Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pythagoras's Switch

I sometimes wonder why I'm here in Japan. I love it here, there's a great deal to say for the country, but my original purpose, learning more about the language and culture, seems to have fallen by the wayside. But then I see things like this and I realize there is a good reason I am here.

I remember seeing this video at a DVD store, and once I started watching I had a very difficult time looking away. I've always loved Rube Goldberg's old cartoons, and I find these creations absolutely fascinating. Language note--at the end of every setup, they say "Pytagora Suichi," or Pythagoras's Switch, I guess referring to the ancient mathematician. The little sign that always ends the routines has that written in Japanese.

More information is here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nagano, Part III

[Started August 12]

It's been a rough couple of days. Honestly, if I'd gotten more sleep or given myself a day to rest, I might have taken things a bit more lightly, but as things were, I think I'm not much cut out for this sort of travel.

The climb to the top of Kiri ga Mine [the hill I mentioned climbing in my last article about Nagano] was grueling, and I cried a bit when I finally reached the top. Dehydrated and exhausted, I never wanted to see another slope, but since it was fairly early and I'd only gone about 20 km horizontally, I passed the first campsite and went on to look for a more primitive site about 5 km on.

This meant climbing more hills. Normally they wouldn't be that bad, but I was utterly worn out. I stopped at the tourist-trap shopping mall and got water and tea, then kept going. I walked up the hills, then rode down, then walked up. I missed the turn the first time, then realized I wasn't to turn off the highway, but needed to actually go under the highway to meet up with a hiking route marked on my map. I jumped off the road and waded through shoulder-high grasses for a while until they cleared and opened up to reveal a visitor center. I filled my water bottle then moved on. The campsite was at the end of a long, very long gravel path. There were three buildings behind a wire fence, and I saw no one. Fearing the worst and yet still hoping, I searched for any sign of a caretaker; finally I saw a sign reading, in Japanese, "This campsite is closed at this time. Please use another campsite."

I broke down here, just completely overwhelmed by what happened that day. It really wasn't far to the previous campsite, maybe another 30 minutes or so. But I couldn't stand it anymore. I considered staying in the large, open field across from the three buildings that had obviously been used for camping before, but I'm a bit timid to do something like that without provocation. So, uncertain what to do and not really interested in doing anything, I sat there, trying to look pleasant when hikers coming from a nearby meadow path passed by.

Then a savior of sorts came along on his 250cc Yamaha Virago. Actually, "catalyst" is a better word, I guess. He didn't register me at first, but when he got off his bike and looked at the sign on the entrance to the open-field campsite and said "What, it looks like it's closed," I thought he was talking to me. In fact, though, he was talking to himself.

I talk to myself, but I'm usually fairly discreet about it and never knowingly do it in front of other people. I'm not of the "first sign of madness" mindset, as I've done it for 32 even years and have yet to go (completely) insane. It seems a bit more socially acceptable here than in the US, and I have several Japanese co-workers who talk to themselves publicly, especially when busy (which is nearly all the time). I recently read somewhere (I'm afraid my source is somewhere in the ether) that people who talk to themselves are more likely to be able to think through things more thoroughly (I'll let the alliteration stand), though again I am proof against that. In any case, I think it is more a sign of loneliness, or aloneness, than of madness.

Still, it is a bit unsettling to see, I know, and my biker friend was having a much more involved conversation than I am accustomed to, and at a louder than conversational volume. Finally he noticed me, and we complained to each other about the closing of the site. He said he'd been there many times, and that he really liked the place. Then, after a bit of public consultation with himself, he decided to stay anyway.

He was obviously a drinker, with rotting teeth that came to points and a generally dirty appearance (though of course I wasn't exactly spotless after three days without a shower), but he was also obviously a kind and friendly person who had a bit of trouble relating to "normal" people. Very often the two go together.

As I said, he was a catalyst, and I decided, after some quiet and private thought, to follow him. We agreed that threatening clouds encircling the heads of Yatsugatake were a good excuse in case police came out. We avoided much conversation as we pitched tents and prepared our separate dinners. When dinner was ready, though, he invited me over for conversation and some extra food--he guessed rightly that I wasn't able to carry much of a variety of foods on my bike. I declined until he offered some cooked ham--protein sounded pretty good at that point, and it was something I had very little of.

Our conversation was almost entirely in Japanese--occasionally he groped for an English word to explain a Japanese word I didn't understand. Because of this I'm not completely sure of the accuracy of my interpretation. But we talked a bit about camping and the growing number of roads in Nagano after the Olympics, and how difficult it is to get away from city lights in Japan. Even where we were, 1400 meters about sea level, away from even the small population of visitors to the mountains, mostly concentrated in a small area, even there the lights of Suwa city below lit up the western horizon. It was difficult to see the Milky Way, such a brilliant feature on dark nights on Mt. Shasta or in the boonies in Kansas.

We talked about languages, then his hobby, listening to shortwave radio for broadcasts from North Korea by any Japanese abductees. As I said, sometimes I didn't fully understand the conversation, and here is where it became most difficult to follow. From what I understood, abductees have made shortwave logs of their daily lives, and there are volunteers who listen at certain times of the day for these logs and register the results to some website.

He later brought out his liquor, saying one of the reasons he came to the camp was to drink. Can't say that I blame him, but alcohol is terrible for any physical activity and I haven't been much interested in it since the beginning of my trip. I tried a shot, though, and it was good--it had a spicy flavor, as if made from jalapenos, a new flavor in liquor for me.

Suddenly a deer barked nearby, and my companion told me deer had increased in the area. He said he'd been there in fall when the bucks' antlers begin to itch, and at one point had been woken up by the startling sound of antlers being scratched against a fence near his head. He then started talking about an insect, or animal--what it was I didn't understand at first. But as he continued, talking about deer's hooves and eggs dropped on the ground, I figured out he was talking about ticks and Lyme disease. He suggested that it might have been fear of Lyme disease that had closed the campgrounds. I had first seen a tick earlier in Yatsugatake, then another in this field as I was putting my bike away. Sitting in my shorts and flip-flops, I suddenly became very nervous and checked everywhere for the stupid things. I didn't find any, but the thought disturbed me until I left the next day.

I slept poorly. I blame the liquor, though I didn't drink much. I set up for breakfast. Hikers passed by, and I noticed one in particular who seemed to be well equipped, a veteran hiker. He sat on a rock nearby but behind me, and I forgot about him: I had more important matters to consider. My camp espresso machine, exactly like one I used on my trip from California to Kansas a couple of years ago, had broken, and after the frustrating day before I had a short fuse and threw a fit as well as the espresso maker. I'm sure I looked like a buffoon to the park ranger, the man who was sitting on the rock behind me. He came over after I'd settled down to trying to light my stove. He asked a few questions, was fairly friendly, but I sensed he was holding something back. He asked me a couple of times how long I planned to be in the area, then we sat in silence for a while. He wished me luck and walked off. Just before I left, my friend from the night before woke up and poked his head out to say goodbye.

I was uneasy about the whole deal, ticks, and trespassing, and all, but when I came by around noon a couple of days later, there was a camper who had actually taken down the fence and parked their car in the camp site, and they seemed to have had no problems.

[End of my short journal]

That was longer than I expected, so I'm afraid there will be a part four. The next one will have pictures!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

An Organic Interlude

I will post my final article about my Nagano trip soon, but life has intervened a bit and I haven't yet sat down and put it all down (or up).

But I want to write a little about my new hobby--cooking, in particular cooking organic, almost Macrobiotic foods.

Because of my dad's influence, I grew up eating Macrobiotic food, though only occasionally and not with much zeal. However, I learned a lot from the experience, and now, as an adult with high blood pressure and more mature taste buds, eating a stricter diet appeals much more to me. I generally try to eat organic foods, more for philosophical reasons than concerns about pesticides, though I do find organic foods taste better than conventional (sometimes much better, for example peaches and tomatoes). I always buy shade grown, fairly traded, organic coffee also for philosophical reasons, but more than anything because it just tastes better. But I've spent the last year eating primarily processed foods from the local supermarket, mainly because of laziness, I suppose. Once in a while I'd stop in at a ramen shop or Matsuya (Japanese-style fast food, with pork over rice), or even a curry tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlet. No wonder my blood pressure has risen.

Because of concerns about my health, because of some odd stuff that happened at the end of my biking trip, because of concern about the environment (livestock contributes more to global warming than automobiles), I decided last week to cut back on the processed food and try my hand at cooking some real food from scratch.

Before I continue, I should note that I am using the word "Macrobiotic" in a very loose way here--Macrobiotics is not just about being vegan or cutting sugar and salt, it is a whole way of life that I do not participate in. I actually know very little of the philosophy underlying Macrobiotics. I use the term basically because the cookbook I am using is called "Macrobiotic Start Book," and I want a better word than "vegan" to describe what I am doing.

In any case, using the book I just mentioned, I have made almost every meal from scratch, entirely with organic foods. I'm not going to claim any miracles have happened--if my blood pressure has gone down, I haven't measured it; I haven't lost any weight; I still need more sleep than I would like. What I'm interested in is the taste--four or five out of the five or six meals I've cooked so far have been really, really good, much better than I have eaten before. They were filling, more filling than most foods I eat. And I feel better about what I am eating--I know where every ingredient came from and how much I put in. So I also know I am eating a much wider variety of foods--until last week I probably ate a main dish consisting of salty sauce, some kind of meat, and perhaps one vegetable. I did often eat salads, but at best that was lettuce, avocado, tomato, onion, natto, and mushrooms, and recently I had settled on lettuce, natto, and onions most of the time.

Here's what I've eaten this week:
daikon (Japanese radish)
mushrooms (maitake and shiitake)
burdock root
kuzu (arrowroot)
sesame seeds
green onions and their cousins, nira and naganegi
pickled plums
lotus root
Japanese pumpkin (kabocha)
red pepper
Japanese seaweed (nori, wakame, and, in stock for soup, kombu)
Japanese cucumbers (kyuri)
Japanese eggplant (nasu)

Most of these are included in every meal (I mean dinner). I haven't included the wide variety of nuts, the tofu, or brown rice.

And I'll tell you what. It's good. It really tastes good. The best miso soup I've ever eaten came from my kitchen, and not because I made it. It just was made with high quality ingredients in the right proportion. I just ate an excellent curry, and perhaps my favorite dish so far was the first one, mabodofu, a spicy Chinese dish of tofu often made with pork. It was fantastic. It really pleased me that I had made it, but more than that I was happy to be eating something that tasted so good!

Honestly, an important part of the change was shifting from eating processed foods to cooking from scratch--using quality ingredients improves the flavor a hundred-fold, I'm sure. But the simplicity of vegan ingredients makes it enjoyable as well--when it tastes good. If it doesn't taste good, I won't bother eating it. I've had a couple of flops so far, but the rich flavor of the other foods have made up for those bad meals. And it would be pretty difficult to go back to processed foods, though I haven't sworn off them completely yet.

One final note--one big reason I've started this whole business was to reduce the amount of packaging I throw away because of processed foods. I haven't kept a tally so far, but I imagine the difference is pretty pronounced. But my biggest problems is drinks--I drink a lot of water and juice every day, and plastic bottles add up extremely quickly, and though I can recycle the things, plastic recycling isn't the most pleasant process from what I hear. I filter my water and try to bring a bottle with me wherever I go, but juices are a much bigger problem. At some point I'll probably start making my own fruit juices, but for now I'm very happy with my latest concoction: Tangy Ginger Water(TM). I cut up some ginger, throw it in a teapot and boil it, then add apple vinegar and honey. I let it cool to room temperature, then throw it in the fridge. It really tastes great, and would be ridiculously cheap if it weren't for the honey (it tastes good without it, but I prefer a bit of sweetness in my drinks), as it is mainly water. I just wanted a little bit of a healthier drink, and it turned out pretty well.