36. Attempt to Taiwan
Teahouse in Hamaryuku Park, Tokyo
September 19, 2018 Tokyo
Yesterday I had tea in Hamaryuku Park. The teahouse is perched on a small pond and is approached over a wooden bridge. Both the roof of the tea house and the water in the pond are bright green. The tea is even greener and has a creamy texture with small foamy bubbles on the surface. It is incredibly delicious. The tatami mats and narrow red carpet invite you to sit and contemplate the beauty of the pond and even the tall buildings that rise up beyond it. This, for me, was a quiet escape from the crush of locals and foreigners thronging through nearby Tsujiki fish market.
The Tsujiki is the largest fish wholesale trading market in the world by any measure — number of species, Yen, $, by weight. Just as the abundance of large predator fish is in serious decline and about to go off a cliff, the old market is about to be moved to newer, bigger premises. I wonder, as Pacific Blue Fin tuna are close to being completely wiped out, if anyone sees the irony in that. Interestingly, the move has been delayed many times. Most of the old timers don’t want to lose the history of the place. And the new location, having been built on the site of an old chemicals storage plant, was found to be toxic and had to be extensively cleaned and sanitized. Now it has been claimed to be safe, but after Fukushima and other tragedies many people aren’t buying that.
I’m now looking out the window of a Tully’s coffee shop which is attached to my business hotel in Kaubukicho, Shinjuku, just outside the love hotel district. A guy just walked in front of the window. His T-shirt said, “I want myself just the way I am”. Beautiful language. It could apply to societies, especially Japanese. “We are Japanese, and we catch and eat fish, no matter”. But also Canadian, “We are Albertans, and we pump oil, no question”, or “I am from B.C. and we cut down old growth forests and will continue until they are all gone”. This is a depressing line of thought. Oh, oh. A young guy riding an electric bicycle (there’s lots) on the sidewalk while on his cell just hit a pigeon. It squawked, stunned, but seems O.K. The guy did stop, briefly. I wonder what kind of shocks will help us change our ways? Or will we just be forced to by events? In B.C. this summer a record 565 fires were burning at the same time. California burned too. Calgary flooded a couple of years ago and, of course, Fort McMurray burned. Japan experienced record rains this year and floods and landslides. Nothing much in the way of public policy has changed.
I asked Shiro Ose about Japanese interest in environmental matters. He said that it is more due to Japan always following America’s lead. He also said that increasing numbers of people are put off by this. (This, he and Naky claimed, is especially true in the Okinawa Archipelago where the huge U.S. military base is deeply resented.) In this tight, conforming, tidy country, do people learn about environmental issues and have a voice? It doesn’t seem so. Shiro said that there is little media coverage and asked me to forward him articles I collect, even though it was difficult for him, with his imperfect grasp of English, to understand them. He was not aware, for example, of deposit programs such as we have in B.C. that pay a nickel for every plastic bottle returned. Such a scheme could make some street people in Japan almost wealthy, as there is such a treasure trove out there on the beaches.
And yet, just now a man walked by. He was old, but walked easily, almost gliding by. He was dressed impeccably in cream-coloured pants and jacket with a bright green vest and carried a long pair of tongs like something you might use to fish a cob of corn from a deep dish of boiling water. There are no public garbage bins here. People wisely carry their garbage and dispose of it at home. How novel. This man picks up the tiny bits that are missed. Such care. Imagine if this fastidious behavior was directed at the beaches that are so infected with trash. Or more of a stretch: at the GHGs that belch from their coal-fired power plants and ICE cars.
Shinpei greeting us at Hoshidate
Thursday, September 29, 2018 Hoshidate, Iriomote Island, Japan
Here in this small village of Hoshidate, in a rundown hotel that soon may be without power while Super Typhoon Trami is bearing down and blowing sea water onto the windows in front of me, and as another typhoon is building to the south, I see that our very small project of paddling from Ishigake to Taiwan, and finishing our multi-passage trip from Kyushu to Taiwan, is looking exceedingly doubtful. No matter.
Yesterday I was over at Miho and Shinpei’s home. Shinpei was showing Shiro and me his collection of spears for fishing, like the Hawaiian sling I used to use in the Bahamas before most of the fish disappeared. I mentioned that we had passed over acres and acres of brown and white coral when we had paddled over from Ishigaki and he said, yes, it was dead. Then he mentioned an especially large round coral formation off Pine Cape (I think) and that it was listed in the Guinness Book of Records. I got excited until he said that it was dead too. I asked him how the diving industry could survive. He said that there are still a few pockets of live coral left and the dive masters take clients there. This year has seen more intense typhoons than any on record, which further damaged the coral.
There was a party over at Miho and Shinpei’s home last night as the typhoon powered in. I had thought that they might have been more concerned. I remember in Miyako 6 years ago the countryside was flat, mostly treeless, the buildings were low, concrete structures and the power lines were underground. There was surprisingly little damage, although the sugar cane crop was totally flattened, and the few metal lean-to structures were torn away and sent flying. You dared not walk during peak winds.
This town of Hoshidate has traditional wood homes. There are trees everywhere, a mountain rises up behind and the ground is very low-lying. The big trees are called Teruhaboku, are very strong, and have evolved to withstand severe winds. Looking at a cross section it is hard to see the growth rings. Very dense. There is also crowded undergrowth here including beautiful red hibiscus with especially long stamens hanging down. A coral reef extends across most of the bay, protecting it. Inside the reef the water is very shallow. We came in at low tide and had to wade our kayak in. As Shinpei explained to Shiro, who passed it on to me: There is the reef, shallow water, the beach, then plants. What concerns me is that these traditional homes are at or below sea level, in a sort of hollow. If there is a storm surge and a meter of water is dumped, where will it go? Their roof looks strong, but how can they protect against floods? I asked Shinpei, and he just explained that, yes, there has been flooding before, but only during high tide and it only lasts for about three hours. He clearly wasn’t worried.
Two of the guests were descendants of original Ryukyu peoples. They had dark skin, big round faces and talked in a very gentle way. They described some of their family life and everyone started laughing, hugely. It wasn’t just the beer. I couldn’t follow so I asked Shiro about it later. He said that when they go fishing in the sea everyone cooperates as they have to tend the lines and nets together as a team. But when they go up the mountain to hunt wild boar they fight. Every man hunts individually, and they are proud and they won’t share. Of course, they have to haul the boars back down to the community. Then everyone gets the same amount. It is funny.
There were several women at the party, sitting separately from the men. The young women who are born here tend to leave the men and go to cities such as Naha and even Tokyo. But there are also women from the main centers who choose to come here. They tend to be strong, independent types.
One is a physiotherapist who has set up a practice in this village. I asked her how this could work out considering there are only about 100 full-time residents in this village and maybe a few more than that in Sonai, on the other side of the bridge. She said that she also treats tourists during the summer and yes, works at my hotel occasionally. She didn’t seem too concerned.
Another young woman moved from Kyushu. She collects wild plants and makes a type of cloth, like linen, she said, from them. Then she makes clothing and hats, I think, with the cloth, and sells in Ishigaki and Naha. She said that this island of Iriomote has the most varieties of useful plants in all Japan. I asked her if she was concerned about Habu, the poisonous snakes that lurk in the bush here, and she said no.
A third woman told me at the outset that she was getting a divorce. She said it as if she was going to be taking back a faulty pair of shoes. She has two children, and it seems that her man is more interested in playing in a rock band than in fatherhood. Later I asked about this. Apparently, the divorce rate in the Okinawan Islands is way higher than in Japan generally. Trouble in paradise. “Why?” I asked. Shinpei’s answer surprised me in its clarity and simplicity, “Because the men are lazy.”
I wondered why. Could it be that in this traditional, patriarchal society the women still keep busy doing housework and perhaps working in offices. But the local fishing industry is mostly gone because the reefs are dying, and fish brought in from big ocean trawlers is cheap. What’s a guy to do? Shinpei has a successful kayak guiding business and sparks with energy. He reminds me of Nadal getting ready to serve. But jobs available to men who wish to work outside appear to be hard to find. The response to my theory was muted. Something beyond my understanding.
Shiro with Shinpei and Miho in Hoshidate
When you enter someone’s home, or, in rural Japan, when you encounter people in their village, you say, “Konichiwa, ojamashimasu”. This means “Hello, I am sorry to enter your space or your village”. It is important to say this, to acknowledge the other person’s right to occupy space and that you are a visitor. We Westerners don’t do this, as we expect that we should be free to wander anywhere we want without restrictions. We take the space. I wonder if this is why we accept so readily the power of large corporations to move in and take our space. The joint stock companies that England pioneered, such as the East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, ended up seizing vast areas of India and North America mainly for the benefit of a few nobles and grandees who lived far from the places of conquest. Technical breakthroughs and efficiencies that these corporations have pioneered have enabled huge numbers of people to live satisfying lives. This has been especially true for people in rapidly industrializing North America and Europe after the war and more recently in Asia. Over time, though, the large global corporations inevitably became more powerful and managed to reduce and eliminate the laws and regulations that had been set up to limit their actions. Today large corporations control industry and trade across the globe with little oversight and no thought about the space or rights of local inhabitants. Increasingly most of the benefits are now accruing to a small number of managers and shareholders. Competition has decreased markedly. This path to riches has run out. We see dangerous and growing inequality, and of course, environmental destruction.
It is hard to see how meaningful change in inequality and environmental protection can take place without first changing the structure of large global corporations and having a broad mix of socially engaged people on corporate boards, in positions of power. Don’t expect corporations to do it themselves: people must organize and demand that governments act. For life on this amazingly beautiful planet.
The dinners at our hotel in Hoshidate have been a wonderful assembly of mysterious small fish, sea food and vegetables. All of it delicious. As I was enjoying this, I began to wonder, how do they do it? There are 127 million people on these islands, and everyone eats sea food. I believe most of the fish come from local waters. How is this sustained? It seems as if the spirit of ojamashimasu runs through fishing culture also. Some of the first official no-take fishing zones were established as early as 1895 but these were just official recognition of pre-existing self-imposed zones that had been agreed upon by community members 250 years ago.
It may seem amazing to modern fisheries managers, but fishers back then realized the importance of no-take zones for the welfare of the community. Today there are more than 1,000 fishery cooperatives in Japan and, not surprisingly, also more than 1,000 MPAs. Most are no-take zones. Some are managed top-down by the government and some bottom-up by local communities. Almost all, though, are based on historical territorial use by local communities. This is a maddeningly complex country. The local fisheries are organized on sound, sustainable principles that work. But the large, subsidized international fishing fleets? They’ll chase big predators such as blue fin tuna to the ends of the earth and people are prepared to catch, and eat, the very last one. As far as I can see, no one is speaking up about this.
October 1, 2018, Hotel in Ishigaki
It’s nice not to be camping on the concrete slope of the fishing port. We are staying at a hotel recommended by Shinpei. We were surprised when we got here to see lines of young women on either side of the street standing around, looking bored and unhappy, waiting for men. He stays here with his wife and young son Shinjiru? I guess the price is right. Shiro says that the women only talk to lonely men, there’s no other action. Really? There is a sign in our elevator: no visitors allowed.
We left Iriomote because, after the first typhoon pounded by another was forming even bigger than the first, which had been the biggest of the year. Just like Genghis Khan when he twice tried to invade Japan, we have had no luck with typhoons.
These days the situation is worse. 90% of the heat generated by our GHGs since industrialization has been absorbed by the oceans and in this part of the world it is coming right back at us. Dead coral and super typhoons are the result. There just hasn’t been enough time between storms for the seas to settle down enough for us to go. This hasn’t been much of a kayak trip, but it sure has indicated the planet is heating up. I promised Theresa that this would be my last kick at the can as far as getting to Taiwan is concerned. I’ve timed out. So be it.
We’ll be going to Naha tomorrow to visit old friends. Particularly, I want to see Naky, my old paddling partner, and Keiko, who is suffering from brain cancer. Between working his 100 beehives (down from 200) and being Keiko’s primary care-giver Nakamura-san has time only for a short visit. We’ll also visit with his two sons. They are a close-knit family. Then we will head to Makino, Shiro’s home on Lake Biwa. The typhoon that just preceded my visit here loosened some tiles off his roof and now Super Typhoon Trami is headed straight there. He needs to check. Then we will paddle somewhere where there is no typhoon for a few days. Hopefully.
October 7, 2018, Makino
Yesterday we drove to the Lake Biwa Museum and aquarium. En route we were talking about why North Americans burn through 250 kwh/day while Japanese, with an advanced industrial economy, use 125 kwh/day. Just half. How do they do it? Smaller houses, more trains, smaller cars? There are some full-sized SUVs, mainly in the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but not many. We had been traveling through many places and I had yet to see a full-size pick-up truck. Not one. I asked why Japanese go for small cars? Carpenters, plumbers, and such tend to use small panel vans. Others go for hatchbacks like the ubiquitous Toyota Aqua hybrid hatchback. It rains a lot in Japan so there are not many open trucks. As we were passing by the Hotel Chapel Christmas the reason hit us: The Japanese don’t need big cars because they can go to the love hotels. Brilliant.
Of course the fact that Japan has no fossil fuels and must import all its fuel has a lot to do with it. Since the 1950s Japan has built a modern industrial economy while being frugal with imported energy sources. For years Japan has had the most fuel-efficient vehicle standards in the world, even surpassing Europe. In Canada we have something Al Gore has called “resource curse”. We rely on cheap energy and squander it. Now, as we have to learn to scrimp on energy use for environmental reasons, it’s coming back to bite us and causing real disunity in the country. For me, the success of Japan is cause for hope. If we look at their example and learn from them, we know that we can do much, much better.
In the aquarium Shiro talked about the fish and explained how each tasted. Basically, if they have gills, you eat them. It doesn’t matter how small. I remember in Iriomote eating mouthfuls of tiny fish. It was like eating rice with eyes. They were tasty protein. I wondered about fish bile. When you eat a fish, you normally clean it first to remove the bad parts. But you consume copious numbers of these, all parts included. Is fish poo a bad thing? How much can you consume? Of course, I ate them all, they tasted fine and nothing happened.
In another meal the main course was a fish about 20 cm. long, including head and tail. What was remarkable about this was that there was no meat. Perhaps I had eaten that the night before. There was just a skeleton that had been deep fried. You eat the whole thing. It was crispy and tasted like fish-enhanced chips, not bad at all. They eat up and down the seafood chain with nothing going to waste. I have no idea if these delicacies were wild or farmed. If those tiny critters were caught wild the fishers must have used a very fine net.
After the aquarium we went to the no-smoking doctor. I had met him on a previous trip. He has a chiropractic and traditional healing practice. Back then he smoked a lot, so I called him the smoking doctor. To be fair, he has quit, so the no-smoking name now. He treated some of my ailments with Okyu, which are little discs smaller than a dime with wicks sticking out. When lit they produce a very localized heat of 45 deg. C. The discs are placed on the skin on passageways similar to acupuncture. Years ago, I had a climbing accident and eventually had a disc removed from my lower back. My spine is not straight and of course, pain is the result. More recently I went over the handlebars of my bicycle on a steep hill. I landed on pavement and severely crushed my shoulder. He put Okyu on both places. It seemed to help some. I’m mindful of placebo effects although I also realize that without belief relief is unlikely. The jury is out, but the treatment itself felt good. When I was relaxing there, my mind wandered and I started thinking about paddling trips: Bering Strait, French Polynesia, this one. We never got to our planned destinations. The joke is on me. But somehow it doesn’t matter.
October 10, 2018, Makino
Last night we were commando camping on a beach northeast of Matsue. About midnight I woke up to intense pain in my right arm, and there was a swollen red bag hanging down from my elbow. Infection, my old pal Staphylococcus aureus that first visited me in French Polynesia and has come back uninvited a few times since. Right then I knew that our planned kayak trip to Nishinoshima Island was over before it started. I’ve learned not to fool around with this infection.
Shiro was a great help in dealing with this. The first hospital in Yonago was large and unapproachable and sent us to a smaller, more user-friendly hospital. I showed them a laminated card I carry describing my susceptibility and the antibiotics that tame it. I did get a prescription, but the staff indicated that they did not know where a drug store was. We eventually found one that actually said “drug store” but it didn’t sell drugs. The second did but didn’t have the one I needed. In the third, we scored. Quite an unexpected turn of events. My body: still strong enough for paddling, but what about durability? I’m asking that question but have no answer.
On the way back to Makino we blundered across two EV “Quick Chargers”. I hadn’t noticed any before then, so thought they didn’t exist. My judgment was too quick. How would I recognize them? It turns out that there is an app, just like in North America, that indicates where they are. There are lots of 200 V. level 2 and also DCFC, as we call them, mostly 44 kW. That’s just enough. The hook-ups are all CHAdeMO, which is the plug the Japanese cars are equipped with.
I hadn’t seen many full-on electric vehicles. There were a few Nissan Leafs and finally, in Shinagawa, Tokyo, I chanced upon a beautiful white Tesla S, which I noticed because the driver had done an illegal U-turn on a bridge. So far, they have the charging stations but not the cars. An average electric car (if there is such a thing yet) has about 50 moving parts. An ICE (internal combustion engine) car has maybe 2,000. When people start to realize how trouble-free these cars are, and how fast and smooth, the change-over to electric could become an avalanche, especially when re-sale values for ICE cars start to tumble. Even now the Tesla Model 3 is outselling all luxury cars in the U.S. despite Musk’s misadventures in the Twittersphere. And electric cars are starting to dominate in China where half of the world’s electric cars are made and sold and where companies increasingly have a lock on rare minerals used in batteries. Tesla is building a mega factory there. Look out Japanese carmakers. I don’t see much action from them, are they sleeping?
There are perhaps three main drivers of electric cars: the climate, China’s foul air, and Elon Musk. The excellence of his Tesla cars is beyond dispute. He somehow keeps avoiding bankruptcy despite his rough tweets, missed production goals, and attacks by foes funded by the fossils. He keeps the pressure on the legacy car makers to improve their offerings. An unlikely environmental hero.
An admission: I really like driving our Chevy Bolt even if, for GM, which makes its money on pickups and SUVs, it is just a compliance car. When you press the accelerator pedal, you go — quiet and fast. Let your foot off and you stop. Regenerative braking. It is the most advanced car they and their Korean partners have ever made. We are lucky that we can charge it at home. Apartment dwellers have a more difficult time getting the juice, but this will change.
Look what’s happening in Europe. To achieve its GHG reduction goals Europe plans to be selling 100% zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2030 or 2035 and retire internal combustion emission (ICE) cars at least by 2050. This is an ambitious goal and is being challenged by the famous German manufacturers of “advanced” gas-powered vehicles. The entire industry employing hundreds of thousands is at risk of being overtaken by the Chinese. Their situation seems to me to be as precarious as that of our own oil and gas industry. Companies and countries that do not plan for the huge disruption that must take place will be left behind. This includes Canada, which is tied to the U.S. and is basically an order taker. With the U.S. going backwards on climate change, I see a lot of Canadians buying Chinese cars in the future.
The air in Tokyo made my eyes sore and my nose run. One of the things that people all over the world tend to overlook is the effect of bad air on our health. How could we not notice? We are living in it. Studies show effects ranging from reduced IQ in children, eye irritation, organ, skin, bone, and nervous system damage, increase in respiratory diseases and even enlargement of hearts. Imagine running our transportation system on clean electricity. Irrespective of the positive effects on global climate, this is a goal to strive for.
Sunset in Hoshidate