Noilly Prattle: December 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

Yubara Onsen – 湯原温泉

   There is another side to Japan from its ancient temples, shrines and castle donjons.


hand and foot soaks on the roadside
      Japan is surrounded by it. It falls regularly from the skies. And, like life blood, it flows through the body of Japan in the arteries and veins of its brooks, streams and rivers. Some of that water is heated naturally deep in the earth, for Japan is in the Ring of Fire, the volcanic rim of the Pacific basin. If the Japanese have some kind of religious sacrament it would have to be cleanliness, and with water in such abundance it's not hard to understand why. Japan is known worldwide for its neatness and relative safety. The corollary to environmental neatness is personal cleanliness. Bathing is not merely a necessity here it is considered one of the great pleasures of life. The best venue for the pleasure of bathing is the 温泉町 “onsen machi” –hot spring resort—the phrase also connotes many other pleasures. 

Asahi River in Yubara Onsen
      We are fortunate to live only a two-hour drive from the finest example of a natural hot spring in the western part of Japan (according to the town's PR spin brochure). All you have to do is follow the river upstream from Okayama City until you reach the hot spring town of Yubara where hot water actually flows into the Asahi River, the same river that flows all the way through Okayama into the Inland Sea. But, in Yubara, it's still more a stream than the big river that flows through our city. So, road buddy and I decided to kick off our winter travel with an overnight trip to Yubara Onsen for my birthday. As we got higher into the mountains the weather began to change rapidly. It was sunny when we left the house, but started snowing about half way. Perfect!

hot spring pools - lower center
entrance to the hot spring pools
      You see, the reason to go to Yubara Onsen is for the hot water pools that sit right in the Asahi River. Admission is free and bathing is both mixed and in the nude, swimwear is taboo. If you are shy and modest you would be unwise to go to the river pools. The ryokan – 旅館 – (inns) have same-sex bathing in privacy if you are shy of exposing your body in public. But, there is nothing on this planet to compare with the hot spring pools out in nature on a cold winter night with the snow falling. If you are really lucky, and we were, the clouds will break occasionally and the moon will peek through the falling snow. 

our own private hot spring tub
Madama Butterfly
      Our ryokan had its own hot tub filled with hot natural spring water piped right into the room. After we arrived and checked in we took a walk to the river pools. It was late afternoon and very cold so we were debating about going back out after dark. Returning to the ryokan we filled the hot tub, mixed a couple of Rusty Nail cocktails (scotch and Drambuie), opened a bar of dark chocolate and enjoyed a nice long soak before dinner. If you stay in a traditional Japanese inn you are provided with yukata – ゆかた – (sleeping kimono) which you can wear to go to dinner and even to go outside the inn if you wish. After reluctantly getting out of the tub we donned our yukata and went down to the private room where our dinner was prepared by an “Iron Chef”. We ordered some kanzake – 燗酒 – (heated sake) with dinner that boosted the effect of the Rusty Nails. 

      Being internally heated with sake we were feeling somewhat brave about going out to the river pools but still a little reluctant to go out in the cold. Yet, the memory and lure of the natural setting—we had been here before—finally overcame our reluctance. We put our down coats over the flimsy yukata and went out to the river. It didn't seem as cold as it had earlier even though we were wearing almost nothing (easier that way to get undressed quickly in the cold air to slip into the hot pool). 

      It is difficult to describe being in the hot spring in the cold, snowy open air. It is so idyllic. There were just a few other people when we arrived. It's chilly on bare skin until you slip into the hot water, then, miraculously, you don't feel the cold at all. Only your head is out of the water but the head and face are the least sensitive parts of the body to cold anyway. Nevertheless, the hot water penetrates quickly to the bones and you can soak for hours talking quietly just being alive. It is truly one of the most exquisite feelings I can think of offhand.

dressed to kill
      We stayed in the pools for over an hour and then got out, dressed and walked back to the inn not feeling the cold in the least—the penetrated heat holds for quite a while after getting out of the hot spring. After finally getting up in the morning we refilled the hot tub in the room and soaked a bit more before going to breakfast (mine western style, hers Japanese style).

hi tech instructions
      One more aspect of water usage in Japan I forgot to mention—hi-tech toilets. These marvels of the bowel movement have been around for a while, but being something of a naturalist I have avoided using them. However, all good resolutions meet their nemesis sooner or later and our inn had a hi-tech toilet that I had no choice but to use. Of course, I could have chosen to simply let if flush (by itself) and not to use the various toys on the wall panel, but curiosity finally got the better of me and I succumbed to a couple of the functions cutely illustrated on the panel. I will leave it to your imagination to decide which ones. 

hiking at Takebe
susuki - pampas grass
      It had continued to snow lightly overnight and the car had a light covering of snow, but the sun was shining and the road was clear enough so as not to present a driving hazard since I have no snow tires. We had a pleasant drive back on the back country roads along the Asahi River, stopped off to do some hiking on some woodsy trails that we know in Takebe, and arrived back home in the early afternoon. All in all, it was a great change of scene and a nice kick off for our upcoming trip to Europe in January.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Santa Esque


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Europe and Music Beckon the Wandering Spirit

Xmas Cake
       'Tis the week before Xmas and all through our house no visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. We aren't doing Xmas this year. Here in Japan, a non-Christian nation, it isn't even a holiday. The commercial aspect is big here, and a sort of tradition of eating “Christmas cake” (a few strawberries on white icing) on the “Eve” of the 24th has taken hold. I used to have to take a paid vacation day when our son was younger and we made an effort to celebrate a semblance of the holiday with an artificial tree and stuffed turkey dinner (once we built our own house and had an oven big enough to roast it in). 
Prague, Theater of the Estates
       Although no sugar plums dance in our heads, thoughts of another season of music and theater do. Our plans are coming together for another winter opera “season” in Europe. First, we'll be spending January in Berlin attending operas at the Schiller Theater (temporary home of Unter den Linden) and the Deutsche Oper in the Charlottenburg district of the city. We've rented in nice small serviced apartment in Charlottenburg within easy walking distance of both theaters. Opera buffs might be interested in our schedule: Lucia di Lamermoor, Freischutz, Don Giovanni, Maria Stuarda, Orfeus in the Underworld, Tosca and Un Ballo in Masquera. We are also attending an all-Mozart concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. Neither road buddy nor I have been to Berlin so we are both excited and looking forward to a new town and a new experience. 
Vienna, Theater An der Wien
       In February and March we return to our beloved Prague. We have rented a charming serviced apartment near Bethlehem Square in an old building that used to be a convent. Our opera lineup includes: War with the Newts, Otello, Orpheus and Euridice, L'elisir D'amore, Rusalka, Turandot, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus, and Carmen. Towards the end of February we return for a short stay in Vienna, after a two-year absence, to see the incomparable mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, in Rossini's Le compte Ory, at the Theater An der Wien. 
       We are also stopping off in Istanbul and Ephesus for a week or so on the way back to Japan returning sometime in early April when the cherry blossoms bloom and the weather gets warmer. 


Monday, December 17, 2012

Taking Meaningful Action

Sasumata Demonstration

     Yet again, the United States, has experienced a mass killing spree in a school. This time the victims were very young children mowed down by semi-automatic weapons fire. These kinds of atrocities have been occurring with such regularity, that they now seem the rule more than the exception. The anatomy of these killing sprees has also become routine. The loner apparently looking to go out in a blaze of glory finally turns the gun on himself. Then the media frenzy begins and the story is milked from every possible angle to achieve the maximum sensational effects: the agonized survivors wringing their hands and asking the unanswerable question—why?; media interviewers with microphone in your face asking “how you feel about all this”; the search for family and acquaintances of the perpetrator to delve into his [so far always a male] background and psychology; interviews with scholars and pundits analyzing what's wrong with our society that we have such regular and horrendous atrocities. The post-mortem goes on and on until the viewing public finally tires of it and moves on to some other sensational event, waiting for the next mass killing spree, and so on.
        Here in Osaka a few years ago there was a similar mass killing at an elementary school. It quite shocked the Japanese people to the core considering that Japan is considered one of the safest countries in the world. At 10:15 in the morning of June 8, 2001, 37-year-old former janitor Mamoru Takuma entered the school armed with a kitchen knife and began stabbing numerous school children and teachers. He killed eight children, mostly between the ages of seven and eight, and seriously wounded thirteen other children and two teachers.
training in the use of sasumata
       Authorities acted swiftly and decisively setting up a program of self-defense to train teachers to handle such incidents should they occur again. The program included the use of “tools” to be used in fending off an armed attacker. In the traditional Japanese cultural ethos, this would be a collective effort by as many teachers as possible working together to fend of the attacker, buying time, until the police can be notified and arrive on the scene.
        Japan has one of the strictest gun control regimes in the world. So, fortunately, from a certain point of view, mass killers aren't likely to use even a hand gun, let alone semi-automatic weapons in Japan. Their weapon of choice is usually a knife, far less deadly in terms of numbers of dead, and more easily subdued by a determined defense and restraint effort by cooperating trained people.
        The main tools used in over 90% of public schools throughout the country are a two-pronged restraining tool called a "sasumata" and pepper spray. They are kept in plain sight and convenient to reach and grab by trained and rehearsed staff. They are actually relatively inconspicuous and seem to blend into the decor of the classroom and halls.
        Granted the United States has a far more serious and intractable problem with school security than Japan. The problem is directly related to the easy access to powerful weaponry designed more for the battlefield than for sport. I recently made a somewhat Swiftian proposal to the effect that teachers may need to be armed to protect their young charges. But one could easily imagine a pitched shootout of the OK corral variety occurring in a second grade classroom with the terrorized children cowering under their desks.
         Still, there is precedent and a model for “meaningful” action in response to mass killing of elementary students in Japan. Surely, US authorities could bang their heads together and come up with something better than locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. And something needs desperately to be done about the easy access to weapons of mass destruction.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Looking Back: 12 – almost like one of the family

     I returned to Kendall, sometimes with shipmates, sometimes just me, many times in the ensuing months. The T.s were like a second family. I stayed overnight on weekends on several occasions. Carole and I took a liking to each other and it might have turned more serious under different circumstances, but she was in college and I was still in the Navy, stationed in Key West, only coming around from time to time. Sexual mores in those days were not as casual as they became as a result of the social revolutions of the 60s and 70s. My future prospects and whereabouts were not conducive to establishing a stable relationship. We were less than lovers and more than friends although we came close to the former one night on the beach. But that was special and will remain so.

Mary jumping the hurdles
      The T.s had a large property, around two acres as I mentioned earlier, and they kept a horse. Much of the backyard was a corral and, of course, contained a stable for the horse. Mary, the youngest, was an avid rider and jumper. She won several prizes jumping hurdles in equestrian competitions. 

Hallandale Beach
      Unfortunately, the perhaps inevitable serpent turned up in paradise. On one of my weekend trips up to Miami, this time with a couple of ship buddies, we took the three younger T children to Hallandale Beach, some 25 miles up the coast from downtown Miami, in my old '55 Ford. After a fun-filled day at the beach we were heading back to Kendall on the Homestead Extension of the Florida Turnpike. There were six people in the car: I was driving, Nancy, the second girl, was in the middle of the front seat and a buddy was next to the passenger door. Ricky and Mary, the two youngest kids and another buddy were in the back seat. 

      I was driving along in the outside lane heading south on the turnpike doing around 50 or 60 mph, within the speed limit. I noticed another car ahead on the left stopped on a road that crossed the 4-lane highway apparently waiting to get onto the highway. Suddenly, this car moved into my lane and stopped halfway onto the highway—directly in my path. I reacted immediately, hit the brakes hard and swerved to the right to avoid a head on collision into the other car's passenger side door (I could see a small child in the passenger seat), but it was too late to avoid hitting the other car altogether. My left front fender slammed into her right front fender avoiding a head on but still making a significant impact. Somehow, the driver of the other car hit the accelerator and sent her car plunging into a ditch on the other side of the highway. My old Ford was dead in the water, leaking radiator fluid onto the road. 

      In the car it was chaos. I had managed to throw my hands in front of my face before I slammed into the steering wheel and only bruised my forehead. The people in the back seat were scattered and jumbled about but didn't appear to be hurt. The guy in the passenger seat also managed to throw his hands up and avoided serious injury. Nancy, however, hadn't seen it coming fast enough to react and banged her head hard on the rearview mirror and was knocked unconscious.

To be continued...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


      It is remarkable how prescient—or astute—Orwell was when he turned the English language inside out in 1948. I'm thinking of the most recent addition to the ongoing debasement of the language—and possibly, by extension [or vice-versa], of society—the 24th “right to work” bill just approved by the legislature of the great State of Michigan under the rubric of “freedom” of choice. When enacted Michigan will join 23 other States that already have "right to work" laws. You might notice that most of the 23 are in the "heartland" states.

      Well, in this era of global competition, business seeks the lowest common denominator, a race to the bottom of competitive wages. Until wages come up in the developing countries and come down to match in the developed countries, jobs will continue to be shipped to the cheapest labor pools available. 
        So, maybe the worst kept dirty little secret is that if American workers want to be able to compete on a global basis, they are going to have to accept lower wages to keep jobs at home. That is the message of this latest round of “union busting” that has been going on since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. 
        Another inside out term that goes hand in glove with “right to work” is “productivity” meaning more work done by fewer people for less pay. The trend is pretty clear and the handwriting is in the Michigan “right to work” bill.

       Just a thought.

PS: An opinion piece [linked below] by Harold Meyerson on this subject appeared a few hours later in the WaPo citing a study done by economist Lonnie K. Stevans of Hofstra University that found that "states that have enacted such laws reported no increase in business start-ups or rates of employment. Wages and personal income are lower in those states than in those without such laws, Stevans concluded, though proprietors’ incomes are higher. In short, right-to-work laws simply redistribute income from workers to owners."

Meyers concluded that "workers don’t get raises if they can’t bargain collectively, and all the hand-wringing about our rising rates of inequality will be so much empty rhetoric unless we insist ... on workers’ right to form powerful unions."

Harold Meyerson: The Lansing-Beijing Connection 

PS2: Even the most anal-retentive of conservative pundits, the incomparable Charles Krauthammer, understands what's coming down the pike, only he puts a slightly different spin on it. Basically, his attitude is tough shit workers of America, but if you want to work at all, you'll have to accept “competitive” wages. 
Says Charles in an opinion piece in the WaPo 12/14/2012: “For a generation, America had the run of the world. Then the others [the powers defeated in WWII] recovered. Soon global competition — from Volkswagen to Samsung — began to overtake American industry that was saddled with protected, inflated, relatively uncompetitive wages, benefits and work rules. Obama calls [right to work] a race to the bottom. No, it’s a race to a new equilibrium that tries to maintain employment levels, albeit at the price of some modest wage decline.” My emphases.

Charles Krauthammer opinion piece 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Looking Back: 11 – getting acquainted

     If you can imagine a fairy tale castle, writ small and transposed from the Bavarian alps to the palmetto strewn plains of South Dade—that's what the T's home seemed like to me. It was, actually, only a 4-bedroom ranch with a couple of bathrooms set and secluded in a palm treed driveway and landscaped with other tropical plants and shrubbery. And—the cherry on the sundae—a private pool right off the living room. It was as though I had done my time in purgatory and gone, at last, to heaven. It was Florida living, close to the ground (no cellar) and open to the sky. People lived half in half out of doors the climate was so genial. Well, it wasn't completely “open to the sky”, Florida has humongous mosquitoes, the pool was screened. (Just so you don't think I had gone completely batty.)

       Those very friendly people, the T family, that we had met at a roadside drive-in in the Keys, turned out to be the real McCoy. They had been sincere when they gave us their address and phone number and invited us to visit their home in Kendall. On a weekend pass, not too long after we had met Mom and the four kids, we hopped in my '55 Ford and headed up to Miami. We thought better of just appearing on their doorstep in case they had had a change of heart. Mr. T had not been at the drive-in and we thought that maybe he, having attractive young daughters of a certain age, might not be so enthralled with the idea of having three sailors in his home—given the image we believed many people had of sailors. When we got to Kendall and before driving up to their address we called them from a phone booth along the highway.

       There had been no need to worry, they sounded delighted to hear from us and that we were calling from a nearby phone booth. Of course, we didn't say that we had come especially to see them, but that we had a weekend pass and decided to come to Miami and check out the beaches and since we were already in the area thought we'd drop in and say hello, blah, blah, blah.... That gave them the opportunity to back out of the invitation and us to save face. But, no, they insisted that we come to their house. We did so, as I said before, “with bells on.”

       The house sat on a couple acres of land, as we soon discovered, and it was like nothing any of us had experienced before being all northerners. Our houses up north were closed in with cellars and central heating or cast-iron stoves. But this was tropical living. We were ushered into the house and immediately saw that you could just step out of the living room into the screened in swimming pool—don't forget the mosquitoes. The whole living room wall was made of sliding doors that could be pulled aside to leave the whole side of the house open to the pool. It gave the feeling of living out of doors, yet sheltered from the elements—the ultimate evolution of the cave.

        Mr. T was at home this time and he turned out to be a terrific guy and host. He was an airline pilot with Pan American Grace Airways. His regular runs were between Lima, Peru and Miami International Airport. Drinks were mixed and poured and we all relaxed and got acquainted. Finally, someone asked if we had brought our swimming trunks and would we like to use the pool. We had and we would like very much indeed, thank you so much for asking. (I suppose they couldn't have missed the fact that we kept glancing at the pool and oohing and aahing about how great it was to have a pool right outside your living room.) There was a cabana on one end of the pool and we were invited to change into our swimming trunks...and would we like to stay for dinner?   

      “Oh, no, no, we couldn't possibly put to you to so much trouble, thanks anyway. And we do have to get back to Key West.”
      “Right away?”
      “Well, er, no, not right away, necessarily, but.....”
      “That settles it, you're staying for dinner.”
      “Well, if you insist, we'd love to.”
      “Are you hungry?”
      “Are you kidding, we're starving!”
      “Good! We'll do a barbeque. Have another drink, jump in the pool....

To be continued...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Looking Back: 10 – chance encounters of the best kind

     Sometimes something wonderful happens when you least expect it

US Naval Base, Norfolk, VA
      Perhaps Norfolk had a a negative view of sailors because of the size of the naval base there and the ratio of military personnel to the actual civilian population. At any rate, Norfolk didn't make us feel like “America's finest” and the “good” people tended to shun us. It was really two different worlds and rarely did the twain meet—if ever. The feeling was mutual and that was why I couldn't get out of Norfolk fast enough and landed in the clink. Henceforth, I'll put Norfolk and negativity to rest once and for all.

like sunshine emerging from a dark cloud

      Florida was like sunshine emerging from a dark cloud and so seemed the people. The Key West Naval Air Station was a small naval base at the southern end of the Florida keys. Sailors were not tainted with the brush of notoriety and bad reputation. Key West was a pretty laid back, sleepy mañana kind of town, hospitable to people of all persuasions—including sailors.

Naval Air Station,  Key West, FL
      Being stationed in Key West was the next best thing to being on permanent holiday. Except for my dipstick Ensign of broken bridge wing fame, duty on the Sally was pretty hassle free. We were in the auxiliary service fleet, rigid regulations of dress and protocol were relatively relaxed. It was as nearly idyllic (from my decidedly non gung-ho point of view) as it is possible to be in the military. We were between wars—hot ones that is. The Korean War had ended with an armistice in 1953. In 1954, President Eisenhower stated the “domino theory” related to Southeast Asia after the defeat of France at Dienbienphu. The paranoid fear was that other SE Asian nations would fall, like dominoes, to Communism. The Geneva Convention (1956) had split Vietnam in two (North and South), and the first American military advisers and trainers arrived in Saigon laying the foundation for America's evolving involvement. But the debacle it was fated to become was still just a blip on the horizon and we were enjoying the Florida sunshine.

typical roadside establishments in the Keys
      A couple of my shipmates and I were on one of our usual sojourns up the Keys. I think it was around Key Vaca, but I'm not sure. At any rate one Key was pretty much like another along the Overseas Highway, basically lined with drive in restaurants and motels. Key Vaca is situated about halfway along the Overseas Highway between Key Largo and Key West. We had stopped for something to eat at one of these drive ins and were eating, drinking and shooting the bull. There was what appeared to be part of a family (no man) sitting at a nearby table, an obvious mother and four kids (three girls and a boy). The oldest girl was about my age, maybe a little younger, and very attractive. The whole family, as a matter of fact, was attractive. Assuming they wouldn't want to associate with a bunch of sailors we pretended not to notice them.

     All of sudden, the mother addressed us quite boldly and straightforwardly asked us if were trying to avoid them. I guess our masquerade of pretended indifference was pretty transparent. Taken aback, we turned and started laughing. I said something bantering like: “No we're just minding our own business and keeping out of trouble. Hope we weren't being too loud and disturbing your lunch.” That broke the ice and we all started chatting. 
painting "At the Silver Slipper, Key West," by Waldo Peirce
     Peg, the mother, was very open and vivacious, but my eye kept roving back to Carole, the eldest. They were from Kendall, a suburb in Dade County south of downtown Miami, and, like us, they were out for a drive in the country—or, I should say, a drive in the Keys. Mr. T., who was an airline pilot, was away on a flight. We told them that we were sailors stationed in Key West and, lo and behold, no “Oh!” and no raised eyebrows. We were being treated like ordinary guys instead of dissipated sailors and it felt wonderful.

      And then, beyond belief, these terrific people invited us to visit them at their home in Kendall and actually gave us their address and telephone number. I think I said something like: 
      "Thanks. We don't get up to Miami very often, but if we're ever in your neighborhood we'll give you a call."  

     And, then silently, to myself:

     “We'll be there with bells on!”

To be continued....

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Looking Back: 9 - look out below

"Sally" with uncrumpled port wing (with life preserver)

      The funniest event, in the way that seeing somebody slip on a banana peel is funny, aboard the Salinan was something that happened when we were chasing a barge that had gotten loose in a hurricane and was drifting around in the Gulf of Mexico. We were assigned to go out, find it, capture it and tow it back to port. The only problem was the hurricane wasn't entirely over yet and the sea was still pretty rough with very large swells. Large waves tend to bounce and throw the ship around, whereas swells cause it to roll queasily back and forth.

      We proceeded out of Key West, heading into the Gulf looking for this wayward barge. Eventually, with the help of radar and sharp-eyed lookouts up in the crow's nest (not really in the crow's nest, only figuratively—crow's nests went out with tall sailing ships), we found the old rust bucket helplessly bobbing around and rolling in the swells of the hurricane's aftermath. Needless to say, we, too, were rock and rolling enough to make American Bandstand dancers look completely arrhythmic. (American Bandstand was a popular rock 'n roll TV dance program in the 1950s.)

      I was on the wheel, as usual in tight circumstances, as we approached this rusty behemoth barge that was at least twice as big as the Sally. Our dipstick ROTC Ensign “had the con” (he was in charge of the operation) as we pulled in alongside the barge. The idea was to get a tow cable over and secure the barge so that it could be towed back to port. I looked out the wheelhouse portholes (windows to landlubbers) and could see this humongous derelict rolling dangerously close when I heard some shouting from the deck below that we were getting to close and should pull back before we collided. The Ensign, confused, didn't know what to do so, too late, the captain took over the con. By then, precious seconds had been wasted and the gap between us and the barge had narrowed too much. We were bobbing up and down and rolling left and right and so was the barge. Then the bobs and rolls lined up just right. Up came the barge and down we rolled onto it with our port (left) side bridge wing which caught and was pried up like the lid on a freshly opened tin can. Fortunately, everyone on the bridge wing scrambled quickly enough and no one was injured—except the Sally with her broken wing.

      Our Ensign, red faced, quietly slunk away. Being an officer, he would not be reprimanded publicly by the captain in front of enlisted men like me. But I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the officers' quarters later on. The captain was not happy.

      After the collision the deck crew managed to get a line over to the barge and board it. The towing cable was attached and we headed back to port with what must have looked like a very funny profile from behind with one crumpled bridge wing sticking up in the air. And I could only imagine one very unhappy and humiliated Ensign confined in the wardroom to his bunk with an ice pack on his head.

To be continued...