Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lights, Temples, Speeches, and Holidays

As the nights get longer and the days shorter, people of every country that I have visited in my life attempt to brighten their moods by lighting streets, trees, churches, cathedrals, houses, and such with beautiful colorful lights. As you may guess, the Japanese are no exception to this rule; they light up their houses, streets, and everything else. And, instead of lighting churches and cathedrals, which Japan mostly lacks, they light their Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Lately I had the chance to witness a few of these light-ups, and given how stunning they were, I will tell you more about them.

So as not to forget to look in the shade below the candle, I will start with the closest lit-up thing around me, the Christmas tree at Doshisha’s Imadegawa campus where I go to school. It is a living evergreen, probably a cedar, which stands majestically in the middle of the road near Doshisha’s gate. Its roots are completely covered by asphalt and, because I have been seeing it every day, I never really noticed that it was there. Until they lit it up, that is. It has been shining since the 20th of November or so, making the cold nights at school a little warmer. There is also a similar tree at Doshisha’s Kyotanabe campus, which I get to see every week when I go there for Hiking Club running practices. Both big, and both unnoticed until they were lit up, these two magnificent trees were shadows below the candle which now became the candle itself.

The Christams tree at Doshisha. It is there always, but only now I noticed.

The lighting of Kyoto’s countless beautiful temples and shrines in another example of the many light-ups which I witnessed lately. Because the Japanese visit temples and shrines mainly in the fall season to see the splendid colored maples, and in the spring to enjoy Japan’s famous blooming cherry trees, the light-ups are a great way for shrines and temples to make some last-minute buck. After they are over, the dry season comes for most Japanese religious establishments with the one exception of New Year’s Day. Thus every temple and shrine is trying to make profit out of this last opportunity of the year. With my \500 ready, I went to see the illumination of the Kiyomizu Temple, one of Kyoto’s symbols. Standing in the mountains East of Kyoto, the Kiyomizu temple provides a great view of the city during any season. But what I saw that one December night was quite unique and spectacular. The red maples gave off an orangey glow as they were lit up by yellow lights, and the view of the temple and the city of Kyoto was just unforgettable. Of course the temple was packed as always, but compared to the lighting up of the city of Kobe it was almost empty.

The lit-up Kiyomizu Temple and the view of Kyoto.
The lighting up of the city of Kobe, known as the Kobe Luminarie, is one of the most important winter events in the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Nara). Kobe is located just west of Osaka, about two hours by train from Kyoto and three hours from Nara where I live. The purpose of the Kobe Luminarie is surprisingly not to make money; it serves as a reminder of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake which killed over 6400 people and destroyed most of the city. A set part of the city is closed off from traffic every night for two weeks, and the streets are marvelously decorated with light arches and castles, and a mystical, calming tune is playing to enhance the already magical experience. Luminarie, which happens every year, was designed by an Italian artist, and the lights were donated by the Italian government as a sign of compassion for those who died in the earthquake (that’s where the name Luminarie comes from). All kinds of foods, including the famous Kobe beef, are sold in the streets during the event. As I mentioned above, the streets were immensely crowded; after all, according to Wikipedia, 2-5 million people visit the Luminarie every year! To manage such enormous crowds, the police make their presence more than obvious. Policemen and policewomen are everywhere and shout into loudspeakers instructions to the river participants. They tell them to follow the person before them slowly, not stop for too long to take pictures, and always finish their sentences with Keigo: Gokyoryoku kudasai, please honorably comply. To make it even more obvious that the police mean what they are saying, there are prison buses on almost every corner, ready to take hundreds of non-complying citizens to the nearest police station. But given how complying the Japanese are, there was no need for the police to use the prison buses that night. Thank god we’re not in Greece. All in all, Kobe Luminarie was magically beautiful and totally worth spending the six hours on trains that Friday night to see it.

A light castle at Kobe Luminarie.

 Kobe Luminarie.

Prison buses at  Kobe Luminarie.
The last event I am going to talk about, the German Christmas market in Osaka, has less to do with illumination and more to do with entertainment. It happens every year under the famous Umeda Sky Building and offers all kinds of German foods, drinks, and crafts. I went with a bunch of my Japanese friends and one Swiss friend and enjoyed the atmosphere under the huge Christmas tree in the middle. Though everything was expensive as hell, we bought delicious Bratwursts, gingerbread hearts, and mulled wine, and climbed to the top of the Sky Building above us. There we were presented with a breathtaking night view of the city of Osaka, all lit up and colorful.

Me and my friends on top of the Sky Building, Osaka.

View from the Sky Building.
On another note, my winter break just started about two hours ago when I finished my last Japanese exam. Today we have a potluck party at a Japanese friend’s house, and on the night of the 25th, me and Masa are going snowboarding for two days to Akarura, a beautiful ski resort north of Nagano. After that I will probably spend the New Year’s in Kyoto with my host family, and then I am hoping to visit Yuki, a Colby friend from Tokyo. School starts again on Jan 6th.

One final thing worth mentioning is that this Sunday I took part in a Japanese language speech contest in my hometown, Seika-cho. Out of the nine participants, I won the third prize for my speech about over-development of Japanese mountaintops. If you are interested and can read Japanese, here is the link to a report about the event, with photos of me: 

Me speaking at the speech contest.

I Hope you all have a great winter break (or a nice summer for those on the southern hemisphere)! Merry Christmas!

PS: Currently I am in the middle of preparing an end-of-the-year special post, so stay tuned!

Monday, December 13, 2010


Honorific expression syndrome. The two characters read Keigo.
Before I came to Japan, I was aware that the Japanese have a heightened sense of respect for their elders and superiors, which they express by bowing to them. When I started taking Japanese classes at Colby, I learned that in addition to simple bowing are three levels of Japanese. First there is the regular Japanese which one uses when speaking to friends, family, and people of equal status. Then there are Keigo and Kenjougo. Keigo consists of different vocabulary and grammar and is used for addressing people of higher status, such as your boss, client, etc. For example, you wouldn't ask your Japanese boss whether he likes to play golf using regular Japanese. Instead, you would use Keigo to ask him the question, which would then sound more like "Do you honorably enjoy playing golf?" (Keigo has a different word for play as well as for enjoy). The same applies for Kenjougo; it consists of different vocabulary and grammar, and you use it while talking to people of higher status, with the exception that you use it show your subordination to the person you are speaking to. So for example when asked by your boss whether you like to play golf (which he asks you using regular Japanese), you will answer using Kenjougo: you humbly like to play golf, but are not very good at it (even if you were the world champion). To me, the use of Keigo and Kenjougo itself is not surprising. After all, many other languages use different grammar and vocabulary to express distinctions in hierarchy: French with its vous, Spanish with usted, German with Sie, Czech with Vy, and others, all of which also come with their special grammar, conjugation, declination, and such. The surprising thing about Keigo and Kenjougo is that the Japanese use them in situations where their quasi-equivalents in French etc. would be way too formal. I will give you an example from my own life in Kyoto.

As you may know if you have been reading my blog carefully, I have joined the Hiking Club here at Doshisha. The active members of the club, as of many other Doshisha clubs, only comprise of first and second year students. As they reach their third year at school, most of Doshisha students start the process of so called "job hunting", which apparently keeps them so busy that they no longer have time to take part in their club's activities. They only meet with the active members a few times per year for so called nomikai, or drinking parties (which are different from what a westerner would call a party and comprise quite an interesting part of Japanese social and work life and deserve a separate entry). As a result of this absence of older students, I am the only third year student who is also an active member of the club, and as such I get to be addressed by most of the club's members in Keigo. I get asked questions such as "how long are you honorably going to be in Japan?", "would you honorably help me with my lowly concern?", and others. Similarly, at a nomikai which I was recently invited to, the first and second years treated their retired seniors with the same respect. Moreover, they only addressed them by their last names, as they would address me if I had told them what it is. Some of the first and second years even address each other by their last names. Also, at the nomikai, the seniors were the first to choose their drinks, and when a group picture was to be taken, all of the seniors went to the front, their rightful place in any picture.

Although, being a foreigner, I am surely not the one who should be judging this aspect of Japanese culture, I certainly do have an opinion about it. And, being one who receives the honor of being talked to in Keigo, I believe that I am in the position to share it with you. In my opinion, using Keigo among fellow friends and students creates a weird sense of estrangement from others as well as an odd sort of shyness, both of which I have found to be typical Japanese personality traits. It is interesting to see how the relationships between people as well as their personalities are shaped by the language they speak. Is perhaps the French stereotype of Americans as being loud and rude a result of the English language lacking any sort of respectful language found in French? I am sure many have written about this before me; maybe I should read up a bit about the issue when my finals are over.

To conclude this entry, I will list a few more examples of situations in which I observed the Japanese showing their respect by bowing or using Keigo.

  1. Train and station attendants bow upon entering and leaving the train car.
  2. Airport attendants bow upon entering and leaving the check-in counter.
  3. Japanese call every doctor, scientist, and some elderly sensei, or professor. Also, calling your professors by their first name like in America is a first-class insult.
  4. Guides always bow. Always. And always use Keigo. Always.
  5. When picking up the phone, and especially when making a call themselves, many Japanese raise the tone of their voice so as to sound polite. Interestingly, they don’t do it when they talk to their family.
  6. When giving gifts, some Japanese say, using Kenjougo: “this gift sucks, but here you go”, even if they were giving you a million dollars.
  7. Announcements at train stations, especially those which require you to do something, always use the most polite Keigo, and always end with gokyouryoku kudasai, or “please honorably comply”.
  8. While walking on the streets, you can often hear shop owners shouting in a high-pitched voice “would you honorably like buy x”? To me, this actually has the opposite effect; when I hear it, I leave, because the high-pitched voice is extremely annoying.
  9. Keigo can also be misused to actually insult people. When you overuse it, it means that you are mocking the person who you are speaking to. So even to Japanese politeness, there is an acceptable maximum.
  10. There are Japanese who are aware of the occasional overuse of Keigo. Some call it the "Honorific Expression Syndrome", or Keigo Syndrome (see picture above).

Thursday, December 2, 2010


An army of scooters waiting for the light in Taipei.

From Monday Nov 22 to Monday Nov 29 I took a break from everything that is Japanese and went to visit Glen, a Czech high school friend of mine who is currently studying in Taipei, Taiwan. We spent one day sightseeing in Taipei, then went up north for a day to the Yehliu National Park full of interesting stone shapes, and finally left for a four day long road trip of the island's east coast. As you may well imagine, we wasted not a single minute of our time and did and experienced a great lot of things. In addition, visiting Taiwan was interesting for me because I spent one semester studying about Taiwan's politics at Colby. As a result, there are great many things that I can tell you about Taiwan, both political and human in nature. But given that our time is limited, I will only give you a brief lesson in Taiwan's political history and then I will present you with a series of randomly ordered bullet points containing the most important things I experienced and/or think you should know about Taiwan. But first, please, turn up your sound as loud as it gets click to play the song below, and listen to it again and again, and again, and again. You will soon understand why.

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, or ROC, is an island off the east coast of the People's Republic of China, the PRC. In the international community, Taiwan has a very special status because of its political history: it is not recognized by most of the world's countries as a sovereign state but neither is it seen as a part of the PRC. Here is Taiwan's long (his)story short. In 1544, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the island and gave it the name Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island. The first foreigners to rule the island were the Dutch about a hundred years later. Not too long after that Formosa became a part of China which administered it until 1895, when the weakening empire lost to the newly industrialized Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese occupied the island starting then until 1945 when they ceded it back to China, which was by that time not an empire anymore but a Republic with Chiang-Kai Shek as president. However, four years later Chiang lost the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong and retreated from the then-capital of China, Nanjing, to Taiwan. Because the communists had enough trouble administering their newly-won mainland, and because Chiang's occupation of Taiwan was backed by the communist-fearing Americans, the communists never attacked the island. Hence there were two Chinas: the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Gradually, the PRC grew in power and prestige, and became known as the "real" China. Finally, in 1971 it took ROC's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Given the growing political and economic importance of the PRC in the world, most countries eventually cut diplomatic relations with the ROC in favor of those with the PRC. Now there are only a handful of countries which recognize the ROC as a sovereign state, which among other things means that Taiwanese embassies in most countries are called Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. PRC calls Taiwan a "rebellious province" and Taiwan cannot call itself an independent nation because otherwise PRC would attack it (though there are many Taiwanese who do not want Taiwan to be independent but rather a part of China). This creates a dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait: when Taiwan's president Lee Teng-hui talked about Taiwan's independence in 1995, the PRC reacted by conducting missile tests and amphibious assault exercises in the Taiwan Strait. If a conflict were to happen, it would definitely also involve the US and possibly Japan as well, causing a war we don't want to imagine, with deep global economic consequences. There is much more to Taiwan's politics than this, so if you are interested, please send me an email and I will point you to some good sources. But for now, let's see how life on Taiwan actually looks like.
  1. Garbage trucks on Taiwan drive all day long and play the same tune VERY LOUDLY ALL THE TIME: the same tune which you are listening to right now. I wonder how the garbage truck workers cope with this. Do they turn mad or do they just start ignoring it, or both? Garbage trucks in Japan also play music, but far not as loud and do not drive as chaotically all over the place.
  2. There are millions of scooters everywhere in Taiwan. Literally, they take over the streets as well as the sidewalks. There even are special lanes set up for them on the roads and they get to go first on the lights, and they park on every sidewalk.
  3. You can smell Stinky Tofu on every street in every city. I did not grow to be a big fan of it though.
  4. There are earthquakes in Taiwan almost daily. Most happen on the east coast and are small, but from time to time one causes cracks in the earth, landslides, etc. We bore witness to the landslides on many roads in the island's east.
  5. Taiwan has everything one might need: huge mountains (over 3000m), tropical forests, as well as awesome beaches. Chiang Kai-Shek indeed picked a good place to escape to.
  6. A specialty called Bethel Nuts is sold by scarcely-clad women everywhere on Taiwan. You chew on it and it is supposed to give you a high and red, "bloody" saliva. It didn't give me the high, but I definitely got the bloody saliva. The taste is something between liquorice and ginger, and is not so bad.
  7. All kinds of foods are sold in Taiwan's night markets. These markets only start living at night and sell anything from Bethel nuts to chopped goose heads and fried chicken talons.
  8. Except for the mountains, Taiwan's roads are exceptionally wide (and the speed limits exceptionally low).
  9. The waves on the east coast are enormous and surfers love them. The swimmers not so much I imagine.
  10. Taiwanese beer actually tastes very decently, though they usually only sell it in bottles, and not on tap.
  11. Local elections took place during the time when I was in Taiwan. Election posters, flyers, and flags were everywhere, and large processions of cars were driving even in the most remote, mountainous regions, playing propaganda songs in huge amplifiers. Amusing as it was, this is how Taiwan's relationship with the PRC gets to be decided. This time the pro-China party won, which will likely lead to more linking of Taiwan's economy with the PRC (
  12. Prices in Taiwan are about one third of what they are in Japan. For example, a decent restaurant meal can easily be bought for under US$5.
  13. There are beautiful red temples everywhere.
  14. After hearing the music, I hope you now understand the plight of Taiwan's garbage men!
Goose heads sold at a night market.
A woman chewing and preparing Bethel Nuts.
A view of the mountainous east coast.
The mountains in the center of the island. Notice the fog in the back.
A Sunset at a beach in Kenting, southern Taiwan.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


For some unexplained reason, on Thursday, November 11, twenty-four of you visited my blog despite the fact that I wrote absolutely nothing. In fact, I usually don’t even get twenty-four visits on a day when I publish an entry. In other words, there must be some special spell which caused twenty-four people to visit my blog despite me not writing anything. Thus first, thank you for visiting my blog! Second, when I am already at it, I may as well tell you more about the visitors of this blog, yourselves. So far, exactly six hundred different people from twenty-one different countries have visited this blog. About one third of the visitors come from the US, another almost third from the Czech Republic, and about one fifth from Japan. On average, about 240 different people visit this blog per month, of which about 130 are returning visitors. Over a half of the visitors stay on the page for longer than one minute, in other words they actually read my posts. Most people visit within three days of a new post and then the count falls to about five people per day. Thus was I really taken by surprise when twenty-four of you visited this Thursday, November 11. Again, thank you for reading, without you I would not be writing this blog! Now to the new post, which also deals with the 11/11magic, though in a different setting.

Japanese people love odd numbers. Even more do they love odd-numbered years, months, and days, and ever more so do they love them when the day and the month are both odd-numbered. And, when the two odd numbers are the same, Japanese people reach the state of extasy. Take an example: January 1, or the first day of the first month, is the day of Oshōgatsu, or New Year's. Oshōgatsu is probably the most important Japanese holiday; people usually celebrate it at their natal home with their parents, eat rice cakes, drink sake, and go to their local Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. Two months and two days later comes March 3, the third day of the third month, which hosts the so called Hinamatsuri, or Girls' day. The Japanese celebrate it by displaying dolls everywhere on red carpets and giving their daughters sweets. The fifth of May, fifth day of the fifth month, is the Japanese Children's Day, which was actually only celebrated as Boys' day until 1948 when the new Allied constitution came into effect and made women more “equal”(which in effect means that now boys are discriminated against, given only Girls get to have their own day!?). The odd-numbered craziness continues into the seventh day of the seventh month, July 7, which is known as Tanabata, meaning literally the Evening of the seventh, celebrating the meeting of the Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair) star constellations. Then, on the ninth day of the ninth month, the Japanese take a break from the trend only to celebrate twice as crazily on the eleventh of the eleventh.

Some of the many Pocky flavors.

This day, also known as St. Martin's Day in some European countries, is celebrated as Pocky Day in Japan. Pocky, which has nothing to do with Русский as one might be easily led to think, is a Japanese snack food consisting of a coated stick-shaped biscuit. The coating typically consists of chocolate, but there are flavors as varied as strawberry, green tea, honey, lemon mousse, banana, milk, coconut, royal milk tea, melon, pumpkin, tangerine, sweet azuki bean, apple yogurt, Brazilian pudding, you name it. There are also themed Pocky sticks, like the Winter Pocky coated with an especially thick layer of deliciously sweet chocolate and cocoa powder. For some reason, Pocky is one of the most popular snacks in Japan and is sold virtually everywhere. And on Pocky Day, everyone buys Pocky. In fact, basically every one of my Japanese friends I met on 11/11 bought a pack of this snack.  But why is there a Pocky day, and why on Nov 11 and not on, say, June 24th? Well, because, as I was taught by my Japanese friends, 11/11 can be imagined as four Pocky sticks arranged next to each other! Yes, like this: ||||. And why is there a Pocky Day, and why is it so popular? While I don't know the answer to that, I do have a solid theory. First, Japanese love Pocky, and on Pocky day they have a “legitimate” excuse to buy it. Second, Japanese people are a very obeying nation and when there is a nationally approved tradition, they take part in it, even if they don't like it. Third, as I wrote above, Japanese love odd-numbered days and months. Therefore, by choosing 11/11, I’d say that Glico, the company which makes the snack, picked just the right day to be the Pocky day.

Pocky Winter Edition.

Finally, I will give you a quick summary of the more interesting things I did in the past two weeks. On Sunday Nov 7, me and three other members of Doshisha’s Hiking Club climbed Mt. Ibuki (1377m), the highest mountain of Shiga prefecture. We got up while it was still dark, at 5AM, in order to reach the base of the mountain by 9. The weather was beautiful and the temperatures on top of the mountain climbed as high as 15°C, which, considering the time of the year, was awesome yet unusual. The weekend before that I went with Masa and two other friends to see a musical at the Kyoto University of Arts. The musical was part of a school festival which happens every year. There were students selling all kinds of food and drinks for folk prices, and though it was rainy, everyone seemed to be having a good time. We drank some Atsukan, or hot Sake, which was probably not a good idea as it made me sleep through the first half of the musical. The musical itself was a Japanese interpretation of Kiss me Kate, a 1950s American musical. As even the most famous songs were translated into Japanese, I didn’t understand too much, but I still was enjoying myself in the times when I was awake. To conclude the day, we went to eat dinner at Bikkuri Donkii, a fast food restaurant. Bikkuri Donkii is a chain, and each of its buildings looks like it is going to fall the second you open the door. I guess that’s the Japanese interpretation of the word rustic. Bikkuri Donkii means Surprised Donkey in English, and so we couldn’t but get their featured Surprised Donkey Burger and Surprised Donkey Fries. I hope that the only donkey they contained was in their name. Should we maybe rename the Colby Spa to Surprised Mule?

Susuki, a Japanese grass which blooms in the fall, on the slopes of Mt. Ibuki. 

That’s it for today, thank you for visiting!

Looking up Mt. Ibuki. The vending machine is there to remind us that we are still in Japan.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Wednesday Nov 3 was a national holiday in Japan, called Bunka no Hi, or Culture Day. As to why it is a national holiday, I know only that on Nov 3, 1946, the new Japanese constitution, drafted by the then occupying Americans, was announced. So as not to waste this great opportunity to escape the city, me and Masa, my Japanese friend, woke up early in order to hike up Mt. Kongo (1125m), a mountain located about 100km south of Kyoto. We took the train at 8.30 AM from the Shin-Hōsono station near my house and arrived at the base of the mountain two and a half hours and 1500 Yen later. We wasted no minute and started hiking. As culture day is one of the statistically clearest days of the year (according to Wikipedia), it should not surprise you that the weather was beautiful, with temperatures at 11°C at the base, and 5°C on the top of this holy site for both Shinto as well as the Buddhist religion.

A couple of the "500 Stairs".
We started our hike at Chihaya, a small group of houses and restaurants that are called a town, at about 500m above sea level. From Chihaya, we first climbed up the so called "500 Stairs" (more like 600, Masa did the counting), which led to Chihaya Shrine, the first of the many religious sites on the slopes of this monumental mountain. This small shrine is taken care of by two people, a nice old lady selling Oden (a soup-like food), beer, walking sticks and such in the Shrine's restaurant, and an old man who nicely rakes the sand on the shrine's grounds (to no use as people walk over it over and over). The interesting thing about this Shrine is that it used to be a Temple worshiping a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist deity) until it transformed into a Shinto shrine. 

The Flamin' Sattva. 
When we got to the top, there was, as it tends to be the trend in Japan, a restaurant, a temple, and another shrine. The temple was dedicated to, as I came to call it, the Flaming Bodhisattva, of whom there were many statues and pamphlets (Bodhisattva = a Buddhist deity). There was also a statue of a bull, a small pond, and staircase leading to the temple's main hall. While most of the visitors seemed to understand these religious symbols as yet another Buddhist site, one man in his late thirties was throwing money at one statue after another and chanting Buddhist chants as if singing, clapping his hands, and running around. I guess we all have our passions, don't we? Let's just hope he got what he came for. 

The path leading to the shrine on the top of Mt. Kongo.
The Shrine on the top was quite pretty, with the path decorated by red lanterns all the way up. Masa knows more about it, but other than one thing, I don't think it is worth any special mentioning. 
The Suntory (サントリー) stone pole among other sponsors' poles.
The one thing that is worth mentioning about the shrine is that Suntory (サントリー), one of Japan's four biggest beer makers, acts as one of the sponsors of the shrine. As such, it also gets to erect its own stone pole at the Shrine to honor its donations, one which is appropriately taller than all other poles, probably because Suntory's donation bigger in comparison. More importantly, in honor of Suntory's donations, its Malts Beer is the only beer served on tap in the restaurant on Mt. Kongo. Though I am not an economist, I daresay that the profits from the sales of Malts have probably repaid the investment in form of the donation many times over. Added with the money thrown on statues and such by people like the chanting guy I described above, religion in Japan seems to me like a good business indeed. Of course, Me and Masa also contributed indirectly to this local Shrine by buying ourselves one pint of Suntory's Malts.

Me and Masa on top of Mt. Kongo. The city behind us is Osaka.
The view was, as the bus announcer on the way to the base of the mountain told us, itsumo utsukushii, always beautiful. We could see Osaka in the west, Nara in the East, and the hundred kilometers wide Daikō Mountain Range in the south. While the leafs in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka are still quite green, those on top of Mt. Kongo were turning into beautiful shades of red, yellow, purple, and orange, making the view ever so pretty. If the temple and the two shrines were not, the view from the top of Mt. Kongo was a truly religious experience indeed.

View from Mt. Kongo, looking to the south-west.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Festival Crazy

As it does every year, this year Kyoto also hosted two major festivals on Oct 22. Because this year's Oct 22 happened to be a Friday, me and a couple of my friends decided to visit them both. First was the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), starting at noon, with an enormously long procession of people walking for about four hours through the city's streets dressed in clothing from all the ages since the year 794 when Kyoto became the capital of Japan (which it ceased to be after 1868). The procession's route led through the city center, starting at the Imperial Palace and ending at the Heian Shrine, which was actually built for this occasion. There are two things worth noting about this festival. First, it is so huge that it attracts tourists from all over Japan. So many people walk the streets dressed in various costumes that there are barely enough policemen to divert traffic and make sure that everything goes smooth. There is no way you can follow the festival because the streets are crowded, and so we just waited for it at 1.50PM at the crossing of the Karasuma and Oike streets. The whole procession passed by us in about twenty minutes and over it was. Interesting as it was, I am surprised to hear that people actually travel here from all over Japan to see this twenty minute fashion show. The second thing worth noting is that this festival is not full of volunteers who love to dress up medieval style but rather full of students who receive pay for doing so; even my Doshisha friend Masa walked the streets for hours dressed in a costume in order to receive ¥6300. I guess even the most famous festivals in Japan aren't done entirely out of people's love for their city's traditions.

The second festival, called Hi Matsuri (Fire Festival), started at 8PM in Kurama, a town in the mountains north of  Kyoto. Me and the same couple of my friends of course embarked on a trip to see the festival. We went to Demachiyanagi, the station from which a two-cart mini train leaves about twenty minutes to Kurama. We were recommended by people on the AKP staff to come at least two hours early lest we wish to wait in a line forever. So instead of going to the station so we make the train at 7.30PM, we went at five thinking how empty the place was going to be and how easily we would secure the best viewing spots. Unfortunately, it wasn't, and we didn't. The line for the mini train ride was longer than ever. We paid ¥820 (about $10) for the return ticket and waited, and waited, and waited. When it finally came to be our turn after about forty-five minutes of waiting in line, we ended up on a train where throngs of people were pressed like sardines. Pushed against people's backsides, front sides, and hands, we survived this horrible thirty minute ride and hastily left the Kurama train station, following the enormous crowd which just left the train. We followed and followed, but there was no end to that crowd. People were literally everywhere; I don't know how early they must have started coming, but it seemed as if many of them had come well before noon. There was only one tiny street where people were allowed to walk and even that street was only open in one lane because there were fires in the other lane. Yes, there were fires burning everywhere. So we went on pushing our way through the crowd until we decided that there indeed was no end to it. We couldn't see anything and were pushed from all sides by a festival-crazy mob. We turned around and, going against the never ending river of people, returned to the station. As you may guess, we weren't the only ones who thought that going back was the only sensible thing to do, and so the crowd going on the 7PM train back was as huge as the one going up, as was the line we had to wait in. ¥820 poorer, we were back where we started off by 7.30, half an hour before the festival was scheduled to begin

Agreeing that the last thing we wanted to do was to go somewhere where there were people, we sat down on the bank of Kamogawa (river flowing through Kyoto), popped a can of sake, opened a pack of supermarket sushi and dried squid, and enjoyed the lack of people. After an hour or so of just sitting at the river, a couple of musicians, a man and a woman, sat down on the stairs above us and started practicing one catchy song again and again. We stayed for a good hour or so more, enjoying the music, and when we were about to leave, we asked the two what they were about. Apparently they were  the singer and the guitarist of a starting underground rock/pop band called Maruyama Hanto Kamogawa Karuteto. They gave us their poster and invited us to their concert taking place on Nov 4. For some reason, musicians in Kyoto love to practice/perform at Kamogawa, but as most of them always hang where Kamogawa meets Shijo, Kyoto's busiest street, there are so many that you can barely distinguish among them. Because these two were playing in such an empty place, they got noticed (though just by us five people). The next morning I checked out the web page on the poster and indeed found the song which they were playing at the river. It's called Hataraku Hito (Working People) and is quite catchy. So click on the play button below and do as Dexter Holland once so famously said:

Ahhhhh, it's time to relax, 
and you know what that means, 
a glass of wine, your favourite easy chair, 
and of course this compact disc playing and your home stereo. 
So go on, indulge yourself, 
that's right, kick off your shoes, put your feet up, 
lean back and just enjoy the melodies. 
After all, music soothes even the savage beasts.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Liquor Mountain, my favorite liquor store.
Because all of my usual co-hikers bailed on me, the only mountain I climbed this past weekend was Liquor Mountain. Instead talking about that, though,I will tell you about my classes here in Kyoto and about how class research can be a lot of fun without actually including any research. Maybe some of you can get inspired.

I already told you that I am taking 9 hours a week of Japanese, nothing worth any special analysis other than an honorable mention. On top of Japanese I am also taking two other classes, Japanese Buddhism and Anthropology of Modernity. Yeah, I'd rather be taking the Joint Seminar with Doshisha students and the Japanese Film class, but Anthropology and Religion actually count toward my East Asian Studies and International Studies majors, and if I want to graduate, I have no choice but to take them. The religion class is quite interesting (as interesting as religion can get, being what it is), and the highlight of it are Friday afternoon field trips to various Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, graveyards or other religiously affiliated sites. These field trips are a great way to spend a Friday afternoon seeing the sights which I'd probably go to see anyway. This way however I get a free tour guide (i.e. our prof), and reimbursement for all expenses. The most interesting field trip so far was to Byodo-in, one of the most beautiful temples in Japan, located halfway between my house and Kyoto. To tell you how important a site it is to the Japanese, know that the outline of Byodo-in is also engraved on the 10 Yen coin. There is little I remember about the particularities of the place other than that there are two bronze phoenixes on the roof (see the picture below) which are deemed Japan's national treasures. Though I am not sure how many other national treasures there are, the phoenixes are quite elaborate, especially considering they were made about a thousand years ago. Because they are so important, the actual phoenixes are in a museum below Byodo-in, while the ones on the roof are replicas.
Byodo-in, taken from the left rather than from the front,
because everyone shoots it from the front.

Similarly, my anthropology class is as interesting as anthropology can get, but because I have been in fact conducting anthropological observations for the past more than four years simply by living abroad, I can definitely relate to many of the topics/discussions in class. We talk about all kinds of things which have to do with the word modernity in Japan. The other day we were assigned a "research" project, where we had to choose a place which should sort of relate to our readings and conduct field research there. Being conscious about my time schedule, I thought that the least time-consuming and most fun way to do my research is not to do it at all. In other words, do what I normally do and call it "research". So I submitted my proposal in which I suggested that I conduct a Friday night research in Shirokiya, my favorite bar just across the street from school. The topic of the research was to "find out whether Shirokiya is a western or more traditionally Japanese establishment in the context of our readings". Of course, because I needed to look inconspicuous while conducting my research, I justified receiving budget to buy myself some dinner and a couple of drinks. Giving the above rationale, I also justified taking a couple of my Japanese friends with me so that we look like yet another group of customers. While my "research" was supposed to take an hour and a half of work, it took me about four hours of usual Friday night fun with my friends, some good food, and a couple of free drinks paid for by the AKP. Good times.

On another note, the weather in Kyoto has been getting gradually colder, with highs at around 20°C (68F), and lows at night around 10°C (50F). The ever present haze caused by hot, humid air, which has been obstructing the view of far away places, has slowly been disappearing, and though the Ochiba (falling leaf) season is still about a month away, the leaves are slowly starting to change color. The beautiful golden rice fields, a dominant of Seika Town and its surroundings, have quickly been changing from a lively gold to a  murky brown as busy farmers reap the results of a year's work with their mini harvesters. This pleasant weather is awesome for riding my bike, which I do quite often on the days when school ends right after lunch. Last week I biked to Kamo City, about 17km (11mi) southeast from my place and was rewarded with a great view of mountains as well as half-harvested fields.
The fields in Kamo City, about 17km (11mi) from my place. Because I took it
with my phone during one of my bike rides, the resolution is quite low.

Speaking of harvesting, the Japanese surely know how to celebrate a successful harvest. Last Sunday, Oct 10, me and a couple of my friends went to see a harvest celebration at Momoyama, a town just south of Kyoto, on the way to Seika. We visited the Goryo Temple in Momoyama, which transformed that evening from a quiet meditation place into a bustling market street. All kinds of merchants were selling Japanese foods like Takoyaki (baked octopus), Okonomiyaki (see last post), and Omochi (rice cakes), as well as more western foods like fried cheese, Kebab, Wieners on a stick, and huge hamburgers. There was also a surprisingly big amount of merchants selling airsoft guns and video games. What I found the most intriguing though was a little game for kids where they would get a fish hook on a string and tried to catch eel crowded in a small tub by sticking the hook into the eels' bodies. Sometimes they would succeed, which would cause the unfortunate eel to twist, turn, screw, twiddle and tweak on the hook until it either managed to escape back into the tub or became one with the lucky kid later that evening. A successful catch would cause general applause from the kid's parents as well as other bystanders. Quite cruel a fun, if you ask me. The evening's finale came when two enormous processions of strong, sweaty men passed through the streets carrying heavy-looking Mikoshi, or portable shrines. They would sing and jump and make noise, waving the Mikoshi so wildly from side to side that I was almost certain that they were going to drop it, but they didn't. Maybe they didn't drop it because they made a refreshment stop to drink a beer and smoke a cigarette every twenty minutes or so. All in all, everybody seemed to be having loads of fun. 
The procession of men carrying the Mikoshi.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hiroshima (広島), a Modern Reminder of the Cruel Past

The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

This Thursday to Saturday, Oct 7 - 9, the AKP people organized a field trip along the southern coast of Honshu Island. We visited Bizen, a city known for its traditional pottery (what is NOT traditional in Japan these days?), Kurashiki, a city known for its traditional houses (again, right?), the city of Hiroshima, known for the atomic bombing 65 years ago, and Miyajima Island, with its Torii. I'll start from the beginning.

We left Kyoto at 8.30 in the morning on Thursday. Not by Shinkansen as the previous AKP groups used to, but by bus, because it is much cheaper and the AKP is apparently running out of money due to the historically strong yen and a weak dollar. The bus ride did have its spells, though. Mainly, because Japan is a mountainous country, we spent a good half of the trip driving through tunnels, and watching beautiful mountainous scenery while outside of the tunnels. Actually, according to Kent, Japan has the longest tunnel network of all the countries in the world (excluding Kazakhstan of course); a fact that I only came to believe after Saturday. Anyway, after three or so hours on the highway, we arrived in Bizen, known for its traditional pottery. No offense, but they were still just mugs, cups, bowls, jars, vases, chopstick holders, incense holders, candle holders, napkin holders, etc, and though pretty, they definitely deserve no special attention in this blog. The AKP people seemed to think the same as they scheduled our visit to less than an hour.

We continued west to Kurashiki, a city with a beautiful historical center full of museums and traditional shops. It is especially well known for the local delicacy called Kibidango, a sweet cake made from a powder of millet and rice. Rather than spending the beautiful sunny day in a museum, I walked along the city's Kibidango shops and enjoyed this great delicacy in its various forms. We spent the night at a hotel near the Inland Sea, which had an Ofuro (hot tub) with the view of the 13.1 km long Great Seto Bridge (Seto-Ohashi), connecting the Islands of Honshu and Shikoku through a series of smaller islands.

Early the next morning we continued on to Hiroshima, the supposed highlight of the whole trip. Hiroshima today is known for two things. First is the atomic bombing of Aug 6, 1945, and second is Okonomiyaki, a delicious pancake-like meal. I will start with the atomic bomb. As you may well imagine, the explosion released by the fission of approximately 1kg of Uranium 235 transformed Hiroshima from a booming military outpost into radioactive hell within mere seconds. Sixty thousand people died on the spot, with over a hundred thousand following them within the next year, and even more dying untimely due to leukemia and such caused by radiation poisoning. I could go on talking about the reasoning behind and morality of throwing the Little Boy on Hiroshima and the Fat Man on Nagasaki, but because enough has been said by others, I would rather talk about the city itself. Obviously, because sixty-five years ago Hiroshima was virtually erased from Earth's surface, there are no buildings older than that. That doesn't mean, however, that the new city was not built according to the old plans. In fact, it has the same narrow streets and cool houses with funky Asian roofs, the old castle was rebuilt to its old image, and the old bridges look the same as they did before that one horrible August morning. The only building which was not rebuilt is the Atomic Bomb Dome, today a peace monument and the main symbol of Hiroshima. The Dome, built in 1915 by the Czech architect Jan Letzel, was the only building close to the hypocenter of the atomic explosion which did not entirely collapse. Now it serves as a grim memory of what happened and is only maintained to look exactly the same way it did after the explosion. It indeed carries a strong message: as you watch Hiroshima's panorama of new, tall, glass-metal buildings, the view of this dreary ruin in the back is sure to give you goose bumps. Because it was raining all day long, I also went to the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum, which was interesting though I didn't learn anything new. We also got a lecture by an atomic bomb survivor (Hibakusha). It was a woman in her late seventies with some serious scars on her body as well as her soul, and her story was truly sad. But enough of that. The second thing that Hiroshima is famous for is Okonomiyaki, a grilled pancake (yaki) with anything you like inside (okonomi). What makes Hiroshima Okonomiyaki special is that they add buckwheat noodles (soba) inside it, and make it on a huge bar-like oven right in front of you. The one I got was so huge and thick that I was barely able to eat it, and cost only some ¥800, or $10.
Okonomiyaki in the process of being made.

That same rainy evening we took the ferry to the Miyajima Island, just off the coast of Hiroshima. The Island is famous for its Torii (Shinto gate), which stands partly in the sea and is accessible by foot during low tide and by boat during high tide. It is also famous for the local sweet called Momiji Manju, a maple leaf-shaped pastry with sweet filling. Most interestingly, though, there are numerous deer everywhere, roaming the island freely and begging tourists for food. Because they are supposed to be manifestations of some sort of Kami (Shinto god), they are not to be killed. In other words, if I were a deer, I would live in Miyajima, the deer paradise. Despite having little time and despite (or perhaps because of) the fame of Miyajima’s Torii, the Momiji Manju factories and such, me and a couple of my friends decided to hike the highest peak on the island, Mt. Misen, instead. Sadly it was raining, and so we didn't get much view from the top of this 535m tall mountain. However, there was a restaurant on top of the mountain (it's Japan, remember?), and the above-mentioned deer were roaming inside!!! the restaurant as if it were theirs. Many a Czech restaurant would pay loads of money to have delicious Goulash meat coming right through their doorstep, I reckon. But again, these deer are gods, right, and therefore cannot be killed. We hiked down, ate some Momiji Manju, and embarked on the 7 hour journey back to Kyoto. It was a worthy trip, not to mention free.
The Torii in Miyajima, with a couple of newlyweds. Notice the two deer.

On another note, I’m sorry for making this entry so long. I know I promised to keep them shorter because otherwise no one bothers to read them. I just couldn't help it, sorry. Oh yes, please comment! I love comments, they’re great! They make this blog much more interesting. They make me want to write more. So please, comment! :)

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Even the commercial suggests that you be green! Be green and KAYAK across the Pacific! :D
In case you guys want to come for a visit and don't have enough money to make the trip, or want to be green and thus don't want to fly, you can just ask Google to tell you how to get from Waterville to Kyoto. All you have to do is drive to the West Coast, and KAYAK across the Pacific Ocean, preferably with a layover in Hawaii :D At least so says Google. I wonder when winter comes and the northern seas freeze over, whether Google will also suggest the alternative route, that is hiking across Alaska and the frozen Bering Strait into Russia and then walk over from Sakhalin to Hokkaido over the frozen Okhotsk Sea. In case you want to embark right away but don't have the time to look at the map, I marked the most important waypoints for you on the map above!
Courtesy of Jirina Laburdova.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The panorama of Kyoto from Daimonji, taken exactly from the center of the 大.

The one thing that I find the most exciting about Japan is its physical landscape. You might wonder why I didn't say food, girls, manga, kimonos, shrines, temples, high-tech robots, or something like that; all these things are great, but the greatest thing about Japan is that there are mountains almost everywhere you look. Mountains cover most of the country and envelop small strips of flatlands around the coastline, where most of the major Japanese cities are located. Surrounded by mountains, the size of Japanese cities is determined exactly by where these mountains begin, which is also probably why everything in Japan is so small, with many things packed into small spaces. This Japanese flatland-mountain divide creates a sharp contrast between everything urban and everything not urban, to which Kyoto is no exception. This topographic feature makes it really easy for me to get out of the city whenever I feel like it, and because I am not known to be a stubborn city dweller, I feel like it quite often.

So far, I have hiked to the top of three mountains (or hills, considering neither of them topped 1000m (3300 ft). The weekend before the last I hiked up the Daimonji Mountain with Becca, an American friend of mine. Daimonji , written 大文字, literally means “Chinese character for great” (). In other words, there is a huge “Great” () carved into the mountain and it can be seen from very far away, including Doshisha’s Imadegawa campus, which is where I go to school. It shouldn’t then surprise you that when I first noticed this mountain, I knew I had to hike it. Interestingly enough, there are four other such mountains with different characters on them scattered around Kyoto, and all of them can be seen from the center of city. In the night of Aug 16, as a culmination of the famous Obon festival, the five characters are lit up and literally burn for about thirty minutes. Unfortunately, I won’t be here to see this spectacle. The view from Daimonji was amazing, and the Kyoto Tower, which I went up several weeks ago during orientation, looked like a tiny needle in an enormous haystack.

This Saturday, me and Kohei, a Japanese friend of mine living in the neighborhood, went on a short bike ride. Or so we thought. We left my house at around 11am and biked to the mountains just east of Seika (my town, remember?). Instead of returning in an hour or two, we took about four and a half. We biked east through Seika’s rice fields, across the Kizugawa River, and into the mountains covered with bamboo forests and tea fields which surround the cedar-covered peaks of the Yamashirocho Forest Park. The roads there are very narrow and there are barely any cars in them, which exemplifies the contrast between urban and not urban in Japan that I mentioned in the beginning. We biked through the park and got to a sign which said 三上山 (Sanjo Mtn) 5km. Thinking that 5km would take no time on a bike, we took the road to Sanjo. After a while it became impossible to bike because the road changed into a small, steep forest path. We locked our bikes and started hiking (even though no one actually steals bikes in Japan, locking them is a cultural necessity). Obviously no one took this path in a while because we ended up having to hike with a long stick in front of us in order not to get covered by huge, sticky spider webs every other step (but just every fourth). When we got to the top, it was already 1pm, but the view was absolutely worth it. We could see Seika to the west below us, and mountains to the east behind us, a gorgeous view. We enjoyed the view for a while, took a picture, and left. Interestingly enough, neither Kohei nor anyone from my host family, though they’re all native to the area, have ever been to the Yamashirocho Forest Park or to Sanjo. It’s funny that the locals need a foreign tourist with them to finally discover the beauties of their own neighborhood.

On Sanjo, we met a man who recommended us two other mountains to hike, Mt Atago and Mt Kurama. Me, Becca and Masa (short for Masakazu, another Japanese friend of mine), hiked up Mt Atago the next day.  With its 924 meters above sea level, Mt Atago is more than twice as tall as the four-hundred-something Daimonji and Sanjo. Similar to Daimonji, Atago is a popular weekend destination and therefore full of people like the three of us, desiring to escape the city’s grasp for at least an afternoon. The amount of people hiking up and down the mountain actually makes the hike feel like walking up a tilted Champs-Élysées, with trees instead of old buildings and with a Shinto shrine on top instead of the Arch of Triumph. In fact, many people visit the shrine on top to pray to the Kami (Japanese “gods”) and buy all kinds of talismans and other trinkets for considerable sums of money. Masa bought himself a plain piece of paper for seven hundred yen, the equivalent of 8 USD. Apparently it was blessed. The view from Atago is even better than from Daimonji in terms of distance, but you can’t see too far in general because of the ever-present haze surrounding much of Japan during the hotter months. We hiked down a different route, which, for a change, led through a Buddhist temple.

If the weather forecast is right, it should rain in Kyoto this weekend, and so my hiking will probably be either suspended or quite wet. The latter will likely be the outcome. I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Japan in Bullet Points

Me, Okaasan, and Otousan at the Welcome Party

My host family's name is Iwai (岩井), but if I want to be polite. I must say Iwai san. There are three people in the family: my host mom Kimiko, my host dad Akira, and my host sister Tomoko. They also have a son, Atsushi, but he is happily married and currently living in Tokyo with his expectant wife. As you may guess, I do not call my host family (except for Tomoko) by their first names, but rather Okaasan (お母さん) and Otousan (お父さん), mom and dad. My host parents are both born around the year 1950, and my host sister is 28 years old. They also have and old German shepherd called Coco, who always barks loudly when anyone comes in or leaves through the front door. They have been great so far and really helpful with everything. Okaasan cooks great food every day for dinner, such as Katsudon, Miso soup, Karaage, Curry, and other delicious meals. She also does the laundry every day(!) for the whole family, myself included. On Saturday, Okaasan and Otousan gave me Okaasan's old cell phone and helped me get a plan. Even though the phone is "old", it is still much better than any phone I have ever owned in my life, and it’s free. In fact, there are no shitty phones sold in Japan; I guess it's just culturally unacceptable.

When I said we live in a house, I sort of understated things. The Iwai have two houses. One house which they live in, and one in which I live. Yes, I do have a whole house for myself, and yes, it is great. The only slight problem is that my house does not have a bathroom, and so I have to go to the big house. We live in a town called Seika, located about 30km south of Kyoto city, or about an hour train ride. Therefore every day I spend two hours in transit, which is sort of a pain. On the bright side, it means that I have two hours a day to actually do the readings for my classes. Also, my house is situated about three meters away from the train tracks of two different companies (three tracks in total), so approximately every five minutes my whole house starts shaking as if there were an earthquake. Finally, I bike every day to the train station (about five minutes away), and park my bike in a parking lot not different from the ones in Helsinki.

At school I am taking a Japanese class, an anthropology class about modernity in Japan, and a class about religion in Japan. The latter involves a weekly field trip to a temple, which should be awesome. The latter two are of course conducted in English. These two classes meet on Mondays and Wednesdays, which gives me some time off on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I only have Japanese. Finally, I have already made quite a lot of Japanese friends, which is great, because having them is helpful. Also, they are quite different people from for example Americans, of whom I have been seeing one too many in the past two years (no offense to any of you who are reading this!). My point is that Japanese people are quiet, polite, and respectful. That's it for the boring stuff, and now let's go ahead with the bullet points that you've all been so impatiently waiting for (if you haven't started with them)!

PS: Sorry for the length of this entry, I know long entries are boring. I'll make it shorter next time, I promise!

  1. There are vending machines EVERYWHERE in Japan, even in the middle of a bamboo forest.
  2. People wait in lines to get into the metro (this goes for both Kyoto and Sapporo).
  3. Bikes are allowed on the sidewalks, which is a super scary experience for pedestrians.
  4. Commercial beer in Japan is better than commercial beer in America (though worse than in Czech).
  5. In case you didn't know, cars drive on the left,.
  6. You do not tip in restaurants.
  7. Humbleness is the way: even if you are really good at something, you must say that you are not.
  8. There are free public bathrooms everywhere (Actually, bathrooms deserve a separate entry).