Monday, October 25, 2010


I was packing today for the next attempt to fill my passport when I got to thinking about "stuff" again. I figured that I'd take some photos as I went along to see what I ended up with.

As I've written about before, I've come to the conclusion that I'd rather spend my money on "experiences" than on "stuff" and I've been trying to do just that for almost a year now. Book after book, website after website all extol the virtues of having less and the internal rewards that it offers. I can definitely vouch for the idea as it certainly makes life simpler. Even with the conscious effort to live with less, I was surprised at how much I still have. Let's take a look at what I've been living/traveling with since January and you be the judge...

First and most importantly, my connection to the outside world. In this photo you can see my electronic umbilical cords: a Sony Vaio laptop with extra battery and charger, my Nook, an iPod, two cell phones (Palm Pre for the U.S. and Google Nexus One with extra battery for the rest of the world), and a "universal" USB charger with interchangeable (world) plugs. Not shown is my camera, which I'm using to take the photo but a second battery and the charger are in the photo.

Opportunities to minimize the above? Eliminate U.S.-only cell phone and use the Nexus One in the U.S. but I'd end up on AT&T or T-Mobile and who'd want that? I could toss the iPod and use the built-in Nexus One music player at the gym. Ditch spare laptop battery that I rarely use? The potential weight savings is about two pounds if I did everything.

Next, things for the gym. I have two complete "outfits" made of a shirt, short, and athletic undershorts. Also in the photo are my exercise log book ("what gets measured gets improved" or something like that), my iPod (again), gloves, and a pair of lifting hooks.

Opportunities to minimize the above? Realistically, not much. I could go with one outfit but I'd be washing more frequently or wear "street" clothes but it's just not practical. I could stop going to the gym but I do enjoy it. The potential weight savings? Zero.

Next is what I'd call "summer clothes", which is made up of 14 (!!!) short-sleeve T-shirts, four pairs of shorts, and one bathing suit.

Opportunities to minimize the above? Get rid of some of the T-shirts. While packing I tossed two of them so I'm down to 12 that I still really like. I will practice the one-new-one-in-one-old-one-out rule from here on out. The potential for weight savings is less than a pound.

The following photo could be called "dressier clothes" not that they're formal but that I can wear them to go out at night. I have four pairs of jeans, three "nicer" short-sleeve shirts, and nine long-sleeve shirts.

Opportunities to reduce? As Maverick said to Goose in Top Gun, "This is what I call a target-rich environment". I tossed two of the long-sleeve shirts and two of the "nicer" short-sleeve shirts (one prior to taking the photo) while packing and there's probably more. I'm on the fence to get rid of one of the jeans but they're all in like-new condition so it seems wasteful. I could probably save a little less than a pound here.

And the next contestant on the Price is Right? "Winter clothes" come on down! I've got a wool hat, a snowboard jacket, a light-weight "nice" jacket, a rain coat, a rain poncho (in the black bag), a sweat jacket, and four sweaters:

What can I loose? One sweater and the rain poncho for sure. Everything else has its place for now and the potential weight savings is small. (If you're keeping score, nothing got removed during packing.)

Last on this list? My shoes. Four pairs. Running shoes for the gym, Croc sliders for daily use, athletic-hiking-style "outdoorsy" sneakers, and my boots:

I've considered not replacing the running shoes when they die and start using the athletic-outdoorsy shoes at the gym. What's missing is something nice to wear when I have to dress up a little. Since I don't have anything appropriate, I end up wearing the boots or the outdoorsy shoes but they don't really cut it. If I can find something that's nice, light-weight, and can be used in a variety of situations, I'll probably add them to the pile. The worst part of the shoes is that, since I have huge feet, they take up a lot of space in my bags and they weigh a lot. The weight savings is a wash unless I start a foot-binding program.

What's not shown? Socks, underwear, a microfiber bath towel, and my toiletries. It all weighs in at about 80 pounds and easily fits in these three bags using the "rolling" method:

Yeah, it's still too much to lug around (I could get rid of about four more pounds) but it's worked in all four seasons this year. I'm not sure what I'll do when I get back to "real life" and have more space but I'll worry about that then. :-)

If you were leaving for a year, didn't know where you were going, what you needed, and didn't want to spend money on things, what would you pack?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Drinking Calpis

No!!! Not that! CALPIS!

Calpis is the unfortunate-sounding-in-English brand name for a series of milk-based beverages sold in Japan. It originally comes from a made-up word that combined the words CALcium and sarPIS (butter flavor in Sanskrit). Here's a photo of Calpis Soda in a local supermarket:

Calpis was first sold in Japan in 1919 as a powdered, just-add-water beverage. It now comes in a variety of flavors, carbonated and non-carbonated, and no-calorie (diet or Zero) versions. This is Calpis Water (the non-carbonated version), Calpis Water Zero, and Grape Calpis Soda Zero (on the left edge in the photo):

I first tried Calpis in Japan last year and have been a huge fan ever since. My favorite is Calpis Soda mixed with shochu and ice but I just got into the Calpis Zero Grape and shochu in Osaka this year. And, no, you don't need to drink Calpis in a Chuhai to enjoy it. Even though it's made from milk, it's not like drinking watered-down or carbonated milk (and I can't even begin to wrap my brain around where the "butter flavor" in the original name comes from). I've written and deleted about ten different attempts at trying to describe the flavor but I've given up. You've gotta' trust me on this one that it's really good.

If you're in the U.S. and very lucky, you might find Calpis products as they're now sold there under the Calpico name. I guess they re-branded so that they could free themselves from their bovine-urine-sounding name.

Anyone up for a yummy chuhai?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Visiting Kofun

Probably the most famous of all large-scale burial sites in the world are the Egyptian pyramids. The pyramids are giant and are quite amazing to see in person. I am lucky to have gotten the opportunity to visit them earlier this year:

Similar in shape but different in purpose are the Mayan pyramids. Here's a photo of my visit to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan in November of 2009:

Actually, the last two photos have nothing to do with this story but I wanted to share them anyway... :-)

Relatively unknown outside of Japan are burial sites known as Kofun. Japanese Kofun are a type of Tumulus, or raised mound of earth and stones over a tomb, which were built from approximately 300 A.D. to about 700 A.D. This Kofun, which I visited near Nagasaki, is one such Tumulus:

The largest Kofun in Japan is the Daisen Kofun and is located in Sakai City, south of Osaka. It is the burial place of the 16th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Nintoku. Since it is about a ten minute walk from the shrine that I visited to see the Futon-Daiko festival recently, and because it's supposedly "the largest tomb by area in the world", I just had to go. This is an aerial photo of Daisen that I found on the internet:

The Kofun have been constructed in a variety of shapes over the years but the keyhole design shown above is the most common. There are two water-filled moats surrounding this Kofun, the smaller of which (the outer one) is difficult to see in the photo above. It looks like a thin line cut in the surrounding trees. The photo below is of that smaller moat, which is actually pretty large. It helps to give you an idea of the scale of the whole site.

Unfortunately, you only get to cross the first moat. There is no bridge across the larger moat and you can't actually get on the mound. It turns out that the mound is considered sacred ground and they don't let the public on it. Also, very little excavation has taken place over the years so there's no museum or other things to visit. Fortunately, I didn't make a special trip to see it but I did get this photo with the Kofun in the distance past the Torii gate:

While researching information for this story, I learned that there are burial mounds all over the world including some in the U.S., mostly in the south, which are the work of native-American tribes. I also found out about some that are located near a city that I will be visiting in the next month or so. Stay tuned... :-)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reading eBooks

I've spent a lot of time this past year reading as much as I can about as many different topics as possible. Most of this reading has been using my beloved Vaio laptop for things I've found on the internet. What I've been missing though is some good, old-fashioned books. There's been a couple of problems with that. First, finding a reliable, affordable source for English-language books while outside of the U.S. has been tough. Amazon's everywhere but you should see what it costs to ship books from the U.K. or the U.S. Second, carrying around one book, much less the next few on my list gets heavy. During my last visit to the U.S. I decided to purchase an e-book reader since it seemed to solve these problems.

I looked into four options: the Apple iPad, the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and a variety of Sony readers. The iPad was expensive, heavy, and way too large for what I was looking for. They are beautiful and are probably a good choice if you are looking for a single device that can pretty much do everything but I already have a laptop and was looking for something that's easier on the eyes.

Cue the "e-ink" options. The Sony readers, as with all Sony's products, were beautiful but expensive. I then checked out the Kindle but I found two problems. The newest version seems very nice but it wasn't yet available (it is now) and you can only read Amazon-bought books on it (which I found out later isn't really true but what I was led to believe by the reviews I had read and Amazon's site). I went to a local Barnes & Noble near Philadelphia and liked what I found with the nook. Here's a photo of mine:

The Nook is relatively light weight (12 ounces - the iPad weighs twice as much) and the screen is excellent for reading for a long time. You won't even notice that you're not reading a physical book after about 30 minutes. The Nook has built-in WIFI, which allows you to wirelessly purchase and download new books as well as go online using a no-frills-but-functional browser. I can use the web feature to access my Google Reader and gmail but not much else. The book prices are good too. Most books cost between $10 and $12. It's a good price for a newer book that you'd have to buy in hardback for $30 but bad for a "classic" that'd cost $5 for the paperback version. You can also download/read free PDFs, out-of-copyright free books (Google Books, Project Gutenburg, and more), and "borrow" books from real libraries over the internet. I figure it'll take me about 20 or so books to recoup my e-reader investment but the easy-on-the-eyes reading, the light-weight, and portability are worth what I've spent.

There have been a few drawbacks though. The "e-ink" screen is great for reading (especially outside in sunlight) but it isn't back-lit like a computer or iPad or something else. You need to read with a regular light (just like you would with a normal book) if you want to read at night. Not really a problem, but something that might bother some people. Second, you can DOWNLOAD books to the Nook anywhere in the world, which is great and what I wanted, can't BUY books from B&N if you are physically outside the U.S. Doh! I played with a couple of options, none of which was a great solution. I got as far as adding the books to my shopping cart on the website but couldn't complete the purchase. Finally, I called my brother in the U.S. and asked him to login to my B&N account and hit the "Pay" button for me. It worked like a champ--thanks Kevin!!!

Another drawback, shown in the photo below, is, as with all electronics, that it doesn't like being dropped! If you look closely, on the left side of the screen, there's a gray line running just to the left of the text. That's the result of me dropping my backpack with the Nook inside.

Fortunately, the damage hasn't made it a problem for reading as all the books that I have loaded are centered outside the "gray stripe" and everything else still functions. The e-reader has been great for me. I've polished off more than a book-a-week (seven) since owning it--probably more books than I have read for leisure in the last few years combined. If I can just keep from dropping it again...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mozu Hachiman Futon-Daiko Festival

Today's post is about a fairly large festival that takes place each year in the town of Sakai, which is about 45 minutes south of Osaka. I have to be honest that I was pretty confused and it took a bunch of time to research (in Japanese) what I had seen so that I could understand it. It makes me VERY happy that I can now do (basic) google searches using Japanese characters and language!

First off, like one of the other festivals I attended here in Osaka, this one had a full carnival-style atmosphere including all the required food and entertainment booths. I think the most popular booth type were the ones selling cucumbers on a stick. I guess it has a low barrier to entry since all you need is a bag of cucumbers and some sticks. A couple of the Japanese websites that I came across were making fun of them too. They also had some kids' booths with this festival's twist on the scoop-up-the-fish-with-a-paper-net game involving small crabs instead of gold fish:

The crabs didn't have dangerous claws and the kids really seemed to like scooping them up. At another booth they had very small turtles. I'm not sure what was going on but it didn't seem to be the scoop-up-fish game that the other booths had. Regardless, it was pretty fun to watch the cute little turtles swim around:

Okay, let me see if I can explain this one. The festival is called the Mozu Hachiman Futon-Daiko Festival. Mozu is the area where the shrine is located. It's a relatively famous area due to the Kofun that are nearby. Hachiman is the name of the shrine where the festival takes place. You may already know that a futon is a type of bed that is widely used in Japan. It's basically like a stuffed sleeping bag and I find them super comfortable. The funny thing is that people hang them outside during the day to air out so you'll see them on balconies all over Japan. Finally, a Daiko is a type of drum. So, in summary, the festival is the Mozu (neighborhood) Hachiman (shrine) Futon (bed) Daiko (drum) Festival.

In the photo below, you can see one of the "floats" that are used in the festival. The red basket-looking thing is actually five futons piled on top of each other. They are then heavily decorated with various tassels, ropes, and other things. A couple of people ride on top of the futons during the festival. Under the futons is the section that holds the drum and drummers. The bottom is made up of the wood frame and bamboo handles that are used to carry the float.

This is a close up of center section of the float. You can see the intricate wood carvings as well as the chanter-drummer boys who ride inside the float. These costumed boys are in the sixth grade and they are responsible for leading the chanting and keeping the rhythm by beating the large drum, which you can't see, in the center.

There are many different groups that make floats and come to the festival. The groups carry their floats from the surrounding neighborhood into the shrine area. Here's one group entering the shrine grounds:

The festival is basically a fall harvest celebration where the groups are praying for a good harvest. The floats are portable shrines, which are about 12 feet tall (4 meters) and weigh about two-and-a-half tons. They are carried by a team of approximately 60-to-70 people.

Here you can see half of the team that is carrying this float. You can't really tell from the photo but these guys ARE working! Each person needs to carry over 100 pounds (50kg) back and forth through the shine grounds.

The physical activity of carrying the floats is meant to simulate a boat riding in rough waters. The people who are carrying the float make the float go up and down as a boat would do in rough water while participating in a call-and-response style of chanting. In this photo the float is at the other end of the shrine grounds and is headed back towards where I'm standing.

Since photos and my description can only do so much, here's a short video that I shot using my point-and-shoot:

Going to this festival was one of the more interesting that I've been to in Japan. I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else that I've been. It makes me wonder just how many different local festivals there are in the world and how I can get to see them one day...

Thanks to:
and: The Japan Blog Matsuri

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gunkanjima - Japan's Battleship Island

Not too far off the coast from the Nagasaki harbor is an island called Hashima. This tiny island-turned-coal-mine is also known as Gunkanjima, which means Battleship (gunkan) Island (jima) in English. It takes about 30 minutes via tour boat to reach the island. In this photo, which was taken from the back of boat, is the Nagasaki harbor mouth (where the bridge is) as well as a massive Mitsubishi ship yard (where the red and white crane is):

On the way to Gunkanjima the boat passed by this bridge that's under construction. It was a cool site to see both sides of the bridge looking completed but with no center section:

It wasn't until we were past the bridge that we could see the center section being held by this floating crane (very cool!):

Gunkanjima opened in 1887 and was operated by Mitsubishi as a coal mine from 1890 to 1974. The miners used a shaft that went from the center of the island down below the sea floor. Coal was sent out to waiting ships via conveyor belt. Approaching and pulling up to the island is quite impressive. It's a very small island but there are a ton of large buildings on it. From the sea it looks like almost every square inch of the island is covered:

It's only when you get onto the island that you can see what only 35 years of neglect looks like in an urban environment. All of the buildings are in some sort of decay with many actually falling down. The tour groups are only allowed to visit a well-roped-off, very small part of the island. In this photo you can see the remains of many different buildings:

One of the staggering things about the island was the super-high-density population that lived there during its heyday. At one point, the island supported a population equivalent of over 216,000 people per square mile. Compare that to current-day New York City, which is approximately 27,000 people per square mile.

Even though the miners and their families that lived here existed in a such a dense place, their lives were relatively well off. Since the island was a private venture, the company took care of the employees including providing for their needs during the war and after. It seems to have been a pretty good place to live.

To help support the high density, new construction methods were used on the island. I believe that this was the first large concrete structure built in Japan; a nine-story apartment building, which was built in 1916:

On the approach you could see how people can say the island looks like a battleship. It isn't until you leave the island and the boat goes to the other side that you can really see it for yourself. It really does look like one. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Gunkanjima, the battleship island of Nagasaki, Japan:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Buying Coffee In The Land Of Tea

Editorial Note: Since I started whereisdarrennow my focus has been on recording what I've learned along the way. I knew that, if I didn't force myself to sit down and think about what I've seen, I'd forget many of the details. In this way, lots of the stories have tended to be "explanations" and "take aways" of what I've seen and/or the experiences I had. I've received feedback that people are enjoying the stories but that they also want to read more about my "daily life" experiences. To me, these things haven't really been "worthy" of sharing but, in response, I'll start posting more stories like this. So, here's another story in the "daily life" category. Enjoy!

About a block from where I'm living there's a small coffee-roasting shop that I've been buying my coffee from. It's a mom-and-pop-style business that's owned by a guy who looks like he's in his late 40s or early 50s. A couple of times that I've gone in an older couple who are probably the owner's parents are manning the shop. Of course it's possible that it's their shop and the son is working for them but I'm not sure because they don't speak English and I still can't handle that level of conversation in Japanese.

The shop buys green coffee and roasts it in super-small batches on their roasting machine. I love the smell when I walk by the shop each day. You can see their roaster and the burlap sacks of green coffee:

At any given time, they have about six or eight coffee varieties. I've tried a bunch so far and my favorite has been the Brazilian medium roast. The shop also sells creamers, sugar, cocoa, and other stuff that goes with the coffee.

I've been impressed by their concern for quality and the artisan approach they take when they roast the coffee. The coffee is great and, to think, it's in the land where tea is still king. Anyway, just another post under "scenes from my daily life". Now for a fresh pot of coffee!