High and Low

I'm not quite sure what to do with this new found information....

I’m not quite sure what to do with this new found information….

Having lived in the Tokyo for quite a few months now, I have noticed something that seems to be common place around subways in Tokyo. I noticed that at a lot of entrances to the subways, there are signs that display the level above sea level that the subway is. I decided to search around and find out why. Turning to Google, in this information age is of course a no-brainer. So typing vigorously into Google to find an answer to my curiosity, I searched and searched. Unfortunately, I came up pretty empty handed. It seems that there isn’t much about this on the internet, at least not anywhere that I can seem to find. The closest thing I found was a blog post about Yokohama posting signs in neighborhoods that declared the level above sea level that any given place was at, for all places under 10 meters above sea level. If I had to guess, I would say that, like the blog said for the signs in Yokohama, the signs are probably part of precautionary measures in case of earthquakes, and more specifically, tsunamis.
This is just one more aspect of how mountainous and volcanic Japan has to live with the constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. It might be interesting to investigate some other ways that the natural disasters that are common to Japan might affect the country in political, economic, and even cultural ways.

Ueno Zoo

It was a couple of weeks ago when I took my family to see the famous Ueno Zoo, and while the park is large, spacious and green, I encountered something that bothered me. The problem of animal rights is one that I don’t often talk about, or even think about, however, what I saw at the zoo was a bit appalling. Many of the animals were in very cramped and sometimes dirty spaces, with not nearly enough room to move around. It seemed to me the equivalent of trying to keep a dolphin in a fish tank sometimes. For instance, the elephant enclosure was very small, and in spite of the fact that three elephants inhabited that space, the area was not large enough for them to move very freely. It worries me that the lack of space given to the animals in this zoo may be a factor that could adversely affect the animals’ health. I am also curious as to Japanese views on the idea of standards for animal captivity, and what, if any laws govern the practice. The attached photograph is one I took of a pygmy hippopotamus, in a very small tank. The animal kept swimming around his very small tank, not nearly large enough for such a large animal. Although the zoo is very old, I think much more should be done to make sure these animals have sufficient space, and clean enough facilities to live in comfortably. The quality of the photo may leave something to be desired, but it was taken with my iPhone.

The pygmy hippo in his small enclosure

The pygmy hippo in his small enclosure

Spring has arrived in Japan

A tree blooms in Saitama

A tree blooms in Saitama

When one thinks of Japan, they are likely to think of grand temples, Zen gardens, and perhaps Sumo wrestling. However, there is a lot of knowledge to be gained by looking at blossoms in Japan. Yes, it seems a bit ridiculous to think that flowers can teach us something about Japanese society and culture, but indeed they can.

After cold, harsh winters, many people around the world revel in the warmth and renewal of Spring. After all, it isn’t just Japan that sees this season as a time of renewal, hope and rebirth. However, there is something special about the place Sakuranbo, or cherry blossoms, hold in Japanese culture. I think it has a lot to do with a Buddhist outlook on nature, and on life. Before I come to that, I would like to talk a moment about my own experiences with the blossoms in Japan.

I’ll never forget the first time I really experienced hanami (flower viewing). I went with a friend to Omura park, in Fukuoka prefecture. Upon the hill above the park was an old castle, and below there were fields of tulips, or rather tulip beds, that had yet to bloom. Little bridges ran over these dormant flower beds, and running parallel to the tulip beds were broad pathways for pedestrians. Hundreds of people milled around, some lovers holding hands, others jostling their friends playfully. Surrounding me was a sea of pink. The pathways were lined with many cherry trees, and they were in full bloom. Petals fell like soft warm snowflakes all around me. Needless to say, it was like walking through a postcard. The natural beauty of the cherry blossoms was breathtaking.

That beauty doesn’t last. In a couple of short weeks, the blossoms will be gone, and the cool sunny days of Spring will give way to the quiet hot hum of summer. That fleeting beauty, will be gone again until the next year. Coworkers will go out to flower viewing parties, and sit eating snacks and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, getting drunk on the beauty of the scenery. There is a sadness, knowing that the blossoms will soon be gone, a wistfulness for the joy of Spring, and a nostalgia for Spring days of youth gone by. The Japanese have been having these parties for centuries, and will continue to have them for centuries into the future, I’m sure.

The Buddhist idea of impermanence, of being aware of the moment, lies deep at the heart of this tradition. The beauty of life is fleeting, the joy of living will end for all of us, but for one warm Spring day, we are aware of the beauty around us, happy to bask in the sun, and drink a lot of beer. A fine tradition, I say.