21 December 2012

Japanese Houses

One of the things that can be a bit depressing about Japan is the generally low quality of most residential construction. Japan still doesn't really have architectural preservation the way American or Europe does, so virtually all buildings here are town down and rebuilt every 30 years or so. It's why, while there are some individually awesome pieces of architecture around Tokyo, the city as a whole is architecturally dull.

This isn't just a matter of lack of preservation regulations -- it's also because most people here have a strong preference for new construction, especially true for residences. The market reinforces the lack of preservation. So, when building a house, there's a general assumption that it will be torn down in about 30 years, and accordingly, the actual quality of most residential construction is low.

I'm not talking about sloppy construction -- Japanese carpenters are perfectly diligent. It's that most residences are low quality by design. The walls are extremely thin (a constant complaint among foreigners) and are not insulated. Windows are perennially single-pane, and I suspect even many ceilings are uninsulated leading to the houses being seives for heat in either direction (this lack of insulation in particular probably also stems from the tradition of totally unheated houses).

You can witness this in action when a new Japanese house is built. It's insanely fast to put the house up -- a few weeks ago I went on a business trip to America, and some nearby sites were foundations. I came back and the house was complete.

This low concern for residences seems to spill over into design as well. I live in Daita, a neighborhood near Shimokitazawa on the west side of Tokyo, and the vast majority of houses here are utterly uninteresting. Of course, this is Tokyo so lot sizes are very small and houses need to use all the space, but even so the vast majority of houses take no advantage of their site, don't use their southern exposures, have few windows meaning they're dark inside, etc., etc. Occasionally a decent house sneaks in, but most of these houses won't be missed when they're torn down in a few years.

Today I finally saw an exception to the bleakness! A company called Isa Homes is building a gorgeously designed house a few blocks away from me -- a house you would actually want to buy. Open plan, lots of windows and wonder of wonder if my eyes don't deceive me they're even double-pane windows! I looked up the company's website and they build custom houses with gorgeous combinations of Japanese and international styling all over the Tokyo area. Go have a look:

  • Go to http://www.isahomes.co.jp
  • Click on the second link at the bottom, 施工実例
  • Then click on the bottom-left panel, 施工実例写真集
  • Now you can look through a collection of about 40 stunning houses!

11 June 2012

A Trip to Ishinomaki

Last weekend I went to Ishinomaki as a volunteer with the group Nadia for Ishinomaki to help out in Ishinomaki, one of the towns that was affected by the tsunami last year.  A lot of people ask me about the trips, so here's a detailed report of one of our trips.

Nadia was founded just after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and has been organizing trips to the area for volunteers ever since.  I went for the first time in May 2011 and went twice more last summer, and now I've gone twice this year.

Last year and this year were totally different; last summer the seabed mud that was thrown up all over Ishinomaki still covered everything, the smell from the rotting organic matter in the mud was everywhere, moving around town was incredibly difficult, and the Minato area where we usually work still had no electric power and limited water.

This year is much better.  The roads, electric lines, traffic signals, and convenience stores are all operating, virtually all of the damaged buildings have been torn down, and the city is functional.  Now, the problems are the longer-term and more vexing kind.  The biggest one is clearly repairing the economic and social life of the area.  In Minato, probably 3 or 4 of every 5 lots are empty, and while the remaining buildings are probably mostly either habitable or under renovation, the reality is that the population of those highly damaged areas is a fraction of what it was before the earthquake.   That makes carrying out business, getting investment to rebuild, or getting support for local activities like matsuri and so forth much trickier.

This was a typical weekend trip to Ishinomaki:  we met in Shinjuku at about 10:30 to board the bus, and the bus left at 11pm Friday.  We stopped in Tsukuba to pick up a group from a company that was pitching in to help for the weekend, and drove through the night to arrive at Nadia HQ in Ishinomaki about 7am Saturday.  Nadia works with a local businessman in Ishinomaki who lets us use the 6th floor of his business' building in the Minato area of Ishinomaki.  Because of that, we're able to store tools, spare boots/raingear/masks/etc. there, and we also slept there Saturday night.

After dropping all our luggage, we came out for a briefing from our team leaders Tak and Julie Saturday morning.  For this weekend, our tasks were to prepare for an upcoming festival.  Ishinomaki used to have a children's festival every year in July.   Last year it was cancelled, and this year they were thinking they would have to cancel it for lack of enough people to help out at the fair.  Various groups offered to pitch in, and so the festival is scheduled for the second weekend of July.

This weekend, the work we did was all to help prepare for the festival.  They decided to hold the festival on an open lot next to the Yamagata-ya shoyuu factory.  Unfortunately, both the lot and the factory were still left pretty much as they were after 3/11.  To make the area safe for the festival, we went over the lot carefully, pulling weeds and raking through the dirt to find and cart away all the debris, broken glass, stones, and so forth that had been thrown up there by the tsunami.  In addition, the area around the factory was also in bad shape; the mud thrown up by the tsunami was still sitting there, clogging the waterways.  We collected and disposed of a lot of trash from the area, and shoveled all the nasty mud (the sea mud is very different than normal dirt -- it's very fine and forms a slimy, oozy mud) into bags to be collected later by the city.

The primary objective was to prepare the area for the festival, but we also tried to help out Yamagata-san as much as possible.  We picked up the 20 or so huge plastic tubs used to make Shoyuu (this took a bunch of strong volunteers per tub), dragged them outside, cleaned them up, cleaned the inside of the factory where the tubs had been stored, and put them back inside.  We also cleaned a hundred or so smaller 5 gallon shoyuu containers that were inside the ruined factory.    The factory is still in bad shape; here are some of the larger tubs we couldn't work on this weekend, tossed around by the tsunami:

From Ishinomaki
Saturday after work we went to Yamato no Yu /やまとの湯 , a public bath over on the west side of Ishinomaki.  We have to go to the onsen because we don't have any shower/bath facilities at the Nadia HQ.  Because the west side is slightly elevated, there was almost no damage from the tsunami, and over here the town seems very normal.  We usually take onsen and then eat either at the onsen restaurant, or at a food court building a 10 minute walk down the road.  There's also a supermarket over here for picking up staples.  After dinner Saturday night, we take the bus back to the hotel and either crash out or have an informal evening nomikai in the fourth floor meeting room.

Sunday we continued our work at the Yamagataya.  Yamagata-san talked about how we wants to rebuild the factory, but he needs a fair amount (6千万円) of investment to get production going again (if anything, that seems very conservative to me).  The Japanese government will put in 3/4 of the money, but he still needs to find 1千5百万円 (about $200,000) of private investment and he hasn't been able to raise the money.  This really is a microcosm of the big problem in Ishinomaki:  many of the small businesses that were wiped out by the tsunami were stable beforehand but don't have the capital and depth to finance rebuilding afterwards.

We finished up work about 12:30 Sunday, had a bento lunch, walked back to Nadia HQ to change, and got on the bus back about 2pm.  We arrived at Shinjuku about 10pm.

I really enjoy helping out, while there's only so much we can do people definitely appreciate us being there.  Many of us who go up have been a number of times, but every trip has a number of first-timers as well.   While probably most people speak some English and some Japanese (and a bunch of people speak French!), every trip includes both Japanese-only speakers and English-only speakers, so it's a very friendly group to go with.

If you're interested in going to Touhoku to volunteer, definitely check out the Nadia website.   We're going again on the weekend of June 30th, and we'll have another trip to actually help out at the festival itself.  I hope this article can help encourage some people who haven't been volunteering yet to go, it's a very worthwhile experience!


02 June 2012

Takao, a different way / 別の高尾山


L-Breath, an outdoor store here in Tokyo, always has flyers with various bit of outdoors advice on them.  Here's an interesting alternate route for hiking Takao-san from one of them.

Mt. Takao is a very popular easy walking/hiking mountain at the end of the Keio line.  The normal way up from Takao-san guichi station takes only about an hour, and if that's too much you can take either a ski lift or cable car most of the way up.  It's not exactly wilderness (there's several restaurants at the peak at 599m elevation) but it is pretty during autumn.

This route starts by climbing Mt. Jinba on the north side of the Chuo line and makes its way back to Mt. Takao over several other peaks.

Note: I'm not sure about the pronunciation of some of the Kanji.
  • Start at Keio Takao 高尾 station north exit
    • Note: it's Takao station, not Takao-san-guchi station which is the normal station for Mt. Takao)
  • Nishi-Tokyo bus #32 to 陣馬高原下 (jinba-koubara-shita?) (~36 min.)
  • Hike to 陣馬山 (Mt. Jinba) (~90 min.)
  • Hike to 明王峠 (mei ou touge?) (~45 min.)
  • Maybe checking out 白馬の像 (shiroma no zou, "white horse sculpture")
  • Hike to 景信山 (kage-shin-yama?) (~100 min.)
  • Hike to 城山 (shiroyama, "castle mountain") (~65 min.) via 小仏峠 (kobotoke-touge, "little buddha pass"), where we cross over the Chuo-sen tunnel.
    • If it's like the last time I was here, there's a restaurant on Shiro-yama.
  • Hike to Mt. Takao (~60 min.)
  • Descend Mt. Takao, either by foot, ski lift, or cable car (I like the ski lift!).
Total about 6 hours

I've done the Shiroyama-Takao segment before but none of the others.  Looking forward to trying this!

Here's a blog post about this route, with pictures of the white horse sculpture and views of Fuji-san.

The Bus Schedule for the above bus is here.

L-breath のパンフで読んだ高尾山の別のコーヅは下記の通りです。
  • 最初場所は京王線の高尾駅
    • ご注意、良く会う高尾山口駅ではなく
  • 西東京32番のバスに乗って「陣場高原下」という点におりる(36分)
  • 陣場山を上る(90分ぐらい) 
  •  明王峠まで歩く(45分ぐらい)
  • おそらく、白馬の像を見に行く
  • 景信山まで歩く(100分ぐらい)
  • 小仏峠で城山まで歩く
    • 前回行った時に、城山でレストランがあった
  • 高尾山まで歩く(60分弱)
  • 高尾を下がる。ご存知かもけど、歩いて、ケーブルカー、リフトが可能。 僕はリフトが好き!




29 May 2012

Appliances, Pt. 3

A few years ago I posted Kanji that you might find on your washing machine or refrigerator.  To complete the triumverate, just in time for summer here are Kanji you might find on your air conditioner remote control:

設定温度 せっていおんど settei ondo chosen temperature
自動 じどう jidou automatic
運転中 うんてんちゅう untenchuu in operation
運転切換 うんてんきりかえ untenkirikae change operation (mode)
冷房 れいぼう reibou air conditioning
暖房 だんぼう danbou heating
風量 ふうりょう fuuryou blower strength
bi minute (very small)
きょう kyou strong
じゃく jyaku weak
運転/停止 うんてん/ていし unten / teishi Operate/Suspend
風向 かざむき kazamuki Blower direction
温度 おんど ondo Temperature
快眠冷房 かいみんれいぼう kaimin reibou Good-sleep Air Conditioning
健康冷房 けんこうれいぼう kenkou reibou Healthy Air Conditioning
タイマー たいまあ taimaa Timer
きり kiri Cut (end)
いり iri Enter (start)
取消 とりけし torikeshi Cancel

30 March 2012

Makin' it All Worthwhile

I got a great submission via my webform today about my Read Japanese Today index. Thanks a ton for letting me know Kris!

Dear Leo:

 I love this index! Thank you for your had work and making life a bit easier for those reading Walsh's fabulous book. I accidentally stumbled upon Read Japanese Today a short while ago. My copy is the thirty-ninth printing, 1989. Your index follows the same order for my version of the book as well which is awesome.

 I forgot my mini-notebook at a friend's house and was just about to begin a different set of notes when I found your index. Luckily I decided to see if anyone had done something like this before making more notes. The index will definitely make review easier and help me to catalog my in-margin notes faster than my first set of notes took.

 This is such an awesome list, I just had to to say thanks. You definitely made my weekend.