At the Zoo

Before today, the last time I was at a zoo would have been at some point before 1991. The exact date is long forgotten, as school trips tend to be about experiences more than anything else, but I do remember the smell of the school bus and the ceaseless noise of classmates who were way too happy to be on a field trip. This changed today when Reiko and I decided to bring the boy to the Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya, where he would get to see a bunch of animals up close for the very first time.

Nagoya's Higashiyama Zoo - East Gate

This spring has seen the boy get quite a bit of exposure to crowded places, which he's long been uncomfortable with. At first it was weekly trips to the mall, where he would get to eat in a busy place with an endless number of distractions. Later we brought him to busy park grounds where he'd get to share space and toys with others. Last weekend we brought him to the アンパンマンミュージアム1 in the next prefecture over, where he seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly. Today's visit to the zoo was going to be a continuation of the boy's introduction to life in Japan, and it couldn't have gone better.

A lot of young kids can be quite quiet and shy when out and about. This has certainly been true with the boy, who is unrestrained and loud at home or in the car but silent and reserved when in public. However, over the last couple of day trips, he's been able to loosen up and enjoy himself while visiting new places. He loves to dance and sing, so seeing him do this outside is a good sign.

One of the other benefits of having him explore a crowd is seeing just how different he is from other kids. I sometimes get frustrated with his desire to touch darn near everything he sees, but the fact that he doesn't throw objects, (intentionally) spill food on the floor, or cause trouble is a great thing. He sees other kids jumping off chairs and fighting over some small object and tells them -- to no effect -- to stop. At some point he'll likely start testing the boundaries of what he can get away with while outside, just as he does at home. Until then, I'll enjoy his good behaviour and look forward to bringing him to more places.

  1. The Anpanman Kid's Museum, which is more a place for parents to spend money than for kids to learn anything.

The Tree

Eight years and one month ago, I was sitting under the tree in this picture. It's located in the centre of a green zone reminiscent of New York's Central Park within Nagoya's Sakae district. The reason I was sitting under this tree eight years ago was because I had an interview with my current employer and, being the nervous person I am, needed to kill two hours. Whenever I go to a new place, I try to arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of time to accommodate any unexpected problems that could crop up and, because this was a new country with a different language, I wanted the extra time.

The Tree

On this particular day, I had been in the country for six weeks and was still very much a stranger in a strange land. Everything was new, and this was the first time I had travelled to the city of Nagoya without any sort of escort. Nobody that I knew were there to make sure I went to the right place, and this was before the time of realistic mobile data plans. I did have an HP iPaq, of course, but there was no public WiFi anywhere to be found. It was a simpler time.

Aside from the job interview in front of me, two interesting things took place on this day. First, a pigeon decided to relieve its bowels on me, and second, a stranger asked me to hold onto his bag while he ran to a bathroom underground.

Every time I come to the Sakae office for my employer, I am reminded of this day.

Smoke and Mirrors

Every so often, time permitting, I will leave the day job to sit at a local chain cafe around the corner from the office I work. While I do earn the majority of my paycheque in a classroom, a large part of my day involves writing reports and providing information to various people in the region. Thanks to an odd confluence of technical proficiency with technical occlusion, I'm able to do the vast majority of my non-classroom duties from just about anywhere in the world. For all my rages with the employer, my unique role within the company affords a little flexibility from time to time. So here I am today, a little less than an hour away from a meeting with HQ, sitting at a shop that is the ultimate expression of life in Nagoya: Komeda Coffee.

Komeda Coffee

According to a plaque on the wall, this particular location was opened a few months after I was born and, outside of the air conditioner and touch-screen register at the counter, very little seems to have changed. The chairs are a signature design that I've only ever seen at Komeda. Red and functional, the seats all carry the signature look of wear from years of use. Despite the mandatory separation of smoking and non-smoking sections, the smell of tobacco permeates the air and contributes to the establishment's appearance of being a place for weary people to simply disappear for a while. Businessmen snooze in their booths, laptops open and cold coffee forgotten in front of them. The vast majority of screens showing either a colourful spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel or the landing page of Yahoo! Japan. Students from some of the many colleges in the area come and go, some intent on studying their books while others study their friends.

Standing back and looking at the entire scene before me, this is exactly what I see when thinking about the industrial city of Nagoya. This part of the country is practically financed entirely by the auto industry and nothing is done quickly. Business deals are the formalisation of hundreds or thousands of decisions. Decisions require a great amount of data. Data is recorded into Excel regardless of how appropriate the tool might be, and data takes a long time to collect. There are most certainly times when people must rush to meet various deadlines … but not here. People come here, to this particular Komeda to disappear. People come here to shut the world out for thirty minutes to an hour. To collect their thoughts before returning once again to the world outside.

This is the same reason I am here today. The offensive burn of cigarette smoke in my nose is not enough to keep me away from the escape I feel soon after walking through the twin doors at the front of the shop. There are better, cleaner, newer cafes that serve better, cheaper, smoother coffee in the neighbourhood, of course, and I frequent those places quite often, too. But there's something interesting about this place that brings me back every so often when I'm just looking for an escape from the everyday.

Midland Square at High Noon

While killing some time between classes today I thought it would be nice to sit outside and watch the people go by. I took this picture outside of Nagoya station on the west side. As the picture suggests, the weather was perfect for this sort of pastime.

Nagoya Station - Midland Square

I should get out and do this more often.

Midland Square at Dusk

Midland Square is one of the tallest buildings in central Nagoya, towering above the rest of the city and visible from 10 km away1. There always seems to be some party taking place on the top floor on Fridays, and the double-stacked elevators can always be seen ferrying people up and down the massive building of glass and steel regardless of the hour.

Midland Square at Dusk

One day I hope to attend one of the Friday parties, just to say I've been there.

The Nagoya Hershey's Kiss

I really don't know what else to call this swirling work of art, so "Hershey's Kiss" it is. Although you can't see it at night, there is a fountain under the metal bars which is on during hot days. The wind tunnel effect that occurs in many cities carries the mist from the fountain around the area and provides a small amount of relief on the hot and humid days … which should be starting any time now.

Nagoya's Hershey's Kiss

I can already feel my electronics protesting the hostile operational environment they'll find themselves in …

Nagoya Station in 1957

Nagoya Station (1957) | 名古屋駅前 昭和34年

Nagoya sure has changed a lot since 1957 ….

Nagoya's Meijo Line Owes Me 34,700円

Nagoya's Meijo LineThere are several things that I like about the public transportation system in Japan.  It's almost always on time, relatively quick, and clean enough that we don't have to examine the seats for various unpleasantries before sitting down.  Very rarely do I ever have a problem with the system which has become my most effective means of transportation around the country.  That said, there are some exceptions to the rule; particularly when it comes to Nagoya's circular Meijo Subway Line.

The Meijo Line got its start in 1965 with a stretch of track from Sakae to Shiyakusho, and by March, 1974 it had further expanded to run from Ozone to Aratama-bashi, finally reaching its current state in 1994. The final link in the Meijo Loop was completed a decade later, allowing trains to travel in continuous circles, rather than having to cycle back.  The Nagoya City Subway has invested vast sums of money into their system and strives to meet the fluctuating demand for trains as time goes on.

That said, some very simple design flaws make the Meijo Line particularly frustrating for anyone that needs to transfer to another vehicle; be it another subway line, a train, or a bus.  The problem isn't one of location, nor of train frequency, though … it's timing.  The Meijo Line consistently misses connections at key transfer points by as little as 30 seconds, leaving hundreds of people waiting between 7 and 9 minutes for the next subway train to arrive, 16 to 30 minutes for the next above-ground train, and 15 to 40 minutes for the next bus.  While this may not sound like an awful lot of time for most people, it adds up very quickly over the space of one month.  In my case, I spend close to two hours a month just waiting for a train.  That translates into roughly 24 hours a year, or 34,700円.

Of course, the importance of a lowly English Language Instructor is so minimal that it doesn't even register on Radar, but there must be people who are far more important that I who have become frustrated by the excessive and unnecessary wait times we're forced to endure at the various Meijo Line stations.  Which is why after some scheduling and planning, I've devised a way the Meijo Line can be far more efficient for the people who use it.

110 Seconds and a Sign

Gone in 30 Seconds …Quite often when people are transferring from the Higashiyama Line to the Meijo, they miss the connection by 30 seconds or so.  When I examine the schedules for both the Higashiyama and the Meijo Lines, it seems that there is a fundamental flaw in how much time people have to get from one platform to another.  The same problem is seen with the Sakura Dori Line and, to a lesser extent, the Tsurumai Line.  However, if the Meijo Line starts 110 seconds later in the day and moves all of it's scheduled arrival times back by the same number of seconds, then there will be a much greater chance of people going from one connection to another without excessive wait times.  Heck, when it comes to my schedule, my two hours per month of wait time would be cut back to only 27 minutes!

But, naturally, the world does not revolve around me … yet.

Going further, one of the big issues that passengers have when they transfer to or from the Meijo Line is that no signs exist stating how much time there is between until a transfers' departure.  Coming off the Meijo, if we can see there is only 30 seconds before our train or bus is to leave, then people would be less likely to push and shove past the throngs of incessantly slow pedestrians.  Unlike most train stations where the staircases allow slow-moving people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder in rows of five, the Meijo Line staircases are serious bottle-necks, allowing only two people to march upwards.  This means that the most impatient of us need to have several contingency plans in place to get past the innumerable hordes of mobile obstacles.

How people manage to do this day-in and day-out in the larger cities like Osaka and Tokyo is beyond me, as I'd likely suffer a severe case of claustrophobia and start swinging wildly until strapped into a straight-jacket.  Either that, or I'd buy a car and complain about congestion, parking, and cyclists who get in my way….

Alas, I'm getting off topic.

Do you see problems like this with other transit systems in Japan?  Have you ever sat down to see just how much time you've wasted waiting for a bus or train that shouldn't have left without you in the first place?  Am I just too tightly wound and making a mountain out of a mole hill regarding the Meijo Line?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Vous parlez Français, lui aussi?

An odd thing happened on Friday: my "Get out of English Free" card didn't work.

Friday evening, while I was making the trek from 本山駅 to 名古屋駅, I was stuck on the subway with a bunch of over-active high school girls.  Like most high school girls, these kids were loud, laughing, and causing a scene.  Being the only foreigner within reaching distance, they decided that it would be a good opportunity to tease one of their friends until she spoke to me.  After just a few minutes, she finally caved in and the conversation went a little bit like this:

Girl: "Hello. My name is Rika."

Me: "Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas l'anglais." (and, as you can see, I don't speak French very well, either)

Girl: "Oh, vous parlez français? Êtes-vous de France? J'adore la France. Je veux voir Paris l'année prochaine."


One of the tried and tested bastard techniques that I've used over the last two years to avoid speaking English to the random person on the train (especially anyone female, regardless of age) has been subverted by a multi-lingual teenager!  Luckily she got off at the next stop and none of the other energetic girls tried to strike up a conversation.

I don't mind talking to strangers on the train.  Really, I don't.  Heck, I met Kenji by asking him the time two years ago.  That said, there's just something about talking to a bunch of random kids with more energy than the Large Hadron Collider that wears me out.  Perhaps it's the lack of energy a full-time employee has by 7 PM on a Friday … I don't know.

Has anything like this happened to you? Do you have your own techniques for avoiding conversations without appearing like a "mean foreigner"?

Why is Tuition So High Again?

Every week I take a walk through 名古屋大学 (Nagoya University) on the way to a customer's office, and every week I'm more amazed with what I find around the campus.

The school has some pretty intelligent people, and I talk to many who are on their way to a Ph.D. or Doctorate in astrophysics, environmental studies, microbiology, and all sorts of other very interesting subjects.  Many of these people have told me time and time again how frustrated they're getting with the constantly rising tuitions.  When asked about what the rising tuitions are being put towards the answer is usually along the lines of "わからない" (I don't know).

That said, I know what the tuitions aren't being put towards….

Tall Grass at Nagoya University