Thursday, December 27, 2007

I'm a Winner

The image above was just chosen as an Honorable Mention in the Landscape Category of Cowboys and Indians' [magazine] 2008 photo contest. Unfortunately Honorable Mention doesn't get the $500 that first place in each category wins, or the paid photo assignment that the grand prize winner receives. But it's recognition in a beautiful magazine and I'll take that over the "We had many wonderful entries and it was hard to choose..." letter. The contest will be published in the March, 2008 issue. I don't know if it will be shown online, but it would be unfortunate if not because the magazine costs something like $8/issue.

On another photography note, this is the time of year that I love to visit msnbc's website to view their Year in Pictures segment that takes many of the Week in Pictures winners from the last year, puts them in a slideshow, and allows you to vote for your favorite at the end. It's a difficult, wrenching process because there are some spectacular photographs, but you have to vote in the next couple days to count.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Incinerator

One of the cool things about living on a small island is having a self-contained water and sewer system (yes, my hometown of Anacortes, Washington defies this by pumping their water through a 36" pipeline that travels beneath two bodies of water to reach the island). Our waste system on Zamami is also mostly self-contained.

The incinerator is the center of much public controversy. It was apparently modeled after (and built by the same company) an incinerator half its size on nearby Tonaki Island. The controversy is three-fold, as far as I can tell: First, the incinerator was built on the most beautiful and famous beach in the Kerama Islands chain (see picture below). Second, the incinerator is huge and is designed to burn far more trash than our tiny community can produce. And third, the incinerator was (is) really expensive to build and is a big reason our village is the poorest in Okinawa and one of the five poorest in the entire nation of Japan.

We separate our trash into plastics, paper, metals, glass, non-combustible, and maybe some more categories I don't know about. I'm still not sure I'm separating my trash correctly, but as long as I have metals and non-combustibles separated out I'm fine. That's because everything else gets burned. There is no plastic or paper recycling, even though the rest of Okinawa recycles. Even two tiny little islands a few hundred kilometers east of the mainland send their recyclables in by boat. Our boat travels back to Naha empty, but we can't send our recyclables because they are needed as fuel for the incinerator.

I am told by reliable sources that the cost of operating the incinerator is in excess of $10,000/day. Since our community doesn't produce much trash, we accumulate it for an entire year at the incinerator and then spend one week burning it. Heating up the incinerator is an energy-intensive process fueled by coal and maintaining that heat is key to 'efficiency' so that is why our plastics are burned.

Since our incinerator gets so little use, it's apparently deteriorating much quicker than it should. During our week of burning in September, I was told the incinerator broke down, which means a costly maintenance trip has to be booked through the company that built it.

Japan is known to be one of the leading countries when it comes to incinerating trash and this is mostly attributed to limited space for landfills. Zamami is a big enough island, but thankfully(?) there isn't a landfill as any runoff would flow straight to the ocean and our coral reefs. Unfortunately, incinerators are a huge polluter of particulate matter, heavy metals, and dioxins (BAD) into the air. Fortunately our winds blow all of that stuff toward Naha.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Winter Solstice

I am interrupting my three environmental posts to wish you a happy winter solstice. My penpal friend, Gordon, lobbies to me that today is the best day of the year and should be a recognized holiday because for the next six months, things are only going to get better.

Yesterday at school (Zamami this week) I made brownies with the junior high third-graders (9th grade) in the morning and then spent two hours with the elementary first-graders making paper Christmas trees and candy canes. It was a day to love my job.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


[This Aka kindergartner is selling purses made out of reused bubble wrap.]

Mottainai is a word unique to the Japanese language that sums up the American saying "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" with the addition of "Repair." The rough translation of mottainai is "it is so wasteful that things are not made full use of their value." From my experience so far, it can be used more as 'make use of things and don't waste their value' rather than 'don't be wasteful.' The difference I mean is that you can tell someone mottainai when they haven't finished their meal and intend to throw out food, but it's not the right word when telling someone to turn off the lights. I use this word liberally, though, because they know I don't quite understand.

Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan environmentalist who is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She has done a lot of research on 'mottainai' and found no comparable single word in any other language. So she has undertaken an effort to put the word into international lexicon by using it in her speeches and having the audience repeat it.

In early October, as I was just learning this word, I heard a timely story on NPR's Morning Edition about a new children's book in Japan called "Mottainai Grandma." It's a story about a mother explaining to her son why he has to finish his rice and why his grandma says "mottainai" to him. The story can be found and listened to here.

There is never a case to use mottainai in the lunchroom. Every student finishes every bit of food on their plate. I am usually the only one who pours any edible food into the food waste can (and that's only mayo scraped off my bread or salty broth from my soup). It's an amazing phenomena that seems an impossibility in America.

So next time you catch someone (or yourself) starting the washer when it's not full, or throwing away food, or wasting paper, say "mottainai!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Waste

My next three posts will be consumption/environmentally-themed.

Today I am disposing of my second bag of combustible trash since arriving in Japan in early August. Living alone has presented me with the unique opportunity to track all of my consumption through utility bills and the number of bags of trash and recyclables I fill. It's easy to compare month-to-month progress (or lack of) in reduction. I took out my first bag of trash on 10/13, which was about two months after arriving here. This bag is going out 12/18, just more than two months later. I am hyper-aware of everything that goes in the combustible bag, which is almost solely plastic bags from loaves of bread and vegetables and the foil packaging of single-serve spaghetti sauce. In an attempt to reduce those disposals, I am working towards relying almost solely on bread I bake, which has already reduced my weekly bread order from five/six loaves (the "loaves" only have six slices - yes, i eat a lot of bread) to just one. Replacing store-bought bread doesn't eliminate the waste, but shifts it to friendlier paper flour bags. I am also trying [successfully] to eat less spaghetti and to add a lot of tomatoes and onions to the sauce to get two dinners out of the single-serve packet.

Our garbage is disposed of in bags that we purchase from our store. Though they are cheap (15 cents apiece), this method provides incentives to reduce trash. My experience in the U.S. is that a weekly trash can service is paid with a flat fee, whether the can is filled or not. Our bags come in two or three sizes. I accidentally bought the medium bags my first time, not realizing how long trash would build up while waiting for the bag to fill. So I purchased the small bags as well and use the larger ones only for plastic. The small bags are a couple inches taller than an American paper grocery bag with about the same girth.

I have a fair amount of plastic waste. I've separated my plastics into two bags: one with my yogurt and egg containers and one with everything else. Both are about half-full. I hope to get a yogurt maker from a secondhand store and work something out with the owners of a flock of chickens I know about.

I have disposed of three shoe boxes of paper waste, which I am happy about (for four months). I mostly bring home my paper waste from work, too, so I don't cheat myself of actual consumption.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on why my separation of recyclables and combustibles is meaningless.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Job Security?

This is from, my Okinawan English-language news source:

Two Okinawa villages warned they are facing critical financial futures

Date Posted: 2007-12-14

The future of Zamami Village and Iheya Village is bleak, at least in the short term.

The Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication Public Management Office has warned both their finances are in terrible shape, bordering on bankruptcy. The ministry told both they could face bankruptcy if they don’t change how they do business. Both are listed in the ‘yellow zone’ signaling the ratio of outstanding bonds compared to income is critical when the ratio is 25% or more.

Zamami’s ratio is currently 30.7% and Iheya Village 29.3%. Okinawa Prefecture is tasked with providing advice to the two villages on how to fix their problems. Without changes, the villages will not receive further permission to issue bonds necessary to get business from the government. The prefecture says the two villages have been doing their best, while getting good advice.

Okinawa Prefecture officials predict the two villages could repair their fiscal circumstances by 2013 at the earlierst. The Prefecture says Izena Village is closing in on the same threshold, with its ratio now 24.1%. The village financial situation is being studied now by the Prefecture to determine what the 2007 budget deficit will be, and how dire their money problems are.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pilates in Japanese

Who am I to turn down a ratio of 17 women to 2 men? That was my dilemma when I showed up to learn eisa drumming, but instead found the first of six pilates courses scheduled over the next couple months.

The misunderstanding on my part was first explained by a Japanese woman whom I didn't recognize but who spoke English fairly well. Being a veteran resident of Zamami, I boldly asked, "who are you?" She's a visitor from Gunma [prefecture, left of Tokyo] here for five days. Attractive, too, which gave me two excuses to take the mat next to her.

Two hours and forty minutes later when pilates ended I felt similar to how I feel after yoga classes: unchanged. I always suspect that I am not doing things correctly and I have never felt so sure of that as I did tonight. I think the explanation and process of getting to a position is important, but hard to grasp in a foreign language.

But I needed to get out. There are so many evening activities in Zamami and it's time to start partaking.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Friday, December 7, 2007

Irashaimasen (Welcome, Please Shop Here!)

["Irashaimasen" is a word used by hired young ladies to tempt you into their store or restaurant or just to say welcome anywhere you shop. The frequency of its use in a popular shopping area is enough to drive a foreigner mad.]

[If you are reading this post because you linked to it through a Google search on 'irashaimasen' (and there are a lot of you), let me take this moment to teach you that the word is actually 'irashaimase'. I wrote this post back in the early days of my Japanese study and have since learned the correct spelling/pronunciation.]

I was happy to accept an offer this morning to attend the Aka yo-chien (pre-school/kindergarten) store and do a little shopping. The students have been spending the last few weeks making jewelry, paper flowers, candy, and desserts. The store had tables, a game, and even a 'cooler' for the paper desserts. It was professionally executed.

I bought myself a murse made of reused bubble wrap and jute twine. I scored a couple balloons by throwing rope rings over wooden pegs. I bought a bracelet and a ring so pretty I kinda wish I had a girl to propose to with it. I purchased a piece of orange chocolate that could be mistaken for an orange paper heart. And I also managed to buy a potted paper flower twice. I set it down after the first purchase and the three-year-old shopkeeper came by, picked it up, and sold it back to me again!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Follow-up to the Naha Marathon

Tonight I walked into the Zamami teachers' room to grab two flyswatters for a game I'm doing on Aka this week and the feeling was reminiscent of walking into a staff room when you've been fired but not told yet. Except everybody was smiling.

Finally somebody blurted out "Naha Marathon!" It was like they were expecting a speech, so I just said what I knew how to in Japanese: my time and that my muscles were really sore on Monday but now they are fine. And I imitated my 'sore' walk. I was humble about it and tried to escape quickly because getting marathon fame wasn't what I came to the school for - I'll have plenty of time for that when I am teaching on Zamami two weeks from now.

But it's hard to elude this notoriety on small islands. People who have never spoken to me before have the courage to approach and tell me I did a good job at the marathon (I think that's what they're saying). Many teachers and even more students saw me on television the morning of the race. It helped that the cameras were concentrated around the start line, where I was only 20 feet deep into the racers and six inches taller than everyone. My name also made the newspaper the next morning as they published the top 800 finishers (I was 562).

For me, this is the sort of small society gossip that is acceptable to be spread like wildfire. It feels like if any Zamami residents didn't know who I was before (and most saw me do well in the 5k at the island's sports day), they do now. I know that's not true, but it feels like it. And it's a sign to me that I am part of a community. They are proud and they give me congratulations. I represented Zamami last weekend.

Before leaving the Zamami teachers' room, I was called back by one of the male teachers. He pointed to a calendar and asked, "Are you busy on January 19?" I don't have a planner because I never have plans, so I said no. He said "Good, you can be on our basketball team." Then he explained that we have practice every Monday night from 8-10pm (my bedtime is 9pm!). And before I left, he reminded me, "If those Aka teachers ask you, you tell them you're on the Zamami team!"

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Naha Marathon

In a race that boasted over 25,000 entrants, I was inexplicably given number 296 (I entered a not especially fast goal time of 3:45, which is why my seeding is inexplicable), which placed me in the first group. Some people probably took over ten minutes to reach the starting line after the gun had fired. I took six seconds. Helped by the super-fast pace of those in the front-running groups, I easily met my goal of five minute kilometers and in fact dropped about 1.5 minutes under a five minute pace. I held that gain until the halfway point, where I dropped back to 46 seconds ahead of pace (five minute kilometers would produce a 3:31 time, I hit the halfway point at 1:44.44).

The course was rather boring, which didn't help keep my attention away from the heat that filtered through the zero clouds in the sky. I would have taken any day we've experienced in last the last six weeks in Okinawa over today, where temperatures surpassed 70 degrees at the 9am race start and held steady at 75 through the middle of the day.

I set my sights on the 30km mark, which is slightly short of 3/4 through the marathon. I reached it at 2:19, an average of 49:40 10k's to that point. But then I got tired. I sensed early on in the marathon - around the 15k point - that today was going to include a 'tired' section. At Kume five weeks ago, I was only strong and stronger (with a slower pace). I tried to break down the remaining 12k into five 2k's (the last 2k is so close to the finish it doesn't count), which worked until 34k when I realized I was falling off my pace and I'd lost the extra 1:20 I'd been keeping in reserve. I kept losing at 36k and gave up trying to gain it back at 38k. Then I just concentrated on finishing. I did finish in 3:34.07.

One of my life goals is to break 3:30 in a marathon, so at first this was a disappointingly close finish. But as the day went on and I thought about everything working against a fast run(heat, warm water at water stations, no sports drinks, dirt-flavored tea) I became pleased with my result. It's over 15 minutes faster than Kume and a half-hour faster than my previous two marathons: Palau and Pittsburgh.

At the finish I was in real tough shape. I could hardly walk and had to concentrate hard to understand directions. I allowed myself 15 minutes to sit down before heading to the monorail to get back to my friend Laura's apartment. I did two inconceivable things at the monorail: I used an elevator and an escalator. I am 'stairs' man, but today I was a 'get to the monorail' man.

At Laura's I took a shower and discovered through the pain of the water that I had a raw waistline from my shorts. Before the race I'd liberally applied Bodyglide to numerous potential chafing areas, but hadn't considered the waistline. Later I also discovered blood on my shirt and rear number that I am yet to trace to my body.

I had to get back to Zamami today for work tomorrow, but I found out I didn't have enough money for the cab ride from Laura's to the boat. So I slung my backpack full of groceries on and stumbled the 40 minutes to the port. One of the teachers on the boat said she was watching the marathon on television this morning and saw me starting!

Here are the numbers:

Time: 3:34.07
Average heart rate: 172
Heart rate range: 119-183
Time spent above 150: 3:31
Total ascent/descent: 790 feet
High point: 364 feet
Low point: 36 feet