Archive for April, 2011

Happy Japan

April 28, 2011

Since the March 11 disasters, the two words in the title of this post – Happy and Japan – haven’t been seen next to each other very often. But I think they are a good pair.

There’s a stereotype of the Japanese as hard-working people. Over the years I’ve lived here I’ve found this stereotype to be basically true. But it’s also true that most of the Japanese people I know or have met are cheerful folks who know how to have a good time. And that combination makes this a great country to live in.

As evidence, I point to the above video. (Watch it on full screen.)

Earlier this year, before the earthquake struck northern Japan, people in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, were preparing for the completion of a Shinkansen bullet train line between Fukuoka (the home of Hiyoko chicks) at the northern end of the island and Kagoshima at the southern end.

During a pre-opening test run, the public was invited to stand alongside the tracks to greet the train as it went by – and possibly appear in a TV commercial.

I’m told the resulting ad ran for only a couple of days before the quake hit and a virtual advertising blackout descended on the airwaves. The gleeful exuberance with which the the Kyushu people greeted the passing train seemed at odds with a national mood of mourning and calls for “self-restraint.”

But the ad remained viewable online, where many people enjoyed watching it because it cheered them up. Some even report being moved nearly to tears.

I understand the feeling. This video reflects an important facet of my view of Japan. Part of that is an ineffable feeling, and part is an easily explained admiration for how well people here understand the link between hard work and good times, which I think is one key to a happy life. Many of the people in this video clearly put a lot of planning and effort into their brief appearances – and don’t they look like they’re having a blast?

Cute chicks from America and Japan

April 24, 2011

Today is Easter, a Christian holy day marking the resurrection of Jesus. A renewal of life is a major Easter theme, and the springtime holiday’s traditional imagery is filled with symbols of new life, such as flowers, eggs, newborn chicks and rabbits. In America, popular Easter confections come in the shape of these symbols – chocolate eggs, egg-shaped jellybeans, chocolate bunnies and marshmallow Peeps.

Peeps – capitalized because it is a brand name – are bright yellow chicks made of marshmallow fluff. Peeps also come other shapes and colors, but the yellow chick is the classic Peep.

Earlier this spring, I purchased some Peeps on a trip to America, and brought them back to my Tokyo office as omiyage. By coincidence, a coworker brought in some Hiyoko the same day. Hiyoko are a chick-shaped confection that are locally famous in Fukuoka. They consist of a thin, soft pastry skin over sweet filling made with bean flour.

Hiyoko are nice, but they haven’t had the pop-cultural impact in Japan that Peeps have had in America.

Microwaving Peeps to watch them explode is a popular activity for Americans in their teens and 20s, and there are countless YouTube videos of Peeps popping. But in the video below, a microwaved Peep gets its revenge:

There are also numerous videos of Peeps being fed to animals, such as horses and dogs. And in the video below, Conan O’Brien engages in some Peep-play with Justin Beiber:

Peeps are so well known in America that the movie “Latter Days” was able to use them as a kind of psychological shorthand:

One young American woman loves Peeps so much that she has created her own style of makeup in homage to them:

And if you need further convincing of the importance of Peeps, a documentary has been made about them:

The best Peep video I have seen so far is a trailer for a horror film starring Tom Arnold. You can watch it here.

Also, The Washington Post recently held a Peeps diorama contest, called The Peeps Show, the highly artistic winners of which you can see here. (Via my Twitterpeep @carlstimson)

While Peeps may be endlessly fun to play with, what about eating them? Having bitten into both a Peep and a Hiyoko, I have to say that the Japanese chick goes nicely with a cup of tea. I don’t think the Peep really would go well with anything.

Take the stairs. Save a life.

April 3, 2011

Escalator closed to save electricity at Higashi Jujo Station in Tokyo, April 1, 2011

The title of this post may sound like hyberbole, but if you’ll bear with me you may see that it could be literally true for people living in eastern Japan.

As a result of damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the region is suffering a serious electricity shortage. It will not be quickly or easily fixed. Consequently, Tokyo Electric Power Co. has instituted a system of rolling blackouts (see video here) to ration power.

Meanwhile, many other organizations have been doing what they can to save electricity. Train service has been reduced on some lines, and stores and other public places are operating with reduced lighting (see photo here) or have turned off some of their escalators (see photo above). Individuals have helped, too, such as by turning off unneeded lights at home.

These widespread efforts have reduced electricity demand so much that on many recent days TEPCO has called off its planned blackouts.

So far, then, we’re muddling through quite nicely.

But this summer, when millions of people turn on their air conditioners, demand is going to soar. Any blackouts to happen then will leave a lot of people baking.

To me, this sounded uncomfortable. To Charles Stross, it sounded deadly. He recently wrote on his blog:

Summer in Tokyo is savage…
Greater Tokyo also has 30-million-odd people, of whom a large proportion — maybe 20% — are 75 years or older.
Elderly folks do not handle heat waves well; they get dehydrated easily and if they don’t have air conditioning they die in droves. Normally it’s not a problem in Tokyo because 80% of households have air conditioning, but with rolling blackouts and insufficient power it’s another matter…
If TEPCO can’t get some of those 15 reactors back on stream by June, and if Tokyo experiences a heat wave this summer (as happens every few of years), then going by previous incidents (like the heat emergency in Paris in 2003 that killed 3000 people), the deaths from heat stroke, among the over-75s may rival the direct fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami combined.

With this dire but not unrealistic prediction in mind, we should all be looking for ways to save even more electricity. We probably can’t prevent every blackout or heat-related death, but we can at least minimize them.

As one realistically doable way to lower my own electricity consumption, I decided to stop using elevators.

Join me in the elevator game…

Since I live on the 8th floor of one building and work on the 5th floor of another, staying out of elevators should be doable for me. And if regular stair-climbing helps me shed some weight, making the eventual loss of air conditioning a little more bearable, then so much the better.

I was thinking along these lines for several days – and using elevators all the while – until 11:00 yesterday morning. Less than half an hour later, I gave myself some additional incentive by sending the following tweet:

Tokyo_Tom_Baker Tom Baker

To save electricity, I’m making a game out of seeing how long I can go without using an elevator. It’s been 27 minutes so far.

It wasn’t long before a few of my coworkers noticed what I was up to, which provided them some amusement. But as I added minutes and hours to my time count, even after going downstairs for lunch, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

And then, at 10:04 this morning, I smacked my palm against my forehead and loudly uttered a rude word because I suddenly realized that I was in an elevator.

Barely conscious of what I was doing, I had simply stepped aboard out of blind habit. I hadn’t even made it 24 hours. My outburst startled my fellow passengers, but they gracefully accepted my apology.

Oh, well. It wouldn’t be much of a game without the occasional setback.

At the time of this post, it has now been 7 hours and 30 minutes since I was last in an elevator. By summer, I think I should be pretty good at this. Follow me on Twitter to see how far I make it this time.

If you live in eastern Japan, I urge you to consider giving the elevators in your own buildings a rest. I happen to be playing the elevator game against myself, but you could save even more electricity – and perhaps some elderly people’s lives – by getting some friends together, putting some money on the table, and making a Seinfeldian contest of it.

Update (April 29, 2011)

My first round of the elevator game may have lasted less than 24 hours, but my second round was much more successful: I didn’t use elevators at all for a period of 13 days, 6 hours and 43 minutes. That was a pretty good run, if I do so myself.

What broke my streak? I bought a new bicycle. There is no good place to park a bike at ground level near by building, so I had to take it up to the eighth floor, where I live. I made a good faith effort by carrying my bike all way up the stairs – once – but that experience was enough to tell me that I was going to have to use the elevator if I had the bike with me. So, now I do sometimes use the elevator in the building where I live.

So the elevator game failed, right?

Actually not. It continues to be a tremendous success. I use the elevator at home much less than I used to, and I still haven’t used the elevator at work – where my office is on the 5th floor – even once in the four weeks since April 2. Considering that I used to take the elevator every day when I arrived in the morning, and then when I went out to lunch, and then when I came back from lunch, and then when I left in the evening, and also at other miscellaneous times during the day, I estimate that I have avoided at least 30 elevator trips every week – or about 120 so far.

So, though I no longer have the fun of watching my time total get longer and longer, I am consuming less electricity than I used to. And that’s the whole point.