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Archive for March, 2009

Try Nihongodict

I’ve always been a fan of Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC project, and I have used it ever since I started my Japanese studies.  Over the years the interface has changed only slightly, but the technology running the dictionary has not changed and in 2009 it certainly shows.  In some ways this is great because it feels quite natural for guy like me who used to build web pages in that style.  However, compared to all of the flashy new Web 2.0 Chinese dictionaries, it certains looks very old-fashioned compared to modern dictionaries.

Recently, though my link hopping pastime, I stumbled onto Nihongodict, a Web2.0 style interface to the dictionary database used by the WWWJDIC project.  Unlike so many Web 2.0 projects, this dictionary has a very simple interface and displays matches rather quickly for me here in Japan. My only complaint about WWWJDIC is that it sometimes takes awhile for the results to show.  That was expecially true when I was in Virginia and they closed the UVA mirror.

I will still use the WWWJDIC project as it has become a natural reflex whenever I am looking up a word, but once the page loads I will be reminded of Nihongodict.  I’ll have to try Nihongodict out more often and see if it is worth a permanent switch.

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The Cages of Taipei

I always complained about the balcony of my apartment in Hachioji.  It is referred to as a veranda by the real-estate agency, and I suppose they use the literal meaning from the dictionary:

a usually roofed open gallery or portico attached to the exterior of a building

Sounds nice, right? These are examples of what I call a veranda, however.  I prefer to call my former “veranda” a narrow balcony, because that is all it is.   It is too narrow for a small table and chair where I could enjoy a cup of tea during good weather. It is also too narrow to allow enough sunlight to support a decent herb garden–we did have success with a small pot of coriander though.

While I thought my balcony was bad in Hachioji, the last time I was in Taipei I realized that it could be much worse–I could have a caged in balcony.  Why is it that most of the balconies and windows are barred or caged in Taipei? Is it because of crime, like in Miami? Do too many people throw each other out of the windows during arguments?  The following pictures were all taken in Yonghe city on a walk-about, by the way.

Barred Windows 8

If it were not for the caged balconies, I would think this picture was taken in Hachioji

Barred Windows 1

Even in the allies the balconies and windows were caged

Barred Windows 2

Plants seemed to be very popular on the balconies though, and I guess you don’t have to worry about them falling over in a typhoon or a strong gust

Barred Windows 3

Some of the grating protrudes from the building, some (like at the top) simply cover the window

Barred Windows 4

The office building on the left vs. the residence building on the right

Barred Windows 5

Even on the tall buildings we find caged windows and balconies

Barred Windows 6

Two different types of caging, same building

I am left wondering whether or not the buildings always come caged.  Does each resident pay to bar or cage their windows?  Now that I have looked at the photos more closely, especially the high-rise building photo, some windows actually don’t have any caging.  Perhaps it is a personal choice that each resident makes?  I’m also curious if this is also practiced in Hong Kong or Singapore.  Someday I’ll have to make the trip!

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Road Trip 2008 [Part II]

After enjoying Kanazawa, we got back into the car and decided to take a drive around the Noto peninsula (能登半島). I really didn’t know what to expect, but it made for a great day trip. We first followed the coastal line to Imahama (今浜) and all the way to Chirihama (千里浜).

Coastal Drive

Coastal highway alongside the Japan Sea (from Kanazawa to Noto Peninsula)

The road signs indicated that it was possible to drive on the sand, but I was skeptical. Still, it seemed like a good thing to try so I exited from the highway and as we approached the entrance of the beach, I slowly drove the car onto the sand and held my breath. Much to my surprise, the car was fine and even accelerated with no problems. Apparently this area of the beach if famous all through the country for this unique property of the sand. If you ask me it is the perfect place for a family vacation. A rope is tied up marking places you can park your card, and if you back into a spot and open the hatchback you can have an easy BBQ on the beach and enjoy swimming as well. The waves were no more than few centimeters and it seems like a very friendly place to take young children for swimming.

Chirihama

A picture is worth a thousand words — I am going to have to come back here some day

Capturing some wind

Wind turbines were all along the peninsula harnessing the natural sorces of energy

After getting our feet wet we jumped back in the car and explored various other parts of the peninsula. We visited the rock formations on the western part of the peninsula, drove along the coast on the northern part of the peninsula finally ending our trip north at the rice fields growing along the side of the coast.

Rock formations along the coast

As we made it to the tip of the coast I noticed that the number of Self-Defence Force (自衛隊) trucks was increasing. As this part of the country is intruding into the Japan Sea, I wondered if these trucks were for a training center or for a radar station monitoring North Korea. Perhaps I let my imagination wander too much.

Terracing

Terracing along the side of the peninsula

From the bottom of the terrace

And the view from down by the sea looking up

We headed back on the inland roads and make our way back to Chirihama to find a hotel. We ended up at the conveyor-belt sushi shop and a business hotel. Unfortunately, like many parts of Japan outside Kanto, the collapse of the economic bubble in the 1990s seems to be taking effect here as well. Perhaps during summer vacation week it is more exciting, but that night the peninsula was eerily empty. In the morning the eeriness vanished and we woke early so I could sneak in a morning swim before what looked like was to be a rainy day.

Our Man Flint

Your brave and fearless author wades into the sea to do battle against the strange and evil object in the sky — Our Man Flint!

By lunch time were were already back in the middle of Nagano prefecture, so we decided we’d just spend the rest of the day in Karuizawa (軽井沢) in Gunma prefecture. My wife says that Karuizawa used to be the place where rich people from the Kanto area spent their summer vacations. Many owned a second home in Karuizawa and spent their vacation time shopping, dining, and playing golf and tennis. She says it has changed since the bubble burst and is now a regular place for anyone to enjoy. It still did have an air about it of luxury though–I never saw so many Mercedes and BMW cars in the same place in Japan. We spent the afternoon at the outlet mall winding down, and after nearly three days of Japanese food exclusively, we dined at a popular Italian restaurant. We got there just in time before the crowds came and as such we hardly waited. The food was decent but it wasn’t anything to jump out of the chair about. After dinner we drove back our hotel in Nagano and enjoyed another restful evening.

The final day was rather easy. We had a slow morning where we ended up in an Aeon shopping mall trying to search for some coffee. This part of Nagano seemed a lot more like Saitama and Western Tokyo than any other place we had visited. For lunch we stopped in at an Italian restaurant (Ristorante Fromage) that is also a formagerie called Artelier de Fromage.

Fantastic Cheese Risotto

Hands down the best risotto I’ve ever had in my life — it was like I had died and gone to heaven

Not only was the food delicious, I also walked away with various cheeses to enjoy back in Hachioji. During this trip I was also hoarding micro-brews (地ビル) where I could find them for enjoyment in Hachioji as well. After a wonderful lunch we go back into the car and speed over to my wife’s hometown in Kawagoe to say hello to her parents. We got back to Hachioji around 19:45, fifteen minutes before the car was due back at the rental center–I always get my money’s worth!

I was very thrilled with this trip in the end. I was able to escape the urban wastelands of Kanto and see the Japan that I could never see on business travel or by taking a train out somewhere. To all of you stuck in wastelands like Tokyo and Osaka, do you best to rent a car and go see Japan. It has so much more to offer than the metropolises, seriously.

Merchant vessel off the coast

I’d rather be sailing … er, working on a freighter?

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Road Trip 2008 [Part I]

As I promised Kaminoge some time ago, I am now finally ready to write about summer vacation last year.  Yes, I know that nearly a year has passed.  But finally it looks like there is going to be a break in my work–at least for a week or two.  I won’t document the whole trip in too much detail, but I thought I’d mention the high-lights of the trip for anyone interesting in travel.

I rented a Nissan Note and spent seven days with the missus driving around central Japan enjoying a fabulous road trip.  The Note is a fabulous car, by the way.  I’d seriously consider buying one if I needed a car in the future.  The last road trip I did was from Halifax to Montreal in 2005 during mid-Winter.  Standing on the hill of Vieux-Fort (Quebec) in deep snow and watching the huge slabs of ice flow down the St. Lawrence river was simply breathtaking.  How I love winter! Roads trips are great because you are in complete control of where you are going and how you get there.  Back when we were planning this trip, gasoline prices were spiking all around us and I also figured that perhaps this might be the last road trip for quite some time.  Funny how gasoline has come back down now…

The road trip took us through eight prefectures and over 1500 km.  Surprisingly, I only had to fill up the gasoline tank two and a half times during the whole trip, making it more affordable than I originally thought.  Major stops a long the way were the following, with a map showing the major legs of the trip.  The trip beings on the red line departing from our former apartment in Hachioji.

Road Trip Course 2008

  • Bed and Breakfast at Shirakaba (白樺White Birch) Lake
  • Scenic Drive on the Venus line with fog covered mountains
  • Coastal/scenic drive along Japan Sea/Toyama Bay (糸魚川 Itoyokawa)
  • Kanazawa Sight-seeing and the open-air fish market
  • Driving on the sands of Imahama(今浜) and Chirihama(千里浜), as well as taking a swim in the Japan Sea!
  • Scenic drive through the bucolic Hanto peninsula (home of the self-defense forces???)
  • Fine dining in and around Karuizawa

Early on Saturday morning we made our way to the highway to make the trip through Yamanashi prefecture and Nagano prefecture to Shirakaba lake where we would be staying in a bed and breakfast.  We visited Nagano with my parents last summer, but it was only for a two days.  Once again I was amazed by the beauty of the mountains.  Nagano likes to advertise itself as the Switzerland of Japan, and though I can’t compare it to Switzerland, it is quite beautiful and driving is a lot of fun.  Nagano has plenty of snake-like roads through and around the mountains with places to stop your car and take photos of everything below.  I won’t write too much about the bed and breakfast, it was just what the doctor ordered: lots of rest, good food, and a hot spring.

Rainy day at Shirakaba Lake

After arriving a small thunderstorm passed over which brought cool weather and lots of beautiful fog

The next day we spent the morning driving along the scenic mountain roads.  As it had rained over night, the fog was sticking tight to the mountains and truly was a beautiful sight.  We took the Venus line hoping to get to the elusive Utsukushigahara (美ヶ原), but when we got to the place, we discovered that it would be a ninety-minute walk.  It was quite cold, and with my wife expecting our baby, we were really in no condition to be hiking.  As well, the flowers were apparently not blooming yet, so we gave up on the idea and continued down the road.  We caught a major road through the valley and caught up with the national highway system eventually.  While my wife slept comfortably in the passenger seat I blazed through Nagano prefecture enjoying the mountains and the scenic views along the way.

Nagano Fog

Green hills and plenty of fog

Plains on the top of the mountains

Overlooking Nagano

Nagano Mountains

Before I knew it, we were at the Joetsu (上越) junction and practically at the Japan sea.  Nigata prefecutre turned out to have nothing much to see except for tunnels, and before I knew it we were in Toyama prefecture.  From the highway I could see a road hugging the coast line, so we got off the highway at the next exit and started driving down the coast.  From the window of the car all I could see was the vast blue-green sea.  I might say that it looks notably better than the black water of Tokyo bay.

Japan Sea

Finally we made it to the sea!

This part of Japan was so different from anything I’d seen before.  Rather than roads line with banks, family diners and DVD retail shops, almost every building was a fisherman’s home.  The houses were constructed of wood and had a very weather look on the surface.  The roofs were all using the same black tile, and every house looked the same.  On the GPS screen of the navigator, almost every kilometer there was yet another post office.  I noticed a lack of banks and shopping centers, and I now understand better why so many protested against the privatization of the post office.  If the post office closes up shop, there is no bank to stand in its place in the rural parts of Japan.

I followed the coastal road for some time, eventually finding a place to stop the car and go stand on the beach.  Much to my surprise, when I approached the water, it was not sand but rocks that were at my feet.  When each wave rolled back into the sea, the sound of the rocks rolling over one another was so unique that I simply cannot describe it.  The beaches of Virginia and North Carolina are all sand in this was something completely new to me.

Japan Sea

It is hard to see, but those are rocks on the shore, not sand

Satisfied at having putting my feet in the sea, we got back in the car and decided to spend the night in Toyama.  In retrospect I probably could have made it to Kanazawa, but the roads were crowded and I was getting tired of driving.  Toyama turned about to be a very nice city.  We stayed in a hotel near the station and had dinner at a regular izakaya, and we caught the street/trolley car (ちんちん電車) back to the hotel.   Toyama city is not overcrowded and cramped like most cities in Eastern Japan.  Yet at the same time there were plenty of tall buildings and men walking around in suits.  I suspect that if there were jobs for foreigners in Toyama, I might seriously consider it as a place to try living.

Trolley in Toyama

Toyama’s trolley

The next morning we were off to Kanazawa.  I could say so much about the city, but I think I’ll let some pictures do the speaking.  I wouldn’t place it before Kyoto on a list of places one must see, but it is a quiet city with its own character that is worth it if its on your way.  We visited the samurai district streets, the old merchant district, the Japanese gardens, the 20th century art museum (very good!)  and the open fish market.  We had also planed to walk around the old merchant street by the river, but unknown to us, the day before a flood passed by destroying most of the shops on the ground level.

Kanazawa Old Samurai Street

A lookout on the entrance to this compound – a local kindly explained how it was used to verify someone’s identity.  While we cannot see inside, a guard on the inside can clearly see our faces

Kanazawa Old Samurai Street

Old Samurai District of Kanazawa

Kanazawa Modern Museum of Art

My favorite exhibit at the Kanazawa Modern Museum of Art – the inverted pool.  It sure is odd looking up at the people above you from inside the exhibit!

Kanazawa Old Merchant District

The old merchant district with beautiful wooden warehouses, quite similar to that of Kyoto’s old merchant district

Kanazawa

Up-close with the lattice work

Kanazawa

A tree from somewhere up-river clogs the river

Kanazawa Gardens

Traditional Japanese garden in Kanazawa

For more on the fish market, see this previous post on the Omichio Open Air Market.  If you like morning markets in Chinese communities, you’ll love this fish markets. I will post the latter half of my summary tomorrow.

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Wheat is good

I have found overtime that I really enjoy wheat beers.  If you like wheat beers, then I high recommend this one:

Hefe Weißen

You can find it at any Carrefour in Japan I suspect.  I picked this one up at the Sayama store quite awhile back.

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Change?

Though my endless link surfing, I somehow found a link to a New York Times article on Japan’s Political Dynasties.  When I think of political dynasties, naturally, due to my background, I think of the Kennedy family,the Clinton family and especially the Bush family.  It seems Japan is no different in this aspect. However, one part of the article particularly struck a chord.

“Sure, we’re tired of all these brats,” said Keiko Nomura, 53, who owns a shoe shop in Yokosuka. “But Japan still has money, and Japanese basically hate change.”

I added emphasis as I’m not going to write about politics; rather I shall write about the change aspect.  Do read the article though, it is quite interesting. So about the change…if you’re going to live in Japan for any decent length of time, you simply have to get used to this aspect of the culture.

As much as C-levels (CEO, CFO, CTO, etc.) in the companies I have worked at talk about changing our work habits and increasing our productivity and efficiency and what not, the idea of change stops at the desks of the mid-level managers.  I imagine that this is just as frustrating for the C-levels as well as the general employees.   The C-levels were once sitting in the mid-level desks and don’t try to initiate change there, so perhaps they’ll all just blowing hot air?

I remember in a former job, all of the  employees were divided into teams called “QC circles”.  We would meet once and week, and the goal was to somehow improve some aspect of the way our company operated.  During one meeting, our QC circle leader came up with a great idea and we implemented it.  Our team was lauded by the CEO and we even won a prize, but when it came time to implement the change in the company, it stopped at our group manager’s desk.  Why change the status-quo?

I was reading about a very interesting development process for software that I think would work really great in a small company like the one I’m currently working for. I won’t go into the details though because I doubt anyone who might read this blog is interested in software processes. To get to the point, after reading about how one project manager implemented the process for his team in France–the process drastically improved the quality of their software while also allowing reducing the amount of overtime and extra-hour work required–I became quite interested in the process.  I would welcome any process that reduces the inefficiencies and long hours in my current job.

The company I am at now has small teams, very short and very tight schedules, and we have to provide multinational-level quality and support to large global companies. Amazingly,  at this time there really is no process at all, yet somehow the work gets done and the customers are (somewhat) happy.  However, because there is no process, an unbelievable amount of work is duplicated and the amount of overtime and weekend/holiday work is really quite astounding.  The team leaders work almost twice as much as regular engineers like myself, so I count myself lucky to be just a grunt!

While I would love to give the process a try, when I think about it more, such a software process would never really work in Japan.  The French, as a culture, generally value value their time away from work.  In fact, we can say the same thing about all of Western Europe and North America too.  In North America and Western Europe, new managers generally try to shake things up to make their mark on the organization, and the staff have come to expect such changes.  That culture does not exist in Japanese businesses, where continuity and loyalty are valued above all.  If I tried to present the process to my boss, he might be interested, perhaps even agree to some training seminars on the process, but I guarantee at the end of the day, we’ll stick to the status-quo.  I have a new-found respect for Carlos Ghosn (of Nissan) and Sir Howard Stringer (of Sony); they are operating in very large Japanese companies and I imagine their jobs are not easy at all.

I’m not trying to be judgmental at all.  The Japanese do business their way, and if it works for them and they’re happy with it then who I am to say anything?  In fact, I really find the dislike of change quite fascinating.  The last time I was apartment shopping I was explaining to a coworker how difficult it was.  He agreed and shared a similar story of difficulty in trying to rent a place.  When I asked him why there were no new businesses trying to challenge the established real-estate system and came up with novels ideas and what not, he replied, “Well, Japanese don’t like change.”

The other day I was talking with a friend about the new developments in his neighborhood.  He is hoping the rents will decrease due to the competition added in the neighborhood.  While that makes sense economically, I suspect that Japanese landlords hate change too.

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Vernal Equinox

Another weekend has come and gone, but this one was very much appreciated.  Friday was “Shunbun no Hi”, a national holiday for the vernal equinox, and as such I was able to enjoy a very relaxing three-day weekend.  To make it all the better, Spring is upon us!  The weather is pleasant with cool breezes and all around the flowers are in bloom.  I suppose the sakura are due any time now.  As beautiful as tropical climates are, I cannot imagine living somewhere without seasons.

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Alas, it is Monday though, and I found myself sitting in an fluorescent-lit office with a temperature of 28 degrees and no ability to open the windows due to all of the “kafun” (pollen) whiners.  Look now, I have really bad seasonal allergies too, but let’s toughen up a little and enjoy the weather, yeah?  Before I get myself into a rant, let me return to the events of the past weekend.

20032009200

You know you want to go for a swim in this beautiful Tokyo water, right?

I have been running on empty since I moved from Hachioji.  It is not that my son is keeping me up at night, no.  I don’t know why, but I have just been exhausted from the move and have never recovered.  After this past weekend, however, I feel quite recharged and excited.  On Friday morning I woke and accompanied my wife and mother-in-law to their favorite salon in Oizumi Gakuin.  With my hair thinning as quickly as it is, I of course have no business at a salon.  My job was to take care of Liam while they had their hair done, which, believe it or not, is a four hour ordeal.

So I set Liam up in his stroller (or pushchair if you like), supplied him with his favorite pacifier (or dummy if you like) and the two of us headed out for a walk around Oizumi Gakuin.  It is funny hour parenthood changes your perspective.  As I walked down the narrow roads that separate one block of houses from another, I could not get over the thirty-something and forty-something men in family-vans racing down these narrow streets at high speeds.  Were they trying to relive their early-twenties?  Have they no fear of hitting a child on a bicycle?  I suppose the penalties are not so daunting…

20032009202

Oizumi Gakuin residents have successfully chased away a property builder trying to construct an 11-story one-bedroom apartment building on a very small plot of land in their neighborhood.

All of the traffic was starting to make me stressed out, so I ducked into a Jinja (a shinto shrine) and after getting weird looks from an old man relaxing on a bench on the shrine grounds, I made for the main street in Oizumi Gakuin.  This street stretches from the station all the way to the Self-Defense Force training facilities in Wako City (和光市) .  It was quite nostalgic walking around this area, recognizing shops where I purchased furniture or had eaten lunch/dinner.  I was reminded of my naive optimism I had at the time.  I was also reminded of how everything except my career has been quite wonderful here in Japan actually–I’m thank for that.  Unfortunately, work dominates a man’s life in Japan.

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A jinja tucked away in the vast suburbs of Oizumi Gakuin

Oizumi Gakuin was a nice place to live when I look back on it.  Sure, our place was quite far from the station, but everything we needed for daily life was around us.  The area is quiet and clean, and was always wonderful for taking a stroll.  Liam enjoyed a nice two hour nap in the stroller, waking up only once in awhile when I stopped pushing his stroller which always upsets him–he likes to be on the move.  He falls to sleep almost instantly in cars, trains or any moving vehicle.  It was really nice to simply walk around and look at everything around me.  While the weather is nice I’d like to take Liam out more often for walks like this one.

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Every once in awhile you seem something that reminds you that this is still Japan — I love this gate!

Saturday was a slow day, this time in Kawagoe, and the three of us–Liam, my wife and I–decided to go shopping near the station.  We actually didn’t do much shopping though.  We walked around Kurea Mall (Clear Mall), a street lined with many shops in between JR Kawagoe and Seibu Hon-Kawagoe stations, and Liam slept like a log.  In Baby Gap we made the mistake of waking him to try on an outfit and he would not forgive us for it.  He screamed and cried even after we returned him to his comfortable sleeper clothes and he was not happy until we were back on the street pushing his stroller.  After looking around a bit more, we took a break at a Starbuck’s coffee shop with amazingly comfortable sofa chairs.

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Another hidden secret in Oizumi Gakuen

Now for an anecdote.  I have to admit I have not had much coffee in a long time.  This past autumn I had to sit by a guy at the office who woofed down McDonald’s every morning, ate snacks every hour, and was constantly drinking drip coffee.  Somehow the mixed aromas of McDonald’s and drip coffee every day killed any desire to drink coffee of any kind.  Four months have passed now and I have recovered from the trauma.  Time heals everything.  I know that coffee snobs will say Starbucks is crap, but it sure beats the diabetes-inducing canned coffee from the vending machines!  The combination of the jazz music, the light chatting background noise, the comfortable maroon sofa chairs, and a warm latte while night began to fall on Kawagoe was really quite therapeutic.

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Master of his domain, watcher of all that can be seen

After Liam had a bottle of formula milk–and I must say I don’t know why he drinks it, it smells awful–he looked like he would fall asleep so we thought we’d sneak off to dinner while we had the chance.  We had Thai at a little place tucked away deep in Kawagoe that only the residents know, and I left with a full stomach after enjoying a Chang Beer and my favorite Thai dishes.  The night air was quite cold, but I suspect that is because I was still sweating from the spicy basil minced chicken dish (Gai Pad Krapow)!

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My son, Liam, just a day after he was born

Sunday was really quite uneventful.  In the morning we had a video conference with my parents over Skype.  Liam was friendly and fun, showing off for his grandparents and putting on his best smile.  The rest of the day he was quite cranky.  He wanted to go to sleep but he was fighting it all day.  While Chie took a much-deserved nap, I opened the window in our room to let in the breeze, and  I sat with him in the rocking chair to try to get him to sleep.  He fell asleep quickly and snored for about an hour while I read the weekly newspaper (especially the fascinating report on the rise of entrepreneurship).  He woke from the nap with the same crankiness as before and continued on his rampage for the rest of the day.  He finally lost the battle during his bath, however.  He lost his energy to fight and feel asleep twice in the bath, and afterward, he slept for three hours on our futon before we moved him to his baby bed.  To top it off, I woke up at 7:30 AM to get ready for work this morning, and he was just starting to wake.  The little guy slept over six hours without waking!  He must have really worn himself out over the weekend.

Liam4

“Put the camera down you wanker!” – this is one of my favorite pictures of the little guy

Now that I am a parent, I can really appreciate how wonderful a three-day weekend truly is.

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