Control, When All Else Fails

Well, as I sit here, I fear the worst. Japan has done next to nothing to address the Corona situation. Here in Sapporo they closed schools for about 2 weeks at the start of March… and that’s about it. Almost a laughable (little) amount of testing has occurred, just check the stats. The government, both national and prefectural, seems to be incapable of of enacting anything other than strong verbal encouragements to “go out less on the weekends”. Aside from a handful of multinational tech companies, almost all jobs lack remote working capabilities. Schools are in the same retrograde conundrum. Having spied on the operation of Japanese junior high schools for a decade, trust me, they aren’t even capable of emailing assignments. Check out a Japanese public school’s website, it’s like jumping in a time machine to 1997.

Cases are spiking, despite the paltry amount of testing. My own company  reported that an ALT in another area south of Hokkaido caught it. They then sent out an email telling us to basically shelter in place. But I also know that for the last week my company has been rushing to change international and domestic flights of new branch workers, trying to get them to their job postings before travel bans/quarantines went into place on March 28th. The mixed messaging is absurd. Just this past week my company was asking people if they wanted to substitute at schools(i.e. fly to other locations around Japan) in the next couple of weeks. Fuck that. Of course they still plan on opening schools in about 2 weeks. People need to get a clue.

So what can I control? Not the policies of the nation. Not the utter disregard and flippant attitude of the general public of the world health crisis. I can control just my immediate environment, the present. Presently I am alive. Presently I am listening to The Practical Stoic Podcast. I watched a random film from The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time 2012. Funny how I chose The Seventh Seal, a Bergman film centered around the Black Death (plague).

And of course there is my other projects, including this intense “Happy Camper” model from Robotime/Rolife. This paper/cardboard model kit was extremely laborious, frustrating, and time consuming. It took well over a month maybe longer. But it really brings my micro-man cave together.

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Introverts Unite!

Well, it descends. All around. Nowhere to hide. No country to escape to. I’ve never liked crowds, which has always made Japan a tough sell for me. Now is the time to cuddle up with a few good books, build a model, make some artwork, study for a Linux exam that may or may not be canceled anyway. That was basically the plan all along, sans coronavirus. Here’s a rundown of what’s been going on in my neck of the woods – Sapporo, Japan, in a 2LDK, divorced from the world.

My spring break got started a little early, schools (and my work) has been suspended from February 28th until my next school year contract begins in mid-April. We’ll see how that all pans out.

Just before I was given early release from that prison-hell, I was doing a lot of zentangle.

I think they really tie the bookshelf together. I started many of these in the final weeks of the school year and have been touching them up recently.

Then I’ll switch to some good old fashioned adult coloring book action. I can zone out for hours with my Star Trek: The Next Generation pals.

When I want to get serious, I train for my Linux Professional Institute Level 2 (202) certification at the end of the month. Procmail filters, iptables, reverse proxy servers, secure socket layers, all that jazz. That’s assuming that the test center stays open through the rapidly deteriorating world situation…ho-hum.

Then comes my Nanoblock obsession. Or knock-off Chinese Nanoblock obsession. This pirate ship was a real chore.

That of course led to a complete micro-man cave redesign, now featuring a mini-mahjong table!

But all this is mere child’s play compared to my latest obsession: Robotime/Rolife’s miniature house model kits. I received these two kits, the Happy Camper and Sam’s Study, last Christmas.

It’s been slow going on these particular projects. I started the Happy Camper thinking it might take a few weeks, but I am quickly realizing this might be a year long affair. The level of detail is a bit overwhelming, but awesome. See! Not everything coming out of China is a nightmare.

This is after multiple weekends of work, and I only managed to make a few pieces of furniture. It’s a grind, but well worth it.

Other than these projects, I got my standard backlog of reading going on. Just finished Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and am finishing up Harari’s latest book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Lot’s more to get to in the coming weeks. Hoping to finish up listening to Finnegans Wake on Waywords and Meansigns, which has been daunting. It’s okay, I got the time. We all have the time…

 

Lake Shumarinai Ice Fishing

We decided to head three hours north to escape this year’s mild Sapporo winter and try out some ice fishing on Lake Shumarinai. This was unknown territory for everyone in our group, so we had the facilities at the lake set us up with a rental tent, simple rods, and bait. Our main objective would be just staying warm enough to keep our fingers and toes from falling off. Of course, when we departed Sapporo at 3:00 AM, mother nature decided to make up for a month long snow drought by dumping about two feet of snow just as we were escaping the metro area. It was slow going. Temperatures by the early morning were hovering around -22 C, and I was already pretty cold before we even got all our gear from the staff at the lake.

Around 7:00 we had our sled loaded up with a simple bottomless popup tent, three incredibly short reel-less rods, a few bait boxes filled with maggoty grubs, and all the rest of our personal gear. We chose some pre-drilled holes just a short hike away, and quickly set up our tent, got a small gas stove burning, and tried to settle in for some frigid fishing.

Some bamboo poles mark our pre-drilled holes. The lake seemed pretty popular despite the low temperatures.

Unfortunately our river fishing skills didn’t seem to translate out on the ice. After about 3 hours, with some assistance from a wandering staff member from the rental center, our friend managed to haul in 6 wakasagi, my wife 1, and me – nothing. That’s not a good day, especially when groups often bring in over 100+ of the tiny tempura dish fish. The rental staff took pity on us and gave us a ziplock of about 30 fish as we dejectedly returned our gear.

Only our dog seemed to stay warm.

Despite our skunking, the day was still young and we took advantage of the blue skies to get the blood flowing with a snowshoe trek across the lake. The ride home was made more bearable with a stop for soft ice cream and a quick dip in an onsen. Better luck next time! (Which there will be, ice fishing poles are in our Amazon cart as I write this!)

At least the snowshoeing was good!

Snowy Cold Sapporo Commutes

A big part of my day is my morning and late afternoon commute. This year both of the schools I am posted at are within 30 minutes walking time from my apartment. My pledge has been to refuse to take public transport and walk each day, regardless of the weather. Until recently that hasn’t been a problem, but in the last week we have finally gotten some intense snowfall. On the day these particular images were taken well over 60 centimeters fell overnight.

Each day, as the snow piles up, my commute gets a bit more difficult. Sidewalk snowbanks often end up reaching 10-15 feet at winter’s peak.

 

Even though the Streetcar looks tempting, they are often packed like sardines and standing room only. I gladly let them pass knowing that I’d regret getting on as soon as I boarded.

Walking gives me some much needed calorie burn and saves me 400 yen in transportation costs. On severely inclement days I do my best to bundle up and zone out to my podcasts. Sometimes I even jog part of the way to get the blood flowing.

Jozankei Winter Camp Festival

Sapporo has had, until just recently, a rather marked decrease in snowfall from seasons past. In order to get our snowshoeing habit fulfilled, we had to take a trip south to Jozankei, the hot spring resort that falls within Sapporo’s city limits, but close enough to the mountains to get significantly more snow than downtown. Luckily there was a Winter Camp Festival being held at the Nature Village campground from January 18th-19th. There were tents on display from multiple manufacturers, woodcutting/fire-starting exhibitions, fat bike demos, food, and more. There was also a snowshoeing tour, which although it catered to newbies, gave our friend the opportunity to try it out for the first time.

We stopped at some great local eateries along the way too. So it was a good jump start to this belated winter outdoor sport season! I recommend it to camping enthusiasts who want to get into the hobby on a more year-round basis. The campsite also offers nice heated yurts for overnight stays that are great if your new to the whole “freezing-your-ass-off-while-you-sleep” thing.

The Jozankei Winter Camp Festival was a good opportunity to demo tents and other products outside in their natural environment.

Playing Mario Kart on a Super Nintendo on a snow screen inside a tent, while sitting on a deerskin covered cot. I did this. I am not proud.

Update: The following Monday after this event, Sapporo was hit with a 40 centimeter deluge of snowfall. We’re still about half way to last year’s levels, but finally we have enough to do some local snowshoeing. I will keep posting my snowshoeing adventures as the winter progresses.

Christmas, Thanksgiving, it’s happening…

It’s that time of the year. ‘Twas the night before American Thanksgiving as I write this, not a salaryman was stirring, not even Takashi-san who just put in a 15 hour day for zero overtime pay. Especially not that guy. But Thanksgiving 2019 comes at a particularly well deserved time in old Nippon, as the last public holiday was on November 4th and the former Emperor’s birthday is no longer celebrated on December 23rd (Yep, that’s a holiday). There actually was a public holiday on November 23rd called Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 Kinrō Kansha no Hi), but in perfect harmony with the Japanese obsession with working themselves to death it was effectively canceled because it fell on a Saturday. That’s right. Holidays that fall on a Saturday are not celebrated the following Monday. So if you are one of those rare workers in Japan who only goes to the office Monday through Friday and takes a <gasp> two day weekend, and your place of business is in the public sector or with a rare private sector business that actually cares about the well being of it’s employees — guess what? No Labor Thanksgiving Day for you. Oh, the irony!

Anyway, that being said, this American Thanksgiving I really used as a kickoff to the holiday season. The artificial tree was already put up several weeks ago, so decor and ambiance is in full effect. Last Saturday we took a trip over to Costco to stock up on holiday food. For those who never had the pleasure of experiencing a Costco in Japan, just imagine the busiest you have ever seen a discount warehouse store in your homeland, double or triple that combustion, throw in some Japanese in-laws and their absurdly conservative shopping habits, stir it all up and BAM! You got the perfect storm.

Japanese Costco is a communist claustrophobic’s worst nightmare.

So while we stocked up on multiple full sized chickens, assorted meats, two dozen banana muffins, assorted foodstuffs, and some Christmas present odds and ends all totaling in excess of ¥40,000, my in-laws found a head of cabbage, some pickled ginger, and about a week’s worth of fermented soybeans (natto). Oh, and grapes. They went a little crazy and bought grapes.

The contrast between our two shopping carts couldn’t have been more startling.

But it was well worth it. This past Saturday, my wife and I gorged ourselves on roasted chicken with homemade stuffing, listened to Accuradio Christmas stations, watched a bad episode of Grey’s Anatomy and passed out, dreaming that December passes quickly so we can do it all over again on Christmas Day.

Thanksgiving roast chicken can be a perfectly fine substitute for turkey.

The Joys of Japanese Style Bait Fishing

I have done Western style fly fishing since I was a teenager. Not well. I can barely tie my own flies, and my casting technique has been flawed. But I stuck with that method and managed to land some decent fish through the years.

Then I discovered the Japanese method of tenkara, and immediately threw myself into that form of fishing. It was like regular fly fishing without all the overhead. Simple and to the point: no reel, one line, a little bit of tippet, and a few simple flies.

Both have served me fairly well here in Japan, but my last major fishing trip, had me completely enthralled by another popular (but not without its fair share of technique) fishing method here in Japan. It’s called keiryu. And it’s now a big part of my fishing life.

A second breakage of my uber fragile Nissin Pocket Mini, sent me back to Sapporo’s one stop fishing emporium Amerikaya (アメリカ屋魚具) to check out new rods. Having so much success in Tokachi, lining yamame after yamame with relative ease on salmon eggs, I decided to completely break from the fly fishing roots and run with the devil. I was going to become a bait fisherman.

My wife wanted to get in on the act as well, so I quickly found us a couple of sturdy (not easily breakable!) rods to get us on the water quickly and without fuss. First I went with a ¥6,000 3.02 meter Daiwa that wouldn’t break the bank. As a less expensive alternate rod I found some off brand 3.6 meter Chinese rod for under ¥2,000. Though the later rod is quite a bit heavier (160g vs the lighter 59g of the Daiwa), I am certain that it won’t be snapping anytime soon.

Keiryu Techniques for Tenkara Anglers
As you can see, the rigging for a keiryu rod is pretty straightforward. I generally tie 3 or 4 feet of 3.5X fluorocarbon tippet material to the lilian, followed by about two meters of 5X (connected by a Surgeon’s Knot). Finally, I loop connect Japanese hooks which are pre-tied to about 20 centimeters of 6X(ish) line. I’ll put some split shot about 8-10 inches up from the hook. Somewhere long the midsection of the line I put 3 indicators to help see the line’s positioning (these are not bobbers, or strike indicators).

Keiryu rods
Keiryu rods are telescoping, fixed line rods. They are typically sold in these plastic rectangular boxes and come in a variety of lengths (2.5 meters to 8 meters or more!)

The real reason I suspect my wife wanted in on the action was so that she could use our K9 Sport Sack to bring our dog along on our fishing expeditions. We already have done long bike rides, day hikes, and snowshoeing. Fishing seemed the next logical experiment. Fly fishing and tenkara style had been out of the question, all those hooks flying around your head on back casts seems a bit dangerous. But keiryu is relatively harmless, just hold the end f the line and underhand fling it where you like. After a few times it becomes fairly natural.

With a supremely light line, with almost no slack from rod tip to the split shot, strike detection is immediate. Just follow your lines indicators (keeping them above water and adjusting for depth) and fish!

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Tokachi Fishing Haul

Most of the my time fishing, in terms of quantity of fish landed, is a utter disappointment here in Hokkaido. Several years back I did get into the high teens on my yamame count out near Akaigawa, west of Sapporo. But most of those were fingerlings barely worthy of that description. I was dying for a day on the water that I could truly call a haul. A day where even a piss poor technical angler like myself could brag about. Well, this summer my wish finally came true.

In late July, at the early/late hour of 2:00 AM, my fishing companion picked me up from from central Sapporo apartment and we set off for a three and a half hour long drive east to the 炭山 (たんざん,Tanzan), deep off the beaten path in Tokachi sub-prefecture. Won’t give away too much about the small river we went to, but local rumor claims that the salmon run in the larger tributaries of the Tokachi river were exceptionally large this year. That helped to explain yamame catches reaching absurd counts further upstream.

tanzan fishing
The mist rose through the Tanzan’s valleys as we suited up for the day’s fishing. Not one car would be seen along this road for the entire day.

We managed to hit the water around 6 AM. I was sporting multiple rods for this excursion. My uber lightweight Nissin Pocket Mini (3.6 meters) and my 9 foot cheapo Cabela’s 5 weight fly rod. I had been using the Pocket Mini with a tenkara rig for a while now and was excited to be at a place with an abundance of fish (or so we had been told).

A few minutes after hitting the water I was not disappointed. Strike after strike came quickly, and I pulled in one of the best yamame I have ever caught here in Hokkaido, a good hand length. More yamame, a small rainbow, and a white spotted char (iwana) followed. The latter I was particular proud of, it being my first iwana. After about an hour I had managed to catch ten fish on my humble Elk Hair Caddis tenkara set-up. Not too shabby.

yamame
No fish were harmed on our particular excursion. (This was part of the haul from an acquaintance on the same river a week prior)

My friend caught up to me after transcending a small waterfall and I asked him how many he had managed, using a keiyru rig with salmon eggs.

“Fifty.”

I had to go full ESL instructor mode and make sure my friend was articulating the stress in his words.

“Fif-teeeeeeeen?”

“Fifty, ごじゅう.”

Yes, my friend had caught 50 fish in the space of about an hour and a half. I would have been completely stunned, but his father had apparently caught over 100 yamame near this very spot the weekend before. But 50 seemed a bit insane, still.

A few moments later, as I was collapsing my Nissin Pocket Mini to switch to a bait fishing keiryu line, a joint midway up my Pocket Mini cracked. I was pissed. This was my second breakage on this overpriced compact rod within a year. But that misfortune would bring about an entire rethink of my fishing philosophy. (More on this in a later post)

Thankfully, my friend was a bit arm tired from hauling in so many fish and handed over his keiryu rig while he switched over to his own fly rod. First cast on this new setup brought in a wonderful 10 inch rainbow. From then on I was off to the races, bringing about 30 more fish to hand in a just a couple hours. It was exhausting, but a decent education in fish identification (the iwana’s golden underbelly is a easy identifier), and fish unhooking. We were going purely catch and release, so I was happy to handle most my fish with delicacy.

Eventually I tired of constantly hauling in fish and switched to my fly rod after an early lunch. The fish still continued rise to my size #18 Elk Hair Caddis (really the only fly I have used this fishing season), and I managed another 15 after a wonderful meal of tuna/mayo onigiri, teriyaki chicken wings, and leftover unrefrigerated egg salad sandwich that somehow didn’t go bad after 5 hours in the backseat of my friends SUV.

In the early afternoon we decided to retire from the river and make the long trek back to Sapporo. Kudos to my friend for putting up with my horribly broken Japanese over the eight plus hours of transit time. Of course no Hokkaido fishing trip is complete without a postmortem soft ice cream side jaunt. This time we stopped by the Ryugetsu Sweetpia Garden, avoiding their endless displays of macrons and baumkuchen, and partook in in some pretty decent vanilla splendor on a cone.

Ryugetsu softcream

 

Snow Peak Tokachi Porishiri Campground

Our camping season picked up right where it left off last year – three days of continuous rain. Although the rain wasn’t quite torrential, it swelled Hokkaido’s rivers in the Tokachi Subprefecture enough to put the kaibash on any potential fishing we had planned on doing. Instead our camping trip turned into a food tour of the region, taking in the local delights at Nakasatsunai’s michinoeki. Numerous stops were made for fromage gelato, soft ice cream, as well as a long journey for doughnuts at a secret location more than an hour from the campground.

With all the rain we also had plenty of time to explore our newest Hokkaido camping destination: the Snow Peak Tokachi Porishiri Camp Field. I have to admit I was a little skeptical of this campground, especially after my recent experience at the Tomo Playpark near Akaigawa. For those unawares, Snow Peak is a fairly high end outdoor wear and camping products manufacturer here in old Nippon. Its products are pricey, but high quality. I like to think of it as the Japanese Patagonia, despite being founded more than a decade prior in 1958. Just to get an idea, check out this Snow Peak dog cot for $124.95! Some of their mugs and kitchenware is slightly more affordable, so I’ll stick to that for now.

A campground that is managed directly my a major outdoor brand left me a little anxious. Were we gonna get hoodwinked into buying a ridiculously priced tarp or tent? Was this going to be a glamping resort like some of the bigger Auto-Camp locations, with kids racing around on scooters, vending machines, and onsite restaurants? Luckily this campground offered none of that!

Although there is a very nice Snow Peak shop on the premises and several Snow Peak tents set up outside for you to peruse, they do a good job at keeping it relatively scaled back. The road encircling the campground is unpaved which immediately brought me a sigh of relief (no kids racing around). The shop also sells firewood which you can burn in your own stainless steel portable fireplace (also sold on site should you need one). It seems all campgrounds in Japan do not offer open pit fire circles. Something about danger (危ない) or some other Japanesey safety slogan. (ご注意!)

This is what you want to see, unpaved roads around the campground. It prevents unnecessary child hooliganism.

So despite the rain, we tried to take full advantage the sites amenities, cooking s’mores on the open fire, using the electric hookup for nabe, Genghis Khan (grilled lamb), and all kinds of other great edibles. Our biggest success was the baked potatoes we buried deep in the coals and almost cooked to perfection.

Snow Peak fireplace
Despite the rain, we managed to keep the fire lit using our tarp’s canopy.

There were some moments of brief sunshine. Just enough to allow us to set up our site upon arrival and break it down after two nights. But almost nothing in between.

The site was up and running pretty quickly. A lot of sitting under the tarp waiting for the rain to stop.

Despite the weather, the Snow Peak facility in Tokachi ranks at the top of my list for family style, yet still rugged camping. Half the sites have electric hookups, the bathrooms and communal dish washing areas are top notch, and the staff was pleasant and unobtrusive.

Snow Peak’s shop and check-in building also has a hot shower. (if the local onsen isn’t your cup of tea)

Most importantly the clientele is quiet. One if the most peaceful Japanese camping experiences I have had thus far. Plus I can’t knock Snow Peak’s gear, it is quality stuff, though a bit out of my price range in terms of family camping tents and tarps.

Snow Peak Tent
Snow Peak’s tents are pricey but pretty high quality.

Snow Peak also rents their prefab box cabins for ¥18,000. Nope…

There was just enough rainless moments to set up the hammock and have our dog some true relaxation.

World News Disengagement

For the last several months, in addition to my continuing disengagement in Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (the current big three in terms of damage to the human soul), I have been actively avoiding the news. It’s not a total unawareness of current events, but a general decrease in the sources of information about those events. In particular, I’ve whittled my news intake to one extremely pretentious one hour podcast, Monday through Friday. The Briefing from Monocle, is a look at the global news by hipsters more concerned about the production of aged cheese in Montenegro than the plight of Syrian refugees or the war in Yemen. But they try. I get what I can out of each broadcast then go back to reading about fly fishing, Zentangling, or my new hobby of playing the classic card game Skip-Bo with my wife while listening to jazz.

The greatest part of this is that I seemed to have missed nothing. Especially concerning the on-goings in America. The other day Trump apparently visited the DMZ for a photo-op with Kim Jong-Un. Of course, because I don’t usually get to my news podcast until the next morning, I was unaware of this. No doubt in years past I would have been surfing between multiple news websites and scrolling through Twitter like a madman trying to follow the news. Instead I watched The Handmaid’s Tale and learned how to make Doenjang-jjigae on Maangchi’s YouTube Channel (even if you don’t cook you should check her out).

The world amazingly kept on spinning without my eyeballs tracking the news cycle. Step away from CNN everyone. Half an hour of daily news is probably all anyone ever needed.