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.

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

Obon Okuribi 2021

It’s a shame that the famous Kyoto Okuri-bi send off bonfires will be limited again this year. It’s an outside event and I don’t see the point of caution. Hopefully the souls of family ancestors will still be able to find their way home and back again in these dark times. A friend of mine, Rev. Sensho Komukai wrote a nice article that describes the event and the Buddhist tradition behind it. Hopefully the bonfires will burn in full glory in 2022.


August 13-16 is the traditional Obon period, when the souls of deceased family members are believed to return home from the other world. A fire is burned as a guide sign to welcome our ancestors on the evening of the 13th (mukae-bi) and to send off the spirits on the 16th (okuri-bi).

Great okuribi bonfires are seen on five mountains in Kyoto on the evening of August 16th. Each bonfire has a different character as follows: Dai (大), Myo (妙), Ho (法) a boat shape, and a shrine gate shape. At 8:00 p.m. the character of Dai is lit first. Myo and Ho are then lit ten minutes later.

Myo and Ho bonfires have been prepared for centuries by the Nichiren Shu supporters of Yusenji Temple and Myoenji Temple of the Matsugasaki district in North Kyoto. Myo has 103 burning woodpiles, and Ho has 63. Each woodpile has been traditionally allotted to a family member of the two temples.

One woman who came to Matsugasaki after marriage said with a sigh,

“It is still hot in August. When the bonfires are lit, there is no refuge area from the heat. I was all sweaty, dying of thirst. I helped the bonfire event out of a sense of obligation. Once we finished, I went down the mountain with a sense of great relief. However, when I arrived home, my grandmother-in-law had brought a family ihai tablet out into the garden and was holding her palms together in Gassho toward the bonfires on the mountain, I felt ashamed of myself. People in Matsugasaki respectfully send off their ancestors with all their heart. Their religion and culture have been handed down with high esteem. It was my mistake to think so little of the bonfire event.”

After the bonfires of Myo and Ho burn out in 30 minutes, the Bon dance starts in the precincts of Yusenji Temple. The dance originated in 1307, when a Tendai priest, Jitsugen, who was very impressed by Nichizo, converted his faith to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shu teaching.

All village people of Matsugasaki became devotees of Nichizo and Nichiren Shu. Priest Jitsugen felt joy chanting the Odaimoku while beating the drum. The villagers began to dance, and this “Daimoku dance” became the origin of the Bon festival dance. In modern times, people dance with simple beating of the drum and quiet chanting rather than a joyful dance. They want to think back deeply to the days they spent with their beloved families and silently express gratitude toward their ancestors on the Obon send-off day.

Daimoku Dance

The Owakon

If you watch Japanese YouTubers like Heraiza you soon hear the buzzword ‘Owakon’. Owakon is one of those clever Japanese creations that combines ‘owari’ (over) + ‘content’ to create a handy new expression for ‘oh so over’ dead content. And it doesn’t only apply to things, it applies to people too, like ‘oh so over’ dead-tired, overexposed TV ‘talent’ living off the management company connections instead of real talent.

One of the many interesting realizations brought home by the COVID crisis: being stuck at home has only proved how dead Japanese TV is. Young people have turned it off and are streaming or watching YouTube. Proof? Look no further than the overflow of YouTube ‘Kaidan’ content. Kaidan (ghost stories), are a traditional folk performance so well loved in Edo era, also firmly engrained in the Rakugo cannon.

Kaidan YouTuber channels like Shinpei Shimada, Nana-fushigi, Toshi Boys (City Boys) Yachin no Yasui Heya (Cheap rent room) and countless others are fascinating…not so much for the content but the fact that these channels are pulling in viewers and ads. Money and eyeballs are going here instead of ‘Owakon’ TV. Nanafushiki is a duo who were working regional events and radio but never made it big on TV doing better than ever on YouTube.

Heraiza, as usual, deftly points out why Owakon TV talent does so badly when going YouTube. Her latest goes to the heart, er jugular, in her take down of TV comedian Hiroyuki Miyasako’s just announced ‘revolutionary’ new YouTube show: Farthest end of the world Restaurant. The problem? Nothing new and not enough sex, just tired old TV comedians and their management companies trying to escape Owakon TV.

Good luck with that.