Hallowe’en Tree

A Hallowe'en Tree. Like a Christmas Tree, only darker and with more pumpkins.I don’t know. It’s only the middle of September, and the shopping centres already have their Hallowe’en Trees up.

Hang on a minute…

This is the first one I’ve seen in Japan, but for all I know they’re really common.

In other news, I continue to be really busy, which is why there are still very few blog entries from me.

Published in Japanese

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here. I’m not dead; I’m just busy at work, and I’ve managed to sustain daily posts to my Japanese blog, so this one has been a bit (OK, a lot) neglected. I wouldn’t put any money on this post being the start of a trend, either.

The point of this post is to brag.

There is a magazine for English teachers in Japan called 英語教育, which means “English Education”. It has run for years, and apparently can be found in virtually every school in the country. Thanks to an introduction from one of my students, I was asked to write a short article for it, and the article was published in the September issue. It introduces my favourite teaching materials, and I talked about the Guardian Weekly’s Learning English supplement, and the book that the Japan Institute of Logic has coming out from Kenkyusha (a Japanese publisher) later this year. I will be paid a proper rate for this article. (I may in fact have been paid already; I haven’t checked the relevant bank account for a few days.)

The thing that makes this not just another professional publication is the fact that I wrote the article in Japanese. It has been edited, and I need a lot more editing in Japanese than I do in English, but it has not been rewritten or translated. This is my first professional publication in Japanese.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about finding my next goal in improving my Japanese. I still need far too much editing.

Annular Eclipse

We saw the annular eclipse this morning. The centre went right over Tokyo, so all we had to do was go outside the flat. Given that, there were surprisingly few people there.

We bought three viewing glasses, so we could all watch together. It’s a bit cloudy, but the clouds were thin, and the clouds over the sun were thin exactly when it was a ring.

It was really, really good.


I’m off work with flu today (with a direct instruction not to go in), and after spending the morning in bed I’ve just got up for a bit. I think I might go back to bed fairly soon, though.

But, since I have a bit of time, I want to write a bit about Mayuki.

On Tuesday, Yuriko went to the parent-teacher interview at Mayuki’s kindergarten. I was in work, so I couldn’t go, but that doesn’t seem to have been a problem. Apparently, Mayuki’s teacher started off by saying “I don’t have any concerns, and I don’t really have anything to discuss”. Mayuki is, apparently, enthusiastic about the activities, doesn’t demand the teacher’s attention all the time, does as she is told, and loves pretend play.

And then there was the restaurant visit a little while ago where Mayuki finished up by announcing, “I’ve had enough dessert now. I want more broccoli!”.

Of course, Mayuki isn’t perfect. I’d like her to realise how much it upsets Yuriko when she doesn’t eat the food cooked for her, and participate a bit more enthusiastically in video chats with the rest of my family, but I think those will get better as she gets older.

Talking of eating, there was an incident a little while ago that made me very happy.

Mayuki wanted to eat pancakes for breakfast, and Yuriko was making them. I also wanted to eat breakfast, but Mayuki was sitting in my chair.

“Mayuki, can you move to your chair so I can sit down?”

“But I want to sit here!”

“I can’t sit down if you do.”

“I sat here last time.”

“Daddy wasn’t here then,” Yuriko reminded her.

“You can sit in my chair,” Mayuki suggested.

“No, I can’t. It’s too small. Please move to your chair.”

“No, I want to sit here.”

At this point, the pancake was ready, and got served. Mayuki ate in silence for a little while.

“I’ve just had an idea!” she suddenly said. “Why don’t you bring the chair your students sit on?”

So, we moved Mayuki’s chair out of the way and brought one of the folding chairs I use for my students, and we all ate breakfast at the table.

The reason I was so happy about this was that Mayuki thought about the problem and came up with a solution that got everyone what they wanted. I didn’t particularly want to sit in my chair (I’m a grown adult, I don’t have “special chairs” any more), I just wanted to sit at the table to eat. Mayuki did want to sit in that chair, though, and her solution solved the problem. It also involved thinking about things that were not immediately in front of her, and doing proper problem solving, which is an important skill.

I think this sort of negotiated solution to disagreements is much better than Mayuki simply doing as she is told. It’s a technique that she can use as an adult, and that I can use when she grows up. It also teaches Mayuki to think about what other people want, and how she can make that happen. So, I like the fact that she talks back and makes alternative suggestions.

Basically, I don’t want her to be obedient, I want her to be considerate.

The report from kindergarten is very reassuring in this respect, because it suggests that the way we are raising her is actually working.

Blog Move

I’ve moved my blog from a subdirectory to be the main page of my website. I’ve done this because I only really update the blog these days.

There should be links to all parts of my website in the right-hand sidebar, under the adverts, and any old links to my blog should be automatically redirected to the new location. It seems to be working for now.

All I need now is time to update a bit more.

(We’re all fine.)

Merry Christmas!

It’s 8am, and Mayuki is still asleep. There’s no snow on the ground, but looking out of the window I have a beautiful view of the snow on Mt Fuji. In Japan, where almost no-one is a Christian, everyone wishes you a Merry Christmas (but it’s a normal working day).

So, Merry Christmas!

New Job

At the beginning of this month, I started a new job. Actually, I started working on it some time before that, but I started getting paid, and going into the office, at the beginning of this month. Yes, I have an office and a salary. Yet another piece of irrefutable evidence that I have entered middle age.

The job is at The Japan Institute of Logic. The homepage is all in Japanese at the moment, because producing an English version is on my list of jobs to do. It’s not very high on that list, however.

The Institute’s main purpose is to set and administer tests in logical thinking. The Japanese like these kinds of examinations, so there is a possible market. It also provides training related to those tests, both directly and indirectly. That is, we have seminars that will train you to take the test, and we have seminars to train people to train people to take the test. I’ve been hired to run the English section. Actually, at the moment, I’ve been hired to be the English section; we use freelancers for some things, but I’m the only real employee. That’s because we’re only just getting started.

As a result, I’m very busy. I’m in the office two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they’re ten to twelve hour days, leaving the flat at 6:30 (before Yuriko is awake, and usually before Mayuki is awake, too), and getting back around 9:00 at night, at which point Mayuki is not normally asleep, although Yuriko is saying “Come on Mayuki, time for bed”. I don’t get paid overtime; the days are so long because, as we’re just starting, I can’t actually fit everything I have to do into two eight hour days.

So, what am I doing right now? First, I’m setting the first round of English-based logic tests. These are multiple choice tests, because those are the easiest to scale up, so I’m having to be quite creative to find ways to test the ability to create arguments in such a setting. I also need to set two levels, one that high school students can cope with, and one for the general public. Getting the level right is, as you might imagine, one of the hardest parts.

Second, I’m writing and giving the lectures on English-based logic. These are three hour sessions, with a bit more than half of the time devoted to practice questions, and we’re holding one every other week. That means writing a ninety minute lecture every two weeks.

In Japanese.

You see, although the lectures are about logic in English, they aim to provide useful techniques for people whose English is not very good. If I were to explain that in English, the level of English required to understand the lectures would be far higher than the level needed to use the content, which would be a problem. So, I have to write them in Japanese, and that is rather harder than doing it in English. Fortunately, keeping a daily blog in Japanese for the last five and a half years means that I have had quite a lot of practice at writing in Japanese, so I’m not finding it impossible, but I still haven’t had as much practice in Japanese as I have in English.

My approach to the problem, and what I am trying to teach in the classes and test in the exams, is that you do not need to speak perfect, or even roughly correct, English in order to communicate your ideas. If your ideas are well organised, and you make the individual points clearly and separately, then the people you are speaking to will be able to extract your meaning despite mistakes. Similarly, with practice you can pick out the important points from what people are saying, and understand their argument even if you don’t understand all of the words.

This is important, because it just takes too long to get a high level of proficiency in a foreign language. Even though I can write lectures on logic in Japanese, I am informed that I use a number of, how shall I put it, highly idiosyncratic expressions. Or possibly highly idiotic expressions. And that’s after eighteen months of full time study and a total of eight years living in Japan. Most Japanese people are not going to be able to put that much time and effort into English, so I’m hoping to offer a framework that will give them something useful for international communication in a much shorter package. As an added bonus, thinking clearly about arguments is very useful in Japanese as well, so they’ll get some benefit in their native language too.

Mr Hayashi, the director of the Institute, is very enthusiastic, which is good, and also has a lot of good contacts in various companies, which means I’ve been going to business lunches with the presidents of the Japanese branches of multinationals. They’ve all been very positive about what we’re offering, as they can see the need for more effective communication, and know from experience that studying the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs doesn’t help a lot. So, it’s not certain that the Institute will succeed, but the early signs are very promising. I certainly believe that this is a good approach to English, and to communication in general, which is why I took the job and am working long days, when I’m in the office.

This may well prove to be a major turning point in my life, on a similar scale to choosing to move to Japan (but not quite on the level of getting married or having Mayuki). At the very least, I’m getting to do something that I think is important in a completely different environment to the ones I’m used to, so what I learn will be valuable even if this project fails for some unaccountable reason. I’ve already had the experience of being on Tokyo trains at the height of the rush hour.

That’s another reason why I leave home at 6:30…

Proposals on Surveys and Pensions

Oh dear, it really has been too long since I posted to this blog. I’ve just started a new job, at the Japan Institute of Logic, so I’ve been extremely busy. I may have to start tweeting, since they’re supposed to be really short.

Anyway, today we had another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. There are only two more left, so it was quite important that the process of drafting our proposals for the mayor move forward. While getting a couple of dozen foreign residents together to discuss life in Kawasaki is one of the purposes of the Assembly, its main purpose is to produce concrete proposals for the city government to act on and make life better for the foreign, and Japanese, people who live there. So getting the proposals together is very important.

Obviously, they have to be in Japanese, but fortunately the secretariat does the detailed drafting for us. We decide on the content, they draft something, and then we look at the draft and ask for changes. Last time, we decided on the content of the proposal for a survey concerning the foreign residents of Kawasaki. This would cover such things as experiences of discrimination, problems with services, education, or housing, the distribution of information, and the ways in which foreign residents were participating in civic life. Kawasaki did do a similar survey, in 1993, but nothing large scale has been done since, so knowledge of the current situation is a bit limited. We’re asking for the survey to be done every five years, and to have questions that overlap with similar surveys in other countries (the EU did a big one a few years ago) so that the situation in Japan can be objectively compared with other places. We are, of course, asking that the results be public. The hope is that this data will help the Representative Assembly to address the most important issues, as well as helping other organs of the city government.

Today, we looked at the draft that had been prepared, and asked for a number of changes. Some of them were because we’d changed our minds since last time (the first draft said once every two years, which is a bit much), but most were because we wanted a slightly different emphasis from the way the proposal had been drafted. The changes are pretty straightforward, and all were agreed unanimously, so I think the revised draft will be very close to what we want.

We also discussed the pension problem. As I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese pension system is not very good if you come from a country without a pension treaty with Japan and stay for more than three years, but go home before you retire. This is obviously a problem for people who are working here, and the Assembly addressed it before, in 2003, asking for the amount of money paid back when you leave the country to be increased.

That hasn’t happened, so we agreed to ask again, but also to encourage the conclusion of more treaties with foreign countries, so that more people can take advantage of that and sort out their pensions that way. In addition, since those two points are things that only the national government can do, we agreed to ask the city to prepare multi-lingual and easy-to-understand explanations of the system.

We’ll have the draft to look at next time, so we can get a revised version made before the final meeting. Thus, we’re in good shape to meet the deadline. In fact, we have a rather nice problem, in that it’s not clear that we will need all the time we have for discussion at the next meeting; we finished about 15 minutes early today. The other subcommittee don’t have this problem, shall we say, so it’s going to be a bit tricky to balance the overall running of the final meetings, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

Personally, I don’t expect too much from the pension proposal, although we’ll probably get the multi-lingual explanations. Japan is in the process of reforming the whole pension system anyway, so these problems might well go away and be replaced by different ones. It’s important to remind the decision-makers of the foreign residents, but we’re still a very small group. On the other hand, I very much hope that the survey will happen every five years, because it would provide immensely useful information. If that happens, I’ll feel that my time on the Assembly was very well spent.

Flash Player 11 EULA MIA

So, the Flash plugin for Safari is telling me that there is a new version available, Flash 11. When I download the software and launch the installer, the first screen, naturally, tells me to click to say that I’ve read the EULA, and provides a link to the EULA. At the moment, that link is http://www.adobe.com/products/eulas/#flash_player, which, as of this writing, looks like this:

The list of available EULAs for Flash, which only goes up to 10.3

You will see that there is no EULA listed for Flash Player 11. Googling it turns up some supplementary third-party licensing information, and a license for the beta version, but no EULA for the release of version 11.

I think I can state with a fair degree of confidence that anyone who has installed version 11 has not read the EULA, although they have said that they have. I’m not sure what the legal position on that is. I’m even more interested in whether the courts will be ready to assume that someone has read and understood an EULA that Adobe appears not to have published. Personally, I’m not going to lie on the installer, so until the EULA for Flash 11 is available somewhere online, I’ll be running with an earlier version of the plugin.

The bizarre thing is that the plugin has been out for a week or so, and nobody seems to have mentioned this online. I would have expected someone, somewhere to have noticed. (The contact form on the Adobe web site doesn’t include an option for “you have forgotten to publish your license.”) Maybe it is somewhere obvious, and I’m just being particularly blind. Actually, that seems the most likely option (I mean, there are people on the net who are really, really anal about licensing). But really, I can’t see it. Of course, I do expect it to appear in the near future… So, feel free to point out where I’m missing it.

Visit Tohoku! Hiraizumi

Last weekend, we went on another trip to Tohoku, this time to Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture. Hiraizumi was the base of a powerful regional family in the twelfth century, and is particularly famous for its Buddhist temples and gardens. Indeed, in June those sites were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a bit of good news that was particularly welcome at the time.

The soba on the table, with Mayuki peering through the handle of one of the bowls

Wanko Soba

We travelled up by shinkansen and train, as usual, and Mayuki seems to have got to like the shinkansen. Our only plans for the first day were to eat and take it easy at the hotel, so that’s what we did. First, we ate “wanko soba” at a restaurant near the station. That’s noodles in very small bowls — 24 of them. The idea is that you can have different toppings with each bowl, so you also get a big tray of toppings. After we’d eaten, we went to the hotel.

We stayed at Musashibo, and I was quite impressed. The accommodation is nice, and it is a hot-spring hotel. The baths are indoors, and while you wouldn’t go there just for the baths, they are good. One has the hot water coming out between rocks (probably artificially placed), while the other has a view of the mountains. Men and women swap between the baths each day, so if you stay overnight and take a bath in the evening and the morning, you will be able to see both.

The food was also good. The morning buffet was fairly standard, but nice, and the Japanese evening meal was very good. Yuriko commented that the menu was rather different from the areas around Tokyo or Kyoto, and it was true; we got the regional cuisine. There were the standard elements (rice, raw fish, tempura), but also a number of unusual vegetables and other items. One that Yuriko passed on was a tiny whole crab, cooked in its shell. You were supposed to eat the whole thing so, based on my principle of trying anything once, I did. It was fine, actually, although I don’t think I’d specially order it. We had ordered the children’s meal for Mayuki, and although she fell asleep at the table on the first night, she really enjoyed it on the second.

What really impressed me, though, was how they handled a foreign visitor. They are obviously set up for foreign guests, with translations on most of the signs and English meal tickets, but the receptionist was very apologetic as she handed me an English ticket, remarking (in Japanese) that I obviously didn’t need one. Based on the brief panicked “meal ticket, meal ticket” that I heard as I was filling in the register, I guess that they had misplaced the Japanese ones… I did get a Japanese one for the next day. She also asked whether I was living permanently in Japan, and when I said I was, she said “That’s fine, then”. The law is that when a foreigner without a permanent Japanese address stays at a hotel, the hotel must note the passport number. However, if the foreigner is resident in Japan, that’s not necessary.

This impressed me because, not only were they ready to handle foreigners who couldn’t speak Japanese, they were also ready to deal, in Japanese, with foreigners who could. In other words, they were adaptable. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have an English web page, but if you use English on their enquiry form, I suspect they’ll find a way to manage. (From the top, name, name again (Japanese people put the reading in here), phone number, email twice to confirm it, and then the content of what you want to ask.)

Another thing that Mayuki seems to really like is the onsen, hot spring baths. As soon as we got to the hotel, she wanted to go to the onsen. Yuriko wanted to go for a walk, so she went with me, and then again with Yuriko later. She also went with me both mornings, and with Yuriko on the second evening. Unfortunately, there is no family bath at the hotel, so we couldn’t all go in together; Mayuki wanted to, but she accepted that we couldn’t when we explained. Yuriko did wonder how long she could keep going into the men’s bath with me; I think the official upper limit is twelve (the end of elementary school), but, at any rate, it’ll be fine until she starts school.

On our full day, we went to visit the World Heritage Sites. The first visit was a bit delayed, because Mayuki hadn’t had enough breakfast, and so was hungry and fractious. We stopped for a snack outside the gates, and Mayuki was a lot better after that.

The pool at the heart of the garden, with a leaning rock standing in the middle

Motsuji Pure Land Garden

The first proper stop was Motsuji. All of the original temple buildings here have burned down, but the garden has been preserved, in part, and in part restored based on archaeological evidence, so the garden is the main attraction. It was designed to call to mind the Pure Land of Amida (Amitabha), and while my Buddhist theology is not good enough to comment on how far it succeeds at that, it is certainly a beautiful garden. It is centred on a large pond, and as you walk around it, the view changes. The weather was changeable while we were there, including a heavy shower, so the changing skies also contributed to its attractions. I wasn’t sure how good it would be before we went, but it is a wonderful place.

Mayuki is hopping down a path in the garden at Motsuji

Look! A pine cone!

Of course, I’m not sure how far Mayuki appreciated its sublime beauty. She certainly enjoyed playing with us as we walked round, and as the rain finished and the sun came out she did stop and watch the light sparkling on the water with us. The Buddhist halls also caught her attention. She’s more used to shrines, and temples are rather different in their construction and impact. She liked the statue of the supposed founder of the temple (he might have actually founded it, but I gather that the evidence is not great), and prayed at one where we stopped to get out of the rain. Naturally, she prayed Shinto-style, but I’m sure that’s OK.

Then we went to Chusonji. We had lunch at the rest house outside the entrance and, unusually for somewhere in Japan, I don’t recommend it.

A view of mountains and fields, from a mountain

The view from the top of the mountain

Chusonji is spread out across a mountain, so the path up to it is quite steep. Mayuki decided that it looked a bit too steep, and decided that she wanted to be carried. Very soon I am going to give up climbing mountains while carrying her, as she is really getting rather heavy, but not quite yet. However, the view from the top of the mountain makes it worth it. This is actually the view from a cafe at the top; if you’re visiting, I’d recommend waiting until you get here to eat. We didn’t actually try the food, but the staff were nice, and the view is as you can see.

Buddhism is, of course, a religion that rejects worldly things, and values poverty and austerity. Naturally, then, the main attraction at Chusonji is a gold-plated temple, Konjikido. This was built in the early twelfth century, and has managed to survive all the vicissitudes since then. It is now housed in a very solid concrete building, protected by glass, and looks likely to survive for some time longer. It is quite impressive, but I have to confess that I don’t particularly like gilded buildings. It’s not the expense; I do like the ones that are lacquered. There’s something about the colour and the effect that just doesn’t appeal to me.

Mayuki getting water from a rock basin in front of a thatched Noh stage

Purification and the Noh Stage

After the gold-plated temple, we visited the shrine on the mountain top, Hakusan Shrine, where the tutelary deity of the complex is enshrined. The most notable feature of the shrine precincts is a large, thatched Noh stage, which is a National Important Cultural Property. It is still used for Noh Performances. The shrine itself is quite small, although there was a priest present, so I was able to get a Goshuin. There was also a set of twelve small shrines to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Since Mayuki and I are both boars, we went to that shrine to pay our respects together.

Mayuki was agitating to go back to the hotel by this point, but Yuriko wanted to quickly visit the museum. At first I didn’t want to, but I gave in, and it was a good choice. The museum contains a lot of Buddhist images, and one of them is a standing wooden statue of Thousand-Armed Kannon. As soon as Mayuki saw it, she was hooked. “Hasn’t it got a lot of hands!” she said, and refused to go and look at anything else. In the end, I stayed with her while Yuriko looked at the rest of the museum, and we bought her a postcard of the statue when we left to go back to the hotel.

On the way down the mountain, Mayuki fell asleep riding on my shoulders, so I had to take her down and carry her with her head on my shoulder, which is more effort. I was thus quite tired when we got to the bottom, but we made one more stop before returning to the hotel. This was at a lacquer-ware shop that has been in the town for some time. Their traditional product is called Hidehira ware, named after one of the twelfth century nobles of Hiraizumi, and uses red, black, and a gold-leaf diamond design. They also have a number of newer designs, some of which were very nice; wooden cups with lacquered interiors, for example. In the end, though, we bought a pair of traditional soup bowls and some chopstick rests. We’ve already used the bowls, and they’re very nice.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of a large cliff and the river


On our final day, we went on a side trip to Geibikei. This is a river gorge with impressive towering cliffs, but the river itself is very shallow, so you can go up and down part of it on a punt. Unlike Cambridge, you don’t get to punt yourself, but rather go on a guided tour. The punt operators tell you about the river, and the names of the various cliffs, and then you get out and walk past some rapids to see the last and possibly most spectacular cliff. It has a small cave on the opposite side of the river, and apparently if you can throw a small clay ball into it, you get good luck. Mayuki wanted to try, but couldn’t do it. One of the other people on the boat, however, managed to get his in; I think he must have played baseball as a young man. I might have been able to get the ball across the river, but certainly not into the cave by anything other than pure luck.

Mayuki throwing fish food from the boatOn the way back, Mayuki fed the fish. She wanted to feed them on the way out, but we didn’t see any. That was because they were all on the other side of the boat, so when we turned round to go back, there they were. Mayuki had a lot of fun, also telling off the ducks who kept stealing the fishes’ food.

The gorge was spectacular, and because we were on the noon boat, the sun shone into it, so we got reflections off the river onto the cliffs. After we got back, we had lunch at a small restaurant near the boat pier, and I ate river fish, which was delicious. Then we headed back home on the train. Mayuki enjoyed the shinkansen, playing the “piano” on the ledge under the window, but fell asleep on the train home after that. Of course, when we got home, she woke up again, and was lively until quite late.

I really liked Hiraizumi and Geibikei, and I’d definitely recommend them as a destination (although I’m not sure how the people at Geibikei would cope in other languages). Being inland and on very solid ground, both suffered very little from the earthquake. Indeed, according to the young woman at the shop at Geibikei, nothing even fell off the shelves there. So, go and visit.