Climbing Mt. Shichimen

I had not been to Mt. Shichimen since golden week vacation 2020, during the very first COVID pandemic ‘state of emergency’. It was a surreal trip to say the least. Shinjuku station and the Chuo Expressway were completely deserted on a Saturday as I rode all alone, the only passenger on the Keio Highway bus to Minobu.

This time, golden week 2022, there were people thank goodness, at Shinjuku station, on the bus and in the highway rest areas. Even Minobu looked somewhat lively with day tourists enjoying a vacation day drive in the countryside. But there were signs of decay from two years of COVID restricted travel. A shop closed here, a vacant lot there. There were visitors, but few pilgrims. The temple inns for them (shukubo) were mostly empty at a time they should have been full.

And because they were mostly empty the staff were generous with food and drink. When I ordered a cup of sake to go along with dinner, the head priest of Chijaku-bo brought an opened sake bottle urging me to finish it off saying, “I don’t drink now and this will go to waste.” I obliged but drank far more than bargained for. I took a bath then stood outside in the cool evening air to let my head settle, listening to the sounds of the river as a crescent moon slid into a black outline of mountain peaks.

Next morning I took the early bus to the Shichimen trail base. The climb is recorded in the video. I tried to capture all 50 ‘chome’ point markers but missed a few. The video is a kind of experiment to see what works and what doesn’t in preparation of another climb to record the protective dragon legend of Mt. Shichimen. Until then…

Sewing Machine Karaoke

Spring is a busy time in Japan, new school year, new college grads starting new jobs, moving, etc. There are all kinds of specials too for new school year clothes, new suits, shoes, business bags. With everybody so busy you might think there is little time for karaoke, so more than a few media heads turned when the mega karaoke chain Joy Sound offered a Brother sewing machine plus room rental campaign running from February to May. Why would anybody want to rent and use a sewing machine at a karaoke place?

There is a good reason behind it all. First graders are required to have a family made tote-bag. It cannot be store bought, and it has to be made by the family. Anybody will do, mom, dad, grandma, aunts, uncles and so on. The school teachers use it as an exercise to closely examine what the family comes up with. Is it sloppy or carefully made? Is it thriftily made with recycled cloths (high marks for that), or made with all new store bought cloth. You can tell a lot about the child’s family and parenting environment this way, and it helps teachers understand what the child’s educational needs are.

And so, spring is also sewing machine season to make all those first grader tote-bags. Offering sewing machine karaoke rentals is clever marketing because karaoke rooms are thoroughly soundproofed which small houses or apartments are not. And if the family member charged with marking the tote-bag wants to take a break, sing a song, order food, a beer, whatever, they can do that too. A win-win, though it does speak volumes on the current state of things when karaoke establishments need to with come up clever marketing ideas to fill their empty karaoke rooms.

Tricky time of year

The cherry blossoms in Tokyo are peaking today and while they are always enjoyable, the right weather rarely coincides for taking good pictures. The pink color only pops when there is clear blue sky that provides the right contrasting background and framing a picture that captures the expansive restless beauty is nearly impossible. For me the real beauty of cherry blossoms is how they constantly play with the light and wind. I find that video shot in the early morning light works best.

The Japan Gap

The energetic glam music lovin’ Okamisan of Matsuya Ryokan in Niigata

One of the fascinating things I find in Japan life is the delightfully unexpected mismatch of people and things that they do. I was introduced to this Japanese cultural phenomenon shortly after arriving here in 1984. A nice young girl who wanted to be a flight attendant invited me home for tea. I knew she only wanted to practice English but jumped at the chance. It was a nice time. I met her family and they were very kind. Her demure Junior High age younger sister said she wanted the honor of playing something for me. She got out her keyboard, hit the CD player button and started playing along with a screeching Twister Sister track, a virtuoso performance at top volume. After 3 minutes of mayhem she hit the stop button and transformed back into a polite demure junior high student.

Much later my Japanese partner told me lots of young demure looking Japanese high school girls love playing wild wooly heavy metal guitar solos in rock bands. “People like to have something or do something that isn’t part of their nature,” he said. It’s important to remember that the Japanese audience that went gaga for Queen and the Runaways in the 70’s was not guys, it was gals. I got a taste of it recently staying at the wonderful Matsuya onsen ryokan in Niigata. The Okamisan was a delightfully energetic woman who fed us well. After dinner relaxing in the common living room she asked if we’d like to listen to some music. We did and she put on a CD…Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody…at volume, this despite the classic Japanese ryokan atmosphere surrounding us.

At first I didn’t understand the phenomenon but over the years I have found Japanese culture and society to be much more accepting of human nature in many ways than the USA culture I grew up in. I think it’s part of the cultural DNA passed down from Shinto and Buddhism. Not that many westerners would agree with that assessment but is easy to see in countless manga and anime…if you pay close attention.

And so it goes that you find big beefy K-1 athletes who sport tiny cute Chihuahua pets, humongous Sumo wrestlers who like knitting and flower arranging, and little old ladies on the street taking huge dogs on a walk, with the dog walking them. In Japan nobody bats an eye at the Japan gap.

2021 Wrap

2021 wasn’t the best of years, certainly not a good one for transit as ridership everywhere continues to be severely impacted by COVID. Yet travel in Japan felt normal, more or less the new normal of face masks in public places and hand gel dispensers at the door…but compared to 2020 even that felt more like a formality than life saving ritual. Even while the Japanese media was breathlessly quoting daily infection rates and carping about the lack of COVID ICU with the Japanese medical system supposedly on the verge of collapse, people went about their business. Travel to Niigata and Sado when infection rates were said to be ‘sky rocketing’ was easy, people there were out shopping or enjoying restaurants. Things were busy, which was good to see.

Blog-wise 2021 was tough. Tech news felt perfunctory with everybody running on to the next delicious rumor the moment new hardware shipped, all without much thought or analysis, like bratty kids in a candy store running around chasing shiny new things. Transit and payment news was off the rails, while Apple Pay was more in the news for European and Australian antitrust investigations than any new features. The Japanese news cycle that normally picks up steam in the fall failed to build after the Tokyo Olympic as if everybody had blown their wad. PayPay service announcements were more like marketing spin as they started charging merchant transaction fees for the first time.

Writing-wise I tried my best to be positive and productive in the face of adversity. For better or worse here are the some of my favorite 2021 posts, not necessarily popular. If there is one thing I have leaned over the years is that a five minute throw away post is often more popular than posts I spend a lot of time on. That’s the way it goes.

Thanks always for reading and best wishes for 2022!

Best

Inside Hiragino: Hiragino Shock and the Apple Publishing Glyph Set is my favorite as I wanted to record some the important things Steve Jobs helped foster in the Japanese publishing market with OS X. Former Apple systems engineer Yasuo Kida kindly shared some important stories from the Apple development side.

The Apple Pay Japan 5 year mark: all of this or nothing, was another favorite and the most fun to write. Suica marked its 20th anniversary, Apple Pay Suica marked its 5th, both very important developments for Japanese transit and payments. It should have been a bigger celebration but like just like the Tokyo Olympics, it got lost in the COVID news era.

Secrets of iOS 15 Apple Wallet, now that Apple Pay payments and transit are well established the next Wallet frontiers are ID, keys and UWB. As these are more complex puzzles than NFC payments, progress will be gradual.

Payment and transit 2021 highlights

Typography stuff

The big news was Sha-Ken and Morisawa agreeing to co-develop the Sha-Ken type library for OpenType. One of the interesting things about Sha-Ken fonts is that they are known outside of Japan because they were extensively used in Japanese manga up until the early 2000’s. It will be interesting to see how designers and artists resurrect the Sha-Ken font legacy after they go on sale in 2024. In other news Apple is, once again, rebooting their typography and layout developer frameworks with TextKit2.

Fun fluff

Un-worry
The Buddha’s face is only seen thrice
Only Japan has cute transit card mascots?!
Hidden Sado
Ignore NFC logos
Sayonara to the last switchback bus terminal