A Bit Of This, A Bit of That

1 Second a Day – February 2014

It’s been almost a year since I last did a ’1 Second a Day’ was last April. IT’s just a small project thing I saw on Vimeo – no soundtrack or real planning, just simple 1 second a day from the phone.

Book Shelf: The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis

I waited a bit so I could read and cover all three of these books in one fell swoop – Ian Tregillis‘s Milkweed Triptych – Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil.

The overall story arc takes place in a forked alternate history starting in the 1930s, and ending in the 1960s by the end of the third book.

Though some one line blurbs pitch the trilogy as “British wizards vs. Nazi superman”, that’s a bit simplistic, and misleading. The books themselves also address this too, quite early on, so lets just lay down the the overarching premise.

The nazis have enabled humans to control fire, cold, be invisible and other abilitiesvia their willpower by hardwiring their brains with electrodes drilled into their skulls, hooked up to special batteries, leaving them all with trailing wires hanging from their heads. This is the work of scientist Von Westarp, who as the series opens, is experimenting on orphans.

Upon discovering this, the British have looked to a group of old and grizzled warlocks as their own secret weapons. To be straight though, this is not a Marvel supervillain vs. Gandalf story. The warlocks do not perform magic as such, more they negotiate with supernatural entities called Eidolons for actions like freezing swathes of Europe, or providing a fog curtain across the English channel, all of which have a price. These negotiations are conducted in the allegedly ancient language of Enochian, and Tregillis’s descriptions of these characters are superb in places.

Boiled down, the two main character protagonists (or perhaps that should be antagonists) are Raybould Marsh, a British spy, and Gretel, a product of a Nazi medical experiment who is a kind of clairvoyant. Of the supporting characters there is Will, a reluctant well-to-do junior warlock, and Klaus, Gretel’s brother. It can be argued these characters are more three dimensional than the main two, struggling with decisions somewhat made for them. Will’s dislike of the blood prices he exacts to ‘pay’ the Eidolons grates on him, and drives him to breakdowns and swings in character. Klaus lives in his sister’s shadow for decades, trying to extract himself and finally know himself and make his own decisions and more than his sister embodies the result of living when someone can see your future.

Whilst Klaus’s ability is to become ghostlike and pass through solid objects, Gretel is able to see timelines and where decisions may lead. These abilities cease when the user’s battery runs low, as it amplifies their willpower, so batteries become a strategic tool in the books. The question you find yourself asking by the second book, is that unlike her peers, does Gretel even need the battery? These peers include the sadastic Reinhardt, with his ability to incinerate things, to the mentally crippled Kammler who drools, and must be directed by a handler, whilst his kinetic powers flatten any object.

I should say that it appeared to me that Tregillis hates Marsh – all the worst things in the world happen to him, and he almost dumbly plods on, as just a point of anger, driving the story. He’s not the only tragic character – most of the characters are tragic, such as poor Heike, another product of the Nazi Dr. Westarp’s experiments who is essentially talked into suicide, before her corpse is then the victim of another characters twisted affections.

The Milkweed Books

The Milkweed Books

The first book essentially covers the war, then moves forwards twenty years to a Cold War where the Soviets have been reverse engineering Von Westarp’s work, and then the final showdown in the UK. The title of the final book, “Necessary Evil”, is interesting in that it’s difficult to believe which of the evils was actually necessary, as they all seem like more of an excuse.

It’s a well written set of books, which seems was always intended to be a trilogy, as setups you don’t even notice in the first book pay off in the last. It does feel planned and structured, over the retcon some writers can be forced to do over such a long arc. This is vital though to build belief in Gretel’s ability to divine futures and steer events down the one line she needs. Tregillis outright poses one such line in Gretel having Heike kill herself so the Soviets would put her brain in a jar for study, and that that same jar would be kept in the same facility she is held in, years in the future, so that she can make use of that jar. It’s a combination of talent, foresight and sheer cruelty.

Each book is standalone to some extent, but I really can’t imagine enjoying any of them outside of the trilogy; it truly is a triptych – a whole divided into three parts.

The final book wraps up most of the loose ends and finally addresses the very physical, sexual tension which builds for three books between Gretel and Reybould. There’s more chemistry between those two characters than between Reybould and his own wife, trapped between his hate, and Gretels fear and detachment.

In summary I would say the books are definitely worth a read, and in case you’re wondering, it is a setup where it’s not clear who the ‘good’ side are, and perhaps none of them are – both sides ruin innocence and in a fantastical universe show the way wars make people do deals rational people would never entertain. There are some parts of the ending which I would liked to have been more decisive, but overall, after the three book journey, it does satisfy, and you realise the kind of willpower Gretel possesses not just because of her powers, but as a person, and how far that can drive Reybould to extraordinary lengths.

Bitter Seeds – Amazon.com
Bitter Seeds – Amazon UK
The Coldest War – Amazon.com
The Coldest War – Amazon UK
Necessary Evil – Amazon.com
Necessary Evil – Amazon UK

Kiroro Snow Trip 2014

As a country with a spine of mountains and volcanoes, Japan not only gets a lot of snow, it gets a lot of good snow, and has built some great snow resorts up around them, which is possibly another reason why the country has hosted the Winter Olympics a couple of times (1972 & 1998). It’s also the reason why one of the first things I did when I moved here was to take up snowboarding.

This year for our family snow trip, we went up to Kiroro in Hokkaido. As far as I know, Kiroro has not held an Olympic event, but represents another type of Japanese snow resort – the bubble resort. It was built during the height of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980’s and has well appointed hotels and facilities, which are wearing a little bit, and the place has the feel of something a little over done, but still shows how Japan likes to do things. This is the first time we’ve been back in 6 years (2008, 2006, 2004).

There are two main hotels there with not much else around, as it was a purpose built resort. We stayed at the Mountain Hotel, which is closer to the main slopes, but a few minutes by free shuttle bus down the road is The Piano Hotel which has a large souvenir shopping area, and some more bars.

The are a good selection of courses, though there aren’t that many truly difficult runs, so it’s a relaxing venue, and it’s a resort which likes to leave a fair amount of powder around, especially on the edges of the pistes, which means you can play on the more groomed central areas, then branch off into powder and light trees.

By the time we went in early January, a small ramp of snow had formed at the edges of the pistes, meaning you could get some speed up and ramp into deep powder and between some trees. The powder was so light it was more like surfing at times, pushing down on that back leg and lifting the front up to stop from face planting or just plain stopping due to a lack of traction. Mine is an old 2000 Nitro board which doesn’t flex much, so by the end of a few powder intensive runs, that back leg was getting a little tired. Also, I will admit I had to paddle out a few times from waist deep powder when enthusiasm got the better of me. It was snowing so much that tracks were covered by your next run, and some people were struggling to keep going on the flatter areas.

The nighter course is pretty good too, well lit, and has a good covered 4 person lift up. Regarding the nighter, they have an ‘evening’ pass, and a ‘nighter’ pass – the former is about 1000 yen more and gets you an extra hour.

Thankfully, a day lift pass gets you the nighter included, which is nice, because I know some resorts which charge extra for that. I also didn’t see a ‘first run’ fee, which is another bolt-on extra some resorts started doing a while ago.

I also spent a day on my skis and really enjoyed it – likely because they have some gentler slopes for that, and skis are still not something I’m competent on, but I do enjoy them, and it means I can ski with my eldest, though she outpaces me nowadays. Wait till next year and we’re both on boards!

If you have a family, it’s good for the children’s ski school and activity centre which isn’t too expensive in comparison to some resorts, and they’ve gotten the kit rental for kids well integrated. As ever in Japan nowadays, the quality of the rental kit was excellent, the teachers were good and if you need it, a few spoke some English. There’s a large section of the area in front of the hotel dedicated to a family lift, a children’s play area and a sledging area, all of which is kept separate from the main ski areas.

The weekdays were very quiet which was great for us, and even at the weekend, it never got crowded. Also at the weekend, they had a DJ booth in the hotel snow centre, run by the local radio station, Air G FM in Hokkaido, who drive the music for the resort, take some requests and hold competitions, which actually added quite a bit of energy to the whole resort (snowboarding to old Wham songs was a bit odd).

The only downside to Kiroro is the cost, specifically of evening meals. The breakfast buffet is often included with the hotel price, and it had a decent selection. Lunch either on the mountain or in the hotel restaurant was also reasonable for a snow resort, such as ramen running from 980 – 1,300yen a bowl. However, you should be aware of the evening meal prices – they range from 4,200 – over 8,000yen per person – even a child’s meal in some restaurants cost over 2,000yen though we found one in the Piano hotel for 500yen but it was basically some soup and rice, and the adult meals were still over 4,200.

If you’re not on a package deal, be aware there aren’t any real supermarkets or restaurants outside of the hotels, so your only alternative is cup ramen and instant yakisoba from the snack shops in both hotels. We took this latter option as it was so much cheaper with 2 children, but also because it took us back to our roots on snow trips which we did things as cheaply as possible. There is a bus to Niseko which apparently takes an hour each way, but we didn’t explore that option.

The area doesn’t have the natural onsen spa baths some do, but the Mountain Hotel does have a ‘fake’ onsen, and a rotenburo, both of which were clean and well maintained. There’s something fantastic about spending the day on the mountain, washing off, then relaxing in pools of hot water for a while. Why more countries don’t have this, I have no idea. This was the first year I could take my son in too, and he loved it.

I’m not sure if we’ll be able to do another snow trip this year, but if this turns out to be the only one, I have to say I really enjoyed it. Kiroro is aging well, and whilst there are some pricing issues there, the place is a good place to spend a few days.

Tax, Alcohol and Radiation?

It’s a new year, so in a fit of preparation, I decided to go and make sure my tax links were all correct before next month when I sit down, watch Black Books Series 1, Episode 1, then figure out how much money I owe the Japanese government.

My first stop for this is always The National Tax Agency website. The English page may look a little 1998-esque, but importantly:

1) There is an English page;
2) It provides a link to the English language summary guide for filling in your tax forms (2013 .pdf here, if you’re interested).

I might write this up next month when I do the taxes, but I have to say that doing your own taxes isn’t so bad. It’s easier than some other things here for sure, and the people involved are actually usually very helpful.

Back to my original point. I was looking around the page and much of it is quite dry, with very dull sounding links like, “Commissioner’s Directive on the Mutual Agreement Procedures (Administrative Guidelines)“, and “Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States issue internal guidance to improve the Mutual Agreement Procedure and Bilateral Advance Pricing Arrangement processes“. Thrilling stuff.

Then, you find links like, “The results of Sake Awards”. I have no idea where that fits on any governments tax pages, but there is a very decent page outlining the winners out of various sake (rice wine) breweries in their pursuit of excellence.

However, the winner of the “Links I Don’t Expect to Find on a Government Tax Page” award goes to:

The results of radiation examination of alcoholic beverages (Last updated on January. 9)

For the purpose of providing consumers with safe and good quality alcoholic beverages, the NTA conducts radioactive examination for alcoholic beverages including those for exports.

So basically, the tax men and women of Japan have managed to get a gig where they have to spend lots of time with alcohol in order to … er … test for radiation safety. And to ensure good quality! The health and foods ministries must be upset they missed out on that job, especially since they seem to have issued the testing guidelines.

Yes, this post is very tongue in cheek.

Boundary Conditions

I mentioned in the last post about ‘boundary conditions’ and a quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here it is. It’s in the fifth installment, where Arthur Dent is looking for information from an old man who lives up poles (and can seemingly teleport between them). He points out he only lives up poles in Spring, Summer and Autumn, as he goes south in the winter, to his beach house. He then explains why he bought the beach house:

A beach house doesn’t even have to be on the beach, though the best ones are. We all like to congregate at boundary conditions … where land meets water, where earth meets air, where body meets mind, where space meets time, we like to be on one side and look at the other.

The boundary condition part just stuck in my mind as another truism from THHGTTG – I think people are attracted to them, myself included. If you haven’t listened to Hitchikers you really need to do so – it’s a masterpiece of wit and observation.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Complete Radio Series

New Header Image: Sunset

It’s been a long time since I changed that header image, and since the last one was from a cooling stream, I thought I’d replace it with a sunset, which looks nice and warm, even though I took the picture in late 2013 and it was definitely not warm. The same time I took these pictures I think.

Shonan Winter Sunset

Shonan Winter Sunset

There’s something very calming about sunsets all over the world, over forests, cities, the ocean, wherever. I’m frequently reminded about something the amazing Douglas Adams wrote for the ‘final’ Hitchhiker’s series – Quintessential Phase about boundary conditions, (I’ll dig the quote out for the next post) and a sunset where the ocean meets land seems to be two simultaneous boundaries.

明けましておめでとうございます 2014!

Another year indeed, this one here in Japan is Heisei 26 (平成 26年)and Oshogatsu (正月)is winding down a little, as people return home from trips, either for pleasure, or traditionally to family, the rubbish collection starts again, and people get back to work. I’ve likely gone through bits about this before (2013, 2012 for example).

Once again, we’ve spent time with family, got out and about exploring with the kids, and managed to avoid osechi ryouri again for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Also, this year, I didn’t go down to the beach for sunrise as I had the previous two New Years – I thought it was time for a break and spend the new year morning at home making breakfast. Next year I may well be back – I actually quite enjoyed it.

So Happy New Year to everyone, and hope 2014 is a good one for you.

Another quick trip to Chiba

Now and then, I like I take a day to go over the bay to Chiba and just run some of the twisties on that peninsula on the motorbike. It was a nice day, and after a 7am start, took a relaxing ride down the coastal road to Kurihama to meet a friend, and take the ferry over – just a nice relaxing 40 minute boat ride, and time for a chat and a cup of tea on the way over. There’s usually a few bikers on this ferry, and a decent percentage on dirt bikes, as Boso apparently has quite a few kilometres of off-road for those so inclined.

My friend was looking to give his new Triumph Tiger Explorer a good run on some twisties, and I was looking to simply have a more successful run than last time. When we came over in March, we had stopped for a traffic light when some genius in an SUV rammed my bike, forcing me almost 10 metres forward and effectively stopping the run before lunch. That day, dealing with the police and the hospital meant we’d lost most of the day, but with bits taped up on my bike, the police at least let me ride it home.

On the Ferry Again

On the Ferry Again

For some reason, I get a really simple pleasure from riding my bike on and off ferries, and we found some great little twisties along the way, very little traffic, some nice views, and generally had a good time.

We stopped for lunch, originally intending to eat at an Italian restaurant we saw, but it turned out – after we’d walked in – that it was closed; generally unless there’s a sign outside saying “Closed”, I work on the theory a place is open. Anyway, it wasn’t, but the upside was that the neighbouring ramen place was, so we settled for that, and in a great piece of serendipity, the place turned out to be fantastic and quite cheap. Getting good food on a run is always good, with the bonus that you can balance your expanded stomach on the tank when you set off again. The only downside – I lost the receipt and forgot to mark the place on my map.

Ramen For Lunch

Ramen For Lunch

The Boso area is very different to the crowded urban Chiba bordering Tokyo; where we were it was very rural, lots of fields and hills, though I got this sense that it’s faintly run down – we passed a lot of abadoned or disused buildings, and it seemed like a lot of the petrol stations had closed. I wonder how the local economy is faring nowadays since so much seemed to hark back to the bubble of almost two decades ago.

Rural Chiba

Rural Chiba

As the afternoon moved on though, the weather began to close in a little, and we opted for coming back via the Aqualine, a part bridge, part tunnel connector between Yokohama and the Boso peninsula.

I have to admit, I don’t especially like the 4Km bridge section – it’s across Tokyo Bay, it can be windy, there’s a lot of fast, big traffic, and even in good weather, it’s not so fun on a smaller (400cc) naked bike. The weather was getting worse too.

As the road goes from the bridge section on the Chiba side, to the tunnel section on the Yokohama side, there’s a very large service area called Umihotaru, which is on a man-made island. It’s basically a multistorey car park and shopping centre, well known as a bit of a date spot. We weren’t on a date, but we did stop off, if only to have a last warm drink before the last 50Km run home.

It was also raining by then, which is no real problem – the rain gear is always under the seat – but the wind was also picking up, so we got the rain gear on, and headed down in to the tunnel, then broke off from each other as I headed to the west.

My route takes me over a lot of bridges, skirting the coastal industrial areas which means a lot of wind and large lorries, but not usually anything dangerous. The wind was really cranking up though, and I was having to lean the bike into it, hunkering down low over the tank, and trying not to let the bike veer too much from my line as some cars were passing just off to my right, not really judging it well (I could easily touch a lot of wing mirrors), and then the rain started coming down.

In these conditions, on this 80Km/h road, I usually drop it down a gear, keep the revs up, and go down to about 60 Km/h, meaning that usually there are people still blasting past me and probably cursing this biker who is making them actually maneouver their nice wind shielded, dry cars.

Over one bridge and the innevitable swirling of wind around the large bridge towers, and I noticed that no one is passing me any more, but I’m still the same distance behind a tanker in front of me, so I have a look around, and it seems like this weather isn’t just affecting me – everyone is going 55 – 60 Km/h. Nice to know I’m not the only one having to be careful. After about 30 minutes the road took me a little further inland, giving some protection from the wind, to sit up a little more, increase some speed, and not have to lean in so much. I ride year round, and try to be wary of ice and such, but one thing I think I handle better now than previous years is riding in the wind – revs up, tank gripped with the old legs, arms relaxed, and hunker down over the tank.

It was nice to quietly roll up the hill to the house, a little tired from holding the bike through what seemed like the edge of a decent sized storm, but I think it was another good day out if only because it was good to feel like my biking ability had improved a bit through the twisties and that weather, which is always a good thing.
[Run length only ~260Km + ferry]

Shonan Beach In Winter

There’s something just very relaxing about coastlines and sunrises or sunsets, even as Winter moves in. After almost 5 years of living near the Japan’s Pacific coast, I just don’t seem to get bored of cycling down here, and just walking and taking some pictures (yes, almost the same picture) again and again. I’m not alone either, year round people are cycling the beach track, surfing a little, even playing beach volleyball, and I just don’t think it gets any more relaxed than this.

It’s been a quiet time on the blog this year, something not in keeping with my own year, which has been as busy as ever, but instead of blogging it’s been family time and working on other projects.

That said, I spent a couple of hours this weekend moving this blog from WordPress.com, which is a fantastic resource, over to some hosted webspace I have with
, which is part of Pair.com. This will let me play a bit more with WordPress, give me a little space, and save me a small amount on domain mapping. Let me know if you see anything odd.

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