Pop Life Circus


Okinawa POP Circus 2015, Jody welcome to POP Circus

“Pop life, Everybody needs a thrill

Pop life We all got a space 2 fill

Pop life Everybody can’t be on top

But life it ain’t real funky Unless it’s got that pop” ~ Prince, Pop Life song lyrics

 “Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets bullfights. Italy gets the Catholic Church. America gets Hollywood.” ~ Erica Jong

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And Okinawa gets PoP Circus’ “World Circus Festival”, a performance under the Big Top with lends an air of mystique and excitement for kids of all ages.  Established in 1996, PoP Circus – the “Pursuit of Pleasure” – consists of over 30 performers making up various acts, and is eagerly received in Okinawa as an innovative and extravagant performance.

Okinawa POP Circus 2015, world circus festival WM

While PoP Circus is marketed as a spectacular to amaze and thrill, it will appear initially as nothing more than a low-scale, poor quality knockoff of the much more well-known and praise-worthy Cirque du Soleil. It occurs in, however, a much smaller venue, one that creates an intimacy between spectator and performer under the not easily missed illuminated purple Big Top. While it may lack the powerful live music, overdone intrigue and gaudy costumes, there is at least no obscure French storyline to try and decipher….

Okinawa POP Circus 2015, Jody at PoP circus big-top

16513_705775022868557_3321045115409053877_nOkinawa POP Circus 2015, snack banners bilingual WMSome of the starring attractions include a pair of romantic aerial ballet dancers who circle the audience while performing acrobatics suspended by flowing ribbon anchored to Big Top’s overhead. Two Chinese Acrobats perform an incredibly breathtaking feat of balance, strength and contortion in a display of stamina and grace that is hard to beat and which rivals any of the type I’ve ever seen.

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Really, the Confederate Battleflag?!?

Really, the Confederate Battleflag?!?

Of course a circus wouldn’t be a circus without a spastic collection of bungling clowns. While the festival’s are billed as comically entertaining, I still find clowns – the whole idea – creepy at best. Kids, however, seems to always approve through their joyous laughter and smiling faces. And the Japanese, as innocent as they are, expressed loud approval to the clowning around.

No, Clown, you can't have my cotton candy....

No, Clown, you can’t have my cotton candy….

10690090_1050498828300807_4268954099007393626_n11017874_709183169194409_8864077044129416114_nYes there is a dog show starring lots of dogs large and small, and while it may be somewhat predictable, it’s fast pace of tricks one after another make it a surety as a crowd-pleaser.  A young flying trapeze troop from Australia, the Flying Aces, performs almost 40 feet overhead, and a group of Russians pretending to be Celtic (go figure) perform on a set of swings that we never had on the playground as kid!.

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Okinawa POP Circus 2015, souvenir book WMOkinawa POP Circus 2015, circus souvenirsMaking a prolonged stop in Okinawa every two or three years, they are now performing at Onoyama Park in Naha City. But don’t wait too much longer; they are only here through the 6th of April! The World Circus Festival is running its 2-hour show daily except Wednesdays, with weekday shows at 1320 and 1900, Saturday shows at 1030, 1320, and 1900, while Sunday shows are at 1030, 1320, and 1600. The Circus tent is located at the eastern corner of Onoyama park in Naha (). Beware there is very limited parking available at the park and surrounding vicinity, but a convenient monorail stop is located adjacent to the park.

Lots of Yummy Goodies!

Lots of Yummy Goodies!

Okinawa POP Circus 2015, show costs and timesOkinawa POP Circus 2015, welcome to Pop Circus WMAdvance tickets for adults are ¥2,500 (¥2,800 at the gate), while tickets for kids age three through junior high school are ¥1,200 (¥1,500 at the gate).  Special Boxes for up to 4 are available for extra fees of ¥5,000 and ¥4,000, depending on exactly how close to the stage you want to be seated.  Reserved bleacher seats with center views are an additional ¥800, the option we elected since the cheap seats’ views are pretty badly blocked by various Big Top support structures. The official website is www.pop-circus.co.jp/ and offers minimal information in English. If you want a sneak-peak of the performances, check out their Facebook page (in Japanese).

See you there!

See you there!

Best Burger in the Far East? Malone’s Made in China


 

Malone's Pub-Like Storefront

Malone’s Pub-Like Storefront

There’s a problem with finding a good hamburger in Asian. They just don’t get it here. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t have ‘Merican beef, or they are just philosophically opposed to ‘Merican mimicry. What is served as a burger is really just, well, meatloaf, referred to as “hamburg” throughout Japan. Read McDonald’s Can Kiss My Ass for more concerning this particular affliction for which there seems to be no inoculation. Until finding Café Captain Kangaroo this past weekend in the northern reaches of Okinawa with their fabulous array of deliciously hand-crafted burgers, the best beef patty with the usual accoutrements we had the pleasure of devouring was…

Made in China.

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At Malone’s, in Shanghai, to be exact. Described as an “American Café,” Malone’s is home to one of the most extensive burger menus in that far-eastern Asian metropolis. Located conveniently close to a few Western embassies and consulates right in the middle of the Tongren Lu district of Shanghai just around the corner from the Shanghai Center, Malone’s has been described – note the past tense – as “packed with expats and the out-of-town business crowd.” The three-story establishment used to offer differing venues, where a Filipino cover band used to play on the 2nd floor most nights, and the 3rd floor “Loft” offered a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. The extensive bar and the outdoor seating areas hinted at quite a maximum occupancy, but on the cold fall evening we visited, no one was sitting outside, and only about ¼ of the indoor seats were taken.

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These characterizations all share one important similarity: their tenses are all in the past. It seems that although Malone’s was at one time the place to be for Westerners visiting Shanghai, complete with an award-winning burger, today the bar/eatery is a mere shadow of its former self.

Past Awards Quite Dated

Past Awards Quite Dated

However, having arrived very late in Shanghai after traveling all afternoon and evening, Jody and I were hungry for a late dinner before bed. Our local Chinese guide, asking if we were interested in a good burger, recommended this particular place, which happened to be within walking distance from our hotel. Normally we both shy away from American food and chains traveling in Asia, but the lure and lore of a REAL burger was too much to pass up. Fifteen minutes later we were walking into Malone’s, and within another 15 and after a round of cold Chinese Tiger beers, a truly wonderful burger did arrive. It certainly didn’t take 15 to devour.

While the Atmosphere is Lacking, the Burgers are NOT!

While the Atmosphere is Lacking, the Burgers are NOT!

Malone’s opened its doors about 20 years ago as an international extension of a Vancouver, Canada-based chain of the same name. As the first western-owned and run restaurant outside of high-end hotels in the city, it was originally managed by a group of Canadian expats who wanted to bring western-style dining in a neighborhood-pub setting to Shanghai. It appears that the change in management from foreigners to locals has been a change for the worse. The bar is rather dirty, with the 2nd and 3rd floors closed during our visit. We were seated on the 2nd floor, but only after we asked about alternative seating since there were so many smokers and smoke on the first floor. The area clearly hadn’t been used, clean, or refurbished in I would guess at least a year or two. The service was okay, the beer was cold, and the food actually well above par. And all for a reasonable price. It’s unfortunately that this place has taken such a nose-dive.

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I can still recommend the burgers at Malone’s for those that are craving a western-style meal after spending a fair amount of time flirting with mere “hamburg” in the Far East. But I wouldn’t visit the pub looking for atmosphere, music, or any type of night-life…. Read some recent thoroughly trashing reviews at SmartShanghai.com and Trip Advisor.

Map

Address:  255 Tongren Road, near Nanjing Xi Lu; 铜仁路255号, 近南京西路, Shanghai, China

Phone:  86 21 6247 2400

Website:  www.malones.com.cn

Email:  malones@malones.com.cn

METRO:  Jing’an Temple, 15 mins. walk

Hours:  Daily, 10am-2am

Kiss My Ass McDonald’s! Better Burgers at Café Captain Kangaroo


There are MUCH better burger options....

There are MUCH better burger options….

Oh, the shame. Not finishing the best burger found on Okinawa. Especially when my wife and all the rather petite Japanese women surrounding me devoured theirs without issue….

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, storefront hamburger island cafe captina kangaroo

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, no pickles on our burgers!In and Out isn’t part of the in-crowd on Okinawa…mainly since it doesn’t exist here. Apparently there aren’t enough meaty guys on the island to have a Fives Guys. You can get steaks and shakes on Okinawa, but not coincidently enough to have a Steak and Shake. There is an Applebee’s, but it’s on base, overpriced and full of loud and usually overly boisterous Americans watching some inane sporting event. And while they do serve a pretty good burger, at twice the cost and half the taste, it “udderly” fails in comparison to those award-winning beefy concoctions at Captain Kangaroo’s!

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, award-winning burgers

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, opening hours artNow, Jody and I debated whether the burgers there are alone worth the long drive to Nago, and while the outcome is close, we agree there probably needs to be another reason to make the trek. Even if it’s just for the scenic drive up Highway 58. On an island full of “hamburg” joints that serve what amounts to really good meatloaf, a REAL hamburg-ER is a rare and treasured culinary find.

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, comfy and casual seating

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, iconic logo in pastels“‘Roo’s” is minimally furnished with an eclectic assortment of comfy chairs and lounging couches. The quick-order counter, at an unusual height that’s not high enough for bar stools and too low for the dining chairs provided, is a great option if you are either in danger of dehydration from uncontrolled salivation or simply on the move and don’t want to wait the 20 minutes we did during high time from 1300-1500.

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, counter service bar none

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, street-side signDiners will find themselves surrounded by surfer-themed movie posters and random knickknacks, from an empty SPAM tin repurposed as a napkin holder, to our table’s hamburger warps held in place by an old Kraft Cheese cylinder…. A large selection of Japanese comics are easily selected from a wall of simple bookshelves, and randomly interesting magazines are for the borrowing in the small waiting area.

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, waiting area and cashier's counter

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, comfy and casual seating 2Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, anniversary smilesWe were seated in two easy chairs alongside a classic low coffee table of just the right size, an arrangement both casual and comfy at the same time. To top off the café’s relaxed experience, soft reggae and world music plays softly in the background, and for those lucky enough of eating in the back raised corner of the small shop, there is an incomparable view of the East China Sea certainly not found at any burger joint found back home.

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, Jody ready for lunch

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, heart-shaped ketchupCafé Captain Kangaroo came to Nago, Okinawa, in 2007, purposed specifically to become an iconic burger shop. The Captain’s family tree is traced all the way back to Osaka, Japan, on Honshu, where the surname was established in 1997 as only a bar; no explanation is given for the rather odd moniker. The staff are all very friendly and cheerful, and good English is widely spoken. During our visit on a lazy almost-Spring Sunday afternoon were about a half and half mix of Japanese and gaijin, all enjoying their beefy meals. There were about five people working during our visit, and their smiles combined with the fun, casual attitude of the place certainly helped to make the burgers even more delicious. Oddly enough, we witnessed one of the staffers eating a late lunch. Their pick off the menu: TACO RICE!

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, no pickles on our burgers!

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, menu masterpiecesOkinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, all decisions involve hamburgersYes, that Okinawan ubiquitous meal is indeed offered, but as one of only eleven mains on the menu – one key to the café’s massive success. The focus is on quality and taste, and with only a few items to master, both are promises made and delivered upon. The menu is offered bilingually in Japanese and English, with most items costing about 1,000 yen or less. Combos can be made by adding in a potato set offering a choice of hashbrowns, wedges with skin, or traditional fries. Drinks can also be added at a “set” price to complete your combination platter.

The Amazing "Sparky" Burger

The Amazing “Sparky” Burger

Jody and I both ordered the “Sparky” burger, and within about 10 minutes, were served a veritable skyscraper of a burger! A home-baked sesame-covered bun grilled crispy and served hot off the griddle, slathered with BBQ sauce (not overdone), a beef patty, cheese (Swiss we believe), tons of fresh, crispy lettuce and juicy tomato, and finally topped with our favorite: an impossibly large serving of crispy deep-fried delicious shoestring onions. The tower was held against toppling by a long bamboo spear, and multiple triangular sandwich holders are provided – and required!

Notice the "Heartfelt" Ketchup!

Notice the “Heartfelt” Ketchup!

Ketchup is served on the plate, but placed there with great care. The Japanese couple next to us had their sauce in the shaped of animated musical notes, while ours came in the shape of blood-red beating hearts – very fitting since this was our first date and outing on our own in many weeks! On the table are salt, pepper, chili spice, and garlic salt, the last of which I *forgot* to use. Oh well, a great excuse to return. And SOON.

Shirts Sold at Café Roo's

Shirts Sold at Café Roo’s

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, sorry cash onlyCaptain Kangaroo’s rates 4.5 out of 5 stars on Trip Advisor, where it is also ranked the #1 restaurant in all of Nago (out of something like 348 establishments). Given some of the styles and qualities of foods that can be found in this corner of the Far East in a large city, this standing is quite an accomplishment. I have been hearing the hype about this place for over a year now, and generally don’t give into such popularity contests: seldom does anything live up to such impossibly high expectations. Hamburger Island Café Captain Kangaroo’s does, on all accounts. And all our deliciousness for 2,600 yen, or about $23.50.

Jody mocks my last uneaten bit in silent contempt.....

Jody mocks my last uneaten bit in silent contempt…..

Oh, and about that shame of not finishing my burger? In my defense, I did have a large portion of chocolate ice cream for lunch.

At least I have my priorities in the right order….

Okinawa Mar 2015, Captain Kangaroo, a plate of burger heavan

Ambiance:  Eclectically furnished and casual burger joint of the highest caliber. Furniture groupings provide comfy and casual seating for couples and large groups of up to eight.

Service:  A small establishment which prides itself on quality and perfection. Food is all cooked fresh order, and the joint can be crowded during lunch and in the afternoons. While the wait to get a spot inside may be 20 or 30 minutes, your order is taken promptly and the food appears quicker than you might think possible. The staff is overly laid-back and friendly, and English is widely and easily spoken.

Food Quality:  Excellent without question. Ranked on Trip Advisor as the #1 restaurant in Nago.

Features:  Quaint eatery with conditioned indoor seating.  Easy-going atmosphere which is beachwear and kid-friendly.

Cuisine:  Burgers, burgers, and burgers. Plus eight more types of burgers. Plus taco rice.

Price/Value:  Excellent.

Address: 183 Umusa, Nago City

Phone: 098-054-3698

Opening Times: Every day except Holidays and Wednesdays, 11:00~20:00 (last order 19:40)

Directions: Take 58 north to Nago (or the Expressway until it ends and joins 58), then a slight left onto 449 once passing the seaside Nago baseball stadium. Captain Kangaroo, a small shop that’s easy to miss, is about 0.9 kilometers down the road on the left. Additional parking is found just before the storefront, and also to the rear of the burger joint.

Website: http://www.roo-bar.jp

What Does the Fox Say: Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari Shrine


What does the fox say? It says it all – silently – at the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine, one of the most impressive visits one could make in all of Kyoto.

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14060715578_2141ddd704_bFoxes (kitsune), regarded as messengers of Inari, play important roles at Inari shrines. Like the song that went viral, there are hundreds of stone foxes scattered and hidden across the Fushimi Inari complex. Often they are depicted holding a granary key in their mouths, visual symbolism reflecting Inari as the protector of rice and cereals, a role so revered in ancient Japan that foxes are often referred to themselves as Inari.

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With endless expanses of crimson-colored wooden torii (See Trampled Torii for more on those iconic contours of the Far East) layered amongst a wooded and peaceful mountain spared from the city’s urban sprawl, the massive religious complex offers an escape to a spiritual world unto its own.

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14328992688_f96798e4a7_bJF4_029682Yes, it’s a Shinto Shrine. But this place is oh so much more. Ancient. Mysterious. Moving. Immense. Describing it as “just another shrine” would be like saying that the Vatican is just another church…. What Fushimi-Inari encompasses is an entire realm of various shrines large and small, nestled amid thousands of torii, all spread across an entire mountain just outside Kyoto proper. For me and Jody, our repeat visits to the shrine – during the day and at night – are some of our more memorable adventures in our flirtations to date anywhere in the Far East. It not only ranks as one of the most impressive sites in Kyoto, but it’s one of the most important to the Japanese people who live there. See Honeymoon’s Atomic Fireworks Saves Kyoto for more on what makes this locality so special.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the lead shrine of Inari. Situated at the base of Inari Mountain, the complex consists of four major religious areas along with dozens and dozens of sub-shrines and alters winding through numerous trails spanning over 2.5 mils and ascending to the mountain’s peak 725 feet above.

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14801914150_8fc1376c87_b 14766524022_1a6a317b62_bInari was initially dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in 8th century Japan. But as the role of agriculture diminished, the Inari deities were repurposed more broadly as protectors of business and commerce. Thus, the guardian spirit or god Inari became the patron of business. Since times distant merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. This explains, in fact, the shear and almost uncountable number of torii located here, of which over 10,000 are said to be standing. Each has been donated and inscribed by a Japanese business or business person thankful for their prosperity and in the hopes of gaining additional favor with the gods for the future. The resulting long tunnels of torii are some of the most iconic visions in Japan; the torii.

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14056204387_14037f94ec_bThe earliest structures were built in 711 CE, but were re-located in 816 to the present-day site. However, the main shrine structures we see today were all built around the 14-15th centuries, including the main gate (楼門, rōmon, “tower gate”), and the main shrine (御本殿, go-honden). Today the shrine, one of the earliest Shinto Shrines in Japan, is the country’s most popular, most visited, and serves as headquarters for some 40,000 Inari shrines scattered throughout Japan.

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Interspersed along the shrine’s paths, small food stands serve Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a treat favored by foxes. You can also try Inari sushi, fried tofu wrapped around sweetened rice.

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The hike around the shrines long and crossing paths is impressive to each and every sense. Light plays with the torii tunnels during the day….. But it is in the late afternoon and throughout the night where it takes an eerie and more spiritually moving turn. There in shadows of the descending day, the small graveyards, miniaturized shrines and silent alters take on a mysterious air.

Leaving our own Ema

Leaving our own Ema

14041109430_846d3c1c88_b14041146147_28a3f9dc03_bThe Japanese, being a very superstitious people, hold that the Inari shrines are possessed by foxes at night. While foxes are generally seen has sacred and benign, they also are known to be somewhat mischievous – as foxes are everywhere) – especially at night. Jody and I, just to be safe and in the hopes of avoiding any accidental mammalian-based bewitching, visited together, even though the bitter cold of the night was calling Jody back to our lukewarm Machiya in Kyoto’s Gion District (read Timeless Townhouse for more on our stay at a traditional Geisha home at the turn of the last century). For the record, Jody was a foxy lady even prior to our visit.

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We recommend that, if possible, a visit to the shrine should be timed for the very late afternoon, when the crowds start to fade along with the harsh light of the day. The chance to explore the torii tunnels alone in the tranquil forests is both spiritually moving and all-things romantic. Having these sites and sights to yourselves is simply a magical experience.

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“The secret of the fox, Ancient mystery, Somewhere deep in the woods, I know you’re hiding…My guardian angel….” ~ The Fox – What Does the Fox Say?

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See my Flickr Set “Kyoto” for more photos of our visit to that iconic Japanese city.

Reference

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/shritemp/fushimiinaritaisha.html

http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/shrines/temples/fushimi_inari/

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kyoto-fushimi-inari

http://www.insidekyoto.com/fushimi-inari-taisha-shrine

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/kansai/kyoto/sights/religious/fushimi-inari-taisha

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes


“When a lovely flame dies, Smoke gets in your eyes….” ~ The Platters, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

The Cold, or Pollution?

The Cold, or Pollution?

Okinawa was put under an air quality alert this week as “fluctuating higher levels of pollutant aerosols [were] anticipated…,” the first time I recall this happening in my more than seven years spent on this island paradise. And the source?

Pollution. Made in China.

Slide from a Brief Warning of Increased Pollutant Aerosols

Slide from a Brief Warning of Increased Pollutant Aerosols

It’s an amazing coincidence as I just posted a blog discussing the massive pollution problem in China, witnessed firsthand during a trip there last November. See Pollution, Made in China for more.

Now, I’m not anti-China. In fact, it would be relatively easy to fall in love with what China can offer. Jody and I even found ourselves talking about living in Shanghai, it was that, well, “cool.” And then there were all the surprising turns that we didn’t expect. All those expectations and stereotypes that turned out to be patently false. See Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Misconceptions about China more just a few of those realizations.

So, walking outside yesterday, I was struck immediately by a slight odor in the air, one that was able to overcome the strong aroma of the steady sea breeze blowing salt and ocean across our entire neighborhood. But it was my limited sight line, my obstructed view-shed from our 5th floor building’s breezeway that stopped me in my tracks. There it was, the oppressive and offensive haze that was so ubiquitous in China, now the most recent but unwelcome import to Okinawa.

Okinawa PM2-5 Feb 2015

Okinawa Measures of PM2.5 Pollutants, 5 Feb 2015

PM2-5 RatingsAs forecasted, pollution from China swept across the East China Sea to affect Okinawa and beyond. While the smaller, most dangerous particulate matter (“PM2.5”) levels didn’t reach critical levels, they were hazardous to those at risk or who had respiratory vulnerabilities.  The air quality on Okinawa reached 154 on the 5th of February, a state considered “unhealthy,” while the most dangerous PM2.5 measure hit up into the 60’s, also considered troublesome.  By any measure, though, when pollution is thick enough to see and smell, it’s a problem, simply and most basically by being an affront to our senses, and an insult to Mother Nature. At worst, it portends a bleak future for the entire area, if not the globe. All based on pollution…originating from China.

AQI

How to Interpret Air Quality Readings

If you think this issue is being overstated, I answer with this: you have not spent any time experiencing the pollution of China firsthand. And if you still think, perhaps, that my sinuses are too sensitive, or that I have an owl’s eyesight and see the pollution differently than everyone else, check out this website where you can view movies of airborne pollutants throughout Asia. In fact, it’s so enlightening, I’ve included a screenshot below.

Forecast

The Next Wave of Chinese Pollution due to Hit Okinawa this Weekend. A new type of typhoon?

 

There is simply not enough ocean between Okinawa and China.

There is simply not enough ocean between Okinawa and China.

China is facing its own coming crisis in dealing with their relatively unchecked effluence. That’s all fine and well for them; at some point, the people will rise up and force change. But, unfortunately, for the rest of the world, it’ll be too little, too late. China’s poor stewardship of their environment is certainly trashing the Eastern hemisphere, and it’s not too hard to see a time when what they do – or fail to do – will have immense global consequences.

China's problem is now the world's problem....

China’s problem is now the world’s problem….

Water Closet or Bathroom: Restroom Design East & West


“Treasure night soil as if it were gold.” ~ Chinese Proverb highlighting the value – then and now – of our fecal waste….

http://www.discovery.com/video/surprise-toothbrush-minimyth/

Everything way too close in our bathroom by Tupperware.

Everything way too close in our bathroom by Tupperware.

Don't Brush where you Flush

Don’t Brush where you Flush

Every time I brush my teeth here in our Kwuirky Kondo I can’t help but think about just how much night soil matter may be involved. I know some people who suffer diarrhea of the mouth, but in a literal sense?! But it doesn’t have to be this way….

So why do the bathrooms of the East and West differ so dramatically? Why is it that engineering and architecture across cultures can diverge so significantly for the exact same biological processes that all humans share? Not to be “anal” about the subject, but “bearing down” the origins of modern design helps to “shower” us with more than a few reasons.

For most of recorded history people around the world got their water from springs, rivers or wells, which self-limited consumption to what could be carried. Since it was so hard to get and transport, water was treated much more as a scarce and valuable resource than it is today. Solid waste was kept in cesspits to be emptied by “night soil men” who would then sell it as fertilizer or otherwise dispose of the unwanted byproduct. Liquid waste from the home was sometimes thrown into the road, to which the French exclamation “gardyloo” (garde à l’eau), or “mind the water!” warning would alert passersby.

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In the West the Romans really kicked off our modern approach to toilets with massive civil engineering projects a few thousand years ago. The idea of Turkish and Asian baths placed the Middle and Far East on a much different trajectory. But it was a cholera epidemic in London in the mid-1800s that really brought the modern Western bathroom to bear. Realizing that excrement mixed with drinking water generally equaled death, the march was on to pump clean and safe water directly into homes. Pipes carrying clean water under pressure became the standard in the west, but with some rather unforeseen consequences.

Although the idea of a flush toilet had been around for many centuries, it was the convenient and 24/7 water supply that led to its explosion as the primary means of personal waste removal. People rushed to install handy flush toilets, and the demand and nature of the resulting necessary architectural engineering lead down a narrow path of thought.

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Initially the architects and homeowners of the late 19th century simply replaced bedroom washstands with sinks and taps, and had to “find” somewhere to place the toilet. Since they were literally often placed, in the early days, into closets, the origin of the term “water closet” becomes obvious. However, it was certainly easier and less expensive to run plumbing to one central location, rather than all over the house. Ah, the birth of the modern Western bathroom.

As this idea matured, wood was replaced with porcelain and tile (or other impermeable stone) in a nod to defeating microbes as more and more people realized the danger of germs. But such materials don’t come cheaply, and as the bathroom continued to become more and more mainstream, it necessarily got smaller and smaller in order to contain cost. Oh, and there certainly was no reason to keep the sinks, showers and toilets all in separate spaces; the plumbers instead simply lined all these features up in a row and ended up using much less pipe. By the early 20th century, the bathroom became more or less standardized and commonplace throughout the West, and relatively indistinguishable from the ones in use today.

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But in the East, the emphasis was placed on much different concerns than mere cost and convenience. Rather, the idea of cleanliness became paramount, and ritual and relaxation overruled economies of scale and installation. In short, human wants and needs took precedence over the dictations of plumbers. Oh, and they probably lacked those pesky trade unions that do little else but jack up prices and stretch a 4-hour job over two weeks.

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That's a kitchen counter.  Right next to the toilet!

That’s a kitchen counter. Right next to the toilet!

From an Eastern perspective, it’s hard to find things we Westerners actually got right in our bathrooms. The high toilets that we sit upon are contrary to the medical claim that our bodies were engineered to squat. Squat toilets remain commonplace throughout Asia, much to the chagrin of many a Western tourist. Sinks are generally much too low to facilitate washing, so much so that Jody and I, when we remodeled all three baths in our home in Pensacola, purposely put in kitchen counters to elevate our wash basins. Showers are generally severe fall hazards, especially the ones that require a high step over the edge of a tub. The tiny rooms we build and outfit are often inadequately ventilated, and then we proceed to fill that space with a densely toxic cloud of chemicals ranging from nail polish remover to bleach tile cleaner. When we flush solid waste down the toilet, we also unknowingly swoosh nasty fecal-bathed bacteria into the air, where it unfailingly lands on our toothbrush located just a meter away. And when we take a bath and bathe, we sit mired in our own muck, completely defeating the purpose of the bath to begin with.

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The American/Western shower is a source of incredible waste and inefficiency, even though it may feel amazing when you have the rain can, shower head, and all three body sprayers going at the same time. Thank about it – even when you don’t really need the water, like during lathering with soap or shampoo, the water continues to run constantly. One usually stands on tile or in a tiny restrictive porcelain tub that’s already slick when dry; such a surface can become downright dangerous when wet! When we actually do care about water waste, mostly based on cost as opposed to environmental concerns, we either take short showers, or install those really miserable low-flow shower heads that more spit on you than stream. In the Navy aboard ship we suffer BOTH insults.

Waterproof Bathing Room!

Waterproof Bathing Room!

However, things are different in the Far East. Here the Japanese flirt with their facilities in an ages-old ritual developed with much different aims in mind. The shower/bath is usually contained in a waterproof room. That’s right – WATERPROOF! I mean it is tiled floor to ceiling, and the ceiling itself is water-resistant. Aside from the bath’s drain, there is a drain for the room, the low point of the gently sloping floor. Light fixtures are sealed, and power receptacles have waterproof covers (and of course are grounded). It is a fabulous idea, both for cleaning your body, AND for cleaning the room!

So in the shower area – which is just a big open area of the room – one sits on a stool. A bucket, sponge, ladle and hand shower are available for washing. There is no shower curtain to get nasty with mold and mildew, and the hand shower is only turned on when needed. To shower, one fills the bucket with hot water from the spigot and ladles oneself wet. When done lathering, the ladle or the hand shower is used to rinse. Often to end the shower one simply dumps the remainder of the bucket over one’s head. Besides being a more relaxing experience (sitting versus standing), some claim that it only uses 10% of the water compared to a Western shower. Maybe. Way less in any case.

An original deep-soak tub in a Machiya, Kyoto, Japan

An original deep-soak tub in a Machiya, Kyoto, Japan. It’s set about another foot into the ground.

But that is only half of the story. In that same room is a tub, but one much different from which Westerners are accustomed. Japanese bathtubs (ofuro) are not for cleaning; they are for soaking. In other words, Far Eastern tubs are for cleansing the spirit and mind, and only are used AFTER the body has been cleansed of more tangible dirt as described above. Thus, the tubs are DEEP but short in length. They are designed to be filled fully, and the soaker to sit with their heads back and knees close to their chests. The position is thought to heighten a sense of meditation, or at least relaxation. I can assure you this: I will, after having tried many Asian-sized deep-soak tubs, take depth over length any day! In fact, it makes me want to turn that deep sink back home into a soaking tub. Heck, the room is already almost waterproof as is…if only it had a floor drain.

Even Japanese cats Soak....

Even Japanese cats Soak….

By the way, there is another important difference in Japan’s baths: on-demand, gas-fired water heaters. Yeah, those tubs are deep and hold a LOT of water. But don’t fret. There is literally an unlimited supply of piping hot water in Japan, at least until your gas supply runs out. The water is heated almost instantaneously but only when demanded, and comes to temperature in seconds. A digital control panel allows you to specify the temperature exactly, and there generally are not any annoying anti-scalding devices between you and a 48 degree C bath. In Japan they like their water HOT, and won’t accept anything lukewarm. Yep, the Japanese actually trust you, a grown adult with a vast amount of experience in bathing, with ensuring your own bathing safety. Oh, and since the water remains clean, the water is re-used across the generations often present in a Japanese household.

Toilet Room quite separate and distinct from the bathing area.

Toilet Room quite separate and distinct from the bathing area.

Another aspect of Japanese bathrooms is quite noticeable and makes perfect sense: never, ever do you find the toilet in the same room as the tub and shower. In their minds, this is beyond logic. Why on earth would you do the dirtiest of deeds in the same room where you try to get the cleanest of cleans? Or, to make it cute:  don’t brush where you flush!  Makes you really think about Western bathroom design…. And the American solution of putting a tiny old-tyme W.C. within a larger bathroom? Doesn’t cut it in Japan.

JapaneseToiletSlippers

In many toilet facilities in Japan a separate dedicated pair of slippers are used only in the toilet area. While you may be wearing house slippers or socks while enjoying the home, a necessary switch to toilet slippers is required to use the toilet. These toilet slippers are considered soiled and are never allowed in any part of the home. In hotels with shared facilities or at some tourist attractions, this switching of footwear is a crucial part of bathroom etiquette.

Japan 2014, bathrooms, rocket-surgery electronic toilet control panel

Finally, even though you might be in a Japanese-style dwelling, it’s quite possible that a more Western style bathroom is provided. But even then, Japan’s toilets are high-tech, a fascinating aspect of the Far East to which I’ve already dedicated a blog: see Moaning Myrtle and Bowel Movements. In summary, a control panel like you might find on the Starship Enterprise offers various options, including music, bidet wash, hot-air blow dryer, seat warmer and other sound and olfactory systems designed to mask the smells and noises of a particularly troublesome session of #2.

The deep-soak tub we installed after remodeling our master bathroom.

The deep-soak tub we installed after remodeling our master bathroom.

While we may not be able to import many of these aspects to our already built home back in the states, we will take with us perhaps the most radical, revolutionary change in bathroom engineering of the ages: heated toilet seats! Whether or not you agree with any of the differences thus discussed, there’s not one of you out there that’s going to turn their nose up at a nice, warm, padded throne.

Our non-slip sizeable shower.  We even have a teak stool in the hidden corner!

Our non-slip sizeable shower. We even have a teak stool in the hidden corner!

And if we ever have a home-built, Jody and I will refuse to be mere “stool” pigeons in accepting some run-of-the-mill bathroom design. No, instead we will “bear down” and “strain” ourselves in perfecting our water closet’s design, reworking the plans until we’re “cramping” from fatigue. We’ll reach deep into the “bowels” of our minds to remember these aspects of design, and “flush” them onto paper, preferably a little more durable than TP. And once finished, we will bask, bath, and yes – even defecate in the full glory of our water-centric facilities.

pooptoothbrush

And thanks to the blending of the best of East meets West, our toothbrushes will, for the most part, remain night soil-free. Can you say that about yours?!?

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