Saturday, February 28, 2009

Highspeed Rail Finally Coming to America?

I read a Wired Blog article that reports that $8 billion from the $787 billion economic stimulus bill will go to developing high speed rail in the US. That sounds genius to me. It will give people jobs while working on the track, it will give the US a much needed infrastructure boost, and it just might lower emissions from all of the cars people will leave in the garage when they choo-choo-choose the train.

Japan has a train system that far surpasses our own, and I've had the pleasure of using it a great many times(I rode the "bullet train" with Angelica here). Japan is a very small country and the high concentration of people is good for a train system, but the US has areas with similar population density that can really benefit. It sounds like a great public works project to me. The Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration page has some dry governmental things to say about the effort here.

The article points out that Chicago stands to be a big winner in this plan as the hub of the Midwest. That line from St. Louis to Chicago looks dangerously close to Springfield. Let's hope the train bothers to stop for us!

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: "I think President Obama would like to be known as the high-speed rail president, and I think he can be."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Winding Down

With my decision not to extend my teaching contract another year already a month past, I have recently been considering what my goals should be for my last 5 months in Japan.

I received word that I passed the third level of the JLPT a week or two ago, so that's one thing that I wanted to accomplish out of the way. I won't be around for the next testing time though, and the second level is pretty advanced. Level three's description is "the examinee has mastered grammar to a limited level, knows around 300 kanji and 1,500 words, has the ability to take part in everyday conversation and read and write simple sentences." It doesn't look very impressive now that I'm looking at it, but it did take a bit of work. The second level involves "1,000 kanji and 6,000 words" which is pretty beastly. There's an article here that discusses the possibility of the Japanese government using the JLPT as a factor in the granting of work visas. Not too shabby. Maybe I should turn my attention back to the US and start looking over the GMAT?

Many ALTs on their last stretch travel the country a bit, but I think I have that taken care of at the moment. I've dealt my to-see in japan list a fatal blow.

I'm still reading whenever I have time. At the moment I am reading Norwegian Wood, a novel by Haruki Murakami. I guess its a love story, but its one that I can really get into. I am also reading The Turn of the Screw, a spooky novel first published in 1898. Its age means that it has returned to the public domain, and I can read it for free online. Hurray old stuff! Both books are on the shelf at my Google Book Library, if you are interested. I suppose reading is more of a hobby than a goal, but it has the added benefit of keeping my reading level from getting rusty. Surely that will come in handy professionally.

I just don't want to waste the remainder of my time in Japan. Any suggestions?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Some Ashikaga Gossip

We had an assistant English teacher's meeting Wednesday as we have many times in the past, consisting of the three-man Springfield Sister Cities crew and Zishan and Ben, who work under the same contract only through the JET program, and our boss at the Ashikaga Board of Education. We talked about everyone's spring break plans and other pretty usual stuff. Then one of the guys let out a little secret. Joe and I, the guys going home in July, won't be replaced by Springfield people. Wow! Were are going to be replaced with the ones we call "company" employees, people that the city hires through third party businesses. These guys get paid less and have worse working conditions that we do. Our boss conceded that this was true, and continued that it is due to Ashikaga's budget constraints.

Not all is lost for Springfield, though. When the JET guys leave, they will be replaced by Springfield people, bringing us back up to three. Just a little English teacher drama for you.

This time of year sunset hits right before I finish work.

I snuck a photo of a student's backpack. Sure this is a good example of the atrocious English that is unfortunately stylish, but its also a bit of the Obama effect that persists here. I can't count how many times I've heard my kids say "yes we can". Like, who exactly do they think we is? It was especially bad when we covered "can" sentences with the first year kids. "Can you ski?" "Yes we can!!". "Ok.... Can you make tempura?" "Yes WE can!!!" "Can you be a little more annoying?"

The seven-eleven by my place had its grand opening yesterday. They really put it up fast.

A short little animation by Fujio Tanabe entitled "Fridge".

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

News in Japan: Buzzed Finance Minister

The front page of yesterday's local newspaper featured the story of former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, who showed up to a recent G7 meeting in Rome looking and sounding rather intoxicated. Nakagawa blamed his condition on a large dose of cold medicine, but under increasing pressure he resigned his post on Tuesday.

(Wow, third time's a charm? The youtube videos of this are dropping fast.)

The Mainichi Daily News covered the story here, along with a long list of Nakagawa's past drunken blunders. My favorite quote is "When he painted in the eye of a daruma doll -- a ritual often performed by election winners -- he put too much ink on the brush and ended up giving the doll black tears, flustering those around him." That sounds like something I might do sober.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thailand Part 6: Hua Hin

The last new city I went to is called Hua Hin.

View Larger Map
As you can see from the map, I was very close to Burma. I briefly considered a little day trip across the border. After a bit of reading, though, Burma didn't seem like the happiest place to visit, and I decided against it.

My travel buddies and I went to Hua Hin on a crowded bus. I really enjoyed the experience: the ticket buying conversations at the bus station, worriedly parting with my luggage so that it could be stowed below and hoping that nothing got stolen, gazing out the window at nothing while cruising through the countryside. It was a bit rustic and nothing bad happened. What more can you ask for? There were three employees working on the bus: one guy was like the crier who would simply announce what stop was next and in how many minutes in a loud annoying voice, a rough looking lady collected tickets and money and stuffed them into a large metal cylinder, and the driver, who might've also been the guy who stuffed our bags under the bus. It was quite an operation.

The second we hopped off the bus, Mike and I were giggling about the police. Several that we saw had large golden arches on their vests.

No, it's not the drive-thru window. Its a police box, brought to you by McDonald's. Thailand has mini police stations everywhere just like Japan does. Their strategy is a bit different, however. In Japan, the police are meant to be seen to act as a deterrent and to give directions, etc. In Thailand the windows of the boxes were often tinted as in this picture. I assume it's meant to make people unsure if an officer is inside or not, and keep people in line even when vacant. An interesting approach.

I spotted one of those bag sodas I mentioned in an earlier post.

Hua Hin is touristy beach resort town. However it is popular with Thai vacationers as well which I think helps it avoid completely turning into a foreigner theme park. We spent a few days here, but it was time mostly spent chilling out without any strenuous exploring.

Clarence and I took care of the Bangkok hotel arrangements and Mike and Allison did Hua Hin. Those two were a bit more budget minded so I wondered about what kind of hotel they would choose. I imagined some sort of beach shack with hammocks inside but the place they picked had even nicer rooms than the Best Western in Bangkok. There was a little kitchen and the shower was so big it must've been designed for someone in a wheelchair.

A plate of brightly colored sweets had been placed on a dresser. The woman who showed us to our room explained that they were a gift from the hotel to celebrate New Years.

At one point I noticed that we had a visitor. The little guy seemed to be pretending he was invisible, as it didn't move an inch while I was in the room. It didn't crawl in my mouth while I was asleep, so I'd say we are pretty good friends.

We spent some time chilling on the beach. There was a long line of little restaurants, one of which we stopped and had a relaxing dinner. The four of us started the new year on the sand, with fireworks being set off near and far.

You wanna know whats way better than a market? A night market. They were selling pretty much the same stuff as everywhere, minus the possible heat exhaustion. My shoes didn't really fit my beach bum lifestyle, so I bought a pair of super cheap flip flops. I think that was my only purchase in Hua Hin.

I took advantage of our large amount of unstructured time and went on a fruit eating rampage. I got some advise from my local grocer about what to buy, bought a large knife, and then I did some chopping back at the hotel room.

I'd say the star of the night was the mango. They were so sweet. I think this is my new favorite fruit.

These little guys are longans. They are pretty much small lychees.

Wikipedia says they are also known as dragon eyes, which makes a lot of sense now that I think about it. These are super good. My only complaint is that they are so small that it takes a whole lot of peeling to get a decent amount of fruit.

Those two were the big successes. But I took a risk buying a bunch of stuff I didn't understand, and the experiment wasn't without its setbacks.

I think this is a pomelo. It was pretty much a giant grapefruit with a really thick skin. It tasted awful. Wikipedia thinks that the US is the top producer of pomelo, yet I've never seen one for sale. I think I know why.

I think this is a green apple guava. I don't know if it just wasn't ripe or what, but it also tasted really bad. The Thai word for guava, farang, also means "foreigner". I don't know what that's about.

When it was time to return to Bangkok, we had some issues obtaining transportation.

This picture is the Hua Hin train station. It's old and a pretty big deal. I don't recall exactly why we decided to not take the train. I think it was just too long of a wait until the next train to Bangkok. We ended up just taking a taxi. Yes it wasn't very exciting, but it was direct and not incredibly expensive when divided four ways.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Eastern Medicine: Gargling Normal Water

When I first considered writing about this practice, I was just going to point out that it exists and then talk about how stupid I think it is. I did a bit of research on it though, and the situation is a bit more complex than it at first seemed.

So, many of the teachers at my school regularly gargle water and then spit it out. Not mouthwash, not water with salt in it, just straight water out of the tap. I have a good idea of the frequency because I can hear it happening from across the room. So I asked one of the repeat offenders why he does it, and he replied that it was for his health. He continued that it can help people avoid catching colds or the dreaded influenza by cleansing the mouth.

My first mental reaction was "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard". The microbes that cause colds must be able to live in a watery environment because they are hanging out in your mouth in the first place, and there are probably about a million trillion of them chillin' out in there at any one time. Spitting out those germs would be like spitting out bad breath, or spitting out the little creatures that cause tooth decay. In other words, it ain't gonna happen.

But now that I was aware of the practice, I realized that it wasn't just a couple crazy old teachers, but that this was an official position from people that should know better.

This little sign is posted above one of the sinks in the teacher's room. It reads "Prevent infectious disease with hand washing and gargling!". It is issued by the Tochigi Prefectural Government.

The headline of this one is something like "Influenza is prevented by everyone!" The trifecta of good health is apparently gargling, hand washing, and wearing a mask when ill. This is also a message from our friends at Tochigi Prefecture. A worthwhile little addendum to this is that the kids have no access to hot water at school as far as I know. Not only does this seem to lessen the effectiveness of hand washing, but it probably discourages the practice altogether because the water is painfully cold in the winter.

I searched a bit to see if I could find any references to this and I found an article from the Health Behavior News Service (here). Headlines don't get much better than this: "Gargling May Prevent Colds, Study Says; Expert Finds Results Hard to Swallow". To summarize, Japanese researchers found that "the common cold could be prevented over 30 percent of the time by daily gargling with water." An American smart person, on the other hand, suggested the study was flawed because "while the researchers found a “borderline statistically significant effect” for water gargling, there was no true placebo group — that is, there was no control group in which people could gargle with “fake” water".

Not only does it seem to be impossible to due a proper experiment with gargling, I think that the practice has some religious significance that might be influencing people's views. Upon entering temples it its a common practice to ritually cleanse your mouth. Surely there's a connection.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Samurai Parade News Coverage (Finally!)

I'm pretty sure this is on NHK, Japan's public news network. I missed it when it was originally aired, but I couldn't let such a cool little moment go to waste, so I bugged a friend of mine who worked at city hall to somehow get me a copy(thanks Nobue!!). The first bit is unrelated baseball nonsense from Saitama. After that is the good part. You can catch a quick glance of me chucking beans at strangers and laughing my head off about it. The other guys got a lot better look at the camera. Mike's little "tanoshikatta desu" means "It was fun". Its not super important, but I wanted to get it up on YouTube finally.

One thing that strikes me about Japanese television is how much of everything is subtitled. Is it hard for people to understand complicated spoken Japanese without seeing it written? Is it for the benefit of the hearing impaired? No idea. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thailand Part 5: The Grand Palace

We went to Bangkok's Grand Palace after our morning spent at the floating market.

The palace has a strict dress code that not one of us was ready for. In the end we were forced to rent some really unfortunate pants from a little store across the street.

And then we were in. This is the probably the pointiest, shiniest place on earth.

Mike, Clarence, and I in our rented pants. I was still refusing to part with my adventuring hat purchased earlier on the river.

My favorite part was this very long mural of an epic mythological battle. The apemen, pigmen, birdmen, demon guys, giants, and humans all duked it out battle royal style. It was all very Lord of the Rings.

A dog faced gentleman getting sorted out.

I laughed out loud when I turned the corner and spotted this guy. He is actually just touching up the faded spots, but he still looked out of place. A well negotiated bribe here might have landed me a cameo in this painting. Just add my face on that guy with the six beefy arms, please.

Chakri Mahaprasad Hall is a bit apart from the other buildings. It feels much more stately and classy: you don't need to cover a building in glitter to convey a sense of grandeur.

We were totally hat twinkies!

Next are a few random things.

These are common condiments used in Thai dishes. These came with a plate of pad thai. The first two are pepper based. That I can handle. The third one, though, is straight sugar. I didn't mess with that.

Some dried tamarind that I picked up at a convenience store. Although this fruit looks like something a dog might have left in a park, it is actually pretty good.

The hotel was a few blocks into a residential neighborhood, which was a nice chance to see a bit of everyday life. That life includes packs of wild "soi dogs" that roam the streets. One particular night there were quite a few of them. I even had a group of them following me for what seemed like an eternity. I didn't dare stop or look back, but I could hear their many toenails clicking on the pavement. I found myself pondering the best course of action if I was attacked by them... run or fight, run or fight. How many stray dogs could I fend off before being devoured, or at least slightly delayed?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Interesting Local Economy Article

Give this Mainichi Daily News article a look. Its a very informative little piece about the Brazilian population in Oizumi, which is feeling some pressure due to the current economic situation. One of the people laid off apparently robbed an Ashikaga convenience store.

I think that Japan was very slowly opening up to a bit of immigration for economic reasons. They needed young people to work in the factories. But without jobs, these people who are already living on the fringe of society are put in a difficult position. I will be watching how this unfolds.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Thailand Part 4: The Floating Market

My most cherished day trip of them all was our time at the Damnoen Saduak floating market.

View Larger Map

After a taxi ride a couple hours out of town, we boarded what looked like a canoe with a motor on the back, and got down to business. The first bit was similar to our earlier little boat trip: lots of zooming past people's houses, except now the houses were more comfortably spaced and there was a canopy of trees overhead. I wonder if these people have any roads at all... I didn't see much evidence of any cars or motor vehicles other than boats.

The boat ride itself was awesome. Our driver was super nice. His English was such that with some careful listening over the buzz of the engine we could usually understand what he was saying. Just the experience of shopping from a boat was really novel and fun. After buying something I could just plop it down in front of myself in the boat, not needing to lug it around all day. Unfortunately most of the stuff for sale was just too touristy for me. Lots of useless little knickknacks and things that none of us wanted to buy. The interesting part for me was the food. There were many nice old women paddling around in boats laden with cheap fruits never before seen. Others were actually cooking things in their little canoes. Everything tasted great.

I have no idea what this is. The lady selling them advised me that they were tart, and she was correct. The nice thing about the people selling food is that they aren't as aggressive with prices. They seem to give everyone the same low price, which I really appreciated.

Allison procured this interesting dessert. I think its rice pudding cooked into little balls.

My main inedible purchases were 6 identical little wooden boxes with elephants on them for the English teachers at my school, and this little wall hanging that now graces my bathroom.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Setsubun Samurai Parade the Second Time

Once again its Setsubun and samurai parade time. Setsubun marks the transition from winter to spring time. I feel like this year winter in Ashikaga isn't as cold as it was last year. Could be my imagination or the fact that I am better prepared this year, though. The parade weather was beautiful compared to last year.

One new addition to this year's army was a group with firearms.
They even fired them off a few times later on. I regard samurai carrying guns as blasphemy despite that fact that it actually happened.

The three Japanese amigos. You might notice that their armor is way super cooler than the stuff I wore. Well, for unknown reasons the cost of doing the parade went from zero to about $150. You get what you pay for, I suppose.

Walking in the parade is usually reserved for the new English teachers, but I had so much fun last year that I asked a few months ago if it was possible to do it again. I'm glad that I didn't walk though. Seeing the ridiculously large smiles on the guys' faces reminded me of what a special time it was for me. It wouldn't be as awesome the second time. Good memories.

Speaking of memories, the Ashikaga news letter for February is sporting a picture of last year's event, featuring the mug of yours truly.

Last weekend I went to Tokyo and gallivanted with some friends. A large group of us spent a sizable amount of time at an izakaya(Japanese version of a bar and grill). Our bill made it over the 30,000 yen mark, which is where the store is forced to add a revenue tax stamp to our receipt.

I never spend this much money in one spot, so this is the first time I've acquired one of these.