lunes, 19 de diciembre de 2011

NYC Gallery Show!!!

Please join me and come to the BikeSketch NYC Gallery show on Tuesday 20 December 2011 from 6pm to 8pm at the Theater for the New City in LES. The BikeMobile Gallery will be parked as an installation in the center of the gallery floor for two hours only and zine, prints, and free persimmons to all those who attend my first ever, albeit brief, gallery show!

miércoles, 16 de noviembre de 2011

The Dissonant sound of Dissent

How different my impressions are of Tokyo at this juncture, since my arrival nearly two months ago; the smells and sounds of India having long receded into the smoke filled and far flung corridors of memory. In juxtaposition to Japan's flowering valleys, remote mountain villages, and the ancient shinto shrines of enchanted pine forests, the city appears a concrete jungle, with all sorts of dangerous animals of the human variety lurking about. I found myself riding down Meiji-dori behind a cyclist even more belligerent than myself - "Dorothy, you're not Sendai anymore" - It's good to be in Tokyo once more!

The Enoar or Picture cafe is not so much a business as a gathering of friends for tea, coffee, and cake. Open Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday for an art workshop, Enoar is nestled in the farthest reaches and more densely wooded section of Yoyogi-koen, on the would be Main street of Blue Tent City. At a half-hazard collection of reclaimed chairs and rickety tables, gather the tent dwellers, street sleepers, and their friends and supporters. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and it was here that I arranged to meet with the punk rock musician and activist Kaori and gain an introduction to Blue Tent City resident artist, Misako. Upon my arrival, my hosts were as of yet absent, but I was graciously offered a seat and some tea while I waited in the cafe du plein aire. The cafe's patrons were a motley crew of men and women from diverse generational and socioeconomic backgrounds, united only by their eccentricities. Initial pleasantries exchanged, I made a presentation of my art to the crowd at hand. Not long after, Kaori arrived followed by Misako, who, in begging pardon for her earlier absence, described for me the meeting with the park officials that had detained her. Misako was acting as mediator on behalf of a long time Blue Tent City resident who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. The resident in question desired to begin treatment at a local hospital, of which extended impatient care was required. Consequently, she has been placed in the dubious position in which she must chose between her home in the park or her health. The park officials, which have been attempting for some years to evict the park's homeless population, closely monitor the number of tents and at the first signs of vacancy, the offending tent is promptly removed together with all its belongings. Misako was confident an agreement will be reached in which her friend and neighbor will not be forced to make such a sacrifice. A graduate of the University of Tokyo, Misako has dedicated her life to her art and the residents in her adopted community are the principle subjects of her work. Misako has been a resident of Blue Tent City for 8 years now and over the years, she has witnessed much change within the community. When she first arrived, it was a self sufficient community approximately 300 strong. There were those among them that specialized in the acquisition of used clothes and others in discarded food products; in addition to a cafe, there once existed a bar and even a barbershop. Residents of the the Blue Tent community live on the fringe of society and theirs is a communal living, in which goods are shared and traded. Although they've grown smaller over the years, this aspect of their society has not changed. Beginning nearly five years ago, Misako tells me, the city began actively attempting to evict the homeless from the park. They came to the residents of Blue Tent City dangling attractive offers of government housing and unfortunate for their community, many took the bait and were forced to sign agreements never to return to Yoyogi-koen. Many, however, refused to compromise their homes and community and they still live here today in resistance to the gentrification that is growing around them at alarming speed. There are only 80 or so residents left in Blue Tent City and their numbers are on the decline, as park officials vigilantly enforce a prohibition that bars new additions. Sure enough, when I recently attempted to pitch my tent, I was quickly intercepted by said officials and had to suffice with a park bench for the night.

Nearly every weekend since March, I'm told the streets of Tokyo have been occupied by protestors demanding an end to Japan's reliance on nuclear power. Sure enough, as I was leaving the Enoar Cafe, one such protest was underway in Shiboya City, the most densely populated of Tokyo's 23 Wards. Today's event was entitled "Drums of Fury" and in parade formation, participants armed with percussion instruments of all kinds, many hastily made from house hold implements, filled the halls of the cityscape with an obstreperous clammer in an act of protest. Yet, despite its truculent appellation, the atmosphere was decidedly jovial. Some were clad in costume, dancing and singing befittingly dissonant tunes of dissent. Spectators shouted their approval and many even joined ranks, causing the parade to swell to double its original size. Not satisfied to remain a mere spectator, I fixed my camping pot and pan to the handle bars of my touring bike and with a metal spoon I joined the cacophony of "Drums of Fury" down city streets.

martes, 1 de noviembre de 2011

BikeSketch Exposition

Times up! I'm leaving Japan :( The BikeSketch tour from Fukushima to Hiroshima has been completed, granted the blog is a few weeks behind. Not to fret, final posts coming soon. Before I leave, I will be having an exposition of my ART: The BikeSketch Bike-Mobile Gallery will tour the city of Tokyo, from Asakusa to Shinjuku, beginning on Saturday the 5th of November, with a final Expo and Party at the Lavanderia Cafe in Shinjuku on Sunday, the 6th of November, starting at 7pm. I hope to see y'all there!

lunes, 31 de octubre de 2011

Ground Zero: Fukushima

The coastal road from Sendai Port to Soma was in relatively good condition, considering. It, however, was deserted. Dotting the countryside, overgrown fields littered with upturned boats and other debri were framed by neat rows of foundations to homes since swept away by the tsunami. Their concrete interiors had filled with yesterday's rain, mirroring the heavens - a graveyard stretched over a desolate horizon. To think, only several months ago thousands lived here. How many died in the tsunami? Where did the survivors go? As I began to approach Soma city limits, a road block diverted traffic inland. With the dramatic elevation change, Japan's mountains come just shy of the sea, returned civilization. Like a line drawn in the sand, wasteland became fresh tilled fields. In the township of Soma, barely 30 km from Daiichi, the city appeared more or less unaffected; yet there was something amiss. For one, I didn't see any children. Another look at the farms around me, which produce rice, green onions, and a variety of vegetables, and I couldn't help but to think, are they really safe to eat?

In my usual reconnaisance of the city park for a place to camp, I found myself sitting on the granite steps of a Shinto shrine, enjoying the sunset with a cup of green tea, when I had three consecutive visitors. The first was a small white tomcat that took an immediate liking to me. The second was a feline of identical coloring, who remained rather aloof. The third was a traveler, a young man from Tokyo by the name of Ogawa Hirotaka. Ogawa was dressed in a kaki onesy with shin-high black rubber boots; he looked very much the tsunami volunteer. As a matter of fact, Ogawa had just completed a week of volunteer work on the northern coast of Miyagi prefecture and had decided to rent a car and drive to Minami Soma to have a look for himself at the village described by Japan's mainstream media as Fukushima's Ground Zero. "Weren't you afraid of radiation?" I asked him. "No, I did my research first," he replied. Ogawa explained to me what he learned about nuclear radiation and the current state of contamination to the environment in Fukushima. Statistically speaking, the chance of contracting cancer from low doses of radiation is extremely unlikely and Ogawa found online readings that put him at ease about his planned to trip to the area. Ogawa was more concerned for the people who suffered the tsunami's destructive wrath, especially those who didn't have the means to evacuate. There were tears in his eyes as Ogawa related to me a story as it was confided to him by a survivor from Minami Soma who had lost his mother in the deluge following the quake. For one month the man looked for her corpse, answering every call for body identification during that time. He must have seen 400 corpses until he finally located the one that belonged to his departed mother. The body had been found inside the Daiichi evacuation zone and its removal for burial was restricted. The incident caused him so much grief and anger that he physically assaulted the reporting official. It's been over six months and every moment of darkened solace returns to his mind's eye the haunting images of mangled bodies and deteriorated faces he was forced to bare witness in the search for his mother's body. In realizing Ogawa's portrait, I imagined the horror that poor lady must have felt, caught like the helpless skiff in Hukusi's Great Wave.

The road from Minami Soma to Fukushima City is stunning beautiful; radiation however, is invisible. It was mid afternoon and the hotter part of the day had already passed; rays of light filtered yellow through a canopy of pine. Along the roadway the ubiquitous chestnut and persimmon trees of a Japanese Autumn tempted me with their succulent fruit. The chestnuts had ripened on the tree, their seeds protruding from their thorny casks. The persimmons, red and orange, bursting through their skins with sugary pulp, had already begun to fall to the ground, wasted. How I would have loved to eat just one of those delicious fruit; but the words of Dr. Kodama rang in my ears:

"When a vast amount of radioactive materials is released, they are in particles. Dispersion of particles is non-linear, and it's one of the most difficult calculations in the fluid dynamics. The nuclear fuel is like sands buried in synthetic resin, but once the fuel melts down, a large amount of super-fine particles is released."

I imagined everything covered with a thin layer of radioactive cesium dust. Cesium-137 is just one of the many products created when uranium and plutonium absorb neutrons and undergo fission, such as in nuclear reactors or weapons alike. It is this particular isotope that has been the principle pollutant of Daiichi, according to Dr. Yamazaki of Tohoku University. Cesium-137 is a soft, malleable, silvery white metal and unique among metals, it is liquid near room temperature. Because of its chemical properties it makes clean up extremely difficult. Exposure can be external by way of the gamma rays released in decay or internal, to be ingested inadvertently through food, water, or dust. I recalled this last fact when riding over a rough patch of road, a passing car kicked up a dust cloud just ahead of me. I held my breath as long i could, but I was forced to breath some of it in. All my readings this past week about radiation came to the forefront of my mind, taunting me, as I made my way through Fukushima's Danger Zone. In an article written by Dr. Bernard Cohen of Pittsburgh University, I learned that subatomic particles travel at or near the velocity of light, 186,000 miles per second. They can penetrate the human body, damage biological cells, initiate cancer and in some cases, if they strike sex cells, they can cause genetic diseases in progeny. Cohen is careful to note that the chances of contracting cancer from radiation is remote, but this area has been reported to be heavily contaminated and as I bicycled past the city of Iatate, I could see for myself that it was completely abandoned. Homes and business were boarded up, driveways were chained shut, and fields and green houses completely overgrown. Iatate is 40 km from Daiichi and it has been reported that traces of plutonium was recently discovered here (a possible indicator that there was in fact a breach of the reactor's containment vessel?). Irrespective of the validity of Dr. Yamasaki's theory that clay does indeed absorb and retain radioactive cesium, there is no clay on the persimmons, nor in the dust in the road, nor on the leaves of the forest.

Having arrived in Fukushima City, I decided to visit the prefectural government offices in order to learn more about what the government is doing to protect it's citizens from exposure. As I entered the offices of the Department of Food Safety I was greeted by a man in a button-up shirt and nondescript tie. He had a round clean-shaven face and he was bald on top. I should perhaps describe my own appearance, which I haven't commented upon since my first post. It has in fact little altered in the past 2 months. Quite contrary to the well groomed bureaucrats, I am never cleanly shaven; yet, I did my best to look presentable. My torn black t-shirt was hidden beneath a vintage checkered-green button-up. In turn, only the collar of the aforementioned threadbare shirt was visible under a kaki orange and brown-striped sweater that had only a minor stain or two. Unfortunately, I do not own a pair of pants at the moment, otherwise I would have worn them. I had to make due instead with my bike shorts, a pair of black short-shorts with white racing stripes, which illintentionally showcase my lank white and hairy legs, further pronounced by rainbow-striped above-the-ancle socks. A slight improvement at the base, my clipless cycling shoes are black and relatively new looking. The fact that I have been so well received in this country despite my dire appearance speaks volumes of Japanese hospitality. I removed the pink trucker's hat from my head and I explained to my contrastingly well-dressed host that I am a blogger investigating the Daiichi disaster and have a few questions about food contamination. The offices of food safety is but a single large room with a low ceiling and it is jammed packed full of desks, manned by an army of suits. My host bid me wait as he made his way to the front of the room to speak with who appeared the captain of the ship, a heavy set man, who's desk is situated at the helm, larger and with a commanding view of his men. I was ushered to a seat at a wooden table where I was greeted by man of remarkably calm disposition by the name of Kenichi Kanezawa. He addressed me in Japanese. "Sumimasen, Nihongowa, wakarimasen," I responded. It is one of the most important phrases I've learned during my stay in Japan: "I'm sorry, I don't speak Japanese". He made a phone call and we were soon joined by an interpreter from the offices of International Relations, a serious looking lady of middle age, bespectacled and in a blue suit. Agent Kenichi explained to me through the interpreter that, with the exception of the fishing industry, all restrictions on food from Fukushima prefecture have been lifted; that is not to say that everything that enters the market is not monitored first to ensure its safety for human consumption. The government has in place regulations as to the allowable levels of radiation deemed safe, which vary depending on the food product. For example, drinking water and milk is set at a limit of 200 becquerel; for rice, as much as 500 becquerel. Initially, the government employed private industry to conduct tests, but the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has since acquired the necessary equipment that testing may now be conducted from within the department itself. It is the responsibility of producers to acquire the necessary checks from the government. There are several areas in Fukushima prefecture that the production, or consumption for that matter, of food and water is restricted. Drinking water in several townships has been found to be dangerously contaminated, at which time the government suspended supply and distributed bottled water in its place, until levels were shown to have decreased to a safe standard. In certain cases, when food products, such as milk, chestnuts, and spinach, showed to be contaminated with radioactive isotopes, such as cesium-137. Those particular goods were sealed in plastic and restrictions were imposed on the land from which they were came. Monitoring is done by way of sampling. Agent Kanezawa was confident that everything on the market today is completely safe. I however was not convinced. I wanted to know specifics on the monitoring process. Is there a certification program - some kind of proof a particular company has undergone necessary testing? Or is there some other method to guarantee that all producers, large and small, obtain the necessary tests that ensure the safety of their product? Most importantly, is sampling really sufficient? If Dr. Kodama is correct in his assertion that contamination of radioactive particles is "non-linnear" and subject to arbitrary patterns of wind and rain, then sampling is surely not an effective measure. Alas, my questions went unanswered. Either the agent at Food Safety did not know the answer to my questions or the interpreter had lost patience. I expect the latter was the case. "You did not make an appointment. This is highly irregular", she repeated several times before finally cutting our interview short. I thought to go to the department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, but I worried the same interpreter might again be called to translate and I did not wish to go back in the ring with her a second round. I decided instead to throw in the proverbial towel and move along to my next destination; I still had a teacher to visit in the city of Koriyama, some 50 km from Fukushima City.

I first heard about Kiyoshi Sasaki in an article published in the online English addition of, entitled, "In Fukushima, students face up to realities of nuclear disaster". At a time when Japan's central government withholds information deemed "inconvenient" or liable to spread panic, Mr. Sasaki has opted for an altogether different approach of honesty with his junior high school science class. I was touched by the story of a teacher who was discussing radiation candidly with his students and has taken the initiative to introduce monitoring equipment to his extracurricular Club of Natural Science, having students test soil from their community and analyze the data for themselves. I arrived to the campus of Meiken Junior High late afternoon, just as classes had begun to let out. Situated on a picturesque lake, students in blue uniform spilled out of the imposing and ultramodern complex of their school and onto the small walking paths that contour the lake, before splintering off into the surrounding residential neighborhood. The teachers' offices are located in a single large glass-walled room at the main entrance to the school. In my usual nonchalance, I strolled right in and asked to speak with Mr. Sasaki. After some commotion, the English teacher, a young man by the name of Yoshiro Fukasaku, being the only individual in the room capable of communicating with me, was procured. I explained to him the nature of my visit and he in turn offered me a seat and a cup of coffee while I waited on Mr. Sasaki, who was engaged in a parent-teacher conference. The day's typhoon rains had me drenched and I took advantage of the delay to regain my composure as I sat dripping on the carpeted floors. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Sasaki joined us at the table and Mr. Fukasaku, agreed to act as interpreter. Mr. Sasaki was thrilled I had sough him out after seeing his name mentioned in a newspaper article and responded to my interview with great enthusiasm. What was life like for a junior high school science teacher in Fukushima in the days following the Great East Japan Earthquake? Firstly, School was suspended for a week. The destruction reaped by the tsunami was dreadful and the explosions at the nuclear power plant in Daiichi left the people of Fukushima in a state of suspense, as they didn't know what the future would hold. For many, the incident sparked horrifying recollections of images of the Atomic-bomb ravaged cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the history of which is etched in the collective memory of Japanese people everywhere. Everyone was glued to their television set, waiting, hoping for answers; answers that were slow in coming. Mr. Sasaki began his own investigation. One of his principle sources for information came from a professor Nakagawa Kayichi of Tokyo University, who was disseminating information about radiation through Twitter. Beginning in April, Mr. Sasaki began commuting to Tokyo to attend radiation conferences for teachers, hosted by the University of Tokyo. When school resumed its normal schedule, children were prohibited from going outside for recess. Long sleeves, caps, and respirator masks became de rigueur and children were refused on the bus unless they were dressed accordingly. Understandably, the children were in a state of confusion and many had questions for their science teacher about radiation. Roughly 60% of them chose radiation as the subject for their summer report. Today the stringent precautions have been eased somewhat. The students are no longer required to don hazmat apparel, but the city of Koriyama still has in place a three-hour limit as to the permissible time children may remain outdoors. Furthermore, starting that very day, the 5th of October, the city of Koriyama initiated a program, in which students were equipped with special radiation monitoring devises to be worn around their neck for a period of one month. The readings will be sent to the Board of Education, which will determine the safety of the schools within its precinct. After completing my interview with Mr. Sasaki I went outside to where my bike was parked to find a group of children waiting for me. Compared with the shyness exhibited by their superiors, when addressing me the students did not hesitate and they were eager to practice the English they had been taught by Mr. Nakagawa. They showed me their monitoring devises and whatever anxiety they may have had in the days immediately proceeding the quake, at present, they seemed generally unconcerned. Only two in a group of 10 admitted fear of unseen radiation. Regardless, they quickly changed the subject. The children preferred conversation related to sports and other such things and they were duly impressed with how far I had ridden my bicycle and they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the drawings in my sketchbook. When they learned that I was to sleep at a gazebo in the lakeside park that rainy night, two among them called their parents to ask if they could invite me for a "sleepover". Both sets of parents declined, but Mr. Nakagawa graciously invited me to spend the evening with his family in their small downtown flat. In the morning, I thought I might join Mr. Nakagawa's English class to lead the day's conversation, a simple contribution that could prove invaluable to the students. Mr. Nakagawa proposed the idea to the principle, but it was promptly rejected, on the grounds that school policy doesn't allow any diversion from the curriculum. I am certain that in Japan there is no equivalent to the English expression "sometimes it's best to ask forgiveness later than permission first".

domingo, 16 de octubre de 2011

A Different Perspective

I arrived in Sendai mid afternoon and went straight to the nearest volunteer coordination center. No one in the office spoke English, but the young lady at the desk made a phone call to a volunteer she knew could communicate with me and promptly handed me the phone. Chizuko and Peter Boberg, California residents, have been living in Sendai and working as volunteers since June. Chizuko is originally from this area and her mother still lives in Soma, Fukushima. The couple warmed up to me immediately and invited me for drinks at a nearby bar. We were accompanied by a friend of theirs from the Sendai swing dancers' circuit, the beautiful and charming Sendai radio mc and swing dancer extraordinaire, Nammy Ogata. Arm and arm, the girls made their way inside the cramped bar to order us a round of drinks and some yakitori. Peter suggested that while the girls waited on the food, we hop on our bikes and take a quick tour of the neighborhood. Peter has blond thinning hair and a short cropped mustache. He is opinionated and outspoken. As we made our way through congested city streets, Peter said to me, "I don't know about you, but I can't stand waiting for stop lights in this country. I just go for it." I share with him my own thoughts on the subject: Often I see Japanese people waiting at a traffic signal even if there isn't a car in sight. I blow through the light in my usual haste and I feel their judging stares. "How 'Japanese' this irrational respect for law and order," I think to myself of the pedestrians I've left in my wake. "How American, this irreverent impatience," might be their retort. The imaginary exchange causes me to feel a little embarrassment of my behavior, but not so much to curb my impatience. Before parting ways for the evening, Peter and Chizako offered to take me to a different volunteer center in the port of Sendai, just 40 minutes by bicycle, where, unlike the center in which I initially inquired, they were confident I could find some immediate work.

I had a day to kill in the city before heading out to the coast and I decided I should learn a thing or two about nuclear power and the dangers of nuclear radiation before my departure for Fukushima. Sendai is home to one of Japan's premier research institutions, Tohoku University, which according to the website, has been on the frontline in the disaster relief effort since the beginning, employing its resources in the School of Dentistry to identify bodies, as well as monitoring radiation levels at its Cyclotron and Radioisotope Center. Before seeking an interview with one of the professors I did some of my own online research and this is what I learned...

On 11 March 2011, Japan was struck by the largest earthquake in its recorded history, a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. With the tsunami that followed, tens of thousands of Japanese lost their lives and the country sustained tens of billions in dollars in damages, including partial meltdowns of 3 nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant, which released dangerous radiation into the environment. The area within a twenty mile radius of the plant was permanently evacuated, surrounding cities in the danger zone temporarily evacuated, food and water restricted, and advisories issued that children remaining in the area not go outside unless fully covered and not for more than the suggested daily allowance determined by their locality. More than six months after the quake and the radiation has still not been completely contained. Radioactive plutonium has recently been discovered in six localities, including the city of Iatate, some 40 km from the plant. People are scared. Indeed, nearly everyone I've mentioned of my plans to bicycle to Fukushima has expressed great concern for my safety and urged me to stay far away from the coast. In Aizuwakamatsu, a young lady told me that her friends from outside the prefecture have refused to visit her. Aizu is further from Daiichi than Tokyo and such concerns might be unreasonable, but they demonstrate the stigma now associated with the prefecture. There have been stories in the news of discrimination felt by evacuees; hotels, for example, have refused business to evacuees and their children have been picked on at their new schools. These incidents have prompted the ministry of education to institute a program of radiation education in schools. Many, however, feel the government isn't doing enough. Yasuko, the young lady I met in Kusatsu, who was so concerned about her family in Fukushima, thought the government has been outright dishonest about the severety of contamination to the environment and its associated health risks. One of Japan's most vocal critics of the Japanese government's response to the nuclear disaster has been professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the Radioisotope Center at Japan's prestigious University of Tokyo. On the 27th of July, Kodama gave a now famous speech when he was called as witness to give testimony to the Committee on Welfare and Labor in Japan's lower House in the Diet. Kodama's anger was written all over his face and at times his voice quivered with emotion. Comfortably seated in the driveway of the private home I was pirating wireless internet, I watched the English translation of Kodama's speech on Youtube on my iPod.

"There is no definite report from TEPCO or the Japanese government as to exactly how much radioactive material has been released from Fukushima. Using our knowledge base at the Radioisotope Center, we measured, based on thermal output, it is 29.6 times the amount released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In uranium-equivalent, it is 20 Hiroshima bombs.

What is more frightening is that whereas the radiation from a nuclear bomb will decrease to one-thousandth in one year, the radiation from a nuclear power plant will only decrease to one-tenth.

In other words, we should recognize from the start that just like Chernobyl, Fukushima 1 Nuke Plant has released radioactive materials equivalent in the amount of tens of nuclear bombs, and the resulting contamination is far worse than the contamination by a nuclear bomb."

Kodama berates the government for their ineptitude and goes on in detail about the dangers of nuclear radiation, the difficulties in detection and clean up, and specifics on how radiation can cause cancer in the human body, of which children and pregnant women are at greatest risk. Kodama appeals directly to the government to make people's health their primary concern, not finance. To see Kodama's speech in its entirety, click on the following link:

I arrived at Tohoku University's Cyclotron and Radioisotope Center mid afternoon. I took my shoes off at the reception, placed them in a cubby and slipped on the courtesy slippers provided. Instead of checking in with the front desk, where it is doubtful I would be understood, much less granted an interview sans appointment, I decided instead to roam the halls with the hopes of running into a professor. I didn't get very far when I was stopped by a man in a lab coat, but, as expected, he didn't speak English. He signaled for me to follow him to a boardroom where a group of important looking people were in the midst of a meeting. A young man, formally dressed, came out to inquire about the purpose of my visit and I told him I wished to meet with a professor. "Which professor?" he asked. "Oh it really doesn't matter, anyone in the nuclear physics department will do," I replied. To my surprise, I soon found myself seated on a plush leather sofa in the office of Professor Yasuhiro Sakemi, the chair of the Nuclear Radiation Physics department. After the initial pleasantries, I got down to business and shared with him my sketch book, describing my journey, in which my sketches corresponded, and how it was that I became interested in the subject of radiation that brought me here today. The professor, amused enough by my presentation, was nonetheless eager to satisfy my queries and explained that he was not in fact the most qualified person for an interview on the topic, but would be happy to introduce me to someone who was. I was then taken to the offices of the research team that has been monitoring radiation levels in the food, water, air and soil of Fukushima and Myagi prefectures since the early days of the Daiichi debacle. I stood by nervously as Professor Yasuhiro debriefed a very serious looking Professor Hiromichi Yamazaki about the nature of my visit. As soon as Hiromichi turned to me, a big smile streched across his face and I was greeted with a warm welcome that put me quickly at ease.

I spoke with Professor Hiromichi for the better part of an hour and as we spoke, we walked out onto a terrace, where a scientist was tweaking a machine that the professor informed me was one such devise for monitoring the levels of radiation in the air. Professor Hiromichi explained to me that samples of vegetables, such as potatoes, spinach, beans, radishes and corn, are brought to the lab courtesy of the Prefectures' Department of Agriculture, which draws its samples from throughout Fukushima and Myagi prefectures. In April, his team found levels of radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 at levels 10x the norm. Levels of radiation have since dropped significantly, and as of late, his team has not found dangerous levels of radioactive material in neither food, air, water, nor soil in Fukushima or Myagi prefectures. Asked how could this be, when there are reports that radioactive material is still being leaked from the plant, the professor explained to me his theory. First off, radioactive iodine has a physical life of only 8 days. As for cesium, the physical life of which, is approximately 30 years, Japan's high clay content has effectively absorbed the radioactive material. In every 100 grams of soil throughout Japan, can be found 20 grams of clay. Once the clay absorbs the radioactive material, it prevents its transmition into the environment. It was professor Hiromichi's professional opinion that the food water and air of Fukushima prefecture at this juncture is completely safe and there is no more need for worry. Furthermore, he believed the biggest tragedy caused by the nuclear disaster would not be actual radiation poisoning, but a misguided perception of radiation that would reap economic destruction on the people of Fukushima, an agricultural people who will no longer find a market for their product. His greatest worries are for the children of Fukushima, who 15 years from today, will have grown up in a welfare state and without the agricultural skills that have sustained their families for generations. This was all very much a surprise to me after reading head line after head line of doomsday scenarios, not to mention the grave accusations made by Mr. Kodama. I asked professor Hiromichi about this apparent inconsistency between his theories and those of his colleague at Tokyo University. Professor Hiromichi remained steadfast and as to the statements made by Kodama, he was baffled. In not so many words, he alluded that perhaps Kodama is not qualified to make the statements he has made or one may speculate that in such instances celebrity is often a motive for sensationalism. I left Tohoku University that day feeling I'd gained a new perspective on the issue, but I cannot say however that all my concerns regarding my planned excursion to the danger zone of Fukushima were queled entirely.

At the volunteer center in the port of Sendai I was given a pair of boots and gloves and put to work with a group of volunteers at the family home of Fujio and Keiko Shoji. The house of traditional Japanese architecture was built 60 years ago by Fujio's father and it was in the same house he spent his childhood and later reared his own family. The Shojis were lucky. Unlike many of their neighbors, who's houses were raised to the ground, their own house sustained 6' of water, but the structure remained sound and the second floor left in tact. At our scheduled breaks, it was in the revived garden that I found a good vantage point from which to sketch the house. Keiko sat before me and allowed me to include her portrait in my drawing. We were soon joined by some of the other volunteers and luckily, there was one among them who was fluent in English. Hiroshi Kariya, whose family had survived the earthquake in Sendai City more or less unscathed, was in the habit of devoting his spare time as volunteer, and he graciously translated the interview between Keiko and I. She was standing in her driveway when the earthquake litterly knocked her off her feet. Given its magnitude, the couple realized a tsunami was immenant and Fujio immediately returned home from work to collect his wife and together they sought shelter at the evacuation center at Tsuramake Elementary School in Sendai City. It was four days before the water level receded and the family could return home. Their front yard was strewn with the wreckage of 6 cars and the roof of a neighboring house sat in their driveway. Insurance companies cover only 1/3 of the repair costs in the case of a tsunami, but the Shoji's were fortunate to reap one half of the value of the incurred damage. Volunteers from all over Japan and other parts of the world have since helped to ease the deficit. However, the losses incurred by the family have not been relegated to the family home, their farms in the vicinity were destroyed completely. The family did have one farm in the nearby community of Wateri that did survive the earthquake, but Keiko is very concerned about radiation contamination. The company they employ to harvest their rice paddy sold the product without preliminary testing. Their field, located just outside the Fukushima prefecture border, is not required to do so by the Department of Agriculture. This seems to weigh heavily on Keiko's conscience. The following day I presented Keiko with my sketch as a present on behalf of the volunteers. She was ecstatic and in turn, gifted me with a blanket embellished with her family's kamon, or family crest.

I remained at the Sendai Port area for a total of three days, working with the volunteers. The group had renovated a house to accommodate volunteers arriving from out of town free of charge. Sharing the cramped two room house with me at the time was the house's manager, Tsuyoshi Ohdera, and 9 university student's from the Tokyo University of Art. For their summer vacation, these conservatory students had formed a not-for-profit, the Furusato
Classic Caravan, which is dedicated to preforming free classical music concerts for victims of the Tsunami living in temporary housing ( ). Before driving out to one of their concerts, Tsuyoshi and I were sitting in the house looking at something on his computer when the house began to shake violently. In shock I looked over at my companion, who was relatively unshaken by the occurence. "We have earthquakes here nearly every week," he explained. Indeed, cycling the roads of Japan I'm often taken by the orderly way in which the Japanese seem to have contained nature at the roadside, all manners of mountain walls are neatly stuccoed or fenced in. Accustomed to the unstable nature of the Japanese archipelago, the Japanese have a perception of their surrounding that can be likened to a sail boat's kitchen, in which everything is tied down. In contrast, it is a surprise how ill prepared the powerplant at Fukushima-Daiichi was for a tsunami. But then again, how can one really think of everything when one is faced with the awesome power of nature. In hindsight, perhaps nuclear power was not such a good idea in place like Japan, which is so susceptible to earthquakes. I guess the question really is, whether or not nuclear power is suited anywhere, considering both its harmful effects to the environment and its vulnerability to the indiscriminate powers of nature.

domingo, 2 de octubre de 2011

Typhoon cycling, Dinner with Yakuza and merriment in Fukushima

I wasn't 15 km out of Kusatsu when the typhoon rains hit Gunma-ken. This is the way it's going to be for the next week, so I might as well get used to it. However, the weather's been getting consistently cooler and rain is no longer refreshing like it was a month ago. With the dusk I role into some one-horse town, I never learn its name, but it's got a side-of-the-road shrine that I can sleep in without being bothered and there is a restaurant where I can dry out for awhile. The restaurant is the only building anywhere around here with a light on. It's got a large red sign as big as a billboard with presumably the restaurant's name in white Chinese characters. I park my bike under the overhang, remove a dry sweater from a plastic bag and go inside. The place is modest alright; zero attempt at frill; besides the drab window curtains, no pictures, nothing. There is only one table occupied at the far end of the room. On a tutami stage three men are seated on the floor. They are talking over each other and their voices fill the empty room. They've obviously been drinking. One of the men gets up to greet me. I assume he's asking me what I'll be having to eat. There are no pictures on the menu so I order the only dish I know they'll have that I can say in Japanese - ramen. One of the other two men, still seated, calls out to me in English. Despite hand gestures from the one who took my order to ignore his friend, I immediately seize the opportunity to join them at their table. Pretty soon I'm passing around my sketch book, distributing stickers, talking a mile a minute about my travels here in Japan and they are obviously amused. Twenty minutes go by before it occurs to me that we don't speak the same language. The man who called me over doesn't speak English after all, but it doesn't matter and we go right ahead talking anyway. By this time I'm an expert in gesture communication, charades or what have you. Turns out the man who took my order is the owner of this fine establishment and the other two are bosses of I don't know what. They act like a pair of regular yakuza right out of a Kurosawa film and they're generous to boot. By the time my ramen comes out, I've eaten and drank so much of their food and sake I'm no longer hungry. When I start sketching their picture they soon forget all about me and eventually, they get up to leave without saying a word.

Rain, rain, and more rain. By the time I crossed the mountain pass into the city of Nikko, my break pads had all but melted away. I found shelter in a two walled gazebo in the center of town, where I sat out the typhoon for the next two days. The rain didn't let up for a minute, isolating me to my modest refuge. On Sunday morning, when the sun finally peaked its head from the clouds, I was eager to leave the confines of my gazebo and get the hell out of this town. It's unfortunate I wasn't in the mood for sightseeing, because Nikko is home to a World Heritage site. A 17th century sacred bridge that is lacquered red, leads to a cedar-lined path of the temple complex, which is perched on hills overlooking the city. My patience allowed only as much time as it takes to walk through each torri and I was back on the bike. The sun was teasing me. No sooner was I out of Nikko and the rains returned in full force. I biked the 100+ km to Aizu-Wakamatzu without stopping in an attempt to sweat away the cold. The first half of route 121 is stunning mountains, lakes, and waterfalls and the rain and fog had a mystical effect on the scenery. The second half of the journey felt more like a subway than a remote mountain pass, there are so many tunnels. I arrived to Aizu just before sunset and the rains had finally exhausted themselves.

Today was the second day of Aizu Autumn festival. I was awoken early in the morning to fireworks being shot off within feet of my campsite in city park, just opposite the castle, alongside a picturesque tree-lined mote. I followed the sounds of drums and amplified voices across an ancient bridge into the castle's inner courtyard, where I was soon greeted by an American working for the city's international outreach center. After a free history tour, I learned that this festival commemorates those that died in Japan's Boshin Civil War (1868). The festival is itself a history lesson, beginning at the castle, actors reenact stories from Aizu's past that span 5 centuries, and then they hit the streets in parade formation. Aizu, the historic capital of Fukushima prefecture, was, as I learned, on the losing side of Japan's civil war. My tour guide explained how even into the modern era's Meiji period, Aizu suffered for it's past political allegiance and it wasn't until the 1960s that Japan's central government permitted the rebuilding of Aizu's castle. It is often the case that poorer locales are chosen as sites for nuclear power-plants. I wonder how the disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi might tie into the prefecture's unfortunate history.
After sundown, a public dance is held downtown in the sectioned-off main strip. I began sketching the bandstand and floating paper lights when a lady I met earlier that day with her two young daughters grabs me by the hand to join the synchronized dancing.

lunes, 26 de septiembre de 2011

Cold Rain, Warm Hospitality, and Hot Springs

It was already late afternoon by the time I got started and I had a mountain to climb. Between Obuse and Kusatsu lies Shiga Kogen, a grouping of mountains that make up Japan's largest ski resort and one of the largest in the world. The terrain up till this point has been mild; Shiga Kogen is the exception. There are virtually no tunnels. The road is closed after snowfall, after which time, the only way up is by gondola. Ski lifts pass directly overhead and I feel as if I'm biking up a small ski trail, rather than a busy highway. I wonder if in fact the road is used as such after the first snowfall. The scenery is breathtaking. The road makes a dip with the contours of the mountain and an asphalt horrizon gives way to a vast pine forest. Red tree trunks lacquered in the late afternoon sun and the infinite shades of evergreen peaks scale the mountain like the scales on a Hokusai dragon. In the diffused light every detail is illuminated. I'm tempted to put up my bike and sketch the trees from the roadside as I see them - without a horrizon line, just trees with every painstaking detail, their bare trunks and thickly bristled arms, which begin at the midriff. These trees are unique to Japan and I've only seen them previously in Japanese art. I'm reminded of the anthropomorphic trees of legend. But it's late and if possible, I'd like to get to Kusatsu before dark.

Kusatsu has been a famous onsen (hot springs) resort for well over a century. The water is especially rich in sulfuric acid and is believed to be a panacea to all sorts of medical ailments. The town has literally been built around the source and a Yubatake, or 'hot water field', occupies the plaza. The Yubatake is comprised of countless wooden conduits that cool the water (which comes up from the ground more than 70 degrees centigrate), before it is diverted to the various ryokan and public baths in its vicinity. Kusatsu is a small city and its center is comprised of mostly historic buildings in both Japanese and German style. The area has had much German influence and a major thoroughfare of Kusatsu and the surrounding valleys of Gunma-ken has been dubbed Strasse Romantische. It was on this roadway I arrived to the city early the next morning, cold and wet after a 15 km descent and the first thing I did was make my way straight to an onsen.

Baths are an important part of Japanese culture and you can find an onsen in virutally every village town or city. Even in Tokyo, hot springs are pumped from deep below Tokyo bay. The admission price of a public bath typically range between 500 and 1200 yen ($6-$15). There is no reentry, but inside there is everything one might require - restaurants, lounges selling refreshments that include beer, and resting areas. The onsen I chose to spend the day even had free wifi. I was the last patron to leave at 9pm, closing time. Not ready to go to bed, I decided instead to hang out at a convenient shop, drink a beer and read my book. I was soon interrupted from my reading by a curious cocker spaniel that jumped into my lap. The dog's owners were a white-haired couple in matching yukata (a type of bathrobe in which people freely walk) and engaged me in conversation about my travels. We were soon joined by another lady of middle age who was equally impressed by my loaded bicycle. She asked me where I was to sleep this cold and rainy night and was shocked when I responded that I would be sleeping in the city park. She insisted I follow her car with my cycle the short distance to her house where she had an extra room that I will spend the night.

Yuuko lives in the apartment complex she owns in a working class neighborhood not far from the city center. She comes from an old Kusatsu family of property and her position as a landlord enables her to live a life of leisure, in which, in her words, "everyday is Sunday". We spend the evening and a better part of the following day in her living room, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and talking over the chatter of a television set that was always on. But, that's not all we did. Yuuko took great pains to show me her city and leave me with a taste of "true" Japanese culture. I can't help but laugh at the irony of this, as Yuuko is so atypically Japanese. She is the black sheep of her family, of whom I learn that both her siblings have corporate jobs and families of their own. Yuuko on the other hand, lives alone in a sparse three bedroom apartment. When I ask her about the state of Japan after the Fukushima disaster, she becomes morose. "Japan is broken and I'm not sure it can recover", responds Yuuko. I sense a deep sadness in her. Later however, walking the drab streets of her lackluster neighborhood,Yuuko in juxtaposition, is glowing. She is well acquainted with her neighbors and speaks with everyone. Yuuko, in her pretty flower-patterened dress, stands out. Despite her years and the beer and cigarettes, her beauty hasn't begun to fade. I almost believe her jubilance and she appears to me an anomaly in this small traditional mountain town.

The following morning was blue skies. We took advantage of the change in weather to go see some of Kusatsu's major tourist attractions. At the top of a nearby mountain peak, we followed throngs of tourists up a stepping stone path to a viewing area, overlooking a brilliant aquamarine lake. Yuuko waited for me while I stepped over the partitions and away from the crowds to render a sketch. Afterwards, we drove to the Yubatake, where Yuuko introduced me to her grandmother, who runs a small shop adjoined to the townhouse in which she lives. We toured the grounds of a shrine surrounded by ancient pools. Yuuko then showed me to an outdoor onsen surrounded by virgin forest and waited for me as I bathed. That night Yuuko made dinner, a typical Japanese dish from the region known as Skiaki. She had a special hotplate for the purpose, which was placed at the center of the table. First the pan is greased in fat, then vegetables of bock choi, a root vegetable known as gobo, Konyaku noodles, and thin slices of beef are added. Yuuko placed before me a bowl with raw egg that constituted the dipping sauce. For dessert we had Manju, a local speciality - a wheat-based pastry, colored with brown sugar and stuffed with sweet red bean jam. I slept soundly that night.

Early the next morning Yuuko had errands to run and I decided it was time to leave Kusatsu. With a tinge of sadness I bid her farewell and made my way to town for a quick breakfast before heading out. I asked a young couple for directions and soon found myself engaged in a long conversation, unhindered by the reemerging rain clouds. Yasuko Iokawa and her partner were visiting Kusatsu from Kawasaki, Tokyo. Her family is from Fukushima and when I asked how they were coping with the recent disaster, Iokawa is overcome by grief. She worries about her family's safety. They live close to the destroyed nuclear energy facilities, where she believes they are at risk of radiation poisoning. Iokawa regrets not being able to invite her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to live with her in her small apartment in Tokyo. Her family has no choice but to remain in their homes in Fukushima. She says her family believes the government that the nuclear energy plants have been contained with little damage to the environment, but what choice do they have, she conjectures. Iokawa just wants to see Japan close all its nuclear plants. She believes Japan should commit to a 50 year plan to phase them out.

miércoles, 21 de septiembre de 2011

Wasabi, Snow Monkeys, Mr. and Mrs. Uenoda and my latest epiphany

I Spent a total of three days in Matsumoto. My campsite at a small neighborhood park situated on the top of a hill as to command a view of the valley below proved very comfortable. To sweeten the deal (pun intended), I soon discovered a bakery and cake shop that unknowingly provided an all-you can eat buffet of daily bread and donuts, which I was able to share with a couple of Japanese bike tourists I met that weekend. I also got a good deal of drawing and writing done. But the road calls. They only give Americans sans visa 3 months in this country and I've already used up 1 of those months just in Tokyo; and I've still got a lot of riding to do. The next few days prove to be just that, lots of riding, interspersed with plenty of tourist attractions.

My first stop was Hotaka, home to Japan's largest wasabi plantation, the Dai-o Wasabi-Nojo, which attracts tourists by the bus load. The sprawling grounds host restaurants, ice cream parlors and beer halls, everything wasabi flavored. Wasabi is a waterborn root vegetable and looks much like ginger if it were green. You've never had wasabi until you've tasted it directly from the root itself. The plantation is located in a river valley, the river of which has been diverted into labyrinth-like channels all but invisible under the wide green roof of wasabi leaves and black protective screens. Picturesque wooden bridges and boardwalks connect a shrine, to a cluster of restaurants, to a viewing area. After a beer, an ice cream cone, and about a million and one free samples I had my fill and it was back on the bike.

Nagano prefecture must be something like the bread basket of Japan. Fields of golden wheat, rows of vegetables, and fruit trees that spill over into the roadway in such a way that all I have to do is lift my hand from my handlebar just a little bit and voila, an apple, a bunch of grapes, kiwis, figs, and plums. Unlike the wasabi farm I visited today, most of the farms appear to be small operations that diversify their crop.

After so many kilometers and so much stolen fruit, I finally arrived to Obuse late at night. Obuse is known for chestnut-based deserts and the famous Ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai (The Great Wave), who lived and worked here when it was a major Edo capital and not the backroad tourist destination it is today. There is a also an excellent Sake brewery here, which distills its signature IO in traditional gigantic barrels made from oak boards held together by bamboo twine.

Next on the tourist agenda was Yudanaka's Jigokudani Yaen-koen, or Monkey Park. I arrived at sundown and found an abandoned trailer park at the forest entrance to pitch my tent. In the morning I took the 1.6 km wooded trail to the park and onsen, where sure enough, live plenty of Japanese snow monkeys. On the way back to my bike I stopped at a gazebo along the trail to have my lunch. I was soon joined by an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Uenoda, who were visiting from Fujisawa (South of Tokyo), where they live just a few kilometers from the beaches of Segami Bay. When asked about Japan's reliance on nuclear power, both emphatically answered at once, "Japan must close it's nuclear plants." Mr. Uenoda did most of the talking. "There is a concern about terrorists" he explained. This is an understandable concern for the Japanese in particular and especially for someone who experienced first-hand the second World War. Mr. Uenoda was 15 years old when the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and he remembers it well. I asked him if there is any relevance between the recent Fukushima disaster and the Hiroshima act-of-war some 66 years ago. "Many politicians argue that it is different, I on the other hand don't believe that it is". In addition, Mr. Uenoda feels that the radiation poisoning from the destroyed power plants in Fukushima is of equal concern as if an atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Mr. Uenoda is of the belief that nuclear power will never be safe and Japan should close its nuclear plants. Is it realistic? Will there be enough energy to supply all of Japan's industrial needs? "It must be. We use far too much energy and we must find alternatives."

While the rest of the world is conspicuously silent on the subject, in Japan everyone is talking nuclear. People are impassioned and many are calling for an end to Japan's reliance on nuclear power. My conversation with the Uenidas was illuminating and I had the following revelation: I will dedicate this bike tour to the good fight and to gaining a deeper understanding of the Japanese experience living with nuclear catastrophe both past and present. I will bike from Fukushima to Hiroshima, and I will record my impressions through sketches and writings here, on BikeSketch.

domingo, 18 de septiembre de 2011


Sunday. It's a beautiful day, though a little on the warm side. I hit up the supermarket dumpster before heading out of town and score enough ham for pound-thick sandwhiches for two days. A brief climb, then through a mother of a tunnel and it's nearly 30 km downhill. When it comes to cycling, my favorite part about the uphill is the inevitable proceeding descent. In the Japanese Alps however, much of the hard stuff is eliminated with tunnels. Where there would be a killer pass, instead the Japanese have blasted a hole clean through the mountain. But, I'm not complaining, my legs are still sore as hell from Mt. Fuji and it's nice to have a break from any serious climbing. Traveling along on route 20, north to Matsumoto, the road follows a large river valley. There is a bike trail between river and road. On the road side, rows of golden wheat fields (buckwheat perhaps, Nagano prefecture is Soba Country after all) are decorated with scarecrows like manga dolls and black plastic bags fixed to poles flutter in the wind like animated birds. On the riverside, the foliage has been left to grow wild and creeping vines with broad leaves threaten to swallow the trail. In the modern age, highways have replaced rivers as lifelines connecting civilization. In this surreal example, even farms seem to gain subsidence from the road.

When I arrive in Matosumoto it is early afternoon. I leisurely bike around the historic center when before I know it I've joined an anti-nuclear protest. Men woman and children of all ages carry signs and banners, bang on drums, play flutes and other musical instruments, and march in defiance to Japan's reliance on nuclear power. A beautiful woman of middle-age in a witches cap, hobbles with cast and cane; she is holding a megaphone to her lips chanting something in Japanese, of which the crowd responds in unison. The procession ends at Matsumoto Castle, a solemn looking building of black and white, which has earned it the moniker, "Crow's Castle". The music continues for only a short while before disbanding. People stand around socializing and I take the oportunity to make the acquaintance of some of the protesters. Pretty soon however, everyone goes there separate ways and I'm left alone to explore the city by myself. Matsumoto is a major metropolis, but the historic center is walkable and quite charming with its old buildings interspersed among skyscrapers. Behind the ultramodern City Museum (which has a great permanent exhibit of Yayoi Kusama, who's dot motif is right up my alley) reminded me of the Japanese version of a creole cottage. The mud stucco had fallen off in one section exposing a lat system of sticks and twine.

martes, 13 de septiembre de 2011

Goodbye Tokyo, Hello Japan

Destination: Mt. Fuji. I'm accompanied for the first leg of my journey by Takashi, one of my roommates of the Shared House in Kunitachi. This was Takashi's first time leaving the city on bicycle and he'd never climbed Mt. Fuji, but he had three days off and was thirsty for adventure. After a week of rain, the clouds had finally parted and it was blue skies. This is my third time traveling route 413 from Tokyo to Fujikawaguchiko and each time I notice something new. For instance, I hadn't realized just how tall the bamboo alongside the road is. Viewing them from above, thousands of small pointed leaves host a colony of tiny birds like shadows on a green field. Bamboo stalks descend some thirty feet to the river below; which, after all the rain this past week, has transformed into a white monster; her roar echoing through the valley is our constant companion. In grotesque harmony can be heard the desperate mating call of the cicidas, an eerie screeching, two short and one long. I have seen them many times referenced in manga, but I never before understood their significance. It is their season and several people have mentioned them to me with pride, including Takashi on this trip. Cicidas live underground three years and when they finally do emerge from darkness they have just one week to find a mate. Is it poetic justice? their entire lives cicadas prepare for light and love as if it is one and the same, just to die shortly thereafter. Well you know what they say...

The sun sets over Yamanaka Lake as we trudge onward. By the time we arrive in Fujikawaguchiko it is already dark and we are exhausted. Before heading off to bed at the lakeside park gazebo, we stop at a restaurant for some Hôtô, a local specialty of pumpkin and miso soup. We also sample another regional favorite, basashi, raw horse meat - consistency of tripe-like fungus, but goes down well with a little soy sauce and a draught beer.

We awake well rested shortly after 7. No police bother us; on the contrary the parkgoers seem pleased to see a couple of travelers making use of their facilities and bid us good morning with a cheerful "Ohiô gozai mas!" I make breakfast - hot instant coffee, bread with blackbean jam (ubiquitous in Japanese deserts) and fruit picked ripe from the supermarket trash, when Takashi, who has wandered some 10 meters to the lake, calls to me with uncontainable enthusiasm. I rush over to see what the fuss is about and behold a majestic Mt. Fuji's single peak hovering over Kawaguchi lake, its ghost-like reflection glistening beneath it in dark waters. It is precisely this vision of Japan's most holy mountain that has attracted scores of pilgrims and tourists alike; and for me, it is a prophetic first sighting of the mountain that I plan to climb today.

The entrance to the historic Yoshida pilgrimage trail begins at the foot of the mountain at the Sengen Shrine just off Route 138. If you're not careful you can miss it. A sign in Japanese marks a small opening in a dense forest. We enter a dark corridor lined with ancient moss-covered lanters and tall cedars that block out the light. The noise of a day-lit urban sprawl grows fainter behind us as we walk deeper into the woods. Finally we come to a clearing in the forest, where the suns rays filter from above, illuminating ancient wooden temples. Sengen shrine has been the starting point for pilgrims climbing Fuji for more than 1,000 years. Takashi walks me through the ritual. We pass under the large wooden Torri gate, which is painted red, and make our way to a fountain, where we cleanse hands and mouth. At the main shrine we stand before a gold-leafed image of a tree branch and pray. I'm not big on religion and the entire concept to me is ludicrous; but nontheless, I have a certain respect for animism, more so than other religions, and I close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds of the forest. After a minute or so, Takashi instructs me to clap twice to awaken the spirits, and then off we are on our 19 km ascent of Japan's most holy mountain!

Takashi quit on me after only a few kilometers; which is a good thing for him, because there is no way he could possibly have climbed the entire mountain and returned to Tokyo to work early the next day. I on the otherhand push my self to the point of exhaustion - I have to get to the 8th station tonight if I am going to see this famous Fuji sunrise tomorrow. From Sengen's cedars, the small trail makes its way southwest through a forest of red pine. A turn due south up the mountain face and the ascent becomes gradually steeper. By fifth station the forest opens to the sky and beds of moss beneath dark pines are replaced with groves of white birch floating on a sea of thick grass. At 6th station, ends the forest and begins subalpine shrubs and lichen clinging to black and red volcanic rock; the atmosphere is thinner and perceptably colder. The view is obscured by a thick fog that wraps itslef around Fuji's midsection like a chastety belt. Past 7th station, alpine level, and the terrain turns extremely difficult up scags of black rock. By this time the sun slowly makes its descent behind the Western ridge and a shadow passes across the earth. The clouds below turn from hues of gold to blue with the passing light of the sun. When I reach 8th station I am exhausted. The black rock has turned blacker still against a sky of navey blue and the wind is bitter cold. An enclave of rock providing shelter proves too hard to resist and I plop myself down right there in the middle of the path. I fix a dinner of ramen, while sipping on a small bottle of saki that Takashi gifted me right before departing back to Tokyo. Most of the trekkers that pass me in their freshly pressed mountain gear, headlamps, and skipoles, have taken a bus to 6th station, bypassing the entire forest. They climb in the early evening just a few hours to luxurious cabins at 8th station, where they will view the sunrise the following day well rested. My presence, hidden in a crevice of rock, just around a bend in the trail, catches them by surprise and more than one shrieks in fright. Laughing, I apologize, "Sumimasen". I finally gather the strength to move to a cave off the beaten path, where I crawl into my sleeping bag and pass out for the night.

I awake early the next morning to the most breathtaking sunrise of my life. From my cave on Fuji's northface I have a perfect view of the sun over the Japanese Alps that appear like blue wrinkles in a blanket of clouds, which radiate orange from where the sun's head emerges from beneath its nebular sheets. Wrapped in my sleeping back, I boil a pot of cowboy coffee and begin my sketch of la vista chingón. When it warms up a bit, I make my way to the summit. I've never before looked inside a volcano and I'm ecstatic. In my mind I've entered the oral cavity of a mythic Japanese beast. The charred rock that circumambulate the outer rim compose her lips. Rows of icicles hang from her hollows like teeth on a shark. The sound of a gravel falling inside her is constant and animates the monster I've imagined.

The worst part of climbing Mt. Fuji is the descent. A slippery gravel road back to 6th station feels as if the only way down is head over heals. I find it easier to run. Not the type to maintain a large selection of shoes in my wardrobe to rotate with each ensemble, I've worn the same trainers for three years, of which have climbed pyramids in Mexico and more recently glaciers in the Indian Himalayas. That said, the soles are completely worn. By the time I made it the some 19km back to my bike at Sengenjiji, my feet were riddled with blisters and my legs were so sore I could barely walk. Lucky for me, peddling utilizes a different set of muscles!

lunes, 12 de septiembre de 2011

A Shared Responsibility


When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was struck by how many people on the street wear respirator masks. A few years back, during the supposed SARZ epidemic, the US media projected over and over images of Japanese pedestrians in masks at Tokyo's iconic Shibuya crossing. The SARZ scare has become distant memory, but many Japanese continue to wear masks for a variety of reasons, among them concerns of radiation poisoning from the recent Fukushima disaster. My roommate at the sharred house in Kunitachi, Maggi, cautioned me, "I don't advise foreigners to stay so long in Japan. Don't you want kids? Aren't you concerned about radiation poison and the long term effects it might have?" Evidently, Maggi is very concerned and she often takes extra precautions before going out, such as covering up any exposed skin, which includes wearing a respirator mask. However, I'm not sure we are safe anywhere and I hardly think a respirator mask is going to make a bit of difference. Maybe we should all walk around in Hazmat suits! There have been reports that radiation poisoning from Japan has traveled the wind currents to different parts around the globe. This is a delicate eco system in which we live and it is our shared responsibility to ensure its preservation. Fukushima is our backyard and likewise we cannot continue outsourcing our toxic industries to third-world contries and expect it will not effect us. This is our future, embrace or change it, but you can't run from it.

domingo, 4 de septiembre de 2011

Tokyo just wont let me go!

Well I did it. I finally left Tokyo, for a few days anyway. The ride from West Tokyo to Fuji- Yoshida (Route 493 to 138) is a pleasant 8 hour trip. The road winds along the side of a mountain river valley; crisscrossed by quaint wooden bridges, one can see the riverbed from the roadside as if looking through a glass. Wooden houses crowned with Edo-style tiled roofs dot the country side; small farms swelling with a myriad of fruits and vegatables; and a backdrop of rolling hills heavily forested in ceder, pine, and other varieties I'm unfamiliar with. The tall grass along the river is a buzz with the sound of crickets and cicidas. It was lightly drizzling when I left at 10 o'clock Tuesday morning and there was little traffic on the road. For all the bikes I saw in Tokyo, I only spotted a single cycler in the rain-drenched mountains. Just before sunset I arrived in Yamanakako-Mura, a small lakeside community just 10 km shy of Mt. Fuji's basecamp. The rain had ceased and I made my way to the water to rest and meditate on a sketch of the cloud covered horrizon. From the shore, the gold-specled scales of oversized fish gleamed in the water and black-necked ducks provided a surreal contrast with a large cruize ship buit in their image. Only a few minutes into my sketch and the rain returned in torrents. I quickly found shelter in a gazebo hidden in a wooded lakeside park. It is there I spent the night, on a picknic bench, my tent serving the duel purpose of tarp and blanket. There are two reasons I chose to sleep on benches rather than setting up my tent. First off, my tent is not waterproof. Do not shop at NorthFace! A higher price does not necessarily mean better quality, as most tents are made in the same Chinese factories. But more importantly, As I've previously noted, the Japanese are a very orderly people. Everything has a place. It is for this reason I am careful to park my bike in the designated spot. Leaning a cycle against the wall of a building is a feaux-pas. Likewise is setting up a tent in a public park. However, despite the apparent wealth in Japan, homelessness is endemic. Public parks are open 24hours and the proper place of a homeless person is on a park bench, which is where I try and pass unnoticed. So far it's worked.

The next morning I made the short ride to Fuji-Yoshida only to find that the mountain was closed to hikers this weekend until the passing of a forecast typhoon. Mt. Fuji, an active, but dormant volcano; the third tallest free standing mountain in the world, which has been the single most important pilgrimage destination for the Japanese people for almost two thousand years, is closed to trekkers after the month of October and I don't want to miss my opportunity to climb to the top and catch a glimpse of the epic sunrise from the famed 8th-station vantage point. Another weekend in Tokyo.

lunes, 29 de agosto de 2011

Magnetic Tokyo


The ride back to Kunitachi city in West Tokyo took less than 5 hours and a large part of the rout followed the coast line. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and the beaches were filled with sun worshipers, surfers, and families gathered around barbecue pits roasting yakitori. For more than 7 km I rode along the boardwalk, where I encountered many a surfer carrying their boards fixed to the sides of bikes. Bicycles are an integral part of the culture in this part of Japan and so ubiquitous are bikes that in metropolitan Tokyo cyclists are forced to pay to park their rides. It is illegal to lock in many places and cycles in violation are impounded; however there is plenty of paid parking just for bikes. Every metro station is equipped with bike parking and there are even subterranean lots outfitted with special bike ramps. Although I find the idea novel, I still can't get used to paying just to park my bike! If bike riding is to become mainstream back home as it is here, and I certainly hope it does, this is something I'll have to get used to.

I had planned to remain in Tokyo only one day and start heading north as soon as possible,
but the magnetism of Tokyo and the people I've met here make it hard to leave. In the
evening I join the Taku household on a small trip to the local supermarket to scourer the trash
and we return home with a mountain of vegetables. I never cease to be amazed by the
waste in Japan and gratefully we dine on a feast of steamed edemame, small cucumbers
with miso, a large fresh salad of butter leaf lettuce and raw vegetables, and a curry from
tomatoes, green peppers and turnips, all of which was salvaged from the garbage. We are
joined by another young man named Love; a Swede, lanky and red-headed, he is a university student living in Tokyo now for 4 years. Love tells me about an underground network of urban bike racers he has recently become acquainted with; I am intrigued and now I don't want to leave the city without first attending a race. Tokyo is without a doubt the best urban cycling in the world, with its impossibly smooth streets, long straightaways, and the general courteousness of Japanese drivers with cyclists. Another couple days in Tokyo perhaps.

jueves, 25 de agosto de 2011

Life's a Beach

Paradise at the yoga retreat of June and Libby. After some delays with my storage locker, I finally arrived by bicycle to Stacy's temporary residence, some 50 km south of Tokyo, where she has been living in the guesthouse of her friends June and Libby's yoga retreat. Liby is an Australian-born freckle-faced potter and she lives with her Japanese husband adonis, who is a yoga instructer. The two of them built on their property a yoga studio for June's practice and it is here I've spent the last couple of nights sleeping on a fouton matress. I am awaken early each morning by Stacy, who is also a Yoga instructor, accompanied by June, on their dialy yoga ritual. Instead of yoga, which I have no patience for, I chose instead to meditate on a sketch of their portrait.

My afternoons are spent cycling the twin beach communities of Akiya and Kamakura with Stacey. The city has commissioned artists to design their respective sewage caps. It is my intention to document each one by means of rubbings with conti on ricepaper; this is a prototype.

Free Food and Food for Thought

Still life from only one section of a single bounty of dumpstered food.

Both Yama and Mitchi work what some might consider a regular job, which govern their lives in a way almost stereotypical of the Japanese. That is to say, the image of the hardworking Japanese tourist who travel only on a very limited holiday. I don't mean any offense to either Yama or Mitchi, both of whom I respect tremendously. Yama, despite working a full time job, finds time to write and play some incredible music. And Mitchi is a good friend and always up for an adventure. What I mean to say, is that it is this lifestyle that was my introduction to the Japanese and therefore made my stay with Taku and his roommates the more strikingly different. First off, sharing a house is uncommon in Japan, where personal space is highly valued and many landlords refuse to rent to multimple tenants. All three flatmates, Taku, Magi and Takashi do hospice work with the disabled, which requires no more than 2 days a week time and is sufficient to sustain them. It's a good thing he doesn't have to work a regular job, because Taku doesn't have the time: a million other projects more important than money occupy his attention, such as community building, activism, and building tall bikes. Coincidentally, he has been working on kick starting a Tokyo bike initiative for some time now and I found his experiences culturally enlightening to say the least. He had approached the city about a recycled bike program and even had the support of a green party politician, but Taku came up against roadblocks of a rigid system of bicycle registration and corporate licensing and contracting agreements. Taku told me a story about how he once found a bike in the garbage and built it up. A police officer stopped him and ran the bike's serial number. Needless to say, the bike didn't belong to him, as far as the computer was concerned, and Taku was brought to the station where he was fingerprinted and the bike was confiscated. Taku complains that there is very little space in Japan for those who wish to live outside mainstream society. The blue tent communities I saw in Yoyogi park, he explains, are an anomaly in today's Tokyo. They are holdovers from a bygone era and are sort of "grandfathered in". An outsider couldn't just go and set up a tent, as they are under constant surveillance. There used to be many more in fact. That is why it was such a big deal when Miyashita-Koen evicted the homeless there. The homeless are being pushed out, as neighborhood after neighborhood become more and more gentrified. Maybe it's a losing battle in Tokyo, but I'm glad there are still people in Japan like Taku, Kay, and Megu, who fight for the rights of the underdog here and generally march to the beat of a different drum.

Who said there was no good dumpstering in Tokyo? In the morning Taku took me to a supermarket he knew that doesn't padlock their dumpster and we found a heap of really good food: one chocolate eclair wrapped in plastic, one container of some kind of delicious seaweed wrap, 5 peaches, a case of bubble gum, a 2 1/2 lb bag of rice, lettuce and cabbage. Megu came over later that night and I cooked us a big feast; my turn to share in a cultural exchange, it was the first time any of them had tasted fruit in a salad before and they loved it.

I've spent so much money my first couple weeks in Japan and it is comforting to know that I have options. Food in supermarkets here are meticulously organized and fruits and vegetables, which are astronomically expensive (more than ¥350 or $4 for a single peach), are individually displayed, almost on a podium, and without blemish. This inevitably means that supermarkets throw out a lot of really good food! However and for whatever reason, most lock up their trash. Japanese are very hygienic and even trash bins on the street are covered in green fly paper, so it isn't a surprise that supermarket waste would be held in special storage containers, not necessarily for security. However, this makes dumpstering a little tricky, because breaking into a storage locker is slightly more dubious than just crawling inside a garbage bin. I have however, found supermarkets with accessible trash dispensers and my efforts have been well rewarded. The still ife pictured here was assembled from one such dumpster excursion from a supermarket in Akiya. We have come to refer to it as the magic dumpster, because every night it is refilled with ripe fruit and fresh vegetables, fresher than some fruit stands sell on discount, and all carefully arranged in a single trash bin only for produce. This particular arrangement of fruit in the still life included blockchoi, peaches, mizuna lettuce, goya (a bitter summer gourd that looks much like a warty cucumber), a peach and bananas.