Every spring the Buddhist temple in Takao, a mountain town close to Tokyo, holds a "fire-walking" ritual that's intended to burn away bad luck and misfortune. And a layer of skin if it's not done right. A massive pile of wood is piled into a square, with fresh pine branches loaded on top. The moist pine give off a magnificent plume of whitish, sweet-smelling smoke. Once it burns down, the monks rake a path through its middle and then walk briskly through in bare feet. Once they've done it, the public has its chance. There must have been about 500 to 800 people lined up for a try. My luck's been running fine, so I just watched.
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Arrows are shot in the four directions as a way of warding off evil spirits. I'm not sure what the oblivious bystanders use to ward off the falling arrows.
 
 
Ojiya is a small town in the mountains north of Tokyo. Each winter they have a hot-air balloon festival, which includes snow sculptures, food tents, fireworks and, of course, hot-air balloons, which, if the weather is decent, you lay down your yen and take for a tethered flight a few hundred feet in the air. It snowed most of time I was there, so the balloons were grounded. In the evening there's a "light" show: the flames that produce the hot air for flight flash into the balloons, making them glow like small, multi-colored moons. The fireworks use the balloons as a backdrop...um, make that a frontdrop.

Ojiya is also known for raising championship koi, which must be spotted and colored to exacting specifications. There's a koi "exhibit" downtown where you can feed them and read about this esoteric (by American standards) pastime.

As for the anger that simmers just below the surface in Ojiya, you'll have to go to the jump to check that out.
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One of my recent trips to the mountains north of Tokyo was to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where the macaques warm themselves in the hot springs. If that's not enough to keep their interest, the park tosses tiny food pellets in the considerable snow cover surrounding the springs. The adult monkeys split their time between hanging in the hot water and searching for food. The youngsters add a third significant activity: playing.

The monkeys aren't exactly tame, but they're not too fearful either. They never look you in the eye, which is considered a challenge of authority. (More pics after the jump.)
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"Oh, yeah, that's hot!"
 
 
One rainy weekday morning I looked out my window to witness the sight below. Commuters always line up single file at the bus stop, and a cold, rainy winter day is no exception. Below those umbrellas it's probably a miserable wait for the bus, but above it's a colorful work of art.
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I can't walk 20 steps from my apartment without running into a hair salon in my town of Akigawa. The residents here must be getting a trim each week to keep all these places in business. I took a stroll recently and snapped photos of the salons within two blocks of my home (and I'm sure I missed a few). There were 11.  First up is the oddly named Bum's a Bet, which is my hair joint of choice. There are no hobos or roulette wheels in there, so your guess is as good as mine as to the name. More after the jump.
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Pocotan Guitar Music Bar

Wanna see guitars while you're sipping a drink? Wanna play a guitar while tippling? Wanna hear some acoustic and electric guitar while bending the elbow? Well, last night some friends and I discovered Pocotan Guitar Bar in Roppongi, Tokyo. Hanging on the walls were everything from a Martin D-28 to a Les Paul to Stratocasters.  Nice hole-in-the-wall vibe and reasonably priced Guinness and Yebisu beer on tap.

http://pocotan-hp.seesaa.net/
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Today is a national holiday in Japan: Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi). This is a day to commemorate all those who will turn 20 years old this year, the age of majority in Japan, when former minors can vote, drink and smoke -- although not particularly in that order. There are many elaborate celebrations wearing traditional clothing. At least, somewhere that's happening. In my town tonight I heard raucous laughter on the street, a most un-Japanese happening. So I went out on the street and watched a mob of just-20s and soon-to-be-20s carrying on. Clearly some of them were jumping the gun on the use of alcoholic beverages. 
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A co-worker forwarded this pic from Shinsaibashi Shopping Street in Osaka. Don Draper, are you taking notes on this?
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I recently moved to Tokyo to begin working as a "roving" Asia reporter for a newspaper, and so I've rejiggered this blog as a result. Now with live-action video!!

At risk of understatement, life is quite different in Japan than in China. Food, traffic, language, customs -- so many new things to learn and assimilate. I will be traveling in Asia for my work and, of course, returning to China from time to time. Before I moved to China in 2006 I read in guide books about many foreigners who'd lived in China spent the rest of their lives scheming how to get back there. I now understand.

Crane Among Chickens will be expanding its breadth to include all of Asia, wherever my travels and interests take me.

Today is New Years Day 2012, so I think it appropriate to post a few pictures and a video of the taiko drummers who played near my apartment in Akigawa, Tokyo, today.
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Cats aren't pack animals, but they seem to be at USTC.
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These guys, and more below not pictured, are fed each day outside a first-floor apartment by an old man. He scoops a little dry cat food onto plates, and the cats come from every corner of the campus.
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Newman gets his own private, canopied dining area on top of the mailboxes.
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Leopard, Catty and Meow: The Three Stooges. Once a successful Beijing stage act, these three has-beens of the chitlin circuit now spend their hours balancing atop concrete dividers. Meow is an outcast even among the three of them.