Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Adventures as an Amazon.com Reviewer

It all started out innocently enough.

Living in Japan, I tend to spend a lot of time ordering books off of Amazon.com. And in deciding what books to order, I began to realize how helpful the reader reviews on Amazon are. And how frustrating it is when there are absolutely no reviews to go by; which happens a lot, if you're tastes run to obscure historical books, as mine sometimes do.

Of course I was actively reviewing books on this weblog. But the more I thought about it, the sillier that seemed. I mean, here I was, spamming my friends, family, and loyal readers with book and movie reviews that they couldn't care less about. And then these reviews were sitting lost in some obscure corner of the internet. Whereas I could be posting the reviews directly to Amazon.com, where people who actually wanted to read them could have access to it.

I had already been in the habit of getting double mileage out of some of my political book reviews. Anything- that- touched -on- radical- politics- I- would copy and paste and send over to Media Mouse for their book review section (after editing out most personal tangents or long bloggy ramblings).
I decided it would be easy enough to start doing the same thing at Amazon.com.

From February 17, 2007 ("Revolution and Reaction") to September 21, 2007 ("Tales from Earthsea"), every book or movie review that was posted on this blog was also copied and posted over on my Amazon account.

After September 2007, I decided the whole thing was causing me more headaches than it was worth.

I don't know how many of you have been Amazon reviewers at one point in your lives, but it's quite a system they've got going there. Not only can you review books, but people can review your reviews. After you post your review, people vote on whether it was helpful to them or not helpful. These votes are tabulated, and help to determine your "ranking" as an Amazon reviewer. You move up and down accordingly.
What's more, people can comment on your reviews. And then people can even vote on whether the comments were helpful or not.

If you're the kind of person who probably spends too much time online as it is, or if you check your e-mail obsessively several times a day, then all these bells and whistles can represent another huge time waster that it is all too easy to get sucked into.

In spite of my best efforts at self-control, I found myself checking my Amazon account once a day or more to see if I had gotten any more "helpful" votes. Or if someone had left a new comment.

That was my first problem with Amazon.
Secondly, and somewhat more depressing, my reviews by and large tended to get really slammed by the Amazon community. I'd put up a review, and soon find that 3 out of 3 people (or sometimes 20 out or 23 people) voted that it was unhelpful. It was a bit of a humbling experience.

When you spend too much time immersed in your own blog, acting as your own writer, proofreader, editor, and publisher, it is perhaps a bit too easy to forget what a crum writer you really are. But when you're one reviewer among many, you can see you're shortcomings quite clearly. Most of the other amateur reviewers had a lot of insight that I lacked, as well as a writing style that was a lot more clear and concise than my own.

Still, "unhelpful"? I can understand my writing style may have been a bit clunky. I can understand not everyone agreed with my review. But unhelpful?
"This book sucked!"--That kind of review is unhelpful. "It was good, but not as good as the movie."--That kind of review is unhelpful.

I at least would try and summarize the plot and give my reaction to it, which, I like to think, agree with me or not, would be at least somewhat helpful to a potential buyer trying to decide whether this book was up their alley or not.

If you decide my review doesn't deserve a "helpful" vote, I can accept that. But going out of your way to give me an "unhelpful" vote seems a little harsh.

But what was discouraging was that in some cases I would garner more "unhelpful" votes than some of the one line reviews mentioned above.

Of course it wasn't all bad. As of this writing, my Amazon profile lists a total of 125 helpful votes against 122 unhelpful votes, so in the end I ended up with a slight advantage in the helpful column.

Furthermore, I even got a bit of positive feedback on some of my reviews. My review of Lissagaray's "History of the Paris Commune" got several helpful votes, and a nice young man even commented: "Wish I could give you like 3 helpful votes for this awesome review. ;) " Bless you, sir.

However, in other corners I managed to get some people very upset. My review of the "Death Note" movie touched a off a nerve in the Anime community.

It wasn't overwhelming by any means, but in the first few months after I posted the review I would get about one negative comment about it a month.

First off was from a gentleman named Woopak
You are entitled to your opinion. Quite frankly, I don't agree with your view of the film. Aside from your view of vigitilantism, it deals with the issue of near-limitless power in matters of life and death. Death Note reflects on how power can corrupt a human mind. The human mind is unpredictable, how would you know how a live college student would react? Light was in Law school, not a teen-ager! In Asia, when you're in law school, means you are over 22 yrs. old. Plus, you took the film too seriously. This is a supernatural fantasy. Hey, Pirates of the Caribbean was a fantasy, and you didn't get all analytical with that. You want to watch Foreign films, learn to approach it with more acceptance and always put in consideration the source material.
I thought it was well-done. I liked the way it dealt with the battle of wits between good and evil.
Sorry, I definitely do not agree with your rating in your review and your understanding of the film. DEATH NOTE kicked the heck out of most Hollywood thrillers...!

A few months later, Neil Ford chimed in:
Most Japanese cinema does NOT start out as manga!

Followed up closely by Woopak once again:
I agree with Neil Ford. Don't underestimate Japanese cinema. It has influenced a lot more films made in Hollywood than you'd think. (Example: Kill Bill, The Matrix, The man with no name trilogy(spaghetti westerns), Magnificent Seven)
As with super-hero films (like Spider-man), manga just moves on to another medium such as film.

And finally Mr. Advo Asks:

Awful review... lemme tell you why...

Teenager? Like someone already said, Light is studying Law in Uni. Of course, the anime DOES start with Light as a senior in high school, but we're not reviewing the anime here, and even if we were... This isn't just some green kid picking up something he can't understand. It's the (precocious, as the author already stated) son of a well-respected, highly ranked member of the police force... the top of his class, studying relentlessly to fulfill his already strong dream of delivering justice to the wicked. A genius with high expectations of himself, who is disgusted with the state of the world's rotting virtues.

So with that in mind... say again how it's difficult to imagine that he would actually take on the responsibility of ridding the world of scum? Besides, much of the reason that Light doesn't stop killing is that he CAN'T stop killing without increasing suspicion. Continuing the spree of murders is a way for him to continue his important work, sure, but if he can continue killing while appearing innocent, that should lead suspicion elsewhere. So for him, there is no choice BUT to keep killing. [This intention is present in the film, but probably more evident in the anime.]

(By the way, there is no evidence to support that L is supposed to be a teenager either.)

The complaint that real life would provide fewer criminals to kill is way off. Certainly Light goes after unpunished criminals, but he also attacks those who have already been incarcerated... and given the many millions of prisoners around the world... he would't run out of victims for ages.

The author is certainly right that the story was better in anime format (I don't read comics, so I can't speak for the manga), which I will discuss at some length in a review I'll be writing shortly. Unfortunately, this film wasn't great, but I think so for reasons other than Swagman. His review was written with a minimal amount of understanding of Japanese cinema (see review's first sentence), incorrect interpretations of the film's facts and implications, and a ridiculous amount of prejudice and inappropriate comparisons (hitchcock, kill bill, .the last supper). "Was this review helpful to you?"... No, not at all.

Now, it must be admitted there are some valid points in here. Perhaps I was a bit too dismissive of "Death Note" in my original review. And the fact that I had watched this film in Japan means that I did it without the benefit of English subtitles, and was only able to catch as much as my limited Japanese ability would allow. Therefore some of the more subtle plot points these reviewers mention went right over my head.

Still, there were many areas where I believed I was being unfairly criticized. And I began to formulate in my mind all the ways I could respond to these attacks if I was so inclined.

Despite the fact that they seemed to want to draw me into a debate (Mr. Woopak even went through the trouble of commenting twice) I held off responding for several months. After all, I had promised myself I wouldn't let my activities on Amazon become yet another internet drag on my time. I had said my piece in the original review, and that's all I was going to do. You can't get let yourself get drawn into a huge debate with every anime fan who has internet access.

My resolve gave in one day when I found myself un-employed. I had a million things I should have been doing, and I was trying to think of an excuse to avoid all of them. I went on a long walk to get some exercise, and found my thoughts drifting to the 3 anime fans I had angered with my review. By the time I had finished my walk, I had already mentally composed my entire response anyway. And so I just wrote it up.

Dear Woopak, Neil Ford, and Advo Ask,
thank you for taking the time to read my review, and giving me your feedback. It has also been interesting to read some of your thoughts on this movie over the last few months. When I posted this review a few months ago, it was the only one. Having read your reviews has helped me to understand this movie a little better, and I probably would have written this review a bit differently if I had read yours first.

We might have to agree to disagree on some of the thematic issues of this film, but I'll start with some of your more concrete objections first of all.
1) Most Japanese cinema does not start out as Manga
2) Light is not a teenager

1). I might be talked into admitting that I've overstated this point. Certainly this wasn't true in the days of Kurosawa, but having lived in Japan for the past 7 years, it certainly feels like most of the big hit movies during that time have some sort of Manga connection. Even a lot of dramas like "Go" or "Always" turn out to be based on a manga in the end, not to mention all more obvious manga derivations (Devilman, Cutie Honey, I could go on). If we throw in movies based on TV shows and anime, I'd be willing to place a bet that this accounts for most of the big budget Japanese movies in the past 5 years, if not most of the recent Japanese movies period. But I've not done a formal study on this, and am open to be convinced otherwise.

2).I wrote this review directed at the average American who knows nothing about this franchise, so I tried to give a brief overview of both the manga and the movie. I knew from discussions with Japanese friends that the manga character starts out as a high school student. In the movie he was in law school, so certainly not in high school anymore and unlikely to be a teenager. I'm not sure if the movie ever clearly states his age, but if you read my review carefully, you'll notice the only time I refer to Light or L as teenagers is when I'm referring to the story behind the manga-anime-movie adaptation, not the movie itself. That was an intentional choice of words on my part, intended because I didn't really know how old he was in the movie.
Upon re-reading my review, however, I can see how this kind of semantic hair slicing can be easy to miss, especially if you're reading it through quickly.

Allow me to suggest, however, that regardless of whether light is a teenager or not, or whether most Japanese cinema is based on manga or not, that both of these are extremely minor points in my review, and I think an undue amount of attention has been focused on both these areas at the expense of ignoring some of my broader points, and that this kind of nit-picking is not always helpful for moving the discussion forward.

Thematically I stand by much of what I said in this review, although Woopak I have read your review as well and I can see where you're coming from and respect your opinion. I guess for me the big issue is not only what themes does the film attempt to address, but how well does it succeed in dealing with those themes. I will admit that this film takes on some pretty ambitious themes, as you mentioned in your review (death penalty, power corrupts, man playing god). For me though the film didn't really give me any new insight into any of these themes, and I'm not convinced the film quite pulled off what it set out to do.

I'm not sure the comparison with Pirates of the Caribbean is entirely apt. After all, as you mention in your review this film attempted to deal with a number of themes that Pirates of the Caribbean never pretended to address. And given how little action there is in this film, it would be hard to compare it to a mindless action fantasy like Pirates of the Caribbean was. A suspense movie maybe, but I tend to judge those by different standards than summer popcorn movies.

I do agree that people are unpredictable, but (as a literature professor of mine once said) they should be written so as to have a predictable unpredictability. In other words, the human mind as unpredictable shouldn't be a catch all excuse for any jump the writer wants to make.

Advo, I'm not entirely sure why my comparisons to Hitchcock, Last supper, and Kill Bill were inappropriate. In the case of Kill Bill for example the only reason I even mentioned that film was as another film that was released in two parts but as a continuous story split into two instead of as a standard sequel. I guess I could have written all that out, but I think Kill Bill is a nice short hand way of conveying the same thing to an American Audience. Last Supper, well admittedly not the greatest film in the world, dealt with a lot of the same themes and I'm not sure why it's not appropriate to make the comparison.

Also I'm not sure why you would say my review has a ridiculous amount of prejudice. Perhaps you could explain that one to me a little more.

That said, I did read with interest your theory that Light had to keep killing in order to appear innocent. This was something I didn't quite catch when I watched the film, but your explanation does make a bit of sense. I still think it would have been much easier to just walk away from the whole thing, but then we come back again to the unpredictability of the human mind.

PS--I'd be interested to hear what you guys thought of Death Note II. Although I see Woopak incorporated elements of both into his review, the last I checked I was the only reviewer on the Death Note II page. It would be nice to get some more opinions over there.

Given how much they had jumped all over my original review, I took a bit of pleasure in writing this as an attempt to get them all stirred up again. I was sure that within days they'd all be writing long responses. But no-one ever wrote a reply.

Instead, the only feedback I got was that 2 people voted my comments did not "add to the discussion". (Come on! Disagreeing with it I can understand, but how does this not add to the discussion. Blast you anonymous Amazon voters!)

Addendum: Actually I should modify one thing slightly. During my time as an Amazon reviewer, I didn't repost every review on Amazon. I tried to post every review. For whatever reason, some of my reviews would mysteriously disappear after a day or two.
At first I thought this was some sort of censorship whenever I expressed unorthodox opinions, but after a while I decided it was probably some sort of bug in the program.
After reposting a couple of reviews several times, I just decided to leave it. In an effort to avoid spending all day on-line, I decided to make one and only one attempt per review.

There were some interesting catches in the Amazon program, however. For whatever reason, anytime I tried to make reference to the age of a character it would get automatically edited out of the review. Compare, for example, this strangely edited review of "The Golem's Eye" with my original here. A safety device to protect minors, perhaps?

For anyone interested, my Amazon profile with all the posted reviews and helpful/unhelpful votes can be found here.

Link of the Day
Chomsky: No change coming with Obama. With Afshin Rattansi. January 24, 2009.

Also of interest: Christopher Hitchens on Billy Graham, $cientology and religious hypocrisy (Billy Graham was someone my Christian school teachers were always praising growing up, but Christopher Hitchens really lays into him hard here).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Napoleon's Egypt by Juan Cole

(Book Review)

I was pretty excited when I stumbled upon this book in the bookstore. I had always wanted to learn more about Napoleon's Egyptian campaign.

There's a lot of romance that has grown up around this story. The politically incorrect part of me, the part that grew up reading Rudyard Kipling and watching movies like "Gunga Din" (w), is still somewhat fascinated by stories of European soldiers having adventure in exotic locations.

And if that's what you're looking for, some of that can be found here: French soldiers battling Bedouin nomads, getting eaten by crocodiles on the Nile River, and the Rosetta stone.

However, as the book's subtitle, "Invading the Middle East" indicates, the author Juan Cole is more interested in the problems created by a Western country invading a Middle Eastern Muslim country. There are, perhaps, certain parallels to the situation we find ourselves in today.

And in fact, it turns the parallels run a lot deeper than you might think. Remember that the Egyptian campaign was before Napoleon seized control of France's government with a military coup. Back in 1798, Napoleon was not yet Emperor of France, but simply a general under the French Republic.
At the time, France was the only republic in Europe, and they viewed it as their mission to spread liberty and freedom around the world.
They invaded Egypt partly for strategic reasons, but also partly under the rhetoric of freedom and democracy. When they overthrew the Turkish rulers, they fully expected the Egyptians would rise up and greet them as liberators, and the French were confused and frustrated when the Egyptians resisted them.

Perhaps by this point, the story is beginning to sound very, very familiar.

I know I recently recommended "The Revolutions of 1848" as a book relevant to our times, but I take it back. If you want to get some historical perspective on the mess we are in right now with Iraq, this is the book to read.

By the time of the Egyptian campaigns, Napoleon had already established himself as the most brilliant military tactician in Europe. He had smashed the Austrians, the Prussians, and the Italians, and everyone thought this campaign in Egypt, against the seemingly backward Muslims, would be a piece of cake. Instead it ended up a disaster.

The parallels to the present day that Juan Cole has been able to dig up are amazing, including a debate among the French about whether or not to use torture against Muslim insurgents. (The French eventually concluded that, although torture might be effective as a punishment, it is useless as an information gathering tool because the victim will say whatever he thinks his torturers want to hear.)

Some interent critics have accused Juan Cole about being more concerned with 2008 than 1798, but personally I feel that if Juan Cole has been able to dig up the parallels, than it is fair game to use them. And, for the most part, Juan Cole lets the history speak for itself. He quotes generously from eye-witnesses and French memorialists at the time, and for the most part avoids using his voice as the author to hit the reader over the head.
(There are a couple exceptions, such as when he explicitly draws the readers attention to Napoleon's attempt to set up a government of Muslim clerics, and the U.S. attempt to do the same in Iraq).

Indeed, reading this book, one gets a huge sense of frustration at the failure of our leaders in Washington. The historical record was out there and available for anyone who bothered to look (not only Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, but also the French in Algeria, our own national experience in Vietnam, or a million other examples on could mention) and yet we were still stupid enough to blunder into another military quagmire. Politicians always have a remarkable ability to commit this kind of stupidity when it is other people's lives at stake.

However, although Juan Cole brings up many parallels throughout his book, he does not forget about his original story. So if you're a history geek, and you're looking for a book to fill in a gap in your knowledge about this period of history (as I was), then this book will work quite nicely for that purpose as well.

My only complaint is that (as this Amazon viewer put it quite nicely) the book has serious problems in the last act. As I got closer and closer to the end, I kept wondering how Juan Cole was possibly going to have room to get to everything that happened in the little space he had left. And in fact, the end of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign is reduced to a quick summary in the last chapter. After so much detail in the early chapters, I was hoping for a thorough retelling all the way through, but inexplicably the book comes to a rather abrupt ending.

Still, over all an excellent book. Highly readable, and works great as a history or as a political commentary.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Obama's Foreign Policy

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Masters or Ph.D. by Robert L. Peters Ph.D.

(Book Review)

To date, this book has had no little impact on my thought process about graduate school.

I first ordered this book over a year and a half ago off of Amazon, when I was beginning to seriously consider going back to school. And this book pretty much talked me out of it.

It painted a picture of long degree programs and a dismal job market afterwards.
Contrary to popular belief, the author claims, Ph.D. programs take much longer than the 4 years advertised. A history Ph.D., for example, takes a Median total time of 8.6 years as a registered student (and a median of 11.3 years including time off students sometimes take for personal or financial reasons). Meaning if I started now, I'd be into my 40s before I finished.

Of course, if you follow the advice in this book, the author claims you stand a much better chance of betting the odds and getting out on time. But then he paints a very bleak look at the job market once you've finished your degree. Academic jobs (which is essentially what I'd be looking at with a history Ph.D.) are extremely competitive to get, and many Ph.D.s struggle to find employment, or are overworked at low-paying jobs.

All of that was enough to convince me that this was something I didn't want to rush into. After reading the first few chapters of the book, I put it down and decided likely as not the middle chapters about picking and writing a thesis would never apply to me.

At the time, however, I was under some pressure from my fiancee to sort my life out and choose some sort of path for the future. So, I decided to try and transfer my interest in European history into a degree in Japanese history. To that end, I enrolled in a Japanese University to try and get my Japanese up to snuff for reading historical documents.

Half a year later I was feeling overworked, and was single again and had no commitments. So I dropped out of Japanese school, and began thinking again about pursuing a graduate degree in history.

So, a year later, I picked up this book again and started reading through it again.

And, once again, all the horror stories in the book did a lot to convince me that, free and single or not, academia might not be the best career route.

Nonetheless, this time I stuck all the way through the book from the beginning (application process) to the end (finishing your thesis and finding employment). So, as I do whenever I finish a book, I write it up for my book review project.

Since I read this book only as a potential grad school student, I have no way of knowing how accurate or applicable much of the information in here actually is. But if you go over to the Amazon website, you can find lots of actual grad students and professors who swear up and down by this book.

My experience only allows me to review this book on its readability.

For which I give it full marks. This was actually one of several books about grad school I ordered off of Amazon at the time, but of all of those books, this was the only one that was remotely interesting to read.

Part of this, it must be admitted, is the fascination of a train wreck. Peters makes his points through real life anecdotes of people he knows or has interviewed, and he has amassed a great collection of grad school horror stories which makes for interesting, if slightly unnerving, reading for the potential student.

But the book as a whole is just plain well written. Peters is a surprisingly good writer. I say surprisingly because his background is in the sciences, not the humanities. But he's obviously learned a thing or to about how to write a readable paragraph, and there's even a chapter in the book about how to write well.

If I never end up going to grad school, obviously much of the information and advice in this book will never apply to me. But I think large parts of it does have carry over value into other facets of life. The section on writing well, for example. As with the section on dealing with stress. And the section on finding employment.

All in all, a very readable and interesting guide to graduate school. Whether the advice in here is good or not, I'll have to leave to others to judge. And whether much of this book ends up applying to me or not remains to be seen.

Link of the Day
In Some Alternate Universe ...
and But of course

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ota Village / 大田

(Better Know a City)

Monday March 9, 2009
Ota is another city on the Kunisaki Peninsula.

I've not spent a lot of time in Ota, other than driving through it. There's not a lot in Ota that would give you reason to stop.
However I remember a JET friend once saying to me, "We went to pick so-and-so up in Ota-Mura, and, man, that place was so beautiful we couldn't believe it."
Although this was not my own opinion, the conviction with which these words were said managed to make an impression on my brain. Now whenever I think of Ota, I automatically remember how beautiful it's supposed to be. And whenever I drive through Ota, I keep my eyes peeled, waiting to be blown away by the beauty of it.

In my own humble opinion, Ota is beautiful only in the sense that all of Oita Prefecture is beautiful. I've yet to see anything in Ota that absolutely knocked my socks off, but every small town in Oita prefecture is filled with scenes of rivers winding their way between rice fields nestled in green mountain valleys, and Ota shares this charm as much as any other town. When the sun hits it just right on a beautiful spring day, it's something worth seeing. (Part of the reason why I'm making this little pilgrimage to every city in Oita Prefecture).

On the day I went to Ota, however, it was cloudy and overcast. The weather forecast the previous day had predicted rain, but by morning it had been down-graded to cloudy skies with only a 30% chance of rain. I decided to take the chance.

I drove into Ota , and made my first stop at the town hall to see if I could pick up some maps and tourist information.

I went into the lobby and started looking at the brochures.
Shortly after I entered, a man in a business suit walked up and tried to get through the automatic doors.
For whatever reason, the doors, which had worked perfectly fine for me, refused to open for him. He walked up to the doors, stood for a minute, walked back, walked up again, stomped his feet in front of the doors, and they still wouldn't open.

I must have still been a bit sleepy in the morning, because instead of helping him I just watched the whole thing, with my mind very slowly forming the proposition that maybe I should go over and try to trigger the doors from the other side.
But by the time I had thought of this, he was already prying the doors open with this hands and squeezing his body through sideways in the small opening he had made. He saw that I was watching him, and gave me a sheepish smile that said, "Well, isn't this the strangest thing?"

Again perhaps because I was half-asleep, the incident didn't really strike me as funny at the time. It was only later in the day when I was walking around that I would think back to it and chuckle softly to myself.

I exited the town hall (the automatic doors worked fine for me) and then I looked around me at what appeared to be downtown Ota. There was the town hall, a school across the street, a river flowing through, a gas station, and a post office, and that was it.
I've been to a lot of small little towns on this project, but so far Ota takes the cake. I didn't even see a single convenience store, which, in Japan, says a lot. (In Japan, there's always a convenience store). Nor did I find a supermarket during my wanderings. I have no idea where the people of Ota get their food.

Although it's since been absorbed into Kitsuki during the 2005 Town mergers, Ota used to be designated as "Ota-Mura", Mura meaning village, or the smallest possible classification for a Japanese town.
And Ota deserves that classification. There's just not a lot there.

I walked up and down the river for a while anyway.

I came across a group of stones labelled "Jizojisekiden". Since I couldn't read much of the Japanese sign, I have no idea what that means. The only thing I could decipher was the date, which was 1367.

Ota-Mura was an agricultural town, and I saw some people at work in the rice fields as I walked by. I also saw a couple of cows outside of one house.
This wasn't the first time I've seen cows in Japan, but it was rare enough that I thought it warranted a picture. Livestock in Japan, at least here in Oita, is pretty rare, probably just because they don't have the space to keep them. And you can see from this picture the bulls don't exactly have a ton of room in this enclosure.

I made my way up the hill a little bit to see another temple,

and then eventually I made my way back to my car.
The map I got from the city office indicated Yokodake park as the main attraction in Ota, so I headed out there.

Once I turned into Yokodake, I realized I had been here before. During the Oita JET Charity Bicycling trip my 3rd year we had stayed overnight in the lodge here.

I had, however, never fully explored the park at the time, so I went for a little walk around now. Yokotake Park is located on the top of a big hill with a nice view of the surrounding countryside.

I also saw a deer park there, something I don't remember from my previous trip.

For 100 yen, you could buy some deer treats and feed it to the deer through the fence. So I decided to give it a try.

For 100 yen, it was pretty good entertainment.
The deer didn't always share as nicely as one might hope. Whenever I would try and feed a deer, another one would come over and they would lock horns and try and push each other away. Occasionally they would let out a small bleating noise during this struggle, and I thought, "Hmm, I always wondered what sounds deer make."

After I tried my best to distribute the treats equally to all the deer, I moved down to see what else Yokotake had to offer. First I came upon a children's playground and jungle gym. I kept walking and came to a trail leading into the woods and a sign pointing for "hari no mimi"--which, with my limited Japanese, I think translates to "the ear of the needle". (Apparently Japanese expressions and English ones differ slightly in their wording).

I followed the trail down into the forest, and there was indeed a small natural tunnel in the rocks which was labelled "the ear of the needle."

The trail continued, till I got to an old shrine named yokodagongen. There sign explaining the history had fallen into disrepair and most of the letters were now washed away by the elements. I did, however, catch the Kanji figures for Miura Baien, my old friend from Aki town. He must have had some sort of connection in Ota-Mura as well.

I continued walking along the trail, passing some more statues (Shugyotaishi?).

Eventually, the trail took lead me in a circle back to the main road. From there, I saw another sign leading onto a new and different trail labelled Kyosekitankendo, and followed this one.

It led to a look out tower from which I could get a good view in all directions of Ota-Mura.

After I felt like I had thoroughly explored Yokodake Park, I got back in my care and drove on.

The map of Ota-Mura indicated some sort of peach tree grove called Sumomo-en, and there were also road signs pointing towards this. But after following several winding mountain roads that seemed to lead nowhere, I gave up on it.

I haded back towards the center of Ota Mura, and this time followed the road in the other direction.

There was a rest stop where I parked my car, across from Shirahigetawara shrine.

After climbing up the stairs and getting a look at the shrine, I decided to continue down walking the road. (It had a nice wide sidewalk that seemed to just invite me to walk down it. Plus, it followed a river.)

There was a few stone sculptures along the river bank, that I stopped to take photos of.

While I was taking these photos, I was close enough to the elementary school to hear the announcements come over the loud speaker. "Because of the rain today, we're not going to have recess outside. Everybody go to the gymnasium instead."

"The wimps," I thought, "It's not even raining out."

I followed the signs up the hill for Seisuiji (pure water temple?).

Seisuiji appeared to be a natural spring around which a temple had been built. The stone was carved so that the water seemed to be coming directly out of a lion's mouth. I'm not sure how old the place was, but it had an ancient feel to it. (But then again, maybe water just ages everything faster).

Water also collected in a small pond. While I was there, a crane flew up from the river below, and was about to land in the pond when it saw me standing behind the stone entrance. I must have startled it because it quickly flapped its wings to stop itself and then reversed direction in mid-air and flew back towards the river.

On the same hill as Seisuiji was Hodaji temple, which was a temple with a small pool of water at its base.

Just as I was looking at Hodaji, I felt it begin to rain. The school had been right after all.

I had left my umbrella back in the car, so I started heading back.

I usually try and avoid going out to the countryside on a rainy day, because, let's face it, when you're in the middle of nowhere in the Japanese countryside, there's not a lot of indoor activities.

That, and I'm not sure how waterproof my digital camera and video are, and I don't want to take any chances.
But there are no guarantees against the rain. Many times I've stayed in when the weather forecast was for rain, only to have sunny skies quietly mock me all day.
And sometimes, you get rain even when the forecast predicts clear skies.

The forecast for today was for cloudy weather with 30% chance of rain. I had decided to chance it, and I got the rain.

I read my book in my car for a while as I waited for the rain to let up. It never did. In fact it continued to rain steadily for the rest of the afternoon. It never quite reached the point of pouring, but it kept on steadily without much let up.

So, I resigned myself to sightseeing in the rain. I had a few plastic bags lying in the car, and I used those to wrap around my video camera to try and protect it from the rain. And I had an umbrella with me as well.

I drove up the road for a while to the "Zaizenbochi Stone Monument" and took some pictures there.

A little ways more down the road was another parking lot with tourist signs on it, so I stopped there. There was a small foot path leading from the road to the river, and then by the river there was a waterwheel.
A quaint countryside scene. But for some reason they had it all fenced off. I wasn't sure why this was, but no fence can stop me. So I climbed over the fence and went down to take a look at the water wheel and river.

Returning back to the main road, there, was a temple on the other side. It looked just like every other single temple I had seen that day, so I didn't take any new photographs. But I did walk up the steps and have a look around.
On the way back down I slipped and fell down the temple stairs. The rain had made the moss covered stone stairs all the more slippery, and my boots just came out from under me.

I skinned up my knee a bit, and bruised my rear end. But of course, what is really hurt in these instances is your pride. I immediately looked around to make sure no one had seen me. There were no cars going by the road at that point. There was another car in the parking lot, but the driver appeared to be taking a nap. I looked closely to see if he was watching me, and determined he was genuinely sleeping.
There were some houses nearby, so it's possible someone could have seen me, but for the most part I escaped a potentially embarrasing moment.

Next, I followed signs to the Tawara Family 5 storied Pagoda statue--a small stone pagoda that was indicated by tourist signs as something worth seeing.

There was a walking course around here as well, so, with my trusty umbrella, I did some walking back and forth and took a few pictures of Ota-Mura in the rain.

At 4:30 I called it a day and headed home. (Usually I try and stay till at least 5 on these excursions, but I made an exception because of the weather).

Ota Links:
Some pictures on a web photo album of the Ota sake festival and deer park. (pics of Bungo takeda are mixed in with Ota-Mura, but the labels help to sort out which is which). Upon closer examination, turns out I'm actually friends with the person who posted these pics. She was on Jet at the same time as me.
Another former Jet friend's description of Ota-Mura here: Ota-mura is literally a one-traffic light town. And it doesn’t even have a convenience store (in Japan, you know you are in the styx when there is no 24-hour convenience store nearby).
Ota is now part of Kitsuki city, due to the town mergers. So some of the pictures on the Kituski website are of Ota-Mura. Such as the Shrines, Buddhist temples and stone statues or Yokodake Natural Park.
Also this article: Project to Create Kyushu’s Only Doburoku (Festival) Land, to Carry on 1,300 Years of Gratitude

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky speaking at Boston College: Feb 2009
Iraq War Protest Planned for Saturday in Grand Rapids

Friday, March 06, 2009

Aki / 安岐

(Better Know a City)

March 2, 2009

Aki is the next town up the Kunisaki Peninsula after Kitsuki. It's most famous for being the location of the Oita Prefecture Airport.

Me and this airport go back a ways. It was the first part of Oita prefecture I ever saw when they flew us in on the JET program back in 2001. And I've flown in and out of it a few times in the years hence-- occasionally driving wildly up to the airport at the last minute hoping to catch my plane, like in this post here.

(Also when working my way through the Showa News Reels series last year, I learned that there was a deadly airplane crash at Oita Airport in 1964 [details on the Aviation Safety Network here].)

Aside from Oita airport, I didn't have a clue what else there was to see in Aki, but I had a whole day to wander around and find out.

First stop in Aki town was....well, it ended up being the airport again.

It was not originally my intention to revisit the airport, but all the major roads in Aki funnel right into the Oita Airport. Because I didn't know where I was going, before I knew it I was driving right into the airport.

Driving from Nakatsu, I had been in the car for close to 2 hours by this time, so I figured the airport was as good a place as any to stretch my legs, use the public toilets, and get a cup of coffee.

I was hoping to blend into the crowds, but once I walked into the airport I realized there weren't any crowds. Oita Airport isn't exactly the busiest airport in the world, and they must have been between flights, because at first I was the only customer walking around in the whole place. The eyes of every staff member seemed fixed on me, and I was worried someone was going to ask me what flight I was taking, and then I would have to answer that I was just wandering around the airport for pleasure's sake, and feel like a total loser.
Fortunately no one asked me, so I kept my dignity in tact.

Once I got up to the second floor, then I found several other people milling about. There was a small book store on the second floor that I browsed through briefly, despite the fact that they didn't have any English books.

The third floor of Oita Airport has an observation deck, where you can walk out and see the planes take off and land. I had been here before, but it's still pretty cool.
In fact, come to think of it, Oita Airport is the only airport I've ever been to that has an observation deck. I certainly can't remember ever going out on an observation deck back home in the US. I wonder if that's because of some sort of security reason, or for design reasons. Or have I just been missing them all these years.

After taking a few pictures off the observation deck, I went back down to the first floor and stopped at a cafe to get a cup of coffee. (The cafe was kind enough to give me the whole airport experience, and charge me $4 for a tiny cup of very weak tasting coffee.)
As the girl behind the counter handed the coffee off to me, she pointed to the condiment stand and added in Japanese, "the cream and sugar is right over there, enjoy your coffee."

"Thanks," I replied, also in Japanese.

One of the customers in line behind me began saying something to me. His pronunciation was so mangled it could me a few seconds to realize he was actually talking to me in English, and that he had decided to was necessary to translate for me what girl had just . "She said the cream and sugar is just right over there."

This was a bit odd, because I had been conversing with the cafe staff in Japanese, so I would have thought it was evident I was getting along fine on my own. But even if I hadn't understood Japanese, the concept of a condiment stand needed no translation. I knew what cream and sugar looked like, and what their function was, and the stand was directly in front of me, and the staff had clearly pointed right to it.
And finally, even by Japanese standards, his English pronunciation had been quite bad. If I did need help understanding the concept of cream and sugar, he was probably not the one to do it.

But everyone who's been in Japan has a hundred stories like this. (As a Japanese friend once said to me, Japanese people who are fluent in English don't feel the need to practice it all the time. It's precisely the people whose English isn't very good who feel the need to always try it out on foreigners).

Since he thought he was helping me, I thanked him, tried to smile politely, and hoped my annoyance wasn't showing on my face. I had the sense he wanted to continue the conversation, but I deliberately buried my face in my book to avoid having to talk to him.
In this last part I was perhaps a bit rude. In an ideal sense, us foreigners living in Japan should act as polite cultural ambassadors at all times, but alas, in real life we have our grumpy anti-social moments as much as anyone else.

After finishing my tiny cup of overpriced coffee, and reading a few pages in my book, I went back out to my car and decided to find out what else was in Aki town.

I managed to get away from the airport and find the downtown area of Aki. I parked my car in the supermarket parking lot, (and then went inside to buy a bottle of water, just so I could say I had an excuse for parking there).

Like a lot of these small countryside towns, there wasn't much to downtown Aki. I walked down the main street, passed a bank, a 7-11, another supermarket, a gas station, and that seemed to be about it.

There were two bridges crossing two different rivers on their way out to the ocean, and I walked along the bank of one river and got a picture of it feeding into the ocean.

Then, I continued walking down the main street until I got to the end of it, and then headed back down the same way.

Not knowing what else there was to see in Aki, on my way back I decided to follow the other river inland, going away from the ocean and towards the mountains.

It was a pleasant March day, when the weather was neither hot nor cold. And although it was still technically winter season, the first signs of Spring could already be seen on the ground. Yellow and purple wildflowers dotted the way all along the river bank.

Because it was such a pleasant day, and because the walk along the river was so beautiful, I kept on walking even though I didn't know where I was going. And I kept on walking. And walking. Until I had walked for a couple of hours along the river.

At one point the river intersected with another major road next to Aki Elementary school and Junior high school. I walked along the main road for a while here, and then came to the other river going through Aki. This was another one of Aki's population centers, and there were a lot of houses around this area, but there was still a nice path along the river. In one spot, someone had even planted several trees along the path creating a green awning to pass under.

I saw a statue up on a nearby hill, and started walking towards that just for the sake of having a destination.
Once I got to the hill, it seemed to be some sort of temple or shrine with a series of steps leading up.

Once I got to the statue on the top of the hill, I could get a good view of the town down below.

Instead of going down the stairs, on the way back down I followed a road going down the back of the hill through a green wooded area.

After this, I continued to walk down the river for a way (and past another elementary school, although this second one seemed to be deserted). Then I turned back and started to retrace my steps.

I found the Aki town hall near the schools, and stopped in to see if I could get any pamphlets or sight-seeing information about Aki.

There were a few pamphlets on Miura Baien.
I had no idea who Miura Baien is, but next to Oita airport he was obviously the most famous thing in Aki. I had been seeing his face all day on various signs, (although I hadn't known whose face it was until I saw the pamphlets in city hall.)

Apparently Miura Baien, whoever he was, was at one time a local boy who made it big, and has ever since remained the pride and joy of the city, much like Fukuzawa Yukichi (w) is to Nakatsu.

It was already after noon by the time I arrived at the town hall, and it would be at least another hour to walk back to my car. Would I have time to see the Miura Baien museum? I doubled my pace on the way back, and returned to my car as quickly as I could.

I got back in my car and drove out towards the Miura Baien museum.
(I realized, as you always do in these situations, the difference between traveling on foot and by car. The stretch along the river that it had taken me the whole afternoon to walk I drove by in 5 minutes).

I followed signs for the Miura Baien museum for 13 kilometers, only to find at the end of it that the museum is closed on Mondays.

Slightly down the road was Miura Baien's old house. The sign at the parking lot said it was open for business, but once I actually got out of the car and went around to the front I found that, guess what, this is also closed on Mondays.

I was able to walk around the outside of the house however, and take a picture.

For some reason, right around this time I got struck by a random sneezing attack. I'm not sure why. Maybe the sun was too bright, or maybe an early attack of spring hay fever. Whatever the reason, I started sneezing over and over again. And if you know me, I'm not a quiet sneezer.
The old ladies and the farmers in the neighboring gardens, who until this time had been more or less ignoring me as they continued to gossip with each other, now stopped and stared.

Trying to preserve what little dignity I had left, I walked around to the back of the house. There was a path up through the woods where you could see Miura Baien's grave.

I never did find out who Miura Baien was. And in fact, even after I returned to Nakatsu and asked my Japanese friends and students about him, very few people seemed to know. So his fame is apparently limited.
Nevertheless, a quick google search does bring up several sites on Miura Baien--for example this one here.

After this disappointing trip to Miura Baien's house, I got out the map again and began to think about where to go next. I decided to head in the direction of Aki Dam and Ikoino Park.

I'm beginning to feel like almost every city in Oita has a dam, and the dam in Aki was unspectacular.

There was a park at one end of it, which was completely covered in cherry blossom trees. And, as the cherry blossoms were not in bloom yet, the park looked very grey and dull.

I've never quite understood why the Japanese cover the whole country in cherry blossom trees which are only in bloom for 2 weeks out of the year. But then, the idea that life is fleeting is supposed to be the whole point.

There was some obstacle course equipment in the park (in various stages of disrepair) which I monkeyed around on for a while, and then drove on.

I got out my map again, and decided to go out Rurikoji, a temple which was marked out as a tourist destination.

Once again I found myself following signs down winding mountain roads until I arrived at the temple, which I found quite unremarkable. I'm sure if I had understood the history behind it I could have appreciated it more, but just looking at it I was slightly disappointed.

There were some other temples and tourist destinations located on my map, but at this point I decided I was tired of wasting gas driving all over. From Rurikoji temple I had a nice view of the valley down beneath, and the river winding through it.

So, I decided to just go for a walk along the river, stopping at various points to sit down and dangle my feet off the bank while I read my book, and then continuing on again.

When the 5 o'clock chimes sounded, I decided I had put in my time in Aki, and made my way back towards my car.

As I was driving out of Aki, however, I saw a couple more signs for another temple and a pagoda. Impusively, I turned my car down the road to take in one last sight before I left.

The temple was ordinary. Once again, I'm sure I would have appreciated it more if I had some knowledge of it's history. There were various signs for things marked Yasakasha, Itabi, and Goreisha, but to be honest I have no idea what any of this means.

The pagoda (Yamagasakunisakito, or Hoto) was particularly disappointing. When a sign says pagoda, I was expecting some sort of big building, and instead found just a small rock.

And with that, I bid Aki a fond farewell, and headed home.

Aki Links:
Another blog travelogue here. This post is both Aki and Kitsuki, but all the pictures up to Kitsuki castle are from Aki.
瑠璃光寺 Rurikou-ji Rurikoji Temple,

Link of the Day
· Noam Chomsky on 1968. New Statesman. May 8, 2008
Also A History of Anarchist Organizing in Grand Rapids