industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

Month: May, 2012

Hobby Land

Get your fill of walls and waves.


While Japan may epitomize what it means to be a workaholic, it also has some very good national holidays. I think Canada would be a kinder and healthier nation if we adopted such occasions as Respect For the Aged Day, Greenery Day, Health and Sports Day and the little known but much loved Marine Day. Interestingly, in Japan it can be hard to tell that you are in the midst of a holiday, mostly because everything stays open. Banks and schools are closed, but anything that has to do with food or shopping is open for business. You’d be crazy not to keep your boutique or bakery open on the one day where people have the time to get out and spend their money. And spend their money they do. On holidays in our town there is even a line-up outside the hole-in-the-wall greasy-chopstick restaurant near our house.

Last week was what is known in Japan as Golden week. It’s almost an entire week of national holidays strung together. If you play your cards right and take a little time off, then you are looking at a nice 9-day long holiday. Matt and I spent a few of these days in our hometown, but we finally did what everyone else was doing and took to the road. Some friends had chosen to take off to Korea for the week, another journeyed to Saitama to run a marathon. We packed up the car with our little 2-man tent, surfboards, and baby paraphernalia and headed south to the beach town of Aoshima to see what kind of waves there were to be had.

On our drive south, we noticed the various unfamiliar license plates. Lots of people from everywhere were traveling down our packed, 1-lane poor excuse for a highway. A lot of them were surfers with boards strapped to the roof of their cars. Surfers also can’t seem to resist a good board-shop bumper sticker or rearview window decal, so they were easy to spot. Along the way we stopped at one of Matt’s usual surf spots. The lot was packed full of vehicles from every corner of southern Japan and they didn’t look like they were going anywhere fast.

A parking lot full of squatting surfers is an interesting site to see. Some set up huge tents, equipped with cots and folding tables and chairs, others live out of their station wagons or mini vans. People bring their scraggly longhaired kids, who when they aren’t surfing too, are weaving through the parked cars on their skateboards. They assemble their camp stoves and they create spaces to hang their drying wet suits. They play with their dogs and their leashed up cats, wax their boards, fearlessly show off their tattoos and walk barefoot on the pavement. If they aren’t surfing, they’re sleeping, eating, or smoking.

This location was not an anomaly. The entire length of the coast was packed with every kind of wave rider; long boarders, boogie boarders, wind surfers, short boarders. You name it and they were out there. We discovered upon our arrival in the south that there was a surf competition being held in Aoshima, and it was even more of a zoo there than up in our neck of the woods. It seemed insane that so many people with the same hobby would all be out doing the same thing at the same time. I wondered if any surfers had decided to do something different that week, like go to the movies or stay home and
organize their record collection, or take a trip into the mountains. By the looks of it, it didn’t seem likely.

This assembly of like minded-hobbyists seemed to go beyond ocean enthusiasts. Out on the open road there were packs of bikers straddling their shiny Harley’s in seemingly brand new leather chaps. There were roadsters too, looking slick in restored vintage convertibles, sporting bizarre haircuts and sleeve length tattoos. We found families forever posing in front or random monuments and scenic backdrops, taking photographic evidence that they were in fact where they stood at that moment on their holiday.

We spent two days down south enjoying the sun, watching Matt catch his waves, introducing Noah to the concept of a tent and driving right to southern tip of Kyushu to see the wild horses of Cape Toi. After a couple nights in a tent too small for a family of three, we trucked it back home for a night of proper rest. With one day left in our precious Golden Week, we decided to take up an invitation to go rock climbing with a student of Matt’s. The rock faces were about an hour north of us, so again we were in the car, this time speeding through the valleys and mountain tunnels of Oita. It was some of the prettiest scenery I’d seen in a long time and I was secretly pleased to know it was just beyond our backyard.

Upon arriving at the rock faces, of which there were a good variety, I was surprised to see the number of climbers scurrying up the dangerous cliffs and facades. I was under the impression that this place was known only to the locals, but Matt’s student told us this area was pretty popular with climbers and that most of the people there that day were likely from out of town. So, again, the Golden Week hobbyist parade continued.

One family we met, with a very calm and polite 10 year-old son, said they’d come all the way from Fukuoka. I asked them how often they climb, in which they said just about every week at an indoor climbing gym. The boy professed that his main hobby of choice was climbing, even though he also liked baseball. The mother (or the aunt, not quite sure about who was who) had arms like a python. Here we were sitting in front of a 20 meter rock face, one that scared the crap out of me just by looking at it, and she goes on to tell us that she’s climbed cliffs some 300 meters high. Is that even possible? Indeed, all the other climbers also seemed of a very high caliber, climbing impressive walls with deep overhangs and challenging holds.

All of this definitely gave me the impression that Golden Week in Japan is everyone’s golden opportunity to do what they love to do most, and maybe what they wish they could be doing every other day of the year. I also get the feeling that these hobbies are something people take very seriously. They aren’t just casual pastimes that they tend to every month or so. They are concentrated efforts that people work at diligently. A Japanese hobbyist is an impressive specimen to behold and the whole weeklong experience had a contagious air to it all. Indeed, by the end of it I found myself secretly wanting to be a part of a surfing clique or a climbing posse. With a surf-addicted husband and little boy who is already climbing the walls of our apartment, I suppose it’s inevitable, right?


Lost and Found

Sending you our love, debris and cesium-137.


The North American media has been doing an interesting job of reporting the first few significant Tsunami debris items to arrive on the shores of the Pacific Coast. Eventually, I am sure they will cease to care about each and every plank of wood or bottle that washes up. For now though, people seem genuinely concerned about returning more significant items to their rightful owners. I find this touching considering that there is a good chance the owner might have lost most, if not all, of their worldly possessions, and that’s if they are still alive.

The first large item to surface was a badly battered fishing boat spotted off the coast of Alaska. The owner was contacted and stated that he did not want it back, so after some failed efforts were made to get close to the vessel, the US Coast Guard opened fire and sank the boat. They speculate that it was unsafe to board and could pose a danger to other vessels. That’s fair to say, but to sink a boat, possibly with a tank full of diesel doesn’t seem all that responsible to me either. I guess coast guard target practice takes precedence over environmental preservation out there in Alaska. I wish they had managed to bring it to shore, but I suppose there is plenty more where that came from on its way. Better luck next time.

Next was the soccer and volleyballs found by an Alaskan man who enjoys beach combing. In an interesting twist of fate, the wife of the man happens to be Japanese, so she could read the inscriptions written all over the student memento’s. They were successfully able to track the owners down in Japan and plan on returning them shortly.

Finally, there is the most recent case of the cube truck container that washed ashore on one of the small islands of Haida Gwai. A man exploring a remote beach on his four-wheeler found it and opened it up. He discovered a few golf clubs, some random camping equipment, and a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. The bike was encrusted in salt and a bit battered, but in fair condition. A determined soul went out there, put the bike on the back of a truck, and carted it back to the main land. The Japanese owner was located and the bike will be shipped back to him care of Harley-Davidson. They have also promised to restore the bike if it is feasible.

The current estimate is that there is about 1.5 million tones of Japanese Tsunami debris still floating in the Pacific Ocean. It is thought that another 3.5 million tons actually sank just off the coast of Japan. The truth is, it’s actually not possible to tell what sank and what’s still floating. It’s probably safest to just say ‘a lot sank and some of it is coming your way.’ Hopefully people will continue to treat found objects with some care and respect and do what they can to return the items to their original owners. I know the Japanese would do exactly that if our current roles were somehow reversed.

Update: Here is a recent CBC article about the amount of debris that is starting to wash ashore, and the concerns that the community has with how to dispose of it.

Spring Recap

April was an epic-fail for writing. I must have sat down a half a dozen times and tried to squeeze something meaningful out of my brain, but I never got very far. Not to make excuses, but the last month and a half has been excessively busy and it’s been hard to concentrate on any one thought for too long. It seems like only lately I’ve been able to get some sort of mental bearing back, so here’s a recap on what I should have been writing about, but couldn’t get out the door.

March was a month of births and deaths. Right about the time that my new nephew was born, an old high school friend finally succumbed to her long-fought cancer and passed away. It was not as hard as it should have been to say goodbye, maybe because the physical distance between us softened the blow. I hadn’t seen her in many years. It was her illness that actually brought us back in contact. I’m grateful for the year that I was able to share correspondence with her before she went, but wish I’d been better at staying in touch before that. I hate to be that guy who only turns up for funerals. I’d rather be the one that’s at all the birthdays and weddings. So far my track record is pretty mediocre.

March 11th marked the one-year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Even though we weren’t affected where we live, I still get an eerie feeling when I jog through town. The streets and buildings are all so similar to those in the hundreds of images and videos floating around the web. I can’t help but feel like the only difference between them and us was coastal location. There is a major fault line just off our shores as well, so the potential for something similar is not unthinkable. Now I look at our levees and know how useless they are.

One notable change over the last year is that all the schools have posted tsunami signs on their front gates that list their distance from the coast as well as their elevation. Most are within 5km from shore and are usually less than 10 meters above sea level, which would put them all underwater within 20 minutes of a big earthquake. It’s no wonder that I still find myself looking for emergency escape routes and wondering about the architectural soundness of local structures. Perhaps it’s a similar feeling to the 9/11-claustrophobia I get when standing between tall skyscrapers. Other than that, it’s hard to tell what has changed for the people of Miyazaki. I don’t even check our local radiation levels anymore.

I finished my 10km race. I didn’t break any records or even come close to being in the top 15 runners, but I finished, and I was proud of myself for sticking to my training and finishing in good form. As I was running, two thoughts kept going through head. The first was “This sure feels longer than 10km.” The second was “Half marathon? Hell no!” But after I crossed the finish line a feeling of euphoria quickly washed over me and in that moment I convinced myself that a half-marathon is the obvious next step. It’s a bit of a ways off, but I’m aiming for a December race, which gives me lots of time to eat ice cream over the summer before I start seriously training in the fall.

April marked the start of the Japanese fiscal year, and therefore promised lots of mandatory and optional work parties. This did very little for my paycheck, and also didn’t help my blood pressure levels every time I had to try and find a last minute babysitter. I finally got fed up and didn’t attend a big welcome party, (party #4 of about 6 or 7). Unfortunately I had already paid for it, but I really didn’t care at that point. Every responsible friend I know had already babysat for me over that two-week period, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to do it twice. I also don’t want to get in the habit of putting my job before my child. There has to be a limit to how many drinking parties are reasonable to attend when it cuts into the already limited working-mom time I have with my son. I’ll never get over this part of Japanese work culture. I consider it a huge waste of money and time. I wonder if anyone else thinks so, but so far no locals have ever confessed such scandalous thoughts to me.

So that’s the past month or so in a large nutshell. Now that I have all these things off my brain, maybe I can focus better on what is happening in the present instead of always trying to evaluate the past. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.