Begin Japanology with Peter Barakan

I went to Japan last Christmas and loved it. Everywhere is clean, the people are courteous, street life is lively and safe, free public restrooms everywhere, spectacular shrines temples and gardens, handmade things made of natural materials. The entire country seems to be curated by people with discreetly minimalist good taste mixed with a bit of wabi-sabi aesthetic. I just scratched the surface, but it's quite a surface. 

While surfing around for things Japanese, I came across the oddly-named TV series Begin Japanology, produced by Japan's national television channel. The understated host, longtime Japan resident and fluent English speaker Peter Barakan (apparently he's half Burmese and half English) presents half-hour shows dedicated to everything from Kyudo to festivals to incense to fireworks to shopping streets to sake to masks to swords to folding fans to Western Japanophiles to pickles, plums, sushi, and calligraphy. Here's one on incense, which, it turns out, has its own highly formalized ceremony: 

By now there seem to be hundreds of episodes -- a long but not exhaustive Youtube playlist is here.  The production values are reasonably high, without being ostentatious. There's often a slight twist: the episode on kendo features an in-depth profile of a young kendo master with one arm who routinely beats two-armed opponents without being given any advantages. Barakan profiles many fascinating Japanese, from retired managers who carve masks in their spare time to famous tea masters, actors, puppeteers and architects. Barakan, a congenial, low-key host, also has a weakness for ordinary Japanese who are trying to maintain some of the many traditions which teeter on the verge of extinction. As with many Japanese shows, there's a lot of pleasantly burbling background music, some of it a bit incongruous.

The shows focus on traditional, non-controversial topics, so I don't think we're going to see a episode on soaplands anytime soon. But within their limited scope, these shows are well-done, with thoughtful scripts, interesting subject choices, and a few modest surprises here and there. Highly recommended.


Kosovars Fleeing for Germany

Thousands of Kosovars want to flee their crumbling country and come to Germany, the Times reports:

In a region plagued by aging demographics, it is Europe’s youngest territory, with 27 the average age of its two million citizens. Kosovo would need an impossible 7 percent annual economic growth to offer work to the 25,000 to 30,000 youths the government says finish school each year. Direct investment from foreign sources is about $270 million a year, half what it was in 2007, said Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of Riinvest, an independent research group.

Austria registered 1,901 asylum applications from Kosovo citizens in 2014, but saw 1,029 in January alone, said Karl-Heinz Grundböck of the Interior Ministry in Vienna. By mid-February, Germany had some 18,000 applications from Kosovars since Jan. 1.

Within Kosovo, the Education Ministry counts some 5,600 absent pupils.

But Western Europe is already swamped with refugees from war and turbulence in the Middle East and Africa, and is struggling to integrate Muslim immigrants. Accommodation is so scarce that some Kosovo arrivals were housed in old United States Army barracks in Heidelberg, Germany.

In Germany, the flood from Kosovo has now slowed to about 200 arrivals a day, from 1,400 a day in early February.

I visited Kosovo in 2010, where a friend of mine was doing development work. The Kosovars I met were friendly and very excited to meet an American, but it was hard to avoid the impression that the country was going down the tubes. The guy who drove me to the airport at the end of the visit had once worked in Stuttgart as a machinist, but had returned to Kosovo to fight for its independence and basically got stuck there. He politely asked to see my passport, and when he saw my German green card allowing me indefinite residency, he ran his fingers over it reverentially, and almost started crying.

I won't even tell you how many millions of Euros in development aid Germany alone has pumped into Kosovo in the past 16 years, to little visible effect. It would make your eyes water.

Here are some pictures of Kosovo.

011 - Prizren - Hillside with Houses in Various States of Repair 028 - Prizren - Election Posters on Wall060 - Prishtina - Ulpiana - Cafe032 - Prishtina - Loni's Bar007 - Prizren - Man with Handcart079 - Prishtina View of Jewish Cemetery with Velania in Background088 - Prishtina National Library Card Catalog080 - Prishtina Man Walking Up Martyr's Hill Carrying Window Frames100 - Gracanica Monastery Church077 - Prishtina Auto Repair Shop SefaliaGinger Bookstore Bag105 - Prishtina Airport Security Kitten 1040 - Youth and Sport Palace Disused Props015 - Prizren - Mutilated Doll in Courtyard of Abandoned Serbian House030 - Prizren - Man Trimming Traditional White Felt Hat055 - Prishtina Dardania Self-Determination Mvt. Graffito 026 - Prizren - Statues of Famous Kosovars in Museum009 - Prizren - View with Stone Bridge086 - Prishtina National and University Library025 - Prizren - Interior of Gazi Mehmet Pasha Mosque053 - Prishtina Hat Salesman051 - Prishtina Statue of Bill Clinton 2






More Peppy/Doom-Drenched Japanese Signage

First of all, a huge thank-you to all the people who responded to the last post. Whenever I think 'blogging is so 2007, why bother anymore?', something like that last comment thread happens. Although I have to say, I do a lot more on Facebook than I do here. You can always sign up with a fake name and follow me without becoming my 'friend'.

In any case, like most travelers to Japan, I found the omnipresent signs more than amusing. Of course, Germany is also full of signs telling you what to do and not do, but they're always generic and uniform. Japan boasts an artisanal underground of graphic designers hired to make instruction of the populace as amusing as possible, generally by creating yet another animated mascot (yuru-chara). They often come with poetic English translations: 'An Important Thing is Protected.' 'No! Drug!' 'Water Can Not Drink'.

So here's a whole contingent of other signs, slogans and mascots from Japan. My attempts at an explanation are in the hover text, but feel free to correct me. The first is actually a poem, posted at Saisho-in temple. Anyone know who wrote and/or translated it?

Saisho in summer poem Woman on tracks signGinza Woman Holding Christian Repent PlacardHardened Japanese CriminalsKyoto main station sign with terrified salarymanMr Funtime and Mr BadassNanzen ji warning sign someone stole my fucking bikeNanzenji fire control yuru-chara (animal mascots)
Nara sign with deer and disabled childrenNo Depositing Carefully Wrapped Packages on StreetShelter for People Who Cannot Go Back HomeShibuya an important thing is protectedShibuya drunken salarymen about to dieShibuya italian slow food lifeShibuya whale meat restaurantTokyo rainbow kitchen special night for boozeYanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovelYanaka no smoking gingko leavesYanaka no smoking signYanaka no! drug! sign
Yanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovel Arashiyama water can not drink Harajuku maple lake vfw girl Kyoto main station what you cannot store in lockers Shibuya donky boulange-001 Shibuya twits the americana hat Yanaka body identification poster outside police station Yanaka stagecoach western 'pub' yeehaw


Blegs: Japanese Readers, I Want Your Help

Over Christmas I visited Japan. Highly recommended and, thanks to the weak Yen, not at all expensive. I've posted some travel shots on my Flickr account for those who are into that sort of thing.

I thought I'd ask the cultured, worldly readers of this blog to help me with a translation or two. First, I bought a ceramic plate at a Nitten shop. Nitten is a nationwide arts and crafts exhibition that, as far as I can gather, is mainly aimed at lesser-known or amateur artists working in traditional Japanese pursuits such as ceramics, calligraphy, etc. People from all over Japan can submit works to be judged by the notoriously conservative panels, and winners are exhibited and some of their works sold in shops.

I bought this dish:

Ceramic Dish

The two women in the rather dusty shop were really excited that I'd chosen this dish, and pressed a piece of paper with the artists' biography into my hands. The only English they could speak was to point at a row of symbols and say 'famous Japanese art school!'

This is the piece of paper, first an overall view, then a detail of what appears to be the artists' biography. If anybody could give me the gist of it -- especially a transliteration of the artist's name -- I would be grateful.

Ceramic Artist Description Page

Ceramic Artist Description Page Detail

Baffling Signs and Posters

1. Schoolchildrens' Superhero or Demon? Japan is also renowned for its amusing/terrifying warning signs. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory because of the pictures, but this one still baffles me. I found it posted outside a school:

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school detail

2. Uniformed People Kicking Ordinary Japanese For Some Reason. This was on the side of a nondescript building. My secret hope is that it's Japanese Communist Party propaganda:

Kyoto poster uniformed men kicking civilians

 3. Red Sash Women Marching. Finally, here is large poster on a wall near a florists' shop that depicts a large number of middle-aged women wearing red sashes marching. First a general view, then a closeup. Pardon the crappy quality, the poster was pretty soiled.

Tokyo red sash women marching-001

Tokyo red sash women marching detail

Any help interpreting these signs is gratefully accepted. I also have less-baffling Japanese signs which I will post in the next couple of days.


Bleg: Nice Remote Cabin in Finland?

This summer, I'd kind of like to spend a few weeks in rural Scandinavia. I've never been to Finland and need to make a pilgrimage to Ainola, so I thought I might as well choose Finland. I'm looking for a cabin somewhere, preferably by a lake. Just for one person. I'd like electricity, but Internet is optional, in fact I don't want it. I would stay 2-3 weeks, in late August-early September. I'll probably rent a car, so the location probably isn't too important -- the scenicer the better. The listings on Airbnb look quite interesting, but a lot of the places have no running / drinkable water or flush toilets. I'm not sure how much of a drag that would be in real life.

If anyone has tips about what I should be looking for, or has been somewhere they'd like to recommend, I'd love to hear from ya.


Public Defecation, Religion, and IQ In India

IQAveragebyCountry-954x442

(World map by average IQ, from here).

In the new atheism debates, you sometimes see two people -- most prominently, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair -- sparring on the subject of whether religion does more harm than good. I'm not going to weigh in on this question, except to note that a recent study of sanitation in India delivers ammunition for the does-harm side: scientific proof that religion (in this case, Hinduism) literally makes people stupid.

The mechanism is public defecation. Anyone who has been to India has seen this happening routinely, and it's impossible to get used to. Large urban areas in India are literally covered in a thin film of human waste, which is dangerous. It gets on crops at their origins, and flies deposit it on food all over the country, which is why Delhi belly is an all-too-horrifying reality for any visitor. (The irony is that all the Green/lefty friends of mine who accompanied me on my India trip ate everything so as to respect the cultural heritage blah blah blah, and stayed healthy. I politely refused to drink the water, ate practically nothing but crackers, and got a mild case of DB anyway.)

But I digress. It turns out the consequences are much farther-reaching than a few inconvenienced tourists:

As a result [of public defecation], children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often sickens them, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat.

“These children’s bodies divert energy and nutrients away from growth and brain development to prioritize infection-fighting survival,” said Jean Humphrey, a professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When this happens during the first two years of life, children become stunted. What’s particularly disturbing is that the lost height and intelligence are permanent.”

...This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting affects 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families.This disconnect between wealth and malnutrition is so striking that economists have concluded that economic growth does almost nothing to reduce malnutrition.

And why is public defecation so prevalent? The Economist explains:

Hindu tradition, seen for example in the “Laws of Manu”, a Hindu text some 2,000 years old, encourages defecation in the open, far from home, to avoid ritual impurity. Caste division is another factor, as by tradition it was only the lowliest in society, “untouchables” (now Dalits), who cleared human waste. Many people, notably in the Hindu-dominated Gangetic plains, today still show a preference for going in the open—even if they have latrines at home.

So there you have it: a religiously-based custom causes profound developmental problems in children, leading to stunting and irreversible losses in intelligence. Christopher Hitchens, call your office! Oh wait...


Hellbahnhof Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe

Hi there, folks. Back to blogging after a hiatus during which I traipsed through Germany with a friend, spending a few days at Documenta 13, er, dOCUMENTA (13). Traveling to Kassel means stopping at the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe train station. For some boring reason having to do with train scheduling or something, you have to stop at this station on the outkirts of the city and then take a train into the central station.

The main feature of the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe Bahnhof (g) as it's called, is that IT SUCKS. More to the point, there are no elevators or escalators in the station. To reach the main station from the train tracks, you have to drag your luggage up a gradual, seemingly endless ramp. There are also stairs available, but these are cleverly hidden behind the ramps. But either way, you're going to have to schlep yourself, your screaming kids, and your heavy luggage. In this era of wheeled luggage, I can only imagine how many Eisenstein-esque scenes have played out on those giant ramps, with giant luggage, wheelchairs, or baby strollers barreling down the ramp, taking out hapless passengers right and left.

Another wonderful feature of the giant ramps is that they block out most of the central part of the platform, so that the only way to find out where your train car is positioned on the train is to walk all the way to one fucking end of the platform, inspect the train-car diagram, and then walk all the way back to where your car will be. During every Documenta, hundreds of thousands of foreign guests arrive at this train station and curse the stupidity and self-indulgence of the architect, while snorting at the storied 'efficiency' of Germans.

When I got home, I vowed to find out what pretentious little twit had designed those giant ramps, so as to publicly execrate him. The Wikipedia entry for the train station informs me that one 'Büro Dietrich, Waning, Guggenberger' was responsible for the ramp design. But, it turns out, they had no choice. Apparently the Deutsche Bundesbahn, back in the 1980s, ordered the creation of these giant ramps to make it possible to drive cars and trucks to the trains. Why they required this feature in a train station that would mainly be used by humans is beyond me. Don't they have fucking freight yards for that?!

In any event, the Bundesbahn's design has created what has to be the ugliest, most inconvenient train station in Western Europe. If I were a killin' man, I would tie the faceless bureaucrat who ordered those ramps to a brakeless wheelchair and push him down them again and again and again, while cackling gleefully. 

There, now I feel better.


The Perils of Denglish, or Ass Love Deluxe for the Whole Ass Family

Ass Golf

Ever played 'Ass Golf'? In the mood for some 'Ass Love Deluxe'? Does your family deserve to become an 'Ass Family'?

If you answered 'Jawohl!', and I'm sure you did, have I got a hotel for you. It's called the Saalbacher Hof, in Saalbach, Austria, and its summer vacation packages include:

The theme here, as German-speakers will have immediately noticed, is playing cards: Trumpf = trump, and Ass = ace. But then the oily-haired marketing types pepped up the stodgy hotel's image with some of that sickeningly hip English. Today's Austrian 'Familys' deserve no less!

One simple rule for ad-men, delivered free of charge: If you start a phrase or sentence in German, for G$d's sake finish it in German.