Saturday, 30 April 2011

Star Dancer / Papua New Guinea : First Interlude

I've been up to so much in the last month since reaching Australia that I'm way behind on my reports. I'm working on it! :)

The 10-day exploratory excursion on the Dancer Fleet’s Star Dancer in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive a remote location in the world at a truly unbelievable price—at USD$1,000 per diver times 16, our combined fares probably barely covered the trip expenses (fuel, food, wages for the 11-man crew, compressor and boat maintenance etc.), if not at all. Still billed as a luxury cruise, the Star Dancer exploratory excursion included all the Dancer Fleet signature amenities—complimentary wine and beer, evening turn down service in the cabins, 3 significant meals with a sit-down dinner and morning/afternoon snack, bed linen and towel changes, and fresh deck towels/bathrobes following the 5 times/day dives.

‘Spectacular’ is my one-word assessment of the Milne Bay diving. While we did have reduced visibility and water temperatures on some dive sites, as well as some ripping currents to add additional challenge, the variety of aquatic life, particularly the corals, was overwhelming. Indeed, on some dives I spent very little time hunting for critters within the nooks and crannies—just looking at the abundant fish life and the beautiful coral colors was enough to keep me entertained.

I departed Cairns on Monday, March 27th, to fly to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city and starting point for domestic journeys. While the Papua New Guinea people have a reputation for being genuinely friendly and helpful, Port Moresby regrettably has a reputation for being a not-so-traveler-friendly place. The LNG and gold mining projects in PNG have created a boom in business travel, so the hotel prices reflect the high expense accounts of their main clientele as well as the need for a high level of security—everything is behind gates, manned by 24-hour security, and airport courtesy shuttles collect guests upon arrival and return them to the airport for onward travel. I booked the Crowne Plaza Executive Floor as I realized that, sadly, I would not be leaving the hotel to wander around per my usual fashion. This suspicion was confirmed as I looked down from my 9th floor room on a scene reminiscent of a developing Southeast Asian country, and reinforced by some of the frequent LNG Crowne Plaza guests I visited with during Happy Hour.

On Tuesday, the 28th, I returned to the Port Moresby International Airport to take a 1-hour hop to Alotau, the departure point for the Star Dancer. The 4 hours total I spent at the airport in the domestic terminal were more amusing than any 2-hour Hollywood feature I could have watched on my 52” big screen television at the Crowne Plaza. Highlights include (but are not limited to!):

-- People who have spent any time living in the Arabian Gulf, particular Qatar, would have recognized the scene outside the airport— families and groups of people were camped outside the entrance, some with shoes, some with luggage, some with shopping bags, sitting on the sidewalk. While security were limiting entrance to the airport to people with tickets, it was fairly obvious that I, as a single white female, had no other business at the airport so I walked in unchallenged.

-- An elderly nun, sporting the dramatic white sails (in lieu of black and white), wanted to go to the check-in counter but found her way blocked by a big tall local. Without hesitating or even a word of warning, she simply shoved him aside, and even managed to roll over his foot with her wheelie bag in the process.

-- Three guys working in the gold mining who were meant to fly at 7.45, but still sitting at 9 am in anticipation of the check-in counter opening.

-- The domestic which broke out in the domestic waiting lounge. Some lady got mad at her husband / brother / other male relative (or at least I hope they were related) and jumped up, shouting and whaling on him with her beach bag purse. A crowd promptly gathered to watch the festivities, and a passing gate agent came back with a security guard to sort out the trouble.

-- When a flight was boarding, a different woman stood waiting, bag in hand, shifting from foot to foot, watching irritably towards the toilets located 80m away and glancing at the gate agent. A man came shuffling out the door of the men’s room, to be greeted with “Ge-cho ass obah here” and then a barrage of some language for which I did not understand the words, but the meaning was most definitely clear—“We are about to miss our flight”

Monday, 28 March 2011

Aussie Aussie Aussie

While the aftereffects of the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant) continue to shock Japan, I have moved from Japan to Australia, where I am undertaking a 1-year working holiday. This move was not due to the recent tragedies; rather, it was a pre-planned endeavor for which the departure date just happened to fall 2 weeks after all hell broke loose in Tohoku.

I must confess that it is a relief to be somewhere where the ground is not continually moving, and I don't have to worry about power outages, but the mentality still remains-- I am conscientious of the electricity I am using, and yesterday I caught myself assessing the bottled water stocks at the supermarket in Cairns.

The disaster is still ongoing in Japan, and I continue to urge you to donate to established causes such as the Red Cross if you have not already-- it is 35C and humid here, but snowy and freezing for those without electricity. You may argue that Japan is an advanced nation, and the second largest economy to boot, but I ask you to consider this: What if the shoe were on the other foot, and you, in an equally advanced nation, had been through a similar tragedy?

Indeed, in the numerous conversations I have had since reaching Australia (it is strange to converse in English again!), the fact that I was living just outside Tokyo eventually emerges, and the usual questions follow such as:
-- Did I feel the earthquake?
-- Was I near the tsunami zone?
-- What was it like? Was it scary?
-- Did I know anyone in the North?...
and so on and so forth. It's all still very overwhelming.

Righto. So meanwhile I am off on a fantastic liveaboard in Papua New Guinea-- I got a luxury grade cruise for roughly 33% of the regular price, for a 10-night voyage. I look forward to posting my report of the trip quite soon!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Handmade for Japan

What a great idea!

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Other Side of the Story

It is interesting to look at the news reports which are coming from within Japan, as broadcast by Japanese media in Japanese, those which are coming from Japan being broadcast by non-Japanese media in Japanese to a primarily Japan-based audience (such as NHK world), reports coming from Japan by non-Japanese media being broadcast to a primarily non-Japanese audience, and reports being made outside Japan to a primarily non-Japanese audience.

Here is a good example which shows that it is best to check more than one news source when dealing with large-scale events.

Some of the highlights, and my reactions, include:

"I'm scared, and shaky with hunger and really, really tired. I've got two hungry children and just a few crisps, oranges and a can of tuna."

Then why didn't you go to the supermarket, or the convenience store, or the department store deli, or the bento shop just up the road, all of which were still open for business in Central Tokyo as well as the surrounding areas, but had just run out of certain items due to panic buying and delivery delays.

"There is no petrol, no water, no food."

Yet you live in an area with a world-class public transportation system, which was running on March 17, but some train lines were limited service, all information which was well-published on the transport webpages or easily obtained by asking station staff. Did you not say you've been in Japan 10 years? Surely you know by now how to ask these things in Japanese, and to understand the answers being given.
While bottled water stocks ran out due to panic buying, Aquarius and Pocari Sweat are still available for purchase. My tap water service never once stopped running either, and there have been no other reports of tap water stopping. Food was still on the shelves at the supermarkets and convenience stores, just not dairy products/bread/pasta/rice/instant noodles. The delis are still churning out food too. If you want bread right now, patronize your local bakery.

"The TV news has told us to take a shower when we've been outside, because of radiation worries."

In Fukushima, within the 30km radius, yes, as a precautionary measure. In the Tokyo area, a good 250km or more from the plant, no.

"But mostly there's just a test card with gentle music and children making origami dragons."

Interesting. My NHK has broadcasting non-stop about the disaster, as were Asahi, TBS, and other channels. The other channels have gone back to regular programming, but are still offering news updates.

"Train ... child in a face mask at railway station"

Being a 10-year resident of Japan, you should know by now that the masks get whipped out in the winter by people who are sick or trying to avoid getting sick once the flus and colds start up, and right now they are also being widely used due to it being allergy season. I myself have the sneezes and sniffles, either from a spring cold or from the pollen in the air.

Most confusing is the rolling blackouts. You never know when there is going to be power or not. It's freezing cold in Toyko too.

Yes, the first couple of days were a bit rough for MILLIONS of Toden service-area residents, including myself, while the consistent rotating schedule got worked out, and also while scheduled blackouts were cancelled. But what did you expect? And yes, it was confusing at first when the first list came out and areas were listed multiple times on the rotation. But all this information was publicized on NHK as well as the Toden website as it came out. And now we have a consistent, predictable timetable, and a detailed list down to neighborhoods, which can not only be found on the Toden site, but on Yahoo and Google as well. Worse case scenario is you telephone your shiyakusho and ask, or hell, chances are the convenience store people know and would be happy to tell you.

Freezing cold? Bloody hell. Apart from that cold snap last week, it has been mild compared to, say, January. If you think it is freezing cold, go live in a gymnasium in Miyagi for a few days with no heating or adequate blankets, while the snow is falling outside, and I reckon your tune will change. Do what everyone else did when it got a bit chilly and put on another t-shirt, a scarf, a ski cap, your coat, and a determined smile. You are still alive. There are thousands of people who are not.

"There's even been a public information film on TV about how hospital equipment, like ventilators, can be worked by hand"

If you've ever been to a hospital or even watched a medical TV drama, you should have known this anyway. Being here for 10 years, you should also know that Japanese are big into details and information of this sort. That's why we also had the expert on cold-weather survival on TV telling us how to make bath towel mufflers to stay warm, and the designer from the toilet company telling us how to make a makeshift box toilet with newspaper and rubbish bags.

"The British Embassy gave 'no help or advice at all'"

Hmmm... could that be because they, like other national embassies in Tokyo, were focusing their efforts on the crisis area and trying to locate their residents there? No help or advice? Then why is the British Embassy distributing Potassium Iodate tablets?
The American Embassy, for instance, made it crystal clear on their website that their priority right now was assisting American residents in Japan, and particularly those located in Tohoku, so they had stopped doing US visa services just now and had special channels for US citizens who had lost passports. Did you bother visiting your embassy's website, or surely by now you know other British residents in Japan and you could have asked them what was happening.

"I don't want my children to get cancer."

Yet you are living in the mobile phone capitol of the world, using your laptop computer to write your report, and heating your lunch in the microwave oven.

"I begged the Foreign Office man, 'Please help me'. But he told me if I raised my voice one more time he was terminating the call."

They don't have time for irrational hysterics just now, no. The airports are open again. You are an expatriate living in a foreign country. Help yourself.

Friday, 18 March 2011

A Bit of Complaint

When I lived in Qatar, the backs of the Kahramaa (the electricity company) bills said in both Arabic and English, "Electricity and water are a gift... don't waste it!" This sentiment most certainly applies to the situation in the Kanto and Tohoku regions, which are both recovering from a devastating 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami, and nuclear power plant difficulties as we speak.

I for one no doubt join millions of residents in the Kanto region, who are currently engaged in a daily planned power outage (keikakuteiden / 計画停電), in being willing and proud to serve the proverbial cause. If going without power for 3 hour periods, in a finally predictable timetable, will help us preserve our overall power supply, then in fact I am more than willing to take two shifts.

However, this article regarding the continued supply to thousands of vending machines in the Tokyo area admittedly irritated me a little bit. As a private resident (as are other residents, no doubt some of them elderly) , I am severely limiting my personal home heating and cooking for the Cause, to the point of wearing extra clothing and even wrapping a bath towel around my neck, yet these bastards (sorry for the language) continue to run their bloody vending machines 24-7.

I ask the vending machine companies, particularly Coke-- do you really lose a lot of yen from stopping service on, say, 9 of 12 machines in a single block?

Thursday, 17 March 2011


--So after 2 days of Group 2 not having its keikakuteiden (planned power outage), we finally had our first one yesterday. Our group time was 15.20 until 19.00, but the outage actually only lasted from 15.45 until around 18.40. It hadn't quite gotten dark outside yet, but the end was enough to require lighting of some sort (flashlights, candles etc.). It seems that the pattern has been that the daytime shifts have been carried out, but the evening shift doesn't (18.20 unti 22.00) unless it's absolutely necessary. Today our shift is from 12.20 until 4pm. A multiple day list has finally been published, which shows that the groups rotate in order, so it is easy to look ahead and know what your group's scheduled time will be. This certainly makes adjusting to the schedule a lot easier, as people aren't literally waiting until 10pm the night before to learn what the next day's rotation will be. Each group retains 1 shift, with two contingency shifts scheduled in the afternoon and early evening. The contingency shifts are also being rotated, so if your contingency is in the evening, then the next day it will be the afternoon, and then you are off for 3 days.

-- I want to thank everyone for the telephone / Skype calls, e-mails, and Facebook pings I have received since the multiple diasters.

**I also wish to thank the people who has asked if I need anything. It is kind of you to think about this, and to be ready to extend help. The short answer is thank you very much, but no, we are okay here.

However, one way you can assist me is by instead giving that assistance to the people in the North, who more desperately need it right now. Physical supplies are more difficult right now due to transport logistics being messed up, but financial assistance will make it to the groups who are in a better position to get the physical supplies transport. Your donations will help buy kerosene, blankets, clothing, food, water and medicines. Keep in mind that it is snowfall style winter there, and some people have been without heat/food/water for days now.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Zen and the Art of Planning

A bit of informal sociology : In a society which exists on detailed planning and organization, how do the people survive when a number of unprecedented events take place in a short period of time?

In a nutshell, this is kind of what's happening in Eastern Japan right now, and it's leaving a lot of people scrambling. Typically the goalposts don't move a whole lot here, and not without prior prediction and more contingency planning, the details of which can fill thick binders as each communication is meticulously filed to provide a complete roadmap as to how critical points were arrived at, and the resulting decisions. In the last week, though, Japan has suffered not just one but two catastrophic events, with a third-- the nuclear plant which supplies power to the Kanto and Tohoku regions suffering from various events to 4 of the reactors.

While I have written about the various hiccups we've had with planned power outages (keikakuteiden; 'keikaku' means plan, and 'teiden' can translate as electricity stoppage) in the Kanto region, it was announced last night that Tohoku Teiden would also move to rolling outages. I didn't realize that the Fukushima plant also supplies power to that region. However, their shifts will be a bit rigorous, as it is still winter in that region and 3 hours is a long time to be without heat. If you don't believe this, ask some of the people staying in the emergency shelters who have been without electricity, kerosene, adequate blankets, or food/water for days.

Everyone is continuing to do their best in these times as the news continues to deliver more news regarding the health of our power supply. Businesses and private citizens are actively practicing setsuden (power conservation)-- in my area, many businesses have gone to half lighting, and escalators have been shut off. Elevators are also not being used, not just out of setsuden but in case of teiden. Yesterday I stepped into the local electronics store and the scene was a preview of post-apocalyptic Japan-- the shop was half lighted, with the escalators and elevators shut off. The usually continual loud and overly cheerful announcements announcing the various services and products had ceased, with the only sound on the second floor coming from the one television tuned to NHK and the disaster. Computers were all switched off, and entire aisles were blocked because the shop suffered some decorative glass breakage from the Friday quake that was still being cleared up. Even for it being noon on a weekday, the shop was almost empty except for myself, 3 other shoppers, and around 20 sales staff-- who, out of pure lack of anything to do, were standing in groups, nervously conversing but appearing overly hopeful that one of us would require assistance of some sort just to break the monotony of waiting.
(Ha ha... I thought about inventing some request and saying 'excuse me' in Japanese just to see how many would run over, but the atmosphere is still so tense here...)

The Toden people are understandably under a lot of pressure-- this morning I caught a live press conference, and the representative speaking was having a very hard time maintaining the decorum-required polite Japanese, and had resorted to handwriting on maps with a red pen while explaining the situation. For people who have experience working with Japanese companies, they know that usually there will be professionally-printed graphic board which were scrutinized and checked at least 3 times by 12 different people, and even as the representative is speaking there are usually juniors standing by with binder upon binder filled with data. Obviously the current situation means they've gone to Plan B, and going to Plan B is not normal in Japan.

After I started writing this post, the New York Times published an article similar to what I was going to write. Time constraints and lack of verbal eloquence on my part dictates that I allow them to take over.

Monday, 14 March 2011

To Blackout or Not To Blackout...

That has been the question today. Last night the announcement was made by Tepco that the Kanto region would move to scheduled electricity outages as of Monday, March 14. Within an hour or so of this official announcement, the list of 5 groups was read aloud on TV. So, naturally, I joined millions of other viewers in paying careful attention to learn which group my city was in in order to know when our power outage would occur.

That's when the fun started. During the television announcement, my city was put in Group 5. No problem! However, when I went to Tepco's website to find the official .pdf, so I could verify that I had, indeed, gotten the correct information, I was most confused to find that my city was also placed in Group 3. Huh?????? At this point, it was nearly midnight, and the blackout period was to begin from 6.20 in the morning. I finally went to bed with a vague idea of when the electricity blackout would occur.

Waking up early this morning to complete my electricity-requiring tasks, I navigated to Tepco's website to find a more detailed .pdf breaking down the outage locations by prefecture, then city, then area. I located my area in Group 2. Huh???????????? So first we are in Group 5, then we are in Group 3. Now, as of 7am this morning, I learn we're in Group 2, and we, along with Group 1, were the lucky ones who drew not just one, but two shifts-- one in the morning from 9.20 until 1pm, and then again from 6.20 until 10pm.

When I got to work, I found out the list had been published in the newspaper, and my coworker had diligently cut out the section and highlighted our city-- which was, indeed, broken up into 3 sections. So she also had no idea which group we were meant to be in. I showed her Tepco's website, and the .pdf, and explained that we are surely in Group 2 from this latest information.

What happened, though, is that one neighborhood in my city got put into Group 5, and one neighborhood got put into Group 3, but the rest are all in Group 2, hence the triple listing.

While I do appreciate that these are some very stressful times at Toden, particularly with the reactor situation (the representative on TV today seemed a bit frayed by 5pm today), the information was not necessarily made clear to people.

So this morning, after learning I was in Group 2 and we would have 2 outages per day, I got busy-- I double-checked that my light sources were in order, as I would be spending the evening in the dark, cooked some food that I could eat cold for my tea, and planned to complete my e-mail correspondence in the morning. Meanwhile I watched the numerous initial difficulties being experienced by Group 1, whose first scheduled time was 6.20 until 10.00. As 9.20 drew near, I kept NHK on to ensure there was no more information I required right away. 9.20 came... and went... and still we had power. Huh?????? The press conference then came on, announcing that the Group 2 people would continue to receive power, and the evening was yet to be determined. Hokay...

As the day progressed, and we were becoming increasingly curious about whether we could offer our evening classes at my school, we learned that Group 3, then 4 would still receive power, even after the explosion in Reactor 3. Then, around 3pm, we learned that Group 5, who was supposed to have an outage from 15.20 until 19.00, would receive power, but there was a "high possibility" they would have the outage from 17.00 until 19.00. There was still no news on the Group 1 or 2 evening shifts. The Group 5 outage was not confirmed almost until the time it started, and Group 2 did not learn about their evening outage being cancelled until it was almost time to begin. The 17.00 until 19.00 time is significant because Toden has identified the 6-7pm period as being a peak time, as households turn on heaters and lights, and begin cooking evening meals.

The theme being pushed today was conserving power. Indeed, a number of businesses closed early in order to save electricity, and the memo had been put out asking businesses to turn off neon/lighted signs, cooler lights and so forth, in addition to asking household consumers to minimize consumption.

Needless to say this was all a bit stressful for a lot of people, particularly in a country where detailed planning and organization are prevalent (if a train arrives even 1 minute late, the train company spends however long apologizing until the timetable can be righted again) . Although the Kanto region was not in the direct line of fire from the initial earthquake and tsunami, we are still continuing to experience aftershocks and secondary effects from the disaster. People are tired and concerned about daily basics-- buying food from the dwindling supplies, getting cash while the ATMs are still operational, finding batteries and light sources, and trying to get from Point A to B when the transportation services have been cancelled.

We are seeing more footage of the survivors from the North, and the common report is that there is no food, water, kerosene for heaters, or blankets. As we continue to have running water, electricity, and access to some sort of food, I don't mind in the least if we have shortages or limited selection here for a while if those supplies would be instead getting to the North shelters where they are most desperately needed.

Today was a beautiful early spring day in the Kanto region-- even at 8am, it was quite warm outside. The highlights of T+3 include:

Supermarket Queue : The dwindling food supply (I have not checked this evening to see if any deliveries were received), combined with the uncertainty of what will happen and the originally-planned power outage led to another first sight-- a queue outside the supermarket. Usually Life supermarket opens at 9.30am (9 on Sundays), but today it opened at 10. This queue started with a few people hanging about when I rode past at 9. By 9.45 it had stretched clear down the front of the supermarket and about 50 meters beyond.

Also, traffic jams. With the Tobu line and JR Musashino lines both having suspended service today, a lot of people were trying to drive to work. This led, naturally, to ridiculously crowded roads. Something to keep in mind is that the petrol supply is being rationed in the Tohoku, and there are petrol stations in the Kanto region which have closed, or run out of unleaded fuel.

People standing in front of the ticket gates at the station, almost appearing lost as they contemplate how they are going to get from Point A to B with the Tobu service suspended today due to the planned rolling blackouts. A lot of train services were suspended, or run on reduced numbers/hours due to energy conservation measures as well as the blackout timetable.

People reading the line information in front of the ticket gates.

The foreboding appearance of the station thoroughway at 7.10pm. Normally the left of the station should be filled with parked bicycles, all the businesses open, and a continual stream of commuters returning home from work. The Italian Tomato cafe was completely empty, as was the Family Mart. Beyond the station, the Doutor coffee, the McDonald's and the Tokyu department store had already closed for the evening, well before their usual time.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Power Outage Schedule (in Japanese)

If you are reading this blog and located in an area serviced by TEPCO, here is the .pdf of the planned outage groups, broken down by prefecture and city.

But apparently the dwellers in my city are doubly tough... we are on the list twice, yet the official broadcast put us in Group 5. Huh... I guess we'll know which group we're meant to be in from tomorrow when everything stops running and for how long... (^^)

T+2 -- Moving Forward

2.5 days have now elapsed since the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region of Japan, and in the Kanto region life is slowly returning to normal.

The shaking continues, and we are experiencing aftershocks from time to time. However, the larger quakes appear to be subsiding for now.

Train services in the Tokyo area have resumed regularly-scheduled operation, with the exception of trains running to the Tohoku.

Planned power outages are still a consideration. Today at a press conference, the Trade and Industry Minister, Banri Kaieda, asked industrial sector businesses to reduce power consumption, and also that private citizens only use what is necessary. The earthquake occurred on Friday afternoon, and we have progressed through the weekend, but tomorrow would see the beginning of the work week, and a larger stress on power supply facilities as businesses resume operation.

Cold is still a concern in the Tohoku, but here in the Kanto we are seeing the gradual onset of spring weather. Today was quite warm, and it is not cooling off as quickly at night. I don't mind turning off the heater during the day, running it just sporadically at night, and putting on an extra t-shirt to stay warm. If more private electricity customers in the Tokyo area can be similarly flexible, and the industrial sector can adjust operations accordingly, then we can minimize the stress being put on an already stressed power infrastructure.

Right now, as I type, Prime Minister Kan is reiterating the message reduced power consumption, and the Trade/Industry Minister is back on stage repeating what he said earlier and what PM Kan just said. We've been asked more than once to reduce power consumption, so I just hope people listen. But from my experience here, regrettably, locals have to be told something several times before it sinks in.

Indeed, I am a bit surprised with the recent power concerns that businesses are continuing to maintain regular operating hours. Under the circumstances, it would not be a terrible thing for reduced hours to be implemented, even if places operate only primarily during the day when natural sunlight can be used for heating and a light source. Also, it would not be terrible for the heat to be turned down all around. I met a friend at the Doutor coffee shop today, and the coffee shop thermostat was set to Qatar Summer. We're sitting in Qatar Summer, and on NHK they are showing images of people at evacuation shelters crowded around outdoor barbecues, reporting that blankets and kerosene for the indoor heaters are in shortage.

It's official-- we are going to rolling outages as of tomorrow.

I've had e-mails from people asking if I need anything. It is kind of you to ask, but the answer is no, thank you. We still have running water, and power (minus the outages, for which we will know when those are occurring). I still have a roof over my head, and access to food.

I instead ask that you direct that help to the people of the North. At this time, physical items are not very helpful as delivery logistics are difficult. However, cash will help provide the things that are most needed there right now, such as kerosene, blankets, clothing, food, and water.