Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Sunny Sunday in Fukuoka at Yusentei and Aburayama

Ena and I had a sunny day off yesterday. It is a testament to how much I liked Yusentei that I decided to take Ena there, meaning that I paid to get into the same place twice in three days - quite a feat for a notorious cheapskate like myself.

Ena liked it a lot. We sat in the tea room and enjoyed the view of the garden:
While sitting there I read a bit about the place's history. It was originally a villa built in 1754 by Tsugataka Kuroda, the feudal lord who ruled Fukuoka. He had good taste. After that we took a stroll around the garden path, passing the waterfall:
And around the pond:
After that it was still early, we still had energy and the weather was still good. So we decided to head over to Aburayama, the tallest mountain in the city, which was pretty close to Yusentei (which I should note is on the opposite side of town from where we live).

I've long been wanting to go to Aburayama, it is quite an attractive mountain that looms over the western part of town and forms a nice backdrop to a lot of scenic places, including Ohori Koen:
Perhaps the biggest reason I've wanted to climb it though is that we can see it on a clear day all the way from our balcony:
We parked our bikes near the foot of the mountain where it became too steep to keep riding them. A road let part way up the mountain and we walked along for a while until we came to a viewing platform which marked the end of the road. There were some good views from the city there:
This platform was less than halfway up the mountain itself and it was still early. We met an old local man who suggested we take the hiking trail to the top of the mountain. It was about a 3km hike according to the signs and we had a lot of daylight left so we decided to take up the challenge - Fukuoka city's tallest peak (though I should mention that there are much taller mountains just outside of town)!

The climb was a nice one, though steep at points. The trail was pretty well maintained and led through some really nice forest with the occasional sunny bit:
At times we could see the whole city with the islands of Hakata bay in the distance:
The trail didn't take us directly up Aburayama, it instead followed a ridge that first took us to the peak of another mountain, Myoukenyama (I think), 452 metres high:
A little while later on the trail we came to Kunimi Iwa, a prominent rock. In feudal times the entire domain of the Kuroda clan (the one that built Yusentei) and the neighboring domain in Chikuzen could be viewed from this rock, so it was a well-known point on the trail. The trail itself, I should say, is also of ancient origins, having been used by Yamabushi (Buddhist mountain monks) for their religious training since time immemorial.

We decided to see how the view was, which was actually somewhat of a terrifying experience. You can't tell from these pictures but there is a sheer drop of a couple hundred metres on 3 sides of this rock, which isn't particularly large. We just went up quick enough to take these pictures and then got right back down again:
Ena is truly fearless!

After that it was just a short hike up to the peak of Aburayama, 597 metres high:
On the hike down we decided to take a different route. As we were to learn to our regret later on, this is something you should never do unless you are sure the other route will ultimately take you back to where you parked your bikes. In our case it did NOT and once we got back to the bottom of the mountain we had to add about a 45 minute walk through town to where we had left them.

Nonetheless, the we enjoyed most of the descent in blissful ignorance of the pain in the ass that awaited us at the bottom.
The scenery was actually better than what we had seen on the way up:
In 1978 somebody had a lot of money that they didn't know what to do with so they decided to build a suspension bridge along the trail just for us hikers:
The view from the bridge up the mountain was kind of nice:
From that point it was pretty smooth sailing to the bottom of the mountain, where the quest for our bikes began. By the time we reached them it was dinner time so we pedaled back to town and had dinner at a Thai restaurant in Daimyo. All in all, a great day!

Friday, May 28, 2010

LLD Cruise 2010

Yesterday we had a sort of "fun day" (for lack of a better term) for the LLD students organized by my colleague Natsu. It seems LLD students are a particularly busy bunch because of all who were invited only 3 - me, Natsu and Simon - showed up for our afternoon of fun.

Nonetheless, we had a great time. We met at Ohori koen and after having coffee at Starbuck's decided to form an impromptu Kyushu University rowing team. By which I mean we paid 600 yen to rent a rowboat on the lake for 40 minutes.

Our heroic sea-journey got off to an inauspicious start as while we were pulling away from the dock a giant sea-bird being steered by a 4-year-old came bearing down on us:
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull!! We're on a collision course! Hard 'a Starboard" I cried.

"Uh....Port?" Simon replied in a confused voice.

"Aye, port." I replied sheepishly.

Well, OK it didn't actually go down like that (stole that dialogue from an episode of the Simpsons) but after some quick maneuvering we avoided the peril and were out on the open sea:
Our course for the day took us first on a circuit of the East side of the lake, after which we crossed under a bridge and Natsu took over on the oars:
During her tenure we thought about trying to leave the lake under another bridge that led to a small canal which (probably) led to the open sea. We got the sense that this flagrant violation of the rules would not go un-noticed by the guy we rented the boat from, who carried a rather menacing looking whistle. Fearing the wrath of the whistle and the shame that would come from its use against us, we decided to stay within the lake's clearly marked boundaries.

Next it was my turn at the helm:
We decided to attempt the most dangerous and daring feat of seamanship possible in all of Ohori Koen: navigating under the dreaded Litttle Bridge (of death)!!!!:
After surviving the Little bridge I was left exhausted and Simon bravely volunteered to share the oars:
We decided to attempt a new Ohori Koen speed record and were succesful - hitting a top speed of just under 0.000002 knots.
Unfortunately the official time-keeper had not been given proper notice in advance of our record attempt, so it only counts as an "unofficial" record.

After the lake Natsu took us over to Yuseiten, a really nice Japanese style garden with a beautiful tea house that I had never been to before.
We had some macha which was really nice:
There was a nice pond in the middle of the garden:
The pond featured one of my favorite photography subjects: Carp feeding frenzies!!!:
We risked our index fingers in order to scientifically test the hypothesis that carp don't have teeth:
We learned that while they don't have teeth, they are gross and slimy to touch. Our full paper on the subject will be published in the Fall 2010 issue of the Harvard Journal of Natural Science.

After that some of our busier colleagues joined us for dinner at a nice Asian fusion restaurant downtown:
And we called it a day!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The elevated expressways of Fukuoka

One of the more interesting features of Fukuoka's cityscape are its elevated expressways.
They come in a variety of designs, are often stacked on top of each other, and run into and merge with each other at varying points, creating some interesting views.
They can also frame the background scenery in a rather interesting way. This is Hakozaki shrine as seen through two levels of an expressway heading into downtown:
They also take traffic through some of Fukuoka's other industrial sites, like these giant oil "bubbles":
Our apartment is actually quite close to one of these expressways, maybe 100 metres away. Fortunately its on the other side of our hill so we don't hear it or have to look at it. Its fun to look at them sometimes when passing by a place where they wrap around a neighborhood or something like giant ribbons, but basically they are eyesores and most people have a "not in my backyard" attitude towards them.

That said, they are actually quite useful for cyclists. I can't ride on the expressways themselves, but they usually have roads running directly underneath them with large bicycle/pedestrian paths. Because they follow the route of the expressway they are usually quite direct and don't have a lot of intersections. Traffic is also pretty light on these roads and they often have a lot of trees planted alongside them, so they are quite convenient.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On Living the Green Life in Japan

OK, as I've been confined to home for a few days by illness and don't have any travels to talk about, it is time for an opinionated rant-type blog post. For the past few years now I've made an effort to minimize my "environmental footprint" as much as possible. This involved doing simple stuff like recycling, using public transportation and making sure all the lights were out when not in use. Since coming to Japan I've noticed that it is much easier to lead an environmentally friendly lifestyle here than it is in North America.

One obvious thing is transportation. Most Canadian cities are laid out with the assumption that everyone will use a car to do everything while in Japan the high population density makes it impossible to lay cities out like that. The natural by-product of this is that public transport and cycling are much more attractive options. Bicycles are everywhere on the streets of Fukuoka and in some places outnumber the cars on the roads. Ena and I now do all of our commuting and shopping by bicycle and we love it. Ena switched over from taking the train to work to riding her bike a couple of weeks ago. It actually allows her to leave a bit later in the morning (since she isn't chained to the train schedule anymore) and is much less stressful than standing in a crowded train. Plus it has health benefits and is free. We'll recoup the entire cost of her new bike within 6 weeks thanks to the savings on train fare. In Canada pretty much everything is arrayed against cycling as a viable transport option: climate, infrastructure, culture and legal regulation pretty much all militate against the use of a bicycle and despite having one I could never use it for anything but occasional recreational purposes.

Another thing is home design and energy use. Our two floor townhouse used a grand total of 103 kwhs of electricity last month. By way of comparison, the average residential user in North America uses more than 900kwh per month, almost 10 times as much. In the winter months we use more, but even then we are generally in the 200-250 kwh per month range. There are probably a lot of factors that explain the difference, but I think the biggest is simply that most homes in North America are ridiculously big, whereas in Japan they are much smaller. The most obvious significance of that is in the high costs of heating or cooling the bigger spaces in North American homes (though that could be mitigated by better insulation in North American homes compared to Japanese ones), though one other less obvious aspect is that it gives North Americans an incentive to buy bigger (and more) energy-guzzling appliances to fill up that space.

In contrast, one of the effects of having a small place is that you just don't want a lot of big appliances taking up your valuable space. We don't have a clothes dryer, dishwashing machine or vacuum cleaner; we have a modest sized TV; and we have only one refrigerator and its about half the size of an average North American one. All of this adds up to big energy savings.

I note that for the most part, we don't really miss having any of those appliances. For all the space, money and energy they use, when you factor in the time you spend loading and unloading a dishwasher and washing by hand dishes that won't fit, you are probably just as well off to not have one because it'll take the same time either way. Same with using a broom instead of a vacuum or hanging laundry outside instead of putting it into a dryer. At worst it might add an extra 5 or 10 minutes of work to your day, which is barely noticeable.

And the TV? I always get in trouble for saying this in front of people with huge TVs, but the fact is that unwatchable crap is always going to be unwatchable crap. High definition unwatchable crap on a 90 inch screen is still going to be unwatchable crap. Likewise, a good show is a good show that you'll enjoy on any TV so long as it has reasonable picture quality and isn't so small that you have to squint. If I had a choice between either watching "The Empire Strikes Back" on a tiny 13 inch black and white screen or watching one of the newer Star Wars prequels on an IMAX screen my choice would be easy - Empire in black and white.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that living in Japan has taught me that its possible to live a low-energy lifestyle without having to lower your living standards or enjoyment of life. This seems so obviously self-evident that I wouldn't think it needed saying, yet every time I take a look through North American news sites I see loads of people absolutely paranoid that the government is going to do something to make their lives more energy efficient and this, in turn, will spell the end of life as they know it. This would explain the reaction of some of these right-wing ideologues to the BP oil spill in the Gulf who are saying we should drill more, not less, because of it.

Of course not everyone can ride a bike everywhere and not everyone can live in a small place like us. But the equation of: "More energy consumption = better life; less energy consumption = worse life" just misses the point of life entirely.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Welcome to my office

Ever since the warm weather has arrive I've moved my "office" onto the balcony. One of the nice things about doing your own research is that you can do most of it at home and I only go in to my actual office 2 or 3 times a week when I have something to do.

Interestingly I've found that my productivity (measured by how much I read and write) has actually increased quite a bit since I started working outside. I think this is because there are fewer distractions out there and usually I just turn the computer off and leave it inside unless I need to use it. Last year when we lived in the dark, ugly Kaikan I ended up getting way less work done on nice days because I always wanted to go outside to enjoy the good weather. This way I can both enjoy the weather and get work done - the perfect combination!

As you can see, I've got a pretty good sized container garden going out there, with a momiji, wisteria and Chinese quince among other plants and flowers:
As an interesting aside about Japanese culture I should mention that setting up a chair on your balcony like this is considered a bit unusual over here. Balconies of this size have a strictly utilitarian purpose: they are a place to hang your laundry to dry and store your air conditioning unit and nothing else. This is what everyone else in the building uses theirs for, despite the wonderful views the balcony affords.

I have to admit that it took me quite a bit of planning to set this up like this AND still be able to use the balcony for laundry drying purposes. In the end though all it really took was an 800 yen portable clothes rack that I can fit behind the green folding chair. It only takes up about 20% of the space but is big enough to hold a typical load's worth of laundry.

Monday, May 17, 2010

New Momiji Tree

Ena and I had lunch downtown yesterday at another one of Fukuoka's fantastic little restaurants. For a grand total of 20 dollars the two of us had a great 3 course meal served at our table with drinks and some really great desserts:
This was the Palarmo Grill, which is always packed but we were lucky enough to get seats after only a 5 minute wait.

After that we had the whole day to ourselves with not much to do. Ena was really keen to do some cycling on her new bike so I suggested we head out to this greenhouse east of town where they have a lot of good plants for very reasonable prices. I have a nice little container garden going on our 2nd floor balcony but I wanted to get a small tree to put by our front entrance, which is just boring concrete.

After our visit to Komyozenji in Dazaifu the previous day with its fantastic garden dominated by Momiji trees I decided to get one of those. I picked out a small one and we were all ready to go to the cash when one of the staff came over to talk to us. I actually knew the guy from a previous visit I had made to the place when he helped me pick out some plants. He told us they had some bigger Momijis around back if we wanted to have a look and so we followed him to the back of the greenhouse where they had a really big collection.

They had this nice one with the very finely shaped leaves that he recommended as it was much bigger and nicer than the one I had chosen in the front and it only cost a little bit more. We were swayed, but my only concern was being able to get the bigger one home on a bicycle. He said he could make it fit if he removed it from its pot, bagged it and then tied it to the basket frame. I was a bit skeptical but, in fact, he was able to do it:
So we ended up buying it. After paying for it when we got on our bikes to leave I realized one problem though: even though the thing could fit into the basket, it was so tall that it blocked my view when riding:
This obviously posed a problem and the only viable solution was to walk the thing home - about a 7km walk.

To make a long story short, an hour and a half later we got back home exhausted with the nagging impression that car ownership might not be such a bad idea after all in the back of our heads.

It was our intention to drop the tree off and then go to a local department store to buy a big pot and some soil to put into it. As we were arriving though we met the 87 year old woman who lives across the street from us saw our tree in my basket and we started a conversation with her about it. She has a really nice garden and was in the middle of doing some gardening. She said there were a lot of big old pots that belonged to our landlord sitting in some vacant land across the street and that we could use one of them. She then shouted at our landlord (we were standing in front of their place at the time - we live on a very very narrow little street) and our landlord's wife Emi came out and said "sure you can use one of them".

So it turned into a little neighborhood project and Emi let us use a really nice big pot and the old gal gave us a bunch of soil she had in her garden and we got the momiji looking really nice in its new pot:
And I then hauled it over to our front door:
I give it about 2 weeks before the neighbor's kids accidentally knock it over and smash the pot while playing in front of it (which they always do unless its raining), but until then I think it spruces up our entrance quite a bit!