Ode to Tokyo – Part 2

Back for round two!

If you didn’t read Ode to Tokyo – part 1, please check out the previous post.

Quite the weekend I just had; me and a few friends headed down to Zushi on Sunday and hit the beach.  A nice one too!  Relatively speaking anyway – no palm trees or tiny huts offering massages like in Thailand, but nice cool water, plenty of people to meet, drinks and food easily accessible and perfect weather, which brings me to number 11…

The Weather:

Tokyo’s weather is generally pretty nice.  Some people will undoubtedly debate this point, but as I count cycling as one of my hobbies, I notice when and how often I can go out.  Discounting June, which is rainy season (but very nice when it’s not raining), and maybe January which is actually pretty cold, I can get out on the bike nearly year-round.  And if it’s nice enough for cycling, I figure it qualifies as pretty good weather.

August can get pretty hot and very humid, but it’s not the Sahara and there’s air-conditioning almost everywhere, despite the “save electricity” campaign going on since the Fukushima reactors were taken out.
Get a hat, t-shirt, shorts and sandals, or a Japanese “Jimbe” or “Yukata”, and you’re set.  Besides which, I just can’t bring myself to hate summer.

As I write this it’s 30 degrees outside with 66% humidity, so it “feels” like 34.  I don’t mind.  One sticky point is that this year does seem abnormally hot for so early, it’s only July 5th, and with Tokyo being on more than a few “places that will disappear because of global warming” lists, I’d come visit sooner rather than later if you’re so inclined (hint, hint).

Even imagining the worst possible weather for the whole year, Tokyo has over 8 months of useable outside time, as opposed to my home country, Canada, where I hear it’s still minus 20, if the Americans are to be believed.

The Bars:

The bars here vary incredibly.  It seems like a hobby of sorts for middle-aged men here to start up a bar, so there are thousands of tiny little 8-to-20-people bars around.  Most of them serve some variety of Japanese food and cater to local regulars, but you’re more than welcome to drop in and check out the ambiance while sipping your favourite beverage.  Hopping from station to station, you can explore the tiny streets around almost any station and when your feet get tired, have a seat, grab some yaki-tori (grilled chicken) and a pint.

If the little street bars aren’t your style, there’s a Japanese phenomenon known as the izakaya.  This translates roughly to “relaxed-atmosphere-Japanese-booze-and-food-fun-place”.  Nobody goes to an izakaya by themselves, so I don’t really advise that if you’re traveling alone.  Once you’ve made some friends though, don’t miss going.  Izakaya are often mostly wooden structures, the insides having few or no chairs, where customers sit on the tatami-floor with a sunken foot/leg area under the table.  They are plentiful around town, and usually serve a good variety of cheap Japanese foods, but they can get expensive, so best to check the prices – if you can understand them – before barging in.  If not, the quality of the wood usually gives the price away.

For those of you more party-oriented, Tokyo has everything you’re looking for, don’t worry.  DJ’s, live bands, clubs, super-clubs, and if that’s all too much, TGI Fridays and Irish pubs too.

The Convenience Stores:

There are more convenience stores here than anywhere else, I think.  And that’s a good thing!  When I lived in Canada, I hated convenience stores, almost never went to them, and thought everything inside was either junk or bad for me.  Japanese convenience stores on the other hand, are an entirely different species.  For starters, they’re actually convenient.  You can pay almost any bill there (I can even pay my taxes there!), they have toilets, CLEAN toilets, and often one for each sex.  They have a good variety of foods and beverages with a surprisingly healthy slant, unhealthy foods, booze and tobacco for balance, and then essentials, a few party goods and stationary.  Outside, they usually have a garbage and separated recycling, something that wouldn’t merit mention in the West, except that there are very few garbage cans around Tokyo, so people hold on to it until they either get home or find a convenience store.  They are super clean, well lit, the food is fresh, and the service is usually fast and excellent.

Vending machines:

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, there is 1 vending machine for every 23 people in Japan.  That’s somewhere around 5 and a half million vending machines.  They are everywhere.  I don’t know if they really deserve to be on this list as something that makes Tokyo great, but they’re certainly a visible part of the city’s definition.  I probably buy a drink from a vending machine once every two or three days.  The nearest one from my house is 20 seconds away.  There are two more before I get to the convenience store a full two minutes away, and when I get there, there are 3 vending machines outside the convenience store!  If I venture past the convenience store into the park a few minutes down the path, there are vending machines there too.

Having been here for a while I’ve seen an astonishing variety of vending machines – they mostly sell drinks of course, but a few of the more imaginative ones I’ve seen have sold batteries, condoms, fresh vegetables, porn, comics, used girl’s underwear (you read that correctly), Nintendo DS games, iPods, handkerchiefs, tissues and toilet-paper, face-masks, soup, fries, chicken, ice-cream, ramen, cotton candy, and umbrellas.  Besides these wonderful products, I wonder if the Manufacturers Association estimate includes the uber-user-friendly train-ticket machines, which speak English and Japanese, charge your “Suica”(watermelon) or “Pasmo” cash-card, which you can use to buy products from vending machines, convenience stores, or to ride the train, bus or subway.  With the advent of the “Osaihu-keitai” or “wallet-cellphone”, you can pay for your drink with your phone.  Fabulous.

The Facilities:

Like I mentioned the earlier, I went to the beach on the weekend.  I got there by biking to my nearest train station 8-minutes away, and then taking an 80-minute, 10-dollar train ride.  It was so easy!!! – which is a big part of making Tokyo liveable and addictive.  Here, you can live and work in a thriving, exciting metropolis, and escape to nature in a few easy hours.  Within weekend-trip reach, under 3 hours let’s say, are mountains, lakes, beaches, hot-springs, skiing, rafting, and camping facilities.  I’m sure there are many more things to do and see that I’m unaware of.  If you’re not up for the outdoors, you could go explore a nearby city just as easily – Yokohama, for example, is under an hour away.

The Sights:

Tokyo has it’s share of tourist destinations, though perhaps fewer than expected, or not what you might expect.  Akihabara or “electric town”, is the home of otaku/geek culture and all the electronics and anime stores you can imagine, fetishes included.  Mount Fuji is close enough to see on a clear day and a 3 hour bus or 2-hour train trip away.  Sensoji in Asakusa is one of the biggest Temples in Tokyo, right near the center, and there’s also the Emperor’s palace gardens, Ueno park and zoo, and beside Harajuku, Meiji Jingu shrine.  Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku is fun for a few hours during the day, or a bit of trouble at night.  I recommend going up to the top of either Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, or the Metropolitan buildings in Shinjuku for a 360-degree view of Tokyo.  A number of other spots you might want to check out are the Gibli Museum in Kichijoji, Shibuya for Shibuya’s sake, maybe the business district in Marunouchi, and Ginza.

However, my personal opinion is that the best things to see are the various little streets and quaint shops surrounding stations, and the parks.

The Culture:

It’s not just signs in another language, like place names, though that’s cool too, but the minute rules of every day life that have either been passed down from generation to generation or just adopted by everyone because it works.  For example, everyone in Tokyo knows that if you don’t want to walk up an escalator, you stand on the left.  This leaves a clear walking lane on the right which makes things a lot easier in this busy city.

Every morning, millions of Japanese housewives go outside and sweep the streets around their houses and business owners sweep in front of their shops.  The streets are very clean, which is really nice.  It’s maybe one of those things you don’t even notice until you go somewhere messy, and then you realize you haven’t seen even a cigarette butt around your house for months.

About two months ago, while I still had a splint on my hand after breaking my knuckle, I was juggling some change between my two hands and dropped about 10 coins on a busy walking street.  A group of black-clad heavy-metal types were approaching from one way, and a small group of girls from the other.  Every one of them literally jumped to help me pick up my coins, which ended with eight or so people giving me back one coin each.  I couldn’t help but appreciate the kindness.

Before almost every meal at a restaurant, you’re given a hot, wet towel to wipe your hands (or face), or a cold towel in summer.  This is simply a wonderful thing to have just after sitting down, and can’t fathom why western restaurants or culture haven’t adopted it.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of small things that differentiate our cultures.  I wish that I’d written them down as I encountered them, as there are way more than I seem able remember right now.

It’s Safe:

I can walk anywhere, by myself, at any time of the day or night, and feel safe.  I could probably fall asleep drunk on the sidewalk with my wallet beside me and wake up the next day at noon with it still there.  Okay, there are a few exceptions, but I’m serious.  Most Japanese girls say they feel safe almost anywhere in Tokyo, with the possible exception of Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho at night.

It’s Clean:

I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it extends past just the small streets and convenience stores.  Japanese people in general love cleanliness, and this preference has extended to government policy and city budgets.  The parks are clean, outside in general is clean; bridges, walkways, escalator handles, stairs, bathrooms (with some notable exceptions), city squares, shopping areas and train stations.  “Dingy” isn’t a word that describes Tokyo at all.  It’s clean, man!  You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about unless you’ve been here, or perhaps to Monaco.

Shoutengai:

I don’t know why I left this to the end of the list, but next to train stations, the central organizing feature of city planning is the shoutengai.  A shoutengai is an outdoor, often covered but also uncovered walking street with shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and even apartments or recessed houses on both sides.  The buildings are generally 1 to 3 floors and the upper levels also have shops or apartments.  A shoutengai has no doors at either end and the bigger ones start near a station exit to help funnel pedestrian traffic to parks, bike-parking areas, other stations, or to another shoutengai.  Shoutengai are fun to explore in their own right, and often harbour pleasant surprises like takoyaki (Google it), taiyaki shops, cafes or a place to eat dinner because you’ve been having too much fun walking around and no longer have time to go shopping for ingredients.  No two shoutengai are identical, and each one acts as a focus to, and helps to define the feel of the community it serves.  They’re little gems, and they’re very popular.

Aaaaaaaand that’s it!  Come to Tokyo!  It’s huge!  It’s fun!  It has… all of the stuff I just described!!!

All of these things together form a great place to visit and a very livable city, which is probably why so many people have come to live here and have stayed for so long.  Some of my friends have been here for 5 years, some for 25, and many of them have decided this is where they want to call home.

I don’t blame them at all.

Ode to Tokyo – Part 1

After an extended absence from blogging, I’m back.

I took a break for a few reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I broke my little finger’s knuckle bone. And, while I was getting pretty good at typing with one hand and one finger, I also felt that my blog was getting negative. There’s enough of that in the news every day, on both the left and the right, that more screaming and yelling about all that’s wrong probably won’t help anyone, least of all me.

So I stopped reading the news as much and got down to being in the here-and-now, trying to see what I’ve got rather than what I’ve got to lose.
That said, I’ll be leaving Japan around this time next year, and I’ve been keeping a running tally of all the things I’ll miss when I go. Besides all my excellent, character-laden friends, what I’ll miss most I think is Tokyo itself. Just the other day I read “50 Reasons Tokyo is the best city in the world”, and I was a bit disappointed. “I can do better than that”, I thought. And so I shall try. Before I start I should say that I doubt I can make it to 50, but it’s quality not quantity, right?
So here goes,

The People:

I’m talking both Japanese and foreigners here. Japanese people and Japanese culture go a long, long way to making life with 30 million neighbours more than bearable. Sure, there are exceptions and some common behaviours (mostly associated with trains) that can drive you batty with rage, but generally speaking the people are outstanding examples of patience/tolerance, generosity and selflessness. The tiniest of examples is likely familiar even to tourists who may have been lost or looking for something specific. When they finally got the courage to ask where the “such and such” is, many, I’m sure, have been surprised to find that the Japanese person they asked would figure out where they were going, give directions, and then take them all the way there as well. Yes, that person was going somewhere completely different before, and your destination might be a 5-minute walk away, but that doesn’t phase them. In the years since I realized this is common, I’ve often had to thank the person and tell them to stop guiding me (apologizing profusely for so rudely telling them to stop helping me, of course) before carrying on to find it by their directions.
Another example might be the self-restraint with which Japanese people conduct themselves in large groups. There wouldn’t have been any riots in Vancouver if it was a Japanese town. They’d probably get a bit depressed and go drink twice as much than if they’d won, but no riots. If by some strange power rioting had started, others probably would have gone to stop them from embarrassing themselves. The shame involved with destroying shared property would have been far too strong, compelling them to act.
One more event worthy of mention here would be the inspiring way in which the Japanese behaved after the March 11th earthquake/tsunami.
Finally, to see the best of Japanese people, you need to go out an have fun with them. Of course everyone is happy when they’re having fun, but being a foreigner in a group of Japanese people doesn’t mean you’re the outcast. Often it’s just the opposite, them asking questions, doing their best to integrate you into the group.
As for the foreign community, I think maybe I’ve been lucky to find a group of amazing individuals here, but I keep meeting new people who are spitting-images of the kinds of people we need more of.
The above examples can’t by themselves come close to capturing the relative courtesy and tolerance of these people, but it’ll have to do.

The Variety of Places:

Just a short trip away from anywhere in Tokyo is some other station with a completely different atmosphere or focus from the one you’re at. Shibuya for fun. Ginza for glitzy shopping (almost anywhere for shopping, actually). Akihabara for electronics or anime, Kichijoji for a great park, Koenji for “hippy”, Ochanomizu for guitar shops, Roppongi for trouble, Azabu-juban, Asakusa, Ueno, Yotsuya, Kagurazaka, Ikebukuro! The list goes on. And for everything and anything else and maybe all of the above too, there is that bitch we all love, Shinjuku.

The Trains:

Tokyo would neither function nor exist without its trains. It has the world’s most advanced, largest, longest, fastest, cleanest, busiest and most ubiquitous train system in the world, and anyone who has been here (unless you’re Lady GaGa or some limousine-bound celebrity) will have some experience with them.
Last time I heard, Tokyo trains carry an average of 8 million passengers per day. They’re on time (mostly), clean, efficient and very convenient.
You don’t need a car here, period. I figure if you can find it on a map of Japan, you can get 90% of the way there by train, and probably another 9.5% by bus – all of which are relatively pleasurable to ride, not like in some cities I’ve been to.
Trains (and buses) aren’t “for poor people”. Everyone uses them, so the standards of service are high.

The Food:

There are endless places to eat in Tokyo, and many of these places offer great food.
Soba, ramen, gyoza, nabe, yaki-tori, yaki-niku, okonomiyaki, sushi!!!!, steak like you’ve never imagined. Japanese food is the best you’ll find anywhere, of course, but you can find Thai, Chinese, American, French, Italian, and all the rest. If you can think it, you can probably find high and low-end places selling what you want. Besides the standard fare, there are frequently innovative turns on a common recipe, or often original creations.

The Parks:

Parks in Tokyo range from tiny playgrounds to huge, 100,000-capacity cherry-blossom observation/picnic staging areas. The catch is that there are a lot of them. I read some years ago that Tokyo has more parkland per square kilometer than any other city on Earth.
From the banks of the Tamagawa river to the lovely Koi-pond/stone-bridge park near my house, most parks that are more than a playground are maintained to a high level, and they are that much more enjoyable to visit as a result.
From my house in Suginami-ku, I’m a few minutes walk to the 3km-long (or more) Zenpukujigawa-koen which echoes the meandering river with small enclaves of shade, open spaces, paved paths and a playground or two. A 10-minute bike ride the other way brings me to a lake surrounded by paths and trees. If that’s too far, there’s a tree-shaded medium-sized park with benches 2 minutes away.
And I’m not particularly lucky with this situation; it’s the same almost everywhere.
Inokashira park in Kichijoji, Koganei park (complete with an architectural museum – with full houses), and Yoyogi park next to Harajuku are three of the best parks I’ve ever been to. I’m sure there are many more here that I’m unaware of.

The Festivals:

Summer heat melting your enthusiasm? Not to worry. There are more than enough crazy festivals to remind you why you’re here. Koenji Awaodori is one of my favourites, though similar festivals can be found at many stations scattered throughout the year. I once participated in an “omikoshi-matsuri” (shrine-carrying-festival) where 20-40 people hoist a mini, mobile shrine above their shoulders, usually dedicated to growing a good crop. Fireworks celebrations are often of epic proportions; the largest launches 20,000 individual fireworks over a 90-minute show. If you haven’t seen a 20,000-firework show before, you’re in for a treat. Other fireworks displays, while having fewer fireworks, are no less impressive. The best “festival”, if it can be called that, is “Hanami”, the cherry-blossom festival. This marks the beginning of spring, and everyone goes to the park with a small barbeque, friends, drinks and a ground sheet to enjoy the weather and look at the amazing colors. Fantastic stuff! The only down side is that it only happens once a year!

You can drink anywhere:

Feel like walking through that lovely park with an ice-cold drink? Go ahead! Want to people-watch in the streets of Shibuya with a few friends over a beer or three? No problem! This single rule, which implies huge respect for the Japanese people’s ability to behave themselves, allows street and park festivals to thrive. It can also make hot summer days in the park a little more enjoyable. I couldn’t imagine Tokyo without it.

The Women (sorry ladies):

Japanese women are (or can be, at least) gorgeous. Any man questioning his wedding vows should never come here, as he will quickly find he’s got a mind to make some new friends. Tokyo seems to be where Japan’s loveliest like to hang out, and many times a day I’m blessed with some vision or other walking by, wherever I may be. Japan doesn’t yet suffer from the obesity epidemic which has swept the west, not to mention the fact that Japanese frames are slight by nature. These add up to a city full of humanity’s best strutting around dressed in high…

Fashion:

Some people don’t like, or even resent, fashion in general, but here it’s pretty unavoidable. Even if it’s not your thing, the ladies of Tokyo embrace it completely (which can be disturbing, in a mindless-robot way), show-casing Tokyo’s latest creations daily. According to a recent cultural study, the Tokyo fashion scene is one of the most under-exported cultural resources Japan has. Fashion is made here, not (always) decided in its magazines, but in its streets, shops and clubs. Every year I see everything from the beautiful to the scandalous. The streets of Shibuya and Harajuku in particular are huge runways for the latest fashions.

The Shopping:

I’m not a shopaholic, and hate the hyper-materialism that we’ve entered as much as the next self-respecting environmentalist, but as an English teacher, a natural topic of conversation is hobbies. When I first started teaching, I was surprised by the number of students claiming that shopping was their hobby, and I was bound to correct them. “Shopping is not a hobby”… or so I thought. In combination with the wide selection of places to go, the dazzling number of original shops and fashion, tech, or other crafts, I’ve been swayed into believing that shopping is in fact a hobby. I’ve gone out many times with my girlfriend just to look around and enjoy Tokyo.

So, as you can tell I’m a big fan of Tokyo. It’s got a lot going for it, and I will miss it when I go. If you have the chance, visit!!!

That’s all for this round. I’ll try to collect some pictures and add them to this post before finishing in “Ode to Tokyo – Part 2”.

(G)rumbles from Tokyo

Another week, another dozen aftershocks.  Nothing super-serious, but the earth shaking around can put a spin on your daily routine.

Otherwise things are fine, though surreal at times.  I was commuting from one job to another on a packed train (and “packed train” in Tokyo has an altogether different meaning than in most other countries) when everyone with an iPhone’s pocket broadcast the now familiar “bweep bweep!!” alarm signifying an earthquake in the magnitude 6 or more region.  iPhone’s are very popular here, so the sound was everywhere at once and impossible to ignore.  Like a few thousand bouncing balls being dropped inside the train all at once.

Being on the train, I couldn’t feel that one.  Not to be disappointed, I felt the magnitude 6.1 an hour later, and had already felt the 6.3 at 8:15 that morning, so I got my fill of entertainment.

More pressing is the continuing nuclear mess out east.  Media reports are all over the map, and just as I think I’ve got a handle on the seriousness of the situation another expert comes along to shake my confidence.  I won’t try to summarize the reports as I’m not a scientist and as I haven’t been following them as religiously as before, I’d likely confuse my facts.

Suffice it to say that I’m not much of a uranium-nuclear power supporter anymore.  I never was one, but I can no longer maintain the argument that it’s a necessary evil, as I’ve now read of enough alternatives that can, and could have prevented the need for a uranium/plutonium nuclear reactor in the first place.

Maybe the most surprising of these alternatives is the molten salt reactor (MSR): a nuclear reactor incapable of producing cataclysmic explosions, venting gas, runaway chain-reactions or any of the other nastiness involved with the traditional nuclear reactor.  To summarize the article in the previous link:

  • this technology has been around since the 60’s, and is able to run on thorium which is 400 times more abundant than the uranium required to run current reactors.
  • The reason it never caught on was because it didn’t suit the need of the U.S. military-industrial-complex for fuel that could be turned into bombs, and they would have had to do a lot of re-tooling to change.
  • As a result, MSR became the victim of lock-in, much like the QWERTY keyboard, while less efficient, was locked-in to our computer design.
  • China has recently expressed interest in using MSRs and thorium to power them (different article), and at least some people think that they might be able to break free of the lock-in.

At this point however, I’m starting to wonder what the governments of the world have been thinking.  They had two choices: one safe, cheap(er) and using relatively abundant fuel, the other psychotically dangerous, expensive, and using very rare fuel, and consistently they chose to use enormous amounts of taxpayer money to insure the uninsurable uranium plants and build them near large population centers and directly over fault-lines… because they needed to be able to blow stuff up real good.

Okay, maybe it made sense 50 years ago, but it’s long past the time when we should be addicted to uranium reactors.  If your QWERTY keyboard gave you an electric shock, melted your fingers and hemorrhaged your eyeballs every time you moved your laptop, I’m sure we’d be well on our way to a more efficient design, even if it could be folded up into a compact AK-47.

Just imagine no Three-mile Island, no Chernobyl, no Fukushima.  Why don’t they give MSRs to Iran!?  And no freaking out every time there’s another aftershock.

That’s peace of mind I think we should pay for.  Good luck to China, I say.

Life goes on in Japan

I watched another video of the carnage left by the tsunami yesterday.  My girlfriend said the video hasn’t been on the news yet because the damage is too severe.

The video was taken by a few people from the town of Onagawa driving around town naming things that used to be in this or that place.  That’s where the city hall was.  That’s where the hospital used to be, this was a train station.  The narrator gets lost because there’s nothing recognizable around.

They drive more and what’s most noticeable, besides chaos everywhere, is just how flat everything now is.  They spot a train lying on it’s side in the distance, nowhere near any tracks.  As they finally start climbing a hill you think they’ve reached the safe zone, and then you see cars on their sides, more debris.  The tsunami reached a height of at least 20 meters here.  Twenty meters!  Rescue personnel said they found over 1000 bodies in town.  The tsunami in Minamisanriku was worse, by the looks of it.

I’m sure you’ve seen similarly shocking videos by now, and there are many of them, but I’m still surprised by the scale of it.  One of the women in another video expressed it well, screaming, “Is this not a dream?”, while 20 or 30 large boats and even ships floated into and then back out of her town.  I couldn’t find the video again later.

I think that I’ve never really been confronted with the severity of a natural disaster before.  I’ve seen them on t.v., and because they’re so far away or I don’t know anyone there, the scale of human suffering involved has usually escaped me.  The death toll here will probably be well over 20 000.  In contrast, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed over 230 000 people.  It boggles the mind to imagine how that many people can be killed all at once.

But, life goes on.

Things are not at all bad here.  Tokyo is 90% normal.  Bottled water isn’t easy to get, but if you’re on a mission for it, you can find it at the supermarket in the morning.   We keep having aftershocks but nothing serious.  M4, maybe M4.5 once every 2 or 3 days.  They are much less frequent than before.  The nuclear situation hasn’t affected the availability of foodstuffs that I’ve really noticed.  Some things run out quickly, but you can do without, or change to a different meal.  Trains aren’t fully regular.  For example the Toyoko line only runs local trains, but the leave every 5 minutes.  Basically things are getting along pretty well.  I don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of, unless there’s a leak seeping directly into Tokyo groundwater sources, which I think is unlikely.

I’ve just celebrated the first weekend of “Hanami”, the celebration of blooming cherry blossoms.  My grumpy old neighbour told me I can’t celebrate Hanami because of the earthquake, at which point I took great pleasure telling her that the park was full.  This coming weekend should be better!

This is maybe the best time of year in Japan.  Many people come to Japan during Golden Week (end of May-1st week of April), during the summer or Christmas Holidays, but there’s nothing like feeling spring in the air, grabbing some drinks and a barbecue, and going to hang-out with friends in the park with all the trees blooming light pink.  Just a week later, all the petals will be falling off in the wind, creating a week-long dream of raining petals.  It really is beautiful.

After Hanami, we’re in for a few weeks of excellent street festivals scattered around Tokyo.  Hopefully I can go to more than a few.  Here’s hoping they’re not canceled!

Went to the park this morning to take pictures of the cherry trees.  It’s a completely amazing day out.  Have a look!

Water: A picture is worth a thousand words

The recent detection of minuscule levels of radiation in Tokyo water has caused all sorts of insanity here.

A run on bottled water, which, by the way, is usually not subject to even half the tests for chemicals and pollutants that normal tap water is subjected to, has transformed the population into a selfish group of water fiends.  If this is how the Japanese behave with safe levels of radiation in the water, I don’t want to see what could happen in other parts of the world.

I must admit the paranoia is contagious; even though I’m fully aware the levels are safe, I still have a mild urge to buy bottled water.  I haven’t had the chance yet to see what I’ll do if confronted with that situation, as I haven’t seen any bottled water anywhere for at least 3 days now… which causes the paranoia.  The vicious circle begins!

All the talk of water reminded me of a picture I found on Michael Tomasky’s blog at the Guardian a while ago.  He’d come across a picture comparing the relative sizes of the Earth, all the water on Earth, and all the fresh water on Earth.  Frustratingly, I couldn’t find the picture on his blog, but I did find it here.  Brace yourself, you WILL be surprised.

As the author (Marianne) notes below the photo: “Of that small dot of fresh water—which constitutes about 2% of the world’s surface water—75% of it is frozen in ice sheets and glaciers (many of which are melting into salt water).”

So cut that tiny sphere into 4 and what we actually have access to is just one of those parts.  Sorry – you’re math is probably better than mine, I just had to say it.  In fact, I was tempted to Photoshop and shrink that last dot down to 25% just to see what it would look like, but I think the point is clear enough.

Besides the stunning tininess of that speck of fresh water, what amazes me most of all is the fact that we’ve managed to harness it and distribute it widely within so many countries.  A very close number two is the fact that we’ve allowed so many people to dump garbage, toxic sludge, oil and pretty much everything and anything really, into it.

Perhaps the most current example of this is the horrifying case between Chevron and the people of Equador.  While it’s heartening to know that on February 14th, 2011 the courts found Chevron guilty, I cannot believe the degree of moral corruption that could have allowed so many people working at Chevron in Equador to let it happen.  If you didn’t read it already somewhere else, I want to make sure you understand that Chevron knew they were doing this.  It was no accident.  They ORDERED it done to save millions, perhaps billions of dollars.

And they’re appealing it!

Seriously, where do these people come from?  What do they drink when they’re thirsty?  I just imagine some workers dumping sludge into the Amazon on a hot day, they reach for a bottle of water to quench their thirst and… Can’t they connect the dots?  Are they even human?  Do they have a brain?

Thinking back to Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, the documentary I watched on the weekend, it seems that the problem is not lack of a brain, but rather a lack of empathy.  Just like the Wall Steet traders.  Just like the Corporate CEO’s.  If you don’t want to watch the movie, just Google “psychopath ceo” to see what I’m talking about.

The pattern that emerges is familiar to all of us even if we haven’t read the headlines.  The greed for money compromises people’s ability to make rational decisions beyond their individual self-interest; and in a society where the individual is king and money his power, we had best watch the wealthy much more closely.

So yes, it’s another terrible thing happening in our world, no big surprise.  And yet there’s cause for some hope:  The courts fined Chevron $9 billion which should make others of their ilk take notice.  And on the other hand, showing that all business people aren’t evil, a Canadian company has been making waves by inventing a cheaper, and more importantly a less energy-intensive way to desalinate water.  They’re called Saltworks.

Check’em out!

The earthquake’s over. Now what?

Freshly back in Tokyo from my brief escape to Osaka, I’ve been disheartened by the way life has so quickly returned to normal.

I know, I know – just a few days ago I was talking about how stressed out and tired I was by the abnormal routine, but after a major life disruption you kind of hope, illogically I suppose, that somehow you’ll return to a life or world changed for the better in some way.  Where’s the balance?  What did we learn?  How can we use this to make progress for the future?

In one of the videos I took after exiting the train station on quake day, I was looking at the thousands of people quietly milling around Shinjuku and surprised myself by saying, “What a chance”.  What a chance for what, though?  What am I expecting myself, or someone else, to do with all these people standing around?  What exactly is it that needs that chance to happen?

Perhaps it was no coincidence that I ended up watching “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” (free download) on Sunday night.  It’s a feature length documentary talking about the world we live in and what’s wrong with it, how we got this way, and where we’re going.  Unsurprisingly, the picture they paint is pretty dark.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in societal change.   No, strike that.  I recommend it to everyone.

In their interviews with experts in the fields of engineering, investigative journalism, moral philosophy, social epidemiology, medicine, biology, neurology, and petroleum geology, to name a few, they illuminate the shameful reality of our grim situation.

The short story: We have been transformed by the oil-and-money addiction of corporations and the greedy few into consumers that are bringing the marvelous diversity of nature, along with our own future, to an ignominious end.

One notable quote from the film, among many, was from John McMurtry of the University of Guelph, Canada:

“Absence of waste, that’s what efficiency is.  This system is more wasteful than all the other existing systems in the history of the planet.  Every level of  life organization and life system is in a state of crisis and challenge and decay or collapse.  No peer reviewed journal in the last 30 years will tell you anything different – and that is that every life system is in decline.  As well as social programs, as well as our water access.  Try to name any means of life that isn’t threatened and endangered.  You can’t.  There isn’t – there really isn’t one and that’s very, very despairing.  But we haven’t even figured out the causal mechanism, we don’t want to face the causal mechanism, we just want to go on.. you know that’s what insanity is when you just keep on doing the same thing over and over again even though it clearly doesn’t work.  So you’re really dealing with not an economic system, but I would go so far as to say an anti-economic system”.

I don’t know about you but that terrifies me.  Far, far more so than the earthquake last week, that scares me to my core.

So what’s wrong?  What’s not wrong might be an easier answer.  Just a few they touch on in the movie:  The insanely unequal distribution of money, the wasteful ubiquity of plastic/oil, scarcity of resources including fresh water, the twisted psychology of market capitalism and how it’s advertising is further twisting our psychology, the use of GDP and other economic measures to gauge the “progress” of our society.

Pay for a car?  Money.  Drive around?  Money.  Crash the car and spend a year in the hospital?  Money.  Clean up the BP oil spill?  Great!  Tack it onto the GDP!  Fix my cheaply built television?  Money.  Treat me for cancer because my sociological status makes me more likely to smoke and drink?  Money!  I can’t believe it, money is everywhere!!!  Maybe I should start breaking stuff JUST TO MAKE MONEY!!

Hold on, they’ve already thought of that – it’s called “planned obsolescence”.  That means they build stuff so that it breaks or can’t be updated past this product generation.  Shouldn’t this be illegal?  We’re living on a planet with finite resources and our corporations are making replacement parts incompatible.  Didn’t we hire politicians to make logical rules about how our resources can be used?  In fact we did, but the corporations, quite simply, can pay more.

Another, more efficient way of breaking stuff for money?  WAR.  That’s right.  Bomb a country and destroy half their buildings and then get super-corporations, think Haliburton and the like, to go in for the courageous “rebuilding effort”.  What a boon!  Why not call it freedom fighting at the same time just to make it sound nicer?  Oh, right – they DID call it freedom fighting at the same time.  Where were those weapons of mass destruction?  Probably hiding in the billions of barrels of oil under Iraq, I suspect.  And what have they done with those billions of barrels of oil?  They’re making more stuff that breaks and becomes obsolete at a faster pace than ever.

So what change is it that we’re looking for?  As McMurtry suggests, maybe it’s a re-evaluation of what is valuable, from the “Money sequence of value”, to the “Life sequence of value”.

Which one sounds more like progress to you?

Excuse me, there’s a microsievert in my soup.

Heading back to Tokyo on the bus today, I’m most disturbed by the news that there is radiation in the water. No kidding.

Sure, the levels aren’t enough to kill a fly in a year, but the fact is significant because just yesterday there was no radiation in the water – at least none that I know of.

And that’s how we’re going with everything these days. From water to air to earth we’re incrementally poisoning ourselves, and everything else, with pollution of some kind. Not a day seems to go by where yet another toxin or “dangerous levels of fill-in-the-blank are detected” in someone’s critical resource. The planet is finite and the headlines are gorging on lakes and peninsulas.

As biological entities, our most important requirement is food. Without it, we simply can’t continue our lives in a normal way.

One of the things that differentiates us from 3rd world countries is our bountiful selection of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and all the other foods we take for granted. If that disappears, I’m sure we will quickly notice the difference.

This may not be an imminent crisis, but with the world’s population forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2050 it’s certainly looming large on our collective horizon. We can’t continue to destroy our land and water with pollutants, many of which are symptoms of rampant factory farming and industrial agriculture. As things stand now, we are in big trouble.

With that in mind, how many creative solutions to our food dilemma do you see being embraced by our leaders? Most, if not all of the people with real political power appear to be doing little more than shifting around the small print in the status quo laws that were becoming obsolete in 1995. The people with the “other kind” of power appear to be bank-rolling and lobbying that apathy and the active destruction of even those paltry laws. Their preference is for processed and packaged foods, all of which require factories, more energy, more chemicals, more transportation, and all the other markers of corporate residence.

Yet there is an entire culture of people in each of our countries crying out for real changes to be made that can help their communities to become sustainable and healthy – places you want to live and work in because they’re fresh and innovative and actually doing something that makes our world work better.

So I want to talk about a real solution. Some people have called it a pipe-dream, and it’s realistic to say that it’s technically difficult and will be challenging, but we’ve managed to harness the atom at 442 reactors worldwide to power the lives of countless people. I think we’re up to it.

Vertical farming was recently introduced by Columbia University Professor Dr. Dickson Despommier. He proposes building high-tech urban 50-story buildings, for example, intelligently designed to take advantage of solar and wind power options, loaded with hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic apparatus to take back control of our food systems.

His vision for these buildings includes water recovery and local waste-water treatment, power generation from biological waste, and integration into local community needs. There are many other advantages to the vertical farm that he mentions in his book, but my eyes are starting to cross looking at my iPhone and my stubby fingers have had enough. One important part of the concept: quite a few good-paying jobs.

Despommier estimates that a 50-story building occupying 1 city block could feed 50,000 people, and a quick calculation shows that if we were to build them, 442 vertical farms could feed 22,100,000 people.
How many vertical farms could you build for the cost of one nuclear reactor?

Currently, huge swaths of our countries that used to be invaluable peak-ecosystem hardwood forest are now being plowed, over-fertilized and factory farmed year after year. The toll on soil and water systems is debilitating, and getting worse.

So what are we going to do? Continue to grow the same old way, eating our way through hectares like Doritos at a fraternity party? Or are we going to, as Despommier suggests in his subtitle, grow up?