Monday, June 27, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Welcome to the jungle and my secular spiritual awakening

This is a tally of all the wild creatures I have run into during the past three weeks. One poisonous centipede. Two dozen monkeys. A handful of mosquitoes. Several hundred frogs. A dozen fireflies. One slug. Two hawks. Half a dozen spiders. A whole bunch of salamanders. Countless butterflies. Two lizards. Three snakes. Four deer. And one leech. (Being attacked by a leech was actually kind of exciting.)

The amazing thing is that I spotted all of these creatures within the Kyoto city limits, either in the mountain behind my apartment or by the river across the street or in the rice fields down the road.

That there can be so much wildlife in such an urban area is a juxtaposition that makes me happy. I mean, happy in the sense that so much wildlife exists outside my door. I'd be much less happy if the centipedes and snakes decided to move into my apartment.

Sometimes Kyoto feels more like a jungle than a city.

Let me give you an example. Two weeks ago, I hiked up the mountain behind my apartment. I was alone on a quiet trail when a stampede of more than 30 monkeys came running through the forest, crossing the path in front of me. Some of the adult monkeys were carrying baby monkeys on their backs and they stopped and looked right at me. It was just me and a bunch of wild monkeys. No fence. No barrier. Just me and my distant relatives hanging out in the forest. The monkeys didn't seem threatened by my presence. Instead, they seemed indifferent to it. They just sat down in front of me and starting picking the bugs off each other's backs. It was an incredibly moving experience. And I don't even like monkeys.

Watching the monkeys watching me, I couldn't help but feel that we were equals. Both of us nothing more than primates living on the land. I felt no greater or less than the monkeys in front of me. I felt no better than the ants underfoot or the leaves overhead. Rather, I just felt that we were equal and connected -- all of us small parts of a greater whole. All of us nothing more than species among other species, the product of billions of years of evolution. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe and wonder about the beauty of nature and the magnitude of the universe.

I love the way the main character in White Noise describes the way he feels when he watches children sleep ("Watching children sleep makes me feel devout, part of a spiritual system. It is the closest I can come to God. If there is a secular equivalent of standing in a great spired cathedral with marble pillars and streams of mystical light slanting through two-tier Gothic windows, it would be children in their little bedrooms fast asleep"). It's the same way I feel when I spend time in nature. It makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.

And, dammit, the more time I spend in nature, the more I can feel myself turning into a hardcore tree-hugging hippie. Well, maybe not that hardcore. I still like having stylish clothes, shiny hair and a sense of humor. I'm a hippie on the inside only.

I feel like I'm having some sort of spiritual awakening and I hate that I'm having some sort of spiritual awakening because I hate the word "spiritual" and all of the flaky, new-age shit (crystals and space music and astrology) that goes along with it because that's not what spirituality is for me. It's a word that has no religious meaning. It's simply about feeling a deep connection with nature. It's about feeling a sense of awe and wonder at knowing we live on a tiny planet, in the middle of the Milky Way, surrounded by billions of stars and billions of planets and billions of galaxies in a vast, yawning universe.

Never have I felt this more profoundly than in Kyoto. In the mountains, by the river and in the forest. I am constantly reminded about how small and insignificant we really are. And how, at the same time, we are connected to everything and everyone. It all makes sense in the mountains.

Note: I broke my camera at the end of April (it turns out taking pictures on top of a mountain in typhoon-strength rain wasn't such a good idea) so I've missed out on capturing most of the aforementioned wildlife encounters. My cellphone camera takes crappy pictures. That's a leech on my leg in the last photo. I let it eat until it was full. And then it eventually dropped off on its own. It was kind of exciting to walk around with a leech on my leg. And I kind of missed him when he was gone. (See what I mean? I'm totally turning into some sort of nature freak.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The cute, the not-so-cute and the ugly

It all began when a cat named Tama was appointed stationmaster of a railway station in rural Japan. And then the wheels came off the cute wagon.

Eager to cash in on what turned out to be a money-making bonanza, other railway stations jumped on the animal-as-stationmaster bandwagon. They appointed cats, dogs, goats and rabbits as honorary employees at railway stations across the country.

But what started out as a cute copycat move has corkscrewed down into a lazy and unimaginative gimmick now that railway officials are appointing lobsters as stationmasters. Seriously. Lobsters. The animal-as-stationmaster craze has officially jumped the shark.

Who knew that such a heart-warming tale would end on such a dark note?

It all began innocently enough. Five years ago, several Japanese railway lines went from being manned to unmanned in an effort to cut costs. Railway officials selected local businesspeople to serve as honorary stationmasters.

At Kishi station in the Japanese town of Kinokawa, a local grocer was appointed stationmaster. A stray cat took up residence outside the empty ticket booth and the grocer would feed her while going about his stationmaster duties. Tama the cat became a regular fixture at the station. Her friendly personality made her a hit with the locals, who would stop and pet her on their way to work.

The cat's popularity caught the eye of the railway officials. For fun, they decided to name her honorary stationmaster in 2007. The cat was given an office (a ticket booth containing a litter box), a uniform (a cute little hat and collar), a salary (free cat food), and a job (greet passengers as they come in and out of the station). The story made headlines across the country and Tama the cat became an overnight celebrity in cute-crazed Japan.

Japanese tourists flocked to the tiny train station to pose for photos with Tama. The cat became so famous that the railway had to hire a human employee to assist her. A shop at the station started to sell a variety of Tama-branded souvenir goods, including buttons, snacks, and a special photo book. According to the Japan Times, the cat has attracted tourists from across the country and boosted the local economy by 1.1 billion yen.

Last year, Tama was promoted to corporate executive of the Wakayama Electric Railway Co. (making her the company's highest-ranking female executive).

It's the stuff American dreams are made of: one day you're nobody, the next day you're somebody. Or, in this case, one day you're a stray cat, the next day you're at the top of the transportation industry.

In an attempt to cash in on the success of Tama, other unmanned railway stations in Japan jumped on the animal-as-stationmaster bandwagon. There are now several cat stationmasters and at least two dog stationmasters, with the latest being a fluffy Akita named Wasao.

Wasao reports for duty at Ajigasawa station in Aomori Prefecture. His job is to help boost the local tourism industry, which has been suffering since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The other dog stationmaster was a Yorkshire terrier named Maron, who worked at a small railway station in northern Japan. Unfortunately, Maron passed away from bronchitis in 2009 -- you can view pictures of his funeral here.

This is where the story starts to get weird. Because it was no longer novel to appoint a cat or a dog as stationmaster, other stations had to get creative in order to generate both headlines and revenues of their own. So in an attempt to one-up the kitties, the next animal to be appointed to the role of stationmaster was a goat called Koma.

Koma reports for duty at Uzen-Komatsu station in Yamagata Prefecture. The goat stationmaster worked out so well that a station thousands of kilometres to the south stole the idea and appointed a goat named Taro to greet passengers in Fukuoka.

But the novelty of goat stationmasters was starting to wear off so the next animal to work the railroad was a rabbit. At Unomachi station in Ehime prefecture, railway officials chose a rabbit named Tsubasa to fill the position of honorary stationmaster. According to a news report, the railway station is the only one in Japan that contains the Chinese character for "rabbit" in its name. So a rabbit was the obvious choice.

It didn't take long for another Shikoku railway to rip off the rabbit idea. Yamagata Railway also named a rabbit as stationmaster and lined its gift-shop shelves with a stuffed bunny so cute your brain will melt just looking at it.

This is when things started to go horribly wrong. With all of the cute, domesticated animals spoken for, other railways took the animal-stationmaster trend one step too far. It stopped being cute with the appointment of two baby monkeys.

Nehime and Rakan were named stationmasters at Hojo-cho station in Hyoto prefecture. The monkeys were donated by a local resident, who was concerned about the railway's decreasing ridership and poor finances. The railway hoped the monkey stationmasters would help attract publicity and riders to the line's first biodiesel-fueled train.

It gets worse. Officials at JR Ibusuki Station in Kagoshima prefecture appointed a tortoise as stationmaster. Kotaro is a 25-year-old African Spurred tortoise who weighs 41kg. He has a custom-made stationmaster hat and it wears it on the job.

The prize for the least-cute stationmaster goes to a pair of lobsters at Shishikui station in Tokushima Prefecture. Yes, stationmaster lobsters. The local railway set up an aquarium in the station's foyer and placed a stationmaster's hat above the tank, after attaching little hats to the lobsters' heads proved to be too difficult.

Let's throw a lobster in a tank and call it a stationmaster. How uninspired can you get? What's next? A cockroach stationmaster? This is a trend that has gone one step too far. Monkeys are not cute. Tortoises belong in the wild. And lobsters are just plain ugly. The animal-as-stationmaster craze has officially jumped the shark.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Poisonous centipedes + flying cockroaches = summer in Japan

I found this monster terrorizing the neighbourhood yesterday. I told him in no uncertain terms is he to enter my apartment this summer.

I am still slightly traumatized from the time one of these guys crawled into bed with me while I was sleeping, and then bit me on the arm when I rolled on top of him. My arm swelled up like a football and the bite was painful and itchy for a good two weeks. The wound healed but the terror of waking up in bed with one of these things will never go away.

Welcome to summer in Japan.