Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The mystery of the exorbitantly expensive grapes

This is a story about a $98 package of grapes. I found them sitting on a supermarket shelf in downtown Tokyo. They were sandwiched between a $2 bunch of bananas and a $3 pack of pears. It was a low-key place for such a high-end product.

The grapes were sold by the bunch. Each bunch contained about 12 grapes. The price per bunch? A whopping 7,350 yen (about $98 or 70 euros). That's 612.5 yen (or $8.16 or 5.83 euros) per grape.

Clearly, these were no run-of-the-mill grapes. The packaging was as excessive as the price tag. The grapes were lined with paper, wrapped in plastic, cradled in Styrofoam and placed in a box. Four layers of packaging signified that these grapes were something special. But I had no idea why they were so exorbitantly expensive.

So I did what any modern detective would do -- I googled it. It turns out there is a reason why the grapes are so expensive. This is not to say the reason is valid or logical but rather to point out that even the most seemingly bizarre and random things in Japan are almost always that way for a reason. The reason may be as bizarre and random as the thing itself but there is a reason why things are the way they are. Like the way the office expects me to follow their absurd orders without question. Every three months or so, they ask me for a photocopy of my passport and visa. My passport and visa do not change every three months. They must have at least 10 copies of the same two pages by now. But they still ask for a new photocopy every few months. I know there is a reason behind it I just don't know what it is.

As for the mysterious $98 grapes, it turns out there are two types of fruit in Japan: the fruit you eat and the fruit you give as a gift. If you don't know how to distinguish between these two types of fruit, the price tag serves as a guidepost. The fruit you eat is cheap. The fruit you give as a gift is expensive.

According to the New York Times, gift fruit is cultivated in a special way. The high price reflects the "exceptional methods" used in growing the fruit. The grapes I found in Tokyo are a variety known as Ruby Roman. They have been engineered to be extra big and super sweet. They are grown, packaged and marketed solely as gift fruit. In other words, the grapes owe their existence to the high-priced-fruit-as-present industry (an industry I'm pretty sure exists nowhere else on the planet). It's a system that works well in Japan, with its love of luxury brands and its culture of gift giving.

So there you have it. Mystery solved.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rethinking nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster

I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Japan about the Fukushima disaster. Much to my surprise, the Japan Times decided to publish it.

The letter appears in today's newspaper. You can read it here. I have also cut and pasted the letter below:

Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan continues to resonate far beyond its geographical borders for many reasons, but most of all because it exposed a deep fault line that runs through the global nuclear industry.

The twisted, charred reactors that sit on the Fukushima No. 1 site are a powerful symbol of both the literal and metaphorical damage to an industry that has long promoted nuclear power as a safe, reliable and clean source of energy.

The Fukushima disaster -- the worst of its kind since Chernobyl -- has shaken our assumptions about nuclear power, proving it is more unstable and dangerous than we thought. The disaster has also exposed the human arrogance that leads us to think we can somehow "outsmart" nature by building nuclear power plants as if they were unsinkable ships impervious to the rumblings of the earth and the movements of the ocean.

We forget that nature can't always be controlled or predicted, and so when a bigger-than-planned-for tsunami slams into a nuclear power plant, we are shocked to see the ugly mess left behind when the water recedes -- in this case, a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, the release of radioactive materials and the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from their homes. The tragedy is that we did this to ourselves.

If any good is to come of the Fukushima disaster, it is that it has sparked a worldwide debate about the future of nuclear power. Switzerland and Germany took quick, decisive action after the Fukushima crisis and announced their complete withdrawal from nuclear power in the coming decades. I'm pleased to hear that you plan to phase-out nuclear power too.

But what happens next is more complicated. Shutting down nuclear power plants will leave us with an energy supply gap that will have to be made up somehow. Will we invest in renewable energy or rely on increased imports of polluting fossil fuels? Will we attempt to reduce the demand for energy in the first place or continue to act as if the ground will never run out of oil?

Before the March 11 disaster, nuclear energy accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's power supply. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan hoped to fill the majority of that gap with renewable energy by the early 2020s. You have said that reducing Japan's dependence on nuclear power will be a gradual process and that some reactors will have to be restarted.

In Germany, however, political leaders acted immediately to phase out nuclear power following the Tohoku disaster. The German government reversed its pronuclear stance and decided to abandon nuclear energy within 11 years. Eight of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors were taken off the grid after Fukushima. The German government has set a target to produce 35 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

But it's not enough to just address the supply of energy; we also need to look at how we can reduce that demand for energy in the first place. This will require a change in the way we think about energy and the way we live our lives.

Here in Japan, for example, there are more than 5.5 million vending machines. They guzzle electricity day and night to keep drinks hot and cool. But do we really need any of those vending machines? Do we really need to have their refrigerators and heaters running 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the sake of convenience?

How we use energy, how we produce energy -- it's all part of the discussion. I hope you will continue to keep Japan on its path of phasing out nuclear power. I also hope you will start thinking about safer, cleaner and more reliable alternatives.

If there is any good to come out of the Fukushima disaster, it is this.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Five days in Tokyo

Tokyo's manic energy is intoxicating. I don't know if it's the lights or the crowds or the futuristic vibe of the city. Whatever it is, it's impossible not to feel a rush of excitement while walking under a night sky blotted out by neon signs.

The best way to get to Tokyo is by bullet train. Being on a train going more than 300 kilometres an hour sets the tone for the trip. Riding the bullet train is like sitting in an airplane as it roars down the runway just before takeoff. That burst of takeoff speed is the thing I love most about flying. The only problem is that it doesn't last long. On a bullet train, you get the thrill of traveling at takeoff speed for more than two hours. You feel like you're hurtling headlong into the future.

I have a newfound appreciation for Tokyo. Maybe it's because I've been in Kyoto for too long. Living in Kyoto is like being in a small bar with jazz playing softly in the background. It's smooth, easy and comfortable. Going to Tokyo is like entering a huge nightclub with techno thumping from the speakers. It's loud, crowded and frantic. The bass rattles your teeth, the lights sweep over a sea of heads dancing in unison. The energy is contagious. There's nothing to do but look for a space in the crowd, slip in and let go.

The beauty of big cities is their diversity. There's a greater variety of people and lifestyles. In turn, people in big cities tend to be more accepting and tolerant than their small-town counterparts. You won't see gay couples holding hands on the streets of Tokyo but you will see a lot creative and non-conformist people -- stylistically speaking, at least. People in Tokyo are not afraid to dye their hair green, pop the lenses out of their glasses, carry a bag with a huge kitten painted on it, pair chunky purple shoes with red pants, and top it all off with a gold-sequined shirt. And those are just the guys. Harajuku girls elevate cosplay to an art form. Kyoto seems so conservative by comparison.

There is no shortage of things to do in Tokyo. On Saturday alone, there was a jazz festival, a bicycle film festival, an organic farmers' market, a high school cheerleading competition and a march against nuclear power.

It was inspiring to see hundreds of people marching against nuclear power. A lot of Japanese people are angry about the Fukushima disaster. And they are making their voices heard. I only hope the politicians are listening. The times they are a-changin'.

After the protest march, I ate a vegetarian falafel at the organic farmers' market at the United Nations University. It doesn't get much more politically correct than that! I felt like I was back in Vancouver.

Tokyo is a great place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there. Too big. Too many people. There are more people in the Greater Tokyo area (35 million) than in all of Canada (34 million). Five days in Tokyo was fun. But I couldn't imagine a lifetime of crowded trains, cramped living conditions and concrete as far as the eye can see.