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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.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gone with the Sakura

Starting approximately the week of Apr 4, Kyoto's famous cherry trees started to bloom. Called Sakura (桜 or 櫻) in Japanese, they are as much a symbol of Japan as sushi is. Since the time of the Heian-kyo, which is how the city of Kyoto was called in the early medieval, many poets and artists have tried to express the beauty of the Sakura on paper. I will be less poetic, and instead of writing a poem I will portray the beauty of the Sakura in the .jpg form at the end of this post. Let me first, however, explain a little more about these curious cherry trees.

It is really difficult to explain how much Kyoto changed during the first week of April. From a slightly grey, misty, cold old lady, the city transformed nearly instantaneously into a pink, warm, blooming beauty as the cherry blossoms popped out of their buds almost overnight. Literally, everything in the city became pink. Everywhere I rode the train, I could see pink cherry blossoms beautifying the landscape. Every shrine and every temple, every street, every school, every backyard, every mountain, both banks of the Kamo river, everything was pink.

Before and during the Sakura season, the weather forecasts included predictions of when the Sakura would start blooming in a particular region. Because Japan is a big country spread over a large vertical distance, the Sakura do not bloom in all parts at the same time. They first start blooming in the warm Okinawa, then in the central regions where Kyoto is, and then slowly make their way to the north of the country.

The day that the cherry trees started blooming in Kyoto, the mood in the city turned around. People of all ages and all occupations, be they university students, housewives, or salary men in their sixties, went out where the cherry trees were, engaging in an activity called Hanami, or "Looking at the Blossoms." When I heard this phrase for the first time, I thought that nothing could be more boring than staring at blooming trees; how wrong was I. Let me describe to you what Hanami is really about.

In my opinion, Hanami (花見), looking at the flowers, should be renamed to Hananomi (花飲み), or drinking under the flowers. Literally, crowds of people of all ages set up blue plastic tarts under the blooming trees at major shrines and temples, around the Kamo river, at the Imperial Palace, and other popular places, bringing lots of food and alcohol, and drinking until late in the night. Hundreds of food stalls emerged around the main cherry-viewing spots, selling everything from okonomiyaki, takoyaki, teriyaki, taiyaki, oden, sausages, and noodles, to sweets and alcohol. No one cared whether it was Saturday or Wednesday, and if they had to go to work tomorrow or not. Today the Sakura are here, and tomorrow they may not be. If the winds are strong or it it rains too much, the blossoms could fall down in a few minutes.

Their impermanence is the worst as well as the best thing about the Sakura. The worst thing about their impermanence is that their beauty does not last. The best thing about their impermanence is exactly the same; if the blossoms did last, no one would ever appreciate their beauty so much. This idea is deeply rooted in the minds of many Japanese, a philosophy called mono no aware, which literally means something like "the pathos of things." Everything is impermanent, everything will die, which is also what makes it beautiful. Literally, the blossoms disappeared as fast as they came. First, everything was grey. One day, every tree was pink. Three days later, the ground was pink as well, because the Sakura leaves started falling down. Another three days later, the show was close to being over. See you next year, Sakura. The Japanese know this very well and waste no time to see the Sakura trees in full bloom.

Companies sell special Sakura edition foods, which are often no different from the usual products except that they have a pink wrapping instead of their usual color. A good example are the special Sakura beer editions, which feature pink blossoms on the can but the beer inside tastes the same. Sakura themselves can also be used as a food. Pickled in salt, they are put into tea or used to decorate traditional Japanese sweets. The fact that they are pickled in salt, however, means that they only smell nice, but taste horrible. Pickling the Sakura is only a meager attempt to preserve these amazing blossoms which are gone before you even notice that they are there.

Appropriately enough, my time in Japan will be gone with the Sakura. As the last lonely pink leaves fall to the ground, my eight-month long stay in Kyoto will come to an end. Next Wednesday, I will be gone from the amazing place which the city of Kyoto is. The eight months here indeed felt like the life of a Sakura: beautiful, interesting, and very short. What did I learn, how did I change, and what will come next? Did I make the best out of the time here? I assume that the pages of this blog can tell you better than I. Before I leave for Prague, though, I will try to write one more post concerned with exactly the above questions.

At the beginning of the last month of her stay in Argentina, my friend Kayla wrote in her blog that she had thirty beautiful sunsets above Buenos Aires left to watch from her apartment house's balcony. She also said that she must do the best with these thirty days because they will never repeat. I will now go and do exactly that during my last week in Japan. See you on the other side.

A great example of Sakura alcoholic beverages . Orion beer, sold in Okinawa, even made a special commercial for its Sakura special edition cans. The beer tastes the same, but the can has cherry blossoms on it.  The music is actually Cojaco, the artist whom I met in Okinawa.

New friends that I made during one of my walks through the Imperial Palace. They were doing Hanami and asked me if I wanted to join. I did, and we have been hanging out ever since. The trees in the back are actually peach trees, and not cherries. They last longer, but are not considered to be as beautiful. The Chinese, on the other hand, cherish their longevity.

A little UWC reunion: my friend Minami from Pearson came to Kyoto and we met under the Sakura trees. It was lovely.

A night light up of Sakura in Maruyama Park, downtown Kyoto.

This is what Hanami is all about: drinking and eating under the trees. The signs advertise Oden (an indescribable but delicious food), and Soba and Udon (types of noodles).

A detail of Sakura.

The Philosopher's Path, Kyoto.

A scene at the Kamo River. Notice the birds as well as the Sakura on all four of the banks.

Weeping Cherries at the Nijo Castle, Kyoto.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Before you start reading, please turn up your speakers and play the song below.

What you are listening to is an Okinawan three-stringed instrument called Sanshin, something very similar to the Japanese Shamisen, except that it is covered with snake skin and not cat skin. The singer is an Okinawan artist who calls herself Cojaco, who I met in one of the many "Live Music Bars" (Raibu Myuujikku Baa) of  Naha, Okinawa's capital. The song is called Umui Uta, which is a mix of Okinawan and Japanese meaning "A Song Filled With Thoughts". 

During our first night in Naha, me, Irene, and Sakura, a new friend of ours, decided that since we were in Okinawa, we should listen to some live Sanshin music. The same night we visited a live music bar which advertised a free beer upon entry (of course after we paid an entry fee which cost the same as two beers). As it turned out, entering that bar was one of the best decisions of our Okinawan trip.

As we entered, we indeed received our three free beers, and a little later the music performance started. A tall Okinawan woman in her early thirties and a man of a similar age with curly long hair, very unusual for a Japanese man, appeared on the stage. As we later found out, the woman's name was Cojaco, and the man's name Kaworu. They played a variety of Okinawan songs, mostly of their own production, for about thirty minutes. During this whole time, people were singing along, and the overall atmosphere was just amazing. A slightly drunk man in his early sixties was supporting the couple with a very loud voice, obviously enjoying their music more than everyone else. For this whole time, the three of us were clapping and trying to sing along, even though we did not know the lyrics.

During the whole performance, I was waiting for the two to start singing the song which was the real reason why I entered the bar. The song I wanted to hear was Shima Uta, a 1993 piece by the Japanese group BOOM, and perhaps my most favorite Japanese song of all times. When the performance was over and they still did not sing it, I shouted out in Japanese: Please sing Shima Uta! Maybe because they were surprised by a foreigner who could not only ask for a song but who also knew what he wanted to hear, the two pleased me with an encore in the form of Shima Uta. When the musicians finally left the stage after my standing ovations, the bar emptied quickly. In a few minutes, there was no one left except for the three of us, the older man, his wife, and a few other people. Suddenly, the couple emerged from the backstage area and started selling their CD, called Umui Uta.

As they got closer, the older man, obviously a large fan of theirs, shouted out to the waitress: "Beer for the musicians, please!" Before long, Cojaco and Kaworu were sitting with the man and his wife, drinking the beer which the man paid for. I took up my courage, and asked if I could join them. "Of course," they said. As usual, I was asked how a white man like myself speaks such good Japanese, then asked how many years I have been living in Japan, and where I am from. When I said that I was Czech, I received the usual reaction: "You are the first Czech person that I have met," or something like that. I ordered another beer (my fourth, because the girls each gave me their free one), and the conversation went on.

As it turned out, the older man was a graduate of Doshisha University in Kyoto, the school which me and Irene go to. He and his wife met in Kyoto, going on dates to the many of the  beautiful city's temples, and are always happy to come back there. It is a Japanese custom that older classmates, Senpai, pay for the drinks of their younger classmates, Kouhai. It is almost a necessity required by the society. Thus he said that we are free to order whatever we wanted, and he would pay. His wife, to my surprise, was supporting her husband in his spending. "He has to do it," she said, and ordered another beer for me, despite my glass being almost full.

The conversation continued, and I got to talk to Kaworu, who let me try to play his Sanshin, without me even asking for it. He and Cojaco showed me how to hold it, and I was enjoying this precious moment to its fullest. We also took a group picture, with me holding Kaworu's Sanshin, and I bought Cojaco's signed CD. They also taught me some phrases in the Okinawan language, which made me realize ever so more that there was a time when Okinawa was not a part of Japan. We drank and talked until the man's wife decided that her husband has had enough, and said that he has to go home. They paid the bill, and we parted ways.

Top row from the left: Our new friend Sakura, Cojaco, generous older man's wife, generous older man, Kaworu.
Bottom row from the left: Me with the Sanshin (notice the snake skin), Irene.

There are a few things which you should learn by reading the above anecdote and listening to the song. First, Okinawan music very often involves the Sanshin. Second, Okinawan people are very open-hearted. Third, there is a Japanese custom to pay for younger subordinates in bars and restaurants, and to require them to drink quite heavily.

So what else is there to Okinawa? Okinawa, also known as the Ryukyu Archipelago, is a set of islands to the south-west of mainland Japan. Okinawa used to be a country of its own, called the Ryukyu Kingdom, until Japan annexed it in 1879. Even now there is an independence movement in Okinawa. Okinawans have their own language, which is however fading quickly, and its today's version resembles Japanese with an accent and a few different words. Okinawa has a very sad history, as it was the only place in Japan where fighting took place during the WW2. Over two hundred thousand people died there during the final months of the battle, including women and children. Many chose to commit suicide rather than be taken by the Americans. After the War, the Americans occupied the Ryukyu Islands until 1972. Okinawa was officially an American territory, the US dollar was used, and cars drove on the right. Even though the Americans returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972, one fifth of the main island still remains under US control in the form of military bases. The bases remained in Okinawa for two main reasons. First, the US is obliged to protect Japan in case of War. Second, Okinawa is very close to major East Asian cities, like Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, Manila, Hong Kong, Beijing, and others, giving the US a strategic advantage in case of armed conflict.

It suffices to say that US soldiers stationed in Okinawa do not always behave like gentlemen. There have been cases of rape and murder, and since 1950, over one thousand Okinawans died because of American presence. Many Okinawans despise the US military presence on their island, though at the same time they realize that it helps to keep peace in East Asia. The bases are thus a very controversial topic, and some will likely disappear in the near future.

The reason why I went to Okinawa was, other than to enjoy the vista of blooming Deigo trees and sunny beaches, to learn about Okinawa's history and see what kind of presence the US military has in Okinawa. To do so, I first went on a bus tour of the southern part of Okinawa which was focused on former military sites or other WW2-related topics. I had the chance to enter some of the tunnels where Japanese and Okinawan soldiers were hiding and where many died or committed suicide. I also visited the Himeyuri peace memorial, dedicated to 240 medical school female students who were forced to treat injured and dying soldiers in horrendous conditions and of whom over three quarters were killed on the run after their unit was dismantled. I also visited the Okinawa peace memorial where the names of all soldiers fallen in Okinawa during the war are written, independently of their nationality. Seeing all of the above, it became obvious to me that Okinawans do not want the terrible history to repeat itself.

Some of the tunnels where Japanese and Okinawan soldiers were hiding before the end of WW2 and where many found their deaths.

The Okinawa Peace Memorial.

Despite the past occupation and the current military presence, or maybe exactly because of it, Okinawans love American food and other products. Many American goods can be bought in Okinawa, American steakhouses are probably the most popular of all restaurants, and many American chains which do not appear in mainland Japan (for example A&W) have a large presence in Okinawa. At the same time, however, the customers of the above establishments seem to be largely Japanese or Okinawans. I found it very surprising that there are actually very few American soldiers present in the city of Naha and its surroundings. The soldiers generally live near their bases so that they do not have to commute too far every day.

A store in Naha selling imported American goods. I bought myself a can of A&W Root Beer.

A poster in front of a Live Music Bar in Naha. The woman on the left is holding a pig head.

Jasmine tea, or Sanpin Cha, is an Okinawan specialty which can be bought in any of Okinawa's omnipresent vending machines. Notice the lion-like creature on the label. It's called the Shisa and is Okinawa's symbol.

Finally, me and Irene also went to the castle in Naha, which was also destroyed by American bombing during WW2 and rebuilt in the 1970s. We also cooled our feet in the almost pleasantly warm Pacific ocean, and tried some Habu sake. Habu sake features the Habu, an Okinawan poisonous snake, which is submerged into the alcohol (either straight alive or dead and gutted), supposedly giving the drink medicinal properties. Habu sake is sold in bottles which have the snake in them, and you can eat it if you wish. We also went whale watching, checked out some amazing caves with beautiful rock formations, and generally enjoyed the blooming paradise which Okinawa is.

Bottles of Habu Sake.

The main building in the Okinawan castle. We did not want to pay the ridiculous 800 Yen ($10) for entrance, and so I climbed up on a castle wall and took a picture of it for free.

Caves in Okinawa.

A beach in Okinawa.

Okinawan Soba, the island's traditional noodle dish.

Detail on an Okinawan roof. They are traditionally made of red brick and create an amazing atmosphere. This one is the roof of a Buddhist temple wall in Naha. Please note that the reversed Swastika is a Buddhist symbol, and Japan is full of them.

A sunset in Okinawa.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Korea Part 2

As promised, here is the second part of my Korea journal. Sorry for the note format, but there is too much to be said and too little time to do it. I also do not guarantee a 100 per cent accuracy of what I wrote as I received much of the info from unverified sources, such as locals who spoke miserable English or Japanese. Next week I will try to post a more sophisticated post on Okinawa, which was amazing.

Korea in general:
  1. All Korean food includes Kimchi (fermentred spicy cabbage), and some type of hot sauce.
  2. Tap water in Korea is not drinkable. 
  3. Korean drinks of choice are Soju (about 20% alc. clear liquid made of rice tasting like watered down vodka) and Makkori (a thick, almost soup-like rice wine, 5 - 10% alc.).
  4. Drivers in Korea will kill you if you don't pay attention, even if you're crossing on a green light. They also honk all the time for no apparent reason.
  5. Motorcycles often drive on sidewalks in Korea (!).
  6. Even in the more legitimate stores, such as Family Mart and 7/11 and other international chains, they often do not put up price tags. This sucks especially if you are a tourist because the shopkeepers often try to charge you double the usual price.
  7. Housing in Korea is quite monotonous. There are tall apartment houses stuffed one next to another, all looking the same in every city, all with numbers on them, like this: 100, 101, 102, ..., 155, ...
  8. Koreans are mostly Christian (as opposed to Japanese who are Shinto and Buddhist), and their churches feature neon crosses, ads, and such. When you drive in Korea at night, along with Family Mart signs you see red neon crosses all over the place.
  9. According to linguists, the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is one of the most sophisticated, efficient, and scientific alphabets in the world. I can add that it is also very easy to learn to read (took me about two hours).
A Christian sect recruiting people in the middle of the street in Seoul. Many Koreans are Christian, and there are many churches in Korea. When the night falls, the churches light up neon crosses (!) and signs to attract attention. My most favorite was one which said "Strong Jesus".

A FREE bus for foreigners from Kyeongju to Seoul. All buses in Korea seem to have huge, luxurious seats, and yet cost very little money.

Seoul (Day 1, 2, and 7):
  1. Seoul is the second largest metropolis on the planet, has twenty million people.
  2. You can smell the sewer in many places in Seoul and the rest of Korea.
  3. There are many palaces in Seoul, the most famous one being the Gyeongbok palace, which was burnt down by the Japanese in 1598 and then rebuilt later. (One more reason for Koreans to love Japan...)
  4. Public transport is quick, clean, efficient, and CHEAP. The most expensive ride we took was about $1.
  5. Of all the places we went in Korea, Seoul was probably the least attractive.
    The Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul.
DMZ (Day 2):
  1. Patrolled by two million South Korean soldiers.
  2. You can only enter the DMZ as part of a tour.
  3. Along the Freedom Highway which leads to the DMZ, there is a river on the left which is barricaded by a huge barbed wire fence and a soldier post every 100m - just in case of an invasion from the North.
  4. As you enter the DMZ, the bridge which leads to it is obstructed with barricades every 20m or so, making it impossible to drive straight - smart way to slow down tanks and artillery.
  5. No pictures of North Korea allowed.
  6. They sell North Korean alcohol and stamps in the DMZ. Though very expensive, the lager I drank was pretty good (7/10 on my beer scale, somewhere around Kirin beer or Bass Ale).
  7. There have been four tunnels found so far which North Korea dug in the past to invade the south, we visited one of them.
  8. UN soldiers cross the border every day to ensure the safe crossing of 900 (!) South Korean managers which work in the North as part of unification-cooperation efforts. North Korean labor is five times as cheap as Chinese.
  9. The south propagates the DMZ as a great natural protection area where many endangered species live.
This is as close as we were allowed to take a picture of North Korea. The mountains in the back are North Korea.

North Korean beer that they were selling on the border. Very expensive ($5 per bottle), and surprisingly very tasty!

Jeju Island (Day 2, 3, 4):
  1. Called Korea's Hawai, Jeju is the biggest island of South Korea. There is a huge volcano, Mt Halla, in the middle. Mt Halla is South Korea's tallest mountain.
  2. The approx. one hour long plane ride from Seoul to Jeju cost us as little as $30. Cheaper than even just getting to the airport in Japan.
  3. Jeju is a volcanic island and thus has many volcanic traits. Most of the rocks on the island are of volcanic origin, have air bubbles in them, and thus float! There are also ENORMOUS lava tunnels beneath the surface as well as other minor volcanic formations, such as six-sided rock crystals.
  4. Jeju is famous for the yellow Rape Flower (no puns intended), which is used to prodce oil. They also sell Rape Honey (again, no puns intended).
  5. The sea water in Jeju is beautifully clear, which however does not apply to the beaches.
  6. Oranges and coconuts are Jeju's major products.
Six-sided rocks on Jeju Island. There are similar ones in the Czech Republic.

Probably the most amazing thing that I have ever seen in my life. On Jeju, there are tens of kilometres of enormously wide lava tunnels under the ground, and some are lit up for tourists to enter.

A scene in Jeju. The mountain in the back is Mt Halla, the highest peak of South Korea. The statues, made of the floating rock I described, were everywhere in Jeju.
 Pusan (Also written as Busan; Day 5):
  1. Pusan is Korea's number two city in terms of size and importance after Seoul.
  2. It is located on the Southeastern coast, and is, along with the near city of Ulsan, one of the places where Korea produces its famous ships and where Koreans ship their cars, LCD TVs etc. into the rest of the world. In other words, Pusan IS South Korea's economy.
  3. The city is divided into tiny "noodles" by ranges of 500-800m tall mountains.
  4. Because it is on the sea, Pusan is famous for its raw fish. We tried it and it was delicious.
  5. As opposed to Seoul, no one really speaks English or Japanese in Pusan, which makes it very hard to get by, especially considering that price tags are usually not present.
This one picture tells you everything you need to know about Pusan. It captures the beautiful Pusan port as seen from the ugly Pusan tower. Notice the MANY ships waiting at the sea to get permission to dock. This is Pusan.

Kyongju (also written Gyongju or Gyeongju; Day 6):
  1. Korea's oldest city.
  2. There are many mounded tombs (Kofun) of kings from as far as the 6th century in the city. This is very similar to the ancient Japanese capital of Nara (close to Kyoto).
  3. The "historical center" of Kyongju is one big shopping area full of McDonalds, Pizza Huts, Alpine Pro stores, Merell stores, and the like. A little disappointment to me, to be honest.
  4. Famous for the nearby Bulguksa temple.
Kofun (mounded tombs) in Kyeongju.

The famous Bulguksa Temple near Kyongju. Beautiful.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Korea Part 1

The one and only preview picture, just to wet your apetite. This one captures a scene from Jeju Island.

Last week me and three of my AKP friends went on a trip to South Korea as a part of our spring break. We visited the country's capital city, Seoul, and then made our way to its largest island, Jeju. From there we went to Pusan, the number two city and number one port in Korea, and to Kyeongju, Korea's oldest city. We also visited the famous Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which marks the border between South and North Korea.

South Korea is Japan's closest neighbor, and just like Japan, over seventy percent of its territory consists of mountains. There are many other similarities between Japan and Korea. Korea's capital, Seoul, is the second largest metropolitan area in the world after Tokyo, with its roughly twenty million people comprising about half of the country's population. Korea is also a large producer of cars, ships, and modern electronics, and serves, just like Japan, as a large base for American troops in East Asia. Korean pop music is very popular in Japan, as are Korean food and alcohol. The two languages, despite having a different writing system and other differences, are related and many words are pronounced the same. However, there are also many differences between Japan and Korea.

First and foremost, Japan occupied Korea between 1910 and 1945, which causes occasional bitterness in the two countries' relations even now. Second, I noticed in Korea that there is an incredibly large military presence as compared to mainland Japan (not counting Okinawa with its many American bases). Literally, there are soldiers everywhere you go. Spending eleven percent of its GDP on the military and having a compulsory two year military enrollment for males, South Korea is one of the most militarized countries in the world. That is because, as hopefully most of you know, the Korean peninsula is divided into two parts, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the North (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South. This division was a result of the Korean War which reached a stalemate in 1953 but on paper, however, it never ended. The countries are divided at roughly the 38th paralel by a four kilometer wide line called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which is ironically the most militarized place on the planet (just like the DPRK is probably the least democratic place in the world). The North Korean side of the DMZ contains so much artillery that it could annihilate the city of Seoul within three minutes. The south Korean side hosts two million heavily armed soldiers and at least seven million land mines ready to defend the country from an invasion by the North. South Korea has about twice the population of North Korea, and a twenty times higher GDP per capita.

That is enough about Korea's history, now let me tell you what I did and what I found interesting about the country. Because my posts of late tend to be too long, I will give you bullet points to each place, just like I did in the case of Taiwan. However, because I have little time now as I have to catch a place to Okinawa, I will post those later. For now, enjoy this post.