Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Japanese Toilets

Since I started writing this blog, I promised to you that I would write a post on the subject of Japanese toilets, which happen to differ in some major ways from those which we are accustomed to in Europe and North America (not counting toilets in Europe's Muslim countries, that is). Because this week I was unfortunate enough to catch a stomach flu, I have been blessed with numerous daily opportunities to visit and take pictures of the throne which my home toilet is.

In fact, there are actually two types of Japanese toilets: the traditional, and the western-style Japanese toilet. I will, without getting into a discussion about the definition of tradition, start with the traditional style of Japanese toilet. Most traditional things have one characteristic in common: despite being invented a long time ago, their use has persisted until now, even though other, more practical things, have been invented. And, the Japanese also have one thing in common: they love tradition. Thus many prefer to sit on the floor despite the invention of chairs, live in cold houses with paper walls despite the invention of bricks and central heating, drive on the left despite the rest of East Asia driving on the right, and use traditional toilets despite the invention of toilets with seats. Yes, not having a seat is the major characteristic of a traditional Japanese toilet. It is a very simple, oval hole in the ground above which you squat and do what you must; very similar in style to the Turkish toilet. To say it is not practical would actually be a lie: being on the floor level, it is extremely easy to clean the area around the toilet, making it thus the preferred model at public bathrooms, cheap hotels, etc.

My Colby roommate Kent demonstrating the proper use of a traditional Japanese toilet in Hokkaido, Japan.

However, the Japanese also love things modern. They sit on the floor of a cold building under a Kotatsu, or heated table, they build huge glass skyscrapers, invent robots with a human persona, drive cars with built-in TVs, and their western-style toilets have futuristic qualities. On the first glance, the Japanese western-style toilet has the same shape as as a regular toilet that we are accustomed to. What makes it different is the control panel next to it. This panel controls a powerful stream of water which will spray your front or back side clean within seconds. The panel usually looks similar to the one on the picture below.

The toilet control panel.

The top four five buttons on the panel are quite self-explanatory, and not much of a Japanese language skill is needed to decipher their meaning. The leftmost means stop, and is very important in case you mis-pushed. The second button from the left will cause a very directed stream of warm water to clean your butt. The middle button will do the same as the previous, though the stream will be lighter and more spread out. The fourth button is meant for women only and I have yet to try what it does. Finally, the rightmost button means dry and will cause a stream of hot air similar to that of commercial hand dryers to dry your cleaned butt. The smaller buttons below can help you adjust the strength, temperature, angle, timer, etc. of the water stream. And, all this happens while you are comfortably seated on a warm, electrically heated seat. In addition, home toilets are equipped with one more technologically advanced feature: a tap. When you press the flush button, the toilet's water tank will start refilling through a tap above the tank, whose water you use to wash your hands; how very nature-friendly!

The toilet at my host family's house. Notice the tap on the top, and the control panel on the left.

In Japan, unlike in any other country that I have ever been to, there is an abundance of free, clean public toilets. They are on every corner: be it a special toilet building, a convenience store, a restaurant, a shopping mall, there is always a free, clean toilet somewhere nearby for you to use. In a typical Japanese men's public bathroom, there are usually several urinals, and about two or three booths, one western, and the other ones traditional: the western one supposedly for the disabled, and the traditional ones because they are easier to clean. Even during a rush hour, there is typically a line of people waiting for the western toilet to free up, while the traditional ones are left unused. To be honest, given how much I hate squatting, I am not surprised at all. Finally, very few public toilets provide toilet paper, and so it is always a good idea to carry a bag of tissues with you. To prevent a drastic cultural shock, the AKP office provided us with one right on the first day of the orientation.

Since very early history, the Japanese have been known to take over things from other cultures, subsequently improving, "Japanizing" them. They took Buddhism from Korea and adapted it to complement their native Shinto religion, they took city-building technologies from the Chinese and built their ancient capital, Kyoto, they took the Prussian constitution and conquered half of East Asia, and they took the western toilet and added a magical panel. On the other hand, the Japanese still remain true to their own inventions: they preserve the Kimono, the tea ceremony, the martial arts, houses with paper walls, left-side driving, and the traditional toilet. Being a European, I cannot blame them.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

東京 (Tokyo)

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit my Colby friend Yuki at his home in the Japanese capital, Tokyo. The city has served as the country's capital since 1869, when it replaced Kyoto as part of the very successful attempt to "modernize" Japan. Today, with its 32-39 million people (depending on definition and source), Tokyo constitutes by far the biggest metropolitan area in the world in terms of population; Seoul and Mexico City hold the second place with a lousy 20 million people each. To give you a couple of comparisons, Tokyo has three and a half times as many inhabitants as the Czech Republic, about the same amount of people as Canada, and half of that of France. Moreover, all of those people are packed on roughly 2200 square km, an area smaller than Luxembourg or Rhode Island. In other words, to get an idea of how daily life in the city of Tokyo feels, imagine stuffing all Canadians into Luxembourg. Packed would not be a strong enough word to describe it.

Yes, when Tokyo's crowds decide to walk the city's streets during the busiest hours, the sidewalks get so packed that all you can see in front of yourself is the back of someone else, and the same works for the person behind you. The craziest thing, though, are not the packed streets themselves but the pedestrian crossings. Many crossings in Tokyo, such as the famous Shibuya crossing, work in the following way. All traffic is stopped, and people can cross the road in any direction; left, right, and diagonally. Thus when twelve different rivers of people start crossing the same road in eight opposite directions, the result looks looks very much like the diagram below.

Diagram of an 8-way crossing. Black = blocks of buildings, gray = sidewalks, red arrows = streams of people.
© Yours Truly. 

But not only are there many people in Tokyo. There are countless skyscrapers, multinational company headquarters, famous universities, galleries, museums, statues, karaoke bars, restaurants, shops, malls, Don Quijotes, trains, sky trains, train stations, buses, cars, bridges, policemen, dealers, parks, a 333m tall tower, and so on. In other words, the reason why so many people live in Tokyo is that it has so much to offer.

It will therefore not surprise you that I took advantage of being in this amazing if crowded city and enjoyed my time to the fullest by exploring its various perks. I had one major advantage: having Yuki, a Tokyo native, on my side as a guide. Thus not only did I get to see all the major tourist attractions where throngs of white tourists make you feel like you are no longer in Japan, but I also experienced the Japanese side of Tokyo, the places where natives actually live in and go to. 

Among the touristy places I saw are the following. The famous Tokyo Tower, a 333m tall, red and white, Eiffel Tower-shaped reminder that Tokyo is cooler than Paris (by 9 if meters are your measuring units). However, given that the line for getting to the top was probably longer than the tower itself, and the price of it in Yen five times that, we decided to save this beauty for another time. Interestingly enough, just like the Eiffel Tower is not the tallest building in France, the Tokyo Tower is no longer the tallest building in Japan. Just this year it was overgrown by another building in Tokyo, the soon to be finished, 634m tall Tokyo Sky Tree.

The second touristy place I visited was the Shinjuku district, probably the most well known part of Tokyo among foreigners for its night life. Similarly well known for their rich night life are the Shibuya and Roppongi districts, both of which we also visited. Right adjacent to Shinjuku is the Meiji Shrine, the place where the soul of the Meiji Emperor (1868-1912), is enshrined. During Meiji's rule, Japan transformed into a modern nation capable of defeating countries like Russia and China in war, and eventually colonizing much of East Asia. Interestingly enough, Meiji's body is not buried at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, but rather in the ancient capital of Kyoto, close to where I live. I wrote a whole essay on the matter, which you can download from the link bar on the right side if you are interested. The last famous place we went to was was Odaiba, a large man-made island just off the coast of Toyko. Originally built in the 1850s to defend the city from a potential attack by the western powers, it now serves as a recreation area for Tokyo's inhabitants. Among other things, it hosts the architecturally interesting headquarters of Fuji TV, and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. The island is served by a driverless monorail sky train, similar to the one in Vancouver, the ride on which provides you with beautiful views of Tokyo from the seaside.

The Tokyo Tower. You can see it from virtually any place in the city.

The Fuji TV Building. Notice the huge sphere on top of it.

Tokyo's Statue of Liberty.

Four Japanese people taking a video of the ride on the Sky Train. Three of them used an iPhone - Steve Jobs would be proud.

Nightlife in Shibuya.

The Japanese side of Tokyo I experienced was at least as interesting as the touristy side of it. I got to stay with a Japanese family in their home, and I got invited by them for a delicious Tonkatsu dinner (Japanese version of Wiener Schnitzel). I went shopping to one of Tokyo's Don Quijotes, a store where you can buy literally everything that you would think of, from socks through humidifiers to artificial vaginae (before you ask, I bought neither). I also walked through Tokyo's various parks where virtually no foreigners set their foot. These are filled with couples, young families, kids, drunk teenagers, junkies, performers, homeless people, and other members of the Japanese society other than salarymen in suits. 

Two comedians practicing in a park.

As you may well imagine, my two days and two nights in Tokyo passed way quicker than I would have liked. On the way back to Kyoto, unlike on the way there where I went by night bus, I took the Shinkansen, Japan's symbolic bullet train. As a result, I had the opportunity to see the beautiful Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest and most famous mountain. Unlike the bus which takes eight hours, the Shinkansen conquers the 500km of distance between Tokyo and Kyoto in mere two hours and seventeen minutes. Moreover, the ride is so quiet and smooth that you really don't even feel like you are on a train but rather on a mild massage chair with a view. In fact, the Shinkansen is the fastest and most efficient way to travel between Japanese cities, much faster and much more convenient than planes. There are no security checks, the stations are located right in the middle of the city, and the trains leave about every ten minutes - more often than those I take on my way to school! Given this frequency and efficiency, however, taking the Shinkansen is actually about as expensive as flying.

The Shinkansen I took back to Kyoto. Excuse the blurriness, it's not the train's speed but my old camera which caused it.

The Fuji-san as seen from the Shinkansen.

Overall, my time in Tokyo as well as the way back were amazing. Though I would not choose to live in such an enormous city, it is a great if expensive place to visit for the weekend. I wonder, when I read this post in a decade or three, how much Tokyo will have changed. Will the Sky Tree be conquered by the planned Sky City 1000, a kilometer tall building with 8 square kilometers of floor space? Will Tokyo still be the biggest metropolitan area in the world, or will some other city take the prime? Will the Shinkansen be replaced by a MagLev train? Will an earthquake level the city to earth like it did in 1923 and many times before then? Or will Kim Jong Il or Un decide to speed the process? Sometimes it is better not to know.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Unlike most Europeans and Americans, the Japanese do not celebrate their New Year's by waking up with a hangover. Or at least most of them don't. The reason for this is that they believe that everything should be perfect, just the way they would want it to be for the rest of the year. Therefore they spend their New Year's Eve and the first two or three days with their family, enjoying the presence of their closest in a very, very, very clean house. They enjoy together the first meal of the year, the first TV program of the year, the first hot bath (Ofuro) of the year, and also the first (and for many the last) visit to the Shinto shrine of the year. This first visit to the shrine is called Hatsumode, and in the following photo essay I will show you how it works. We actually went to two Hatsumode with my host family, at two different shrines on two different days, just for the effect. Featuring: myself and my host family.
The entrance to a typical shrine.

Before you enter the shrine, you must clean your hands to purify your body as well as your soul.

No visit to a Shrine can be conducted without proper manners, which includes payment to the gods. You throw them some money (the more you believe the more you throw), clap twice, pray, and clap again.

Throwing just any coins to the gods doesn't work as good as throwing them lucky coins. The lucky coins are 5 and 50 Yen coins because they have a hole in them. There is a 5 Yen lucky coin in the middle.

People actually wait in LONG lines to pay their respect to the gods.

Many people like to dress up in the fanciest kimono they own. Of course even your doggie must be dressed up well for the new year's!

Then you, for a mere ¥100, pay for a human form paper and write your name on it. Then you throw in in the jar and you will be lucky.

Just to make sure that you will actually be lucky, you can also buy an Omamori, or charm. For as little as¥300, you can become lucky at school, at work, in the kitchen, or in love (or all!).
At the end, you buy yourself for ¥200-500 a sheet which will tell you whether you really will be lucky in the next year. Of course if you are unhappy about the result, you are always welcome to buy another one, or to first buy more omamori and then buy another sheet. As you can see, religion in Japan is a really good deal.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Reflections on the past, present, and future

For the 31st of December 2010, I had in mind creating a post which everyone would be going to remember. Something clever, memorable. However, it is three days past the 31st, and have I come up with nothing. Thus instead of any deep philosophies which make no sense to even myself, I will tell you shortly about my year 2010 and my reflections on its most important actors. Because it would be too long for you to read, I will delay by a few days the publishing my little report on Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, which many Japanese including my host family take part in on New Year's Day.

First, my 2010. I celebrated New Year's 2010 with Chris in Oakland, California. I saw the famous Golden Gate Bridge, hiked around the hills of San Francisco, met Chris' friends, and generally had a great deal of fun. After that we rocked it with Kent in our lovely Dana double for the next five months. I got accepted into the AKP, the program which I am currently enrolled at in Japan. In March I had the chance to co-lead a Colby Outing Club trip to the Canyonlands, Utah, which was one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen in my life. I will be coming back there, sooner rather than later. I will never forget the red rocks, sharp desert sun, enormous canyons, islands in the sky, the imposing view of Sierra la Sal mountains, the Druid Arch, the thrill of finding water when our bottles were almost empty, and the great group of people who were there with me. On my way home in May I stopped over for 25 hours in Iceland, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of the year. I took a bus tour and saw Iceland's beauties just before the main season started; right on time. I made a new friend there, I ate whale for the first time, and I had the best hot dog in the world according to Bill Clinton (not a joke). Then I spent three months at home in the Czech Republic, moving between my home and Prague where I worked on two internships, which were both very useful in helping me decide what I want to do in the future. During the summer I took some time off to have fun as well: we hiked up some of the mountains around the gorgeous Austrian city of Salzburg with my old friends from Czech, and visited the mountains around Innsbruck with my family. I also hung out with my Czech high-school friends and did some good old orienteering. In August I said my goodbye to friends and family and left for Japan. I made some Japanese friends on my way there on a three day layover in Finland's capital of Helsinki and then spent a week traveling through the island of Hokkaido with Kent. Then the AKP started, which you have been reading enough about for the past four months. In November I also had the chance to visit my old high-school friend in Taiwan, increasing the count of countries I visited in 2010 to nine (if Taiwan counts as a country, that is), and increasing the count of unforgettable experiences to ∞.

One of the most important things which I realized in 2010 is that I no longer wish to work in the service of the Czech Republic or any other country. After all, it is not just governments and revolutionaries anymore who have the power to change the lives of individuals on a mass scale. Take Julian Assange's Wiki Leaks, which have had and will continue to have a bigger impact on world's international politics than all the of the past, present, and future journalists, spies, and double, triple, and quadruple agents combined. Or take Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook, which has gained over half a billion (yes, 500,000,000) users, becoming the world's third biggest "country". However, a country which knows more about its citizens than any other government does. Facebook knows your interests, religious views, likes, dislikes, friends, addresses, phone numbers, and you give it out for free. No wonder that the FBI and CIA are trying hard to have Zuckerberg on their side. Facebook is also a country which can organize its citizens in mere hours to serve a cause, be it protesting against governments or supporting gay rights. Then there is Google, which gets to decide which sources it will include in its search and which it will not, thus being able to virtually erase one's existence from the world, having potentially a more powerful impact than any individual state's censorship. And of course Google's street view maps probably constitute the biggest breach of privacy the world has seen so far (if you choose to see it that way, I see it as a good way of organizing the world's infinite amount of information). What all these things have in common is that they are examples of how three-year old organizations like Wiki Leaks, the five-year old Facebook and the twelve-year old Google are in a much better position to change anything in this world than governments do, be it for the better or for the worse. While Assange, Zuckerberg, and Google do not get to decide your tax rate, they have the power to take down those who do. Therefore I have come to realize this year that work in the state sector is not what I want to do. Instead, I will try to join an organization such as Google or Facebook (probably not Wiki Leaks, I still have my reservations about the way they do things) in order to have the power to change the way this world thinks, hopefully for the better. Speaking about their power, the people at Google and Facebook will be the first two to be able to read this post; those at Google before I even publish it.

A final note on Facebook: my Google Chrome told me that in 2010 I have spent too much time browsing Facebook, and that it is by far the site which I visit the most. Because addictions of any kind are no good, I have decided that as of 2011 I will only visit Facebook once a day. Sorry in advance to you all for all the late replies, likes, comments, and photo uploads, but this way I will have more time to look inside people’s houses on Google and read state secrets on Wiki Leaks. Just kidding.

Finally, though I have already written it, I will publish the post on Hatsumode in a few days, so that you actually read both posts. Sorry to those who would, but I know I wouldn’t read both at once.