September 28, 2010

An attitude towards social events

I had to scan this comment from the public column of Ammulehti (28.9.2010), the local newspaper in Tampere. It tells forthrightly what some Finns think about social activities.

For background information, someone was apparently irritated at people who didn't join the voluntary activities that happen within the housing association (cleaning the yard, raking up the fallen leaves, etc.) and wrote about it to the public column. This was the reply:
"Voluntary work: don't you social voluntary-addicts try to enforce us who are less social to your yard events because we won't participate, no way! Everyone is not interested in chattering and beer drinking with neighbors. Arrant greeting is enough. Neighbors are not my buddies or friends. - Resident"
What do you think? Is this normal or more like a self ensconce? I was little surprised about the text. Why not be social and have a good relationship with your neighbors, assuming that they are good folk? Can't hurt too much. And if one feels less social, how about going to practice the skill at voluntary events where mortification is less likely. The truth is, after all, that in life social skills are as important as any.

In spite the comment, I hope that people with an attitude like this are a minority.







September 17, 2010

Good bye Japan! Part 3

The beauty of Shimanto River allured us for little longer before falling asleep. The following day dawned sunny and warm at the camping area. Conditions were ideal for a canoe tour. Shortly, after a quick breakfast, we had moved to the riverside and paddled down the rapids.

Though the river looks calm here, rougher parts were strong enough to flip canoes upside down and soak us several times. Taking a camera would have been the end of it. Canoeing was a great fun and fun is good, but sorry no photos to show about it.

The afternoon came with an unexpected invitation. A party from the barbecue cottage near our tent signaled us to join in for a dinner. A man who introduced himself as Shiba had brought an appealing range of local delicacy to the table, and they were about to start the barbecue. He had first planned to share the provisions with his Japanese friends. But as he had turned over few cans of malt juice his social restrictions had dissolved. So there we were sitting around a glowing fireplace with the local villager Shiba and a family of four from Kyoto. Supper included salted sweetfish, eel dipped in a thick black soy-based sauce, sweet water crabs, and a bunch of region’s summer harvest.

As much as it was possible to understand from his accent, he was a boss in a construction company, and had only recently recovered from a heart attack. He’s offering was simply a courtesy and so was the breakfast next morning that he offered to prepare though we’d done nothing to deserve it. That and several other incidents support my image that the unconditional politeness of Japanese is even more overwhelming at the countryside.

Leaving Shimanto River behind, and following the guides that Shiba had narrated, we headed towards Mt. Ishizuchi, the highest mountain in Western Japan. By a height of 1,982 meters it’s barely a midget on international comparison. Nevertheless some peculiar features make it well worth climbing.

As we got deeper inland and away from the civilization, settlements gave away to thick, green forests. Some houses stood sparsely next to the windy mountain road. At first look they seemed normal, but a creepy feeling crawled in when we passed them slowly. They were abandoned long ago and left in a run-down condition: weed overgrew from the garden like a travesty of a tidy Japanese garden. Whole plots were gradually being covered with wild forest. Dismayingly many of the wooden shacks were accompanied by a family grave, still new enough to have a shiny granite surface. Rural depopulation, one of Japan’s glooming problems overhung concretely in that area.

The campsite was located past the spooky parts still long way in to the dark shadows of the forest. As if the atmosphere wasn’t spine-chilling enough it started to rain and heavy rainclouds descended into the valley we were driving in.

Upon arrival we didn't meet a single soul - probably a result of the unpromising weather and the fact that it was a working day, or because the area swarmed with horrendous creatures who capture occasional travellers for their hellish feasts. Well that's quite unlikely...
- Gaa! What's that gray, hairy creature running over there behind the trees?!
- What? Where? Ah, that. It's just a harmless macaca fuscata.
- Macaca... what??
- Macaca fuscata, is the Latin name for Japanese monkeys.
- Oh, I see.

It still rained when Yumiko and I drove the tent poles down and put up the tent. Unable to do much we resolved on staying in the tent and just wait for the rain to stop. It rained persistently, so that waiting changed into waiting for the night to come. Night came and rain continued. Some heavy water drops were rattling onto the tent's rain cover, and eventually small dribbles leaked in. Blop... blop... drip...

We'd already buried the idea of climbing; on heavy rain it would be too dangerous and visibility too bad. But to our surprise, the morning took a better direction; our pillows were soaked but the weather seemed to clear up. So we decided to make a rise, despite the possibility of slippery rocks and occasional showers.

Quite surprisingly one can find a Shrine from the peak adjacent to Mt. Ishizuchi. Building materials and part of the daily supplies are brought up by a helicopter. Apart from praying from a place to pray for good weather, which we engaged for, the complex offers hot meals and beds for overnight climbers.

Wondering how they get to work every morning, I exchanged a few words with one of the three staff members. He explained that he goes down once in three or four days. "Now I've worked here for two years. And if my counting is correct I've climbed this mountain about 250 times," he modestly concluded. Remember this man if you think commuting to your work is inconvenient.

Later the weather turned fantastic, clouds scattered and then vanished totally. Hah, we conquered that wicked land mass!

Completing this meant that we had a long drive up to Nagoya. And before actually reaching Nagoya for our flight, we still stopped at several points, ate the famous udon of Tokushima, and also met with bunch of friends. But on the whole this was it and now we are in Finland. How lovely.

September 14, 2010

Good bye Japan! Part 2

As the sun rose, the first tent night came to an end. Probably we had dreamed of the same thing: an inflatable mattress. The 5 mm thick sleeping mat did not give much comfort, as it was all we had. But that was fixed by a deep, bone-cracking stretch - yes, far from the elegance of the salute to sun by yoga pros, but anyways enough to get us going.

The final destination for the day was Shimanto River (四万十川). It's said to be one of the purest and most beautiful natural rivers in all of Japan. The name composes of characters that literally mean "forty-thousand and ten rivers", which to my guess, is the number of tributary rivers that run to the main stream. The reason why Shimanto River is regarded special is because, unlike most major rivers, it is just about free of concrete dams, and therefore it serves as a habitat for various species including freshwater crabs, black eels and ayus (sweetfishes).

On the way there it was a must to pull out at several picturesque spots dotted along the southern coast of Shikoku. One of them was Cape Ahizuri, at the most southern tip of Shikoku. It's a place where waves of the North Pacific Ocean clash to the rugged bluffs that tower dozens of meters up directly from the sea.

Shikoku Pilgrimage. Have you ever heard of Shikoku Pilgrimage? In a nutshell, it is a course that circulates all the 88 Buddhist temples in Shikoku. When completed, one has also gone around the whole island. The loop is approximately 1,200 km (746 mi) long and takes anything between 4 to 8 weeks to get through. Many people do it to find them selves, some do it for religious reasons, some to enjoy the stunning scenes of Shikoku, and some to escape their situation in life. All the same, is a very demanding course, or what do you think about walking in pouring rain for one week, and then under a piercing sunshine for another? People who embark on this journey have made a choice to leave their ordinary life and therefore they are well respected by townspeople.

For some unknown reason the whole idea intrigued me right after reading about it. At a quiet beach called Ooki we came across with a henro. Henro is a person on a pilgrimage. They typically wear white linen, a straw hat and a bamboo stick. But the fellow we met had a laundry day. He was 22 years old, and tramping just for the experience.

"I study in Vancouver Island, Canada but now it's summer break. In Canada, with all the wildlife and uninhabited areas, these kind of walks can be dangerous. So I decided to go around the 88 Shikoku temples," he explained.

"I've walked for about a month and made it to half way. But with all the walking my shoes wore out so yesterday I bought a new pair," he said pointing at the new sneakers.

After chattering for some time, we decided to run into the sea to get pounded by some grand waves. Later we wished him well and begun the drive towards Shimato River.

Reaching the campsite before the nightfall, it was still possible to enjoy the beauty of this sanctuary of nature. The following day was reserved for kayaking down the shallow stream so we ought to get some Zzz.

Several other tents stood at the campground. One of them was a tiny one-man's tent accompanied by a touring bike. As I admired this well equipped cycle and the micro light tent, the owner of the tent came to me and said, "You would never guess where I come from!" Well, I couldn't guess so he revealed he had pedaled all the way from Sapporo, Hokkaido. "I've been on the road since mid-June, which is about two months." His feet spoke the truth: with such a tan line obviously he had spent some time out.

Surprised from this we had a long conversation. He's plan was to cycle around the major Islands in Japan before returning home. As for his occupation he worked at a ski field, and being a skiing instructor allowed him to spend the summers travelling. With a cheerful voice and a big smile he said, "I'm only 60." That day he'd rode 150 km.

The sun finally sat and the day was over. In this remote valley, hemmed in by mountains and ran over by a serene river, the atmosphere was indescribable. As darkness took over, masses of mayflies rose up to the street lamps for a late-evening hodgepodge.

Dead before sunrise, the lifespan of an adult mayfly can vary from just 30 minutes to one day depending on the species. These insects, also called one–day flies, are born only for one single purpose - reproduction, which makes me wonder what other purposes we humans possess...

September 11, 2010

The basic ingredient,

More and more people seem to be carrying a pro or a semi pro camera these days. Those cameras come with an interchangeable lens. And unexceptionally those lenses allow to use filters. But is a filter really necessary?

The imperative of shooting with a filter (in this case a circular polarizing filter) is to reduce glare of any surface. Glare is a harsh uncomfortably bright light. Take a look at the two photos below to see the difference (click to enlarge).

As you've probably noted, the one on the right has been shot with a filter. It has more intense colors like the sky's blue and vegetation's green. Also the water-surface is clearly transparent and has only little glare.

Using filters is easy and can be done by anyone. They are sold in most stores that sell cameras. Prices vary according to the quality and size, but they are all affordable. Just be sure to check the diameter of the lens, so you have a filter that fits to your objective. For example Sigma in my case tells to use a filter size of 62 mm. Installing is done with a few turns: the filter screws in to the lens. Using is almost automatic.

Necessary - not, but highly recommended! An investment in a filter is a quick step for a grade better photos.

September 9, 2010

Goodbye Japan! Part 1

Sigh! Said good bye Japan on Aug 5.

It was one of the best years of my life. But the chapter of Japan isn't over yet. I refuse to close it. Why? Oh, no, I don't miss working 10 hours a day, neither do I miss dehydrating at +35 degrees, nor the uninvited cockroaches. What then? In one word, there are too many good people I like and miss too much! And the fix? Reopen and continue the Japan chapter one day.

What happened to everyone else?

Some of the other exchange students had sad postings about the way back, and how they had dealt with or fought against their emotions. I bet part of their thoughts are pulling them back to Japan. Also I believe they see their home countries in a different light. While some of the lucky ones still were continuing their exchange, a new batch of students arrive to Oita and starting their studies. I wish all the best for them!

How about our journey back?

For me the worst phase was the three-hour bus ride from Helsinki to home. In all its emptiness it characterizes Finland accurately: straight roads, flat landscapes, nothing to see but trees that swoosh past the bus window. Add the fact that only a handful of passengers occupy the bus.

This is alone country where it is easy to yearn for something else (like Japan). But as always, we get used to it. The short days, cold nights and rainy mornings are temporary. And even in those grey days there is some everyday-aestheticism and peace. Picture: sitting at the morning breakfast table looking outside and holding a steaming cup of honey tea with both hands. Outside the first snow quietly falls down. Those moments... Ok, ok I admit it. I'm a Finn and I suck at being poetic.

Let's go back in time and see what happened in Japan before our departure.

It was just last month but feels like a long forgotten dream already. The internship finished and was followed by a farewell party. We had a great time whole night. The boss's characterful wife was there too. She made the evening unforgettable. First of all her straight talk made me drink more than I can remember. She drove us from place to another with a caravan of taxis, offered farewell gifts more than I could carry with two hands, and well, paid the fun. I can't thank enough her and all the people that took part! Back at the student dorm, though it was almost morning, I met a familiar group: Zach, Victor, Amash, Kelly and Yuta who were having a party of some sort and chatting at the lobby entrance. Couldn't resist a talk with them. That night ended up being all but sleeping.

Gaa! We had to move on the next day!

On the morning after the get-together, which resulted in worse futsuka-yoi (hangover) than all the nomikai's (company drinking parties) combined, Yumiko and I had to empty the apartment from all the stuff that had piled up during the year. The moving day, which was Saturday, was blessed with an unimaginably hot weather. Later it resolved that it was the beginning of the hottest summer in Japan in over 110 years. Soaked in sweat that was partly caused by the trembling hangover and partly by the frying sunshine, I hoped for Superman to come and carry the moving boxes out and into our car.

I guess Superman was busy ironing his red cape, but instead Soren (Danish exchange student who currently studies in Tokyo), Yuta (the International House assistant and a student in Oita Uni.), and Raymond, (a Japanized professor who teaches in Oita Uni. and APU) came to give us a hand.

The room that had served us cozily for 11 months and faithfully provided a continuous flow of cockroaches was finally empty. I might even say we left it in better condition than what it was when we moved in. Then early on the following morning, without a proper good bye we left off to Saiki, a small city south of Oita, to catch a ferry over the Inland Sea to the island of Shikoku. The sun was already high as the ferry took of from the port of Saiki. We waived a goodbye to Oita from the deck.

Away from Oita

Our car, the compact Toyota Isto from Yumiko's parent's, aka Silver Bullet, was to take us crisscross Shikoku. First destination was a tiny island called Kashiwajima at the south-western coast. In all its quietness the idyllic town and the waters that surround the island offer some of the best diving spots in Japan. To my eyes the water was admittedly clearer than anywhere else in Japan, and a glimpse beneath the surface proved it: the reefs bustle with colorful sea life. We intended to camp there for one night, though Kashiwajima offers a lot to explore for several days.

Let me telly you how I almost drowned there.

We had mounted our tent on Kashiwajima's end, right next to where two bridges connect the island to the mainland of Shikoku. On the same spot a lovely beach half surrounds the free camping area. 

It didn't take long after we were swimming at this narrow water passage in between. Again, the water was unbelievably clear. But soon we figured that without diving goggles it was no fun. "It would be nice to rent two snorkeling gear sets," said Yumiko, and pointed at a diving shop on the opposite shore. I was already splashing in the water and reckoned that the quickest way to get to the store was to swim over the strait.

Oh man, great idea! I swam three quarters of the 90-meter water passage with ease. Soon I'd be on the other side, I anticipated. Not quite so. To my grief in the remaining 10 meters the current turned extreme and started to drift me to the open sea! The more I crawled the stronger the current became. Obviously the deepest part of the strait had been on the farside, and what is more the tide was vast on time of the day. Nobody, not even Yumiko had noticed the danger I was in. Out of options and in panic I concentrated my efforts and propelled forward, but also away from the shore ahead.

Suddenly a rock that was about half a meter below the surface appeared and I got a hold of it. The rock's surface was covered entirely by seashells as sharp as thousand razors. My hands and feet were totally gashed in deep cuts as I struggled to get a grip of the stone.

Laboring my self up to dry land and getting to an upright position, I looked down and saw my hands, knees and feet dripping allover in a mixture of blood and sea water. It must have been an eye dropping sight for the dive shop keeper when I knocked on their door. And it would have been better to ask for bandages rather than for some snorkeling gear. Snorkeling and relaxing at the same time was quite impossible after this dreadful event.

Evening came and we withdrew to our brown tent, given by us by Lei Lei a Chinese grad student. Still keeping the zipper door open we enjoyed an amazing sunset. No, I will never attempt to swim across a strait again...

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