American Expat Cricket Enthusiast

In 2007 I broke by leg while slipping on black ice outside a boarding cottage I was responsible for at The Church Farm School in Exton, Pennsylvania. I was laid up for months with a compound fracture to my right tibia/fibia, crutching around my parents’ home, on medical leave from my duties, and with a full paycheck until my contract ended late in the summer. I wasn’t going back to that job. I had nothing but time to stare at my laptop with my legs propped up on a recliner.

So I decided to take a deep dive into a sports curiosity that had haunted me since childhood. Cricket: How is it played? I remember I had seen pictures of the game, its players decked out in white, in a photographic encyclopedia of sports, which gave a cursory introduction to hundreds of sports worldwide. I imagined it as some weird hodgepodge of baseball, croquet, and maybe jai alai.

With the power of the internet now at my disposal, and live sport streaming becoming a reality, I set out to finally crack this mystery. I needed to see the sport in action, not just read about it. Coincidentally there was a Cricket World Cup taking place just at that time in the Caribbean so time zones pretty much matched up (little did I know time zone interoperability would soon become the bane of my burgeoning cricket fandom). A service called Willow had a World Cup streaming package which I spontaneously purchased.

So I settled down for an opening round match between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. I didn’t know what I was in for. I barely could follow what was happening. But one Sri Lankan bowler caught by eye immediately. Lasith Malinga, was hurtling himself towards the wicket with an awkward sidearm arm action and a yellow permed mane of hair unlike anything I had ever seen in sport. I was hooked from that point onward. Because of my relative immobility, unemployment, and time to burn, I had developed the patience to last the 6 plus hour long match. (And this was the shorter format of the game!) I watched dozens of matches that World Cup.

That 2007 World Cup ended in farcical scenes of umpires declaring bad light to shut down play, despite there being floodlights at the stadium. Australia won. Sri Lanka, my adopted team for the tournament was denied their second World Cup. But I loved it all, even the absurd inflexibility of not having a rain day. I loved the politics of it all.

Turns out that the Caribbean had a less than elegant record during that World Cup for other reasons as well. The Pakistan head coach Bob Woolmer, died under mysterious circumstances in his hotel room after a shock loss to Ireland and early first round exit from the tournament. Foul play has always been the suspicion, though none could be proven. Match fixing was possibly in the cards as well.

This sport had it all! I quickly started reading and learning everything I could about the sport, despite not being from its colonial culture or having ever played it (except for being bowled first ball in the quad while on exchange at The College of Ripon and York, St. John about seven years prior). I started with The Wisden Dictionary of Cricket, reading it cover to cover. Then came the real literature of the sport, which it turns out also has a rich history. The Picador Book of Cricket, was an excellent anthology, as was Wisden Anthology 1978-2006. This helped inculcate me with the major historical moments of the game. Then came the yearly Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. And of course never ending articles at cricInfo.com (now espncricinfo).

15 years on and I am still obsessed with this sport. I still don’t know a great deal of the finer nuance, but the pandemic has given me the time to get closer to that as well. Here in Japan, I re-subscribed to Willow, watching long replays the next morning as matches progress through my East Asia Standard Time night. I even traded in my Hokkaido job alert email service and replaced it with a Wisden Cricket Monthly online subscription. The gains I receive from following cricket far surpass any potential employment information.

Becoming a fan of a sport but having no national affiliation feels a bit disembodied. I find myself almost always rooting for the underdog. And that underdog could change as a match progresses. It’s a calming experience watching any cricket match. It’s a far cry from the “Jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge” intensity that Philadelphia sports fans (which I am one) are accustomed to. Cricket for me is a great read-along form of entertainment. I can easily watch an afternoon Test session with a book in hand and a clean conscience. It’s as violation free zone.

I restarted my Twitter account exclusively for following cricket. I play fantasy cricket with the IPL. The other day I watched with rapt attention the 4-day Women’s test match between Australia and India which ended in a draw. I did that with no side-eye. I was super into it. I can’t be helped. My wife thinks I’m crazy. I tell her to listen for the “Howzat!!!” while I use the bathroom. She thinks of it as the sport that randomly screams after long periods of calm. I’ll make a fan out of her yet.

And the bizarre twist is that cricket is coming full circle for me. That place where I broke my leg, the Church Farm School, in Exton Pennsylvania, now hosts Minor League Cricket in the auxiliary park next door. Cricket in America is finally making some slow progress.

So to sum it um. If you want to dive deep into some obscure pastime you probably have no business getting involved in, just do the following:

1) Horribly break your leg on a innocuous sidewalk covered in black ice at your place of work (be sure said workplace has a huge endowment and ability to pay out disability/rehab)

2) Take the money and run, prop yourself on a recliner for several months, with a laptop and nothing but undisturbed time.

3) Move to a country in the world least aware or exposed to the topic you build a passion about. (i.e Japan)

There you go! It couldn’t be more simple!

Ulysses, Round Three

There is nothing like forcing yourself through the ultra-realist-modernist hell that is James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the last several months my “To Read” list has been mired in quicksand while this behemoth of a tome, with its micro-font, thin pages, and countless footnotes/ endnotes / addendum notes – plugs a hole in my brain. I couldn’t move on. I certainly couldn’t abandon it. But this time I actually didn’t want to abandon it.

I first tackled Ulysses way back when I was on exchange in York, England for a semester. A module on modernist literature tried to jam it into a two week stretch, where I am certain few if any of the students even got past the opening chapters. Even the professor admitted that he hadn’t read it in full! I read it incessantly, out loud, in my dorm room, on park benches and from the city’s medieval walls. I read it while lounging in a huge inflatable Guinness chair I won by drinking, you guessed it: ten pints of Guinness. All this was to establish a certain mood so I could comfortably navigate my way through the book. I got about 300 pages in. Not a bad effort, but failure nonetheless.

I next went about it more than a decade ago using an email service that sent three pages a day, which I read on a flip-phone while on my daily hour long commutes through Yokohama. It was a laborious and painful process, but I managed to get through it. I retained almost none of the plot however. The words just flowed through by brain like a drunken tinker telling a tale at the local pub.

This last time (but probably not final), I decided to take a decidedly different tact and used an audio recording from RTE circa 1982 (available as a podcast). Each episode is acted out dramatically and is followed by a short thirty minute analyses. This worked wonderfully. There are just too many characters, songs, accents, and dialects to do the text justice by tackling it in your own voice. As an audio play, Ulysses moved along with a level of understanding I hadn’t managed before. I also followed along in my Ulysses: The 1922 Text, a version that seems to sync up well with the RTE version.

I won’t say I completely grasped everything going on in the text. There were still large swathes that left me stumped. But with this audio follow-along method I was able to find fragments of the text that peeked my interest and follow them down their own rabbit holes. The next time (Yes, I said it.) I will glean even more I am sure.

In the end, what strikes me most, when coming out this literary Stockholm Syndrome, is how anything I read from this point forward, at least for a couple months, is absorbed quickly and with a focused understanding. It is like coming out of a long meditation session, opening your eyes wide and just breathing in the world around you. Reading becomes fun again.

Summertime Be Gone!

Ah yes. The cool Hokkaido summers. Where temperatures stay pleasant and mild. No need for air conditioning. No humidity. These lies still get pushed upon us. Those lies gave us an Olympic Marathon and the ridiculousness of the Run-Walk. (Come on. This is a sport?) These lies kill quite a few elderly people up here. These lies forced me to buy two additional fans this August so I could triangulate an artificial breeze in 36° C. Most apartments up here don’t have air con unless they are very new. Some offices, government facilities, and most shopping malls offer relief. So it’s been rough.

But finally I have been vaccinated. So that brings some mild psychological relief.   It’s taking way too long nationwide. Anyone who has been to the mass vaccine centers here can conclude why. I went to the Sapporo Convention Center. Outside the convention center are approximately 30 volunteers blocking off the parking lot (which is roped off already) and funneling you into the entrance (which is already extremely well marked). Then comes a 4 tier screening, where other staff check and recheck the same form and ask you the same questions repeatedly. Finally, after all that, you get your shot, then are ushered out for another waiting period and final screening/stamp. Probably 10 doctors on hand to provide shots (max) and about 200 other staff doing mostly standing. It’s a long, laborious process. It is Japan in a nutshell. Meanwhile, they are vaccinating people at baseballl games in America. No reservation needed. Comes with free hotdog. (And in some cases free tickets!) The contrasts are absurd.

To keep cool I have sought the refuge of cool mountain streams. There was my usual go to tenkara fishing expedition by bike to Mt. Teine on the Kotoni-Hassamu River (above the Heiwa Waterfall). I did did some deep exploration, climbing over rock walls, avoiding giant hornets, bow and arrow style casting under the thick trees and brush. Managed to to get several white-spotted char (iwana), but a few got away.

Above Heiwa Waterfall, hopping from rock to rock, deep pulls, tough casting
Above the Heiwa waterfall

There were trips to more far flung locations outside the Ishikari Plain. We explored the Kimobetsu River, and other areas west towards the Niseko resorts. Fish out this way can be more selective, but chances of finding larger Rainbow or even rarer Dolly Varden trout exist. Late summer the water has cooled considerably. So wet wading is like going to a natural water park for the day. Very refreshing.

Apparently we are still in the thick of a COVID spike. Not being flippant here, just avoiding the news religiously. When restrictions are lifted, I’m sure I’ll get the message. My news firewall isn’t that thick. Until then we are sticking to the rivers. Which is a good thing because our local park, which provides access to Mt. Moiwa, has been shut down for more than a month because of bear(s) sightings. Personally I think this is a very Japanese over reaction. I mean, bears exists, we are the ones intruding. Unless it is like a pack bears attacking people, stomping on cars in the parking lot, daily. But pretty sure that is not the case.

This really ground my gears. Sometimes there are bears people! Word has it they actually cut down a lot of bamboo near the trails so people could see the bears more clearly, if they are around. Seriously?

But summer is finally winding down. Deep into the teens at night. Winter is coming….

Ainu Language Playing Cards

On a recent camping trip south to Shiraoi, we stopped by the Poroto Mintara (ポロトミンタラ) Tourist Information Center, not far from the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, where I managed to pick up these playing cards with Ainu vocabulary. I must admit that I am still rather ignorant of the history of the Ainu people, but if you just take the time to read the wiki, you will find the mistreatment brought to them by the northern expansion of the Japanese to be rather horrific. Anyway, I hope that the money spent at the information center got filtered back to the Ainu people.

The transliterations into both Katakana and Romaji are pretty difficult to decipher.  This YouTube post does the language more justice:

Sadly, the Ainu language is considered nearly extinct. 

[Review] Child of God

Child of GodChild of God by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever felt that you are not a good person, a little dirty, a bit of a slob, or just had an impure thought? Just read this short novel from a modern master and you will soon feel positively angelic about your life. The central character, Lester Ballard, basically checks all the boxes for depravity: necrophilia, murder, rape and/or rape-ish tendencies, arson, compulsive lying, and animal cruelty – just to name a few that stand out on first reflection. By the end you’re searching for anything not evil that he might have done.

His is an evil stuck out of time. Aside from small contextual clues scattered throughout, one might wonder when this story takes place at all? Contemporary? Early 20th century? There are automobiles and carnivals, but somehow it all feels very medieval. Ballard, scraping his way through moldy caves like some creature from Middle Earth only adds to the confusion.

Weaved through all of this is McCarthy’s incredible language. Though the story may not be that complex, following Ballard’s heathenish rampage through the Tennessee countryside, the complete lack of redemption experienced by the main character is not a path usually explored in fiction. There really is nothing to salvage.

View all my reviews

Kyoto Hanafuda

As the cherry blossoms begin blooming, let’s look at a unique hanafuda set featuring the heritage of Kyoto. Visually this is one of the more stunning sets in my collection, but it’s best to compare it to a standard deck to see the artistic license taken. Most hanafuda follow these traditional motifs.

The red borders and glossy plastic surface makes these cards durable and easy to play with, but I think that my Kyoto hanafuda set really makes things more stunning by using a more subdued green color palette and adding localized touches.  Now let’s compare the two sets side by side:

January
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Hope your spring is as colorful as these hanafuda cards!

Transition to Spring

Spring is almost here, but the nights are still chilly and when a breeze is blowing it can feel like February. The waters too high for safe fishing. They were still storing plowed snow along the banks of the Toyohira when I checked last week. Mountain trails in and around Sapporo are a mess of mud and slush, pretty much impossible for hiking. Safe to say that April/May might be the worst season should you ever plan to visit Sapporo. Golden week approaches feeling like fool’s gold. A camping trip near Hokkaido’s south shore is about as far as we’ll venture. Oh, did you know there is a pandemic going on still? Because Japan apparently forgot. Rumors of vaccines being available for all by September seems optimistic at the glacial pace things currently run at. Apparently the 65+ vaccines that where supposed to roll out on April 15th was for a select few elderly scattered in the countryside. My 80 year old in-laws haven’t heard a peep about it. Meanwhile India is making the vaccine available to all by May 1st. India! Jeeee…..sus.

Regardless, our bikes are out. My 30 minute walking commute is now a quick 10 with Jabra earbuds (featuring ambient noise pass-through, safety first!) pumping a Bob Dylan podcast (“Hard Rain and Slow Trains: Bob Dylan and Fellow Travelers”) making everything right. Schools back in session, which means the drudgery of work for this guy, but a endless supply of bloggy goodness about to be unleashed.

East Asia ESL Teacher Tall Tales

We all fib. Some white lies here and there. I exaggerate on this blog, just for effect. But in my 20 years in the ESL racket spanning two countries (South Korea, Japan), I have heard some amazing backstories from fellow foreigners explaining away their current predicaments with yarns so shoddy it’s laughable in retrospect. Back in the days before social media, LinkedIn, and the internet in our pockets, a vagabond language instructor could create the most fantastical CV prior to their employment as an unlicensed kindergarten teacher. Add in some alcohol and a naive and homesick listening audience… voila!

“A commercial helicopter pilot? That’s awesome! Why’d you give it up?”
“I’d rather not go into it.”
People bought that line. Chicks bought that line. Gullible people in the throngs of culture shock will buy anything. When the 2007-2008 financial crisis hit, Korea saw a huge uptick in ESL refugees. That’s understandable. Go where the jobs are. But the “I used to make 6 figures as a day trader, glad I landed on my feet at the GnB English Academy,” conversation got old after I heard it from multiple frazzle-brained dudes that following spring. It still comes off pretty hollow.

Another line I keep hearing a lot here in 30 year-old-stagnate-economy Japan is the “I don’t need this job” variety. Anyone, in any job, worldwide, who consistently tells you that they “don’t need this job” is full of it. Unless the next words out of their mouth are “I quit!”, followed by early retirement. Nobody works in Asia, beyond a couple years, for the fun of it. And that ain’t no lie.

Not to say there aren’t some incredible resumes that are completely legit. The “I was executive vice president at [blah blah blah]” might actually be true (though rare). But there is most definitely a string of bad decisions (family, law, drug) that caused that person to flee their homeland. All of this is conveniently not mentioned – probably for good reason. Charlatans exist everywhere. Just because another whitey happened to find his way to some bumblefuck part of Asia just around the corner from you doesn’t mean their story automatically checks out. When they tell you something ridiculous like “I invented the futon”, trust your instincts.

Anyway, I gotta roll. I recently refurbished a classic biplane that I am anxious to get off the ground. I’m licensed.

[Review]Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew

Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep MathewChinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not for the cricket novice, despite what the narrator claims near the books beginning. If you are like me, and have followed international cricket from the periphery for many years, this book can serve as a useful jump start to that cricket obsession brewing beneath anyone who has sat through a full days play – even if only from your armchair. I am just that kind kind of armchair fan, and this novel sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole that I have yet to climb out of.

This book is long. It reads long. Like a drawn out fifth day of a test with no result in sight. Be prepared to get yourself heavily invested in the Sri Lankan Civil War, its cricket team’s history, the urban layout of Colombo, arrack, Sinhala slang, and impossibly long surnames. If any of that interests you, then dig in. There will be times you will want to end it. But just as you begin to lose interest it will drag you back with some cricketing anecdote from the 1950s that is just too good leave, you have to dive deeper. The fictional elements of the mysterious Pradeep Mathew are interwoven so seamlessly with actual cricket history that by the novel’s conclusion it is difficult to dissect the two. I found myself checking historical scorecards for a mystery spinner that exists only in the mind of the author.

If you are looking to reinvigorate your interest in cricket, this is the book for you. But if you never followed a World Cup, read a Wisden Almanack, or scrolled Cricinfo for hours, I would advise to stay clear until your cricket knowledge is up to snuff.

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Ice Fishing Recap 2021

With three ice fishing trips under our belt this winter, it’s finally time to update on some of the progress we have made into this new subsurface world. A lot of gear has been purchased, locations have been explored, and holes have been drilled in the last couple of months!

The destinations: Lake Shumarinai, about 4 hours north of Sapporo. Lake Kanayama near Minamifurano, about 2 hours east of Sapporo. And finally the smaller Lake Poroto about 90 minutes south.

Each location had it’s unique character. Shumarinai is a long haul for us. It’s the largest lake of the bunch and gets plenty of visitors for wakasagi fishing. It’s a good place to go if you don’t have all the gear to set off on your own. You can rent anything you need, and most of their holes are freshly drilled so you can get right to fishing.

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Kanayama is a do it yourself kind of place. It’s an unlicensed lake, so there are no fees to pay, but you will have to have your own ice auger, tent, and all the other accoutrements.

Poroto was the closest lake we most recently set out for. It a nice spot to go either beginning or end of season. Here too you will have to bring all your own gear, but there is a small licensing fee.

Here is a rundown the essential gear we used for our wakasagi (Japanese pond smelt) hunt:

Coleman Ice Fishing Shelter Auto (Large) – This costs a pretty penny and seem to be fast flying off the shelves in Japan. The more heavy duty ice shelter seen in the U.S. aren’t available here, but this one is roomy and works well enough. It seems to be a Japanese exclusive and the go to tent for most wakasagi enthusiasts. Its a quick setup, folds up umbrella style, and has multiple entries.

North Eagle Ice Drill (auger) – Picked this up at the local Homac. It was the last in stock. These are flying off the shelf folks! Probably not the highest quality drill on the market, but we had no problem hand drilling through a little less than a meter of ice with this guy. It’s a decent work out.

Wakasagi Ranger Rod Set – we aren’t going too hard core with our rods (just yet). The sky can be the limit, but this bundle only cost about 2,000 yen at Corso, the local fishing gear depot. Short (maybe 2 feet with tip attached), light, and easy to detect strikes with. This came with a pretty basic Mirage mini reel (baitcasting style). We found similar reels at our neighborhood Homac for about 1,500 yen. We got a bunch as spares.

low fishing chair (Prox Inc.) – Posture and comfort is very important in this kind of fishing. Not a fan of the sitting Japanese zazen style, which seems to be the norm. This one gets you down low enough while saving your knees/legs from long term damage. Prox Inc. makes a ton of medium quality gear for all styles of fishing in Japan. My waders are made by Prox and they have been going strong for about 6 years now.

Hayabusa Wakasagi Hooks – These come in a wide range of lengths, hook sizes and hook quantities. It’s best not to over think it. We try to opt for the 4 hook 45 centimeter length system. You can go with a longer 7 or 8 hook system but that just takes too long to set the bait up on and sometimes you just want to get fishing. You add a weight to the bottom (with an optional hook hanging from that!) Our basic rig looks like this:

ワカサギドーム船 前篇|GO!GO!九ちゃんフィッシング公式サイト

A cheap live well – Basically we’ve been using small rectangular 100 yen shop plastic containers filled about halfway with water. It does the job and and you can get an approximate count on your fish (which accumulate quickly).

Yes, the fish are small. Our simple live well also includes a wakasagi unhooker (orange clip on left) and the mounting area for the wakasagi antenna

Wakasagi Antenna (Prox Inc.) – What the hell is a wakasagi antenna? Believe me, I was right there with you when I heard about this piece of gear. Essentially it is a long adjustable telescoping “antenna” that you can connect to your live well (or something else low lying). The top of the antenna has some grooves in it and extends to about a meter. When you need to re-bait your hooks or unhook caught fish, it makes the process much simpler. Most importantly, you will avoid a ton of potential (and realized) hook snags on clothing and fingers. Dangling 5 or more extremely tiny hooks without one of these seemingly bizarre tools is a Japanese ice fishing nightmare. The base of the antenna is also magnetized, which proves invaluable for unsnagging hooks caught under the ice.

It seemed ridiculous at first, but this simple device saved us hours or frustration.

low bamboo table (Prox Inc.) – Another WTF? piece of kit that proved its worth. If there are lulls in fishing, it is best to get your rod level, low and completely still. It also helps makes your area a bit more homey.

Bait – Wakasagi “Rabbit” (Melon, Cheese) – There are a variety of tiny grubs you can use. We’ve been sticking with the Wakasagi “Rabbit” variety. No idea why they are called that. They are about half the size (a couple millimeters) of the standard aka mushi (red worm) or shiro mushi (white worm). They also come small pieces of cheese or melon mixed with finely shredded wood chips. We assume that by digesting these particles their bodies take on a flavor more to the wakasagi’s liking. Our local Homac sells these, as well as Corso and Amirikaya (the big fishing depots of Sapporo).

Those are the main purchases. Of course, there are quite a few other items we keep adding to our setup: rod holders, ice anchors, foam interlocking tiles for around our feet, wakasagi unhookers, etc. There really is no limit to what you could end up buying and we are in a constant struggle to refine our gear. There is also a whole other level of gear that we haven’t even touched on such as electric reels, fishfinders, and heaters. That’s for maybe next year’s gear dump.

This style of fishing may not be for everyone. The gear is very Japanese centric, and hauling in over a hundred tiny smelt might not be your cup of tea. It’s more like fish “harvesting” than “fishing”. If the fish are there and you’ve done the proper prep work, then you’ll be bringing them up pretty consistently. Watch the end of your rod tip with a keen eye, and keep warm!

Feet up, fishing nearly finished, enjoying all my gear.

Bringing in a string of four. The record was six.

Japanese Pond Smelt (wakasagi) is best prepared as a simple tempura.