Sunday, October 29, 2006

a poetic education

Today's soundtrack:
"Mass Romantic" by the New Pornographers
"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case

Came across this on YouTube (or GooTube, if you like). I guess everyone had to read this in elementary school. It's one of two poems that threw me for a loop because of the ending (the other being "Porphyria's Lover" by Robert Browning). Anyway, as this city seems determined to force me into my winter parka before the end of October, I thought this poem was oddly appropriate as a form of mental conditioning for the long, dark, cold, miserable, seemingly endless, depressing, hopeless, frigid, dastardly, cruel winter that lay ahead of us like the Siberian tundra.

Friday, October 27, 2006

public service announcement

Today's soundtrack:
"I'll Stick Around" by the Foo Fighters
"You're All I've Got Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins

I would like to take this opportunity to publicly declare my undying love for my Mac.

See? Macs suffer from the devaluation of the humanities too! Clearly, we're meant to be together. Don't fight it, Hot Mac Guy.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Of Miguel, Bikes and Saskatoon

Some of you know it already… I bought a bike! I’m so happy! It is a premium bike. I had been looking for a while and I wanted a bike that I could bring back to Canada, so I bought a foldable bike. Foldable as in small enough that you can put it in a suitcase, but don’t think it is small enough that you can carry it folded in the bus everyday. It is still pretty heavy. Anyway, here’s the picture!

The good thing about it is that it won’t take any space in our basement, and I will be able to store it inside its bag. Perfect for the Saskatoon winter. I put some objects in the photo so you can see how small it is. I also uploaded other pictures in my picasa web album, including how it looks when unfolded. I must say that they sell smaller ones, but those were a little too small for me, and I couldn’t sit comfortably high, so I took this one.

In my way to the place where I bought it, I took this picture. I think it must have been a good sign.

If you don’t see anything strange, look closer. No? Well, it’s Saskatoon on the big tv’s! In the biggest store of the second largest city of Japan (a store the size of 5 centre malls)! And it was not the only one. Photos were prohibited, though, and I couldn’t take any more. Maybe Canada is indeed the center of the world. Certainly, the world is way too small; some of you don’t know that last week I met someone here that is from Nanaimo.

To finish this blog, I have to tell you all that I finally found the salt. I had to comb the store, but I did it. I feel on top of the world!!

you call that music?

Today's soundtrack:
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins

So I've been thinking a fair bit about what Danielita wrote in her blog the other day. It's troubling to think that I, who worshipped at the throne of George Stroumboulopoulos back when he was the edgy VJ, now scoff at the latest pelvic thrusts of nuevo punk, pop, and rock "artists" (yes, I am using the term artists veryloosely). When did I become this stuck-up prude who would rather listen to Herbert von Karajan's recording of La Nozze di Figaro and sip sherry than catch the "Top Ten at Ten" on the Fox (a reference for the Vancouverite in all of us)?

I thought a good starting place would be to figure out what the best albums of the 90s were. Well, that's entirely too subjective, so I decided to figure out which five cds I wore out over the course of the 90s.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness - the Smashing Pumpkins
Big Shiny Tunes - MuchMusic (before they sucked)
Jagged Little Pill - Alanis Morissette
OK Computer - Radiohead
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours - Manic Street Preachers

Pretty mainstream stuff, really. Then I got to wondering what the top albums of the 90s would have been for the current mainstream darlings. My Chemical Romance. Billy Talent. Fall Out Boy. Justin Timberlake. Who were their influences? Suddenly, I begin to see a trend, a connection between the 80s and what's currently in rotation. It's not all, but mostly 80s redux.

I hated the 80s. Unequivocally. Well, the 80s did give us U2, which I guess I shouldn't complain about. But what about Madonna? Flock of Seagulls? There was some good to come out of the 80s (like December 31st, 1989), but in my humble opinion, it was a rather dark time for music. I guess for those who loved the 80s, the current musical trends must be wonderful. For me, it's Hell 2.0, a horrific trip down a neon spandex-filled memory lane.

It's a musical time lag. I have to wait until 2010 before 90s music is reinterpreted and built upon in any meaningful way. Well, maybe not until 2010. There are some exceptions: Metric, New Pornographers, Fiest, Modest Mouse, and Death Cab for Cutie seem to be doing a good job of still creating good new music. Sort of a voice in the wilderness type of thing. Until then, I'll be revisiting my Smashing Pumpkins collection, if only to annoy the boys upstairs who believe that angst-ridden rock was invented in 2006.

Monday, October 23, 2006

7 Hours in Kyoto

Kyoto is one of the few cities in Japan that the Americans decided not to carpet-bomb in WWII because of it’s beauty and historical relevance. Interestingly, after the war, the urban planners were not as respectful as the Americans and most of the old center was re-built into a standard modern Japanese downtown. Luckily, most of the really beautiful stuff remains, and that includes temples (many temples), the imperial palace and a castle.

This is the information that I was reading while in the train to Kyoto. My tourist guide: Wikipedia and Wikipedia travel, my plans: enjoy the city. The guide article says that it distances are big, so taking the bus is good, and renting a bike is ok. As if I came from Bilbao, (and because I found no bicycle rental shop in my way) I decide that whatever is possible by bike, must be by foot. So there I go, walking the city up and down.

I must say, however, that renting a bike wouldn’t have been so good, even though I spent more than 5 hours walking non-stop. The good thing about walking is that you see the real city, the people, the houses. There is also time to think, and you learn to know the city better. Then, you don’t have to park the bike (which IS a problem in Japan), and there is more time and space to make photographs (thanks L. for the camera!!).

This time I decided to visit the north-west. It is ok to visit just one part of the city because the nice places are quite spread out, and there is a lot to see. Besides, as I take the regular train, and not the bullet train (shinkanshen), it is quite cheap and I can go as many times as I want (the total cost of my excursion was around $20, including train and entrance to the sites).

In the way to the Daitoku-ji (a temple complex), I cross through the imperial part that contains the Imperial Palace. To visit it you have to reserve in advance, so I don’t visit it. The palace is huge, but you cannot tell much from outside, because it is all walled. The park is pretty, reminds me of El Retiro.

More than one hour and a half later I arrive to my first destination. The Daitoku-ji temple complex. Many many temples. You have to pay to visit each sub-temple, so I chose to visit two that seem very interesting. Nice and peaceful, there were not too many tourists in the ones I chose. I had some time to walk around and relax. In the meanwhile I read that the temple was constructed by an important politician-warrior from the 15th century, who was also the one to perfect the tea ceremony (seemingly a very important thing in this place – just imagine Colin Powell perfecting the coke-drinking ceremony). Of course, everything in the temple is taken care to the millimeter.

As I said in a previous blog, a temple is different from a shrine in that the temple has a Buddha. Actually the difference is that a temple is Buddhist and a shrine is Shinto. Both religions/philosophies have lived here together for a very long time. Shinto is based on the aboriginal religions existent in Japan before the Chinese came and took over the country (we are taking at the relative beginning of Japanese history). The basic belief is that everything has a soul, so they pray to the soul of the different gods of everything. Buddhism came from India, through China, and also evolved here in new forms, among which you have Zen Buddhism.

The interesting thing is that although the religions/philosophies come from different sources, most people practice both. Sometimes you can even see signs from the two plus a Christian cross in the homes. Why not? Well, I’m sure that for the first Christians to arrive and preach here (specifically Francis Xavier), the compatibility of Christianity and other (specially pantheistic or polytheistic) religions was an issue. It seems that at the beginning the thing went more or less ok for the spreading of the gospel, but at some point the emperor decided that Christianity was a little problematic, and then they killed all Christians (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Now it is ok to be a christian here.

I’ve mentioned Zen Buddhism, and the second temple I visited was precisely a Zen temple. There are no photos of this because they were not allowed. It was a really nice place, though. It had a Zen garden (a.k.a. dry garden) which is one of the most interesting things that I’ve seen so far in Japan. Some people claim that the zen garden at the Kyu-ji (not too sure about the spelling), which I didn’t visit because of too many tourists, is the single-most important work of art in Japan. The garden is very simple. There is gravel (combed gravel), a few black rocks and that’s it. The one I visited is similar, and I believe it predates the other one. The idea is to convey the wonders of nature through the simplest way possible. It certainly has a soothing-hypnotic effect. I really enjoyed it.

The leaflet from the temple, however, was not so poetic, claiming that the garden was so because there was very little space in the temple for a garden, and they had to simplify to fit in mountains rivers etc…

After the temples, I went to the golden pavilion. It was crowded crowded crowded. Crowded as in 200 people with 300 cameras in 100m2. It’s probably one of the most visited attractions in Japan. Although it was interesting, the crowd made me want to flee away.

If you wonder why there are no tourists in the photo, it is because the place is nicely arranged so you don't have to take anyone in your picture.

The temple was originally the residence of one of these very powerful warriors/politicians, which retired with a lot of money. He decided that his villa should become a temple after his death. The edification begun in 1397. The first floor is built in the palace style, the second in the samurai style and the third is built in the Zen style. Originally only the third floor was covered in gold. Now it’s the third and second floor.

After this one I was already pretty tired, so I decided to walk back, which took me another two hours. I went through the river, and I also saw what I, stupid foreigner, interpret as Japanese poverty. If you look in the photo there seems to be some kind of container under the bridge. Actually, I saw people entering and getting out of it, and could peek in. It was a bedroom. Very clean and taken care of, but living under the bridge.

Anyway, I hope the blog was not too long or too boring. If you want to check out all the photos, you can go to my picasa album. I also put on the internet google earth links to the imperial palace, the Daitoku-ji temple complex, the golden pavillion and where I started walking the river. To give you a hint of the distance that I walked, here is the station.

In the next one: Of Miguel, bikes and Saskatoon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"all the news that's new and improved"

Today's soundtrack:
"Peace Train" by Cat Stevens

Today, I made paella de veduras. Yesterday, I fixed the frother on my espresso machine. Tomorrow, I may just fix the doorbell. Clearly I am missing my calling as handywoman extraordinare.

Also, caught fellow Dover Bay alum on Lost tonight. It was a bit like a trip down memory lane, except that this time he wasn't treating me like a servile techie. Also, he wasn't preening infront of the mirror for 10 minutes (still one of the funniest moments in high school backstage craziness ever). Well, maybe he did, but at least it wasn't onstage. So that was a nice change.

I shall reward myself for the making of paella with the ceremonial eating of the chocolate bar. Mm.. sacred chocolate.

Also, if you can name the movie that the title quote is from, you will win the Christmas turkey*.

* N.B. no actual Christmas turkey will be awarded, but maybe you'll get a pat on the back. That's just as good, right?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Osaka adventures

I’ve been here for two weeks already. However, being in a country like this, so different and sometimes so similar, still keeps my mind alert for interesting things to write about in this blog. This time the blog is a mix of several things that I thought could make someone laugh, or think, or maybe experience by proxy a little of what I now see every day.

First, today I discovered that bread in Japanese is pronounced pan. Yes, just pan, like in Spanish. The culinary connection between the Japanese and the Spanish doesn’t stop there. Think about how tapas are similar to sushi and how they love their fish and shrimp, as we do. Besides, they have “croquetas” that taste amazingly similar (unlike the Dutch or North-American version) – I’ll ask if they have empanadas or empanadillas.

Thinking about the delicious raw fish that we ate the other day (and the risks of eating raw fish), I was wondering if Japan was the safest place I’ve ever been to. Well, if you think about how delinquency is almost inexistent (see how big the average police station is in the photo), and how some people leave their bikes unlocked, then it certainly is (compare to more than one million bikes stolen/year in the Netherlands). But then, I started thinking about earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and crazy North Korean leaders with potato-like heads. I think there might be something like a cosmic law of safety that balances it all out in the end. If you are wondering what makes Saskatoon an unsafe place, think about how dangerous gophers can be, and the probability of encountering certain people in Broadway on Friday night…

Did you ever see a monorail? I use it often on the weekends to go to the university. The idea is that, since there is no more space for trains on the surface, and making more underground will spoil the opportunity to have more hot-springs (more on hot-springs later), they put trains up 15-20 meters. The whole train holds to a concrete line about one meter wide. I don’t recommend the experience to anyone with fear of heights.

So, I was getting used to the thing, waiting in the station for the monorail to part, and then I see the train driver get into the train: a teenager with a little book in his hand. Of course, he was wearing a uniform, but that relieved me very little when I realized that the little book were the instructions on how to operate the train. Worst 20 minutes in public transport of my life…

By the way, if you come to Japan from Canada, as present you should bring maple syrup cookies. No matter how much you spend in chocolates, they will not be impressed. Even if they are the famous Saskatoon Berry Chocolates, at more than $1.50 the piece. However, if you make the right choice (as T. did), you’ll get people talking about the cookies for weeks.

Today Y. and I went for lunch to an udon restaurant in a mall. The mall is created around the hot-springs. It seems that you can get hot-water with medicinal properties wherever in Japan if you just make the hole deep enough. Y. suggested going one day to the hot-springs; I replied that I didn’t have a bathing suit, to which he laughed. I hope I don’t find myself telling any other related story about that in this blog…

For the sake of the visually oriented people, a couple extra photos of my villa in Japan. In these photos you can see the hallway, the atrium, the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the entertainment room, the bedroom and the gardens. I omitted the garage and the swimmingpool for an exclusive with Hello!

To end, a real piece of text found in a train ad. I think it speaks by itself: “Do you nod along even when you don’t understand? It’s time to put the days of awkward English conversations behind you!”. Of course, it was advertising an English academy.

In the next blog… 7 hours in Kyoto.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


It’s been almost a week, but I still remember the Mikoshi vividly. What is a Mikoshi? Well, it is a kind of festival, but the name comes from the cart that is carried during the celebration. This cart is something very similar to the “pasos” used in Spain to carry Jesus, the virgin (any of the many that are actually only one) and the saints.

The particular Mikoshi that I went to is a Taiko Mikoshi Matsuri (don’t trust my Japanese, I know less words than current good leaders in North America). This means that it is a festival with drums and carts. It celebrates the rice harvest (something pretty important in these shires…).

If you are ever invited to something like this, please make sure that they understand that you have some kind of problem in your back, even if you don’t. In my case, I was lucky to participate in the least professional of the groups, but my god! Some people there carried the thing for several hours!

The whole process starts at 7:20AM. At that time Yoshifumi-san (the prof. at the lab) and the other members of the group (his neighbors) gather to go to the shrine (important distinction between shrine and temple – shrine has no Buda). The one in the left is Yoshi.

Even at the shrine I didn’t know what the festival had in spare for me yet, but I was grateful enough that I didn’t have to wear the traditional attire (check next photo).

After some waiting and some speeches by the elders (actually the organizers), we are invited to have some sake and white threads that look like they’re gonna taste sweet but are actually salted cod. If you are wondering, yes, sake at around 8:00 in the morning! At this point I don’t know whether I’m starting to like this thing or if I should be scared of what is to come.

Then we are allowed to take the mikoshi. Thanks god, this one has wheels. The mikoshi has a big drum in the middle and, after we arrive to the starting point (after around 30 min of pushing the thing through Osaka’s traffic) the real thing starts. First there is a group of boys (yes, no girls allowed), that are carried from a blanket in the floor to the top of the mikoshi. The idea is that the boys never touch the ground that day. I think that they represent the gods of the harvest or something like that. The boys are carried by their fathers into the cart, and then they start playing the drums in a defined sequence.

You can see a short video of the boys being carried to the mikoshi by clicking here, and of the drum playing here.

Now is when the men (us) take the thing and move it around a little (2 or 3 minutes). I guess this is a kind of blessing for the ground where we are. We got a lot of applause, and some sake, beer and the white threads again. At this point I thought we were done, and felt comforted and even a little proud of myself. How wrong I was! The process has to be repeated around the whole neighborhood. We did it 5 or six times that include pushing the thing with singing-drumming kids included to another condo, then do the change of the kids, and then take it up and move it around again.

Around 11:30 the next group takes over. These seem a little more professional, but, to be honest, I don’t care anymore because I’m exhausted. Now is the turn of partying and eating. Sushi, beer, and speeches by everyone. I, of course, cannot understand anything but the compulsory “arigato gozaimasu” that they repeat almost at the end of each sentence. So, when I say discourses by everyone, that includes me. And there you see Migeru (my name in Japanese, it seems), improvising a speech (sake and beer helps), in English, to an audience of family patriarchs between 35 and 60.

To this follows another party, in which there are some of the wives and kids (which I assume, were not allowed to participate in the carrying either). The atmosphere starts to get slightly more ethylic, and people start approaching me for a little bit of English conversation. I must say that they were all very nice to me, and very friendly. Some of them tell me things about their work: “This is a real story” says one “I work everyday from 9 in the morning to 23. Sometimes I go home for dinner and then back to work”. Nice that they can have these festivals every now and then!

After some fooling around, I go back to the shrine, where the professional mikoshi carriers have taken over. Now I understand why these are professionals. To begin with, they don’t use the wheels, second, they jump around.

Here you can see the mikoshi. Here, some drummers.

The festival finishes when they put the mikoshi in the “mikoshi parking”, in words of Yoshifumi. This happens at around 7pm, which makes for a very interesting, full day of cultural Japan; and for a very long blog… I hope you have enjoyed my description, I did enjoy a lot this peek into Japanese tradition. Next blog: Osaka stories.

ah.. the geekiness

Today's soundtrack:
"I Can See For Miles" by the Who
"Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf

In light of the soul-crushing nature of the previous post, I offer this:

Meet Chad Vader, the underachieving younger brother of Darth Vader.

Friday, October 13, 2006

girl, there's a better life for me and you

Warning! This post contains a bitter discussion concerning the state of the humanities. If you are a humanities graduate student, reading this may be harmful to your thesis, self-esteem, and will to live.

Today's soundtrack:
"We Gotta Get Out of This Place" by the Animals

It happened again. I was waiting in the Nanaimo Airport for my flight back here and, in usual gawker stalker fashion, was peaking at what other people were reading. In front of me, The Da Vinci Code in the hands of a completely engrossed reader. Sigh. I look to my side, notice the man beside me reading a book, and then I see it. The Kite Runner. Again.

Clearly you people aren't paying attention.

Fine. See if I care. Go ahead. Read it. You know you want to see what all the fuss is about. So go on. Read it. I dare you.

Should I just be happy that people are reading? Well, I suppose so. As I was explaining to New Office Guy (or, NOG), the devaluation of the humanities began with the Space Race (sorry, Mom). The States pumped huge resources into the development of science and math in public schools, thereby reducing the funding available to the humanities at elementary, secondary, undergraduate and graduate school levels. Yes, there was a time when telling someone that you were doing a Masters in English wouldn't result in a half hour lecture about how you're wasting your life, that you should really get a real job, and that no one likes English anyway.

But I'm tired of defending my decision to spend 3 years of my life on a thesis that only 6 people will ever read (including my committee). Why should I have to defend the importance of learning and understanding the language that the majority of Canadians speak? I learned math, science, and everything else they crammed down my throat. Without complaint. Well... maybe not completely without complaint. I do not, however, question the usefulness of understanding basic math or science. I run into both every day in my life. Why, then, do people insist on questioning the usefulness of English?

So in an attempt to prove borderline literacy, they pick up The Kite Runner. Well, I won't condemn them for that. They picked up a book. Give them a medal. But extolling the virtues of a book that is so badly written is plain unforgiveable. Where is the desire for literacy awareness? Not that everyone in the world should read Joyce, but why not the classics? Why not something a little challenging?

The only answer is for society to turn this lopsided approach to education around. I'm preaching to the choir here, I know. In fact, I'm preaching to the very angsty (yes, angsty), hopeless, depressed grad student populace that, in reading this, finds itself now curled up in the fetal position, whimpering and wondering why they didn't listen to their Grade 8 science teacher and become a doctor. I apologise.

Without Miguelito here, the delicate balance of science and humanities has been disturbed. I shall attempt to restore the balance with chocolate. Mm.. chocolate.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In the market

So, how do you manage to get what you need in the supermarket if everything is written in a language that you don’t understand? The answer is lots of looking around and some trial and error.

Vegetables are easy to distinguish (they usually come in transparent wrapping), but other things are more difficult; for example, salt. How do you know that something is salt from the box? Does it even come in boxes here? Even worse… can you be sure that it is salt and not baking soda, cleaning salts, MSG or some kind of acid?

You might think that the shelf in the supermarket gives you some kind of indication, but I might say no. In this one the cheese is next to the dish soap (unless the green liquid stuff is actually some kind of milk-lime syrup).

Things that took me more than one visit to decipher:
- Cornflakes
- Dish soap
- Cheese or butter?
- Alarm clocks

Also interesting is how everything comes in small packages. The opposite to Cotsco. The tomatoes, you buy in packs of two (and they are about $2 each one!), the largest loaf of bread that you can buy has 12-extra thin slices (normal is 5 or 6 thick ones). Rice, however, cannot be bought in a smaller package than 2Kg.

In some products you can tell how they are behind in technology/marketing. For example, the toothbrush that I got for free from the USSU is almost hi-tech here.

They also like their milk whole. The most popular is the 4.7%, and I couldn’t find milk under 3% fat. You can almost smell the cow when you open it. On the other side, bread is white. 30% whole bread is the darkest I’ve seen so far.

To finish, a photo to show lady K. that I also have some style choosing my kitchenware. Take a look at the placemat I got in the “all for 100Yen”.

I think I’m done for today. If I can find the salt, the next blog will be about the Mikoshi, so stay tuned. And check the news just in case I provoke an international conflict!

Friday, October 06, 2006

From Osaka, with love

It has already been three days since I've been here, and I think it is already time to share a little of my experiences. I'll try to stay away from the topics about the japanese culture, although I know it is going to be difficult.

The trip here was remarkably unremarkable, specially because most of the northern parts of Canada and Alaska that we flew over were covered with clouds... No icebergs this time.
The arrival in Osaka Kansai airport is always impressive, first because it is built on an island and it looks like you are going to land on water, until it reaches the runway; second, because it's huge. Huge huge.
It's interesting how Japanese business employs a lot of people to stand around and help you out. Sometimes you even see people in the street taking care that you don't fall in a trench. In Canada you would see a sign, in Spain we have ambulances (just kidding).
As a sample, take a look at the ladies in the photo, which are there just to help you deal with the automatic ticket machines for the shuttle buses.

Another interesting thing is the use of english. Checkout this picture:

For whoever is worried about me, you should know that I'm doing fine. My room is tiny, but confortable. Just so you see, I show you a sample of my toilet/kitchen-stool/reading armchair:

In the next episode... Miguel's adventures in the market!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

i'm not here!

Today's soundtrack:
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi

Just passing through. Will be posting in the next couple of days from the 'Mo. Yes, for those keeping score, I'll be gracing you all with my divine presence this Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I must share this.

Communist knitters. It's so damned cool I can't think of anything else to write.