to before - was standing in his beloved spot beneath a strap, with enough space in front of him for another person to stand (and yes, I have pushed past people to get into the space before, but there was no gap to squeeze past the Berlin wall of strap holders this morning), and whenever I was pushed ever so slightly against him (absolutely against my will) by the 30 or 40 people smashed together like sardines behind me, he would look back in disgust as though the train were completely empty save his rotten soul and suffering me and I was strangely coming up close to him. At one point he looked back and then turned his ugly head forward, shaking it as though he were dealing with an idiot. "Grrrrr.... Hey you! You've got it backwards! If you want to see something worth shaking your head about, have a look in the mirror you foul excuse for a biped you!" thought I.

Actually, there's a Darwinian process going on here. Those of us with tight connections need to be within a certain range of the steps leading away from the platform when we disembark from the train (so we can catch our next train on another platform), and so pressure is highest by the doors near the stairs. The wolves and hyenas with toxic barbs instead of human elements do whatever possible to cause pain and suffering to other bipeds competing for the space (in order to drive away competition). The less bloodthirsty and more humane people generally end up going to less convenient parts of the train after being repeatedly abused (which then requires leaving home earlier in some cases to compensate for the lost three or four minutes it takes to escape the platform in the horde of people getting off), or commit suicide (the Chuo Line is famous for its high suicide rate), or begin growing poison barbs. I don't want to grow poison barbs, but how to deal with trash like that idiot I bump into some mornings is a problem I'm wondering how to solve. The only practical thing I can think of at the moment is to move back a notch - away from that idiot (and next to a new one probably) but still within reasonable range of the stairs. If nothing else, it'll help to catch the predators off-guard a little since they won't know on a day-by-day basis where I'll be. Also, I want to prevent myself from thinking of actually taking action against the train scum - when you see the same evil rotten biped day after day, you begin to want to do something about it - better to be a (nearly/virtual) perpetual stranger to the situation.

So the next time you're feeling frustrated in a traffic jam, look around at the glorious private space you're sitting in, put on some music, and know that you are one of the lucky commuters.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Vertical Gated Communities"

One evening, I got off the Yamanote Line in Shinagawa and headed towards Tokyo Bay. After walking about fifteen minutes, I found myself among several luxury apartment towers - many more than I had imagined would be there. There have been news reports about this trend in the local media, but I hadn't realized the extent of this kind of development, and as I stood at street level contemplating the behind-locked-security-doors towers that I couldn't enter, I suddenly realized that the "gated community" trend is in Japan too....

The towers themselves look as though they would be nice to live in - like luxury hotels, they have swank lobbies and the residents of the upper floors have views of Tokyo Bay or a canal, and/or the Tokyo skyline. Unlike hotels, you need to enter a security number before the doors will open and there is often a guard on duty just inside the doors. Think vertical gated community - with (often underground) parking lots full of cars, but it's not possible for any large percentage of the inhabitants of Tokyo to go to work by car, due to there being nowhere to put the cars. You might get to work in two or three hours (as opposed to 30-60 minutes by train) but then what do you do with your large fire-breathing machinery when you get there?

But back to standing on the ground in front of one of the luxury towers - looking high up in the sky, you can see - behind large and deep balconies - what appear to be quite nice interiors - with warm incandescent lighting (or florescent imitations of it) and hotel-like interiors with nice furniture, indirect lighting, etc.

Nearly the entire area is full of these upscale towers, but there are a few lessor buildings mixed in - a twelve-story apartment building here, a fifteen-story building there, and what looks like a warehouse. The towers appear to be around 40-stories high. The range that qualifies a building as a Luxury Tower seems to be from twenty to forty (or more) stories.

Sitting on a bench on the side of one of the swankier looking buildings with grounds that function like a small, but rather nice looking park - paths through grass; discrete lights shining down (no direct or harsh light at eye-level), landscaped with bushes and fairly large trees (obviously put there at the time of construction in the not-too-distant past - with cables holding them up until they can grow out their roots). This particular tower looks as though it was completed within the past year or two. Across the street is another huge apartment building (huge in diameter as well as height) under construction, looking strange in its completely unlit immense form, in the middle of sparking towers awash in internal and exterior lighting.

Sitting on a bench in the small park, I look up and see a few of the brighter stars through the branches of one of the larger trees... and begin contemplating the atmosphere of the area. I look around at the park I'm sitting in and take note of the many nice aspects to it - the well arranged design, with a tasteful mixture of grasses, bushes, trees, benches, and paths; the almost perfect temperature of the June 4th evening, making it a perfect time to be siting outside, and yet I'm the only person sitting there. Occasionally a person walks by with a dog on a leash, women go by in nice clothes, often with an overpriced "brand" bag on arm; men walk by either with a snazzy (also overpriced?) briefcase in hand or with a backpack attached to their office-wear-clad selves (probably those making the 15-20 minute hike from Shinagawa on foot instead of taking the bus) .

As nice as this apartment tower park is, the streets are the streets (as in concrete cold/hot and unfriendly to anything not fire-breathing) , and there are no restaurants, no stores (except one convenience store I saw) and no discernible culture. Just streets with cars and buses driving by, and the wonderful towers rising into the sky. I imagine if I lived in one, I'd be tempted to have food supplies delivered and just stay up in the tower, only coming down to go to work or go somewhere. Otherwise I'd make use of the balcony (except that most of them have a glass sided balconies - to improve the view from inside I suppose - so there's no privacy to it!) when the weather was nice and otherwise just enjoy the interior luxury up in the sky and ignore the not-so-nice ground.

Speaking of which... this area near the shoreline of Tokyo Bay is all land-fill, and (call it my overactive imagination if you will, but... ) as I've noticed before in such areas - there seems to be the opposite effect of the energizing effect of natural spots of beauty, with the area producing a deep fatigue. Considering that some of the landfill along Tokyo Bay is composed of trash with a layer of dirt on top, it doesn't seem strange to me that it would be more tiring to sit atop a trash mountain than a real mountain of rock and dirt only.

Another key to the strange atmosphere at street level is the warehouse - which seems to be in its element somehow. Imagine an old shoreline area of a major city with mostly delivery and storage related buildings. Tear down most of the industrial type buildings, then toss in several 40-story luxury apartment towers and you may find yourself accurately imagining this area in near proximity to the Tokyo Bay shoreline and the noisy elevated rails of several train lines, still feeling a little industrial as it heads in an upscale direction.

There was recently a report on one of the weekend news shows about how it's popular to live in apartments alongside canals. From the look of things in the Shinagawa area, I think that predominantly means that area. I don't think there's quite the concentration of new trendy high-rise apartments anywhere else in the city. Personally, while I agree that a view of water from an apartment is nice (any kind of water, whether river, lake, ocean or canal), canals in mega-cities are not generally composed of pristine crystal clear sparkling water. Indeed, there's often a slight smell to city canals. So - if I were living in that area, I think I really would just stay up in my sky tower (the higher the better) and not spend much time down on the not-so-nice ground.

I took a walk along one of the canals (a ten to fifteen minute walk from the bay) and came to an older apartment building with smaller balconies and no locked security doors and grand hotel style lobby. Somehow the whole building seems more friendly and relaxed. That's not to say I wouldn't opt for a sky apartment before one of the old smaller ones, but there was that feeling of the building being more friendly - aided in no small degree by the entire first floor being composed of shops and restaurants. There was a sushi bar, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a barber shop, and something unidentifiable behind it's metal roll shutters closed for the day. Maybe there are exclusive restaurants and shops in the sky towers, but I don't think so - what with the always-locked security doors, the only customers they could have would have to come from within the building.

Back to the attraction of the canals - they used to have smooth, steep concrete sides leading up to a wall next to the roads going along their sides, but over many years, they have narrowed the canals by building park-like areas (with walkways and park benches) within the levees, and this fact alone does make them vastly nicer than they used to be. It's a good thing that they are nicer than before, but exclusive? Why not, I guess. The fact that those living in that area can *walk* home from Shinagawa Station is pretty amazing. Generally the major transfer stations on the Yamanote Line (Tokyo, Shinagawa, Ueno, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, etc.) are somewhere you transfer to a commuter line that takes you out to affordable housing about an hour or so from central Tokyo, so the idea of already being home in one of those places is pretty amazing. Hmmmm..... I wouldn't mind having an apartment in one of those places myself! Although I think I'd rather be a sky tower dweller in Shinjuku, with the building sitting on real land, than in Shinagawa, with the building sitting on landfill. Land not being available in Shinjuku, there are fewer towers though, and here is the reason for an industrial area heading upscale with high-rise towers - in a city completely carpeted with buildings, you put new large ones where you can find space for them!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Thursday, April 26, 2007


iPod's are taking over to the point of exclusion of everything else! Shudder-shudder-shudder! About a year ago, when I went to Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku to buy a sound file player that would play OGG files, there was a pretty even mix of things from different companies, but when I went back to the same store last week, I was shocked (shocked!) and dismayed (What?! Why? Oh no...) to see 95% of the display space taken up with those bloody iPods.

"You can have anything you want - so long as it's an iPod. Green, blue, pink, large, small, etc. anything you want! iPod accessories, cute little cases, matching Nike shoes.... What? You don't want to buy an iPod? But... but... that doesn't make sense! They're cute, everyone wants one and it's the only thing we sell! Monoculture! It's the 21st Century way!"

I'll go back and pester the staff about the lack of machines that will play OGG files - they must have some hiding somewhere off in the corners away from the prime display space mainly taken up with the bloody iPods and their bloody cute accessories, but the only thing I saw while walking through was a couple of models from Creative (that are nice, and work fine for MP3 files, but don't play OGG files, unfortunately).

As I wandered around feeling shell-shocked (the owners of the Sanshin Building are planning to smash it to bits and Apple is seemingly driving all sensible audio file players into oblivion), I remembered meeting a friend at the Bic Camera in the old Sogo Department store building by Yurakucho Station and seeing that they had more OGG-playing models than I've been seeing at Yodobashi Camera, so I rode the Yamanote Line over there... and walked in horror through another large and obnoxious display of bloody iPods, finally finding that they still have some machines on display that will play OGG files, as follows:


- SIREN DP-200 / DP-300


- iriver

I bought a SIREN, but haven't had a chance to try it out yet. I'm happy I could get a player that allows me to just load in files in a format that I like and then listen to them without mucking up my computer with rotten proprietary software and still won't play the type of files I want to use, but I'm worried whether that type of player will continue to be available in the future.

Monoculture... What's going on anyway? Is there only room for one operating system, one audio file player, one type of glass & steel sealed-box high-rise building? Is there no room for alternatives to a certain monopolistic software company, no room for something other than an iPod to listen to audio files electronically, no room for a classic 1929 building with possibly more character than any other building in Tokyo?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"Lack & Overabundance of Lighting"

One of my earlier impressions in Japan was an amazement of how brightly lit interiors are at night. The streets outside are brightly lit as well, but many interiors are overlit to the point of being uncomfortable unless you put sunglasses on! There are many theories as to why this is so, but the most common one is that the country is still living down its bad memories of the bad old dark days. This might indeed be the case, as more subtle lighting seems to be appearing along with younger people who have no memories of anything except bright lights and abundance. Back in the late forties it was a different world:

Job recalls,
Late pictures from Tokyo and surrounding districts tell me that tonight every shop, street, and path will be illuminated. I mean really well lighted. Perhaps modern Japan requires inescapable bright lights, but in 1948,49, 50, and 51 there were no lights on residential streets and very few on main streets, even Ginza was dim, mysterious, and considerably romantic. In surrounding communities, shops would close when daylight turned to twilight and most noise would cease. From train stations, people hurried on foot along dark unpaved lanes to homes, dinner, and maybe a visit to the local communal bath house identified only by a dim paper lantern, as were restaurants and hotels.
Television and automobiles had not yet arrived to violate quiet nights and torment neighbors, but maybe one might hear a recording of a girl's voice singing sadly of a lost or absent lover, (so it seemed to me) and one might be lucky enough to hear a samisen and traditional song.
Street crime was unheard of and one felt perfectly safe on nights when moon and stars chose to be elsewhere. As one walked through the friendly dark, anyone met along the way meant only an exchange of, "Konban-wa!"
It was a time of quiet nights unaltered by lights, with faint music that any young American soldier might find to be romantic . . .

Lighting... how I envy the people who were able to walk the streets and illuminate the inside of houses before the advent of florescent lighting! I know it's efficient for the same amount of illumination, but I would rather burn the same power and use a dim bulb than blast myself with the horrible light that florescent tubes provide. I don't know what it is exactly, but something about those tubes is very unpleasant for me. So the idea of a world without them sounds like paradise! Street lights are all kinds of odd things these days, the most irritating things being that some are so bright, they hurt the eyes and ruin the atmosphere of the night.

Night? What is it anyway? There is no night in Tokyo now - ever! Everywhere at all times is brightly lit! I have to think back decades to even remember what night is really (I've never experienced it in Tokyo). Ah... and with the memory is the associated fear of the unknown dark - thus the overlighting! Some happy medium would be nice!

Shamisen (it's in my dictionary as "samisen", but in Japanese, the first sound is "sha" and not "sa")... I had a traditional dinner once, where at the end of the meal, the paper (in wood frame) doors behind us slid open and a woman in kimono played the shamisen and sang a song. It was a beautiful experience that I would live to have often, but so far just that one time.

Safe streets - it's still mainly safe to walk the streets here at any time of day or night. Crime is not nonexistent, but is lower than in most major cities in the world. (I think... I haven't read up on this in detail lately.)


Job's book, "At Mama-san House" can be found on AMAZON.COM

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"Smoke Rant & Glorification - Final NWSR Friday Night"

Forward: This begins with a rant against smokers in the first paragraph, goes to a glorification of smoking in the second paragraph (both without... much... sarcasm), and then gets to the original reason I pulled out my notebook and began writing on Friday, March 23rd, 2007 - the last Friday night that the New World Service Restaurant was open for business. It was the first "last" in the restaurant's final week, as they closed for the last time after lunch on the following Friday, March 30th.... Now - to the text written by hand from a comfortable corner table near the kitchen and the base of the stairs to the second level.

(2007/03/23, Friday, Sanshin Building - New World Service Restaurant.) Cough-cough.... Smoke - I've gotten used to not having to ingest it from the leaf fires of those with the peculiar addiction of buying rolled leaves, lighting them on fire, and ingesting the smoke for the drug high of nicotine. As I breath the smoke being generated in this way, I wonder why, if these leaf-smoke people really need to drug themselves, why don't they do it with a hypodermic needle or by taking pills or something. And lest someone make the inane comparison of people ingesting alcohol with people ingesting smoke, allow me to point out that when someone drinks, they don't grab the heads of everyone in the room and forcibly pour alcohol down their throats - which is what they would have to do in order for the leaf smoke & alcohol comparison not to be inane.

Phew! Now I suppose I'll get hate mail for sounding off in in an infuriated/infuriating way. I should admit that I actually do understand the allure of smoking - from a single experience: A few years back, there was a barbecue by a river on the fringe of Tokyo, attended by a mix of nationalities (mostly long-term foreign residents of Tokyo), and I found myself standing by the barbecue jovially talking with a man from... one distant country or another, and he offered me a cigarette. It seemed perfectly natural to accept, and I smoked it, I stood there feeling... not cool... not manly... what? There was a feeing of connectedness with everything - with the earth, the sky, and the timeless history of humanity sharing a smoke by the fire and enjoying life.

It really was a good experience, but when I'm inside buildings with leaf fires, smoke burns my eyes, gives me a sore throat, and eventually a headache.

The Sanshin Building... due for destruction; and the New World Service Restaurant is due to close one week from today. In between writing the above sentences, I had a steak - one of the few things on the menu not sold out today - with a salad, soup, and a cup of coffee afterward.

After the coffee, I didn't feel ready to leave, so I ordered a beer (Asahi Super-Dry) - which I'm drinking as I write this. As I take a couple of photos of my table for posterity (the group off in another corner is doing the same), I note that there are smokers to the left... smokers to the right... but it's not bothering me much now - aside from slightly burning eyes. Maybe an exhaust fan was turned on, or maybe I've just gotten used to the leaf smoke. Come to think of it - the scene is perfect in a way - you can't smoke in most restaurants now, so this completes... no, not completes... "adds to" the trip back in time that this restaurant and this building provide.

Second beer - closing time approaches. The manager (and owner I think) of the shop has been running this restaurant for over 60 years. I would really like to interview him about the changes he's experienced from generation to generation, as he's seen more than a few generational changes in his life so far.

I ask the manager about next week, and am told that - at the latest, they'll be closing after lunch next Friday, so this is the last Friday night for this restaurant... after sixty-something years. Tokyo has no respect for tradition! Is it old? Smash it into rubble and build something new!

8:01 p.m. - And several of us customers are still here. Normally they would have pushed us out right at eight.... The last Friday night... but it shouldn't be.

The music just stopped... the manager is going from table to table politely telling people it's closing time. "The music has stopped." How symbolic can you get. Am I making too big a deal out of this? Maybe - but Tokyo is nearly devoid of anything old... if you haven't experienced living here, you probably can't imagine how hungry for history you get as you watch - continually - everything older than a few decades smashed into rubble to continually build something new - always something new. When the new bits are better than what they replace, that's good I suppose, but the destruction is indiscriminate - good, bad, culturally significant - no matter, it all has to go!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

PS - The restaurant always featured music by Wong Wing Tsan, and much of his (piano-based) music is perfect as background... mood music? I'm not sure I like that term, but it does evoke a certain mood, so I guess that makes it mood-music? Of the two CD's I've carefully listened to (they sold them at the restaurant), one is piano with a synthesizer, and the other piano with jazz instruments. The website for the musician is here:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"Lower Content, More Hype"

Way back in the 20th century, when camera manufacturers actually manufactured all of the significant component parts of their own cameras, there were substantial differences between cameras and thus actual significantly unique technical details to write about. But now, with many significant component parts being sourced by several manufacturers from the very same factories, cameras are - technically - very similar and so there isn't much to write about really to distinguish one manufacturer from another. The solution? Spin! Hype! BS! As an example, here is some actual text from an ad for a respected camera manufacturer (with the name changed):

"Armed with remarkable image processing technology, and brilliantly balanced with an easy-to-use interface. The new Z331, loaded with 10 megapixel power and superior shooting capabilities, will precisely execute your every command.
"The Z331's professional list of features include a 10 effective megapixel CCD for high quality images, a newly developed 11-area AF system for exceptional sharpness, our Creative Lighting System providing the ultimate in lighting control, Ultra-High speed 5fps continuous shooting to capture fleeting moments, and a magnesium alloy body for the perfect blend of durability, weight, and feel."

Let's have a look at some details:

It has: "image processing technology".

Big deal - they all do! So add some spin: "Armed with remarkable"

It has: "an easy-to-use interface".

Big deal - they all do! So add some spin: "brilliantly balanced with".

It has a: "10 megapixel" CCD.

Yawn... spin: "loaded with ..... power". (Since when did "power" become an acceptable substitute for "CCD" anyway?)

It has "shooting capabilities".

No kidding! It had better! It's a camera after all! Help! Spin! "Superior". Ah, yes! "Superior shooting capabilities"! But... superior to what?

It will: "execute your every command".

Well... yeah! No kidding!? If it doesn't, then it's broken! Spin: "precisely" (+ "every").

The camera has a "list of features".

No surprise here, how to make this bit if bland information sound interesting? Make it a "professional" list of features! What are these "professional" features?

It has a "10 effective megapixel CCD".

10 megapixels is pretty ho-hum these days. Top of the line actual professional cameras have more, so this is a virtual professional camera I think, not a real professional model.

The camera has an: "11-area AF system".

Very standard these days - even the cheapest pocketable cameras have multi-point auto-focusing. How to spin that? Add "newly developed" at the front and "for exceptional sharpness" at the rear. "Exceptional sharpness"? I find that offensive! The lens is either in focus or it isn't! Exceptional sharpness is what you get with quality optics, not a multi-point focusing system, which aids accuracy in focusing in comparison to older (single-point) auto-focus systems, but will not help sharpness if the lens is lacking it!

The ad says: "our Creative Lighting System"...?

What? I don't think so! A lighting system would be a system of lights, no? (If they're just referring to the built-in flash, they shouldn't call it a "system".) I think what they're talking about here is exposure control and not in fact a lighting system at all! I suspect the person who wrote this fell into a bad translation from Japanese by not understanding the issue and just focusing on the individual words of a sentence they couldn't understand describing something mysterious to them. What to do, what to do... the translation deadline is looming, you have bills to pay and admission of non-comprehension will mean a loss of future income. What to do... what to do... Fake it! Just take the words one at at time and make a rough sentence - and then smooth that out grammatically. Result? Grammatically correct garbage!

Adding insult to injury, this non-existent "lighting system" is supposedly: "providing the ultimate in lighting control".

Groan.... "Lighting control"? Lighting control would be control of the lights, no? I don't think the camera takes over the sun and the city lights to provide good lighting for the camera! This should be (what else could it be?): "exposure control", which is control of the exposure within the camera, getting us back in touch with reality! If they're talking about control of the built-in flash, then they should call it "flash control"! Lighting is what you have before the picture is taken! Flash is flash! Lighting is lighting!

Moving along - the camera has: "5fps continuous shooting" capability (that "fps" means "frames per second" by the way).

Five frames per second isn't bad, but it's no big deal. How to spin this ordinariness into BS hype? Add "Ultra-High speed" at the front, and "to capture fleeting moments" at the rear. My main complaint with this is the "ultra" in front of high-speed. It's okay to call five frames per second fast, but this is something that cameras have had for decades (film before of course), so what's with the "ultra"? Methinks that's not honest!

What else - the camera has a "magnesium alloy body".

Good - that's nice to have - but it isn't earth-shakingly unusual. Spin? Add "for the perfect blend of durability, weight, and feel" at the end. "Perfect blend" huh? They make it sound like the simple fact of utilizing a light material automatically leads to durability and good feel! Obvious nonsense!

Okay! Enough details! Now for a professional comment to wrap this up (and I mean "professional" in the sense of someone who is also doing writing-for-hire). Japanese is a naturally fuzzy language that very often allows you to floweringly describe something and not fall outside accuracy due to the writer and reader both knowing the outer limits of the fuzziness. All well and good, but it's a disaster when this style of writing is literally translated into English! English doesn't have this natural fuzziness, so a sharper focus on hard cold facts and less reliance on the imagination of the reader is called for. What's a harried translator to do? They've been given a short (always short) deadline and the company giving them the work is perpetually looking for faster and cheaper translations, so - if they're to keep working (people need to eat and pay rent), then they have to please the paymasters first and foremost and hope to squeak in a good translation a disappointing second.

How do I know? I've been there! I've done that! At the PR agency, there were times when I strung together a bunch of overwritten text and thought "This is crazy! Surely they'll see how over-the-top this is and ask me to rewrite it in a more sensible way!", but no - they liked it over-the-top and (mistakenly) took it to be a good translation as it seemed similar to the Japanese original when it was translated in a literal way (literal is generally bad when going between radically different languages like English and Japanese!). As much as I could, I would concentrate on the concept and come up with something sounding more authentically like real English, but then it was a real struggle convincing them that the effect generated in the mind of the native English reader was actually closely aligned with the concept generated in the mind of the native Japanese reader of the original Japanese - which would not likely be the case with a directly (mis)translated version.

This is giving me a headache... again!

Suffice it to say that it's a nasty business getting concepts safely from one culture and language into another! Add in advertising hype & PR spin, and there is very little actual information to be gleaned from some (most?) of the text put in front of us.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Deep Sea Divers in the Basements"

The details of things get lost in general accounts of history, so hearing about details from people who saw them first-hand makes it real. With that in mind, here's a bit of immediate post-WW-II history for you:

From: KJA
Date: Dec 28, 2006
Subject: Re: Ernie Pyle Area

Just received a hand written letter from a guy who was in Japan in 45. He speaks of buildings in the Yurakucho area needing repairs and scaffolding of bamboo poles. Sea divers with brass helmets and air hoses searched the flooded basements. AND, open canvas stalls selling stuff to G.I.s. He thought those were because many buildings were unusable. I recall them in 1951 long after all buildings were operational, however since most Americans had moved to Korea, the canvass stalls between Yurakucho and Ginza intersection were doomed as was most of the pom-pom trade.


Deep sea divers in the basements... I don't think I've seen that in history books, but it's a practical detail that brings things into focus much more clearly than "The country soon rose from the ruins of WW-II", which is the type of thing you generally get when referring to this period of Japan's history.

Truth - so much stranger and so much more interesting than fiction....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Old Era, Old Cameras, Old Memories...."

I've been looking at some photos of Ueno I took in 2000, taken with my first digital camera (a Kodak DC215), and they are so... different somehow from today ("today" as in now/present/modern/whatever) that I find myself staring at them remembering when I took them - trying to accurately recall how I felt at the time and (unsuccessfully) trying to tie that in both with how they make me feel now, and how more recent pictures (taken with newer cameras) look.

It's not that I don't understand the difference, but rather I'm having a difficult time believing that I, Tokyo, the world, and etc. have changed so much in just six and a half years.

And then there's the technical variable - since I'm using a different camera now, part of that look that the Ueno pictures have:

- could just be the way my old Kodak recorded the world. If that camera were still working, I could go out and take some pictures to see how they compare with my newer camera, but it's completely non-function now, so all I have from it are old pictures - the last ones taken in early 2001.

So - two questions:

1) Does anything about those pictures feel old for other viewers too? For me, I could almost imagine them as having been taken twenty or thirty years ago (which may just be due to the look the Kodak gave them).

2) Is six and a half years a long time? Specifically, is the period from summer 2000 to late winter/early spring 2007 a long time?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, March 05, 2007

"Not the Issue!"

I'm irritated. Alright, so what else is new, I'm nearly always irritated - but this time I'm *really* irritated. I'm hearing that temperatures are going up, so global warming is real; I'm hearing that temperatures are fluctuating wildly, so global climate change is real; then I hear that the glaciers on Mars are melting, therefore global warming on this planet can't have anything to do with human activity - it's just happening; I hear from a visitor from the southern hemisphere that "humans have no effect on the planet"; I hear that Al Gore lives in a big house that uses more energy than his neighbors, therefore his work on getting the world aware of climate change is bogus (cute logic there - left me speechless, it did - I thought that the former Vice-President of the US camped out in a sleeping bag in a tent); I hear today that there is new evidence from long ago that the planet's climate has (gasp!) changed before, therefore it's just a natural process....

I'm hearing all this... this... noise... and I'm thinking "What the f**k?!?". Is anyone visualizing in their overworked biological computers (built-in between their ears and conveniently not running buggy brand-W software) the mind-boggling concept of vast amounts of toxic junk (from the fire-breathing machinery bipeds have made) pouring into the air every bloody *day*? Are temperatures going up, down, sideways, or into the fourth dimension? Who cares! Whatever is going to happen is open to speculation, but that all that toxic junk will have a bad effect on the planet is just (or at least should be) common sense! Scale it down to a garage - lock yourself in one with a car running and you will be dead - *dead* - in not a very long while.

No effect on the planet? Sure - just like one car, with one tiny engine - just one out of the gazillions on the planet, will have no effect on you in that garage (ho-ho). It may be that no one can predict the exact moment of future death or brain damage to that lone biped breathing the noxious output of one fire-breathing engine in the garage. Similarly, no one can predict the exact moment or nature of drastic damage to the planet, but that damage in one form or another will be done if the noxious gases don't stop is not in question by anyone with a non-malfunctioning brain.

What's to be done? I don't know - gleefully ride the machines into a dead future I guess. Or maybe try to come up with something less toxic and scale back use of the toxic fire breathers in the meantime?

And that's just one aspect of the overall problem anyway - depleted fishers and dead zones in the ocean, toxic junk in the water supply, etc. Serious issues that people don't want to think about I guess. At least it would be nice if people would shut up about the temperatures already - "It's getting warmer!" - "No it's not!" - "People are ruining the planet!" - "No, people have no effect on the planet!" - $^%$^$$#^$^$%!!!

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Friday, February 23, 2007

"Where to go, Where to go...."

Back around the time I came to Japan, there were tourism promotion posters that used "Exotic Japan" as a theme, and it was indeed an adventuresome place for me for the first two or three years. Then I began to get used to it, and it was just an interesting place. After twenty-two years though, it's just an ordinary place and other areas of the globe now seem much more exotic, including some of the places I lived in before coming here. I've been saying this same thing for several years now, but the same line of thinking hits me again every time I am in the position of showing a visitor something in Tokyo - this time a man from China, which calls for a different mindset than with people from the West.

Typically, tourists from Western countries are interested to one degree or another in seeing the old aspects of Japan - the old temples and whatnot - which often have their roots in old China (and the Akihabara electronics district - always Akihabara!). So, I'm sitting here tying to imagine what would be most interesting about Tokyo to a man from Shanghai (who I'm sure has already been to Akihabara), and I'm drawing a blank. Culturally and architecturally, Tokyo and Shanghai have much more in common than Tokyo and San Francisco/London/Amsterdam, etc. I guess I'll just have to make up a list of possibilities and give the guy a list of choices. With that in mind (in the order that they come to mind, not in the order of significance:

1) The ramparts near Yotsuya Station. All a matter of viewpoint whether this is interesting or just... just... something else:

2) The Tokyo Bay ferry that crosses... um... Tokyo Bay, from Kurihama to Kaneya. Personally I always find this interesting and always find myself wishing the trip was a little bit longer:

Well, there I go - getting warmed up to the idea of going out and seeing/doing something other than the usual sardine run into work! Yes! There is interest in this spot of the globe yet!

Now to get ready for yet another painful ride on the sardine runs to my awaiting work desk....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Tokyo - Night & Day"

Due to Tokyo being in the wrong time zone, people tend to be night owls and daily ignore the first two to four hours of daylight (depending on the season). Thus, getting off of work generally means walking out into the Tokyo night. A few pictures of Tokyo's night streets (and train stations) are posted here:

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

PS - I've also posted some (evening) pictures of Hibiya Park, here:

Friday, January 05, 2007

"The Galaxie Returns!"

When I was 17 in 1977, I bought a 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 (for $350) with a four-barrel, dual-exhaust 390 that was coupled to a manual transmission with an electro-mechanical overdrive. Some would say the car was just a boat - good for plowing sloppily ahead, but not good for turning or stopping. Weighing in at three tons (6,000 pounds), and with brakes that faded badly after just one hard stop, that boat assessment is not without merit, but it was fast (getting about six miles to a gallon of gasoline - it took vast amounts of fuel to make it that way) and was a great cruiser.

I liked that model (61-64) a lot at the time (the 61 being the least favorite, the 62 liked because I had it, the 63 looking meanest of the four, and the 64 looking best overall), and still retain some of that feeling, even though I would never want that car to be my daily transportation now. In fact, I liked the car enough, that it used to appear in my dreams over here in Japan - generally featuring me discovering it parked on a nearby side street and thinking "My Galaxie! It's not gone!" and waking up in a sea of worry about what to do for parking and how to feed the monster here in Tokyo. I thought I had gotten over that when I recalled - within a dream a few years ago - how badly it handled and what lousy brakes it had, prompting me to think "Naw... I don't really want this thing." but then....

I go to bed on the night of January 1st, 2007, and drift off to a world with a sparkling 1962 Galaxie 500 in it and I am enchanted once again... enjoying the dream until worries about insurance, parking & fuel costs, etc. creep back into my consciousness. I wake up on January 2nd in a cloud of worry about how to handle the ownership of that six thousand pound armored car. As I think of what to do, it dawns on me that I don't have to do anything, since it was just a dream and I'm not responsible for that car any more.

What it all means, I don't know.... Recently, I'm more anti-automobile than anything; not owning a fire-breathing monster of a machine myself these days, and living in a quiet apartment that there is talk of ruining by constructing a four-lane major road that would run right by my window, as I contemplate the noise and toxic gasses that would leak into my living space, I find myself thinking "Bloody car owners! Let them walk! I hope fuel costs triple in cost!", etc., sincerely hoping that the cost of private fire-breathing machine ownership rises to the point where the number of cars on the road decreases and there is no "need"(?) to ruin my living space for the sake of the bloody machines.

I guess the car coming back in my dreams is a reflection of the incredible experiences I had in that car - from first dates to band hauling to accidents (with an 's') to winning acceleration races (that pre-smog equipment Thunderbird four-barrel dual exhaust 390 pumped out some serious power for 1977, when I was driving it) to drive-in movies (four people could fit into the trunk) to (with the help of friends) fixing the brakes, replacing the carburetor, generator (not an alternator), starter motor, clutch throw-out bearing, etc. etc.

Modern tires and brakes, coupled with grippier road surfaces and lighter cars have largely eliminated one hair-raising aspect to motoring with 1960's US cars - the screeching of four tires grinding off rubber as a very heavy car skids towards disaster while panic braking. The sound of three tons of iron in a four-wheel skid is an incredible sound - I remember one fine day when I had just steered to the left to go around a slow moving car and I was beginning to accelerate (a sudden occurrence in that car) - the slow car suddenly turned left in front of me (with no turn signal or other warning) and I jumped on the brakes putting the car into one of those four-wheel SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH decelerations that brought out several people from their houses - come to see blood and carnage no doubt - as that sound would lead you to believe that something very bad had happened (I drove slowly away from that near miss - amused by the people craning their necks looking down the street past my car in vain for the wreck they were sure had happened), and I remember now several times while growing up in the sixties when I heard "SCREEEEEEEEE-Crash/Smash/Bash!!!" and there would always be the morbidly fascinating sight of two cars with varying degrees of bent up metal and broken glass. But you have to expect that when there are large fleets of over-horsepowered, under-tired and under-braked cars with dismal handling out on the roads.

Back to riding on the crush-rush trains... no pleasant thing that, but very predictable time and cost-wise. Psychologically though, I'm not sure how high of a cost we Tokyo commuters are paying. I guess if it isn't one thing, it's another...?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Thursday, January 04, 2007



I like your free e-mail service and appreciate its existence, but there are a couple of issues I'd like to ask you about.

1) Why is the English in Yahoo mail 180 degrees out of whack? When I want to see the next message, I have to click on "Previous" and when I want to see the previous message, I have to click on "Next". Don't the people at Yahoo understand the concept of reading (time sensitive) mail in chronological order?

2) Why is it that I have no problem receiving Japanese e-mail with your favorite competitor's e-mail (GMail), but I get only garbled text with This single issue - more than any other - is driving me closer and closer to Google and and further and further from Yahoo.

Whatever happened to good design? There's a point where you have to stop listening to every complaint made by users and actually make intelligent decisions as to whether requests are nonsense or are something worth paying attention to. If you say that this request is nonsense, then I say that not only is your English 180 degrees out of whack, but your reasoning powers are also 180 degrees out of whack.


Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon