Robot English

How to cope with a robot co-worker? Each day I come to work and have to deal with a man who refuses to speak like a human. I just want normal. A normal, simple, English speaker. Not a simple person. I don’t want anyone to be simple. I am just asking for clarity.

For example. “Is this sentence correct?” That would be a basic way of clarifying whether an error has been made in syntax or grammar. I could thus respond in my own standard, simple, understandable way something like, “Yes, it is.” Or some derivative.

Instead, each day I am confronted with bespoke works of linguistic gymnastics so bizarre that I barely have the energy to respond upon hearing them.

“Is this sentence correct?” becomes “In your perception, this sentence which has been written on the blackboard, is it accurate, in your opinion?”

An exchange like this might seem innocuous. Maybe just the spoken English of a man trying to impress with his second language skills. But it is the default of so many “elder” speakers of English in Japan to use unnecessary verbiage for such mundane conversations.

This default must have been encouraged in them when they learned English. Speak to impress, not to communicate. And those who “impressed” the most find themselves as teachers of English, or translators, or government advisors.

It leads to Japan’s “Go to Travel” tourism campaign. It leads to Homac, a popular home supply depot, displaying slogans like “Do Create Mystyle”. Of course there are an infinite amount of other horrific Japanlish examples, just search. My point being that these painful expression of English, whether in advertising or in conversation, badly reflect on how English has been commodified in the last century in Japan.

You see it’s not about communicating. It’s about status. Memorize this list of words, pay for a juku to train to pass an Eiken test, “earn” your certificate. Congratulations! Now you are qualified to develop our national ad campaign. Of course, use English, use ridiculous words, string them together any which way! You have credentials.

Back to the schools, where I witness the worst of these offenses. I taught a special needs class the other day. Usually the special needs students have the best communicative ability because they haven’t been beaten down by the Japanese pressure to conform. They bypass that, which is great for me. Kids raise their hands in special needs class. They try to speak, out loud, with enthusiasm. But even there English is bastardized by this need to be impressive, rather than expressive.

Students where giving a brief introduction of themselves to me and the class. They had prepared their short speeches, probably worked on them for weeks. A few simple sentences about what they like, don’t like, hobbies, etc. But it seems that a robot infiltrated the class, and made some “adjustments”. Here’s a snippet from a girl’s speech, let’s call her Sakura:

Hello, I’m Sakura.

What I’m addicted to is making videos.

My current hobby is to acquire singing techniques.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the last time I heard a speech like that was from the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I certainly wouldn’t expect a 13 year old girl from Japan, or any other nation on the planet, to speak about themselves in such a manner. Of course Sakura, could never reproduce that speech spontaneously because it was completely fabricated by a Japanese teaching assistant, and most of the words aren’t even taught at the junior high school level. It was rote memorized.

As soon as you decouple English language learning from the business of handing out Eiken certificates and emphasize simple down-to-Earth communication, the ability of students will grow in a more organic way. No more robots! No more ridiculous English signs and slogans. (Which are often unnecessary anyway!)

Summer Camp 2020

We still managed to get out there and do some camping this summer, despite COVID running roughshod over many cities on Honshu. Not gonna lie, it is worrying. But up here in Hokkaido life goes on, and so do our yearly trips south of Obihiro to Snow Peak’s Tokachi Poroshiri campground.

This year’s trip did not involve the non-stop rains we have been accustomed to, though we did get a few showers. Our main goal this year was to catch and keep enough yamame (cherry salmon) to have a tempura feast. Fortunately the small rivers to the east in the region, known locally as the Tanzan (湛山), are teeming with fish, and we managed to find the perfect drive in location. We caught more than enough!

A nice isolated stretch of river teeming with yamame

We got to try out some of our new fishing gear, fishing simple keiryu style, using salmon eggs per usual. It’s been a very long time since I’ve harvested a fish, so it took a few fish wiggling around in my new Daiwa creel, breathing their last breaths, to become comfortable with taking their lives.

We had a very nice tempura feast that evening and put a few of the larger fish on skewers to cook over the coals.  So many yamame were caught that we had enough for breakfast in the morning!

About 35 yamame with a few larger rainbow trout
Keeping the fish on the skewer without melting off is a tough skill I still need to master

It was definitely one of the more interesting dining experiences while camping in Hokkaido. We supplemented our fish intake by sampling soft ice cream and gelato from several local establishments. Our current favorite is Tokachi Fromages.

Heiwa Waterfall White-Spotted Char

For the last several summers I have hiked the backside of Teine (手稲), Sapporo’s main ski mountain, starting from the Heiwa waterfall (平和の滝) and following the the Hassamu-Kotoni River (発寒琴似川) along the trail. It’s quite the hike.

The small stream above the falls runs about a kilometer before a man-made dam blocks any fish moving further upstream. I’ve explored this stretch fly fishing before, convinced it was dead water. But I’ve heard rumors of iwana (white-spotted char) being caught somewhere above the falls, and this past week I set out on a mission to finally land me a fish in this wild area within Sapporo’s city limits.

Heiwa Waterfall is a fairly well known tourist spot. The water above the falls is even more interesting.

So I geared up my fishing supplies, opting for my 3 meter Daiwa keiryu rod, using ikura (salmon eggs) for bait. I’ve messed around with fly fishing/tenkara in this area before, but the tightness of the stream makes casting nearly impossible. Keiryu style bait fishing seemed like my only chance at landing a fish.

I loaded up my bike at 5:30 AM and set off on the hour+ journey to the falls in the Nishi (West) Ward. One quick look at falls and you can easily see that fish aren’t traversing past this point. Yamame (Cherry Salmon) and rogue Rainbow Trout from downstream aren’t venturing up here. So any fish that do exist are more than likely self-sustaining, endemic iwana (white-spotted char).

I set out on the trail for the 20 minute hike to the upper dam, where a trail offered the only true access to the stream.

The trail down to this dam/waterfall offers the only access to the stream.

Once down at the base I of the dam I prepared my rig and set out downstream, careful to remain along the mossy rocks on the banks and trying not to spook any fish.

After descending down about three or four step-down pools, out of view of the hiking trail, I began lob casting into the foam. I was just happy to be fishing and more than curious if any fish could be hidden here. Most of the stream is only a few meters wide in this area but each pool is surprisingly deep, at least a meter.

I was completely shocked when on just my second cast, I had a monster hit on my salmon egg. One cast later I hooked one, the largest iwana I have ever caught here in Hokkaido, approximately 30 centimeters!

I would catch a total of 4 large iwana, all approximately 30 centimeters, in these plunge pools. I barely had made my way downstream and I had already surpassed my expectations. All within about 45 minutes, maybe less. It was an unbelievable experience. Some of the best fish I have yet to catch in Hokkaido, all within the city limits.

I don’t have any pictures of the fish. I rarely do. My nervous hands have a hard time handling fish and reaching for a smartphone at the same time. So you don’t have to believe me. But get out there and explore your urban streams. Ride your bikes just a little bit further. You might be surprised what you find.

General Store (Old Sapporo Buildings #2)

Another morning walk encounter. This stalwart purple block unit hasn’t been open for at least a decade (we believe). The ground floor remains permanently shuttered.  Yet the electricity still pipes through to the two vending machines. Don’t know if they generate enough income to even pay the utility bill.

Fishmonger / Dry Cleaner (Old Sapporo Buildings #1)

Starting a series documenting some of the old buildings I come across in my walks around Sapporo.

A fish monger featuring an abandoned dry cleaner sign.

Today’s comes from my morning route up Asahiyama along Asahiyama-Dori. In the day time the right/yellow half is a fish shop. What is more interesting is the blue dry cleaner sign on the left side, which hasn’t been open for what seems like decades. The sign even reads ドイツクリーナー,  or Deutsch Cleaner. Just another one of those scratch your head shop names that is pretty common here.

Hakken-zan

I have been in a hiking rut these last few months, mostly sticking to my old familiar climbs close to my apartment in central Sapporo (Maruyama, Moiwa, Asahiyama, Sankakuyama). So I started researching some peaks a little further afield, but still within a few hours biking distance. I came upon Hakken-zan (八剣山) via The Hokkaido Wilds repository (an excellent site with detailed outdoor route logs for much of Hokkaido). I saw the word “beginner” in the description and thought it would be a good hike since I would have to cycle about two hours to get to the trailhead and didn’t want to overdo it.

So around 5:45 AM I departed in my trusty 6 speed, taking the the bike route along the Toyohira River, through Makomonai Park and finally linking up again with the Toyohira after a minor detour. The route begins to climb and wind past strawberry farms until you reach the entrance to the Hakken-zan Tunnel, turning left onto a gravel road that leads to the parking lot at the base of the course.

Trails with mini shrines at the base are a sign of a well traveled route.

There was a log book hut which I signed, knowing the summit of Hakken-zan has caused several deaths in recent years. This so authorities can get a better trace on my body, should I not turn up later. They say that the more dangerous route has since been closed off, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I even prayed (aka, wished really hard), at the mini-shrine at the base, for a safe hike.

The trail then makes a fairly steep and quick climb towards the summit region. Maybe only 35 minutes, child’s play compared to some of the longer hikes I have recently done. As the trees gave way to bare rock, and the sky opened up in all directions I thought that my hike was done. A nice successful hike: quick, painless, with a nice view. Then I noticed the ropes…

This is the first time in quite a while where I actually needed to use the ropes. Things started to get a little white knuckle from here on.

Soon I was making my way up a rocky crag approximately 2 meters wide, with sheer cliffs on either side. My stomach sunk. Luckily I hadn’t eaten my lunch yet. This was beyond “beginner” in my estimation. But, I pressed on, as curiosity got the best of me.

What’s over the rocks? Oh, just certain death.

As I approached the summit I had trouble centering myself to take photos. Was it vertigo? Possibly. I decided to not linger too long at the top, made my way down towards some safer ground, and took my lunch.

A nice quiet lunch was had.

After woofing down some onigiri, I made my way down the last couple sets of ropes, to the treeline, and made the quick return hike to the parking lot. A relatively short hike, with a huge spike of adrenaline at the top. This bookended by the longest bike ride I have yet to take here in Hokkaido. All in all, a great day, and one highly recommended for anyone in the Sapporo area. I do suggest you go when the weather is clear.(summer/late spring) High winds, wet or icy rocks, would make the summit highly dangerous.


Toyohira Rainbow Trout Wonderland

Last weekend we cycled down to the Toyohira River, amongst the urban sprawl, to try and catch some yamame. The few times we bait fished on this stretch last year saw moderate success: a few yamame, some ugui, some sunburn. This time our result was unlike anything I have experienced this close to the city. I landed three decent sized rainbow trout, my wife landed one, and our friend netted five! Completely unexpected. Even stranger, all of our takes came under or around a dreary cement bridge (below). The setting wasn’t idyllic, but the fish were.

Sometimes you would be surprised where the best fishing can be.

Our technique remained the same. We used our Keiryu rigs (3.60 meter, reel-less, fixed line rods), some light line, split shot, and some hardware store (Homac) ikura bait on a hook. Simple, idiot proof fishing. After about an hour of barely a nibble (6:30-7:30), the strikes started to come pretty regularly from that point on. Rainbow trout are know to exist in the Toyohira, but never this far downstream into the city center.

Rainbow trout are thought to be a rarity this far downstream.

We were back home by 10:30 AM, after several hours of quality fishing. Never underestimate your urban surroundings!

Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearA Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

History repeats itself, or to put it more starkly, history is always repeating itself. Nothing is new. This book is a great reminder of that. The coronavirus is nothing new. Humanity has faced this before, many many times!

Defoe’s work is a bit of a conundrum. Written in 1722, about 60 years after the last bubonic plague outbreak in London, it has been classified as a work of fiction, but most scholars now consider it non-fiction with some slight fictional flourishes. Most of the descriptions, dates, places, numbers have been confirmed as accurate.

What struck me most about The Journal of the Plague Year, is how it almost completely mirrored my own state of mind during the first couple months of this current pandemic (until I instituted a news blackout). Just like the narrator, I too constantly was checking infection/death figures. I complained about the inconsistencies of statistics. I ruminated on every medical theory. I worried about every cough I heard echo from a neighboring apartment, just as Defoe’s characters react with suspicion to anyone walking with a limp or wearing a hat (to hide possible signs of infection).

Defoe’s pandemic shares all the same social characteristics as the current situation, but without the overwhelming amplification of social media and 24 hour news networks. The book can be a bit of a slog as whole sections track the death counts throughout London’s neighborhoods, over and over again. Just like our own mind cycles through the same stats and repeats the same scenarios incessantly, Defoe’s narrator repeats himself constantly. It’s important to remember that this is meant to be a diary. Other than the narrator, there aren’t many other characters of substance. Nothing other than the plague happens. There is no B story. No love interests. Just death, fear and survival.

I began reading this book just as I was incorporating a news blackout. This book kind of reconnected me to the idea that “the News”, in its modern inception, serves no purpose other than reconfirming/instigating our own beliefs. The world still happens without “the News”. People still talk to you about current events. You can see things on the street. Look with your own eyes. Important facts tend to trickle through, no matter how hard you try to firewall yourself. You won’t be completely out of the loop unless to spend your quarantine in a remote ashram in the mountains of northern India.

Don’t rely on the media to form opinions for you, or to solidify the ones you already have. The citizens of Defoe’s world didn’t have daily access to written/visual reports about “the News”, and they still panicked!

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