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Report From Japan - 28AU00

Bird Man
Hikone is not a well-known city in Japan. With a population of 100,000 the Japanese call it "rural" and "countryside." Those outside the area who have heard of it either know about it's roll in Japanese history hundreds of years ago and its castle, or they know about the International Bird man Rally. Every year, universities, businesses, and other various crazies participate in a competition over the lake. A huge ramp is constructed, and each team, after spending a few days assembling their inventions on the beach, attaches a human being to what they hope will be a flying machine. At the top of the ramp there is a stage with enough space for about 5 steps before the contraption and the participant are hurled into history. In the "people-power" category, there was a fair amount of success, and many of the bird-men (in some cases bird-women) were able to pedal their dreams a fair distance. The record this year was 7.9km. Most aircraft were made from Styrofoam, plastic and carbon fiber, although a few were slapped together using what looked like beer cans and tablecloths. I took the day off to see the final part of the event - the glider competition, in which there was no propeller or source of thrust. Because the beach was a bit crowded, I took a stage side seat by rowing out to a buoy and tying my rubber boat to it. Soon after I got there, an aerobatics bi-plane arrived overhead to help get the crowd excited about the day. Apparently I had chosen the space directly under the airshow portion of the festivities. I might not have done so with prior knowledge. Although the view was probably second only to that of the pilot, I was a little nervous when he did his upward stalls, his out-of-control tumbles, his speedy dives, etc. I guess the idea is to be nervous. I mean your supposed to think to yourself, "Egad! He could CRASH!" In my case I often thought, "Egad! He could crash INTO ME!" The whole kamikaze history didn't make me feel that much better. Or, "And for my next trick Ladies and Gentlemen - a little number I first pulled off in Hawaii about 50 years ago..." Well the act ended safely and the rest of the day was spent launching gliders (human beings attached) more or less directly into the water beneath the stage. Only two had even reasonable flights. Most of the time a wing would snap about 3 or 4 seconds into the "flight." The record for this division was a little over a hundred meters. It was a fun day, but I wish I was up in the middle of the night (6am) to see the peddlers.

And it's fireworks season in Japan. Every night during the summer I can go down to the beach and expect people to be setting off convenience store rockets, and roman candles, and spinning, flying, whistling do-hickeys of all shapes, sizes and speeds. Mostly I see cheap Circle K ones, but sometimes there are super high flying colorful deals that I imagine you need to go out of your way to get. There are also major fireworks displays conducted by all of the local neighborhoods. Some are quite involved, and others (like the one I watched from my balcony tonight) only last for about 15 minutes. The Hikone one was cool. The teacher gang and some cute kimono wearing friends (fireworks time is all about cute Japanese girls wearing traditional outfits) spread a blanket out on the beach to watch. Some of the rockets exploded in such a way that the sky was left with glowing yellow embers floating in the shape of a smiley face. It's also an excuse for Japanese to have a festive street party with chocolate covered bananas and fried octopus balls (if you look, you might even find a couple chocolate covered fried octopus balls). What are people celebrating? Most say they don't know. Others say it's simply Summer Festival time.

Since the last big message, I have revisited the beautiful beach of Suishohama twice to dive for Sazae. It turns out that the big sea snail type creatures are pretty easy to collect if I swim outside the typical people area (and for some odd reason, people are afraid to swim near the big nukes plant - lucky me. I caught 10 of them the first time and a local pal at the beach named Mazda helped Sheri and I cook them and eat them. Sheri really got into the slime ball of a critter (but if you've been reading my updates, you know Sheri digs slime balls). I made a deal with Mazda so that he will try to sell what I catch on future visits. They go for about 5 bucks a pop. It didn't really come to pass though. The next time I returned, the sea was full of nasty jellyfish and I caught only 5 sazae in about an hour. I felt compelled to set them free.

2000 Step Program
There are plenty of great 12 step programs out there for people with all manner of special needs. This month I decided that I need to climb Mt. Fuji. At 3776 meters, it is not at all impressive to mountain climbers at large, but it is the highest in Japan, a symbol of the nation, and a location tied over centuries to spiritual convergence. I am told it is one of the least beautiful mountains to climb, but that it is never-the-less an important and, for me, challenging undertaking. To quote someone who was translating someone else, "He who climbs Fuji-san once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool." Anyway, to prepare I have created a self-help system. I call it a 2,056 step program. Everyday (almost) I climb that many steps (256 at work + 1800 in my apartment building). I've come to know myself a little better during these hot summer night climbing sessions. It turns out I'm a wimp - a real wuss-bag. Why didn't any of you tell me? Anyway, I usually have to recuperate with a long cold shower and some ice-cream. I plan to climb Fuji in one week - just after the tourist season there. I will go from the bottom instead of most of the way up where all REASONABLE people start.

Shiga - the prefecture (state) I live in - has a 1,600 meter or so mountain called Ibuki-yamma. As additional training for the big event, and because Ibuki is a nice area, Sheri and I climbed Ibuki a couple weeks ago. More introspection abounded as I came to terms with the fact that I am quite a sissy - an 9-year-old ballerina to tell the truth. Did you guys know about this all along? Anyway, Sheri - who was the whining wheel-dragging "anchor" woman (if you catch my drift) on the Lake Biwa Circum-cycle-thon redeemed herself ten-fold as she scurried up the mountainside like a squirrel on crack. Every time I caught up to her, I greeted her with, "Go on without me. I'm not gonna make it," or, "Oh look at that beautiful flower (insect/view/cloud/etc.)! Don't you think we should STOP to take a picture?" See attached jpgs. Well I did make it, and she was kind enough to wait for me. Will I be ready for Fuji next week? Who knows?

Kyoto is probably Japan's most traditional city. At least that's how it's sold to tourists. There are nearly 100 temples and shrines spread around Kyoto, and there are castles, and parks, and an Imperial Palace - all of which are important parts of Japanese culture and history. But the most commonly recognized symbol of Kyoto is a Japanese "Kanji" character. I'm not sure what it means, but it can also be seen on every toilet flusher handle in the country. Hmmm. Anyway, this character must be particularly interesting to the dead. During this season, people have a variety of festivals, dances, and songs dedicated to "entertaining" deceased ancestors. Kyoto is a leader in this arena with Daimonji - a night time event in which all of the major hillsides surrounding the city are adorned with intricate systems of bon fires (In fact - most of the celebrations for the dead are called BON Odori. BON Odori... BON fire... Hmmm again.) which etch Kanji characters in fire on the mountains. The most famous and easily visible one is the toilet flusher symbol. I can only remember seeing a crowd this big, dense, and enthusiastic in the humid summer heat before at a free Beach Boys concert in Philadelphia in nineteen eighty-something when Mr.T was a guest drummer. At first many people tried to sit down around the major gathering/viewing places in the city. As the crowd grew denser, some even tried to call "down in front" in Japanese. That failing everyone stood up in time for the lighting of the Toilet Symbol. Old ladies used Japanese fans to swat themselves on the legs in anticipation of the big show. What were they really doing? I don't know, but I think they THOUGHT they were dissuading mosquitoes from biting them - a funny futile fantasy. At exactly 7:30 (the Japanese would just say, "at 7:30," since everything happens at exactly one time or another here) the big Toilet Symbol shone from the mountain enlightening and enriching everyone - alive and dead - enough to last till next year. But after the big Toilet Kanji was lit, everyone including my conforming ass was burning with haste to get to the next vantage point on a nearby bridge. From there, we would all see the igniting of the next symbol on a different mountain side. Oddly people seemed surprised to find that everyone had the same idea. We all found ourselves crammed onto the bridge in such a way as to inspire moaning - even screaming and crying from lots of the tinier types. I felt comparatively safe as I'm about twice as voluminous as the average man in the street. I knew the little ones would have to start dropping off before I was gonna join the real intended audience for tonight's show. Besides, when else is it socially acceptable to be squished up against so many beautiful women (and screaming babies, and old men, and half eaten foodstuffs)? I was having fun. The full moon rose directly over Toilet Flush O' Fire and was very moving. I moment later, the second symbol was ablaze on the next mountain. I lifted Sheri above the other shorties so she could see it. Then there were cops and sirens, and although I was hoping for tear gas, we were all able to slowly disperse unscathed (plus or minus a few harmless scathings or scathes or scaths or whatever). As an added bonus, I spent about 30 minutes watching the busy passers by accidentally kick aluminum cans in the street. The trick is to announce the immanent kick before it happens. Usually I could identify a kicker long before he or she would arrive at the can. If a couple was engrossed in conversation, "...and Brown Baseball Cap Man is stepping up for a good kick... and it's a spinner... now it looks like confused Where's My Husband Lady wants a go... Oh and she steps right ON THE CAN!" Since the kickers were all in earshot, it really helped that they didn't understand me. You'll have to try it some time. I can't make it sound as fun as it was.

Kawachi-no Fuketsu
And speaking of spelunking, after planning to visit the local caves - Kawachi-no Fuketsu for about 10 months, I finally made it there. It was about an hour's bike ride, and thankfully I was in the lead position again after Sheri embarrassed me so on the mountain. Now it was she who was "going to die," and, "wouldn't make it." Ha. Alright well, maybe part of it is that her bike weighs 70 pounds and mine weighs 2. Uphill it seems to make a difference. The caves were cool with a capital "K". They were way bigger than I expected and could easily be converted into my dream home, especially if things go as planned and I become a super hero. I was thinking my theme could have something to do with flying, and caves and scary rodents, but nothing is concrete yet. Any ideas? Anyway, it was 12 degrees Celsius inside the caves and about 90 Fahrenheit outside. Sorry, guesses always come in F and thermometers always come in C around here. Anyway, we took in some really cool scenes by the mountains and rivers, and rice farms. We saw snakes, and birds, and a monkey, and we dipped various body parts in the freezing river. I think I will go back - maybe with a flashlight next time - to explore parts of the cave deemed "off limits."

Meanwhile in everyday life, I finally received my medical paperwork from Raytheon - the company that will send me back to Antarctica in about 4 weeks (also the company that botched a bunch of high-tech anti-missile missile tests a few weeks ago - doh!) I lucked out at the hospital as a student of mine works there and spent about 5 hours with me translating and trying to help minimize the bureaucracy of the whole thing. It was a significantly less painful exercise than I feared it would be. In other words, it was possible. I was even able to turn the doctor - latex laden though he was - off of spelunking GW-no Fuketsu (Japanese for "my butt"). He took my word for the immaculate condition of my rectum. Well healthy anyway. Things have changed since the sazae aftermath. So I have sent in a stack of papers and faxes to Colorado all about teeth and blood and pee and eyeballs and knuckles, and spleens - all of it laden with great big signatures and kanji symbols possibly including something about flushing toilets but even if not it still looks very official. I am hoping it all looks so official that the National Science Foundation will give me the okay to join the ranks of the Ice Monkeys once again.

This is the part you should skip to if you only wonder what my plans are. Whoops! I guess I should have mentioned that earlier. I will take lots of time off in September to climb and explore and say good-bye and pack etc. In fact I only have 9 workdays left before I leave Japan on the 23rd of September. I expect to stop in Detroit to visit my coolest brother Gordo (if you don't know him - imaging John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski). Hopefully we'll go to a comedy venue I went to last summer. On the 24th I'll be back in New Jersey eating a cheese steak and riding a mountain bike. I'll have just under a week in the Philadelphia area to pack, visit friends, catch up on pop culture, undo any wrong doings with Raytheon, and get on the next plane on about the 1st of October. If you will be in my area at the end of September, please write me now so we can plan to hang out. Then I'll be in Denver for one night and day for a series of bureaucratic lectures about The Ice. Then I'll be shipped to Christchurch NZ where I'll have a stopover from between 0.5 and 12 days. I'm hoping for enough time to go skiing at least once. Presumably I'll be on The Ice during the first week of October. My birthday is on November 16th, and I'll be saying good-bye to the Twenties. You're invited to my party in Antarctica. It will be in Hut 10, McMurdo Station. Sorry I can't help with transportation, but if you make it to McMurdo, I'll pick you up at the airport. My contract is for about 4.5 months, but if I can get a good Winter contract, I'll stay another 8. If not, I would like to get a job for an NGO in South America. Have any contacts for me?

Hopefully my next report will be from home...


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