Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Baseball And The "State Of Zen"

“I really wish I could be in a state of Zen,” Suzuki said. “I kept thinking of all the things I shouldn’t think about. Usually, I cannot hit when I think of all those things. This time I got a hit. Maybe I surpassed myself.”

- Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Times.

Our human thinking is usually cluttered and there are few moments of true silence on a day-to-day basis. Try thinking about your thoughts. Why do you keep that online commentary going, all the time? Sometimes athletes reach what has been called "The Zone" - a special, prolonged moment of intense concentration and focus - as they achieve greatness. Going for the gold seems to be a trait we all share here on earth.

There is a lot in the reporting about this World Baseball Classic, and the final game of a 16-team tournament, that I don't agree with. But I liked Ichiro's quote, and it was nice that the NYT caught it. Sports journalists should aim for the sublime, and perhaps - in some small way - help fans get over old grudges, and not feed the flames... I like how sports events here in Japan are 100% free from the kind of ugly racism and inane hatred you can encounter on the stands in Europe.

Congratulations Japan for winning fair and square, at the Dogers Stadium in LA. Hey! I have actually been there! I think it must have been in July, the summer of '87, when I saw the Cardinals (from St Louis?) and the LA team (can't remember their name) play a fun game of baseball there - and as you can probably guess, I had no idea at all what was going on.

That's Zen too - the art of just enjoying, forgetting, to not take things so seriously, to not let stuff leave a lot of impressions.

With a pulsating 5-3 win over South Korea in 10 innings Monday night, the Japanese won their second straight Classic and remained atop the international baseball world. Until the next tournament, in 2013, the Japanese can boast about being superior to the South Koreans and any country where players pick up bats and baseballs.

Now the Japanese and the South Koreans will have to wait four years before they potentially meet in another Classic. The wait will undoubtedly feel much longer for the South Koreans. But the Japanese will savor every day between now and then because they can call themselves the best in the world. Suzuki made sure of that.
Winning or losing, it really doesn't matter that much, we all know that. But when you win, you get that special sense of not having to care so much. On the other hand, when you lose, you may be more frank about that fact that the winning or losing didn't actually matter that much. Very Zen indeed, either way.

Congratulations to South Korea for being great too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

World Silent Day

Silence is golden. Now it is also getting cool. The World Silent Day campaign is based on the tradition in Bali of 24 hours of inactivity to rejuvenate people and give the earth some rest from human activities. This tradition is now offered to the global community as a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emission.

Why March 21? The date was selected because of the Northern Equinox and the World Forestry Day, linked to World Water day on March 22, symbolizing life. Even if you can't keep quiet, they suggest that you try to not use your cell phone, or avoid driving your noisy motorbike or car. Try doing something quiet and just enjoy the moment!

I like the idea of a minute of silence at major events, even World Cup football games or the Olympics. Imagine if we could develop this to really all be silent together for something major - like our planet. Silence, you got my attention.

More and a video over at Treehugger.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Not So Cool Next New Thing

Global Talk 21 has an entertaining and insightful take on Thomas L. Friedman and his op-ed column The Next Really Cool Thing.

Friedman has visited the National Ignition Facility, or N.I.F., at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 50 miles east of San Francisco, and explains how the government-funded N.I.F. consists of 192 giant lasers — which can deliver 50 times more energy than any previous fusion laser system. The key here is hydrogen, and by using lasers, "we can unleash tremendous amounts of energy from tiny amounts of mass."

Global Talk 21 comments:

...that meaningful amounts of energy can be extracted for use is going to take technological advances that can only be imagined, and only in terms of many decades, not years, if ever. (Or so I remember from my work on climate change in the 1990s.) It’s a long shot, and it’s a long ways off.

I agree with Jun that we probably aren't really doomed, but I strongly believe our current energy consumption* will have to change a lot.

Friedman is right to realize that the world is facing an energy crisis, and since 2006, he has been talking about how we are addicted to oil. But he also thinks America can suddenly regain its international stature by taking the lead in alternative energy and environmentalism. Woah.

The one country that consumes the most oil is the United States, and that is the country where the people will have to change their daily habits the most. Instead of talking about how great it would be if Americans could invent new and amazing ways to fuel their insane amount of wasteful consumption, why not start telling people that it is not going to happen. If you don't start by reducing consumption, you will never solve the problem by inventing new ways to add to the supply.

That is the real reason that I think Friedman's enthusiasm for a new, quick fix is rather outrageous.

*)As noted in a comment here previously, the US of A didn't get into this position overnight and since they have built their infrastructure based upon the automobile, it will take a long time to change things and reach a sensible transportation mix. Unfortunately, time is not on their side. Pandabonium also shared this graph, that shows how the United States alone consumes more gasoline than the next 20 largest gasoline consuming countries. Note Japan is No. 2 - but these figures were from 2007.

Click image (from The Economist) to enlarge.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Time To Thank The Gods For The Mild Winter, Prepare For The Next

Japan's oil consumption is down this winter by a lot - Reuters has the figures from The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan: overall electricity consumption in February dropped by a record 15.8% compared to the same month in 2008.

And with the operating rate of Japan's nuclear power plants down to 58 percent in 2008, the lowest level in 29 years according to a government survey, you know we depend a lot on oil and coal for that comfortable feeling.


Oil consumption for thermal power generation dropped by a massive 52% (Fuel oil) and 83% (Crude oil) respectively. The large drop is thought to be due both to a contraction of manufacturing activity due the recession, coupled with a very mild winter.

So lets all head to the nearest shrine or temple and pray for that particular good fortune ;)

The drop, which was bigger than many had expected, was a reminder that the economy in the world's third-biggest power consumer is in its sharpest contraction since the oil crisis in 1974, shrinking 3.2 percent in the last quarter of 2008, weakening demand for coal, LNG and oil.

China's oil demand is also down as the world's second-largest energy consumer (guess who is still No. 1) succumbed to the global economic crisis.

Remarkable (but hardly "shocking" as an energy analyst at a Japanese brokerage put it - while speaking to the almighty Reuters on condition of anonymity, you would have thought he or she would have said something more interesting for the record - "shocking"?).

We can, of course, hope that renewable energy will come to the rescue.

Instead of handing me and others a meager 12,000 yen as a "stimulous", why does this long-suffering and oh-so-green-last-year-when-Japan-was-holding-the-G8-Summit government not whole-heartedly support people (like me) who would like to do:

1) home refitting (insulation, double glass windows, upgrade A/C and water heating, etc.)
2) solar panels & other efforts to go off-grid, and feed excess generated power back to the grid)
3) vegetable gardens & small farms (for example starting local farmers markets)

Case in point: According to JA General Research Institute, there are about 5,000 direct-sales farmers market stores nationwide in Japan. Of them, about 2,000 are run by farmers' cooperatives and 3,000 by third-sector companies and other farmer groups.

"Many of the consumers started having doubts about mass production and the mass retail system," according to Masayuki Yamamoto, a researcher at the JA General Research Institute.

If you live outside of the big cities, you probably already have a lot of ideas for how you will survive the current recession. If not, think again. Next winter, around this time of the year, could possibly get pretty bad. "Shocking"? Oh, we will see about that.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Roger Waters: Leaving Beirut

I should have posted this a long time ago. The song was first released as a single only in Japan in 2004. Most of the song's lyrics are derived from a short story about Waters' hitchhiking excursion in Lebanon in 1961. Roger Waters' reaction to US and UK involvement in the Iraq war is one of the few songs we have protesting the current, ongoing wars. Waters has performed the song at every show on his The Dark Side of the Moon Live tour, replacing the spoken-word recitation with a visual backdrop of the story. The video is based upon the original sketches by Bill Sienkiewicz.

Is gentleness too much for us
Should gentleness be filed along with empathy
We feel for someone else's child
Every time a smart bomb does its sums and gets it wrong
Someone else's child dies and equities in defence rise

More lyrics of this amazing song.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cloned Meat: No Thanks

NHK World just gave us the straight dope on why cloned meat is not such a great idea:

Cloning has attracted attention in recent years as an efficient way to produce quality beef and pork. But some consumers are concerned about the safety of products from cloned animals, following many reported cases of stillbirths and newborn deaths.

Stillbirths is a term that means the animals can't give birth properly, and their offspring dies inside the womb or during the process of giving birth. Claiming that meat from such animals is safe? You eat it, not me. In fact, let the experts eat it, and then we can all study their health and how they feel. I'm sure the experts will volunteer cheerfully: we can even film them as they shout "Oishi!" like the actors do here on TV all the time.

And why are cloned animals often sick or deformed? You can read about the causes of stillbirth on wikipedia, but I warn you, it is not for the weak-at-heart. Neither is this quote from The Yomiuri:

While the report acknowledged that fetal death and mortality rates among cloned animals are much higher than non-cloned animals, it said this was because cloned animals with problems tended to die early.

And by the way, meat consumption is never safe for the planet - it requires huge amounts of water and grain to produce meat. Rainforest in the Amazon is being clearcut so farmers can raise cattle, or grow soybeans for feed. Not a very smart way to feed the people on Earth.

Japan's Food Safety Commission, which operates under the Cabinet Office, reached the view that "cloned animal meat is safe to eat" on Thursday, after a panel of experts advised it on the safety of meat from cattle and pigs cloned from skin and other cells. Such food products have yet to be put on the market in Japan, and there are no labelling rules. Oh, and in case you wondered, in January, 2008 the Bush administration's experts also concluded that cloned meat is safe and does not need to be labelled.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

JR East Struggles To Find Alternative Power Source

Ouch. Asahi notes that East Japan Railway Co. has halted operations at its Miyanaka hydropower plant in Niigata Prefecture as it was illegally using too much river water. JR East is searching for alternative power sources but says the number of trains running in the capital could be reduced:

The plant, capable of generating 450,000 kilowatts of electricity, supplied 23 percent of the power used by JR East, including that for its main lines in the Tokyo metropolitan area... [JR East President Satoshi] Seino acknowledged the company is now "walking a tightrope" in securing the necessary power to keep all of the lines operating. He said the company cannot rule out the possibility that the shutdown at the plant could affect train operations.

The 367-kilometer Shinanogawa in Niigata is Japan's longest with one of the largest total water flow. If you live in Niigata, you will be very familiar with this river, which flows from Saitama all the way up north across Honshu to central Niigata City. At midstream, nearly all the water is used for power generation at Miyanaka Dam and the Nishi-Otaki Dam, which is operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

JR East is already considering reduced services in preparation for power shortages, including the busy Yamanote and Chuo lines in Tokyo. If you live in central Tokyo, this summer could get really bad. Again, a reminder how fragile our current way of life really is.

List of Hydroelectric powerplants in Japan with photos

Satellite images of Niigata Rivers from JAXA

Official website of the Shinano River Work Office (In English, with history, maps and lots of data)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

My 5 Favourite Trains In Tokyo

Living in Japan, I really got to appreciate the public transportation, especially the trains. Over 70% of rail services are electrified, and since the Shinkansen started operating in 1964, this country has enjoyed fast, reliable trains that pollute a lot less than if everyone was driving their own car. Now, JR East has troubles with its hydroelectric power supply, and this city just wouldn't be the same without it.

1. The Yamanote line loop was completed in 1925 and carries an average of 3.55 million passengers a day, which translates to a patronage figure of 1.3 billion passengers a year. Amazing.

The Yamanote Line will take you around central Tokyo in exactly one hour. It is a loop line connecting Tokyo station to Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Shinagawa - and back to Tokyo station again. The trains keep coming at rush hour at brief intervals of just minutes. The E231 series trains from Kawasaki Heavy Industries are real work-horses which everyone living in this city will be very familiar with.

2. At Tamachi station, you get to see a lot of passing high-speed trains, including the 500 and 700 Shinkansen, bound for Osaka and Hiroshima in western Japan. Another spot for Shinkansen train-spotting is near Yurakucho, where you can have a beer and a snack, literaly just meters below the train tracks (Thanks Tom for the introduction). There are also Shinkansen running north from Ueno and thru from Ikebukuro up to Omiya, Saitama....

3. Yurikamome: This new, driver-less train connects central Tokyo to the Odaiba islands in Tokyo Bay. Smooth, futuristic, and very popular with young couples who like the fun fares at Venus Fort, Tokyo Big Site, and the Odaiba Beach, just minutes from the city. Tokyo wants the Olympics in 2016, and this is where some of the events may be hosted.

The Yurikamome trains run with rubber-tyred wheels on elevated concrete track guided by the side walls.

4. Tokyo Momorail: Haneda is Tokyo's domestic airport, with some flights to Korea and China as well. The Tokyo Monorail was inaugurated in 1964, just in time for Tokyo Olympics, and is still the most efficient way to get from the city to the airport, although not as smooth as the Yurikamome.

Some 127,000 passengers ride this every day, from 5:30 AM to midnight with over 500 trains.

5. In 1957, the Odakyu Line, a private railroad, proved that high-speed trains were not only technically possible, but also economically feasable: they actually set the world speed record in that year, quite an achievement. And that was 52 years ago!

They run from Shinjuku station to Hakone, near Mt Fuji, and the Romance Car is just that - a great service for people who are heading for the hot springs, hiking, golf courses, ryokans (and love hotels) for the day off. The 7000 LSE has seats that turn so that passengers always face forward. Note how the driver's seat is above the passengers in the front. A nice touch.

Videos over at Treehugger.

Friday, March 06, 2009

How Shall We Get Out Of The Recession?

Nikkei Business Publications recently announced the results of a survey conducted with engineers in Japan's manufacturing industry on the current global recession. They were asked hard questions about the impact of the recession and measures to cope with it.

I am a little surprised that they turn out to be such tree-huggers: an overwhelming number thinks solar cells, electric, fuel-cell and hybrid vehicles - and even wind power - could provide the breakthroughs we need to get out of the current recession.

The survey results showed strong confidence of frontline design and manufacturing engineers in Japan's solid industrial infrastructure and high-level technology, notes Nikkei BP:

A key to break through the recession is development of 1) solar cell, 2) electric vehicle, and 3) agriculture / food, in descending order.

The respondents were also surprisingly positive when it came to which country would be first to recover from the recession: 26.7% of the engineers thought Japan would be first, followed by Europe (15.4%), China (14.1%) and the United States (12.8%).

Over 1,300 engineers replied to the survey, conducted in December 2008 and January 2009.

Treehugger: Will Renewable Energy Get Us Out Of The Recession?

Another very real possibility, of course, is that we will not get over this recession. How do you make plans for that?

What I'm reading right now:

The Times: Barack Obama bets the farm in $4 trillion poker game
The Financial Times: Obama’s chance to lead the green recovery

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Honeybee Shortage Worries Farmers In Japan

You have read about the crisis US farmers are experiencing as honey bees are affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Has it hit Japan, or what is going on? Why are bee keepers like Osamu Mamuro, president of Mamuro Bee Farm in Yoshimi, Saitama Prefecture so worried this year?

Japan is home to many small-scale beekeeping operations, and has a long history of bee keeping. Unlike the US, beekeepers in Japan do not often transport their honeybees long distances, meaning there is less stress that could affect the survival of the insects. There are no genetically modified crops cultivated commercially here. The honeybee shortage this year is noted as there has been a sharp decrease in the number of bees kept by beekeepers. But noone seems to know "why" this is happening. The Mainichi has more details.

It is estimated that over 90 food crops are benefited by honey bee pollination and the value of this service to the United States agriculture was at least 18 billion dollars in 1998, according to Dr. M. (Tom) Sanford in Florida, who also describes how Japanese apple growers first discovered that bees were helpful to increase apple harvest - in the 1930s. Fascinating stuff:

An apple grower, E. Matsuyama in Japan, noticed these small brown bees working his apple blossoms and nesting in nail holes in his wooden house in the 1930's. Soon he made more nail holes in his house, and as the bees multiplied and his apple crop prospered; he switched to cutting sections of hollow reeds for the bees to nest in. Hornfaced bees pollinate a third of Japan's apples, and their use is spreading in North American and China.

From the flowering of the ume (Japanese apricot) trees in February, to the making of soba noodles in November, farmers tend to their land and crops, while the honeybees work alongside them, engaged in their own "farming" as they gather nectar and prepared to propagate. Farming and bee cultivation are strongly linked in the cyclical nature of their enterprises.

Every effort will be needed to make sure that important pollinators like honey bees are thriving.

Treehugger: Honeybee Shortage Worries Farmers In Japan

Monday, March 02, 2009

Departures (Okuribito) Trailer

I meant to post this last week, when Departures (Okuribito) got the Academy Award for Best foreign language film, but you know how it can be. This is a trailer with subtitles, thanks to Youtube. Here at Kurashi, we tend to talk a lot about the living, and while death is always just around the corner, we ignore it at our own peril.

At the temple in Okayama where I stayed 6 years ago, we had to care for the (very) old retired priest, who finally died late one night, maybe around this time of year, just after my shift to care for him had ended. The following day, I had to sit at his side (with another, much more experienced shugyosha from Seattle). Our duty was to greet visitors who wanted to say a final farewell to him, and to keep the incense sticks burning. Many people knew him as a great tea teacher. The old priest looked very peaceful. Sitting next to a dead person half a day: it wasn't as difficult as it sounds, and not strange at all. We buried him the next day, with some of the rituals seen in Departures, but with much more sutra reading.

In Europe we don't really have many opportunities to see the dead, although that may of course differ from case to case and from country to country. Open-cask funerals are the norm here, thus the need for a lot of preparations and ceremony. Seems Departures shows all this in some detail. Funerals... What a topic. I'm so glad the Oscars this year went to real-life films, like this one and Slumdog Millionairs, rather than to the usual, standard fare. We need to change our thinking about living, and perhaps this is a film that can in some small way do just that.

Directed by Yojiro Takita.
Written by Kundo Koyama.

Genre: Drama.

Synopsis from

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled "Departures" thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life.

While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of "Nokanshi," acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.

For Kansei-san