Electrifying Incompatibilities in Japan

“Electricity is really just organized lightning.”  ~ George Carlin

“Genius hath electric power which earth can never tame.”  ~ Lydia M. Child quotes

I would wait more patiently for toast if the product was more...artistic.

I would wait more patiently for toast if the product was more…artistic.

“For the love of god,” I think to myself, “how long can the toaster actually take?!?”

Jody walks out of the bedroom, hair done, clothed, and made-up for work.  Her lunch is packed, hot tea ready for the drive in her go-cup, orange juice is poured, and the fried egg is still sizzling, although now resting off the heat of our gas stove.

She smiles at me, ready to eat.  Jody is a breakfast girl, and needs her protein in the morning to carry her through until lunch.  “Sorry Doll, waiting on the toast,” I mumble apologetically.  She fumbles getting her bag packed for work, while I attempt to will the toaster to conclusion by dirty looks and whatever telekinetic mental energies I may or may not possess.

Unlike me, Dragon Ball Z Cell's power is in little doubt....

Unlike me, Dragon Ball Z Cell’s power is in little doubt….

Our toaster can really take that long.

Find the only grounded outlets in our kitchen.

Find the only grounded outlets in our kitchen.

It may jolt you, but we have endured a plethora of electrically related issues living on the economy – and local power grid – in Okinawa.  First while the outlets here sometimes match American plugs (read more below than you probably care to about this “fit”), there are only two dual outlets in our living room, and two dual outlets in our dining area.  Of those, NONE are grounded; we have to use 3-to-2 prong adapters, which leaves our machines unprotected.  Of those outlets, one of the four is dedicated to our TV and other media devices, while another is dedicated to our computer and its peripheries.  That doesn’t leave much excess for, say, lighting, or, perhaps, a vacuum!

These plugs are compatible; too bad we hardly have any.

These plugs are compatible; too bad we hardly have any.


On a more positive charge, American-style three-prong grounded outlets are found in our kitchen in the guise of ONE quad outlet.  What light bulb failed to illuminate in the architect’s mind in distributing power, and then the right flavor of power?  At least on the other side of our u-shaped kitchen countertop is an ungrounded dual outlet.

A typical Japanese air conditioner...or electric toilet seat outlet.

A typical Japanese air conditioner…or electric toilet seat outlet.

And then the Japanese air conditioners and heated, electrical toilet seats (if we had them) plugs are all grounded in a very odd way:  the green grounding wire is not a third prong on the plug like we are used to, but rather a pigtail wire than is designed to be set into a specialized grounding screw on specially designed outlets for these rather ubiquitously eccentric Japanese items.  In other words, these specialized pieces of equipment required specialized outlets.

Perhaps we can turn to Pokémon as an alternate (and renewable) power source.

Perhaps we can turn to Pokémon as an alternate (and renewable) power source.

In a rather shocking twist (pun intended), I’ve discovered that Japan’s electric infrastructure is not very compatible…or well-designed, either on the micro or macro scale.  Electrifying Japan involves the use of TWO differing power grids.  Japan’s west operates at 60 hertz, while the eastern areas, including Tokyo and Fukushima (of the late radiological disaster fame), run on 50-hertz.


What’s in a hertz, you ask?  Everything, when it comes to powering Japan.  But first, one of my favorite nerdy – and related jokes.  See below (snicker-snicker….).

Perhaps the best Dilbert strip, EVER.

Perhaps the best Dilbert strip, EVER.

The “one country, two systems” usually works fine, at least in terms of China keeping Hong Kong relatively unmolested.  In average times in Japan, there are enough power plants in each of the two independent grids that electricity can be shifted around within each grid if there are spikes in demand or temporary outages.  However, there is only a very limited amount of power that can be easily (and cheaply) transmitted across the 50-hertz/60-hertz continental divide, as it were.  Think of the two grids in Japan being separated by a giant electrified fence.

Even conservation is cute in Japan.

Even conservation is cute in Japan.

Plus, most electrical timing devices that are not dual-frequency ready rely specifically on their electrical feed’s frequency to physically measure the passage of time.  Think about how the Central Processing Unit (CPU) in your computer is characterized!  Things designed for higher frequencies literally slow down with lower power cycles.


TheGreatWaveOffKanagawa-with-nuclear-reactor20120505_ASD001_0The real short in the circuit however recently sparked dramatic headlines in the unplanned and massive shortage of electrical power resulting from the destruction of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and the subsequent abandonment of nuclear power throughout the country.  Creating the proper linkages between the 50-hertz and 60-hertz systems to meet demand and capacity is both expensive and time-consuming.  Limited movement of power between the partitioned national grids does exist, but not in the capacity to meet geographic demand.  Tokyo thus has suffered some rolling blackouts due to urban demand outstripping supply, but thankfully not nearly as extensive as predicted.

You just know that Godzilla is bound to get involved in the nuke debate....

You just know that Godzilla is bound to get involved in the nuke debate….

While power generation from nuclear energy has long-been a national Japanese priority, since the Fukushima accident in 2011, there has been a growing concern about the ability of Japan’s other nuclear plants to withstand both earthquakes and, in some cases, tsunamis due to frequent and substantial seismic activity.  For example, the Prime Minister at the time ordered another nuclear power plant (Hamaoka) shutdown based solely on the expectation of an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or greater in the next 30 years.  Probably a good call.


Electricity Conservation Poster

Electricity Conservation Poster

Japan’s electrical demand plays out in the numbers:  Japan consumes 15% more than the European Union average…historically speaking.  It’s odd that for a country so ecstatic about brightly lit neon signs and building-sized LCD billboards continues to use both 50 and 60hz in a national split with no compelling technical reasoning behind the convention, along with no real apparent desire to standardize their domestic power grid, let along match that of other worldwide standards!

Personal conservation efforts are rather pointless in face of this conspicuous consumption.

Personal conservation efforts are rather pointless in face of this conspicuous consumption.

Electricity Conservation Poster

Electricity Conservation Poster

The incompatibility between the two grids in Japan is based solely on historical reasons.  The first purchases of generators for Japan were from two different companies, each with a diverse standard of electrical power.  Generators for Tokyo were purchased in 1895 from AEG, a German company loosely affiliated with Edison (50Hz).  However, in 1896, generators for Osaka were sourced from General Electric (60Hz).  Once those currents were in place, they continued to arc in incompatible ways throughout the rest of the Japan islands!


What does this all mean about living in Okinawa?

Most of the older outlets in Japan (and Okinawa) remain non-polarized and ungrounded, which means the pins of an item’s plugs must be the same size, a convention that America discarded long ago.  In other words, plugs on our stuff have pins where one in significantly wider than the other.


Some North American electrical devices work fine in Japan – if you are lucky enough to have polarized outlets that will accept the plugs.  However, certain items, specifically those involved in any type of heating (like our K-Cup machine, microwave, and iron!), may not work properly, but more often just work much slower.  Luckily for us, Okinawa happens to be on the 60Hz grid, so our timing-dependent stuff works just fine.  However, I would gladly trade a few hertz on my computer for quicker hot tea in the morning, or a microwave that can be literally 20% faster.

But don’t get me started on our toaster….

I don't care about brave.  I wish my toaster got hotter in Japan!

I don’t care about brave. I wish my toaster got hotter in Japan!

For more information and the primary sources I’ve used, please see the following:

Japan’s Electrical Bottleneck

Japan’s Nuclear Restart



Tropical Trek: A Juant to Iriomote Island

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.”  ~ Lao Tzu


“McQeen,” I said as I smiled broadly to the Okinawan rental car agent as I followed him to our rental vehicle.  He was a much older gentleman who spoke no English, and was wearing a shirt which on its back had a cartoonish car and largely printed letters spelling out “McQueen.”

He turned and returned my smile.  I continued, this time with a more inquisitive inflection:  “Steve McQueen?”

Hai!  MAC-keen!” came his replied, his grin widening.


I’ll take it as a rental!

steve-mcqueen-bullittpapillon mcqueenSteve McQueen?  Really??  What the hell was the connection to rental cars, especially in Japan, particularly on one of the most remote and least populated Japanese island?!  Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Bullitt?  Sure, that movie starred a really kick-ass car, but still….  Could it be tied to McQueen’s movie Papillion?  I certainly hoped not; repeatedly failed escapes from an island prison was not a way I wanted to characterize our tropical vacation.

Pixar Post - Lightning McQueen - Disney Infinity

What’s in a name, anyway??

Not being a huge animated Disney fan (hey Dana, I really didn’t need to watch Frozen), and with kids long past that phase of childhood, I had no idea of the connection with their movie, Cars.  But the Japanese absolutely adore all-things Disney, and thus, a rental car company is born, probably out of a miscarriage of copyright infringement.

It seems Jody drives "Naked" wherever she goes in Japan!

It seems Jody drives “Naked” wherever she goes in Japan!

It was, however, the ding-dang easiest car rental process, EVER.  Reserving a rental car from the non-English-speaking hotel staff for 4,000 Yennies (about $40), we met Mr. McQueen the next morning, and after staring at my military Japanese “SOFA” driver’s license (no doubt he had no idea what it said; it’s in English!), he gave me the key and motioned for me to follow.  No paperwork.  No signatures.  No legal bullshit, no endless printouts of paper and checkouts of the car.  He passed me a hand-drawn map of the island, pointed out the one of two gas stations depicted there, and motioned where to leave the car the next morning.  And with that, Jody and I were turned loosed on Iriomote…and its ONE major road!  We drove the entire thing.  In one afternoon.  In a couple of hours.


One…Short…Road. With a really slow speed limit!

Day bed meets gazebo?

Day bed meets gazebo?

4461996It’s that time of year for, yes, you guessed it:  Summer Vacations.  The wife and I departed back on the 24th of May (2014) for a 4-day retreat in the southern most reaches of the Ryukyu Islands, which Okinawa anchors.  We stayed on Iriomotejima (jima means “island” in Japanese), at the rather remote resort “Hoshino Resort Nirakanai Iriomote,” which from what we can tell is only one a just a handful of full-service, 3-star+ hotels located there.  Although Iriomote is the 2nd largest island in the Ryukyu chain and in the Yaeyama island grouping, there live only about 2,000 permanent residents.  But with over 150,000 visitors every year, eco-tourism there rocks!  The island promised kayaking, waterfall trekking, eco-tours, and ox cart taxis to name just a few…along with some serious R&R from the military culture back on Okinawa.

A nicely adorned hotel room.

A nicely adorned hotel room.

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, boat trip Kevin smilesIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, welcome to sub-tropical (almost tropical!) Iriomote Island WMThe vast majority (90%+) of the island is covered by dense jungle, low mountains and mangroves, and the vast majority of that is protected as government-owned or administered lands.  A full third of the island serves as the Japanese Iriomote National Park.  The island’s Urauchi River is the largest river in Okinawa Prefecture, and it is home to Pinaisara Falls, the largest waterfall in Okinawa Prefecture.  Although mighty close to the Tropic of Cancer, the island doesn’t quite cross that magical latitude.  However, the island’s climate is considered tropical rainforest, and for very good reason.  In other words, it’s hot and humid there, exactly what one would expect from a tropical Pacific isle.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Urauchi River Jungle Trek, Jody and Kevin happy in the heat

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Jody and our guide wooden uphill jungle trek WMIriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, making inset friends WMWe ended up doing a combined boat-safari/rain-forest-nature-walk/waterfall-bento-box-picnic along the Urauchi River, which we both highly recommend.  For such a densely wooded and wet area, we encounter little if any biting insets or bugs…even though our quasi English-speaking Japanese guide caught every creepy-crawly he could find, proclaiming them proudly as “my friend!”  It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a Daddy Long-Legs or a Walking Stick!!

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, our guide making insect friends on our jungle trek WM

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, watch out for attack of the Iriomote cat!!Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Iriomote cat (billboard) sightingOne thing we didn’t see was the island’s fame carnivorous hunter-killer mammalThe Iriomote Cat, “discovered” only in 1965, is celebrated throughout the entire Yaeyama islands, but is exclusive to Iriomote Island.  A critically endangered leopard-cat, they live in the smallest habitat of any wild cat in the world.  Numbering only about 100 cats, in Japanese it is called Iriomote-Yamaneko (西表山猫, Iriomote mountain cat), but in local dialects it is known as “the cat in the mountain,” “that which shines on the mountain,” or “that which has flashing eyes,” owing to the cat’s distinctive and highly reflective amber irises.  These cats are similar in size to the more familiar domestics, weighing in at up to 10 pounds and reaching lengths of 35 inches.  Its coat is dusky brown with fairly long hair, patterned with dark (leopard) spots in rows and bands.  Their bodies are elongated but with short legs and tail, while the ears are rounded and adorned with white spots on their reverse sides.  Nocturnal and twilight hunters, their prey includes rats, flying foxes, wild boar and a wide range of birds, reptiles and insects.  Terrestrial in general, they sometimes swim and dive to catch water birds, fish, and freshwater prawns, rather uncommon behaviors for any cat in the wild.  Destruction of habitat, predation by dogs, traffic accidents, and traps set for wild boar all have contributed greatly to their decline.  The cat otherwise has no natural predator….

Cat Cartoons Adorn All!  Even our hotel bus.

Cat Cartoons Adorn All! Even our hotel bus.

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, Kevin and Jody deep in the island's tropical rain forestIriomote Okinawa 2014, Urauchi River, trekking with our guide through the dense dark rain forestOur rain-forest guide did find us a famed habu snake (Sakishima habu) though during lunch.  Excitedly calling us over, I eagerly brought the camera, having never seen one of these pit-vipers in the wild.  Sure enough, tucked between layers of eroded rock, was a sleepy snake, much lighter brown and smaller than expected.  Our guide was poking near the beast with a long stick, waking the serpent and no doubt pissing it off.  As I maneuvered my Cybershot for a good photo, our guide became visibly nervous, and in his most serious tone of the day, he commented flatly, “Please be careful.”  Sorry, no photo; they were not worth keeping…and I wasn’t willing to get my hand any closer!

Waterfall Bento Box Picnic

Waterfall Bento Box Picnic

Iriomote Okinawa 2014, Jody touching the longitudinal meridian 123456789Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Jody visiting the 123456789 meridian line of longitude WMWe also found, quite by accident, that one of the most special meridians passes through Iriomote.  This line of longitude, at 123 degrees east, 45 minutes, and 6.789 seconds (there are only two of these in the world!) runs through the island at a few points, where some rather cool monuments have been erected.  One of them used to project a laser line up in the sky to mark the meridian’s position, but apparently got in trouble for using such high-powered, dangerous lights without the right permission.  When we visited all the wiring for the lights was simply cut.  In another village, the meridian’s track is marked with a large, operable sun-dial.  It seems we also had just missed their local dragon boat races!  Dang.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, village flying fish wooden dragon boat

Iriomote Vacaton 2014, Night Kayaking, Jody smiles in the mangrovesIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, happy old-man sanshin player! WMWe decided to try night star-gazing kayaking, especially since the same Japanese guide was available during our stay.  Given that we were some of the very few non-Asian people staying at the hotel, and probably the only Americans, all the guided tours we booked were, in essence, “private.”  Although the skies remained cloudy, the heavens did finally open just as twilight set in.

Sunset from our mangrove-positioned kayak

Sunset from our mangrove-positioned kayak

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, ox cart crossing entertainment (B&W impact) WMIriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, Ox Carts WMIn the southeast of the island can be found Yubu Island, which, although with its charms, turned out to be the one and only tourist trap we came across during our holiday.  The ox-drawn cart ride across the mud-strewn tidal flats is probably one of the most photographed and promoted “things to do” on IriomoteYubu Island itself has been turned into an eclectic collection of botanical displays and animal exhibits.  A restaurant, one of the few we ever saw, can be found here, along with cold drinks and desserts, perfect after fighting the tour-bus loads of Japanese that you’ll unfortunately encounter here.

Iriomote Okinawa Vacation 2014, Yubu Island, lonely ox cart crossing WM

Star_sand_Iriomote_300x199star-sand-beach-okinawa-japan-woe3-690x447The most disappointing thing about the touted highlights of Iriomote was our visit to “Star Sand” (Hoshizuna-no-hama) beach.  Marketed as a beach covered in star-shaped grains of sand, the actual stellar forms are hard to find, and much smaller than you might think.  The shapes result from abraded calcium-carbonate bodies of foraminifers, akin to plankton and amoeboids, which are deposited upon the beach after their demise.  More convenient than searching the shoreline is to hit up the Japanese man at the entrance to the beach who peddles small bottles of purified stars!


10084627204_b211c83338_zIriomote Okinawa 2014, dinner at the Hoshino Resort Nirakanai IriomoteAnd perhaps the funniest thing that happened to us we owe to the island’s large, block crows.  During a foray in the water, we watched as a crow flew in and grabbed a half-eaten contained of chips.  While this was funny, that very afternoon we were planning to split a freshly baked maple and brown-sugar muffin on our pool-view balcony, and while in the room fixing drinks, we watched in horror was the hooligan bird swept in for yet another snack.  Jody, rushing to the door, spooked the feathered interloper, who, just as quickly as it regained its composure, picked up the muffin and flew away…AGAIN.  Of course, we both cried, “Fowl!”

Take you Tats to the Waterfalls!

Take your Tats to the Waterfalls!

PS – BTW, even though the hotel’s paperwork states very clearly that no tattoos are allowed at their outdoor pool, I (and another guy with an arm tat) used the pool without issue.  Well, I strategically kept my back away from the pool and hotel staff in large part.  The Japanese are very strange about how they view – and treat those with ink.  See my blog on that interesting subject here:  Tainted by Tats