Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fishing with Akihiko

Pictured: Japanese archer on horseback, courtesy of Fuji Film Staff of Minami Ashigara

Hakone, Kanagawa
In the middle of Lake Ashi near the beautiful tourist town of Hakone, Akihiko and I are aboard a small open boat with an outboard engine. Few people know that Lake Ashi is actually a volcanic crater. Extinct I hope! Yes I think it is. Fuji is not and looks very beautiful from here. Her foggy brilliance belying her danger and power. An earthquake in this region would set her fiery bowels aflame, hurtling boulder size volcanic rock and debris for kilometres around and causing the evacuation of the Canadian-like city of Gotemba. Gotemba, is the Abbotsford, BC of Japan. The people of Gotemba don't seem to know this though, but someone should tell them. It is interesting how other places can remind you so much of home at times. I am brought back from by daydream by Akihiko.

"Today we are fishing for salmon," he informs me. "I think you mean trout don't you?" "No salmon, they put salmon in this lake, "he corrects. Apparently the sports fisherman like fishing for salmon, so salmon were added to Lake Ashi. I'm not sure if this is a good idea environmentally, but the fishermen seem happy about it. I end the day with a sunburn, but enjoy the sight of the water and the forest.

In Tanzawa

It is sunrise on a Sunday morning and Akihiko picks me up, bleary eyed from my one room apartment. It is a beautiful day, and I enjoy the drive through the woods surrounding Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. The narrow, winding road takes us through a forest filled with large, leafy trees. I finally lose my sense of being in such a crowded country. We could be in Canada or in the European countryside. We finally round a bend and down in a small, rocky valley is the river.

My feelings of being alone in the Japanese countryside are soon dashed as it looks as though everyone in Tokyo has gotten there first. There are clearly demarcated pools with numbers clearly painted on the rocks to delineate which pool each group has been assigned to. This isn't exactly what I had imagined to be fishing in Japan, but I decide to make the best of it. Akihiko turns to me as we get to pool E-13 and says, "The fish will come at 9 o'clock." I laugh heartily. Akihiko can be such a card at times. But at 9 o'clock a large green dump truck rolls up to E-13 and the driver gets out. Papers are signed and the fish are poured into pool E-13. I am astounded. Akihiko wasn't joking. This is fishing in Japan--atleast one kind of fishing.

Our excited compatriots, all friends and colleagues of Akihiko, eagerly start "fishing." Some of the fish are caught and released again into our pool. But as the morning goes on, more and more are caught and put on the barbecue. "Today we are fishing for salmon," Akihiko kids me. And they are small salmon.

I decide to try out my slowly improving Japanese on one of Akihiko's hapless friends. I think I have said, "I used to fish in Canada too." But the woman's reaction is rather strange-- she moves away from me. Akihiko informs me that I said, "In Canada I used to be a pick-pocket too." I stare over at my conversation partner and she is checking the contents of her wallet. Fearing the police will show up at E-13 at any moment, I tell Mariko what I had meant to say. She stills seems wary, so I decide to go back and talk to the fish. They are safer; though they move away from me too.

The Tribes of Midnight

Photo of Kaisei Town by Sandra Isaka

Kaisei Town, Kanagawa

Hiroyuki Sakamoto talks with Suzukisan: "You should come out with us on Friday nightSakamotosan, we have a lot of fun! We cruise around on our 'bikes' (motorcycles), drinkbeer and meet girls. Hope to see ya!"

Hiroyuki ponders this invitation. Everyone has told him the bosozoku or Japanese bike gangs are dangerous and a dead end road to oblivion. Not the kind of thing a Japanese mother wishes for her youngsters. Suzukisan seems so nice however, and Friday nights have been pretty boring of late. Hiroyuki doesn't have many friends, and the thought of spending another Friday nightstudying for high school entrance exams doesn't enthuse him.

On Friday night, Hiroyuki approaches the local bosozoku gang hanging out in front of Daiyuzan Station. One of the gang members is hassling the frustrated O'bento ladies, and preventing her from closing the shutter to her shop. A tall American accosts him and he relents, but marks the American in his head as a potential target for assault at a later more convenient date and place; preferably when he will be outnumbered ten to one he smiles inwardly. The American knows he could be a target, he has lived in Japan long enough to know that, and his Japanesegirlfriend had the unfortunate experience of being rammed by one of the bikers one night. As she tried to dial for the police to report the accident, her cell phone was ripped from her hand and thrown into a rice field."We will kill you if you report this accident. We have your licence plate number, we can find you." This incident still angersthe California native, so it gives him satisfaction to scold this repulsive bosozoku. They wouldn't dareattack me he thinks. He hopes. He finds it a little difficult to sleep that night. Maybe another beer will help.

Hiroyuki is welcomed on Friday night. All of the members ask him about himself and are very kind and caring about him."Do you want to sit on my bike, it's the latest Honda?" one asks him. The prettiest girl in the gang comes up and tells him he is "kakoi," -cute. He hasn't had this much fun in a long time. Not only that, these peoplelisten to him. Before the night is over he is asked if he wants to join. He unhesitatingly says, "yes."He thinks people have the wrong impression about the bosozoku. They must not know about them like he does--never having spent any time with them like he has. They seem a far cry from the gang that baseballbatted a 24 year old Buddhist monk to death only months before; leaving his fiance and parents to ask why? Why my son? Why my fiance? Why didn't the police do anything to prevent this tragedy? Why don't they act? The same gang attacked a local businessman and father, beating him until hebegged, "yamete," --stop. Some of the members still gloat about this crime in front of the cigarette machine, embellishing the story with whiny imitations of the salaryman's protestations.

Could these really be the same people Hiroyuki asked himself? And if theyare really so bad, why do the police let them continue to drive around? They can't be so bad he decides.

The next Friday comes in slow anticipation and Hiroyuki is formally welcomed into the gang at the party that night. The night starts off well but after they go to the riverside things turn ugly. Hiroyuki is told that to be a member of the gang you have to be tough, so he will have to fight every member of the gang to prove hisworth. Not ever having had a fight in his life Hiroyuki is badly beaten up. He is told he can never leave the gang. "Don't even think about it!" chimes one member. "You try to quit or you tell anyone we beat you upand your mother and sister will be next. We know who they are, and where they live. Here are their photos if you doubt us." Hiroyuki is horrified, but he cannot quit. He can't get beaten like this again, and he can'tbring the same thing onto his family. So in typical Japanese style he "gamans"--perseveres.

Slowly he is initiated into committing crimes. Stealing from convenience stores, houses in the neighbourhood, and bullying students at school for money. While he continues to attend junior high school, his cell phone rings during class time, and his local leader tells him to be at the next "meeting." His frazzled junior high schoolEnglish teacher is too scared to raise a word in protest, knowing Hiroyuki's gang connections. He also knows about the teacher who was mysteriously pushed down the stairs in Yokohama a few years ago. Just asmysteriously it never made the papers. It would be too much bad press for the schools in Yokohama the rumour goes. The beating of a pregnant teacher in Matsuda, just an urban rumour, or a horrifying fact?His friend, a teacher in the next town swears it's true. He doesn't want to ponder it.It is just too scary when he has to face these members everyday in his classes. The schools in New York don't seem so different afterall he decides.

Another American, we'll call him Dave, goes to the local police station with his Japanese wife.

They complain that the bosozoku make noise every night on their street, people are beaten, and we have children he worries. The policeman is somewhat sympathetic but patiently explains this is not America.He has children too and his street is noisy as well, but if he makes a mistake while trying to arrest gang members, he could lose his job. "In Fujisawa a good policeman lost his job. He was trying to arrest the bosozoku and one of the gang members drove his motorcycle into a fence. He was injured. The policeman was fired. The citizens protested, they signeda petition in support of the hapless policeman saying they were proud of what he had done, trying to end theassault on their ears. It was to no avail, the man has a family and he is out of work. It is difficult to find a jobin this economy right Davesan?" Dave has to agree but cannot fathom this country sometimes.

Why can a bike gang member get away with driving dangerously, not stopping for the police and creating noise pollution?Why is the policeman punished? It should be that as long as the police use reasonable methods of catchingcriminals, the police will not be punished if a criminal is injured fleeing a crime. If the rules prevent the police fromacting, why aren't the rules changed giving the police more power? Surely the people want their sleep to bemore restful and their neighbourhoods safer? Why don't people get involved? His long suffering wife listensto his frustration, knowing he is right, but unable to do anything but listen.

The Japanese people are patient. But somewhere someone decides he has had enough. His wife screams,"No, don't go out there," but he shakes her off. If the police won't handle it he will. He walks out into thestreet in his pajamas, he would look comical if the situation weren't so serious. "Pipe down!" he yells tothe bike gang assaulting his and the whole neighbourhood's ears for blocks around. The bikers circle andsurround him. His crying wife watches from their bedroom window as he is attacked by a 17 year old.The attacking high school student knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he also knows that under Japaneselaw, you will not be severely punished for killing someone when you are 17--some time spent at a reform school perhapsis all he would receive, even if he is caught. He will also rise in the ranks of his bike gang.

Another father lies dead on the street in front of his home. Another family is left asking why. Another policeman,feeling guilty, sits in his koban (police box) wishing he could do more but knowing he can't. I have a family to feed hedecides, I can't risk losing this job. Besides the law doesn't punish these punks anyway he knows.A Suzuki blares down the street, waking babies and overworked salarymen. The tribes of midnight, marktheir territory, and speed off into the dawn.

by Kevin Burns

"Okamoto's fiancee arrived outside the convenience store where they had agreed to meet at just after 10:30 p.m. Five minutes later Okamoto called her on her mobile phone. "I'll be there any minute," he said. Fifteen minutes later he had yet to arrive. In the meantime, a blur of bosozoku bikes had raced by. Used to seeing them around, she gave them little thought, and headed back to her nearby apartment to wait.

A siren's wail started her running; first to the convenience store, then towards the spot where an ambulance had stopped 100 metres away. Alongside it, she saw a body face down. Its legs and torso were in the gutter, its head in the road. As she got closer, she saw blood, a deep indentation in the back of the skull and a crater above the left eye. "Priest dies in beating," the Kanagawa Shimbun, a local daily, declared in a headline the next day. "--Velisarios Kattoulas, Far Eastern Economic Review

" gangs like the one that killed Okamoto remain the most visible sign of the breakdown in law and order in Yokohama. When bosozoku first took to the streets in the mid 1960s, they were relatively tame. However, as Japan's birth rate declined and bosozoku grew smaller, they began to defend with violence turf that they had once guarded solely by force of numbers. The National Police Agency says serious crime by bosozoku has more than doubled since 1996, and now accounts for a stunning 80% of all serious crime committed by juveniles. Moreover, yakuza organized-crime syndicates increasingly target bosozoku as buyers for the amphetamines and other drugs that are now their biggest source of income. " --Velisarios Kattoulas, Far Eastern Economic Review

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ashigarakami-gun Hospital

Picture of Enoshima by Kevin Burns


Editor: This hospital is commonly known as Kami Byoin or Kami
Hospital. When my daughter was born there in the shockingly dirty and old,
East side building in 1999, one of the windows on the entrance door
was broken with a large hole allowing the winter air to come into
the hospital unimpeded.

I understand that now (2006) they are no longer using the old East side
building. They are using the modern and very clean West side building only.

Personally I have always found the staff at Kami Hospital professional
and top notch. It was the old and dirty East building that bothered me.
The staff never did.

Kevin Burns

Ashigarakami-gun Hospital

by Kaisei

The story below occurred in about 1999--Editor

Matsuda, Kanagawa

If you are in need of a doctor in Japan, DO NOT
go to the Ashigarakami-gun hospital in Matsuda! This
hospital has not made it into the modern era. It is dirty,
and very smelly (the toilets are top 10 worst in
Japan, and the smell of tobacco smoke was very strong).
We often read about nurses and patients in Japan
becoming infected with various diseases while IN a
hospital. Well, now I know why. Recently a friend of mine
had to get a basic check-up/physical. Here are some
of the events that occured that day, in her own
1. "The eye test was first and they couldn't
quite figure out what to write in the space that said
'Vision: Right eye 20/____ Left eye 20/____'."
"Now, to internal medicine where I'm honoured by the
presence of a twelve year old doctor (okay an exaggeration
but you get the drift) who pretty much figures he is
God. He is very arrogant and doesn't have a clue what
to do to me. I try to explain (through a Japanese
interpreter) about the blood tests I need, to prove I have
immunities to measles and mumps, but he has no idea what we
are talking about. I give up on trying to get those
tests, but I still need a TB test and a booster for
Tetanus/Diphtheria/Polio and a physical examination. He says ok."

For the blood test: "Anyway, just as I'm about to sit
down, a man who has just had his blood taken and
doesn't hold the little cotton swab long enough to have
the blood clot, comes back into the room with blood
dripping down his arm and all over the floor and just
walks up to where I am sitting ------ BLOOD DRIPPING
!!!!! Someone scurries from around the table with a few
cotton swabs and begins wiping up the blood - no gloves,
no disinfectant, no clue!!!! Another nurse suddenly
stops and gets some gloves for the woman and she sort
of reluctantly puts them on. The other nurse wipes
the blood from the man's arm and says okay hold this
cotton here and wait for a bit over there. She still
hasn't put on any gloves, washed her hands or anything!!
She calls me back because I have basically run from
the room where they are handling blood products so
carelessly and she says she's ready for me now, just sit
down. I'm freaking out and I won't have any blood taken
until they disinfect the table, she puts on some gloves
and I can see that a new needle has been taken out of
the package. (The guy dripped on the one they were
going to use on me!!) The nurse looks at me like I'm
from Mars. Finally, they chalk it up to "Stupid
Foreigner" and do as I ask."
3. "Back to the doctor for
the physical. So, I sit down, he gets out his
stethoscope, listens, takes my blood pressure, tells me to say
Ahhhh, and that's it ---- physical examination
4. "Then, we finally get it through to him that I
still need the TB test and Tetanus booster. He gets the
stuff, has the needle to my arm and then kind of looks
around, all stunned and says to the nurse - 'What is this
and how much am I supposed to give to

Do we really live in one of the most advanced
nations on earth? Sometimes I wonder. If you know of any
good hospitals/doctors, please recommend them. Any
places to avoid, let us know. This is one area that is
too important to take chances with!

The above was originally posted by Kaisei at the Odawara Bulletin Board

More on the Outbreak & Kami Hospital

Jan, 2000

Matsuda, Kanagawa

Kami Hospital is rather infamous at this
point. A few months ago it made the national news
as many babies all became sick at the same time.
One side of the hospital is very new and modern, but the
other is old and will be rebuilt soon. We were
shocked as our daughter was born there just two months
before the outbreak. I don't know the translation of
what the babies caught but it was a bit dangerous I
understand. All the babies recovered to my knowledge.

Although the East side of Kami Hospital is certainly old and shockingly
dirty, the West side is not. They staff have always been very
professional in my opinion and I come from a medical family in
Canada. My brother and father are doctors.

I got an MRI, and various tests at Kami
hospital (West side) a while back and they were all done with
professionalism. Moreover, our son had croup which was very scary,
and we felt the care he received was very good, and
the nurses and doctors were kind. I think once the
new wing is built things will improve. It sounds
like your friend ran into some bad luck. It's too

In some of the hospitals in Japan you will have to deal
with cigarette smoke unfortunately. But most are pretty clean other
than that and have high standards. Shiritsu
Hospital in Odawara is famous. There used to be a problem with
cigarette smoke but that seems to have been put out.

by Kevin Burns

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tuna Hero

One of my joys of living in Japan is the food. The variety in the Japanese diet is nearly endless as they eat just about anything. The emphasis on quality, freshness and appearance has been an awakening for my taste buds long dulled by the instant, ready- to- go fast food back home. When I first came to Japan, I spent many a weekend wandering around town checking out a bar here and there, getting lost and occasionally stumbling upon a great eatery. I'm not talking about some Ginza sushi shop where it costs 20,000 yen to dine, but a place that has a certain atmosphere, a warmth that keeps bringing you back.

A friend showed me one such place, a small kaitensushi-ya (a cheap rotating conveyor sushi bar)called Tuna Hero. How he found the place, I'll never know. Probably just dumb luck. It was cheap to eat and if your bill topped 1,500 yen, well, you knew you had just pigged out. Kon-chan, the master, had a conveyor belt in his small shop, but he never really used it. He'd just slice up some fish and bring it over.

The walls of Tuna Hero are plastered with pictures of children. In my poor Japanese, I asked the master why there were all these kids on the walls. He said that they were birthday pictures- the kids come in to celebrate on their birthday and he gives them some ice cream as a "present." Being a smart-ass, I quipped that I wanted my picture on the wall, too. And with that, the master produced a camera, lined me up against the wall and took my picture.

A few weeks later, the photo was on the wall under the clock with a message saying, "Come and study English with us!" The fact that it is under the clock is important- it's in a postion where everyone will notice it ergo, it's a place of "honor" if I may use that word. There I was, immortalized in customer lore for eternity. I frequented Tuna Hero since it was close to where I lived. It wasn't necessarily the food that brought me back, it was the fact the master would chat me up even though I couldn't understand a lick of what he was saying. When the shop wasn't busy, he'd duck out into his garden and bring out some fresh edamame(green soy beans. A perfect match with a cold beer!). On one occasion he gave me whale sashimi and on another, it was aloe sushi.

The shop never really got crowded and I assume that he did a fair amount of business in sushi deliveries in his Tuna hero mobile- a little Suzuki mini-car(probably had a lawn mower engine in it) with a Tuna Hero logo( kind of a Kintaro-looking kid triumphantly holding a tray of sushi) on the doors. I'd see him in the street and he beep his horn and give me a wave. For a guy thousands of miles from home and unable to speak read or write Japanese, he friendliness helped me deal with culture shock and adjust to live in Japan.

The moral of the story is this: find a restaurant, be it an izakaya, sushi-ya or yakitori shop to call your own while you're in Japan. It's a place to really get to know the average Japanese. It's a chance to get out of your English bubble- the gaijin bars and friends. Get out and see something for yourself. It will do wonders for your social standing. I once took a date to Tuna Hero and my stock with her jumped 10,000% when she saw that not only was my picture on the wall of the shop(thereby granting me some fame), but that the master actually knew me. In her eyes, that was something incredible.

Tuna Hero is still there and 5 years after the fact, the pictures are still on the wall. It's a little trip down memory lane. No...scratch that. Hitting the haunts of my early days in Japan is more like a soldier sifting through the burned-out wreckage of a battlefield. You look around, tip your hat back and think: "God damn. I f----ing made it in this country."

Shawn Thir

Shawn is the webmaster of Lets and has a favorite yakitori joint whose location he will never divulge. Let`s This story originally appeared there.
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