Received some university documents by mail today. They were sent using two-day delivery postal service on the 29th of December. two weeks ago.

Late? Not exactly.

See, whoever wrote the address (for some reason, they did not use printed label) omitted a full line. The ward (ku), as well as choume, chiban and block numbers were all missing.
The result was an address going directly from building name and apartment number to zip code and prefecture. It would be the US equivalent of filling in apt #, zip code and a city the size of New York on an envelope and send it away.

Oh yea, and did I mention that, last week, the label with our names and apt number fell off the mailbox. (Note to self: got to take care of that, ya lazy bum)

And yet, this morning, a polite japanese postal worker rung my door, asked me if that weird gaijin name on the package was mine, handed it over and left without so much as pointing out how much of a freaking miracle this delivery was.

I am just amazed

So I went to visit Yutaka (himself visiting from LA for the holidays) at his family near Kyoto and came back just in time to spend NYE in Tokyo. There are lots of pics below and on the right side, taken both with my little keitai camera and with Yutaka’s camcorder using this nifty “stitching” feature to create panoramic views.

Overall, not much comments are needed, as Kyoto is mostly about temples and zen gardens. I tried not to overdo it and kept it down to four or five sites, including the super-famous Golden Pavilion (part of Kinkakuji), of which I learned the day after that it was actually a reconstituted version following its burning to the ground in the 1950s. Also rather famous is Kyomizudera, perched high above on an elaborate web of logs, with a breathtaking view of the whole city.

Then Ryoanji and its Zen garden, the ultimate achievement in zen minimalism, since it’s basically fifteen rocks surrounded by white gravel raked in simple patterns (forming some sort of airwaves around the rocks). I am ashamed to admit that I was not really overwhelmed by the Zen serenity of this garden; but to my defense, it requires some skills to meditate, when surrounded by dozens of tourists from all countries rather bored themselves and trying loudly to figure out what’s the deal with this bunch of stones.

On the other hand, the visit of Zuiho-in, located inside Daitokuji (a large complex of temples and garden, of which only a few were open to the public), proved fascinating. Since it was a day away from NYE celebrations, with a freezing cold outside (it had snowed most of the week), the temples were nearly empty and only a handful brave tourists were roaming around. In these conditions it was much easier to appreciate the calm and beauty of Zuiho-in’s garden, which was of slightly less abstract style, featuring different sorts of natural elements (stones, moss, flowers…) to depict a zen vision of the entire world in a self-contained space.

We were the only visitors when we arrived to the main side of the garden, and were doing the usual touristy thing: reading the leaflet, looking around and about to keep going on the very short tour of the temple, when one of the monk (he turned out to be the one in charge of this temple) came out to the gallery and invited us to sit down in order to fully appreciate the view. After showing us how to sit properly and hold our hands in a meditation pose, he quietly chatted away with us for a little while, asking all kind of mundane questions about our life while pointing out small details about the meaning of the place. Emphasizing the importance of taking the time to sit and watch things from the ground over standing or trying to rise at all cost. Eventually, he wished us a good day and went back to his occupations. I was insanely happy that I had progressed enough in Japanese to understand most of his talking, luckily done in a rather slow, simple diction, as I feel I would have missed greatly, had I only gotten second hand translations afterward.

What a great way to finish my visit to Kyoto. the traditional and spiritual counterpoint to busy Tokyo metropolis.

Though I cannot think of a more illogical, irrational, excruciatingly frustrating way to code a language than Japanese Kanji, I am slowly starting to realize how essential it is to its language structure…

OK, let me precise what I mean here: no matter how seducing the idea, there’s no way Japanese text could ever be written with a simpler character set (be it romaji transliteration or kanas).

This is no complete news to me: discussions with Japanese had already opened my eyes to the fact that it would be really tough for a native to quickly read a text without the immediate visual help that’s brought by the symbolic meaning of kanjis.

Today went a step further, after receiving a short mail on my phone from a japanese friend, who for some strange reason, exceptionally typed it in romaji: Despite my less than stellar kanji-reading abilities, I found myself having to ask him to resend it in kanjis, as there was just no way I could figure out the different possible meanings for every other combination of syllables (my very loose grasp of japanese verb conjugation associated with Japanese language’s love of short homonyms did not help). I know it sounds strange that a pathetically unskilled speaker like me might prefer undecipherable kanjis over easy-to-read phonetic characters… But believe me: it’s much easier to take a guess or use a dictionary to figure out the meaning of a particular kanji than take a guess by the pronunciation only.

That being said, kanji still sucks. Its constructions defies any attempt at using logic and escape any philological rule. I’m still waiting on valid sensible explanations as to why so many japanese words can be written with a choice of three or four radically different kanjis that all have the same meaning and the same pronunciation (if you don’t believe me, check out in a dictionary 帰る and 返る, both pronounced かえる – kaeru, both meaning “to go back”… But each using completely unrelated kanjis).

A workmate I was discussing with told me I was way too rational in my approach to kanji learning. She even suggested I tried zen meditation or something to create a sufficient void in my mind before taking on that task…
Me, too freakin’ rational??? Now come on…


You would think in a country were talking aloud in the subway is barely tolerated and speaking on your cellphone strictly forbidden, there would be some sort of strict control on what you can do with a speaker-equipped van.


Oddly enough, it is considered rather rude to hold a conversation at a regular voice level in a public space, but absolutely ok to blast your loudspeakers in the early morning and drive round the block. And I literally mean round the block as said car-driving loudspeakers users ensure you don’t miss whatever essential stuff they got to say by usually driving a dozen times around your block… Just in case you’d have managed to accidentally sleep through the first eleven times.


I guess it would be somewhat comforting to know that the asshole who wakes you up at dawn with his trite message repeated over and over is out of voice by noon. But there’s no such hope as, of course, the whole thing is merely a stupid recorded message looping on and on, while they drive around or, worse yet, as they park and start reading their manga or go get some food.


Overall, there are three main categories of such vans in Japan, each of them differently annoying, each of them with a different agenda:


The most tolerable ones are the street vendors, who basically do the same as in most other countries: trying to grab the customer’s attention by any means necessary. These usually don’t move too much, they just park somewhere and open their portable food stands while the speaker blasts some inane song about their delightful fried sweet potatoes (these songs are so strange, I used to think they were some kind of religious chants until I got to understand their food-related lyrics).


There are also politicians… Who do not seem afraid to wake up their constituents to remind them they exist. The ridiculous practices of local political campaigns in Japan would deserve an entry of its own. Altogether, it has very little to do with passing on the slightest political message (even by already ludicrously low US standards), much more to do with standing, along with two or three assistants, at the exit of the local subway station and bow to every passerby while just telling them who you are. Of course, in order to complement their branding for bigger elections, they’ll have vans touring the street and broadcasting the exact same one-liner all day long over their loudspeakers. These vans are usually staffed by a handful of young chirpy japanese girls who will wave and blow kisses to every moving object in a 2 miles radius. Last time I crossed one of these, the fact I was alone in the street and quite obviously not in any power to cast a vote in the local elections did not deter them from sending me such a demonstration of electoral love…


Then, there are the ubiquitous right-wing nationalist sinister black vans… These are a bit more complicated and much less harmless.

Basically nostalgic of the days of yore, when the sun was rising all over Asia and the emperor still a living God, this bunch of powerful wackos spend most of their time chanting old military songs, demanding a return of the imperial regime, calling for immediate war against Korea or claiming their hatred of such or such thing. One of their typical strategy is to go park in front of a specific premise (house of a liberal politician, office of a reporter who dared mention some of the exactions committed by Japanese military during WWII, any company they have a reason to dislike…) and blare fanatical aggressive comments meant to “bring shame” on their target. These tactics usually succeeds in that targeted businesses will usually see their frequentation dwindle, since, despite their disdain for these fanatics, most Japanese will still prefer to pass their way and go somewhere else.
It is said that the reason these people and their unusually aggressive ways are tolerated in otherwise politically quiet Japan is that they have very strong ties with high-ranking officials, but also more importantly with yakuzas: on one hand, yakuzas never made a secret of their historical fondness for nationalism, while on the other hand, the black vans strategies are a good way to put pressure on any business unwilling to cooperate, without resorting to fully illegal means (just by “shaming” them). Although it seems like both groups would tend to disassociate from each other these days.


I am pretty lucky: the street just down my window in my new flat only admits limited traffic, but the vicinity of bigger avenues is enough to provide me with delightful wake-up to the sound of Mishima-wannabes brailing their twisted anachronical dreams at least once a week.

 No, it’s not a joke.
a friend brought these back from Shizuoka…
They look like regular chocolate candies, except for the pastel green color, and they taste exactly like they are supposed to: chocolate and wasabi. Despite the interesting mixture of flavors, I would not exactly recommend this, except for practical jokes…
the kanas on the label read: “choko-wasabi”
maybe there’s a market for a dijon mustard-flavored chocolates…