Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Instantaneous Water Heaters vs. Tank Water Heaters"

To start with the conclusion, instantaneous water heaters rule. The only thing better about tank water heaters, is if you turn the hot water tap off and on rapidly, the tank could care less, while the same action seriously stresses a machine that goes from idling to action with each opening of the tap, and back to idle with each closing of the tap.

I grew up with 40-gallon (later 50-gallon, and one 30-gallon) gas-fired hot water tanks that would heat the 40 gallons with a raging blaze of blue flames, and then drop back to a flickering pilot light when a certain temperature was reached. Hot water was pulled from the top of the tank, which was replenished by a cold water feed at the bottom of the tank, and when a water temperature sensor detected that the temperature had fallen to a certain point, the raging blue blaze would come back to heat the tank of water again. A hot-water-run-dry cold tank would take something like 20-30 minutes to come back up to fully heated temperature.

The tank was hidden away out-of-sight and out-of-mind in either a basement or garage, and the only thing that made you think about it was taking too long of a shower, which would run the hot water out and require a waiting period before the household had hot water again. First in to take a shower and you were likely to incur the wrath of subsequent shower users who ran out of hot water ("You used up all the hot water!"), and second in and you were likely to complain to the first user, "You used up almost all the hot water! It went cold on me after about two minutes!", etc.

So, one day in 1984, I climbed onto a Tokyo-bound 747, had dinner, watched a movie, fell asleep, and woke up in a land of instantaneous water heaters. Strangely, in that era of so many things being "Made in Japan", I noticed at the built-in-1928 YMCA I stayed at, that it had a "Made in USA" OTIS elevator and "Made in USA" silverware!!! I don't think I'd ever seen "Made in USA" silverware before - everything I used in the US was "Made in Japan", so I cross the Pacific and my first meal is with "Made in USA" silverware - in Japan!

But I digress. I got onto that line of thinking due to my experience of renting a room in a house in Chigasaki from a man who was long-term house-sitting (once a week) for the owners, who were friends of his parents. The owners had apparently lived overseas for some years and were keen to carry back to Japan some of the luxury that they had experienced while in the US. So they had their new house built with central heating (via a kerosene-burning furnace that was fed from a large tank behind the house that cost something like - at the current exchange rate - $500 to fill), and a US-made 40-gallon gas-fired water heater. How did those air and water heating systems transplant over here? In a word, badly! First, let's look at the central heating system.

The problem was, the house construction was not in line with the concept of heating the whole house (something practically unheard of in Tokyo at the time), so the house wasn't properly insulated (if it was insulated at all) and the heat just went through the walls and ceiling. The furnace produced enough heat to warm the house, but since the house couldn't hold that heat, the furnace just ran constantly. Energy costs were then (and still are) quite a bit higher here than in the US, so the only time we used the furnace was when guests were invited over, and then the furnace was fired up for a few hours. Otherwise we left that thing shut down, lest it bankrupt us and make us sleep under a bridge somewhere. Better to sleep in freezing cold under a roof than throw all your money away on sleeping in a warm house for a few months, followed by being kicked out for lack of rent money and having to sleep under a bridge! Space heaters slightly reduced the inside chill, but they lacked enough power to actually warm a room up.

Now - the water heater! In contrast to the nearly useless central heating system (if we had been filthy-dirty-stinking-rich, we might have actually used that on a daily basis), we did use the water heater, but the basic procedure was to fire the thing up 30 minutes before taking a bath/shower, and then to shut it off (completely shut it off, including the pilot light) right after taking a shower. Used in this way, the gas bill was manageable, but still higher than it would have been with an instantaneous water heater (provided it was used correctly). (Thinking back on those US-made things at a time when imported things here were pricey and rare, and how I ran into them in my first months after crossing the Pacific, it's almost as though there was some magnetic force putting a US-made biped in contact with US-made machinery.)

Now - finally we come to instantaneous water heaters. Wonderful devices, with many advantages over tank water heaters, and with only a few disadvantages. First, the advantages.

Since they heat fully cold water to warm/hot temperatures as it comes from the cold water supply, there is no warm up period and no running out of hot water. In a multi-person household, you can take one shower after another and no one ever (ever) runs out of hot water. When they are completely shut down (every night, etc.), there is zero gas consumption (in contrast to the constantly burning pilot light in a tank water heater).

Disadvantages: Instantaneous water heaters are more complicated than tank water heaters, and so the initial cost is probably higher. I'm not sure about the cost, but I am fairly certain about the complexity leading to more possibilities for malfunction. Over the 23 years or so I've been using them, I've had to have a few of them repaired or replaced. And... one of the advantages can be a disadvantage as well - never running out of hot water means that if you get to thinking about something while taking a shower and the clock speeds up on you, you can end up wasting a lot of water and gas through overuse.

Oh! And one other disadvantage (at least with the system I'm using now). The hot water is not mixed with cold - rather the hot water the machine generates is used directly, so you adjust the temperature of the heated water output - you don't mix it with cold water. This is done in two ways. It has three different flame settings, and fine-tuning adjustments are made by controlling water flow - more water is cooler and less water is hotter. In theory, this setup should work fine, but the gradation between gas settings one, two, and three is such that setting-one is virtually useless (too cold even on the hottest day with the minimum water flow setting); setting-two is usable in the summer if the water flow is turned way down; and setting three, while perfect for the coldest days of winter, requires typhoon levels of water flow to keep the water from being too hot in the summer. So when the weather is warm, as it is now, you end up bouncing between flame-two with not quite enough water coming out, and flame-three with a typhoon water blast. It would be perfect if flame-one was brought up to the current flame-two level and flame-two was brought up to a level between the current flame-two and flame-three settings.

More than you wanted to know about water heaters....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Night Before the Sardine Express"

In the maelstrom of a typical Tokyo early evening, CT showed up at our prearranged (no pocketable cell phones in February 1991) meeting place at Naka-Meguro Station with a few friends of his, and then led the way to a Columbian bar that he knew. After sitting down and ordering the first round of food & drinks, we settled in for an evening of talk & laughter:

The evening wore on - too much time & money was spent, and by the time I looked at the time, thinking I would go home, it was too late - the train system was already beginning its nightly shutdown.

CT said I could stay at his place, and so we went out into the concrete & asphalt night - stopping for more drinks at a second place (his idea, not mine), and after that place, we then had soba noodles at a third place, before finally going to his apartment in Yutenji.

It was great to have a place to stay, but when visiting a friend's home, you can only dial down your social politeness level so far, and the polite tension prevents a thorough rest. Keep in mind that we're talking about a typical (especially in 1991) small Tokyo apartment, so the supreme luxury of a private room was not to be had.

Sleeping on the tatami mat floor (a couple of feet from my snoring freind) for a couple of hours and waking up more than half-asleep, I finally roused myself enough to begin the journey across town via the (very) early morning trains (which typically start up between 4:30-5:00 a.m.).

And it was on this journey home that I came across the situation I recorded on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line:

I knew that that station at that time was a sardine packing point, but I hadn't recorded it, since when I had to pack myself on with the other sardines, I got on with the video camera in its case and over my head. (On the day the video was taken, I had a late schedule.) I would work pretty hard to get it onto one of the overhead racks, but when I couldn't, I put it on my shoulder to keep it from getting smashed. As for recording the inside of one of those high-density sardine runs, it just seemed like way too rude of a thing to do. Taking pictures of the backs of people disappearing into a train is one thing, but taking the camera out and recording everyone's faces on the inside of the train didn't seem like a great idea.

That evening was no big deal, but I'm hoping to give some context to my very often very misunderstood clip about the Sardine Run Express. I had originally wanted to keep on editing in bits from the original tape until the peak rush towards Tokyo, but I decided to just cover the night before and the first couple of trains in the morning. I might put together another clip to fill the gap between the Naka-Meguro/Yutenji-to-Shibuya clip and the crush-rush clip - if anyone is interested....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Monday, June 16, 2008

"2008 - Cultural Balancing Point"

I visited a western-influenced building last week and felt an ancient (for me) comfort with an interior layout similar to what is (or was) typical in the land-beyond-the-ocean that I came from, over two decades before. It was just little things - like paper towels in the restroom (nearly nonexistent here) and the layout of furniture. Pondering how I was so easily going on a nostalgia trip, I thought back to early experiences here with western-influenced interiors. In the old days, I would notice one western thing, and then notice twenty eastern local touches. The feeling tended to be along the lines of "this has lost something in translation/transplant..."

But now - having spent half my life here and half my life there - when I find something from that distant past & distant land - that single item, regardless of its surroundings, is enough to take me back to another era, another land, another me.

It's something like this - newly arrived, I would look for a perfect picture with all the details intact, and invariably I would notice that the picture was not complete. Now, I don't think I can even remember the whole picture of life in the land-beyond-the-ocean, so discovery of a single item is enough to start up an old video clip in the mind.

....... That was what I intended to say when I starting writing this, but it occurs to me that this is also tied in with my shock at many of the comments made by viewers of the Sardine Run video. It's not a big deal - no one was being forced to ride the train, and the ride they faced was only about 20-25 minutes, but many of the comments make it clear that there is zero understanding of the situation, and with that level of non-comprehension, I wish that hadn't been posted. I wanted to make a point to my New York and London friends who claimed that Tokyo's trains couldn't be any more crowded than their trains, but the vast sea of misunderstanding that was to ensue was unforeseen.

"The seed doesn't fall far from the tree"
"You can never go home"

Which is true? Both & neither it would seem.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Saturday, June 07, 2008

"Shinjuku East Exit Ticket Gates - 1990 & 2008"

I've been living my in-motion life on the Tokyo train system for over two decades now, but since posting a few video clips, I realize from comments from overseas that the system here must not be very widely understood. So, rather than focus on the sensational aspect (as portrayed in the gone-viral pack-'em-in video), there seems to be a need to focus a little on the mundane stuff, like ticket gates.

1990 was just before they began automating the Tokyo ticket gates, which might sound slow (San Francisco's BART system was automated when I moved there in 1982), but keep in mind how vast the Tokyo train system is, and the need for more computing power, more machines, etc. is apparent. To compare 1990 with 2008, I have two clips that I took - both of the same ticket gates at the East Exit of Shinjuku Station:

1990 Shinjuku East Exit Ticket Gates:

2008 Shinjuku East Exit Ticket Gates:

One comment about the 2008 clip - the guy going the wrong way is a ticket gate crasher. Many of the gates are bi-directional, but from the way he goes through and the sound, he rushed through with no ticket before the gates could close.

Tickets and cards. The system has advanced to the point where you can travel on all of the trains and most of the buses with a single type of IC card, which saves an incredible amount of time (especially time that used to be spent in line at the ticket machines).

(Note: I posted the video clips for this a while back, and I've discussed them with a few people, but I don't think I've posted any text about them - or have I?)

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

"People are Holding Back!"

I've noticed over the past couple of years that some people are not as eager to get on a train when it's crowded than everyone used to be. Rarely in the old days (1980's) but not so rare in 2008, is the sight of a few people who could easily get on the train if they just tried - with a little contact effort - but who stand there on the platform and (gasp!) just let the train go! They actually wait for the next train when they could have gotten on the train sitting in front of them with its doors open. I'm telling you, this is shocking behavior! Kidding tone aside, it really is surprising to me to see it, so used have I become to packing myself onto trains, no matter how crowded they are.

But what really surprised me was the Shinjuku/Ikebukuro-bound Yamanote Line platform at Shibuya Station a few days ago at about 8:30 p.m. The train took on a load of passengers, and could have taken on a lot more, but there were something like eight people per door (32-48 per car - some cars have four doors, some six) who just held back and waited for the next train. That's actually sensible behavior if you only have one one to use, but for those with multiple transfers (hello...), one lost minute can snowball into a lost 15-30 minutes if it makes you miss long-distance express train connections, not to mention the possibility that a whole string of trains will be similarly packed anyway.

So I remember that scene, and have to step back for a minute and look at myself... who was amazed at the high-density trains for the first several years I lived here, but then grew accustomed to them, to the point where it seems abnormal that people - recently - don't want to force their way onto a train, no matter how crowded it is!

I think there's an image of culture movers getting used to a new culture, and then knowing it. I don't recall ever - until it happened to myself that is - contemplating the concept of learning a culture, and then having that culture change from under your feet. Change of culture versus change of generation. Either it's something travel writers have not encountered or thought about, due to overly strong focus on the initial transitional years in moving into a new culture; or the pace of change has accelerated to the point where cultures fairly radically change in a decade or less, rather than... a century or at least several decades.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"Stepping off the Beaten Path - Jiyugaoka, May 2008"

It's easy to get into a set routine in life, but easy to step outside of it as well - especially in a mega-city like Tokyo. Last week I received an e-mail inviting me to visit an Irish pub in Jiyugaoka (Irish pubs are popular in Tokyo and there are a fair number of them scattered about the city), where I had a couple of glasses of Kilkenny (which I prefer to Guinness), and I took some video clips of the live band there, one of which can be seen here:

"Jiyugaoka Irish Music at Irish Pub"

Backing up a notch - before I met my friend and we went to the Irish pub, I was walking around Jiyugaoka a little and took some videos in the rain. Jiyugaoka is a nice area, with (some) tree-lined streets, fashionable shops, and nice (and expensive) houses nearby. One of the tree-lined streets looks like this:

"Jiyugaoka in the Rain"

It's almost always fun going somewhere off the beaten path, but by the time I'm ready to go home, I always wish I could just step into a transporter and *be* home, and not have to spend an hour or two navigating the train system to get back. And so it was at the Irish Pub - at one point, as I was running very low on energy (I'd only gotten a few hours sleep the night before), I looked off into space (through the wall) and thought "It would be so nice to just have a five minute walk home now....'.

But I don't live in Jiyugaoka and I don't have access to a transporter, so I hiked back to Jiyugaoka Station and began the two-hour multi-train trip back. The first train I got on (Toyoko Line) was strangely not crowded, with only about 60% of the seats taken, so I took the one semi-box seat arrangement (the rest are bench seats with the seat back against the windows), opened the window as far as it would go (only about 40% from the top, pulling down), and stood up between the seats to have a real look at the world outside, without glass getting in the way. And it was a nice (as in big-city interesting, not countryside beautiful) sight, with a cool breeze blowing into the car. When there's nothing but air between yourself and what you're looking at, you really know you're there; but when you're looking through glass, it's as though you're watching it on TV or something.

And... seeing this on a computer screen, it's further still from "being there", but even on the computer, removing the window glass from the chain of actions and technology leading to your screen brings you one step closer to the original scene. It's not the same as being there of course, but....

As I looked out into the electric Tokyo night ("electric" in the sense of everything being electric more than being charged, although there's some of that as well), there was that big-city feeling of being in middle of urban action and adventure. Part of the big-city ambiance of Tokyo comes form the sound of the many trains echoing between the buildings or heard in the distance - steel wheels and electric motors ("screeeech... screeeeech... mmmmmMMMMMM...... MMMMMMmmmmmmm......"). There's a little of that in the following video:

"Approaching Shibuya Station at Night"

In playing that back - there is no screeching exactly, but there is a low-tone sound made by the wheels - hard to describe, but you can hear it in the video. And um... yeah... you're not supposed to stick your head out the window - you could lose it that way.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

Sunday, June 01, 2008

"Nostalgia & Tourism"

There's a very narrow path between old buildings in Shinjuku, not far from Shinjuku Station, that is still, to this day, defying the near absolute "nothing old tolerated" rule of Tokyo. I'm not sure of its beginnings, but in 1984, when I first stumbled upon it, it was a nice holdout from bygone days, and very near to new and modern things, so entering the street was quite like stepping past a barrier into another age. Foreign residents like myself liked the ambiance of the place - even if only to walk through - but it wasn't the sort of place many tourists visited, and it still performed its timeless (at least timeless in nothing-old-tolerated Tokyo) function of offering a collection of small, inexpensive, cozy drinking places that (mostly men) would drop in at for a drink on the way home, or to have a quick lunch at.

In 2008, visually, the street ("path" would probably be a more accurate term) looks mostly the same as it did 24 years ago (and probably 30-40 years before that), but that type of collection of old style drinking shops is now so rare in Tokyo that it's becoming more and more of a tourist destination for ("exotic thrill") foreign and ("nostalgia") local tourists. Originally, many of the shops were probably husband & wife run, but the last few times I visited one or another of them, they were being run by foreigners (from south-east Asia). (That's not a complaint, but it does change the atmosphere from what it was into something different.)

Just that one area isn't something worth spending time thinking about, but it's tied in with Tokyo's disconnect with the past in its relentless drive to destroy everything old and be forever modernizing any and everything. Tokyo needs to be modern, but that modernity would be a more comfortable one to live in if it were in context among a certain number of older things. New is exciting, off-new is hum-drum, but just as something is becoming old enough to be interesting, it is smashed to rubble and something squeaky new is put in its place....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon