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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

MUFA Day#16: Ah Choo....and on to Aomori

I'm now on My Ultimate Fantasy Adventure Day#16 and will bullet train to Aomori for a couple of days  Today I will report on a problem plaguing Japan that was perpetrated with good intentions.  The cherry blossoms have largely peaked in those cities I have visited.  Aomori might be different.  Anyway, the Sakura and other Spring flowers cause you to sneeze.  However, and this is a surprise to most, at least 70% of the problem is man-made and comes from trees.  After World War II, the Japanese government intensified plantings of sugi, or Cryptomeria japonica, which is to the left, and another, hinoki, Japanese Cypress, to the right, to cover the war torn landscape and provide building material.    Bad idea.

At one time in their history, hay fever was rare in Japan.  However, in the 60's two things happened.  The timber industry was largely abandoned because of cost and these trees began to mature, sending off just the wrong kind of pollen (which has an effective radius of contagion of 200 miles), exacerbating respiratory allergies.  Up to a third of Japanese suffer from March through June, with the worst month being April, from kafun-sho, or pollen illness.  Here are 15 ways to survive this vexation.

You will see masks on the street, air purifiers at home and businesses, and a whole assortment of other remedies, including a battery-powered Kafun-Blocker, which sells for $40.

The worst part to the above is that it is too expensive to cut-down those trees, so suffering will continue through the Spring.  The "good" part is that airborne sugi pollution may peak around the year 2050 and will be definitely eliminated in a century or two.  And you thought Japan was only in trouble with Prime Minister Abe and Fukushima.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

MUFA Day#15: Sendai

I had a small Tokyo Westin breakfast:

Then caught the bullet train to Sendai, a ride of an hour and a half.  It's a leisurely ten minute walk to the Westin Sendai:

You can barely see the WESTIN at the top of the building.  I immediately noticed two things.  A hospital is across the street and there is a clinic next to the hotel.  Useful in case my arm worsens or I have another accident.  Perhaps I'll go visit the Emergency Room to see if everyone is wearing a mask.

My room was not ready so I went next door for a steak meal.  Strange.  I ordered the most expensive portion, and if someone told me this was the latest version of artificial steak made from bacteria, I would have said:  not bad, it is rubbery, but chewable, and almost has the taste of beef.  

The red wine was really cold, but drinkable.

I then took a short walk and took photos of street flowers:

There was also a Hawaiian Kitchen:

I finally got my room and can say that the Westin Sendai is the best hotel I'll see on this trip, and I think I'm only paying $45/night.  Hmmm...radiation?  The wall to the outside of my 32nd story room is a giant picture window:

The staff is unusually helpful and friendly, even for Japan, the room is large with a panoramic view and the amenities are tops.  The Executive Club is classy:

I got here just in time for the sunset, and had a Kir Royale with mixed nuts.  While the food assortment is limited, and there is no scotch, the room is beautiful and view incredible.  That was my dinner tonight.

What is Sendai today was inhabited 20,000 years ago, and became a city from around 1600.  The population is slightly smaller than Hawaii, at 1.1 million.  Just mentioning I'm from Hawaii in this city and people go into ecstatic wonderment.  

Sendai means a thousand Buddhist temples.  The city was leveled in World War II by bombing.  The coastal portion of the city, including the airport and port, was seriously damaged by that Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.  Sendai is about 50 miles from the leaking Fukushima nuclear reactors:

The city is best known for its Tanabata Festival in the summer, for which I came several years ago.  They also sponsor a Yosokoi Festival, as influenced by Kochi on Shikoku.  It's known for cow tongue (I'll skip that), robatayaki (rock barbecue) and miso ramen.  ARGHHH!!!  I just realized what my lunch was:  COW TONGUE!!!

I had breakfast at Symphony (and in a week or so I'll be on the Crystal Symphony on my way back to Honolulu):

There were three kinds of soups.  That salmon-colored item in the blue rectangular dish at the top is salmon.  On this trip every Japanese breakfast served salmon.  I wondered why and went to Google.  No answer.  My guess is that salted (refrigeration is a recent luxury) fish is a staple of breakfasts here, and salmon prevails at hotels because the color adds an aesthetic quality.  The salmon, or any fish, is not as salty today because it doesn't have to be anymore, and sodium is bad for the health.  My seat overlooked the Sendai Station:

I caught the Loople for $6/day, a bus service that takes you all around Sendai.  There are 15 stops, taking 75 minutes for the full loop, and at this time of year comes by every half an hour.  I could go on forever about my day, so let me only show from Tohoku University:

Same thing from different views.  Tohoku University has five campuses in Sendai, the third oldest Imperial University and is within the top 50 of best world universities.

One of the advantages of the Westin Sendai is that it is close to those enclosed shopping malls:

It gets very cold in this city, although today was sunny and 70 F.  After much internal debating, as I've had too much Japanese food, I decided to go international and got a bottle of Grand Kirin (6% alcohol) and a Spanish Tempranillo to accompany a Subway salami and potato chips to enjoy in my room:

All the above cost about $10 from shops in my building, for the hotel floors start on the 27th floor.  My final drink for the day was a Kir Royale in the Executive Club:

This was my cheapest day, for, including the $45/night room, I spent all of $65 today.  Tomorrow, on to Aomori, the home of those giant Japanese apples.


Monday, April 21, 2014


It is now 45 days since Malaysian Air 370 disappeared.  There is a growing fear that this craft might never be found.  For the record, those black boxes from the flight now the focus of attention are colored orange, and there are two of these.

Nearly a month ago I posted on:

At that time, the weight of information was 99% certainty that the plane crashed in the South Indian Ocean, a thousand miles or so west of Australia.  Apparently, searchers focused on:

After reviewing radar track data from neighboring countries, officials have concluded that the passenger jet curved north of Indonesia before turning south toward the southern Indian Ocean.

This was the beginning of the period when satellite data, primarily from FranceJapan and Thailand detected debris in various suspected locations.  Then a plane, plus a ship, from China, saw and picked up flotsam that, it turned out, had no link to the flight.  Thus, disappointment #1 was a lot of junk at sea but no connection to MAS 370.

Disappointment #2 began two weeks ago when a Chinese ship thought it detected two pings from a black box.   A couple of days later, the HMS Echo from the United Kingdom said it heard four pings.  This was followed by one last ping received by the Ocean Shield, an Australian navy vessel carrying some U.S. listening equipment.  The Chinese and Australian sounds are now being discredited.  What terrible timing, as the batteries of the black boxes were just just about running out of juice when these hopeful pings were heard.

Disappointment #3 is, thus far, the inability of Bluefin-21, an autonomous underwater vehicle, to find anything.  Again we are faced with the end limits, as the search area could be close to 15,000 feet deep, which is at the limit of this probe.  Anyway, the undersea search has just begun, and there remains considerable space to cover.

Disappointment #4 is that the oil slick found near the pings turned out not to be aircraft oil or hydraulic fluid.  Thus, not one bit of direct evidence.

Today, there are 11 planes and 12 ships searching the South Indian Ocean surface across 52,000 square miles.  After eight searches, the Bluefin-21 has covered, probably, less than a hundred square miles.  You think this effort could take, maybe, years?  And they're already thinking of giving up in a few days.

Perhaps the time has come to involve those Remus (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS) 6000 autonomous underwater vehicles.  They were developed by the Naval Oceanographic Office, the Office of Naval research and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and found Air France 447 in 2009.  It was, they said, like looking for a needle in a haystack, AND THEY PRETTY MUCH KNEW EXACTLY WHERE THE PLANE CRASHED IN THE ATLANTIC!  The latest Remus AUVs have a depth measuring potential of 6000 meters, thus this designation, or 19,685 feet.  The Bluefin-21 of Phoenix International, contracted to the United States Navy, only has a depth capability of 15,404 feet.

At some point, no doubt, authorities will need to come to grips about whether the data suggesting the Indian Ocean might be flawed, and the plane could be virtually anywhere else, land or sea.  Certainly, that 99% potential of finding MAS 370 has today dropped to perhaps 90%, and continues to fall as zero hard evidence has been confirmed from that location.  Mind you, a racehorse at 1:10 is almost a sure winner, so even at these lower odds, the chances remain good that success should still be reasonably close at hand.

However, the total absence of any concrete linkage brings back the full range of conspiracy theories.  Click on Wikipedia to read this summary.  I had my list, but some of those options were too far beyond the pale to deserve any more mention.  Not trying to rub it in to CNN, but about that "black hole" theory:

Stanford University physics professor Peter Michelson (right), added that if the plane had been swallowed up by a black hole, "a lot of other things would be missing as well," like "probably the Earth." So we can safely put that theory to rest.

The authorities will now, again, take a closer look at discounted input, such as the flaming plane  seen crashing from an oil rig in the South China Seas.  The matter of no mobile phone calls would argue for something dramatic and instantaneous happening, where the flight made this first quick left turn while in the Gulf of Thailand could well be where the plane went down:

Malaysian Air 370 might well become the greatest air mystery ever.

Of some concern is Tropical Cyclone Jack, currently at 90 MPH, projected to bring big waves to the search area:

While the air search has been suspended, apparently the ships will continue their efforts.  Interesting that the only region forming hurricane-like storms over the past month around the globe has been in this general portion of the South Indian Ocean.



I spent My Ultimate Fantasy Adventure Day#14 near my hotel.  The Tokyo Westin opened 20 years ago when Yebisu Garden Place, a high class shopping complex, first opened for business.  I remember staying here that first week, and have returned at least 25, if not 50 times.  

Mount Fuji would be to the left of that building, if not for the haze and clouds.   That's Robuchon's to the bottom right, where I had dinner a couple of nights ago.  The food in this hotel is very expensive,  although not close to that French restaurant, but everything at the Executive Club is free, and the view wonderful.  Almost half my dinners are held here.  Finally, I love the toilet, with a washlet:

Your rear and front can take a nice shower. Plus the toilet seat is warm.  These systems are now pretty much utilized throughout Japan.  In contrast, the toilet seat in Seoul is freezing cold.

I've been observing Japanese girls all my life, and can offer the following insights:
  • Seventy-seven percent of working women bleach and color their hair.  Ah, but it was 85% in 2001.  About 25% of men, also.  I wonder what will be their hair condition 25 years from now?  

          Will we have a nation of mostly bald senior citizens some day here?
  • Many stand on a train without holding on to anything.  Why?
    • To prove that they are superior and more stable than men.
    • Cause they are afraid of germs.
          The answer?  They are afraid of germs, for who knows whose filthy hands held on to those things that hang from a subway train.  Same for rails on stairways.

Many Japanese wear surgical masks.  Most are white, but the variety is wide:

This has everything to do with sickness, fear of catching a sickness, air pollution from China, allergies, to prevent allergies and so on.  Virtually everyone in a hospital wears one.  You think there might be an over-obsession for sterility here?  I might have been the only one in the Kyoto Emergency Room without one.  Also:

  1. They’re not wearing any makeup and want to hide their face.
  2. To keep their face warm (it is chilly these days).

  3. To make their face look smaller.

  4. It comforts them.

  5. To keep their throat from drying while sleeping (like on a train).

What can I say worse about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?  Today he sent a decorative tree to Yasukuni Shrine.  Here is the sign signifying this masakaki offering. This will no doubt royally tick off Asian countries and place a wet blanket over President Barack Obama's arrival tomorrow.

Let me end with what I ate today, a popular feature of this blog site.  First, I had breakfast in my hotel:

My big train trip of the day was standing in the front train on a full circle of the Yamanote (confusingly, the Japanese characters are such that the announcer pronouces it "Yamate") green line, first operated in 1885.  It is 21 miles long and serves Tokyo like the 495 beltway (64 miles long) does to road traffic in DC.  There are 29 stations (for the first time in 40 years, a 30th station will be added, with construction beginning this year between Shinagawa and Tamachi, to become an international center, linking the site with Haneda Airport)  and it takes around an hour for the complete loop, serving 3.68 million per day.  

Actually, the shape is not a circle, but a kind of diamond ring.  In comparison, the London Underground carries 3.36 million passengers per day on 12 lines serving 275 stations.

For dinner I was torn between Lawry's Prime Rib, which just opened yesterday across the street from my hotel, or picking up items at Mitsukoshi, next to Lawry's.  I took a photo of the beef prices here:

 That most expensive version to the right is equivalent to $229/pound.  When did you ever spend more than $20 per pound?

 I entirely skipped the steak and bought items for my room meal:

If you look closely, there are two things missing.  No chopsticks and no soy sauce.  This the first time in my life I had sashimi with no shoyu.  That tsukemono (Japanese pickles) to the right had more than enough salt.  Plus those musubis were very high in sodium.  Lawry's would have cost me more than a hundred bucks.  The above feast set me back $25.  I was also hoping to see Mount Fuji from my room.  

However, I instead watched on TV the 101-year old Takarazuka Review perform Gone with the Wind.  This is a women's group first made famous in the USA in a 1957 movie starring Marlon Brando, Sayonara, where he falls in love with a member of this troupe, played by Machiko Kyo.  Rotten Tomatoes reviewers gave this film a 100% rating.

Back to the TV program, how can a female play Clark Gable, you say?  Well, here with Scarlett O'Hara to the right:

Of course, you recognize Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, becoming the first African American to ever win an Oscar.

Many TV channels have no commercials, including the USA version of CNN.  American Major League Baseball games are shown easily, live, if not two or three, and these also have no commercials.  In between innings, the Japanese newscasters analyze each play. There is a button to convert to the language you wish.  Lots of karaoke programs and too much soccer.  Watched a bit of American Idol last night.  Next year there will be conversion of standard broadcasts to ultra high definition.  If you know anything about cameras, the quality will be 33 megapixels.  Compared to your 1080-pixel resolution, you will get 3840.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

MUFA Day#13: Fukushima

How appropriate that on the My Ultimate Fantasy Adventure Day #13 I find myself in Fukushima, the site of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.  This was a fancy Shinkansen combo that got me from Tokyo:

I was welcomed by a hula halau:

This group comes regularly comes to Hawaii. 

I checked into catching a cab to get a close-up photo of the nuclear disaster, but this station is 50 miles away, and the roundtrip cost could have been up to $500 if I could find a driver.  However you can't get close anyway because of these restriction zones:

However, there is a bus that gets close, and then a cheaper taxi ride.  Return on Day 16 for that possibility.

In any case, I did visit a display on the Restoration of Fukushima, and met with Kouichi Yoshihara of the Japan Nuclear Safety Institute.  He provided some information in English and said he would send me additional data by e-mail.  Perhaps in a few days I'll summarize these references, for they are extensive and up to date.  As you know, the people of the region continue to get shockingly new information about how terrible the effect has been on them, and getting worse.  Just today in the Japan Times the manager of Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor admitted, with some embarrassment, that the radioactive water problem IS OUT OF CONTROL!!!

However, enough of all that.  Here are some minor silver linings:  photos on the street next to the Fukushima Station:

To drown my woes, I bought the best sake from Fukushima and on my Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo drank the whole bottle with a truly excellent assortment of sushi:

If you were wondering about the sake glass, I carefully quaffed it like beer, certainly aberrant if you live here, but a lot more efficient nevertheless.  All the above cost $25.