Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sapporo - A Walk On The Wild Side Of Chaos

4th, August, 2010 - It was a quiet, hot summer's day in Sapporo. It really was a humid summer (at least by Sapporo standards). Otousan had wanted to take L-kun and I for a "walk in the mountains"...hmmm - Otousan did realise our son was only three... the sound of mountain-trekking seemed a little extreme. Still, I knew Otousan knew what he was doing... and it was nice to get out and see more of Sapporo. It also gave me an excuse to take photos.

Sapporo has mountains, but they're not the sort of places you'd typically take a  thee year old. It also has a lot of wooded hills that surround the city. It was one of these wooded hills that we ended up driving to... apparently Otousan and Okaasan often came for walks through here. It's called Miyano-oka Kouen... and actually I had been here before back in 2003... though at the time I hadn't realised that there were walking tacks nearby. 

View Sapporo Map in a larger map

Crossing the road via a wild and green overpass (you wouldn't know it was a bridge... it just looked like part of the hill), we came to a number of paths - and of course we picked the one leading upwards. The photo below doesn't do the slope justice, but then again, it wasn't exactly Mt Everest either. Sapporo has a lot of nature just at the doorstep, and I hadn't really gone out and seen that much of it on this trip. I've spoken before about the wildlife in Japan... and especially the bears in Hokkaido. Still, for all that, the wild in Hokkaido seemed fairly people-friendly to me (if a little on the lush side).

Only the day before, when we were visiting Sweet Decoration, I had asked T-chan about snakes in Sapporo... to which she had said, "no problem, we don't have snakes".... sometimes you have to be careful what you ask. Back to the bush-walk...I was walking along with L-kun and Otousan, happily taking snaps with the new camera when Otousan yelled out. Up ahead, only a couple of metres in front of me was a slithering something that shouldn't (by my wife's word) have been slithering anywhere near here - let alone near me.  My first (and so far only) snake in Japan! Phew. I was just a little put out (not least of all because Otousan said it was a nasty one... then again, in my books, most snakes fall in that category).

After we escaped near certain death from the jaws of the giant python (ok... a little over the top perhaps...), I suddenly started seeing a different side of Sapporo. A wilder, more primeval and less-people-friendly-side. Also a side that had a lot more interesting fungi too. Not sure what would happen if you were ingest this little baby below, but I suspect that the snake might be a better (and safer) way to go...

Onward we walked, the heat bearing down upon us through the green canopy overhead... well, to be more accurate, the heat was coming from above, below, left, right and well pretty well all around. There was some small relief walking uphill however, with just a hint of a breeze. And the light was beautiful too.. thoughts of snakes and such slowly receding...

Now this is more like it. Nice nature. Small... delicate and pretty. Like it was meant to be. L-kun of course just thought it was a butterfly. No, L-kun... even this little creature isn't so innocent. It has the amazing ability to set off tornados in Texas. Actually, the butterfly effect is normally related to those crazy Brazillian butterflies (that sounds like a euphemism for something) that set off tornadoes in Texas or typhoons in Japan - depending on which side of the Pacific you're talking to... 

Of course, what I'm talking about here is chaos theory... not a real climate-changing insect. Chaos theory is an amazing aspect of nature in which some systems are intrinsically sensitive to minute differences in how the system is initiated... such that you can't necessarily know where even apparently simple systems will go due to seemingly insignificant (and almost unmeasurable) variations. It's kinda like never knowing where a play will go even though you think  the actors say the lines exactly the same way each time...

Or how a story of a walk in the park will end....

If I had been just a few more metres ahead of Otousan whilst looking at the world through the Canon DSLR viewfinder, I might not have been stopped before walking right on top of that little slithering fellow... or - more scarily - if I had not asked T-chan about snakes the day before, or if she had said "snakes are everywhere... be careful!", would I have even come across the snake at all?

Now chaos theory actually relates to specific types of mathematical relationships - but who knows what inter-connections affect our lives as we journey, unknowingly through each days passing?

Hmmm - perhaps I did sample that fungus!

Anyway - back to our story... As we were walking through the woods, I was amazed at just how well L-kun was holding up. I mean, this was a fairly serious bush-walk we were going on. Especially in the middle of summer. Especially as the hills were only getting hillier. And did I mention the bears?...

Look dad, we must be getting near the place where the teddy bears have their picnics! Once again, the realities of life in Hokkaido's wild came into sharp focus. I mean... this was just a friendly reminder... wasn't it... to give the tourists and the elderly something to tell stories about.
The gist of the sign was something like this:

In this resident's park, please be careful of bears!
  • Don't come here at night, morning, late afternoon, when it's foggy etc etc (tick)
  • Don't travel alone, but always walk with 2 or more people (tick)
  • Bring a bell or radio... or at least walking making noise if you can't see well (tick)
  • Don't throw rubbish away, or bury it - as rubbish attracts the bears and it's very dangerous (tick)
  • If you see a bear (or signs of a bear) leave immediately (extra big tick)

Unfortunately, I only found out all of that after the event (my kanji being near non-existant).

Well... I can tell you. I didn't need to know Japanese to get the idea, and I got it good. Especially a little later on, when as we were walking along we could here the sound of underbrush yielding, breaking and snapping off in the not too far disntance. I kept a close eye on Otousan... taking my queue to grab L-kun and run like hell from the faintest of indicators ... a twitch of the eye, a tensing of the back, a small and otherwise innocent venting of gas.... anything could be a sign that danger was approaching.

Of course - Otousan ploughed on oblivious to the sounds of branches breaking... now that I think about it, I assume that he did actually hear them. Perhaps he knew that the crazy ramblings of a nervous Australian were as good as any bell or radio. Indeed - Otousan himself carried a horn that he occasionally (discretely) fired off every now and again.

Then... after over an hour of trumpeting through the woods, we came out on to civilisation again! A childrens park, with of course the obligatory roller-slippery-slide. Chaos, it would seem, had let us go on by untouched. L-kun couldn't give a fig about chaos, karma or fate's folly. Indeed, he barely raised an eyebrow at the snake, let alone the mysterious rumblings in the forest (now... if I had said it was the Gruffalo... that would have been a different story).

And I have to say, after so much walking up, walking down, and the odd bit of jumping around avoiding mosquitoes, I was amazed that L-kun had enough energy to get stuck into some serious playground playing. Or Otousan for that matter.

It did end up being a tiring day for all. And yes, we had our fair share of chaos (especially in the playground afterwards) - it was still a great "boys adventure" in the wilds of Sapporo.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sweet Decoration - A Shopping Paradise

4th August, 2010 - One of our typical days out when we go back to Japan is invariably.... shopping. Shopping for the house, that is. Japan is most definitely a consumer's paradise for many things... and house products is one of those things. And one of the best places we've found for cute or interesting goods is known as Sweet Decoration (Japanese site only)... and the one we went to today is around Nishiku district.

The company first started in 1950 in Obihiro in Hokkaido, and whilst it's expanded to 12-15 different stores they remain a Hokkaido specific company - though they're now expanding into all sorts of commercial areas, including insurance. So appologies if you're reading this outside of Hokkaido. The good thing about these big stores is that they are largely one-stop-shops in terms of house interiors... including furniture, rugs and carpets, curtains and bedding...

It's times like these that we wish that we could buy lots of stuff and transport back home (actually, I am pretty sure that T-chan's real desire is to buy lots of stuff, and move back to Sapporo!). And the furniture doesn't cost that much either. I have to say that it's very reminiscent of walking through an Ikea store, as most of the furniture is designed for small spaces. It's always funny to see Japanese sized kitchen tables and chairs (it always feels like I've suddenly appeared in Hobbit-land where everything is half-sized). Sometimes we take the space we have back home for granted.

And whilst they focus mostly on interiors, they also have a smattering of exterior/garden decorations as well.

But as the name suggests, their strength is decoration - and they have lots and lots of different decorations. Of all sizes, shapes and natures... and we can spend hours (at least T-chan can) walking around this shop having a look at all of the great things. It's somewhat ironic that for a country where space is a premium that there can be such a focus on 'things' to fill what space they've got. 

Of course, there are other shops around as well, such at Nittori, but for us Sweet Decoration is a lot more charming (and bright and cheerful)... to match my wife's character. Seriously - it's just a great place for cheerful mood-enhancing products without being too super cute.

And speaking of which - my wife's real favourite is the kitchenware section... Ok, we don't buy that much, but the range is fantastic. I never used to be a big fan of house shopping, and L-kun followed in his father's footsteps. However, even I can enjoy spending time in Sweet Decoration. Actually, there's quite a few kitchenware things that I'm not entirely sure what they are... but they at least almost always meet an aesthetic requirement.

It may not the cheapest of shops out there... but I'd recommend it if you've got time to kill (or you live in Hokkaido). Whilst this store can be reached by train (get off at Hassamu Station - and it'd be a 10 min walk), it's really best to drive here. Thankfully there are a number of other stores that you can visit.

View Sapporo Map in a larger map

And if you visit here, you can always visit the sento (public hot baths) right next door... which we may have done on more than one occasion before.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Wonder What That Building Is... Recycling in Japan

4th August, 2010 - Well this really was supposed to be a quick post... about a plain old big building I saw... but the post has sort of expanded a bit. During my first few trips to Sapporo, I'd always noticed these rather large imposing buildings dotted around the city... and they always looked just a little odd to me. It's embarrassing, but I always thought it looked like a power station... of course, now the whole world knows what a Japanese nuclear power station looks like... but I had both an active imagination and not much sense.

And eventually I just had to ask my wife, what is that building?.. to which she replied, "oh that, it's just a recycling building"... hmmm, that was a little disappointing, but then again, in this day and age, re-cycling should be interesting to us all.

Indeed, Sapporo like many cities in Japan has gone re-cycling crazy. Not only do you have to pay for each  bag of rubbish you throw away, but you have to separate your waste into combustible (paper), non-combustible, PET plastics, cans. Newspaper recycling occurs periodically with large trucks driving around the city blaring announcements for people to bring out their paper. This all goes towards acheiving 3R concept of reducereuse and recycle. Indeed, there are towns in Japan moving to a zero waste concept, where they separate their household waste into 34 different bin types. Now that's over-kill if you ask me. Back home in Adelaide, we just separate out into rubbish, recyclables and green-waste - and in some places in Adelaide the recyclables are put in the same (separated) bin as the normal waste!

Now for those travelling to Japan, here's a few signs that you might see...

 Combustible, i.e. paper (kami)
 PET bottles
 Non-combustibles, i.e. non PET plastics, (pura)
 Cans, aluminium (arumi)
Steel, (suchiru)
(thanks to wikipedia)

And of course, most of the public bins also require you to separate your waste into cans (カン), bottles or bin (ビン), and PET bottles (ペットボトル) as shown below. However, if you're observant, you might see that somehow the cans and bottles on the left have been swapped. Just goes to show that no system is perfect.

The other signs that you're likely to see are combustible or moeru gomi (もえるゴミ) on the left, and non-combustible or moenai gomi (もえないゴミ) on the right.

Indeed, here's some rough figures (a little dated now) on Sapporo's municipal solid waste (MSW) situation:

It shows an interesting thing, only 20% of waste back in 2003 ended up in land-fill, but a staggering ~70% was incinerated. I guess it means less land-fill, which is a good thing... but... 

And that's where things get a bit murky... as I'm sure that "recycling" in the context normally means the re-using of materials, e.g. recycled paper and cardboard. Incineration is considered recycling here in terms of waste recycled into energy. Waste-to-energy conversion through incineration is generally considered an undesirable method today, especially due to the potential pollution problems that it can cause, such as the release of dioxins into the air.

Overall the move to a greener, more sustainable society seems to be occurring. Indeed, Japan generates far less waste than most, at around 400 kg per person per year.
(Source : OECD data)

And interestingly this relatively low per capita rate also extends to CO2 emissions, with Japan lying quite competitively for what is a significantly industrialised country. Of course these things are not necessarily linked. What is perhaps more scary (for me personally) is just how bad a polluter Australia is on a per capita basis... thankfully we've only got a population of about 22 million (compared to China's population of 1.3 billion).

The Japanese are good adopters of new concepts - and have taken to recycling seriously. Recycling is certainly a big business in Japan today... but it's still a complicated affair with Japan developing concepts of Eco-towns which represent huge waste recycling centres for the conversion of waste.  For all the acceptance of the need to recycle, it's hard to know how much consideration is really given to what happens to all that waste once it leaves the front door. Then again, given that they produce almost half (per capita) of what we do here in Australia, I'd say they're doing something right.

So we get back to that strange building I photographed way back at the start of this post. It turns out that we were both right. The odd building may be "recycling" but it's also a power station of sorts. But as with many things in Japan, it's never quite so simple...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Family BBQ - Eat Till You Burst, and Then Eat Some More.

3rd August, 2010 - Now Australian's like to believe we perfected (if not invented) the barbecue, however, the reality is that bbq is one of the universal (almost) joys of living. No matter where you live, almost. Ok... that might be being a little culturally insensitive (especially to vegetarians), but I am a BIG FAN of the barbecue. The Japanese are no different - although their concept of barbecue can be a little different. One differences is that the barbecues tend to be portable - and known in the west as a hibachi, though these are not strictly speaking hibachi (which are small heating pots). Back at home in Oz, we have a tendency to go industrial size - becoming an integral part of your house. As the weather was a bit hot outside, we actually cooked - and ate - in the comfort of the garage... well, cooked, ate, drank, talked and laughed that is.

It's not just the bbq itself that's different  - but the ingredients are quite different as well... although, I'm sure that each family has their own "flavours". Today we had a quick bbq with pork sausages, chicken meatball (tsukune), bbq'd mutton (jingisukan),  vegetables including bean sprouts (mame moyashi) and eggplant (nasu)...

And corn on the cob as well as small cow intestine (called, strangely, hormone  in Japanese) which is the rather wet looking white ingredient in the front of the photo below. I'm not a big fan of hormone, but it's ok I guess.

And not forgetting something a little more exotic....squid (ika)... yummy.

And L-kun is showing off the rice balls (onigiri) for lunch... at 3 yo he was still in his, I'm not sure I want to be adventurous mood when it came to food. Simple things were often what was needed, but overall he used to eat plenty of veg and fruit as well as meat.

And the good thing is that if you want a little more of something, you just whack it on the bbq. I love communal cooking! And after a long afternoon of eating, drinking and an occasional game of soccer...the bbq charcoals were finally put out. There's something quite magical about watching the charcoals cool down. Our modern gas-fired bbq's don't quite have the same appeal... though I'm not sure about the goodness of it in this environment of carbon credits...

And then it's time for dessert... provided by T-chan's best friend, T2-chan.... and what a lovely assortment of delectables there were...

Let me just lick my lips a bit...

Yumm-o... I miss these cheeky little Japanese individualised desserts.

And they even had a mini-mini-pavlova!

Of course, sometimes a lad's got hide the fact that he really likes something (that way he might be able to score some more, if we think he's eating it under sufferance)... L-kun was playing up for the cameras. His face said  I don't like it, but his belly said more please. Cheeky monkey... ok... if you want to be like that, Daddy will eat them all!

It was a lovely family bbq - and we all ended the day feeling full in stomach, and full in heart.


Monday, June 13, 2011

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...

3rd August, 2010 - ...You'd have been in for a big surprise. Ok, it may not have been a Teddy Bear's picnic, but it wasn't far off. it's the local neighbourhood children's party. Being a normal Tuesday, I guess it was never supposed to be a family event, and indeed I can't recall seeing any fathers there at all. Do you think I felt like the odd one out! 

Unforutnately - no Teddy Bears in sight.... but lots and lots of children.

The children's party was quite big, with easily over one hundred children running around with their mothers in tow. Japan still has a reasonably traditional family structure of the the mother's staying home to look after their children after birth, though this is changing slowly towards reflecting a more modern view of work-force.

There were lots activities for the children to play... including races, and games for prizes. The water activities were one of the more popular (given that it was in the middle of a hot summer at the time).

And to finish off the day, there was a fun puppet show featuring lots of different characters. There was lots of singing and dancing (or at least foot-stomping and clapping), and the volunteers did a great job.

So L-kun, what did you think of the day? Hmmm... not sure if he's quite got a handle on the semi-obligatory Japanese peace sign, or if he's just had enough. He did have an enjoyable day however, and it's a good testament to the Japanese that they still organise these sorts of community activities.

Good one, Sapporo!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Sizzling Japanese Tradition... Hanabi

2nd August, 2010  - Now, as I've posted about before... summer in Japan is synonymous with fireworks, or at least it used to be.  I suspect that the tradition will disappear, like so many others that have been "made safe" - which reads made boring. So as summer comes to Japan again, it's a good time to be wetting the whistle for hanabi!

Now, despite my initial disregard for safety, there are a few safety tips. Always, and I mean always point the fireworks away from yourself and anyone else. And always have a bucket of water to dip the fireworks into at the end. The fizzzzle sounds are always a treat for younger children - perhaps as much as the fireworks themselves.

Now the packs of hanabi that you can buy (just about anywhere, including supermarkets) generally have a variety of fireworks in there... and enough to keep you going for a while. They range from the small to the large fireworks. On the small scale, there's the little senkou-hanabi, which are a very old traditional Japanese style firework. These are quite interesting in that they contain the "gunpowder" in a little section at the end of a long tapering paper twine. On ignition it burns forming a hot, incandescent globule at the end... within a few seconds it's emitting a series of sparks... until the wind, or a shaky hand force the drop to fall. This is a great thing for children (and adults) to see whose will last the longest. Let's just say my hands were too shaky....

On the other hand, they also have quite large fireworks as well.... and they're a treat to watch go up. Of course, this all causes a significant amount of noise, light, and smoke that break through the hot Summer night air. We most probably don't get a sense of the mood of Japanese people (as we're now visitors here), but this seems to be getting less and less common a sight. For us, we want to make the most of the fun, and tradition, with L-kun, before it disappears into blandness.

As mentioned previously - in Australia, it's next to impossible to have your own fireworks (as it requires a licensed pyro-technician to purchase and set up anything bigger than a sparkler). To be honest, I don't know the statistics of injuries due to fireworks in Japan, and yes, I can imagine that there are plenty of burnt hands etc. I suppose with all of these things care needs to be taken, and definitely adult supervision!