Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Long Miles Home pt 1 Kanazawa to Chicago

I leapt out of bed early Friday morning, eager to begin my journey home. I was so excited I had only slept about four hours that night... a fact that was soon to come back and haunt me.

A quick breakfast at McDonalds and I jumped on an early Thunderbird Express for Osaka. A mere three hours later I was in Osaka station where I caught the JR Airport Express, another hours journey by train.

I met up with Zach in Kansai International Airport, he was there to welcome his friend Erica in from Hong Kong. We had a bit of sub-par Okonomiyaki for lunch, and then hung out a bit in the terminal, keeping me company before my flight.

After I checked in and made it through security I noticed that the passengers could be broken up into 3 major groups. You had the tourists going home, the military guys going home, and a few English teachers like me... going home. When the boarding call came I practically bounced down the jetway to my seat. I was so thrilled to finally be on my way.

The twelve hour flight between Kansai International and O'Hare International was uneventful, if typically boring. The food was bland and unfilling. The films were bland and unfilling. Sadly, I am one of those who simply cannot fall asleep while traveling.

We landed uneventfully in Chicago, but here things started to unravel. While the arrival was 'on time' the pilot took his sweet time getting to the gate. I was off the plane like a shot, and made it through immigration with little trouble. But the baggage claim was... slow. Very slow. It took perhaps 35 or more minutes to get our bags, I can't say for certain as I had no watch. When I grabbed my bag, at last, and made it through customs, I had about 30 minutes or so to catch my flight. Tight, but not impossible. Or so I thought.

Chicago has one of the worst layouts for making an international-domestic connection. After going through immigration and customs you are forced out of the international terminal and into a train ride to the main terminal. There you are unceremoniously dumped into the general passenger population and required to wait in the regular security line just like everybody else. Add to this the fact that for some reason the boarding pass I got in Osaka wasn't valid, and I had to wait in the ticket line too. Oops. Suddenly that 30 minutes to catch the flight aren't looking so good.

Once I made it up to check in I was informed by the annoying little computer that I was too late to check in for this flight. No shit Sherlock, I just stood in line for 35 minutes. I used the customer service phone, and she told me I could go on standby and that there were three more flights to Denver that evening. No problems. But I have to go stand in the customer service line.

90 minutes later and my flight (45 min late departing) and the NEXT flight to Denver are both long gone. I finally get to the head of the line and get put on standby for the next next flight. Oh joy. Back through security and to the gate... where what do I see but the other 350 people on standby to Denver. Hmm they didn't mention *that* pertinant little detail.

Some passengers had been waiting since Tuesday (it was now Friday evening, central time.) I know discovered at least part of the reason for the horrific United Customer Service. They wanted my seat to offer up to one of the poor saps who had been stranded because of the Denver Blizzard. DIA had only reopened a few hours earlier.

Needless to say, I was NOT high on the standby list. I watched the remaining flights leave with great dismay. I also noticed that one of the primary sources of seats for standby customers was missed international connections. I was soon joined in my misery by people flying from Copenhagen, London, and Moscow. Now I may be a bit biased, but it seems to me that people who have been flying for 8-12 hours should be afforded a little more courtesy.

As the group waited in line for some answer, any answer, on flights to Denver the next day we were all handed hotel vouchers... except that they weren't for a free hotel. Oh no, they were for "the cheapest rate available." Oh thank you sooo much United. Way to go the extra mile and help your customers. Faced with paying for a room as well as another flight in a mere six hours, many of the standbys, myself included, chose to stay the night in the terminal.

It was a long night...

To be concluded.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

Requium for a Bar

My favorite bar, with my favorite bar dog, is closing down December 31st. "Forum" is an institution in Kanazawa. A rooftop bar with beautiful views of the concrete jungle that is Katamachi. It's relaxing, cheapish, and just an awesome place to drink a beer and take it the view. Anna, Julie and I went one last time over the weekend to say farewell. We'll miss you Forum!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Homeward Bound?

After almost 16 months away from home, I am ready to see Denver again. Yet my path is not without some... complications. Denver is in the middle of one EPIC blizzard. The entire city is shut down, Denver International Airport is closed for 24 hours, the entire Metro Area is under two feet of fresh snow.

I mean I like a 'White Christmas' as much as the next person, but this is just crazy. Ironically last year it was Japan that had the insane amounts of late December snow that wrecked everybodies plans.

Well here's hoping for an uneventful flight, and a joyous reunion!

Home here I come!

A big thank you for Mom for the pics!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Family Film

Digging my suitcase out of the closet today I uncovered a CD filled with photos I took right before I left. It is interesting (to me anyway) to see how far I've come as a photographyer in a year and a half. I'm not saying some of these aren't good pictures, but they can certainly be improved a bit. That said, they have reignited my love of shooting 400 speed black and white film. There is something so organic and friendly about a grainy black and white photo, something that you just don't really get in the hyperclear world of digital photography.

My sister and I blast clay pigeons in California.

My Grandfather, Bob.

"Ok, this is the gas and this is the brakes."

California vineyards

An orchid.

Matt in the snow, back when we were roommates and not seperated by 6,000 miles!

It almost doesn't seem real that I'll be back in Denver with all my old friends and family (and Chipotle) in just a few days. It's been so long, I just know that its going to be a shock to my system. I can't wait!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Merry Chris

Santa came to Kanazawa a little bit early this year! Of cousre depressingly enough I was Santa. I didn't think I was really old enough to play Santa yet, but our kid's Christmas party proved me wrong. *sigh*

Itchy beard aside, we had a pretty great two hours. The kids all got to make a 3D Christmas Tree Card, play Christmas Bingo, and of course exchange gifts.

We had them write a message on their cards, "Merry Christmas, Love From ______." One of them ran out of room so his just said "Merry Chris." Stickers ended up all over the cards, tables, and sometimes faces! One of our students, a mere two years old the poor thing, got as her gifts a pen and stationary set. Oops!

Even with the dash of insanity that you will have when you get a bunch of little 'uns in the same room, it was a success, and a lot of fun for all involved. A big thank yo u to Mo for coming out and helping us on a Saturday morning, without her it would have been a pretty poor party. (I have long ago learned that while I may have many useful skills, party planning is most certainly NOT one of them.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Photo School Results

I've spent the last month taking an online photography class at The Perfect Picture School of Photography. It was a pretty solid course, and helped me spot some of the weak points in my photography. We shall see if it leads to an improvement or not! Here is the coursework I submitted over the last month, some of which I have posted here before and some of which is new.

Eyrie Pagoda

Eikando Bridge


The first lesson was to fill the frame with your subject. While I had some good closeups of leaves and the like, I decided to go with a portrait, as it's traditionally a weak point of mine, and some landscapes as those are some of my favorite subjects. Of the three, Marie got a Perfect Picture statement from one of the teachers, which made me pretty pleased.

The Lone Pilgram

Fall at Kanazawa Castle

The next lesson was the Rule of Thirds. Looking back through my work I noticed a great many photographs that completely ignore the Rule of Thirds. Oops. As for the two submissions, the top one got good marks, but the bottom one should be thirds the other way, here the sky here is boring and the castle much more interesting.

Fushimi Inari

Info Desk

Christmas at Labbro

This lesson was framing, using something in the photographt to 'trap' the viewers eye. This was a tricky lesson, I had some ideas of good frames, but this was the week we had two hours of sunshine in about 8 days. I had to get pretty creative and seek frames inside, with one legacy shot from May in Kyoto. Gotta love that Fushimi Inari. All three were well liked, though of course none are perfect.

Past and Future

Nishi Chaya

Geisha Crane

The final assignment was to work a subject. We had to take one area/ subject and rather than settle for one nice picture of it, keep going. We had to try using new lenses and new perspectives to 'see' our subject in as many different ways as possible. A rare moment of sunshine had me out the door and down the block to the local Geisha district, and I rather like how they came out. The Crane detail was praised, as well as the long shot, but the picture with the looming apartment building was too busy, subtracting from the impact of the beautiful geisha houses.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Odds and Ends of the Past Week

May you live in interesting times. Sheesh, I sure have been lately! Start with The Gun. My student got it for me for Christmas. Rarely have I received a gift that is so awesome yet so utterly useless. An 8 inch long replica Python .357 Magnum Lighter? I can just see me know, offering lights at the local bar. Talk about scaring away the ladies! I rather doubt I could ever sneak it back into the states either... too bad really.

I haven't been 100% well in over a month now, with two (minorish) trips to the hospital in the space of a bit over a week. First it was the same hacking cough that everybody in Ishikawa came down with at the end of November. I kicked that and then developed a rather unsightly case of contact dermatitis all over my face. One of my youngher students came in and remarked "What happened to your face?... Do you have chickenpox?" Two ointments and an oral antihistamine later and I was much improved. Japanese hospitals do love their drugs.

Then there was another quick cold, and then my eye started to hurt Monday. So yesterday I trekked back up to the hospital to have that looked at, fearing conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Except that there was no doctor who could see my eye (pun not entirely intended). I was moderatly incensed, it is only the Kanazawa Municiple Hospital, how could they not have a doctor who is qualified to at least take a look and give me some eyedrops? Alas I had to head back into town, where my wonderful manager took pity and escorted me to the eye clinic. A hefty bill later I had eyedrops and another ointment and a diagnosis: A somethingsomething cyst. "Take the drugs, should be gone in a week." Great. Thanks.

All has not been bad, my Aussie friend Anna's family is in town for a week or so, and we all squeezed into one of the local Okonomiyaki places. It was crowded, but awesome, as usual. Of course poor Anna is going a bit loopy(er) with her whole family here to cause grey hairs. I was lucky, I only had to deal with one family member at a time instead of three all at once! Eek. She's even had to give up her apartment, rooming with Julie above. Now that is dedication.

Less than 10 days before I visit Denver for Christmas. The first trip back to the USA in well over a year. This is going to be interesting. I just know I'm gonna use some random pointless Japanese while I'm there. I just hope I don't bow to the Pizza Delivery Man (thanks Az).

Attack of the Science Blogs

I often read the Bad Astronomy Blog for interesting and breaking astronomy news. The Bad Astronomer is in a heated contest for the Best Science Blog at the 2006 Weblogs award. For anybody out there who digs astronomy, check out his site and maybe drop a vote in on the awards. Its for a good cause! (The principle competion is a biology blog. Ugh I can't stand biology!)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fantastic Japan

I've been spending a lot of time in Photoshop lately. Just fooling around really, seeing what looks cool. Presented here are some of the fruits of my labors. First up is a blue modification of the shrine Fushimi Inari. I'm trying to make a rainbow version, but the delicate 'painting' required is driving me nuts. I need a new, more stable, mouse.

Here we have a pair of black and white shots from Koya-san. The forest picture was especially unexceptional as a color photo, but really looks pretty cool monochrome.

I like the desaturation effect on this old thatched house in Shirikawa-go.

Roppongi Hills as a painting.

Focus all the attention on the little girl playing in the river. This was done using the history brush tool, which is insanely cool and useful.

Marie in Kyoto in black and white.

Possibly my favorite, Marie and Fiona in Kyoto, with just their brolly in color. Once again the original photo was nice but not amazing, but with a little work in Photoshop and I think it came out pretty snazzy looking.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Krakatoa:The Day The World Exploded August 27, 1883

While it may have the most cumbersome title of any book I've ever read, Simon Winchester's chronicle of the epic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 is amazing. Tackling both the history of Java, starting with the spice trade and subsequent Dutch colonization, he works his way through a discussion of Plate Tectonics, and of course the titular eruption and the aftereffects.

While some may find Winchester's fascination with detail a bit much, he does tend to cover many topics that are only moderately related to his story, the central tale is certainly compelling enough to hold your attention.

After a bit of history on the Spice trade, the author dives into the history of scientific study in Indonesia. There is a lot of fascinating bits and pieces here, including some early (pre-Darwin) work on what was to come to be the Theory of Evolution, as well as a look at Plate Tectonics, and the role that plays in the creation of Indonesia's many violent volcanoes.

The star attraction is the account of the actual eruption, and it does not dissapoint. While Krakatoa is not the largest eruption ever, or even the largest in history (Tambora, also in Indonesia, holds that distinction with an eruption in 1815 and a deathtoll of 71,000 over Krakatoa's 36,000.) However, Krakatoa was the first major, world altering disaster to occur after the invention of the telegraph. Before, news accounts would be weeks or months or even years behind the event. With Krakatoa the news hit London papers a mere day later, and continual, global coverage was possible for the first time in history, and that is why, even to this day, Krakatoa has a hold on the popular imagination much greater than most volcanos. After all, how many non-geology nuts have heard of Tambora?

This is not to disparage Krakatoa. While it may not be number one, it does have a few other distinctions. It is the loudest sound ever heard by modern humans, audible over 3,000 miles away. As Winchester quoted from a contemporary science writer, Eugene Murray Aaron,

"If a man were to meet a resident of Philadelphia and tell him that he had heard an explosion in Trenton [New Jersey], thirty miles away, he might be believed, although there would be some doubt as to his powers of imagination. If however he should make the same assertion of an explosion in Wheeling, West Virginia, three hundred miles away, all doubts of his accuracy would vanish. but if, with every sign of sincerity and a desire to be believed, he should earnestly insist upon his having heard an eplosion in San Francisco, three thousand miles away, he would recieve a pitying smile, and his listener would silently walk away."(p 261)

Not only did the sound of Krakatoa messily destroying itself propogate to extreme distances, the shock wave was recorded as having traveled around the earth 7! times. The tsunamis were recorded as far away as France. Much attenuated of course, but still measurable. Closer in the waves officially destroyed 165 villages and towns and conspired to fling a Dutch warship, The Berouw a fullmile and a half up a river, killing all aboard in the wild ride.

Winchester closes out the tale with a look at Anak Krakatoa, Son of Krakatoa, the fresh volcanic island that surfaced from the caldera in the 1930's. The child is growing at a prodigous rate, proof that the tectonic demons under the waves were not fully sated by the eruption of 1883.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Combat Cycling

In Japan riding a bicycle on the street just isn't done. It's not technically illeagal, but it is rather rare. To be fair, it is dangerous enough being on the sidewalk, which provides no barrier to the determined motorist. To ride in the street would be akin to suicide!

That said, riding on the sidewalk is an imperfect solution, at best. Afterall one of Japan's best known attributes is the rather large population, many of whom often seem to be milling about between your average cyclists start point and destination. This randomly moving obstacle course can tax even the best of reflexes, especially since you have to go through at top speed!

Now there are a few schools of thought on how to properly negotiate the sidewalks of Japan. The old-school response is to trundle along at a medium speed ringing your bell every five feet. While this does ensure a clear path it is also sure to annoy everybody in the area. The youngsters response is to barrel along at top speed and trust in God/ Buddha/ Shinto deity of choice to keep them safe at the end of their journey.

I have chosen a middle ground, a combination of speed, maneuverability, and judicious use of the bell. It works pretty well but I have to say I'm appalled at the lack of spatial awareness of the Kanaawa pedestrians. When I'm on foot I keep a weather eye out for people coming up behind at high speeds, but most people simple don't even think about it. This leads to a lot of stopping in the middle of traffic for any reason, a window sale, a crepe, friends, to break wind, streach, or anything else! This stopping is quickly followed by me ringing my bell like mad and gyrating clear so as not to flatten the poor soul.

Some months ago Mo and I were riding down a very broad sidewalk that could have easily accomodated 5-6 people abreast. Three little old ladies were walking in such a way as to block the whole sidewalk. There was absolutly no place for a bike to go, so I slowed way down, rang my bell and waited. And waited. Finally I detoured into the street, which got the ladies attention, and she got over and made a space, too late for me to use of course. But it gets better, as Mo came up, ringing her bell, the lady... got back over and closed the gap that Mo was seconds away from! Luckily Mo made it clear, but that lady almost got taken out, despite everything we did to make our presence know. And who do you think got a dose of Japanese invective? *sigh*

I've also had an opposite reaction. Some weeks ago I was tooling along at a nice slow pace, and rang my bell to alert to schoolboys who were blocking the sidewalk. One of them looked back at me and then leapt clear in a motion that can only be described as panicky. I wasn't going at anywhere near top speed, and I can't think of any panic instilling circumstances other than crazed American on a bike. Ah well. I'd rather have panic than blissful ignorance.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pizza Party-licious

The weather lately has been mostly a constant freezing rain. Just cold enough to give you hypothermia, but not cold enough to actually become snow. Weather like this really gets everybody down, so I thought it was time for some low-key old fashioned fun. A pizza/ cards party at my tiny apartment.

Those who have visited me know how hard it can be with just two people in my "living room," but I decided to go for broke and crammed five people; Anna, Dan, Travis, and Alexis, into my humble abode last Friday night. With pepperoni pizza from Dominoes, Asahi, and Uno we had a great night chatting and cursing at each other for all the vicious vagaries of an Uno game. "Draw Two?!?!? Again!?!??! Our friendship is Over!"

The next day, before Travis headed back into the Inaka, we met up with Alexis for some Italian food and Christmas Shopping. Everybody is getting excited for the Christmas Break. A lot of people are going home, some are going to Thailand, and some are having relatives coming out to visit here in Japan. I know I can't wait for my first trip home since I arrived over a year ago.

On Saturday night we had the work Christmas Party at a local place we just call "The Chili Restaurant." It sticks to no single cuisine, instead offering a nice, spicy arrangement of dishes from all over the world. We had spicy Hong Kong Nabe, or so I heard. All I know is it tasted great.

After that I headed over to meet up with some more friends at the local dance club where we thrilled to a very... eclectic selection of music. From traditional Jewish tunes to Reggae to '50s pop we got our groove on to some pretty strange tunes. Yes folks, Grant "Twisted again, like it was in fact last summer." They even played a remix of the old Batman TV theme. Yeah you know the one. "BATMAN!" While the music was crazy and the DJ's constant chatter was annoying we still had a great time and will be back for sure.