Breaking the Rules

My daily commute consists of taking a tram(streetcar) for approximately 15 minutes, followed by a 10 minute subway ride, and then culminating in a 20-25 minute bus ride. It’s a thing of absolute precision. Rarely have I had a delay, even on the buses – traversing some tough snowstorms in the early morning – usually getting to my destination on or around the expected time. These commutes are quiet, orderly affairs. Order and rule following is really the name of the game here in Old Nippon, and this is never more obvious than on public transportation.

No talking on cell phones. Keep your cell phone on silent/manner mode. These are two of the most well known and well followed rules. Trains and buses are pretty much silent. Conversations are kept to a hush. It makes for a rather pleasant journey, but I can only fathom the amount of social engineering that the populace has been exposed that keeps them so unwilling to break such rules. Travel to South Korea or China and take the subway and sit back and enjoy the chaos.(Just take a look at the Tokyo Metro “Things to Consider When Riding the Subway” to get a feel for what I am talking about.)

But the real social engineering isn’t inside the trains, it’s on the platform at each station. There you will find very clear lines painted in front of each carriage door entrance, showing passengers where they must line up (usually in two lines on either side of the entrance. Japanese people dutifully follow these cattle chutes, always waiting for the passengers to exit the train, before sardine-ing themselves in for their journey to salaryman hell.

I have always been thankful for this sense of order. I’ve elbowed one too many Korean grannies, trying to gain a seat in my journeys in Pusan. It’s a rule based commuter culture here in Japan, and no deviation from the rules is excusable. Which leads me to a rather bizarre occurrence that repeatedly keeps occurring to me…

Each evening, on the final leg of my journey, I take the stairs up from the subway and directly to the above ground platform to the tram. Sapporo’s tram runs in a loop around Sapporo’s city center. In the rush hours it can be packed to near unbearable levels. It really gives my daily transit a taste of Shibuya.

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The Sapporo streetcar route can take you to some interesting places around town

The tram makes its stops on platforms that usually sit on concrete islands in the middle of some rather busy roads. These platforms are pretty narrow, and only allow for a single file line. One line that leads to the one entrance of the single car tram. Pretty simple. But a few years ago Sapporo revamped its Nishi 4 Chome (Odori) platform, placing it along the main sidewalk, and installing a large overhead canopy to protect the increased passenger traffic. This precipitated a change to the single file rule that exists on the other stops. So, clearly painted on the ground, two rows lead passengers in an orderly fashion to the entrance of the tram. There are signs in clear Japanese informing everyone of the two lines. There are even painted footprints to drive the point home even harder. But to change the rules, the routines, of a Japanese commuter is tantamount to a break in their collective psychic reality.

Each evening I arrive at the Nishi 4 Chome tram stop and encounter the same scene each and every time. Anywhere from five to twenty passenger lined single file, completely oblivious to the second line painted at their feet. Sometime this single file line will stretch outside the canopy and wrap around the sidewalk.

At first, I played along with my fellow Japanese in there delusional avoidance of the second line and begrudgingly followed suit. But after a few days of this I decided to take matters into my own hands and lead a commuter line revolution! I approached the single file line fifteen deep, shuffled to there left, and walked right on by to the very front, careful to follow the painted footprints. I actually felt guilty for following the rules, just for a little bit.

But then a remarkable thing happened. I heard some whispers of “So Desu ne…” as the stares locked in on the rebel gaijin who decided to follow the rules! And then one by one, some recruits made there way behind me. That first day I managed to sway only three or four over to the dark side of two line freedom. But throughout the next week I led a full blown defection from the nation of single file heathen. Finally, two even lines, everyone following the rules.

Was it my foreign presence that initiated this behavioral shift? Sometimes it seems that way. I’ll need more experimentation to see if my theory holds any weight.

Minimalism Gone Wild

I had been a ruthless accumulator of things. Everything was piling up, especially books. Though our apartment is fairly well organized and generally clean, I couldn’t help but notice a kind of burden my pack-rat lifestyle was reeking on my mind. I also wondered if there was other unforeseen benefits that might occur if I take the plunge into a more minimalistic lifestyle, purge myself of all my “just in case” items, and put an end to the distraction they cause.

This train of thinking began a few years ago after reading Mari Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but really came into focus when I recently read Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki. Whereas Kondo is well known for her “Spark Joy” approach to discarding clutter, Sasaki take her approach much further: What if we got rid of even those items that do “Spark Joy”? What if we break down everything to the bare necessities.

I started at the most difficult location for me: the bookshelf. Books are like babies to me, and a book culling is pretty much an affront to everything I believe in. Books, read and unread, represent knowledge. Discarding one is like purposely denying yourself some necessary wisdom. If I could only read and reread every book in my collection, I could gain some kinda of insight into the meaning of life! Or so I thought. The reality is that there were many books on my shelf I had ignored for almost a decade and the chances of me rereading a paperback I hated the first time was highly unlikely.

So I started a full on purge of my collection, thinning out my shelves considerably. Over 30 books whisked away, ready to be sold to Book Off for little to know financial gain. I felt lighter, and my bookshelf could breath again. I haven’t yet regretted parting ways with any of those books.

This unwanted accumulation had begun to spill over into my digital world as well. Apps filled my life and my phone to the brink, so much so that even the folders I was separating them into became too cumbersome. I started with the biggest distracted in modern life: Social Media.

Twitter had become an obsession with me. Not tweeting itself, but just the constant threat of my Twitter feed accumulating while I slept. I would wake in the morning and spend nearly an hour scanning through every tweet. I was a tweet accumulator, my attention span becoming more akin to a moth fluttering between two lanterns. It had to end.

I opted for app deletion rather than full scale account termination. My blog posts and the occasional Instagram pic still get redirected to Twitter. But it’s available on my desktop as a kind of guilty pleasure, one that I have yet to indulge in 2 months after the fact. Twitter joins Facebook in my app dustbin. This also keeps me from overreaching on my data plan.

It didn’t end with my smartphone. I took my minimalism even on step further on my already sparse Linux netbook. I removed so much bloat and stripped this machine to its core. Basically, I run everything out of the terminal. Everything! I removed my graphical file manager. It’s no longer an option. I don’t need a bloaty third wheel like Firefox, especially when this old netbook barely has the specs to load a java applet. If I need to browse the web, I do it 1989 style, text only, with w3m. In fact, I am writing this post in the terminal, on WordGrinder, and uploading to my site via WP-CLI (a command line interface for WordPress).

Basically, I turned my Toshiba NB205-N210 mini notebook (purchased for 300 USD a decade ago) into the ultimate Linux learning machine. Almost everything has to be done through the terminal. No shortcuts.

So my bookshelf is more sparse, my smartphone addiction less pronounced, and my Linux laptop ready to guide me to the LPIC-2 certification sometime next year. Happy Spring!

What I Be Doing…

A school year is winding down. The snow is getting slushy. The muddy days of spring await. It’s time to recharge, finish some projects, start some new ones, and find ways to improve upon some latent hobbies. So what have I been up to? As Whitman once wrote, “I contain multitudes”.

Visual Media:

Continuing on from my recent full re-watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and now moving on to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Of course this is accompanied with the audio podcast Mission Log. About one episode a week, for the next 3 years. Next Gen was my Star Trek growing up, DS9 was only casually watched due to the rigors of college life. So I am excited to rediscover this series. Additionally, I am in the middle of a re-watch of Northern Exposure, one of my guilty pleasures.

Another project I am slowly progressing with is attempting to watch all of Sight and Sound’s 20 Greatest Films of All Time – The Director’s List. Of these films, I surprisingly have only seen one on the list, 2001: A Space Odyssey. So I’ve been whittling away at some of the foreign films that I should have watched long ago. I started a few weeks ago with Tokyo Story, moved on to the French film Breathless, and most recently was entranced by Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I tried unsuccessfully to sit down for Seven Samurai but could only muster about an hour of that epic.

Technology:

Over the past several months I have been forcing my way through Beginning Programming with C for Dummies. It’s slow going, and I am only maybe halfway through the exercises. But it seemed like a necessary step. Even if I only retain a little of the programming skills, I think knowing some C as a foundation language is vital to understanding Linux, as well as most other programming languages.

Eventually, hopefully with not much more procrastination, I will begin training myself for the LPIC-2, hopefully taking the test sometime next spring. Not entirely optimistic of my chances, as the leap from LPIC-1 to level 2 is pretty great, even for someone who might work in the tech world. For a Linux hobbyist like me, it might be beyond my skill set. But these certifications are really just for me, just a way to challenge myself – so there is no fault in trying.

Health and Fitness:

This past winter I combined my need for daily aerobic fitness with my obsession with snowshoeing. So aside from a few weeks when the snow slowly started to accumulate in mid December, I’ve been able to continue my afternoon, evening walks up nearby Asahiyama, albeit with snowshoes on. I’ve managed get in a quick snowshoe at least twice a week after school, and once on the weekend. I supplement any non-snowshoeing days with 1,600 jumping jacks. Add to this my daily Perfect Pushup regimen and I pretty much have found my daily balance necessary to keep the pounds off, no easy task in the dark days of winter.

Books:

I’ve been kinda on a self help binge. Everything from minimalism to anxiety control. Some has been helpful. Some have been rather tedious (Tim Ferris anyone?). Eventually I plan on diving back into Finnegans Wake. Maybe St. Patrick’s Day could serve as an impetus to that linguistic boondoggle.

With spring break ahead of me, it’s time to get to it!

Micro Man Cave Makeover

Was able to add some small shelving space to my micro man cave, giving me considerable more space.. Things are getting a bit more cramped with the addition of a couple more Nanoblock sets, including a Japanese Festival Car and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Guinness, Japanese Style

I love Guinness. Unfortunately, here in Japan, a Guinness habit could bleed you dry of your hard earned yen. I’ve seen pints of Guinness selling for ¥900+ in bars, which probably is what turned me off bars in general in the country. A 330 milliliter can also sells for ¥300+ in supermarkets and convenience stores. Although it isn’t hard to find, I usually only indulge on special occasions or due to the generosity of others.

Luckily for me, my Japanese in-laws seem to think I require Guinness to make it through a day (not that bad, yet). So they habitually gift me a six pack on Christmas and birthdays, as well as provide it during other festivities. This year, the final year of my thirties, they dropped off a a Guinness “Winter Special Box”, featuring a rather unique “slim pint” glass.

I was a bit suspicious of this “slim pint”, but finding a traditional pint glass here has proved difficult so I’ll take what I can get. This particular glass is more accurately a narrow half pint glass, and one 330 milliliter can pours perfectly into this lovely compact vessel. It features a engraved harp on the back and the Guinness seal on the front. Somehow, in micro-loving Japan, this “slim pint” seems wildly appropriate.

Cheers!

Year of the Dog

If you aren’t aware, 2017 is the year of the dog. So let’s take a moment to revel in my dog Sunny’s ridiculous wardrobe. He has an outfit for every single situation, both real and imagined, so this is just a sample.

From top left clockwise: hand-knitted hat, flannel pajamas, chan-chan ko (wan-wan ko), summer sunglasses
Philadelphia Eagles jersey, walkabout hat, summer cooling tank-top (by ALPHAICON), o-pajama (by ALPHAICON), fall blanket
Philadelphia Flyers jersey, summer cooling parka (by ALPHAICON)
fall hoodie, Christmas hoodie (by Pinkaholic), winter down jacket, Halloween bandana
snow dog guard (by ALPHAICON), shima-shima pinstripes, lighted Christmas sweater, dog guard air (by ALPHAICON)

New Year, New Theme

Finally completed the arduous process of backing up and upgrading my server. For you Linux nerds that meant shuffling from Debian “Wheezy” to “Jessie”, giving me a couple more years of security updates until I have to do it all over again. Considering I did this without using the recommended fresh install method (instead I updated my repositories and hoped for no breakages), we were lucky to get the site back with minimal downtime. Just a few fixes to my apache2, php, and wordpress config files and things were back online. It was a learning process – mysqldump, tar, and a variety of Linux commands I needed a refresher on were implemented. (If none of that makes any sense, don’t worry, it was jibberish to me until a few years ago.)

The hard work done, I then set out to revamp my theme. The decode theme I have employed for several years doesn’t allow for background color changes, so I took that as a challenge to dig deep into the CSS code and do it manually. I love the retro green on black, plus it’s better on the eyes.

Hopefully this year I’ll be able to write more frequently. No topic is off limits, whatever strikes my fancy, so be prepared!

Semi-Urban Lightweight Angling

In the past year I have experimented with fly fishing via bicycle within the city limits of Sapporo. Slowly I began assembling the gear necessary to get me from apartment to stream as swiftly as possible. It has been a slow process, filled with trial and error.(See my previous post about what I started out with) Recently I pulled together some of the final elements of my kit that take me into an entirely new realm of fishing. Gone is my 9 foot 5 weight fly rod and reel. Instead, I made the plunge into Japanese angling and purchased a Nissen Pocket Mini. This is a 360 centimeter (11’8″) telescoping keiryu rod that can also be used as a tenkara rod. No reel, long rod, light line.

The Nissin Pocket Mini collapses down to an insane 25 cm and extends out to 3.60 meters. Usually retailing at ¥27,000 – I managed to snag one off amazon.jp for ¥17,000 !!

When I unfurled this 20 segment rod I was astounded! It weighs next to nothing, and is extremely delicate. I will be treating this piece with utmost care. Because it is technically a keiryu rod, I have the option of using it as such by rigging a very light monofilament line system with split shot and colored indicators. But that’s for another mid-life fishing crisis. For now, I’ll be rigging approximately 3.60 meters of #3.5 tenkara level line and about 3 feet of 7X tippet (as recommended by Nissin).

The Oni tenkara level line is an extremely light fluorocarbon that offers enough weight to get the fly moving. Much lighter than a 1 wt traditional fly line.

Before deciding to go with this particular rod, I researched heavily into tenkara and all the manufacturers currently on the scene. Tenkara is one of the rare instances of an element of Japanese culture being exported/discovered in the U.S. and re-imported back to Japan.(逆輸出, gyaku yushutsu – reverse export) Many Japanese tenkara anglers have taken advantage of this and can be found speaking on the American fly fishing lecture circuit and YouTube. U.S. companies like Tenkara USA and Tenkara Rod Co. make attractive kits with everything one needs to get started on the river. I considered a few such rods. Their easy to use websites with online forums make understanding the nuances of tenkara much simpler than having to parse my way through some Japanese text. The rods produced by these U.S. startups are much cheaper as well. But most of their rod manufacturing is simply farmed out to China and lack the quality control that I require from a fishing rod. So I started looking at the selection of fine telescoping rods made right here in old Nippon. Eventually I went with Nissin, a company with a long history of making rods in Japan.

No frills, just fine crafts.manship. Just some basic safety instructions and Nissin’s commitment to quality with a simple cloth case – Really, what else do you need?

Nissin’s Pocket Mini, and most telescoping rods made in Japan, usually come without any frills. Just the rod and some simple instructions. Everything else is up to the angler. And as you can see, the Pocket Mini lives up to its namesake:

The Pocket Mini can actually fit in your pocket!

Now I am ready to hit the stream via bike, subway, train, and/or bus. Of course this is a warm weather thing, and as soon as Autumn sets in I will have to go back to waders and a reliance on automobiles. Until then, I’ll be exploring Sapporo’s many waterways with a rather light ecological footprint.

Patagonia Sling Vest, Montbell shower trek boots (felt soled), and my 1.5 ounce rod – ready to hit the water

 

Micro Man Cave 2.1 

I’ve added some real depth to my micro man cave this past year. Two massive Nanoblock projects in particular really tied the shelf together: the T-Rex and Human Body skeletons!

This guy gave me some difficulty, but it finally got completed after a marathon 2 day session.

The paper models help mix things up a bit.

I’ve pretty much taken over all my wife’s space on this shelf, so my micro-man cave has kind of hit maximum threshold. Thank goodness Sapporo isn’t prone to many large earthquakes, this type of arrangement would have been next to impossible to maintain in Tokyo.

Pickle Potato Chips

Sometimes wading through Japan’s obsession with bizarrely flavored snacks, you come across a true gem. Today I present pickle flavored potato chips!

When I saw these I couldn’t believe my eyes. Dill pickles, like the ones featured on the package, aren’t exactly a staple of the Japanese diet. So I was a bit suspicious. But alas, Kaldi got this one right! The pickle taste isn’t overpowering, they still taste like proper bagged potato chips. But there is just a hint of dill, an aftertaste, that makes these one of the better chips I have tasted in the past couple years. Eat a bag of these and you’ll feel like you ate a sandwich(with some side pickles) at a Jewish deli in Flushing.

These are made by Kaldi and can only be found in their shops. If you haven’t been to Kaldi, get there. It is a great import foodstuff shop that specializes in coffee beans. They always have free coffee samples at the entrance, so it makes a good layover even if you are just window shopping.

Note – after some quick research I found that pickle flavor is now pretty commonplace amongst American chip manufacturers. But it is good to know that they are being produced locally here in Japan.